Mimesis and Alterity  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Mimesis and Alterity (1993) is a book by Michael Taussig.

Mimesis and Alterity looks primarily at the way people from different cultures experience the two themes of the book – how we come to adopt or assimilate another's nature or culture (mimesis), and also how we come to distance ourselves from it (alterity). The primary object of study is the "legendary white Indian", a population also known as the Cuna.

The Cuna have adopted a set of wooden figurines for magical ritual that look remarkably like white colonists, to the point of sometimes being recognizable as figures from history that traveled through those parts. If you asked one of the Cuna about the figurines, he would likely deny all connection between the two, creating an epistemic dilemma where something that may appear obvious to anthropologists is anything but obvious to those they study. Another noteworthy peculiarity of Cuna culture that Taussig mentions is the way in which the Cuna have adopted, in their traditional molas, images from western pop culture, including a distorted reflection of the Jack Daniel’s bottle, and also a popular iconic image from the early twentieth century, The Talking Dog, used in advertising gramophones. Taussig criticizes anthropology for reducing the Cuna culture to one in which the Cuna had simply come across the white colonists in the past, were impressed by their large ships and exotic technologies, and mistook them for Gods. For Taussig, this very reduction of the Other is suspect in itself, and through Mimesis and Alterity, he argues from both sides, demonstrating why exactly anthropologists have come to reduce the Cuna culture in this way, and the value of this perspective, at the same time as defending the independence of lived culture from Anthropological reductionism.

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