"Mimicry and Otherness" doesn't sound as good in a title (Taussig)

John Stevens (8859jstev@UMBSKY.CC.UMB.EDU)
Sat, 8 Oct 1994 11:02:22 EDT

Hi folks. I'm really enjoying this extended conversation on Taussig, which
has interestingly enough sprouted multiple blooms about semantics, repre-l
sentation, ethics, postmodernism, and criticism; these are a few of my
favorite things. We've grown beyond Taussig, which to me illustrates how
"good to think with," he is, not as an examplar of method (as I've said
before, I don't think he's a great anthropologist), but as a point of
reference and as a stimulus to reflection. When pomo criticism is done
well, you *think*; you get deep reactions (like Mr. Mcreery's) and you
want to investigate not only the subject under scrutiny, but your own
intellecual/epistemological landscape. You enter not only the author's
territory, but your own, and you're sometimes forced to adjust your maps.
*That* is the value of good criticism.

Ours is a culture that emphasizes "action" over reflection, which is why
we're in so much trouble all the time. We don't take time; we value the
reflex and the gut *over* contemplation and imagination. We want it hot,
fast, and flashy. This *is* a gross generalization, but it certainly
highlights a trend in AmeriWestern culture, what I consider the "overlay"
cultural/social cluster under which many teeming subcultures compete. I
think that Taussig is also addressing this; if not explicitly, then by
the implications of his work. This conversation we've been having makes me
want to pick up his other books and see what other ideas and possibilities
he can inspire!

As far as "mimesis" and "alterity" go, Raf Alvardo's reply is right on the
nose; these are more precise terms for the phenomenon under scrutiny. But
since Taussig isn't doing standard social science, we should ponder why he
didn't call it something like "Mimicry and Otherness" or something as pro-
vocative as his first two books. The first possibility is that he doesn't
believe in "mimicry" or "otherness," since both refer to a process of
representation in a very standardized way. Mimicry assumes an attempt at
duplication; otherness refers to an objectification of perception by re-
plicating an image or conception and bringing it into cultural discourse.
Mimesis is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as "The imitation or
representation of aspects of the sensible world, especially *human actions
in literature and art*" (emphasis mine), whereas to mimic is to "copy or
imitate closely, especially in speech, expression, and gesture". Alterity
isn't in the AHD, but the Oxford English Dictionary say that it is "[t]he
state of being other or different; diversity, 'otherness'." Thus both terms"
encompass and focus the "larger" categories of mimicry and otherness,
directing our attention to the concepts Taussig is addressing and actually
questioning. As an interesting aside, the Oxford has a quote from an 1849
*Notes on Shakespeare* with the interesting quote "Outness is but. . .
alterity visually represented." Thus alterity is more closely related to"
the process of making others, and I would argue is also concerned with the
*experience* of making others, which is also something Taussig is trying to
deal with.

What's interesting too is Mr. Mcreery's latest reply, where he does this
very pomo juxtaposition of various representative practices to make his
point about how "otherizing" is a part of the cultural process. One crit-
ique I have of this is the implication that just because things look
different in each example, it all means the same thing. Chinese who dress
in business suits are necessarily full participants in Western culture, just
like white folks who put on feathers aren't instantly transformed into
Shoshonis. Oops, error; the sentence above should be "suits are *not*
necessarily. . .". But this is again part of the critique; we can't
assume that what we see is everything, and just because we can come up witjh
*an* explanation does not make it *the* explanation. Ok, we all know this,
but I think that Taussig is saying the we cannot forget it. I would add that
we have to stay alert, constantly question our perceptions and actions, and
never get *too* comfortable with our answers.

As for the ethics question, please see my next post, since I kinda lumped
that in with another argument.

Best regards,

John H. Stevens
University of Massachusetts at Boston