After the shadow and the phantom, the twin and the double, the ancient problematic of what the ancients called, enigmatically, ‘mimēsis’, is returning under different masks and conceptual personae to animate and reanimate posthuman subjects in the digital age. Reloaded by new technologies and media, algorithms and AI simulations, emerging forms of posthuman mimesis do not merely mirror or redouble the human passively. Rather, they form and transform a chameleon species that is not only sapiens but also ludens, not simply economicus but also numericus, not only faber but also plasticus and, we now add, mimeticus as well. This is not a simple adjectival addition to a long list that already qualifies an eminently adaptable, protean, relational and genially metamorphic creature. On the contrary, mimesis is the very principle that makes adaptability, protean transformations and relational bonds possible, thereby bringing a genial yet not always wise species into being in the first place. New avatars of mimesis are now at play in the figures of the cyborg and the android, the hologram and the avatar, robots and increasingly mimetic and creative AI, among other simulations that may appear fictional or hyperreal online; yet, via increasingly intrusive algorithmic technologies, they are now operating hypermimetically on posthuman bodies and minds offline as well, transforming the ongoing process of becoming posthuman.
A mimetic perspective to posthuman studies provides a long genealogical view, or overview, to better analyse, critique and evaluate technologically induced transformations that are already in progress, generating an AI revolution that was long in the making. Posthuman mimesis is, in fact, the latest conceptual avatar in a long genealogy that is ancient in origins, traverses the entire history of western metaphysics, art and religion, informs technics and media, generates virulent quarrels between philosophers and poets, the ancients and the moderns, and, via a forceful overturning of perspectives in the modernist period, reaches into the postmodern period as well, transforming our process of becoming posthuman as well. Let me thus offer a brief and necessarily partial genealogical reconstruction of some of the main steps in a long journey that now leads up to posthuman mimesis.
The history of a protean species I call homo mimeticus takes many twists and turns before it reaches the posthuman turn and cannot be fully recapitulated here. For our introductory purpose, its genealogy can be schematically summarised via the following, admittedly schematic steps:
- Mimesis animates human, animal, and divine worlds in constant becoming
- Mimesis both mirrors and de-forms a true, ideal world
- Mimesis re-presents a true, rational world
- Mimesis unmasks the true, ideal world to be an illusory world
- Mimesis deconstructs the distinction between copy and original
- Mimesis is banned by hyperreal simulations
- Mimesis re-turns via hypermimetic simulations constitutive of posthuman becoming.
The different steps I number for convenience should not give the false impression that the genealogy of homo mimeticus rests on a grand linear narrative of progress – if only because the last step brings us back to the question of becoming with which the genealogy starts, albeit with a technological supplement. We are thus not confronted with a circular logic based on sameness but with a spiralling movement that is set in motion by a series of repetitions and differences. Let me articulate each step in some more detail.
- Historical accounts of mimesis often start with philosophical critiques of this concept, but this is a false and biased start. Let us in fact recall that the Greek term ‘mimēsis’ from mimeisthai, to imitate, comes from mîmos, meaning ‘mime actor’ but also ‘performance’. This is already a reminder that mimesis was originally an embodied practice rooted in music and dance, dramatic impersonations and masked simulations, and thus originated in rituals of collective participation still at play in indigenous cultures today. Despite its Greek conceptual origins, then, the ritual, magical and animistic practices that animate mimesis provide an initial corrective to Eurocentric definitions that restrict it to visual representation alone, or to epistemic concerns with visual illusions, or to metaphysical obsessions with copies and originals.
- It is often said that philosophy is born out of a conflict, or agon, with the mythic tradition that precedes it, but a genealogical perspective complicates this clear-cut opposition and leads us to speak of a mimetic agon instead. As is well-known, after a lengthy dialogue on the nature of justice, in Book 10 of the Republic (c. 375 B.C.), Plato, under the mimetic mask of Socrates, bans mimesis and mimetic practitioners (poets, rhapsodes, actors). He does so because they do not represent an ideal, metaphysical reality that culminates in intelligible, universal and immutable Forms that, for Plato, constitute true Being; but, rather, they only represent ‘phantoms’ at ‘the third remove from truth’. Less known is that Plato’s understanding of mimesis is still in touch with a Homeric, mythic, and immanent perspective that does not neatly divide human from nonhumans, and is extremely sensitive to material processes of becoming other, including imitation of nonhuman forces. Thus, Socrates says for instance that dramatic impersonation (or mimesis) could include ‘claps of thunder, and the noise of the wind and hail … and the cries of dogs, sheep, and birds’ (397a-b). Genealogical lenses already reveal that from the dawn of mimetic studies onward, mimesis is not restricted to an anthropocentric focus on Man. On the contrary, it goes beyond binaries that simply oppose nature to culture, the human to the nonhuman, the original and the copy, along fluid and metamorphic perspectives that now inform posthuman mimesis as well.
- In the classical period, mimesis is not only a subject of critique; it also finds early on a worthy defence. Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, provides a powerful reply to Plato’s exclusion of mimesis as a dangerous irrational and pathological force. He does this in the Poetics (c. 335 B.C.), where he articulates a defence of poetry predicated on the logical and cathartic assumption at play in the mimetic pathos of carefully crafted tragic plots, or muthos. If Plato had a broader conception of mimesis that was crucial to education and subject formation, Aristotle tends to restrict mimesis to tragic plots driven by exemplary figures; if the former emphasised the passive, reproductive side of mimesis, the latter was sensitive to its active, productive power; if the teacher stressed the pathologies of mimesis, the student stressed its balancing therapeutic value, or patho-logy (critical discourse or logos on affect or pathos). Their agonism notwithstanding they nonetheless agreed that mimesis, not unlike technology, has the double patho(-)logical structure of a pharmakon: that is, both poison and remedy – a Janus-faced evaluation still central to poststructuralism and posthumanism as well.
- After moral preoccupations with the imitation of Christ that cast a spell on the medieval period and creative imitations of the ancients constitutive of the Renaissance spirit, a metaphysical overturning of perspectives on which the mimetic turn in posthuman studies hinges takes place in the modernist period. If dominant philosophical conceptions of mimesis set up a hierarchy between the true world and the false world, the ideal origin and the material copy, this metaphysical story, or rather ‘fable’, was unmasked by Nietzsche in a critique of idealism that casts a shadow on transhumanism as well: in a radical overturning of the idealist metaphysics that posits ideal models to imitate in imaginary afterworlds that reach – via Christian ideals, as well as transcendental categories – into the present, Nietzsche, as is well-known, unmasks this ideal ‘‘true’ world’ and the dominant mimetic tradition that distinguishes between ideal models and material copies as ‘the history of an error’ (his negative thesis). Less known is that he also affirms an immanent conception of affective mimesis with the unconscious and mirroring power to turn the ego into what he calls a ‘phantom of the ego’ (his positive thesis). Nietzsche, then, overturns perspectives to provide immanent, materialist, and psychological foundations for a posthuman subject that is porous, relational, and embodied in its metamorphic transformations. This minor conception of mimesis qua homo mimeticus provides the relational principle that opens up the ego to external influences, be they human or nonhuman, thereby playing a key role in the ongoing processes of becoming posthuman.
- As we move into the twentieth century, in the wake of structuralism and poststructuralism in the 1960s and 1970s, Nietzschean thinkers promoted a destabilizing conception of mimesis that promotes difference rather than sameness, active rather than passive imitation. Jacques Derrida, for instance, reminds us that ‘it is impossible to pin mimesis down to a binary classification’. Why? Because mimesis, or mime, as he reads it, does not simply reproduce or copy a prior original. On the contrary, Derrida specifies that mimesis ‘imitates nothing, does not have to conform to any prior referent with the aim of achieving adequation or verisimilitude’. This deconstructive move had groundbreaking effects. It was instrumental in putting mimesis to re-productive philosophical, feminist, postcolonial and queer political use. In particular, the troubling mirror of mimesis revealed how the dominant (male, white, heterosexual) ‘original’ remains radically dependent on the (female, black, homosexual) ‘copy’. Mimicry, then, turns from a passive form of adaptation into an active strategy of empowerment that reveals how the copy precedes and even creates the original. Thus reframed, mimetic differences trouble, deconstruct, and unmask the original concept of Man understood as an ideal phantom, or fable.
- This poststructuralist decentring of man in the 1980s and 90s led to postmodern dissolutions of reality in the hyperreal sphere of media simulation. In an additional twist of the mimetic screw, postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard posited a ‘hyperreal’ world of ‘simulation’ that has nothing to do with the logic of the ‘mirror’, or ‘imitation’, for it ‘substitutes signs of the real for the real itself’. At the ontological level, this proclamation of the death of a traditional mimesis dividing the ‘true’ world from the ‘apparent’ world, reality from fiction, was of loose Nietzschean inspiration and foresees—or perhaps even inspired—a world of simulation without truth, or post-truth that casts a shadow on the digital age. But were true facts (say, a virus, an insurrection, or climate change) really dissolved? Or was this postmodern interpretation part of the history of an interpretative error? Genealogical lenses make clear that dreams of ideal afterworlds (be they in the form of Platonic ideas, Christian immortality, or Transhumanist immortality) are certainly unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable, even in uploaded 3D ‘Avatar simulations’ currently animating homo mimeticus 2.0. And yet, this does not mean that simulations deprived of ontological reality cannot serve as models to imitate in the material world – again for good and ill.
- In this spiralling loop between digital simulations and material facts, hyperreal fictions and material subjects, mimesis, or as I call it, hypermimesis, re-turns on the contemporary theoretical scene under the mask of posthuman mimesis. It is, in fact, clear that new developments in AI simulations are not disconnected from the logic of imitation, for a reason that is at least double: first, because machine learning programmes are increasingly effective in mimicking human language, for instance, so as to create the impression of human-like conversations (ChatGPT being the latest example); and second, algorithmic simulations online can be programmed to exploit the all too mimetic, posthuman tendency to believe what others believe (or confirmation bias) in view of triggering unconscious forms of imitation with material consequences offline (January 6, being perhaps not the latest, but a worrisome example). Hypermimesis considers the affective power of hyperreal simulacra that have nothing to do with reality (digital simulation, video games, avatars, but also conspiracy theories, Big Lies, deepfakes, cyberwars, etc.) but which yet have the power to retroact, via spiralling feedback loops, on the material, psychic and embodied lives of posthuman egos. Hypermimetic technologies of simulation are thus not only generative of digital phantoms online; posthuman subjects are also spell-bound to turn into physically inert and psychically dispossessed avatars, or phantoms, offline.
Due to deeply rooted mimetic dispositions constitutive of the genealogy of homo mimeticus now amplified by an increasingly thicker network of digital simulations entangling its 2.0 upgrade, we may be living digitally enhanced, immersive and increasingly realistic second lives online; yet we continue to remain radically dependent on increasingly inert mimetic bodies tied to the Earth. I call this spiraling loop in which a hyperreal simulation retroacts on the reality of mimetic bodies and minds hypermimesis. And I do so in order to call attention to the dynamic interplay of hyperreality and imitative behavior constitutive of the mimetic posthuman as well. In an age in which artificial intelligence is increasingly modelled on human intelligence this hypermimetic interplay cuts both ways: posthumans imitate technological models, yet technology also imitates human biology, most notably the brain. What is, in fact, ironic in this mirroring overturning of perspectives is that after the complexity of the brain was often reduced to a computer in the past century, it is now the all too human brain that serves as the model for computers to imitate in the present century. If reductionist approaches to the brain mistook the computer for a model to imitate, posthumanists should perhaps be careful not to simply invert the mirror and turn the brain into a model for technological reproductions.
As the genealogy of homo mimeticus I could just barely sketch here should at least have taught us, the relation between the model and the copy, the original and the simulation, has never been stable in the first place. Rather, it generates spiralling patho(-)logical feedback loops that are hypermimetic in their powers of metamorphosis and which are now massively at play in the protean avatars of posthuman mimesis.
– Leiden University, September 2023
 See N. Katherine Hayles and Nidesh Lawtoo, ‘Posthuman Mimesis II—Connections: A Dialogue between Nidesh Lawtoo and Katherine Hayles’ in Journal of Posthumanism, 2.2 (2022): 181-191.
 See Nidesh Lawtoo, Homo Mimeticus: A New Theory of Imitation (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2022) and Homo Mimeticus 2.0: Posthuman Mimesis in Art, Philosophy and Technics, ed. Nidesh Lawtoo (Amsterdam and New York: Brill, 2024).
 Plato, Republic in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, trans. Paul Shorey, eds. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1963), 575–853, 827, 602c.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufman (New York: Viking Press, 1982), 463-563, 485.
 See Nidesh Lawtoo, The Phantom of the Ego: Modernism and the Mimetic Unconscious (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013).
 Jacques Derrida, ‘The Double Session’ in Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 173-286, 186.
 Derrida, ‘Double Session’, 205.
 Jean Baudrillard, Simulacres et Simulation (Paris: Galilée, 1981), 11 (my trans.).
 Lee McIntire, Post-Truth (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018), 123-150.
 Nidesh Lawtoo, ‘Avatar Simulation in 3Ts: Techne, Trance, Transformation’, Science Fiction Studies 125. 42. (2015): 132-150.
 See Catherine Malabou, Morphing Intelligence: from IQ Measurement to Artificial Brains trans. Carolyn Shread (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021).