Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Mimetic Virus: Rethinking Mimesis in the Age of Covid-19

Nidesh Lawtoo is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and English at KU Leuven & ERC Principal Investigator.

The coronavirus, like all viruses, is mimetic in the biological sense that it reproduces itself through other living beings, but what is the link between the ancient concept of mimēsis and viral contagion? And if a link there is, how can an apparently unoriginal concept often translated as “imitation,” or “representation,” help us reflect critically, and thus diagnostically on the contagious pathology that, for months, has been galvanizing public opinion? Now that the lockdown is beginning to be eased increasing responsibility is placed on individuals to find a difficult—for some impossible—middle path between the social distancing necessary to avoid contamination and the return to essential activities that require a degree of physical proximity. In this context, it is urgent to remember that it is not only the nonhuman virus that is mimetic; humans are imitative creatures as well—for both good and ill.

While the Covid-19 virus is under the lens of epidemiologists and virologists, it has also revealed what philosophers from Plato and Aristotle onward have considered to be one of humans’ defining characteristics: namely, that we are an extremely mimetic species, not only in the aesthetic sense that humans represent the world via realistic media (painting, theater, cinema, TV), but also in the psychological, sociological, and political sense that we imitate, often without being conscious of doing so, other people (gesture, emotions, habits, practices). Homo sapiens, in other words, is also a homo mimeticus.

According to this second definition, mimesis shares some characteristics with viruses: it is linked to reproduction, it infiltrates human bodies in imperceptible ways, and above all, it renders subjects vulnerable to a type of affective contagion that is amplified by proximity with others: anxiety, fear, panic, but also new mimetic gesture and positive emotions like solidarity, compassion and sympathy, which, even from a distance, make us at least partially partake in the suffering (pathos) of the other, turning it into a shared suffering (sym-pathos, feeling with). Finally, if the virus, in the weakened/modified form of a vaccine, provides a therapeutic immunity to the infection, mimesis is equally endowed with double pharmaceutical properties characteristic of what Plato called a pharmakon (poison and cure).  

A pandemic crisis escapes generalizations for it manifests itself differently in different countries and is amplified by racial discrimination, poverty, political neglect, lack of basic social security measures etc. And yet, to schematize things, the Covid-19 pandemic has tended to generate a double movement that oscillates, pendulum-like, between two opposed poles: on one side, a majority has been attracted toward an inevitable, fully legitimate given the gravity of the crisis, but perhaps also excessively mediatized focus on the pathos the pandemic is causing: on the other side, a minority has manifested a critical or, more often, uncritical distance that underestimates the danger of the pandemic. In a different context, Nietzsche called this double movement between mimetic pathos and critical distance, “pathos of distance.” On his shoulders, I take three genealogical steps in this immanent direction: two steps back, to reevaluate the relation between mimesis and contagion for the ancients and the moderns, and one ahead, toward what is to come.


First step. Let us recall that when the concept of mimēsis first appears on the philosophical scene in the first books of the Republic, Plato does not introduce an ontological concept that reduces the phenomenal world to a copy, shadow, or “phantom [phantasma]” of transcendental ideas—turning the artistic world into a phantom of a phantom. Instead, mimesis is first introduced as a theatrical concept (from mimos, actor but also performance) that concerns the education (paideia) of youths in a period still partially dominated by an oral culture. Dramatizations of the Iliad or the tragedies, says in substance Plato, under the mask of Socrates, have a pathological effect on the public because they generate a contagious pathos that is transmitted from the poet to the actors to the crowd in the theater, generating a “long chain” (the metaphor is form Ion) endowed with magnetic, contagious, and in this sense, mimetic properties.

Thus reframed, the famous Allegory of the Cave is brought closer to our homes in this period of seclusion and mediatized exposure: the chained prisoners are spellbound by a shadow-play they mistake for reality not only because they lack the philosophical distance of the philosopher but also because the spectacle generates a mimetic pathos that is magnetic and chains prisoners to those theatrical projections—mimetic projections which, as film scholars routinely note, anticipate cinema, and as Morpheus adds in The Matrix, pave the way for a “welcome” to the digital age.

If we now translate this ancient myth back into the contemporary context of our private caves chained to the continuous flow of daily news, we can take some critical distance and ask: in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, are we facing a viral/virtual phenomenon in which the media focus makes us lose the sense, not of the reality of the pandemic (people are really dying, and in massive numbers—over 300’000 so far) but, rather, of the proportions between the mediatized phenomenon and the effective reality of the epidemic—as Giorgio Agamben controversially claimed as he spoke of a “normal flu.” Or are we facing an epochal change that will “destroy the foundations of our lives,” as Slavoj Žižek wrote with pathos in Pandemic!? Or should we rather forge a middle path in-between pathos and distance? 

The seriousness of Covid-19 pandemic should not be underestimated, especially now as the quarantine is progressively eased and the mimetic reflex to fall back to habitual patterns of behavior is strong. Social distance must be preserved whenever possible. People and governments should also distinguish between what is essential and what is not: after the rush for toilet paper let us not rush to the hairdresser. The virus injects ethical responsibilities into our daily routines for we are ethically responsible for the people we get in touch with; we must be mindful not only of our personal desires but of others’ lives. At the same time, a mimetic perspective reveals that the (new) media are not a transparent window onto the world; they are rather a lens that zooms in on certain phenomena at the expense of others. We should not forget that the global south is simultaneously fighting against other epidemics and mortal sicknesses (HIV, polio, famine, etc.) that may not be in the limelight of daily news, but continue to affect and infect the “wretched of the earth” (Fanon’s term) who are the most vulnerable to the epidemic: from racial minorities in the US to the migrant camps in Europe, from African bidonvilles the to the slums of India and Bangladesh, we should not take the Covid-19 world maps that register the spread of the pandemic as a realistic mirror of what happens on the ground for testing is not available everywhere and an image from above is far removed from the reality below. The still whitish representation of Africa we have repeatedly seen over the past months as other areas turned red, should not veil the reality that these areas are the most exposed to what Joseph Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, called “the horror.”

Conrad in a lesser-known narrative of the sea titled The Shadow-Line had dramatized the horrific effects of an epidemic outbreak on board ship so vividly that it lead to the following diagnostic in 2016: “the shadow of epidemics looms large on the horizon…Hence the urgency to turn back to a writer like Conrad who, well before contemporary theorists, puts readers back in touch with the literal effects of pathological contagion” (p. 92).  Hence again, we add now, the urgency to strive for a global vision rather than a nationalistic vision; to assimilate information about the pandemic in homeopathic doses from official news, rather than in massive doses from social media; to recognize the privilege of the many who can take distance in Western countries, and the tragedy of proximity so many face in the global south—at least if we want mimesis to start turning from poison to remedy.


Second step. The connection between mimesis and contagion is not original. It became central to sociological reflections on the dynamic of crowd behavior in the last decades of the nineteenth century that deserve to be revisited in the context of pandemic crises in the present century. Founding figures of crowd psychology like Gustave Le Bon and Gabriel Tarde noted that when people assemble as part of a physical crowd in a public square or as a virtual public while reading newspapers at home—and today, Twitter or Facebook posts—they transmit emotions from self to others in an irrational, unconscious, and as they would say, “contagious” way. Adapting a metaphor borrowed from Pasteur’s recent discovery of microbes, these social theorists applied it to the collective psyche in order to account for the unconscious relation that turn the affect of the other into my affect. The mirroring relation between self and other, they also noticed, leads the ego to mimetically reproduce the affects of others in general and of prestigious others like politicians, in particular. For crowd psychologists, reflex imitation much more than dreams, served as a via regia to a relational, social, and immanent unconscious, I call the mimetic unconscious. 

A genealogy of the mimetic unconscious shows how the irrational pathos triggered in periods of social and political crisis can easily take the lead over critical distance. Historical examples do not lack and the shadow of imitation has been registered in social theory.

Leaders like Mussolini and Hitler drew directly from Le Bon’s lessons, treating his book as a manual to galvanize the masses: repetition of slogans, authoritative affirmations, use of images, gestures and facial expressions rather than logical thoughts or arguments, all these rhetorical strategies had a disconcerting efficacy in the past century. We saw they continue to be effective in the present century. The powers of mimesis reloaded via new media are in fact contributing to spreading, if not fascism itself, at least the shadow of fascism—what William Connolly calls Aspirational Fascism and I call (New) Fascism.

Time and again, leaders like Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdoğan in Turkey, Orbán in Hungary, or Trump in the US, reveal the pathological effects of the pathos of distance constitutive of (new)/aspirational fascism. Trump’s case continues to be revealing and the shadow he casts must not be underestimated for emotional contagion can take advantage of viral contagion. The bad example he sets amplifies the viral pathology in multiple ways: first, he avoided early-warnings, downplayed the danger of the pandemic, and made promises of non-existing “vaccines” and spring “miracles;” then he politicized the pandemic by falling back on hypernationalist accusations against Europe and China, going as far as siding against the World Health Organization; subsequently, he proclaimed his “total authority” over the government, displaying thus both authoritarian tendencies symptomatic of (new) fascism while displaying an inability to guarantee minimal security measures—from unemployment to medical insurance to effective testing—for the population of one of the richest countries in the world. And last, he continues to amplify confusion by going against his medical advisors, suggesting fake therapies, and failing to comply with the most basic rules of social distancing. A genealogy of mimesis teaches us that examples, even if pathological, are not deprived of effective powers of contamination in periods of crisis.

Leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro are not the same as Hitler or Mussolini, yet they generate forms of thoughtlessness that resuscitates the shadow of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” What we must add is that rethinking mimesis in the age of Covid-19 leads us to zoom out and consider another non-human shadow on the horizon.


Two steps back allow us to make a last step—or jump—ahead. If we situate both digital shadows and (new) fascist phantoms against the material background that for the moment still sustain us, climate change should not serve as a background but as the environment in which to develop pharmaka attentive to the conditions of both human and nonhuman survival in the age of the Anthropocene. Not unlike an epidemic infection, climate change reveals the agentic power of non-human forces, is imperceptible, operates on a global level, is re-produced by humans, infects all aspects of social life, and above all, it urges us to change habits and modes of lives.

This last step provides the critical distance necessary to overturn our mimetic criticism of viral contagion into what Nietzsche would call, in a mirroring inversion of perspectives, an “attempt at self-criticism.” If we look into this genealogical mirror the Covid-19 pandemic sets up, a familiar figure appears: the double-faced pharmakon is ourselves, homo mimeticus. It is thus up to all of us now to consider the pandemic as what Bruno Latour called a “dress rehearsal” for climate change: that is, an occasion to start turning the all too human mimetic pathology into a mimetic therapy for both human and nonhuman life on Earth.

In a strange mirroring reflection, the pandemic crisis can serve as a model. Among the catastrophic contagious pathologies, it disseminates, it also reveals the extraordinary human capacity to adapt, chameleon-like, to changing conditions and promote alternative modes of existence. Now that the lockdown restrictions begin to be eased, it is imperative to resist the unconscious mimetic reflex to return to business as usual—or worse, intensify leisure activities that foster proximity and pollution to compensate for the time lost. The time that was lost for us, was gained for the Planet. But if the quarantine seems long to us, it was but a short breath for the Earth. If we put this time to use, the Covid-19 pandemic revealed to all in practice what many knew in theory: we are not the autonomous, self-sufficient, and omnipotent monads neoliberal capitalism induces us to believe we are. On the contrary, we are relational creatures who are interdependent, extremely vulnerable, but also strikingly adaptable, and in this sense mimetic, part of a network of actions and reactions that transgress the borders that divide self from others, but also nations and continents, human and nonhumans, all of which are part of an immanent, fragile, and interconnected ecological system—what Connolly calls, The Fragility of Things. Since we have only this world, the Covid-19 epidemic made us see that we do not really have a choice: its high time to learn Nietzsche’s imperative to become “faithful to the Earth.”

Developing antidotes contra the pathologies of homo mimeticus and disseminate them via therapeutic forms of mimetic practices, both individually and globally, are now the next steps to take.

A version of this article first appeared in Italian on the blog, Fatamorgana (April 19, 2020). The last image is by Milo Manara ©. This article is part of a project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement n°716181: Homo Mimeticus: Theory and Criticism). More information available here: http://www.homomimeticus.eu/

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