‘Mimesis’ is part of a group of terms with ‘simulation‘ and others (like the nous poietikos) which are used in complex ways by McLuhan, both in regard to the individual terms themselves and to their relations with each other. Note 11 below gives some attention to this complexity, but it will need further posts in the future to do justice to the topic — which lies at the heart of McLuhan’s project.

Survey of Joyce Criticism, 1951
Heinrich Straumann recalls a conversation with Joyce during which he asked whether a knowledge of the local conditions in Dublin would make the reading of Finnegans Wake any easier. Joyce replied firmly In the negative. “One should not pay any particular attention to the allusions to place-names, historical events, literary happenings, and personalities, but let the linguistic phenomenon affect one as such.” Here is Joyce’s confidence in the mimetic powers of language itself to communicate before and beyond ordinary understanding.

Poetry and Opinion (review), 1951
Pound’s (…) prose (…) is, in its mimesis of the drama of intellectual maneuver, unmatched since Bacon and Jonson. The basis of Pound’s prose as of his verse is the immediency of its grip of the object.

Maritain on Art, 1953
G.R. Levy [in] The Gate of Horn views Plato and Aristotle as having been consciously engaged in doing just what Maritain is tackling: “Plato’s theory of Ideas constitutes a gigantic effort to establish the mystic doctrine upon an intellectual basis. The relation of created things to the ‘pattern laid up in heaven’ is, as we saw, that methexis, or participation, which Aristotle equated with mimesis, the ‘imitation‘ by which the living world was built upon the Pythagorean numbers.”1

Media Fit the Battle of Jericho, 1956
Writing was the break-through from sound to sight. But with the end of the acoustic wall came chronology, tick-tock time, architecture. Writing, the enclosure of speech and sound space, split off song and dance and music from speech. It split off harmonia from mimesis
Writing permitted the visual analysis of the dynamic logos that produced philology, logic, rhetoric, geometry, etc.

Technology, the Media, and Culture, 1960
he growth of the Euclidean fictions in the patterns of human sensibility were as upsetting then as the return of nuclear non-Euclidean modalities of experience today. Gombrich, writing [in Art and Illusion] of the rise of pictorial space and illusion in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., says: “The very violence with which Plato denounces this trickery reminds us of the momentous fact that at the time he wrote, mimesis was a recent invention.“ (…) The multiple levels and modes of sound and tactility are favored in cave art above the visual. So it is with speech itself. But the reduction of speech to sight by the phonetic technology gave the eye an ascendancy over the other senses which is anything but natural to man. l am not making a value judgment. The natural may not be desirable at all. But the ascendancy of eye over the other senses gave us the miracle of mimesis, of foreshortening, and, eventually of perspective and vanishing point, which we have accepted as natural and rational for centuries. Such assumptions do not coincide with those of the electric media.

Understanding Media, 19642
Eliot and Pound used the typewriter for a great variety of central effects in their poems. And with them, too, the typewriter was an oral and mimetic instrument that gave them the colloquial freedom of the world of jazz and ragtime.

Understanding Media, 19643
Joyce puts these matters not so much in cryptic, as in dramatic and mimetic, form. The reader has only to take any of his phrases such as this one, and mime it until it yields the intelligible. Not a long or tedious process, if approached in the spirit of artistic playfulness that guarantees “lots of fun at Finnegan’s wake.”

The Emperor’s Old Clothes 1966
In his Poetics (Chapter IV, 1448b), Aristotle reminded us that mimesis is the process by which all men learn. He alluded to the process of making by which our perceptions simulate within us the environment that we encounter outside ourselves.  It is this learning and making process that, by electric circuitry, is being extended beyond our central nervous system.4

McLuhan to Donald Theall, Aug 6 1970
The sensory completion, or the actual experience of anything never corresponds to the event or input, i.e. there is no matching, but only making in human experience. This relates, of course, to Aristotle’s poiesis and mimesis, and his phrase: “It is the process by which all men learn.”

From Cliché to Archetype, 19705
The main Cinderella plot of My Fair Lady (…) is a retrieval of the nineteenth­ century world of mechanical industry that had mass-produced a large new upper middle class, The industrial technique of precise repetition gets new force from the musical rhythms, which also increase the irony of dehumanization by which both mechanized speech and mechanized production are attained. This class had been provided with a special uniform speech by the new public schools. It was a speech that unconsciously mimed the machine itself (as T.S. Eliot wittily observed when his Madame Sosostris speaks to her client: “Tell dear Mrs. Equitone … “). To speak with the mechanical precision of a machine has been an aspect of the comic mask worn by the corporate English upper class for some decades. To acquire this manner is not only easy but devastating. One puts on vocally the technology of the age, much as Chaplin did in his way, as if in revenge and reversal. First American jazz and now the English Beatles have me­chanically extended the speech modes of the lower middle classes with image-acceptance. For such mimetic enlargements of ordinary experience are as enticing and flattering clichés as the movie or the motor car. The mime of mechanization is then the subplot in My Fair Lady.

From Cliché to Archetype, 19706
Mimesis or Making Sense — The entire world of technology makes sense by miming the human body and faculties. Most studies of mimesis (…) proceed on the assumption of matching inner and outer. Notable exceptions are found in E.H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion and Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato. The technique of continuous parallel that Eliot indicates as the essential myth-making form of mimesis in his classic essay “Ulysses, Order and Myth” simply tosses aside the idea of matching in favor of interface and metamorphosis.

From Cliché to Archetype, 19707
Aristotelian mimesis confirms the James Joyce approach, since it is a kind of recap of natural processes, whether of making sense via cognition or of making a house by following the lines of Nature. For example, in the Physics, Book II, Chapter VIII, Aris­totle writes; “Thus, if a house had been a thing made by Nature it would have been made in the same way as it is now by art; and if things made by Nature were made also by art, they would come to be in the same way as by Nature.” Aristotle thus confirms the sacral quality of the cliché or artifact by aligning it with the cosmic forces, just as biologists say ontogeny recaps phylogeny.

Take Today, 1972
The artist by retracing the processes of cognition (
mimesis) bridges the world of sense and the world of awareness.8

Monday Night Seminar, January 22, 19739
Mimicking is an act of making but notice it’s in another medium. You replay something that took place in one medium and you put it in another medium. It’s translated into another material. That is the nature of mimesis. Poetic mimesis means snatching one mode of experience and putting it into another mode, namely language or pigment. It’s translation, it’s metaphor.

The Medieval Environment, 1974
Havelock contrasted the corporate mimesis involved in the performance of the Greek epics and drama with the individualist analysis that came with the innovation of the phonetic alphabet.

Laws of Media, posthumous10
The effect of phonetic literacy on the Greek psyche and culture was catastrophic. Mimesis gave way to individualized detachment, and the integral resonating oral logos was broken into multiple fragments, each bearing some one or another of its original properties.11

  1. This passage from Levy is also cited in ‘Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication’ from that same year of 1953.
  2. Page 262.
  3. Page 302.
  4. Compare ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’, 1951: “In the Poetics (Chap. 4) Aristotle mentions imitation as connate to man, being the process by which men learn.” McLuhan often quoted Aritotle to this effect — see the next citation. He did so again, 30 years after the 1951 essay, in the conclusion to Take Today (296).
  5. Page 144-145.
  6. Page 147.
  7. Page 147.
  8. “The world of sense” here does not mean ‘the world of material objects’. See McLuhan’s 1970 letter to Don Theall above: The sensory completion, or the actual experience of anything never corresponds to the event or input“.
  9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVBc7v5vjUI
  10. Laws of Media treats mimesis more extensively than any other McLuhan text. These LoM passages will be assembled in a separate post.
  11. Page 123-124. Mimesis is here (and in the preceding citation) seen as what was lost along with oral culture in Greece, whereas it is elsewhere said to have been what was gained with that loss. Compare the present passage (“mimesis gave way to individualized detachment, and the integral resonating oral logos was broken into multiple fragments”) with, for example, passages from Technology, the Media, and Culture, 1960, above: “mimesis was a recent invention“, “the ascendancy of eye over the other senses gave us the miracle of mimesis”. This sort of striking ambiguity is not infrequent with McLuhan, but it does not amount to outright contradiction (as is often alleged). Instead, he is using ‘mimesis’ in different senses. Laws of Media notes something of this complexity as follows: “there has been great confusion for many centuries over certain matters crucial to an understanding of acoustic space, for example, the natures of logos, of mimesis, and of formal causality. This confusion flows directly from the fact that all commentary and research, from Aristotle onwards, was conducted by persons, to one or another degree visually biased, who assumed visual space to be the common-sense norm. As a result, there are at least two forms or rather versions of mimesis and of logos and of formal cause. One of each has an oral structure, and the other a visual — with the former conventionally regarded as a confused or tentative attempt to explain the latter.” (4)