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To imitate nature in order to master it

Mastery of Non-mastery in the Age of Meltdown
Forfatter: Michael Taussig
Forlag: Chicago University press (USA)
THE MIMETIC POWER / Imitating another is also a way to gain power over the person portrayed. And how often do we see an imitation of the cosmos at a bar in a dark side street?


At all times man has tried to imitate nature in order to master it. But the art of imitation is also, according to anthropologist Michael Taussig in Mastery of Non-mastery in the Age of Meltdown a bearer of an ethical attitude to nature – where we open ourselves to what we do not control. Taussig sees both play, film art, involuntary memory and Native American shamanism as contemporary examples of mimesis (imitation) – reviving the former animism and magic that gave man contact with a connecting and living reality. With the melting of the climate and its existential threat, the hour has come, the magical hour that once again opens us to the mimetic power.

The ability to imitate

Never have we had so much access to images, signs, information and language, and yet we have an experience that reality remains abstract, distant and incomprehensible. Also nature and the climate crisis. We have become accustomed to the fact that the world and reality are something we construct ourselves, while at the same time we have lost the necessary distance to what we construct ourselves. The result is that our constructions and images of reality harden before our eyes. We do not see it because we have learned that it is us who, through our observations, give things meaning and significance. That there are us who shed our light on things.

We lack the ability to see that the world also thinks, if not independently of the individual, then above and through the individual human mind, that there is actually a thinking between all things and on a more intimate level, an enchantment of the senses that helps to connecting us with things, objects and nature-helps to give us an experience of what it really means to be alive.

The old pictures and stories no longer strike.

A universal pantomime or magical theater that revolves around the marvelous ability it is to imitate, Taussig calls it. From Walter Benjamin he learned that humans not only have language to be able to name things, but that it is through the ability to imitate (mimesis) that things get new and connecting life. A well-known ability in the primitive cultures, but suppressed in the modern. The mimetic ability was for Benjamin a way of evoking the hidden life in the frozen forms of things. "Nature produces similarities," he writes. The animals and plants mimic each other to survive. "But it is man who has the greatest ability to create similarities."

Imitating or portraying someone or something is also a way to gain power over the person portrayed, for example by the old medicine men. In fact, imitating means becoming something else because it gives us different eyes to see with, a different way of thinking, a new spirit. When the child plays bear, it turns into a bear and the world is not the same. When the shaman wears bird feathers, he is the bird. When the poet creates another image of light, he becomes that light. Seeing a resemblance between the bird's wing and the airplane also became the beginning of a new and dramatic adventure for man. The strangest images, change us from within, our whole state of mind. For imitation is only the beginning of what later prolongs our reality and gives birth to a richer understanding.

The juggler is Taussig's most simple and telling image: he who is in full concentration and at the same time indulges in the pattern of balls dancing in front of his eyes, what he does not control, an understanding arises behind his back. He masters what he does not master.

Foreman Harmony

Contact with reality

The art of imitation was particularly prevalent in the ancient peoples: dance was an imitation of the rhythm of nature; the wooden figures of the Indians were an embodiment of an atoning spirit, to bring forth a soul; children's spontaneous imitation of things embodied a vision of things; the patterns of astrology were a picture of the microcosm; the storyteller's presence and life (tone, voice, concrete images) were imprinted in the narrative itself.

Grasping something through equality, copying and imitating, is first and foremost about contact: "The ray of light from the rising sun hits the retina of the eye and creates contact, a copy and an identification," writes Taussig. Therefore, when we say that the meaning of words is for the first time the bearer of a similarity (children and artists experience it clearly), then it seems like a shock, like a lightning, when something comes into view. Not as something we just observe and construct. The resemblance is rather something that must be "called forth" as Benjamin writes. Therefore, the ability to imitate is not dead either.

The camera's eye, for example, became the beginning of a new way of looking at it, the image integrating the rhythmic impulses that call things out. We see not only with the eye, but with all the senses. "The machines begin to speak, capturing a life, like a spirit," writes Taussig. Why else do the Indians stare so wide-eyed along the riverbank in the middle of the jungle when they hear Caruso's opera playing from Fitzcarraldo's (Klaus Kinski) gramophone?

The magic hour

But how to take the art of imitation seriously? When and how do we make ourselves responsive to it? Taussig sees the global meltdown as a collective awakening phase – here understood as the transition between night and day, that which looms on the edge of the long sleep. "We are now in a world of earthquakes, where we live not only in one era, in one culture, but also in another." Trembling because we are on the threshold of something we do not fully understand, because the old images and stories no longer strike. A time that makes us more receptive to a sensory awakening, receptive to the impact of non-human forces on our lives. "This time of reactivation of the mythical forces is the connection that filmmakers call the magical hour, this dawn is now" (Taussig).

In this hour man begins to turn his attention to that which he has taken for granted. The sun, the moon, the stars, the change of seasons, and everything that matters to being alive. Its own life, the way it lives. The way we now grasp the possible. To live and admire, to let go of control, to know our limits, to push against those limits and in fact to discover something new in them.

A cinematic world

To imitate is far more than to see with the eye, the optical. It is to integrate the senses that open us to other colors, sounds, images, where an inner and outer world converges. A cinematic world, both Benjamin and Tausig call it.

As a picture of the time of the meltdown, Belá Tarr's films in particular explore Foreman Harmony the mimetic force. In this film, we witness an interplay between images, where the world, yes, the universe, speaks through us, through the main character Valuska. What happens is that very different things begin to talk together, the presence of the whale and the collapse of human life, the state of emergency and a new ingenuity. The tired body and the playful body. The serious play can begin.

Is there any order, no harmony, in this game – where something both comic and sacred takes place before our eyes?

In a late night hour at a smoky bar in a Post-Soviet Hungary, tired Valuska, along with the local regulars, is organizing a cosmic event, playful and slow. 'You are the sun. The sun does not move. That's all it does! ” and then Valuska pushes the heaviest of them, the mover, into the middle of the floor. He makes sure the guy lets go of his beer and with almost outstretched arms he vibrates with his fingers to emit the solar radiant power. Then Valuska grabs the man with the black leather jacket and pushes him into place: "The earth moves around the sun," he says. And he is told how to rotate so that he circulates around the sun. This is the closest of the stars that have retreated to darkness, another form of solar eclipse. For one thing, bodies (bodies) are moving, another thing is the state of mind the mood. To the earth he (Valuska) speaks of the unlimited and the lasting, of rest and peace:

“In the beginning, we are not at all aware of what a unique event we are witnessing. The sun is pouring out its life-giving light and heat over the half of the Earth facing it. And he leaned over the shoulders of the truck driver as if this was some kind of medium. We are all… in this radiance. ” But the light comes and the piano plays as the planets move with raised arms like birds of prey dancing around and around each other to take the trip out into the infinite cosmos until the owner of Hagelmeyer's pub around closing time pushes them out into the cold.

But what kind of harmony is it orchestrated in? Foreman Harmony, asks Taussig. Is there any order, no harmony, in this game – where something both comic and sacred takes place before our eyes? How often do we see an imitation of the cosmos at a bar in a dark side street? "To begin with, we do not understand what we are witnessing," says the seriously playful Valuska. Only that this change is underway, cosmic and subatomic. A disharmony in harmony, a harmony in second order…

Alexander Carnera
Alexander Carnera
Carnera is a freelance writer living in Copenhagen.

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