01 July 2009

"Mimetic Fiction"

While reading (and enjoying) a recent review at Strange Horizons, I became obsessed with a single word: mimetic. Writing about Vandana Singh's story "Thirst", Dan Hartland says, "Indeed, 'Thirst' is a largely mimetic piece, which opens itself to the fantastic only towards its close..." and then at the end of the paragraph finishes by saying, "two planes often opposed to each other in fiction co-exist and co-mingle, rendering metaphor, allegory and mimesis one". He calls another of Singh's stories "essentially a mimetic story about the search for truth".

There's a minor tradition within the science fiction community of using mimetic and mimesis to mean the opposite of the fantastic. The oldest such uses that I could find (with a quick and profoundly less than exhaustive search) date to the early 1970s, and the casual employment of the term in those contexts makes me suspect that it has a longer history within the SF world as a way to point toward what more generally gets called within that community "mainstream" or (less frequently) "mundane" fiction.

All of these terms are problematic for various reasons, but what struck me this time about the words mimetic and mimesis was how their meaning in this context relates to and in some ways contradicts a few others I can think of -- the classical idea of mimesis as "imitation", particularly "imitation of nature"; Erich Auerbach's influential mid-twentieth century study Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature; and, particularly, Ronald Sukenick's use of "mimetic fiction" in various essays collected in one of the many books I currently have out from the library, In Form: Digressions on the Act of Fiction.

Despite its history within the SF world, I'm not convinced that "mimetic fiction" is the best term for that thing for which there is, admittedly, no perfect term. Using mimesis to describe this thing, though, seems even less perfect to me than most of the other terms, because I'm more persuaded by Sukenick's use of it to mean fiction that tries to hide its illusions. In an essay on Gerald Graff, Sukenick makes this wonderfully efficient statement: "Mimetic fiction depends on the suspension of disbelief; nonmimetic fiction does not."

Almost all genre fiction, of course, depends on the suspension of disbelief, so if we accept Sukenick's definition, then the vast majority of SF is, in fact, mimetic.

This use of the term makes sense to me because it does two things. First, it does not deviate significantly from how the term has traditionally been used -- mimetic fiction in this sense seeks to give the reader a feeling, at least while reading the text, that there is a fundamental reality to the world conjured by the words. Sukenick writes:
The key idea is verisimilitude: one can make an image of the real thing which, though not real, is such a persuasive likeness that it can represent our control over reality. This is the voodoo at the heart of mimetic theory that helps account for its tenacity. Though such schizoid illusions are fostered by concepts of imitation, one cannot have control "over" that of which one is a part, or even formulate it completely -- one can only participate more deeply in it.
It doesn't seem to me that we have to accept Sukenick's preference for fiction that shuns verisimilitude in order to see that his distinction between mimetic and non-mimetic fiction is a useful one, which is the second reason I find it persuasive -- it describes in a more coherent and less problematic way than other terms I can think of what feels to me like a fundamental difference between types of writing. It illuminates some of what is different between, for instance, Tender Buttons and Dubliners -- but also some of what is similar between Dubliners and Tarzan of the Apes.

There is a good argument, too, that using mimesis as a way to distinguish SF from non-SF hides (or at least obscures) some of what SF seeks to do -- we're back at the suspension of disbelief. The creation of believable worlds from at least ostensibly unbelievable material. Such fiction relies upon verisimilitude, which is a point made by writers and critics for decades: that SF is realism on steroids. It seeks to create in the reader's mind what John Gardner called a "vivid, continuous dream". It may not be the representation of what we believe to be "reality", but it is an attempt to represent an imagined reality in a way that the reader does not reject as preposterous. This is worldbuilding. Philip K. Dick once offered advice on "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later" -- a nonmimetic writer might offer exactly the opposite advice.

Even the classical notion of mimesis as "imitation of nature" can apply to SF -- particularly to core science fiction, which deliberately tries to extrapolate from known science, and is often based on ideas of nature as we currently understand it. But even in something like Judith Berman's "Rather Cranky Post on Verisimilitude in Fantasy", we're still talking about the imitation of nature.

There is a need for a value-neutral term for non-SF. I'm just not convinced that "mimetic fiction" is what it should be.

Update (7/7/09): Hal Duncan has posted a thoughtful extension of some of these ideas in connection with some other discussions that have been going on around the intertubes.


  1. I see your point, but I somehow doubt that it will be possible to wean SF academics off using "mimetic" to mean what they have been using it to mean for years.

  2. I think you're absolutely right about that, Cheryl -- I actually almost added that to the post, since I hope not to be perceived as screaming out, "You're all WRONG!" across the internets... My greatest hope is simply that some of the information and ideas here, the alternate perspective, is useful as people choose which terms they feel are the best ones for what they want to say. Lacking a perfect term, we have to choose what we most want to emphasize and suggest, and which compromises we're most able to live with.

  3. Hi, Matt - thanks for saying you enjoyed the review, much appreciated.

    I don't see myself as a member of the SF critics' circle, so my use of mimesis is not what you assumed it to be - that is, when I use the term I use it precisely to denote imitative art, fiction which seeks to represent convincingly the world in which we live. I don't use it as some sort of false comparator, a la the SF critics whom you question here.

    My conception of this imitative art is different to yours in its uncertainty that mimesis and versimilitude are always the same thing: that is, I find Sukenick's conflation a step too far. Where mimesis seeks to recreate the world we recognise, that we consent to experience, on the page, SF seeks to build up a belief that other modes of existence are, if not probable or even possible, then at least conceivable. This aim seems to me too different to that of purely mimetic fiction to be described using the same word.

    So we half agree - parts of SF can be mimetic, and mimetic is not the opposite of fantastic. (After all, I'm pretty certain that's what I suggest in the review - I never claim that Singh isn't writing science fiction, merely that her worlds are very often our own.) But those parts which do worldbuild rather than simulate ... I think you still need a word other than 'mimetic' for those. When you've won the battle in the cirlc eagainst mimetic-as-comparator, at any rate.

  4. Hmmm, I can't help relating this to some of my own recent musings on narrative modality. Way I see it, mimesis takes place in *any* narrative, suspension-of-disbelief just being the alethic modality (aka subjunctivity) of "did happen" we surrender to as readers, project onto the text. All fiction takes that, I'd say, as a baseline, even if it subsequently fucks with it big time. But to kkep it going all fiction has to weave that imitative verisimilitude through it, the elf or alien still *drinking*, *talking*, *fighting*, *sitting on a chair*. I've started thinking of that as the "mimetic weft". I think you can see distinct techniques of "worldbolstering" and "worldbumphing" that are used along with, or as part of, worldbuilding.

    We might talk about non-strange fiction as *purely* mimetic, never injecting the "could not happen" modality that challenges suspension-of-disbelief (which sf does, I'd argue, in dealing with temporal/technical impossibilities; it just has a tendency to "dewarp the quirk" in me own poncy parlance, to reassert suspension-of-disbelief). Still, sf is full of mimetic sentences in between the ones with strange shit happening. Even the weirdest pataphysical fiction that uses logical impossibilities (Guy Davenport in "Idyll", Delany in DHALGREN, the film BUFFET FROID) often seems to me to be deeply mimetic precisely so the suturae are more disruptive when they come. So "mimetic fiction" is sort of like "instrumental music", if we map strangeness to singing. It really means *only* using mimesis, *only* using instruments. It is kind of a misnomer, because most stuff that's not "mimetic fiction" still contains mimesis just as the stuff that's not "instrumental music" still contains instruments.

    Buggered if I know what a better name for it would be though.

  5. It appears that you have allies. As part of my preparation for the academic conference at Finncon I have just been reading an essay by Brian McHale from the Sense of the World volume of the Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy series. McHale is talking about mise-en-abyme rather than SF&F (though he does use examples from Gibson, Sterling and Delany as well as the likes of Danielewski, Barth and Cervantes) but this is also something that realism purists complain about, and the defenses Hale uses are very similar to the defenses we use for SF&F. As the mere existence of mise-en-abyme tends to threaten suspension of disbelief, McHale has to argue that mimesis doesn't necessarily mean the literary equivalent of photographic realism.

  6. Damien Broderick7/16/2009 5:13 PM

    Fwiw, here's an attempt to show why sf is (as it were) mimetic tactically:

    Sf is

     a species of story-telling marked by

     metaphoric strategies, for it constructs its narrative maps not from the schemata of the commonplace but out of endlessly inventive and open-ended analogies, catachreses, paradigm-elisions, puns, conceits: out of dream echoes or deformations and satirical distortions of the quotidian, and scientific or pseudo-scientific diagrams of the inaccessible: the new signifiers of sf's novel paradigm sets;

     metonymic tactics, for its outrageous inventions tend to mimic the mimetic, to copy the realistic modes of representation, to link the signifiers it invents or appropriates into syntagmatic strings whose forms perform and formulate new formulae of narrative topology: structures of connection and disconnection which track like paths the trajectories and pathos of sentences until now incapable of utterance;

     the foregrounding of icons and interpretative schemata from a generic `mega-text', for sf is explicitly a communal narrative form, escaping synchronic definition as each moment passes into the next because that is the diachronic shape of our meta-stable culture: fuelled and bodied forth by the images and praxis, for good or ill, of consumerist technological society;

     the concomitant de-emphasis of `fine writing', which is the insignia and medium of a socially restricted paradigm set deployed through recognised and canonised syntagmata, tropics of discourse, which sf escapes at the very instant it fails to meet tests of literary credential;

     the backgrounding of subjectivity, which is the hallmark of a kind of writing valorising the given in its exquisite nuance, whether or not this attention equates superficially with endorsement of the subjectivities portrayed; for if the loss of fine register in constituting imaginary subjects is historically a frailty shared with other wish-fulfilling entertainment media, sf's turn away from character (as literature understands it) is made inevitable by its alternative focus on an alienated mise-en-scène;

     communicative priorities more often found in scientific and postmodern texts than in literary models, so that the algorithmic, the blatantly schematic, the communal, the epistemic, the spatial, the unknown are given priority over the individuated, the comfortingly quotidian, the known.

     attention to the object in preference to the subject, where `object', under the scrutiny to which we have subjected discursive sites, is no unimpeachable essential Real yet retains a genuine externality, a power to shock equal to Dr Johnson's stone striking back at his shoe; and where `subject', if not quite de-centred, is labile, socially miscible, cognitively multiplex.

    [from my READING BY STARLIGHT, Routledge, 1995]