Reason, Mimesis, and Self-Preservation in Adorno

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In this paper I argue that Adorno’s narrative of mimesis’s development is
best understood as not produced by a simple opposition between mimesis and reason, but rather a tri-partite conflict between mimesis, self-preservation, and reason. I develop this account with special reference to Roger Caillois, whose identification of mimesis with an organic drive toward passivity orthogonal to self-preservation had great influence on Adorno’s own conception of mimesis. I show that Adorno sees mimesis as, at the outset, a raw impulse toward inaction and dissolution, which shares much in common with Freud’s death drive (a connection Adorno himself notes). Drawing on this, I argue that Adorno’s narrative of the development of mimetic behavior (in relation to magic, reason, and the artwork) is not driven solely by tendencies intrinsic to mimesis. Rather, it is the intensifying conflict between mimesis and the controlling and ordering principle of self-preservation that drives the formation of increasingly spiritualized forms of abstraction. This gives us cause to revise our understanding of Adorno’s account of magical praxis and rationality,
and the relationship between them. Finally, this allows me to recast Adorno’s claim that the artwork becomes a “refuge” for mimesis. I argue that this should not be understood, as it often is, in terms of a flat antagonism between mimesis and reason. Rather, the artwork becomes a refuge for mimesis as a consequence of self-preservation’s socio-epistemic intolerance of mimetic forms of behavior in virtually all realms of society save for a privileged few exceptions, art being the most notable of these
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)135-151
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of the History of Philosophy
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2016


  • Adorno
  • Caillois
  • Mimesis
  • Self-preservation

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