Self-critique on homonoia and positive mimesis

This post is based on the paper I recently submitted to the Colloquium on Violence and Religion in Freising, Germany last week. I want to criticize what I wrote there and at least admit to certain defects that I can find there. Here is an incomplete list (even my list of defects is defective!):

1. The mimetic fantasy problem — In my paper, I defined positive mimesis as “the mimesis of desire for a sharable good that can only be enjoyed through the mediation of another.” The positive element is that fact that mutual aspiration for a sharable good would unify and not be in itself conflictual. But this does not mean that the mimetic object is good or even real. Consider the following quote, a first-hand account of a Yanomami shaman on how he learned of the spirit world:

“As children, we gradually start to think straight. We realize that the xapiri [spirits] really exist and that the elders’ words are true. Little by little, we understand that the shamans do not behave as ghosts without a reason. Our thought fixes itself on the spirits’ words, and then we really want to see them. We take hold of the idea that later we will be able to ask the elders to blow the yakoana into our nostrils and give us the xapiri’s songs. This is how it happened for me a long time ago. The spirits often came to visit me in dreams. This is how they started to know me well.” — (from The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman by Davi Kopenawa)

I am not taking a position on shamanism, but it is clear that the Western experiences the world through a different mimetic lens. The xapiri surely are “realities” in Yanomami social life at least. The quote makes clear how they are mimetically mediated in the very manner that I describe in my paper — although a scapegoat may be lurking behind the scenes. But they also could be mimetic projections/fantasies that yet preserve no small measure of cultural unity.

2. The paradigm fixation problem — What I mean by this is that my hypothesis of positive mimesis is based on models, either designated or tacit, that provide concrete flesh to my imagination. As Aristotle noted, we can only think through images. It is easy in one’s mind to dismiss a counter-example by retuning to the paradigm case, arguing from that standpoint, and remaining rooted there. My paradigm is that understanding can be shared with others in intellectual pursuits, and shared without diminishment. But perhaps a lot of other, more messy examples would require a lot of twisting to fit into the procrustean bed of my hypothesis.

3. The disguised partiality problem — One’s positive vision of unity, however lovely, must overcome a lot of partial interests to be actualized in fact. The champions of the whole can unwittingly become just another special interest battling against other special interests in an attempt to dominate the shared space. (Thrasymachus’ notion in the Republic that justice is “the advantage of the stronger” recognizes that a ruler of the whole is in a position to assert himself as a special interest in his own right. One of the burdens of the City in Speech is to think about how this problem can be overcome.) I mentioned Political Correctness in my paper, a phenomenon in which an appeal to tolerance devolves into an intolerance against perceived intolerance. (It should be noted that homonoia does not preclude the special, the diverse or the partial. On the contrary, we must be parts to participate in a whole — it is not uniformity but common participation in the sharable.  There can no unum without a pluribus.)

4. The necessity of dissociation problem — Let me quote Jacques Derrida:

“Once you grant some privilege to gathering and not to dissociating, then you leave no room for the other, for the radical otherness of the other, for the radical singularity of the other. I think, from that point of view, separation, dissociation is not an obstacle to society, to community, but the condition…Dissociation, separation, is the condition of my relation to the other. I can address the Other only to the extent that there is a separation, a dissociation, so that I cannot replace the other and vice-versa.” (Derrida, Deconstruction in a Nutshell, p. 14) **SEE NOTE BELOW

So in the self-reinforcing process of a philia for a sharable good that I describe there must be moments when a limit is reached, when the most sensible thing to do is to part ways. If our responsibility for the other is infinite then that precludes me from exercise my responsibilities to others. That can’t be right, can it? Perhaps the issue of “distance” for which I criticized Girard should be reexamined.


So these are a few of the problems I see with my hypothesis, each big enough to drive a truck through. And yet…I still think there is some merit in my hypothesis that must be preserved against these criticisms. So I will keep working…


**NOTE: Sometime in a private conversation during my time in Freising, I had the poor sense of pronouncing on a subject that I don’t know well enough to criticize, namely deconstruction. I have read (poorly) a few of the seminal texts on the subject, but certainly cannot speak as an authority. Nobody called me out on it — there was no socially embarrassing comeuppance, but I know that I shouldn’t pronounce on that which I am barely in a position to understand. So my self-imposed penance is to study enough so that I can see to what extent my assertion was wrong. I had the book Deconstruction in a Nutshell, which I must admit, I am enjoying tremendously — to my surprise. I failed to grasp how much I am doing with Plato is akin to deconstruction of a type. I do think that Derrida and I will diverge at some point in my investigation, but I am willing to entertain the notion that he is right and I am wrong and vice-versa. By the way, I actually think highly of Derrida’s reading of Plato’s Phaedrus called “Plato’s Pharmacy” and an essay he wrote on the Timaeus called “Khora.” So why am I put off by Derrida? I’m not sure.


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