Cover image for Imitation and Society: The Persistence of Mimesis in the Aesthetics of Burke, Hogarth, and Kant By Tom Huhn

Imitation and Society

The Persistence of Mimesis in the Aesthetics of Burke, Hogarth, and Kant

Tom Huhn


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Literature and Philosophy

Imitation and Society

The Persistence of Mimesis in the Aesthetics of Burke, Hogarth, and Kant

Tom Huhn

“The argument about Burke’s Enquiry is brilliant and original. The idea of treating aesthetics through mimesis rather than versions of affect (that is, treating aesthetic theory as if it were a poetics) is original, and I find Huhn’s argument convincing and illuminating. Especially interesting is his explication via mimesis of the terms ‘imagination’ and ‘judgment.'. . . Burke’s theory is a heavily invested area and Huhn says something original and important. Similarly, Huhn analyses Hogarth’s discourse in his Analysis of Beauty as if it were a philosophical discourse. This is an extremely useful thing to do—and it has not even remotely been done. . . . He has clarified points for me, and I’ve been studying Hogarth for forty years. . . . By treating his Analysis seriously as a philosophical text, Huhn has conferred a dignity on Hogarth’s thought that I find gratifying—and long overdue. He contributes to the growing sense we have of Hogarth’s being one of the central figures in English culture of the eighteenth century. . . . I can testify that Huhn’s Burke and Hogarth chapters are both knowledgeable and extremely intelligent.”


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Winner of a 2005 Choice Outstanding Academic Title

This book reconsiders the fate of the doctrine of mimesis in the eighteenth century. Standard accounts of the aesthetic theories of this era hold that the idea of mimesis was supplanted by the far more robust and compelling doctrines of taste and aesthetic judgment. Since the idea of mimesis was taken to apply only in the relation of art to nature, it was judged to be too limited when the focus of aesthetics changed to questions about the constitution of individual subjects in regard to taste. Tom Huhn argues that mimesis, rather than disappearing, instead became a far more pervasive idea in the eighteenth century by becoming submerged within the dynamics of the emerging accounts of judgment and taste. Mimesis also thereby became enmeshed in the ideas of sociality contained, often only implicitly, within the new accounts of aesthetic judgment.

The book proceeds by reading three of the foundational treatises in aesthetics—Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty, and Kant’s Critique of Judgment—with an eye for discerning where arguments and analyses betray mimetic structures. Huhn attempts to explicate these books anew by arguing that they are pervaded by a mimetic dynamic. Overall, he seeks to provoke a reconsideration of eighteenth-century aesthetics that centers on its continuity with traditional notions of mimesis.

“The argument about Burke’s Enquiry is brilliant and original. The idea of treating aesthetics through mimesis rather than versions of affect (that is, treating aesthetic theory as if it were a poetics) is original, and I find Huhn’s argument convincing and illuminating. Especially interesting is his explication via mimesis of the terms ‘imagination’ and ‘judgment.'. . . Burke’s theory is a heavily invested area and Huhn says something original and important. Similarly, Huhn analyses Hogarth’s discourse in his Analysis of Beauty as if it were a philosophical discourse. This is an extremely useful thing to do—and it has not even remotely been done. . . . He has clarified points for me, and I’ve been studying Hogarth for forty years. . . . By treating his Analysis seriously as a philosophical text, Huhn has conferred a dignity on Hogarth’s thought that I find gratifying—and long overdue. He contributes to the growing sense we have of Hogarth’s being one of the central figures in English culture of the eighteenth century. . . . I can testify that Huhn’s Burke and Hogarth chapters are both knowledgeable and extremely intelligent.”
“Huhn's study is exactly what one hopes for from scholarly monographs—it is a learned and incredibly well informed exposition of major figures in intellectual and artistic history, coupled with an exciting and innovative new perspective. Huhn (School of Visual Arts, New York) argues that mimesis, far from being simple representation, is the mark of a conceptual breakdown in representation. He explores major figures of the 18th century—such as Burke, Hogarth, and Kant—and demonstrates how these figures wrestled with and transformed the concept of mimesis. Huhn is that rare specimen of scholar who wears his learning lightly. He has clearly immersed himself deeply in the work of Theodor Adorno and come to an original and fresh interpretation of him. His investigations of Burke, Hogarth, and Kant are not only brilliant explications in and of themselves—they are profound and stimulating meditations on the implications of Adorno's thoughts on aesthetics and philosophy. This is one of those wonderful books that one can recommend to anyone interested in either Burke, Hogarth, or Kant—as well as anyone interested in Adorno, contemporary aesthetics, or the theory of mimesis. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-level undergraduates through researchers/faculty.”

Tom Huhn teaches aesthetics and philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in New York.




1. Burke and the Ambitions of Taste


I. Introducing Taste

II. Delight, or the Labor Theory of Pleasure

III. Sensation and Sensibility

IV. Shaftesbury and the “Charm of Confederation”

V. Sympathy

VI. Ambition

VII. Spectatorship

2. Hogarth and the Lineage of Taste


I. The Epistemology of Lines

II. The Eye for Pleasure

III. Dance and the Movement from Vision to Imagination

IV. Eye and Mind

3. Kant and the Pleasures of Taste


I. Activating Sensibility

II. Determining Reflective Judgment

III. Phantom Sensations and Mistaken Subjects

IV. Representative Pleasures

V. Opaque Pleasures






Mimesis is a notoriously difficult term to bring under review. Some of the best known and perhaps most successful approaches are at best obliquely aimed. Consider first that the most renowned book on the topic, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, famously declines to encounter the word at all. Auerbach instead allows the subtitle of his influential treatment of scenes from Western literature to stand as his fullest explication of the term. The meaning of mimesis for Auerbach is inseparable from the accumulation of the interpretations that occur in each of the book’s twenty chapters. That is, Auerbach cannot identify a comprehensive, unified theory of mimesis because mimesis is simply the abbreviated term for the fact that literature is itself already the interpretation—by means of representation—of human reality. Auerbach’s Mimesis thus unfolds as a survey of the various methods, or styles, of interpretation.

Mimesis exhibits no inclination to address a theory of mimesis if it is assumed that such a theory would arise from inquiry as to why, in the first place, mimesis exists at all. And yet we might want to ask why Auerbach nevertheless titles the book Mimesis. In the book’s epilogue he provides a telling clue as he describes the origin of his subject: “My original starting point was Plato’s discussion in book 10 of the Republic—mimesis ranking third after truth—in conjunction with Dante’s assertion that in the Commedia he presented true reality” (Auerbach, Mimesis, 554). That Auerbach conjoins Dante’s claim with Plato’s infamous denigration of mimesis suggests that Auerbach might well agree with at least one aspect of Plato’s complaint. Though Plato’s placement of mimesis at the farthest possible remove from truth is usually taken to imply an indictment of imitation and representation, Auerbach may instead be recognizing that in Plato’s depiction mimesis nonetheless retains some relation to truth and reality. I suspect that Auerbach uses the term “mimesis” to represent the emphatic relation between literature and reality, or, if you like, between representation and experience. It is fair to conclude then that Auerbach’s method is itself mimetic of his own conviction regarding the inseparability of literary representation and the human experience of reality. If literature for Auerbach is the interpretation of an accumulation of experience, then his twenty chapters are in turn a mimetic recapitulation of those interpretations.

The final paragraph of Auerbach’s epilogue confirms that for him the interpretation of literature—just as the interpretation that is literature—is not removed from experience but instead represents the possibility of a return to it. Auerbach’s epilogue concludes with the assertion that nothing remains to be done with the book except “to find the reader” for it (557). This book on mimesis—itself mimetic in its accumulation of the experiences of literature—seeks neither to replicate nor to further represent those experiences, but instead to return to the reader who is the potential locus of such experience. In sum, perhaps a perverse position when oriented from a standard philosophical disposition, any theory of mimesis for Auerbach could proceed only in a direction away from the literary representations that are themselves already mimetic. Instead of approaching literary representation and therefore the mimetic object, Auerbach’s treatments of mimesis instead tend toward the aesthetic experiences of the reading (and therefore presumably mimetic) subject.

We find a similar assertion of a theoretically oblique approach to the theory of mimesis in what is perhaps the most famous modern treatment, after Walter Benjamin’s, of allegory. On the opening page of Angus Fletcher’s Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, the overwhelming scope and instances of allegory are likened to those of mimesis:


Allegory is a protean device, omnipresent in Western literature from the earliest times to the modern era. No comprehensive historical treatment of it exists or would be possible in a single volume. . . . Only the broadest notions, for example the modal concepts of “irony” or “mimesis,” embrace so many different kinds of literature. Given this range of reference, no narrowly exclusive stipulated definition will be useful, however desirable it may seem, while formal precision may at present even be misleading to the student of the subject.

<end ext>

For Fletcher, as we saw for Auerbach, the omnipresence of mimesis impedes the opportunity for a proper theoretical encounter. But what is it about mimesis that would make definition and precision potentially misleading?

One possible answer can be found in Theodor Adorno’s gloss on mimesis as “the nonconceptual affinity of the subjectively produced with its unposited other.” If affinity is, for Adorno, the core relation that constitutes mimesis, then his qualification of it as nonconceptual reveals why mimesis resists standard theoretical strategies of specification. In his characterization of mimesis as a nonconceptual affinity, Adorno not only suggests that mimesis is particularly inaccessible by means of concepts but also disallows any conceptual routing in actual occurrences of mimesis. If we recall that Adorno’s passage occurs in the midst of his most sustained treatment of aesthetics (which also reflects his lifelong engagement with music and composition, not to mention his sustained encounters with literature) it seems rather easy to understand his “nonconceptual” specification as a reference to musical sound, the visual experiences of art, and the effects of literary representations. This recollection of the circumstances of Adorno’s aesthetic approach to mimesis might allow us to push our reading of “nonconceptual affinity” even further. In the context of theorizing how and why artworks come to be made, instead of understanding mimesis as the mere avoidance of all things conceptual, we might hazard that mimesis is a relation premised upon the construction of a nonconceptual affinity. We might then add that for Adorno all mimesis thereby begins in critique. That is, mimesis alights with the recognition—perhaps itself nonconceptual—that all affinities made by way of concepts are somehow defective, or at least fail to encompass all possible kinds of affinity. We might now probe Adorno’s understanding of the relation between concepts and mimesis. Could it be that mimesis is, for example, not just a critique of conceptual affinity but so too a critique of affinity altogether? Or is it rather that for Adorno the dynamic of the concept itself reveals a flawed or incomplete attempt at mimesis?

We know from his responses to Walter Benjamin’s attempts to make mimesis a phenomenon of nature that Adorno did not concur with Benjamin’s inclination. Though he supported Benjamin’s nonconceptual derivation of mimesis, Adorno did not extend this specification as far as did Benjamin, who located the origin of mimesis in some nature beyond human reality. Adorno instead seeks mimesis as a dynamic within human experience, even if its specific location is found in the elusion of that same experience. Adorno finds that mimesis, philosophically formulated, is a dialectical moment of the concept’s own dynamic. Mimesis emerges as the expression of what the concept promises yet cannot by its own lights deliver or formulate. By means of the Adorno passage and in the following discussion I hope to draw a chain of connections—indeed within an aesthetic theory—from concepts to social relations by way of mimesis.

Returning to Adorno’s words, we find that mimesis is the (nonconceptual) affinity that exists, or perhaps is made, between “the subjectively produced” and “its unposited other.” By definition, or at least by Marxist definition, all production is necessarily social production. We might say that to posit production is to unavoidably presuppose social relations. Social relations provide the basis out of which production arises, while conversely the concept of production is itself impossible to put forward without the simultaneous positing of society. This means that the phrase “subjectively produced” already effaces what any and all production presupposes: the inclusion of social relations as the basis for (subjective) production. Therefore, the “unposited other” of the “subjectively produced,” or more strongly, “its unposited other,” can be termed the elision of social relations in the very notion of subjective production.

The dialectic at work in this characterization of mimesis is thus as follows: mimesis is the nonconceptual affinity between social relations and subjective production. Or more strongly: mimesis is the affinity of what was elided for that which elided it. We can thus immediately perceive how this characterization of mimesis is founded on the notion of social relations—of a society—whose presence and sway cannot be directly acknowledged. Aesthetically formulated, this lack of acknowledgment appears in the problem of how and whether social relations might come to appear at all.

The traditional formulation of mimesis describes art as the imitation of nature. Eighteenth-century theories of aesthetics found this description restrictive, as it allowed no place for the role or effects of society to appear. If we construct an idealized, generalized point of view for eighteenth-century aesthetics, we can imagine that the traditional specification of mimesis carried a severe limitation. Rather than expand the possibilities for art and reflections on art, in the eighteenth century the traditional understanding of mimesis restricted it within the boundaries of nature. We might further understand this restriction as exclusionary of any social component for all formulations of imitation. This exclusion is consistent with Adorno’s attempt to reintroduce mimesis into aesthetic theory by describing it as part of a fundamentally social and subjective framework. Even without philosophical claims regarding its role in social relations and in the composition of subjective production, and as we saw for Auerbach and Fletcher, mimesis maintains characteristics that make it nearly inaccessible. (Recall that for Fletcher its sheer pervasiveness makes mimesis—perhaps not unlike social relations for a Marxist—hard to grasp.)

We must now tie the exclusion of the social to the core dynamic of mimesis, understood by Adorno to mean the finding, or making, of affinity. This seems a curious combination because similar definitions for affinity and society might be assumed—and indeed in the first chapter we will learn that for Burke they are synonymous. One approach to this curiosity would be to put the terms in dialectical relation to one another and see what follows. If mimesis is the affinity between the individual subject and the effaced social relations that made it first possible, then affinity is less the assertion of a connection and more nearly the revelation of it. The question of mimesis most poignant for an aesthetic theory becomes the form of that revelation. (For Auerbach, this affinity revealed itself in the very styles of representation that make experience recoverable, and thereby possible, for the reader.)

We have already encountered in Adorno’s thinking, and so too in that of Auerbach and Fletcher, the single excluded form of revelation: that which occurs by means of concepts. Affinity is instead compromised by concepts, perhaps even by the concept of mimesis itself. It may help to find a correlate to the notion of the concept in some register other than cognition or the understanding. In a Kantian-inspired schema we might set the senses, as a quasi faculty, across from the faculty of the understanding. We could then correlate the concept, as a form of understanding, with visibility—a shorthand designation for perceptibility in general—as a form of sense. In sum, the understanding is to the senses as the concept is to visibility. If we further imagine the senses and the understanding in mimetic relation to one another—much of this book is concerned with showing that Burke, Hogarth, and Kant subscribed to this relation—then we might surmise that the nonconceptual affinity between subjects and society, which is to say within social relations, registers itself sensuously as the imperceptibility of social relations. Because social relations—like the relations of production—are by nature implicit rather than explicit, the aesthetic correlate of this implicitness becomes the problem of the imperceptibility of those relations. Aesthetic experience, and sometimes art-making itself, is reconfigured for much of the eighteenth century as the means by which the opaque nature of society might be formulated and figured. The argument of my book is to suggest that the transformations of how mimesis is conceived are the best way to witness the encounter with the opacity of social life.

Approaching this schema from the other side would suggest that social relations are incomplete or unreconciled. The stronger, Marxist assertion includes the claim that there is a fundamental contradiction within social relations, at least for those in societies where there is some obfuscation regarding the proper locus of, and power over, production. Even without a Marxist insight, it appears obvious that production and social relations are emphatically bound up with one another. Adorno’s critique of contemporary society and his observation regarding mimesis can hardly be considered radical because they simply extend this obvious link between society and production. Nonetheless, I find within the implications of that extension the insight regarding how eighteenth-century aesthetics could not avoid an encounter with the dynamic of mimesis.

Adorno’s formulation of mimesis suggests that the most profound and pervasive object that issues from the complications of concealed relations of production is the concept itself. This implies first that whatever limitations and mendacity might inhere in production—and the social relations it comprises—will be visited upon the form of the concept. Dialectically, then, the deformations of the concept are an expression of the failed possibilities within production. But we should not imagine that production and concept are simple failures; rather, they succeed, instrumentally at least, in achieving their intended goals. The question remains at what cost we measure their success.

The extension of Adorno’s observations regarding mimesis contains the insight that what eludes the concept—and so too might we say what production excludes—reappears, or at least strives to reappear. Mimesis becomes the term that refers not so much to the form of the reappearance but instead to the thwarted effort at appearance. Mimesis is thus the name of the attempt to come to appearance without falling prey to the confines and exclusions of conceptuality. What, we might ask, would be the content of such an appearance? In short: what would such an appearance be the appearance of? Recalling our schema juxtaposing the understanding and the senses, and in turn concept and visibility, we could say that mimesis bars appearance to the same extent that it bars conceptuality. Mimesis would appear as the reluctance to offer any appearance as the redemption of whatever failed in, and according to, the concept. The affinity at the heart of the dynamic of mimesis would preclude it from valorizing a sensuous appearance as the redeeming alternative to the concept’s malfeasance. Just as the concept claims, but fails, to encompass all that it surveys, so too would a sensuous appearance fail if it appeared as a similarly totalizing dynamic. This means that mimetic appearances, or simply mimesis itself, must instead emerge as a radically different kind of appearance. One way perhaps to capture this sort of appearance is to realize that mimesis occurs by way of a peculiar relation to substitutability. An analysis of the dynamics of substitutability will help elucidate beneficial aspects of the traditional formulation of mimesis as the (artistic) imitation of nature.

For Adorno, the concept functions primarily by means of a logic of substitutability and exclusion. In substituting itself for the sum of the particulars it claims to represent, the concept works by sweeping aside particularity. Indeed, its success depends upon the invisibility or nonappearance of not only any particular but also of anything other than the concept itself. The concept succeeds to the extent that nothing other than it appears and that it in turn appears as the exclusive and proper representation of whatever it claims as its content. Adorno describes this as the mastery and domination inherent in the workings of the concept. So too might we say that the concept presents itself as the successful Aufhebung of particularity. And indeed it is; but again, we must question the cost of this success. Let me caution that we ought not to suppose that the critique of the concept depends upon a metaphysical presupposition regarding the existence of particularity. Rather, the dynamic of the concept itself posits a realm of sensuous particularity as that which it successfully overcomes by means of its own representation thereof. In this dialectical encounter sensuous particularity comes into existence, but with the limitation that the concept must overcome it. We might describe this as the true success of the concept: it posits, and thereby makes possible, the existence of a realm of sensuous particularity. This is an ironic, but not inhuman, turn of events in which sensuous life depends upon an idea in order to come into being.

But as I’ve suggested, the concept makes this form of life possible only in order to assert itself in the distance it marks from the object. Put differently: the concept works by creating an object that intrinsically requires a specific substitution performed by concepts. This means that the form of sensuousness that the concept shapes is founded upon the presupposition that it is in itself incomplete. The concept’s task is thus to give voice to the constitutional insufficiency of sensuousness. The concept articulates the word, as an act of completion that voices what sensuousness cannot, on its own, represent. The word of the concept, whose sound gives body to a disembodied sensuousness, substitutes itself as the meaning of a sensuousness unable to present itself. The concept is itself mimetic in the act of substitution. The concept’s coming to “appearance” depends upon the invisibility of the particularizing sensuousness it presupposes. The key question here is whether this invisibility—or exclusion—of what the concept claims to substitute is a structural necessity of mimesis. That is, to what extent does mimesis depend upon an effacement of that which it appears to substitute or to imitate?

It is in answer to this question that the analysis of the concept parts company from that of mimesis, as well as the place where the insight regarding the traditional formulation of the latter might be found. Following Adorno’s lead, I have suggested that it is in the form of the concept to assert that mimesis takes place best, and exclusively, as a substituting domination. It is then the concept rather than mimesis that makes the demand for substitution. So too by extension might we surmise that mimesis, when uninhibited by conceptuality, refrains from the claim that it completes the unfinished. In short, such a form of mimesis would not offer itself as the substitution for an incomplete nature. This alternative and concept-weary formulation of mimesis would instead emphasize an affinity free from domination, exclusion, or even substitutability. A nondominating, perhaps even gentler form of mimesis would not require substitution but would instead give leave for it. A particular benefit then of the traditional formulation of mimesis in which art is poised to imitate nature is that such a formula refrains from implying that it completes nature by providing a representative substitution for it. Mimesis is here deliberately relieved of the task of representing nature. The imitation of nature is rather a reproduction of it that also affords it further affinity. Nature, or, if you like, sensuous particularity, is posited as a source for potentially faithful, affirmative reiterations rather than something—as per the point of view of the concept—requiring substitution. Nature thereby becomes an abundance that allows and invites imitations rather than, as the concept posits it, an absence requiring repair and representation.

The traditional formulation of mimesis is also beneficial in its determinant status of visibility, a term we’ve been using as a shorthand designation for sensuous appearance in general. The legacy of the concept, however, and specifically of the concept’s entanglement with mimesis, includes the disparagement and dismissal of all sensuous appearance. Mimesis comes to have a history because of its having been taken up by the concept. One of the most remarkable aspects of the eighteenth-century engagement with aesthetics has to do with the transformation of the domain and breadth of how mimesis is understood. Eighteenth-century theories of mimesis already recognize the subjective, productive share even within the traditional formulation of art’s imitation of nature. That recognition occurs, as I show in Chapter 1, when the theoretical articulation of the “imitation of nature” seems to require even the minimal subjective role in the “selection” of what is finest in nature. In contrast to the machinations of the concept, a term like “selection” benefits a theoretical specification of mimesis and allows for the continued existence of nature. Nature is not presented as something requiring substitution or even representation. This doctrine of mimesis sees imitation as a means of maintaining continuity with, or perhaps even reproducing, nature. Here we find an analogy, or even an affinity, between the nondominating character of the traditional formulation of mimesis and the more recent reluctance in investigations of mimesis to have the term surrender to the sweep and power of conceptual specification. In this book I reach back to the eighteenth century in order to investigate how three of the most varied, sustained attempts to supercede the traditional understanding of mimesis fared.

In the following three chapters I try to show how for Burke, for Hogarth, and for Kant the pursuit of the concept of mimesis yields not a substantive definition but rather a mimetic dynamic pervading their theoretical attempts to depict it. I suggest that there is something revealing to be learned about mimesis—and by extension for aesthetic theory—in what might be called the symptomatic, structural iterations of it in their three texts. Given the foregoing treatment of the nature of production, the curious manner in which mimesis occurs promises also to teach something about social relations, as well as how and where they appear. We might draw the following disciplinary implication regarding aesthetics: aesthetic theory becomes the name for the pursuit of explaining the most curious appearances and invisibilities, specifically those—perhaps despite their “appearance” even—that seem to be pervaded by subjectivity and social relations. The most consistent, plausible form for aesthetic theory to take would then itself be mimetic. Theory might work best, as we’ve seen for Auerbach, Fletcher, and Adorno, as the approximation not of some object, say an artwork (itself purportedly already an approximation of something else), but rather of whatever is most curious in the nature of what appears or—perhaps more tellingly—fails to appear. It is the status and forms of appearance that are the proper object of aesthetic theory. The great transforming discovery of the eighteenth century was that social relations and subjectivity—rather than nature—were the sources of most curious appearances and invisibilities and that they were best pursued in artworks and in aesthetic judgments.

We might approach the achievement of eighteenth-century aesthetic theories as a transformation of visible mimetic reproduction into the invisible. If, according to the traditional formulation, nature is that which art mimetically reproduces, then nature ought to be most visible in art. The eighteenth-century investigations began instead with the question of what exactly was visible in art, and later in taste and judgment, and studied what their contents might be if they did not appear to reproduce nature. (Perhaps it was in aesthetics that an empiricist-inspired skepticism first asked after the proper origin and content of our ideas, and especially our ideas of beauty, or those that seemed most directly unmediated.) More pointed still is the question of how any mimetic reproduction might occur if the nature intended to model reproductive imitation was itself invisible or otherwise unavailable.

For example, Burke calls the sublime the gap between what we are led to expect by the very history of sense experience and what actually occurs, or, more interestingly, fails to occur. In the sublime our sensuous ideas lead us to an idea or experience that inevitably never arrives. Burke recounts the origin of these curious ideas that have such a powerful impact and yet nonetheless fail to appear. He also shows how the idea of death becomes a touchstone for the sublime because of its refusal to convey a sensuous preview. I nonetheless argue that the more telling case for Burke’s aesthetics is to be found in his account of taste, rather than the sublime, because even there—in the event of the most robust sensuous experiences—he encounters the problem of how nature is most properly to appear, and how human experience may reproduce it. It is as if Burke hoped that the difference between the sublime on the one hand, and taste and beauty on the other, would be found in the inordinate share that the imagination plays in the former by filling the gap where an expected experience fails to appear. In his schema the imagination is called upon to remedy the absence of sense, and by extension the absence of nature for sense. In his theoretical formulation of taste, however, he is taken aback by the overwhelming influence of the imagination even where nature does not conceal, obfuscate, or mediate the simple sensations that it inspires. Burke can imagine a role for imagination in the sublime because there sense fails, but he cannot likewise fathom why the imagination is so active just when nature appears—in and as sense—so convincingly. Burke confronts the realization that the reproduction of nature by the imagination is far more sweeping than that by sense. Given his empiricist commitments, he is thus at pains to show that the imagination, regardless how far it roams from the sensuous origins of its ideas, retains some emphatic connection to sense. I show how this insistence inclines Burke to presuppose not only a mimetic relation between imagination and sense but also one between nature and sense. In line with his widely known theory of the sublime, Burke premises his theory of taste on an implicitly mimetic formulation of the origin of the ideas of taste as well as on the idea that mimesis functions most profusely in the absence, imagined or not, of that which it hopes to reproduce.

We might turn now to Hogarth and likewise ask what invisibility he presupposed in order to fashion his mimetic aesthetic theory. It is interesting to note too that the bulk of Hogarth’s theory depends upon explicit notions of the nature of visibility as well as visuality. Yet Hogarth finds invisible—this perhaps an astounding notion for a visual artist—anything and everything not in motion. Hogarth postulates a nature in ceaseless motion; in order for any aspect of it to become visible, vision—or “eye” as he puts it—must itself be made mobile. In short, nature becomes visible only when sense mimetically approximates its most distinctive feature. Hogarth aligns this feature with that of movement, the most visual evidence of life. Vision and by extension human experience come into existence when they imitate, and thereby make an affinity with, the movements of nature. Nature moves, while the eye imitates, follows, traces, and thereby reproduces the movements of nature, but without actually becoming one with it. Vision is natural to the extent that it is capable of following nature’s motions, and yet it remains distinct from nature insofar as the eye requires a goad or spur to trace the motion of nature, or even to tease the motion out of nature. According to Hogarth, drawing and painting emerge in order to put the somehow fallen eye back into the motion of nature. Consider the most important implication of Hogarth’s famous serpentine line, whose kinship with the serpent suggests not only its material, sensuous basis but also the temptations of (visual) reproduction: that it not only signifies but also promises never-ending motion. Nature’s invisibility is thus not due to some fault or lack within nature; it is rather for Hogarth that some lack within vision prompts a mimetic approximation to nature.

In some respects this formulation resembles that of Burke. Hogarth, like Burke, assumes an abundant nature that we ought to access via our senses. Yet both also find that some deficiency of our senses precludes us from achieving that ready access. Just as that deficiency prompts our attempts to liken ourselves to nature, so too another aspect, faculty, or ability of ours, according to Hogarth and Burke, is awakened. As we saw earlier and will see in Chapter 1 in greater detail, Burke fears the imagination’s creative-sensual potential in its attempt to remedy the deficiency of the senses. Hogarth, however, has no like anxiety concerning the powers or sweep of the faculty of imagination that come to redeem the failures of sense. For Hogarth, the power of the imagination aids and prompts the senses to the extent that it might even come to resemble them. He thus constructs a kinship between sense and imagination fully in line with the one he imagines between nature and sense. That is, he considers motion to be prevalent not only in nature but also in whatever faculty comes to draw an affinity to it. We might even say that what Hogarth himself takes to be the motions of the imagination already prove a successful likeness to nature. Regardless, then, whether it occurs in imagination, in sense, or in nature, Hogarth establishes motion as the primary evidence of life.

Motion may even be for Hogarth that which propels mimesis. That is, motion’s implied ceaselessness—recall the serpentine line—itself contains the implication of continuity not only from nature to the senses but also from one faculty to another. Motion is a means of traversing a gap between two things as well as a means, for Hogarth, for undermining a metaphysics of substance and substituting it with a doctrine of active life and its active mimetic reproduction. Again we might note the peculiarity of this when considering its author someone who makes drawings, paintings, and prints. There is no obvious sense in which one might consider such works to be anything but static representations of what can be described, at best, as arrested motion. How is it that Hogarth subscribes to a wholly dynamic doctrine of sense, imagination, and, in effect, metaphysics, when his own artistic labor inevitably produces objects whose nature is not to move?

Perhaps this problem becomes less perplexing when we engage the artist’s perspective: Hogarth understood how motion composed and reproduced his practice. As we will see in Chapter 2, in the analysis of Hogarth’s theory of drawing, the drawn line becomes for him a residue of the motions of the draftsman’s arm and hand. The line is thus not the arrest of motion but the literal tracing and reproductive continuation of it. So too is the motion of the eye that views the line as a reproduction not of the artist’s vision but rather of her physical movements’ trace. Hogarth and Maurice Merleau-Ponty conceive of the eye only as an embodied organ. Still stronger for Hogarth than for Merleau-Ponty is the idea that the eye not only inhabits space but also functions only insofar as it reproduces the movements of some (other) body. We might say that for Hogarth there could be no static view because there is no static nature; all seeing occurs as the reproduced movement of life. Further, then, the viewing of a print or drawing, for example, can never be static since all viewing is possible only in, and as, motion. Even if one asserts that such pictures are in fact static—which of course they cannot be for Hogarth—the very seeing of them unavoidably entails putting them back in motion. There is no escape from the motion of life, even when we try to arrest it by depicting it as if static.

We might now integrate Hogarth’s schema into our previously sketched configuration of social, productive relations and mimetic affinity. Here we find a striking likeness between Burke and Hogarth, foremost in the breadth of the production of affinities. For both authors the primary force of mimesis lies in the nearly endless realm of those things—or even just their motions—toward which we are able to draw an affinity. Burke acknowledges this breadth in what he calls “society in general,” defined as the destination of all things toward which we cannot help but craft an affinity. There is no object for Burke that is barred from our propensity to liken ourselves to it. (We might even go so far as to consider all of Burke’s famous characteristics of the sublime—darkness, obscurity, and so forth—as so many instances of our propensity to make affinities to those things that oppose our interests, or at least to access those whose substance is unavailable to us. That we gain delight from these encounters further proves our power to draw them toward us.) Hogarth centers this same breadth on the eye’s ability to follow the movements of any object of nature. Only when the eye traces the outline of a seemingly static object do the eye and object meet. The motion of the former construes the latter as though it too were in motion. Here we uncover a rich opportunity to connect the activity of mimesis with that of social production: The encounter between the eye and some object proceeds only by means of the activity of the former. We might say that the eye activates the object of its sight by enticing that object to approximate the eye’s own movement. The product of the eye’s activity is not some static object but rather an extension of the eye’s activity, so that an extension of the moving eye’s activity issues first from production. The “product” of this activity is social insofar as the eye extends itself to the reproductive activity of other objects. In short, the eye not only extends its own productive activity to something else but also, in this very relation of imitation, presupposes a kinship between itself and what is apparently other. Kinship occurs here in the activity of imitative reproduction. For Hogarth, the mobility of vision both presupposes and continuously reestablishes kinship. The movement of the eye, in self-animation, produces and reproduces itself, thereby extending its own domain while reciprocally having that same domain extended by whatever else it has set in motion.

Hogarth’s metaphysics presupposes that objects are made in order to be set in motion. Or we might say that for Hogarth objects are but the occasion for rekindling the movement of life. Objects’ emphatic relation to motion suggests that they might best be considered as embodied motion. This orientation allows Hogarth to determine which lines best embody the most active, ceaseless kind of motion, which he supposes is that of life itself, or at least the best sort of life. Hogarth’s acknowledgment that line—or even outline—does not occur in nature may strengthen his commitment to a dynamic nature. At every turn in his Analysis of Beauty, he recognizes the artifactual character of line. That lines are made things does not make them unnatural for him; rather, their active production, whether in vision or by the hand, proves to him that lines already bear an affinity to the movement of nature.

There is perhaps no better place to appreciate the curious dialectic in art-making between active production and static artifact than in the figure of one of Hogarth’s famous modes of composition. By means of a pencil alone, and amid some swirl of human activity, Hogarth was known to sketch lively scenes on his thumbnail. These sketches would serve later, in the studio, as the bases for fuller compositions. To picture Hogarth holding one hand still in order that the other might actively draw on it captures the manner in which he arrests an object or subject capable of motion for the sake of reproduction. Also note the implicit likeness in the visual experience of this figure of Hogarth at work, the literal mirror-imaged relation, between active and passive hands.

Turning to Kant we find that he supposes a much greater volume of invisibility, which exceeds the amount that Burke and Hogarth theoretically supposed. We witness the spread of invisibility in the status Kant accords artistic masterpieces, the works of genius, which he finds appear as products of nature rather than the issue of any human activity. The most successful artworks then always appear as not having been made by humans. Conversely, objects of natural beauty appear to us as such only if we view them as though they were the residues of human action. Both of these necessary presuppositions demand the obscuring of how things come to be or the study of how and whether human production is involved at all. Kant’s aesthetic theory not only imagines production and social relations to be invisible, but also finds the object of aesthetic judgment, the judgment itself, and the judging subject—especially even the society presupposed by it—all thoroughly absent for either sense or the understanding. It is as though Kant extended the insights of Burke and Hogarth regarding the large productive share of the imagination for the faculty of sense—even if premised upon the unavailability of sense—to include judgment itself. That is, Kant extends their insights regarding how imagination mimetically supercedes sense to the acknowledgment that imagination itself might be mimetically superceded by judgment. What we find in Kant’s thought is not only a far more systematic, but also a far more thorough and sweeping, effacement of what might be called the piecemeal faculties and abilities of human sense, imagination, and the understanding.

Kant’s critique assigns to judgment a large share of human self-production precisely because the content of sense lacks engagement with human subjectivity. Kant calls sense a faculty of the creature rather than of the person. Just as we witnessed its status for Burke and Hogarth, imagination is for Kant premised upon whatever is present or absent from sense. Imagination thus becomes subject to the same limitation to the creature rather than becoming an expansive potentiality of the person. When Kant turns during his critique to consider the understanding, he finds that it too is subject to something other than the free determinability of subjectivity. The understanding is limited by its own categories, concepts, and ideas, even if these may serve subjectivity. However, insofar as these are limited to the needs of cognition, broadly construed, the understanding must serve rather than constitute subjectivity.

In our schema of invisibility, Kant absents not only the content but also the success of sense, imagination, and the understanding. The invisibility at play in his aesthetic theory suggests rather the increasing effacement of the very subject whose faculties presumably serve it. This effacement, a profound invisibility of the subject itself, is premised upon Kant’s acknowledgment that the subject must differentiate itself from the sum of its faculties, regardless how well schematized those faculties might promise to become. We might say that Kant wants to reconsider the success of the subjective faculties, which threatens to overwhelm the possibility of the subject’s cohesion and autonomy. Kant studies the aesthetic dynamic of invisibility in order to warn against the subject’s emergence as the agglomerated residue of the operations of its faculties.

The freedom at stake here for Kant is not one that involves the subject choosing how much it is to be constituted by each of its faculties. Rather, the imperative freedom considers the subject’s self-determination and depends upon a separation from the deep, thorough, and seemingly unavoidable impress on it of each and every one of its faculties. We might, with Kant, think of the subject’s determinations by its own faculties as largely invisible to the very same subject. The encounter with how we come to be made up of our faculties is, for Kant, largely unavailable to us. Mimetically complementing this unavailability to the subject of its own constituent parts is the more immediate unavailability of the aesthetic judgments that, curiously, seem at once to be lodged deep within subjectivity and yet unaccountable by it. Further, and to reveal aesthetic judgment’s thoroughly social basis for Kant, the possibility that subjectivity might not be determined by its faculties lies in the extent to which subjectivity comes to be within, and a version of, intersubjectivity.

Kant’s theoretical effacement of the objects of our judgments of beauty (be they objects of nature or of human making) provides him a mimetic insight into what remains invisible, and by extension, incomplete, in the judging subject. We might also say that for Kant the nature of aesthetic judgment itself mimics this pervasive invisibility. Insofar as the content and the principle of aesthetic judgments remain unavailable to us—at most we seem capable of mere reiteration of the judgment—we might conclude, according to this schema, that such judgments carry their inaccessibility as a constitutive element. Because neither their content nor their rule (what David Hume calls the standard of judgment) can be made explicit, Kant can achieve little more in his critique of (aesthetic) judgment than the exposition of the conditions that allow for the occasion of such a judgment, precisely because its full appearance is constitutively precluded. But then its inability to appear also lends insight into the nature of subjectivity. In showing that social relations as well as subjectivity cannot fully disclose themselves, aesthetic appearances—whether artworks, objects of natural beauty, or the mimetic dynamic of judgment and taste itself—intimate that both society and subjects remain ongoing projects.

In the following chapters I try to show how three very different, but nonetheless key, eighteenth-century books in aesthetics began to point in this direction by extending the sway of mimesis and thereby substantially adding to what might be at stake in taste and judgment.

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