Mimesis: the idea of imitation. Alterity: the idea of difference, the opposition of Self and Other. For anthropologists, social scientists, artists, and everyone else caught up in the enigma of "modernity," the question "What is reality?" is crucial to knowing what it is we know and what we are. If traditions are inventions, and social life is a construction, how is it that we understand reality as both real and really made us?
In his most ambitious and accomplished work to date, anthropologist Michael Taussig, widely known for his work on shamanism, undertakes a history of the mimetic faculty. Mimesis and Alterity moves from the nineteenth-century invention of machines capable of mimetic acts, such as the camera, backwards to the fables of colonial "first contact" and the alleged mimetic prowess of "primitives." He then moves forward to contemporaru time, when the idea of alterity is increasingly unstable.
Utilizing anthropological theory, the ideas of Benjamin, Adorno, andHorckheimer, extensive research on the Cuna Indians, and work on colonialism and postcolonialism, Taussig analyzes mimesis across time and cultures. More than a faculty or one more sensory capability, mimesis--differently experienced in so-called primitive and modern socieities--has a history, too. That history is deeply tied to colonialism, the felt relation of the civilizing process to savagery, to aping, sensateness caught in the net of passionate images spun with wildness for centuries by the colonial trade. Vigorous, unorthodox, and sometimes breathtaking, Taussig's understanding of mimesis in different cultures deepens our meanings of ethnography, racism, and society.