ASA09: Anthropological and archaeological imaginations: past, present and future
Bristol, UK

Something borrowed, something new? Practices and politics of imitation
Location Wills G32
Date and Time 8th April, 2009 at 09:00


Andrew Whitehouse (University of Aberdeen)
Petra Tjitske Kalshoven (University of Manchester)
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Short Abstract

This panel investigates practices and politics of imitation, focussing on its role in exploring different worlds, the contestations and ambiguities of imitation, its role in cultural transmission and transformation and its significance in anthropological and archaeological methods.

Long Abstract

This panel aims to explore the practices and politics of imitation and to consider the role that imitation plays in the ways that people explore both their own world and other worlds. Imitation is an activity through which people investigate not only their direct surroundings, embodying the actions of others, but it provides a means through which connections are made with other worlds, such as the past or the non-human. Through re-enactment and reproduction, such worlds can be remembered, remade or simply learnt about, and we invite contributions that explore the processes through which this has happened, both now and in the past. For example, what difference does it make if a reproduction is hand-crafted or mass-produced or if it is fashioned from 'traditional' materials? Imitation also raises political questions of authenticity and appropriateness, and we invite papers that explore its contestations and ambiguities. When does imitation become flattery and when is it mockery? What is the role of imitation in play and satire? Because imitation often implies emulation, it plays (or is assumed to play) a role in cultural transmission and transformation, both in contemporary societies and historically. How, then, is imitation implicated in the diffusion of materials, forms and practices? In what ways is culture imitative? How does imitation relate to creativity, originality and individuality? Finally, we also encourage contributions reflecting on imitation in anthropological and archaeological methodology. For example, participant observation implies learning actions and gestures and reproducing them, and imitation underpins archaeological practices of reconstruction.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Why bother about Plato, when discussing Mimesis?

Author: Jan Söffner (ZfL Berlin)


Participation figures prominently in current phenomenology of embodied interaction in terms of intercorporality (Maurice Merleau-Ponty), shared motor space (as discussed in neurosciences), or "second person" phenomenology (Shaun Gallagher). Plato has integrated very similar aspects in his concept of mimesis. For him neither things/deeds/actions (pragmata), nor humans have their being or Dasein (ousia) by themselves, but in a partaking relation to their use/work (ergon), which sometimes is also conceived of as a transcendent principle (eidos). This is, what his theory of mimesis is concerned about; and it thereby includes one of the most elaborate theories of understanding as being a fact of both participating/partaking in the understood and understanding as producing knowledge about the understood.

A major point of my paper will be to re-discuss Plato's concept of relating imitation and participation in a less transcendence-focused key. It shall be confronted with more current theories of mimesis by Michel Leiris, Theodor W. Adorno, René Girard and Michael Taussig. The aim is to thereby open up the concept of mimesis for better discussing cultural practises - like sports and ecstatic rites -, in which shared states (like moods) and body knowledge can figure as epistemic.

Distinguishing between 'imitation', 'appropriation' and 'derivation': a discussion on Indian arts

Author: Aurogeeta Das (University of Westminster)


Although the meanings connoted by the terms 'imitation', 'appropriation', 'derivation', 'repetition' and 'continuum' share some synergies, that they are often used synonymously is problematic. Indian 'folk' and 'tribal' arts are frequently derogatively referred to as crafts because they are perceived as derivative. During and after Colonisation, nationalist writers accused metropolitan Indian artists of blindly following Western art traditions, yet European artists from the same period who borrowed 'indigenous' art idioms were regarded as appropriating, not imitating. The implied hierarchy in metropolitan artists calling folk and tribal artists craftspeople, results partially from a lack of transparency in the contextual politics of these practices.

By clarifying the distinct meanings that the above-mentioned terms connote in the context of Indian art, this paper attempts to debunk the notion that Indian tribal and folk arts lack innovation, creativity and originality - a myth that is created from a want of understanding that the pedagogy, production, display and discourse of myriad cultural practices exist in different paradigms. While these paradigms are not polar, one favours a culture of individualism. Yet, practices in traditional arts don't necessarily reflect divergent individualistic and traditional doctrines. Imitative learning can, for example, belie the logic that providing learners with the basic tools of any language - visual or verbal - gives them a base, a reservoir that they can and do draw upon to develop their expression - something metropolitan artists also do - albeit differently. Ultimately, by questioning what imitation means, I explore what we conceive of as 'original'.

Things in the making: playing with imitation

Author: Petra Tjitske Kalshoven (University of Manchester)


Extolled by Friedrich Schiller, who claimed that 'Man is only fully a human being when he plays', play as an adult activity has enjoyed a less than enviable status in the West of modern times. According to theorists of play, this was not always the case, and in many a non-Western context, play is said to remain a societal force.

Play is about 'as if' situations and about make-believe; it is predicated on imitation. Drawing on fieldwork among 'Indianists', amateurs interested in re-experiencing nineteenth-century Native American life through replica-making and reenactment (which they compare to experimental archaeology), I will argue that Indianist heuristic practice is accorded a low status at least partly because of its intricate relationship with imitation. Even within Indianism itself, pretense and make-believe are regarded with suspicion, and many practitioners stress that theirs is a heartfelt involvement, rather than a matter of superficial gesturing involving 'fakes' that are devoid of sincerity or authenticity. At the root of this uneasiness is a lingering mind-body dichotomy that associates the body with appearance and the mind with essence.

In an attempt to overcome the divide between original and copy, some theorists seek to collapse the two, arguing that every copy is an original, while others focus on processual aspects of imitation instead of on finished products. Approaching imitation through the concept of play, I will explore how taking pleasure in making 'things' may serve to straddle original-copy and mind-body divides.

Rites to knowledge: the intriguing tale of the Pitt Rivers War God

Author: Gwyneira Isaac (Smithsonian Institution)


Zuni philosophy values repetition as verification of the accurate continuity of knowledge, thereby challenging Anglo-American notions of the 'copy' as a devaluation of the 'original'. Using examples from Zuni as well as scientific traditions in creating replicas, I question the extent to which Zuni and Anglo-American approaches to imitation and the reproduction of knowledge overlap or differ. In particular, I follow the story of the Zuni Ahayu:da or War God that was carefully crafted by the ethnologist, Frank Hamilton Cushing and presented to E. B. Tylor at the Pitt Rivers Museum and which now raises key questions about whose knowledge system was reproduced during its creation, and whose is at play now in regard to where this deity should reside. These transcultural encounters with and debates over the duplication of knowledge are used to reconsider the cross-cultural applicability of representational theories, as these are commonly based on ideas about of the instability of meaning between 'originals' and their imitations or 'copies'.

Artefacts, replicas and tactile memory, or why some snowshoes just feel right

Author: John Harries (University of Edinburgh)


The Beothuk, a native people of the island Newfoundland, were extinct as a culture by the 1820's. They left behind little in the way of artefacts. This absence has been filled with a plethora of replicas many of which are fashioned by the descendants of the Anglo-Irish settlers who, directly or indirectly, were responsible for the demise of the Beothuk. There are replica canoes, pendants and spear-points, some of which are made for sale, or for public demonstration, but many of which begin as a more private hobby.

Based on conversations with those who have been involved in the making of these replicas, this paper discusses how it is that the Beothuk can be known in these imitations. In other words, in what sense are these replicas "real"? Or more precisely, what is the reality effect of these replicas that enables those who make and use them to somehow enter into communion with the past?

Focussing on the case of a pair of replica snowshoes, I will develop the argument that the reality effect of these replicas lies so much in their verisimilitude, for, although this is important there always remains a difference, however slight, that makes these things not "real"; rather, what is important is the tactile, material process of their making and use. The snowshoes may be an imitation, simultaneously real and unreal, but to make them, wear them, walk in them produces an uncanny, affective, communion with the past which transects the work of time and material decay.

The beast that killed the chief: remembering the past and affirming the future through imitation

Author: Eileadh Swan (University of St Andrews)


Imitations and re-enactments of past ways of life are often central to Ghanaian festivals and competitions designed to teach both local youth and foreign visitors about Ghanaian culture. While the final funeral rites performed for the Paramount Chief of the Asogli Traditional Area can be seen as an example of how re-enactment of past events can transfer knowledge from the elders to the youth, this paper argues that it was not the main purpose. The week long rites worked on another level to reaffirm relationships and social obligations between four 'brother' towns by re-enacting scenes from the past in which, together, they searched for a dead body or the beast that had killed the person. In this case, the fact that the chief had already been buried and that there are no longer wild animals roaming the town was beside the point. The beast, modelled out of sticks and leaves, was found, shot down and presented to the current Chief. I argue that this re-enactment of the hunt and the presentation of the imitation beast was, for those involved, the embodiment of the Great Oath of Asogli. It worked to invoke the past events through which the Oath was created and showed that, despite many changes in the social and political environment, the Oath remains relevant, connecting the past with the future. In addition, I examine my participant observation in this context as 'imitating an imitation' and discuss the heightened and embodied awareness of anthropological methodology it brought forth.

Enactive copying: a first person methodology for investigating thinking processes and the nature of knowledge gained from practice

Author: Patricia Cain (University of Glasgow)


This paper relates to my investigation of how and what artists learn by using the time-honoured method of copying. The method of enactive copying which has evolved suggests that drawing invokes an inherent reflexive mode of thinking which makes visible to us how we make sense of what we do.

Taking up Varela's ideas that emergent thinking arises through complex and recursive patterns between an individual and her environment, and is presentable in action and accessible through experience (Varela et al. 1991) allows me to consider drawing as an enactive process - an end in itself, rather than a finite event towards the production of an artefact: the focus becomes the evolution of the practitioner rather than the evolution of the drawing.

Questioning whether I can inhabit Richard Talbot's thinking processes by re-enacting his Glass drawing, required me to let go of my usual preconceptions and habitual practices, and take on Talbot's processes, working through these by drawing.

Becoming consciously aware of how I identify and demonstrate through drawing, key qualities in Talbot's process and how he establishes a framework to create opportunities for transformative experiences, provides insight into the relational nature of what I know: acknowledging my part in the process and taking what I know as a process back into my own drawing practice,

Enactive copying makes visible tacit processes in activity via our ability to make sense of what we do. Revealing the gesture of our thinking in this practical way may be useful in other historical and cultural contexts.

Original copies? Imitative dwelling practices and housing forms in a squatter settlement

Author: Peter Kellett (University of Newcastle)


Although frequently limited by economic constraints, builder-dwellers in informal self-made environments are free to choose housing forms and materials without external constraint or control. This situation potentially offers considerable freedom for expressive gestures, originality and individuality, in contrast to housing projects constructed by the state or by private developers where large numbers of identical dwellings are produced without reference to future occupants. Drawing on data from a longitudinal ethnographic study of dwelling practices in a squatter settlement in Colombia the paper will explore how dwelling forms and practices are characterised by imitative behaviours at a range of scales: settlers attempt to faithfully reproduce orthogonal settlement layouts which date back to colonial times; there are only minor variations in house plans between neighbours; only a narrow range of materials are regarded as acceptable; and dwelling furnishings follow equally clear patterns.

The main arena for competitive display and distinction is on the front facades of the dwellings where variations in colour and form become increasingly evident as settlements consolidate through time. It is clear that most of the referents and sources of the design languages come from outside the settlement, and that dwellers are attempting to reproduce housing designs which are associated with middle class life styles and values. The paper utilises Bourdieu's ideas of distinction and cultural capital to explore the changing dynamics of housing design and display, and concludes that such practices are simultaneously copies of external forms, but also original in asserting individuality and difference between neighbouring dwellings.

Partial artefacts: imitation and performance in MIT robotics labs

Author: Kathleen Richardson (De Montfort University)


This paper is based on fieldwork conducted at MIT's humanoid robotic laboratories. I explore how performance, imitation and demonstrations are done by robotic scientists in the making of human-like robots. I explore the laboratory as a theatrical space where robotic fantasies are explored, and the practices of robotics as embedded in those performances.

One important area of discussion is the 'demo' (demonstrations) where roboticists capture video footage of their machines' actions to show to examiners, funding agencies and the public. The demo becomes an important vehicle to capture what the machine can do. The roboticist programs his or her machine to act out its activities but in many cases, the robot malfunctions and the systems fail to work as intended. This causes the roboticist to repeat the experiment over and over again till the action can be captured, but as a short-term measure roboticists act out the activity of the machine instead. The robot's lack of ability is minimized because a human actor does the robotic performance in its place. In this way, the roboticist became a stand-in for their robot. When video footage of the robot's abilities is taken, researchers only emphasize the footage where the robot achieved its intended goals. To the 'external' audience at least, robots are perceived as working and intelligent products.