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Walter Benjamin, Doctrine of the Similar

Walter Benjamin, Doctrine of the Similar

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Doctrine of the Similar (1933)Author(s): Walter Benjamin and Knut TarnowskiSource:
New German Critique,
No. 17, Special Walter Benjamin Issue (Spring, 1979), pp. 65-69Published by: New German CritiqueStable URL:
Accessed: 14/09/2009 11:29
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Doctrineofthe Similar(1933)*
byWalterBenjamin
Insightinto the areas of the "similar"hasafundamentalimportancefortheillumination oflargeareasofoccultknowledge.Suchinsight,however,isto begainedlessby demonstratingfound similaritiesthanbyreproducingprocesseswhichproducesuch similarities. Natureproducessimilarities-one needonlythinkofmimicry.Humanbeings,however,possesstheveryhighestcapabilitytoproducesimilarities.Indeed,theremaynot be asingleoneofthehigherhuman functions whichis notdecisivelyco-determinedbythemimeticfaculty.Thisfaculty,however,has ahistory,bothphylogene-ticallyandontogenetically.Withrespecttothelatter,it isinmany waysformedbyplay.Tobeginwith,children'sgamesareeverywhereinterlacedwith mimeticmodesofbehavior,andtheirrangeisnot limited atallto whatonehumanbeingimitatesfromanother. A child notonly playsatbeingagrocerorateacher,but alsoatbeinga windmill oratrain. Thequestionwhichmatters, however,is thefollowing:whatdoes a humanbeing actuallygainbythistraininginmimetic attitudes?Theanswerpresupposesa clearreflectionon thephylogeneticimpor-tanceofmimetic behavior.Todeterminethis,itdoes not suffice tothink,forexample,merelyof whattheconceptofsimilaritymeans for ustoday.Asweknow,thesphereof life whichonceseemedto be ruledbythe lawofsimilarityusedto be muchlarger.It was the microcosm and themacrocosm,togivebutoneversionof themanyfoundbytheexperienceofsimilarityoverthe course ofhistory.It canstill be maintainedtodaythat thecasesinwhichpeopleconsciously perceivesimilaritiesineverydaylife are a minutesegmentofthose countlesscasesunconsciouslydeterminedbysimilarity.The similarities which oneperceives consciously,forinstanceinfaces, are,whencomparedto the countless similaritiesperceivedunconsciouslyor notatall,liketheenormous underwater massof anicebergincomparisonto thesmalltipwhich one seesprojectingabovethewaves.These naturalcorrespondences,however,assume their decisiveimpor-tanceonlyinlightof the considerationthattheyallstimulate andawakenthat mimeticfacultywhichrespondsto theminhumanbeings.Here onemust recallthat neither themimetic forcesnor theirobjects,i.e.,themimeticobjects,have remainedthesame,unchangedoverthe courseoftime.Inthe courseof the centuriesthemimeticforce,and then with itthe
*ThisfragmentistakenfromWalterBenjamin,GesammelteSchriften,eds.Rolf TiedemannandHermannSchweppenhauser,Vol.II,1(Frankfurtam Main,1977),pp.204-210andispublishedwith thepermissionofSuhrkampVerlag.
65
 
66Benjaminmimeticfacultyofperception,hasdisappearedfromcertainareas,perhapsinorder topourforth intoothers.Itmightnot be toobold topresumethatonthewhole a uniformdirection canbeperceivedinthe historicaldevelopmentof thismimeticfaculty.Atfirstglance,the directionmightseem tolieintheincreasingdisappearanceof thismimeticfaculty.Theperceivedworld(Merkwelt)ofmodern humanbeingsseems to containinfinitelyfewer ofthosemagicalcorrespondencesthanthe world of the ancientpeopleoreven ofprimitivepeoples.Yet this isthequestion:is it thecase thatthemimeticfacultyisdyingout,orhasperhapsatransformationtakenplace?Someaspectsofastrology mayindicate,evenifindirectly,thedirection inwhichsuchatransformationmightlie. For asinquirersintotheold traditionswe musttake intoaccountthepossibilitythat humanbeings mighthaveperceivedmanifestformations,thatis,thatobjectshad amimeticcharacter,wherenowadayswe wouldnot evenbecapableofsuspectingit. Forexample,intheconstellations ofthe stars.Tograspthis,thehoroscopemustbeunderstood asanoriginaltotalitywhichastrologicalinterpretationmerelyanalyzed. (Thestarsformed acharacteristicunity,andthecharacter oftheindividualplanetswasonlyrecognized bytheway theyfunction inrelationtothestars.)We mustalwaystakeaccount ofthe fact thatcelestialprocessescouldbeimitatedbythosewholivedearlier,bothcollectivelyandindividually.Indeed,thepossibilityofimitationcontained theinstructiontomake use ofanalready presentsimilarity.Thispossibilityofhumanimitation,thatis,thismimeticfacultywhichhumanbeings possess,mayhave toberegarded,forthetimebeing,asthe solebasis forastrology'sexperientialcharacter.If,however,mimeticgeniuswastrulyalife-determiningforceamongtheancients,then it isscarcely possiblenottoattributecompletepossessionofthisgifttothenewborn-especiallywhen it isregardedascompletemimeticadaptationtothe form ofcosmicbeing.Themoment ofbirth,whichheredecideseverything,isbut aninstant.Thisdirects ourattention toanotherpeculiarityinthearea ofsimilarity.Theperceptionofsimilarityis ineverycasebound toaninstantaneousflash. Itslips past,canpossiblyberegained,butreallycannotbeheldfast,unlikeotherperceptions.Itoffersitself totheeyeasfleetinglyandtransitorilyas aconstellationofstars.Theperceptionofsimilaritiesthusseems tobeboundtoatime-moment(Zeitmoment).Itislike theaddition of athirdelement,namelytheastrologer,totheconjunctionof twostarswhich mustbegraspedinaninstant.Heretheastronomer ischeatedout ofhisreward,despitethesharpnessofhisobservationaltools.Thereference toastrologymayalreadysuffice tomakecomprehensibletheconceptof anon-sensuoussimilarity.Theconceptisobviouslyarelativeone: itindicatesthatinourperceptionwenolonger possesswhatoncemadeitpossibletospeakofasimilaritywhichmightexistbetween aconstellationofstarsand ahumanbeing.Nonetheless,wetoopossessacanon onthe basis

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