Skip to Content

Mimesis (imitation)

Greek for “imitation.” In aesthetic theory, mimesis can also connote “representation,” and has typically meant the reproduction of an external reality, such as nature, through artistic expression. Plato disparaged mimesis for merely providing inferior copies of original forms; Aristotle, in his Poetics, recuperated the idea, alleging that mimesis is “natural” to humans. For Aristotle, mimesis in part both recreates the objects of reality and improves them; it provides humans with a special kind of symbolic order. In the 17th and 18th centuries, thinkers and writers such as Rousseau and Lessing began to emphasize the relationship between mimesis and inner experiences and emotions, not just objective reality or nature.  

By the 20th century, the term housed a number of theories, theorists, and schools of thought. Erich Auerbach’s highly influential book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953) attempted to chart the history of culture through representational practices in literature. Thinkers such as Walter Benjamin and Theodore Adorno, on the other hand, described mimesis as fundamental to human experience, a practice that precedes language but is suppressed or distorted by society. Rather than mimesis as the process of reproducing copies of nature, reality, or experience, these theorists suggested that mimesis has to do with social practices and inter-subjective relationships. Jacques Derrida also claimed mimesis for deconstruction, focusing on texts as “doubled” objects, which can never refer to an original source.
Looking to learn about poetry?
  • Check out our Learn area, where we have separate offerings for children, teens, adults, and educators.