Philosophy

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Nidesh Lawtoo | Homo Mimeticus

Nidesh Lawtoo

We are relational, affective, embodied, and social creatures who consciously and, most often, unconsciously imitate others, for good and ill. I call this species, ‘homo mimeticus’.


Imitation is, perhaps more than ever, constitutive of human originality. Many things have changed since the emergence of an original species called Homo sapiens, but in the digital age humans remain mimetic creatures. In his book Homo Mimeticus Nidesh Lawtoo proposes a new theory of one of the most influential concepts in western thought (mimesis) to confront some of the hypermimetic challenges of the present and future.


Briefly and concisely explain in plain language what the book is about.
Every teacher, parent, sibling, lover, friend, or even distracted passer-by, must have noticed, perhaps in passing, that from birth onward, humans are masters in imitating other humans: newborns imitating facial expressions, children repeating words, mimicking gestures and games, teenagers following the latest fashion, imitating models, or dancing in sync, but also adults impersonating professional roles, copying styles or attitudes, be they real or fictional, individually or in a crowd, with a leader or at a concert, and so on… . In all forms of social behavior, imitation is literally everywhere. It permeates, often imperceptibly, our daily lives, forming and transforming who we are. Complicating the ideal that humans are autonomous, solipsistic, self-sufficient, and fully rational creatures, or Homo sapiens, this book proposes a new theory of imitation that shows how we are relational, affective, embodied, and social creatures who consciously and, most often, unconsciously imitate others, for good and ill. For lack of a more original term, I call this species, homo mimeticus.

What or who inspired you to choose this topic?
This book distills the main insights of a theory of imitation that emerged from an ERC-funded interdisciplinary project with the same title (see www.homomimeticus.eu). I should, however, note that my interests in “mimesis” (a Greek untranslatable word that means imitation or representation, but also identification, simulation, impersonation, and many other mimetic activities, including inspiration by the way) harkens back to the beginning of my career, over 20 years ago. Unable, or perhaps unwilling, to focus on only one humanistic discipline alone, I have been simultaneously attracted to philosophy, literature, anthropology, psychology, and other humanistic perspectives. I thus found inspiration in a concept that not only allowed me to forge connections across the humanities; it also gave me a transdisciplinary lens to look into the plastic, relational, and affective foundations of what it means to be, or rather, become human.

Do you have any reading suggestions to share (books, blogs, journals, …) for anyone who wants to know more about the subject?
Most of the outputs that emerged from the ERC project are available Open Access on our website, including special issues on the mimetic condition, politics, and the posthuman, spanning areas like philosophy, literature, theater, music, among other (see http://www.homomimeticus.eu/publications/). But for a starter I have the following suggestion: During the ERC project, I started a series of video interviews, or HOM Videos intended for a broader audience. I was lucky for I had the privilege to talk about homo mimeticus with some of the most influential figures in the humanities writing today, including J. Hillis Miller for literary studies, Jean-Luc Nancy for philosophy, William Connolly for political theory, Adriana Cavarero for feminist philosophy, among many others. Accessible to the general public and shot in inspiring locations that took me from Leuven to Verona, Strasbourg to Boston, Montpellier to Deer Isle to Paris, you can find these dialogues on our YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iSKzMydA5Mw

How did the writing process for this book go? Did you experience anything surprising, amusing or strange?
Writing a book is always a surprise, for the experience of writing is part of a process or journey of discovery. When I start writing, I never know exactly where the book will end. Sometimes I don’t even know that it will begin. This particular book, for instance, was not even planned in advance. Over the past 5 years, I felt compelled to address a variety of unexpected mimetic phenomena as they were emerging—from the election of Donald Trump in 2016 to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. I did so in a series of articles that first appeared in journals belonging to very diverse fields, from political theory to philosophy, literary studies to film and media studies. In my mind, they were all addressing a different facet of the same fundamental hypothesis: namely, that imitation is central to most of the crises of the present. So, as the project was coming to an end, I thought it was important to bring these articles together to form a continuous argument, while adding new chapters as well. What was surprising was to see how quickly the book came along: it took less than a year to complete, perhaps because I had a run-up of 20 years thinking about mimesis behind me. I was also pleasantly surprised to see how the new theory of imitation I propose could be played out in so many different disciplines, periods, and topics, revealing a singular plural picture of homo mimeticus in the end.

What would you like readers to remember about your book?
That imitation is, for better and worse, one of the most fundamental aspects of human existence. If a long philosophical tradition has tended to relegate imitation to the bottom of a mythic cave, we wouldn’t probably exist as a species with our abilities to speak, form large social groups, memorize the past, pass it down to subsequent generations, adapt chameleon-like to a variety of environments, be they natural or technical, among other original characteristics constitutive of what I call, vita mimetica. If imitation can often be used to pathological ends, as in rivalries, (new) fascist exclusions, or nuclear escalations, it is vital to understand the powers of mimesis from a critical distance and learn to put our will to mime to positive, logical, or as I call it, patho-logical use, for us and, hopefully, future generations as well.

Your book is published open access thanks to the support of the KU Leuven Fund for Fair Open Access. How did the open access publication process go? What makes open access so attractive for you/your book? Have you thus far noticed that your book reaches a wider audience?
I’m delighted that the book will be available Open Access thanks to the wonderful support of both the KU Leuven Fund for Fair OA and the ERC. Homo Mimeticus (both the ERC project and the book) was conceived to explain the importance of imitation to as wide a readership as possible, cutting diagonally across disciplines, countries, and levels of expertise. As a matter of fact, all humans are experts of imitation in the practical sense that we all live it and experience it in our daily lives. The process with the editorial team at Leuven University Press was smooth, fast, and intellectually satisfying. Many colleagues, students, and friends already expressed their enthusiasm as they saw on Leuven UP’s website that Homo Mimeticus will be available OA. I hope that this enthusiasm will be contagious (a long mimetic tradition says it tends to be) and that many will profit from this incredible offer, which is perfectly in line with ERC future-oriented standards of dissemination.

Do you have any plans yet for another publication? What will it be about? Would you consider publishing the book open access?
Indeed. I’m planning a sequel titled, Homo Mimeticus II. This time it will be an edited collection furthering the idea that we are imitative creatures from a plurality of perspectives. As the ambition of the first volume is to inaugurate a new field of studies across disciplines I call “mimetic studies,” in Homo Mimeticus II I join forces with a number of international scholars across disciplines including philosophy, literary studies, media studies, sociology, political theory, among others, in order to extend the scope of the mimetic turn, or re-turn of attention to an ancient insight that needs to be rethought today to account for the current transformations of homo mimeticus. I already received confirmation that the book will also be published Open Access—I just need to finalize it now!

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Ernst Wolff | Martin Versfeld

Ernst Wolff

Go and read Versfeld! His philosophy develops this basic orientation in an ethics of simplicity, in critique of injustice, often with irony and humor, but without ever being frivolous.

‘Martin Versfeld. A South African Philosopher in Dark Times’ is the first book-length study on one of South Africa’s greatest philosophers. His philosophy offered food for thought in dark times of the 20th century, as it still does for us in the 21st century. Q&A with author Ernst Wolff.

Briefly and concisely explain in plain language what the book is about.
It is a celebration and critical study of the South African philosopher Martin Versfeld (1909-1995) – an inspiring lecturer, brilliant essayist and a singularly independent thinker.

What or who inspired you to choose this topic?
My professor in Latin, Jan Scholtemeijer, introduced me to Versfeld’s writings and I was immediately seduced by the intense, somewhat iconoclastic, but humoristic prose. As a student, I sometimes read his essays with friends just for enjoyment. Then in 1999 I tried to capture the spirit and thrust of his celebration of life and political critique in my very first academic article. Later, I became more aware of the tensions in his work. I was, for instance, very intrigued by the fact that his early Neo-Thomist orientation – now often considered outdated in academia – helped him to formulate a very accurate and most relevant socio-political critique since the 1940s. In short, it is Versfeld’s writings that inspired me.

Do you have any reading suggestions to share (books, blogs, journals, …) for anyone who wants to know more about the subject?
In the bibliography of this book some of the existing articles on Versfeld are listed. Otherwise, there is a helpful article in Wikipedia.

How did the writing process for this book go? Did you experience anything surprising, amusing or strange?
The book contains a number of my own earlier studies on Versfeld, which were published separately, for different occasions. A very insightful part of this work was the research I did in the Versfeld Archive in the library of the University of Cape Town. This material gave me a much better impression of Versfeld’s personal relation to the themes of his thought and of the processes by which his books came into being. I also came under the impression of the thorough scholarly preparation that went into his writing, much of which is presented in such a playful and accessible way, that one would not always expect this. Moreover, I wrote some new studies for this book and it was fascinating to see how the texts resonated differently with me now, compared to my first essay of more than twenty years ago.

I needed some help to make this book more comprehensive. Ruth Versfeld presents us with a biographical essay on her father – the first of its kind. Versfeld held Nietzsche in very high esteem; Paul van Tongeren examines the relation between the two dissimilar philosophers. And Kobus Krüger helps readers of Versfeld to appreciate what the latter really took from Eastern wisdom.

It was important to get someone who had the competence to clarify the multiple relations of Versfeld to the world of literature. I approached, among others, Antjie Krog and Marlene van Niekerk, who both, independently, responded by saying: “No, sorry, I cannot write a chapter, but would it help if I give you poems?” And indeed, that is perhaps the best way to witness the impact that he has had on creative authors.

What would you like readers to remember about your book?
Go and read Versfeld!

In his inaugural address as professor of philosophy at UCT, Verfeld declared: “I must confess at once that I do not know what philosophy is. This sometimes embarrasses me before the innocence of students, but not before those who have come to realise that the things by which we live are the things about which we know least.” His philosophy develops this basic orientation in an ethics of simplicity, in critique of injustice, often with irony and humor, but without ever being frivolous.

Start with Food for Thought or Pots and Poetry and work you way back through Our Selves to The Mirror of Philosophers.

Your book is published open access thanks to the support of the KU Leuven Fund for Fair Open Access. How did the open access publication process go? What makes open access so attractive for you/your book? Have you thus far noticed that your book reaches a wider audience?
I like books and prefer reading in printed books. But open access makes material available to people who cannot afford their own library. Besides, it makes it easier to find texts by means of internet research. Finally, it seems simply fair that research that was paid for by public funds should be available for consultation by the broader public. As far as it depends on me, I will only publish in books and articles with open access.

Do you have any plans yet for another publication? What will it be about? Would you consider publishing the book open access?
This has been a terrific year for me – I  finished four monographs. But it was not planned this way! Plans, I have many, but then life happens and things turn out in unexpected ways. Let’s wait and see!