Blog Post

Mimetic Theory and Latin America

In the work of the most distinguished Latin American authors there is a disquieting circumstance, namely, the virtual omnipresence of a particular semantic field centered upon the concepts of copy, imitation, emulation, plagiarism, and influence. Moreover, and differently from the perception rendered dominant by the Romantic worldview, Latin American authors embrace these notions as being fundamentally positive. Seemingly the idea of originality is replaced by an artistic procedure grounded on the complexity of the acknowledgment of the constitutive role of the other in the determination of the self. In such a context, Harold Bloom’s notion of “anxiety of influence” is replaced by what could be termed “productivity of influence.”

This circumstance suggests a possible relationship between Latin American cultural life and mimetic theory, as it has been developed by René Girard. I am referring here more specifically to Girard’s notion of “ontological sickness” (in French, “mal ontologique”). That is, the fact that the self cannot but depend upon others in the determination of his “own” desire. As a necessary corollary of this assumption, the self is defined by a fundamental instability, which paradoxically reinforces the dependence upon others.

There are fascinating parallels in Latin American cultural history, which would not only corroborate but also anticipate the notion of “ontological sickness”. It almost goes without saying that the centrality of William Shakespeare in the constitution of a literary imagination in Latin America follows the same pattern—and I will unfold this idea in future posts.

Let me, then, provide a couple of examples in order to start our dialogue.

Antonio Caso, Mexican philosopher, highly influential in the first half of the XXth century, proposed a definition of Mexican culture based on the work of both Jules de Gaultier and Gabriel Tarde. Therefore, according to Caso, Mexican culture would basically be defined by a “collective bovarisme” as well as by a series of “extralogical imitations”—the potential connection with René Girard’s work is evident, although it has not yet been fully developed. A Brazilian historian, Sergio Buarque de Holanda, has also identified a sort of “national bovarisme” as being typical of the country’s intellectual history.

Edmundo O’Gorman, one of the leading Mexican historians of the XXth century, went even further, proposing that the constitutive dilemma of the “invention of America”—the title of his masterpiece, La invención de América—is, as he puts it, the “ontological determination ab alio”. In other words, having your “own” identity determined ab alio implies a collective cultural uncertainty comparable to the instability of the self, as identified by René Girard in Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque.

Indeed, examples like this are abundant in Latin American cultural history and should allow for the establishment of an active dialogue between Latin American cultures and mimetic theory. In the next posts, I will try to develop this hypothesis.

Let me, now, wait for your feedback.

João Cezar de Castro Rocha's picture
João Cezar de Castro Rocha is Professor of Comparative Literature at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). He is the author of Literatura e cordialidade: O público e o privado na cultura brasileira (1998; Mário de Andrade Award, National Library, Rio de Janeiro); O exílio do homem cordial: Ensaios e revisões (2004); Exercícios críticos: Leituras do contemporâneo (2008); and Crítica literária: em busca do tempo perdido? (2011, forthcoming). He has edited more than 20 books, among which are a collection of six volumes of Machado de Assis's short stories (Record, 2008); Producing Presences in Portuguese: Branching Out from Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht's Work (2007); The Author as Plagiarist: The Case of Machado de Assis (2006); and Brazil 2001: A Revisionary History of Brazilian Literature and Culture (2001). His book of dialogues with René Girard and Pierpaolo Antonello, Evolution and Conversion (2008), has been translated into seven languages, and received in 2004 the Prix Aujourd'hui in France.   Among others, Castro Rocha has received the following distinctions: the Endowed Chair Machado de Assis of Latin American Studies (Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana / Brazilian Embassy, Mexico, 2010); Hélio and Amélia Pedroso/Luso-American Foundation Endowed Chair in Portuguese Studies (University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, 2009); Research Fellowship (Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung / Freie Universität - 2005-06); Ministry of Culture Visiting Fellow (University of Oxford, Centre for Brazilian Studies, 2004); Tinker Visiting Professor (University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2003); Overseas Visiting Scholar (Cambridge University, St John's College, 2002); John D. and Rose H. Jackson Fellow, (Yale University, Beinecke Library, 2001).