On Cave Art, Architecture and Mimesis

Sharing is good and fun, and above all, rhizomatic. Thus, I’m sharing here excerpt of my panel presentation at the Paul Ricoeur Conference in Asia (2015). Full text can be found at https://www.academia.edu/16367802/Refiguration_of_Cave_Architectural_Consciousness_in_Ricoeurs_Mimetic_Trinity


In Memory, History and Forgetting (2004), Ricoeur talks about the concept of ‘spatial analogue’ through which he advanced a kind of hermeneutic transition “from the constructed space of architecture to the inhabited land of geography” (151). At no other time this Ricoeurian detour into “the land of geography” is at its most compelling. While’s Plato’s injunction to young philosophers to climb back to the cave after a period of emancipating from darkness would have qualified as the most representative declaration of the inevitability of cave life despite our modern pretenses, Ricoeur’s detour into geography quite surpasses the critical import of the Platonic injunction. The key is Ricoeur’s invocation of geography now challenged by all sorts of natural and man-made provocations of disaster, calamity, and catastrophe, not to mention the looming possibility of dystopia. The political metaphysics that inspired the Platonic call to return to the cave is now greatly superseded by geophilosophy in which Ricoeur lends an important voice.


It is interesting to note here that in Jose Saramago’s novel The Cave, Plato’s Cave oddly came to life, in fact, excavated beneath a high-rise condominium in Portugal. Authorities were for quite long concealing what was beneath:


[At] the bottom, there are six human corpses, tied by their legs and necks to a stone bench so that they are facing a wall. The bodies are still distinguishable as three men and three women but their eyes have completely rotted away. (Laird 2003:3).


The building tenants who discovered the excavation on their own no sooner decided to leave the place. Their reason – they felt that the rediscovery of the Platonic Cave “was somehow a call from the future” (3). And when they were leaving the place, they recalled a sign on the front façade of the building which says and with which the novel ends: “Coming soon: the opening to the public of Plato’s Cave, exclusive attraction, unique in the world, buy your entrance ticket now” (3).

By all indications, this is a prequel to what could be the event of dystopia: Plato’s Cave exhumed, by all means, a dead fiction, resurrected by the same force that buried it, namely, modernity, in the midst of the rapid urbanization of the planet that is now revealing signs of ecological collapse.

If we are looking for an alternative to the mostly capital induced crisis of our time, Ricoeur’s spatial analogue, his geophilosophy, can radicalize a critical return to ecological awareness, a return to aesthetic contemplation if not a detour from the main roads and arteries of anthropocentrism to the side roads and capillaries of the unclassifiable, the antidote to reason, the autism of cave consciousness – a return to immanent life.  And while the possibility that the sun will run out of nuclear energy to sustain our planet is still millions of years away, Gabriel Tarde’s dystopian fiction of humanity living in underground caves in the aftermath of solar death resonates in our time as we are practically heating up the whole planet, without much outside help,  through our carbon emissions. At least in Tarde’s Underground Man, the caves reassert their importance in geophilosophy which continues a line of positive appreciation of the place of the caves in human life, beginning with Joseph Michael Gandy’s 18th century vision of modern architecture based on the structural tenacity of the Fingal Cave, though certainly not the first to make a claim about the architectural significance of cave life.

In discussing the importance of the notion of place in relation to architecture, Ricoeur quotes Edward Casey quite often, and here, to radicalize its connectivity, we want to make room for a more liberal use of Casey in relation to our appropriation of Ricoeur’s concept of threefold mimesis. Ricoeur quotes Casey in Memory, History, Forgetting:

If imagination projects us out beyond ourselves while memory takes us back behind ourselves, place subtends and enfolds us, lying perpetually under and around us (in Casey 1993: xviii; Ricoeur 2004: 526-527).

To us this place is no other than the cave in relation to its geological importance today. The place such as the cave may have already been displaced by rapid urbanization as a kind of imagination peculiar to modernity, a calculative type called financial long-term gain, making us oblivious of the past of modernity – namely, its autism. In place of that place, modern built environments imitate the tenacity of the cave sans its autism, sans its play, sans its aesthetic contemplation, in favor of the rational organization of human settlement, the corporatization of social organization that penetrates into everyday life. No doubt Plato’s cave was excavated beneath a modern built environment, a real estate property that imitates the known strength of the cave, if only to expose how the cave is configured to advance the interest of artless and yet definable Western-style calculative thinking, certainly the anti-autistic science of profit-making, capitalism, or what have you.

I would like to conclude here with the third act of mimesis in Ricoeur’s mimetic trinity[i]  by making an example out of the tenants in Saramago’s novel who decided to leave their high-rise condominium upon discovering Plato’s cave. Following the act of inhabiting and then construction (construction would be the equivalent of their collective act of arranging the interior of their shared space, although not much to arrange in a condominium flat these days), the tenants’ decision to leave the place is accentuated by the hermeneutic act of reading. This is a decisive reading of the sign they saw on the front gate in which Plato’s Cave is turned into an attraction. This is to say that the whole place has turned into a veritable haven of capital. That is the third act of reading, more broadly considered, broader than its connotation in the order of narrative, as a refiguration of their individual lives under the spell of modernity that imitates the cave sans its autism and its play, its art-making, its bastard mode of building, dwelling, thinking.[ii] The tenants felt a call from the future in which all acts of mimesis – inhabiting, construction and reading – become a single collective decision, that is, to abandon capital, an exit from dystopia. That call is the call of the cave, the real cave, or as Casey notes which Ricoeur transposes onto the plane of mimesis, that which “subtends and enfolds,” that is to say, the real place – that which calls us from down “under” or what is evidently all “around us” (Casey 1993: xviii; Ricoeur 2004: 526-527).

This in the sense that that we all know and we all feel what’s coming. Or, do we?



[i] Rene Girard speaks of mimetic desire comparable to Ricoeur’s theory of mimesis. Girard’s concept of triangular desire, anchored on mimesis, follows a threefold structuration: “self, other as mediator … and the object that the self or subject desires because he or she knows, imagines, or suspects the mediator desires it” (Williams in Girard 2000:31). The reader can immediately notice here that the paper’s appropriation of mimesis is rather reflective of Girard’s than Ricoeur’s, especially in light of our focus on the object, after the use of the image is probably exhausted or undergoes a process of transference. But, as one scholar notes concerning Girard’s limitation in his theory of mimetic desire, at least in his early conception of it in which he “did not emphasize […] the reality of mimesis as a capacity and force which operates prior to cognition and representation” (31), we emphasize instead its role in preattentive or preconscious aspect of art-making, this time drawing on Ricoeur’s phenomenologically inspired concept of mimesis in relation to the hermeneutic theory of architecture.

[ii] Partial reference to Heidegger’s work “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” is intended. See Heidegger 2001:141-159.


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