COVID-19: Viral Contagion / Mimetic Contagion

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What is the link between mimetic contagion and viral contagion? Building on a diagnostic insight that called attention to the danger of “contemporary pandemics that, every year, threaten to contaminate an increasingly globalized, permeable, and precarious world,” and, already in 2016, warned that “the shadows of epidemics looms large on the horizon” (chapter on “The Cooperative Comunity: Surviving Epidemics in The Shadow Line available here), the HOM project continues the diagnostic in the context of COVID-19 in a series of interviews and posts.

Given the rapid global spread of coronavirus, it is increasingly essential to distinguish between viral contagion based on medical facts, and emotional reactions based on mimetic reflexes. In this radio interview, Nidesh Lawtoo cautions against mimetic affects, like panic, but also distinguishes between ideologically-driven forms of mimetic contagion and empirical viral contagion. If (new) fascist politicians spread lies about COVID-19, the latter should not be downplayed for economic reasons. It should rather lead citizens to listen to scientists and become aware of (and restrain) unconscious mimetic reflexes and habits (e.g., large assemblages, shaking hands etc.). Full radio interview (in Italian) with RSI, Rete 1 here ; written interview for LaRegione here.

Wojciech Kaftanski follows up on the diagnostic with a piece on mimetic contagion and COVID-19 for ABC that shows “how deeply we influence one another: from fights over toilet paper to declarations of war.” Article available here. Nidesh continues with a genealogy of mimesis–via Plato, Nietzsche and The Matrix–to face viral contagion in the Anthropocene in a piece for Fatamorgana. And in an interview for MSU Press’s Podcast, Nidesh discusses his new book (New) Fascism: Contagion, Comunity, Myth (MSU P 2019) in the context of the current pandemic crisis. You can listen to the podcast here.

Daniel Villegas Velez takes a forthcoming interview with Jean-Luc Nancy as a starting point to reflect on the “Allegories of Contagion” that take COVID-19 as a “magnifying mirror” to reflect on (new) fascism. And in Lawtoo’s The Mimetic Virus” all these threads are woven together to “rethinking mimesis in the age of COVID-19” in a piece for The Contemporary Condition.

The Case of Eichmann Restaged: Arendt, Evil, and the Complexity of Mimesis


In The Case of Eichmann Restaged, Nidesh Lawtoo reframes Hannah Arendt’s evaluation of the “banality of evil” in light of Eichmann’s mimetic psychology, which Arendt intuited but did not fully articulate.

Rather than considering the banality of evil as symptomatic of Eichmann’s “inability to think,” the essay foregrounds the affective, contagious, and, in this sense, mimetic tendencies at play in Eichmann’s personality (from Latin, persona, theatrical mask). This move is instrumental to articulate a middle path between Arendt’s theoretical diagnostic of Eichmann as “terrifyingly normal” and Bettina Stangneth’s recent historical account of Eichmann as a “fanatical National Socialist.” My wager is that the ancient problematic of mimēsis (from Greek, mimos, mime) casts a new and original light on the psychic foundations of a type of evil that is as relevant to understand the psychology of fascism in the past century as its rising shadow in the present century. Article also available here

Mimetologies: Mimesis and Music 1600-1850 by Daniel Villegas Velez (Forthcoming with OUP)

The HOM project is pleased to announce that Daniel Villegas Velez’s book, Mimetologies is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.

Mimetologies examines the critical aesthetic concept of mimesis in the history of musical aesthetics. Two main interpretations of mimesis or, as this book calls them, mimetologies dominate aesthetic theory. On the one hand, mimesis is an aesthetic problem rooted in the distinction between copies and originals, as well as the creation of fictional worlds. On the other hand, mimesis involves a complex of neuro-psychological tendencies to copy or imitate others that characterizes the human as Homo mimeticus and which grounds the genesis of subjects and communities. These two mimetologies—one emphasizing vision and authenticity, the other affective contagion and becoming—run largely separate and music appears to have no place in either.  Yet, as this book demonstrates, music is at the origin of both.

Mimetologies continues an interrogation of mimesis initiated by Jacques Derrida and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe (1976) and genealogical examinations of the role of mimetic behavior in the formation of subjectivity to highlight music’s function in mobilizing affective performance to shape communities. Adopting a long-term historical perspective that extends from ancient Greece through seventeenth-century Italy, eighteenth-century France, to early nineteenth-century Germany—with an ear to their resonances in Colonial Latin America—Mimetologies shows that mimesis has been a constant undercurrent in the history of modern music, especially at the moments when music and mimesis seemed most distant from one another. By revealing the role of mimetic musical performance between aesthetics and politics—mimesis as representation and mimesis as contagion—Mimetologies reintegrates music into the history of aesthetics, while providing new conceptual tools to critically think the role of music in Western society.




The cover of Mimetologies features Santiago Reyes Villaveces’s site-specific installation Harp (2019), developed in collaboration with the author and winner of the 41st Premio Matteo Olivero. Comprised of an expanded copy of a Baroque harp found in former Jesuit Missions in Colombia and transposed to the sacristy of a Jesuit church in Saluzzo, Italy, Harp reflects on the colonial mobilization of ancient Greek musical paradigms to (re)form communities in the “New World”. By examining how such humanist mimetologies are created and disseminated, this study amplifies contemporary critiques of Eurocentric values that shape the history of music in the West.

HOM Videos, ep. 5. Philosophy and Mimesis: Jean-Luc Nancy (Trailer)

In the fifth episode of HOM Videos, Nidesh Lawtoo meets French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy (U of Strasbourg) to discuss the ancient quarrel between philosophy and mimesis. Topics discussed include the relation between mimesis, myth, fascist politics, Lacoue-Labarthe, deconstruction and community.

Allegories of Contagion: Jean-Luc Nancy on (New)Fascism, Democracy, and COVID-19

In a forthcoming interview for HOM to be published in a special issue of CounterText dedicated to examining what we call a mimetic re-turn in the post-literary sphere, Jean-Luc Nancy and Nidesh Lawtoo take a deep look at various mimetic phenomena that characterize the current condition of homo mimeticus, among them the recent surge of (new)fascist tendencies in contemporary democracies and the COVID-19 crisis. Both (new)fascism and viral contagion are paradigmatic mimetic phenomena—but how are they related?

Let’s begin with what Lawtoo calls (new)fascism. For Nancy, the recent surge in this phenomenon owes to a crisis resulting from a condition that belongs to the very definition of democracy. In a democracy, Nancy argues, there is nothing that stands in for its representative, the demos, until the performative moment—paradigmatically in the French Revolution—in which the people names itself as such: “we, the French people declare…” In this sense, Nancy says, democracy is perhaps a kind of “mimesis without a model” as theorized by his collaborator, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. Fascism’s recurring trick, both in the early twentieth century and today, consists in taking advantage of technological and economic crises to declare itself as “the truth of the people,” thus giving the people a figure, a series of representations that seek to fill a spectral absence at the heart of democracy by presenting themselves as the people itself. While the symbols employed by early twentieth century forms of fascism consisted of imagery and symbolism drawn from ancient Rome, contemporary figures combine more multifarious sources in the absence of the unifying force that classical culture held under Hitler and Mussolini.

Moreover, Nancy continues, political philosophy since Rousseau conceives the community as an organism in which all its parts are integrated into a unity whose end is itself and which subordinates some parts of the body to others according to their function. “If I am the little finger,” Nancy quips, “I cannot do as many things as, for example, the eye can.” Early fascisms have taught us that carrying this organic metaphor to completion is not only impossible, but leads to unimaginable catastrophes. On the other hand, however, the relative disappearance of the nation today also poses problems for state democracies, whose unity consists of mere remainders in immense technological and economic networks that leave subjects feeling lost, abandoned, purposeless. For Nancy, this is an aporetic condition: either one projects oneself completely to the outside—“thus one is necessarily a philosopher or an artist”—but ends up detached from society, or one mourns the loss of the nation while building the kind of resentment that Nietzsche and Scheler described as the consequence of the unbearable loss of connection.

In this respect, Nancy says, the recent COVID-19 pandemic “offers us a magnifying mirror of our planetary contagion.” Indeed, as Nidesh Lawtoo has noted in a recent post for The Contemporary Condition, this crisis is a mimetic phenomenon in more than one way: not only because of the literally viral process of copying that enables it to reproduce itself through other living beings, but because of how it renders subjects vulnerable to affective contagion—from anxiety and panic to solidarity and sympathy.

Giovanni Bellini, Allegory of Prudence (c.1490)

Nancy’s “magnifying mirror,” also affords him an opportunity to envision the difficulties the crisis portends for our collective futures:

We have the same fears, the same expectations—the end of capitalism and the beginning of ecological cleansing or, on the contrary, threats to freedom—and everything is extremely expected, repetitive, and codified. At the same time, it is a contagion that is developing less perhaps because of the severity of the sanitary risks than because of the important differences between countries, governments, and opinions. All of a sudden, the world seems deprived of direction or support. All of a sudden, states become important again. All of this moves slowly towards a tomorrow which will be complicated and conflictive in various ways, since it will be mixed with ecologic problems that are still awaiting our attention—and all of this will take place in what, as it seems, will be a very problematic economy.

But the interesting question is whether something can produce a new contagion: something new that I will call spiritual, as this is where things must go. I would like to say through the spirit of a world. It was through the plagues and the wars of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that Europe invented humanism and capitalism, classical art, the thoughts of reason and experience as well as literature. Machiavelli described the plague in Florence at the same time as he developed a concept of the modern state. However, he and the others of his time did not have behind them a history that had run out of breath…

Clara Peeters Allegory of Vanitas (c. 1613)

The mirror is an old metaphor for mimesis—as old as Plato’s denunciation of the ontologically-degraded status of what is reflected on its surface. A magnifying mirror, however, calls attention to the effect that the mirror itself has upon what is reflected—it exposes the trick that Plato intended to carry out by dubbing the products of mimesis an unsubstantial reflection. The magnifying mirror transforms that supplementary reflection into a tool for detailed analysis, an analysis that, unlike a magnifying glass, is not directed at an object but at the subject itself—it is not a tool for theoria or contemplatio but one forreflectio. As in the overarching trope of the mirror in Renaissance vanitas paintings (contemporaries of the turning points, the krises, that Nancy evokes), the mirror also reveals veritas: the motivations, inclinations of the onlooker and, in case of memento mori paintings, of their mortal—and mimetic—condition.

Pieter Claesz, Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball (c. 1628)

Allegories, as Walter Benjamin once noted, reveal truth as a historical process of decay. To follow Nancy in approaching the virus as a magnifying mirror is to remember that the true causes of the crisis lie elsewhere: in the unequal conditions caused by global capitalism, in the supplementary role of (new)fascist leaders that presume to give a figure to a people that does not appear as such, in the technological co-optation of attention and information through digital media that allow for (new)fascist leaders to shape global narratives; as this happens, biological contagion continues its spread—disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable racialized populations in North and South America—leaving in its wake a death-toll whose official numbers are but a phantom of the true extent of the crisis.

Daniel Villegas Vélez


HOM Videos, ep. 4: The Anthropology of Mimesis: Christoph Wulf

In this fourth episode of HOM Videos anthropologist Christoph Wulf (Freie U of Berlin) builds on his seminal book, Mimesis: Culture-Art-Society (with Gunter Gebauer) to discuss the centrality of mimesis in ritual festivals, both in Europe and in Japan, in the construction of cultural identities, and in education and social life more generally.

HOM Videos ep.3, The Complexity of Mimesis: Edgar Morin

In this third episode of HOM Videos, French sociologist, philosopher and founder of complexity theory, Edgar Morin discusses the complexity of mimesis: from the anthropology of the double to cinematic identifications, ethics to politics, mimicry to the birth of art, homo mimeticus turns out to be constitutive of Morin’s complex view of human nature. Trailer here.

New Article on TV Satire and Comic Fascism

We all know that TV satirical news shows play an essential role in unmasking political lies, promoting critical thinking, and fighting for free speech in an age under the spell of (new) fascist leaders. But did you know that by focusing so much media attention on apprentice presidents the same comics might also paradoxically (and against their best intentions) play in favor of the comic fascism they critique? If you read this article, you will know.

New Article on Spike Jonze’s Hypermimesis

What do contemporary films tell us about the material effects of theatrical, cinematic, and digital simulations? This article considers Spike Jonze’s mimetic aesthetics in Being John Malkovich (written by Charlie Kaufman; 1999) and Her (2013) to diagnose the transition from a society of the spectacle based on embodied forms of mimesis to a network society in which digital simulations have material effects on posthuman bodies and souls, or hypermimesis. Full article available here.

Workshop, “The Mimetic Condition: A Transdisciplinary Approach

Since the publication of Gunter Gebauer and Christoph Wulf’s seminal book, Mimesis: Culture- Art-Society in 1992, the realization that mimesis is constitutive of the human condition has become central to the humanities, the arts, the social sciences, stretching to inform the hard sciences as well. Furthering Gebauer and Wulf’s call to examining the productive aspect of mimesis as a “human condition,” the ERC-funded Homo Mimeticus: Theory and Criticism (HOM) project convokes a two-day transdisciplinary workshop at the Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven, to explore the afterlives of the mimetic condition in the twenty-first century.


December 5-6, 2019,Room S, Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven (Belgium)  Keynote: Prof. Gunter Gebauer (Free University of Berlin) “Worldmaking of the Hand: The Mimetic Creation of Human Culture”