“The Magic of Mimesis:
A Historically Informed Anthropology of Sympathetic Magic and Contact”
Web blog post.Material Religions. 16 March 2016. Web. [date of access]
Mimesis has acquired many meanings and has been related to several theoretical genealogies in the last century. Variously understood as copying, imitation, and replication, mimesis has entered into debates in philosophy, the arts, developmental psychology, cultural studies, consumerism, religion, spirit possession, and magic. Drawing on Aristotle’s notion of mimesis, some have portrayed imitation as a basic human instinct and one of the constitutive elements of poetry and the arts in general (Fergusson 1961:5). Within child-development perspectives, imitation has been theorized as a basic form of learning. Within evolutionist biology, imitation has been characterized as essential to the human condition—the main replicator being the genes. In this line, Dawkins (1976: 192) suggests to call “meme” the new replicator of cultural transmission (because it sounds like gene), and “memetics” the copying of “skills, habits or behaviors from one person to another by imitation work”; memes are, for example, “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches (quoted in Blackmore 2007:2-3). Further, with the recent discovery of “mirror neurons” some psychologists such as V.S. Ramachandran hope to revolutionize our understanding of human behavior and the making of culture. In contrast, socio-cultural approaches to mimesis have foregrounded its relation to human interaction, especially to power relations and cultural difference in situations of (not just colonizing) contact.
Anthropologists and folklorists agree in considering mirroring and mimesis as constitutive of various types of individual and group experiences, from basic personal socialization into a group, the development of a sense of self, the ability to control unknown situations, the management of felt disempowerment, to the acquisition of all sorts of cultural knowledge (Cantwell 1993, Jackson 1998, Taussig 1993). Taussig (1993) develops the notions of first and second contact in this regard in order to historicize the mimetic faculty as a political framework that traces imitation between different groups, and its labor in empowering some and disempowering others. [i] Very briefly, whereas “first contact” refers to the initial mimetically mediated cultural misrecognition between differentially empowered groups, say, aborigines and Europeans, “second or reverse contact” refers to the unsettling recognition that the culture and technology of one group has been imitated by another in creating new practices—such as the creation of a new form of cricket, as in the documentary film Trobriand Cricket (see Taussig 1993, and Kildea 1979). [ii] And of course, all this mimicking and the recognition of this mimicking entails power moves in situations of domination and exploitation. Within anthropological studies of magic and witchcraft, the mimetic faculty acquires additional meanings as the principles of similarity and contact (sympathetic magic, according to Frazer 1960 ) enter the practices and discourses of ritual, the making of magic works, and possession.
As will become clear below, mimetic dramas and the creation of similes inform divination, healing and cleansing rituals as well as magic works performed during consultations at the home altars of Puerto Rican brujos (witch healers) –with whom I worked intensely for more than a year. Based on this research, I argue in Healing Dramas (2009) that such sensorial mimetic dramas could be in themselves healing, for they promote a state of emotional openness among clients (and spirits), necessary to initiate the healing process. That is, when brujos in trance “mimic their clients’ bewitched bodies–and occasionally the evil spirits that had caused them misfortune–unspoken and painful feelings have a chance to surge,” spirits are forcefully cajoled to leave their victims, “making visible (literally) the pain clients feel–and its causes. This mirroring drama is powerful enough to motivate even the most bewitched client (that is, one that has lost even the willpower to heal) to stop being passive and, instead, to engage in some recommended proactive, mending action, such as the performance of a cleansing ritual or retaliatory magic work” (Romberg 2009:154).
A. The Revenge of Mimetic Difference and Desire in Colonial and Postcolonial Contexts.
Figure 1A: ” National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka – Colon doll (military policeman) – Baule people in Ghana – Collected in 1996“, By Yanajin33, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Figure 1B: “Mbari figures of Amadiaoha and his wife (sometimes called Ala, the Earth deity) in the mbari to Ala at Umugote Orishaeze. Artists: Nnaji (left figure) and Ezem (right), 1966”, By Herbert M. Cole, via Univ. of Iowa Museum of Art.
Mimesis and Ritual Piracy
As vernacular responses to hegemonic forces through time (see Romberg 2003), brujería (witch healing) practices have encompassed dominant symbols and gestures (of the Catholic Church, for instance) often after decades and even centuries they had ceased to be hegemonic. I have written extensively on ritual piracy (2005, 2011a), but I wish to point here to its generative mimetic quality over time. By means of illicit performative mimesis, or the imitation of hegemonic symbols and gestures on the margins, brujos have resisted the exclusionary power of such symbols. Therefore, rather than interpreting these forms of incorporation through imitation as a form of submission (to economic, civil or religious hegemonies), I have characterized them as forms of “ritual piracy” (Romberg 2005). In other words, by means of these forms of vernacular piracy, symbols of power, which had intended to exclude (and often vilify) the practices of brujería, are appropriated and rechanneled via a form of “predatory” (Harney 2003) mimesis in order to serve ritual and spiritual purposes foreign to the purposes driving their imposition by the dominant culture in the first place. In this way, one can say, vernacular religions such as brujería plunder the very powers that these symbols embody, rechanneling them in the preparation of their magic works and rituals. Via a kind of mimetic cunning, then, the spiritual power of the Catholic Church that had been once monopolized by priests has been seized by brujos, showing that those who had been vilified as evil at one-point end up appropriating the very power that was meant to destroy them.
Figure 2: A magic packet hanging from the cross. Photo by Raquel Romberg.
Drawing on Adorno and Horkheimer’s historicization of the notion of mimesis in relation to commodification and capitalist society, Taussig points to the power of equivalences in commoditized societies: “Before, the fetishes were subject to the law of equivalence. Now equivalence itself has become a fetish” (Adorno and Horkheimer quoted in Taussig 1993: 45). Taussig does not reference directly Braudrillard’s “simulacra” but I believe this is the direction some culture-industry social theorists have taken with regard to mimesis, particularly its “yielding” force. Seen as a “repressed presence” that is “used as a hidden force” (Taussig 1993: 45) (to incite consumption, I guess), the yielding force of equivalences (mimesis), which incites to look and feel like those who consume certain commodities, seems to be driving, in this kind of script, Western capitalist consumer societies. With a local cultural twist and equipped with a related “cargo cult” framework, Jonathan Friedman (1994) cogently invites us to examine this neomarxist idea with regard to the Congolese “sapeurs.” Although he does not mention mimesis or equivalences directly, Friedman explores the cosmological/identity significance of local practices of consumption of Parisian brands of haut-couture items, such as those of Armani, that allow “sapeurs” –poor, unemployed youth organized in La SAPE (Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes–The Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People)–to tap into the power (life force), elegance, and prestige that Parisian haute couture garments embody/carry. Unlike magic works, the items have to be “authentic” not copied or faked brands in order to affect their maximum power.
|Figure 3: La Sape, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Image Credit|
B. Mimetic Chains and Magic
Ironically, by virtue of the very system of imitation that had been in place in accordance with the church’s own devotional teachings, the gates to the realm of miraculous occurrences had been opened wide to an eagerly devout public ever since the earliest days of colonization. I am thinking about practices related to Imitatio Christi (The Imitation of Christ) a fifteenth-century devotional book ascribed to Thomas à Kempis that instructed how to lead a pious life modelled after the life and deeds of Jesus–in line with the religious reform movement of Devotio Moderna (Modern Devotion). Influential ever since, it proposes the emulation of the life of Christ as a way to achieve a personal, direct spiritual unity with Christ. The Catholic notion of salvation and sanctity achieved through mimesis has become part and parcel of the ways in which brujos relate to their profession. The idea of sacred mimesis appears in discourse through aphorisms, proverbs, and stories of the life of Christ, as well as in action, through healing performances that emulate those of Jesus and thus are framed as “miraculous” acts of mercy and charity (Romberg 2003). Today one can observe the limitless unintended-effects of this ethos of sacred mimesis in a number of vernacular religious practices, which promote the imitation of the life of Jesus and the spiritual legitimacy that follows from it. [vii] Consider the miracles, apparitions, altars, and sacraments sanctioned by the Catholic Church and all the vernacular replicas of them in private home-altars of healers throughout the Americas (cf. Romberg 2003, 2009).
|Figure 4: Haydee praying in a chapel and in her altar room. Photos by Raquel Romberg.|
A few ethnographic vignettes will vividly convey this idea further. Bolina, a Puerto Rican bruja (witch healer) living in Loíza (one of the most Afro-Puerto Rican cities in Puerto Rico) told me in our conversations that plastic prostheses had been inserted in both of her knees for more than a decade. The doctor had told her she would have to walk with crutches the rest of her life. Devoting herself and praying to San Lázaro (always depicted on crutches and with a dog licking his wounds), she promised him that if she got better she would remove his crutches, i.e., literally remove the crutches from this santo’s plaster figurine . “Y así fue” (And so it happened), Bolina said. In all the years she had waited to be healed she had “walked barefoot, as a penitent,” everywhere. The trope “I walked barefoot” was used often by several other brujos in order to index the humility and sacrifice involved in their obra espiritual–apparently a collective image that resonates in Puerto Rico with the image of Jesus walking barefoot on his way to be crucified. It is as if, mimetically, by “walking barefoot” Bolina had relived his torment, and connected to the mimetic chains of resemblance that eventually induced such a miraculous outcome. Today she walks without crutches, and the San Lázaro she keeps in her altar stands without his usual crutches. [viii] Another case of sacred mimesis I documented widely is that of Haydée, a bruja, who said “I eat while I heal, like Jesus”–as she ate her lunch while applying compresses over the ulcerated leg of one of her clients (see Romberg 2003: 120-122).
|Figure 5: “I eat while I heal, like Jesus”. Photo by Raquel Romberg.|
Spirit Possession and Somatic Mimesis
Being possessed by spirits, especially evil spirits and muertos (spirits of the recently dead), is seen as the ultimate sign of sacrifice and charity of a healer. Brujos always mention the heavy price they pay for this in terms of their health and family relations. In cases of exorcisms, when the medium becomes possessed by the evil spirit that have been sent to harm a client, an unmistakably extreme form of somatic mimesis and sacrifice by proxy on the part of brujos occurs, by means of which the healer’s body intercedes in order to restore the well-being of the victim. A milder form of intervention no less motivated by sacrifice comes about when a healer senses in his or her body the exact pain and location produced by a bewitchment that had been intended for a client. In these cases, by means of somatic mimesis, “healers not only embody the actual pain, suffering, and bewitchments experienced by their clients”; they also mirror their clients’ pain. Healers and clients thereby become connected by means of somatic mimesis, which in this case allows for the materialization of the intangible messages spirits hold for people (see Romberg 2009:198-209). [ix]
For instance, in consultation with Dania, a young woman in her mid-twenties, Haydée began the session stating, “You are not working yet–you haven’t gotten a job yet, right? And what about the woman who was driving you crazy?” And then, while her upper body trembled, Haydée cried, “Uy, I have chills! Your leg hurts you, right? This is how I felt it, like an electric shock (correntazo)–like an electric flow that kicks you backwards. This is how you feel? How long have you felt this way? The woman asserted that indeed she “felt paralyzed for no apparent reason” over the last few days, and this is what drove her to come for a consultation (2009: 200). During the several months I worked with Haydée, she often complained that some of her aches and pains were caused by “the bad energies” that her clients brought with them to the altar-room, noting, “This ache is not mine–it’s [followed by the name of the client]. In these case she would take pills or put ice cubes on her forehead and neck. [x] In general, as I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, when the words of the spirits, voiced but not authored by brujos, replicate the unspoken state of mind and feelings of the victim of bewitchment, a healing, cathartic moment usually follows, for these might have been the exact words and feelings the victim was thinking about. Such visceral ways of having one’s state of mind and mood mimetically revealed might seem to open or “jumpstart” the process of healing, in Desjarlais’ (1996: 160) apt term.
Chains of Correspondences of Similarity and Contact
Imperfect Copies Work
In cases of bad luck and extreme poverty this mimetic language is used to expresses the effects of misfortune. Being salá or tumbá (disgraced through black magic) means that everything one touches se vuelve sal y agua (turns to salt and water), one has los pies y las manos atadas (one’s feet and hands tied), one está envuelto (is wrapped) or lo tienen puesto en una caja (has been placed in a coffin). These expressions refer to magic works designed to obstruct or ruin a person by means of tying a string around the extremities and body of a wax or cloth figure representing the victim, throwing an effigy of the victim into the sea after the former has been wrapped with a spool of black thread, or burying the victim’s photograph or effigy in a small replica of a coffin. Following the same mimetic logic, the passivity of the bewitched might be “untied” by the flight of a dove, their minds (mente) “cleared” with mint (menta), and their personal attraction “recharged” with lodestone.
|Figure 6: Loadstone is used in magic works to attract or repel people. Photo by Raquel Romberg.|
|Figure 7: Haydee setting free a dove, Dania’s proxy, to unbewitch her. Photos by Raquel Romberg.|
|Figure 8: Magic work that puts one’s enemies (their proxies) “back to back” to alienate them. Photo by Raquel Romberg.|
|Figure 9: A “wedding cake” is “cooked” with honey and cinnamon to promote the unity of a couple. Photos by Raquel Romberg.|
C. The Magic of Technologies of Reproduction and Mimetic Representations
“One of the most memorable self-revealing times I shared with Haydée was our looking together at the album of photos I took of her, a reflexive experience comparable only to our listening to the tapes I had recorded of her work. Certain photos attracted her attention more than others and were the object of extensive comments, which she often shared not just with me but also with her friends, kin, and select clients” (2009: 188-189). Looking at the album, she noted, ‘Look, how I’m holding her by the crown!’ –she was referring to the way she held the crown of her patron saint, La Caridad del Cobre, and the way she was spiritually connected to her.”
- [i] In this regard, see the historical-folkloric analysis of Roger Abrahams (1995, 2006) of American colonists “playing Indian.”
- [ii] For more on the mimetic faculty in relation to the senses, see the blog by Mike Mowbray at http://sixthsensereader.org/about-the-book/abcderium-index/mimetic-faculty/
- [iii] Some of the controversies surrounding this anthropological masterpiece can be found in Jay (1993), Stoller (1994), and Taussig (1994).
- [iv] For a visual rendition of this “horrific theatre,” see Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres Fous (1956).
- [v] I’m inspired by Taussig’s (1993) insightful sections on the notion of imperfect copies and copies that are not copies.
- [vi] See Taussig’s (1993) analysis of Trobriand Cricket, as an instance of first contact, and the giggling of Western audiences at certain points of the documentary as examples of second contact. In her astute analysis of mimesis and alterity among the Sherpas, Vincanne Adams (1997:89) shows that the Sherpas’ fascination with wearing “Nike hiking boots, Patagonia mountain jackets, and Vuarnet glacier glasses” are markers of their “Sherpaness.” Rather than being the “evidence of commodified subjectivity” and loss of authenticity, this form of mimesis “resonates with Sherpa Buddhism and even shamanism.”
- [vii] This is also true for Vodou and Candomblé (see Romberg 2005, 2011a).
- [viii] For more on Bolina and the sacrifices she and other healers make following the idea of sacred mimesis in order to increase their healing powers, see Romberg 2003). On sacred mimesis and the power of brujos to heal, see Romberg (2009).
- [ix] Somatic mimesis can be identified in situations of medical practices and psychological transference. Drawing on Valentine Daniel’s research of Siddha medicine in South Asia, Csordas notes that physicians coordinate pulses with their patients, “making their own pulse ‘confluent and concordant’ with that of their patients” (1993:143). Some psychotherapeutic schools see counter transference (or the sensing of a patient’s psychological conflicts by the therapist) as a “physical, actual, material, sensual expression in the analyst of something in the patient’s psyche” (Samuels 1985, quoted in Csordas 1993:144) rather than as a pathological reaction of the therapist, as traditional theories of countertransference suggest (145).
- [x] For more about the way the bodies of brujos act as divination tools, see Romberg (2009).
- [xi] David Brown (1999), for example, notes that magic works that were meant to be placed by a stream of water by Santeria devotees are now placed in the bathroom near water pipes by devotees living in high rise buildings in the United States.
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