Mimesis and digital narratives (or, Ricoeur and my digital projects)

Part of my structured PhD involves taking classes for credit. This year I took a short module on narrative theory (there was some debate about what constituted a narrative). I wanted to explore Paul Ricoeur’s ideas of mimesis (mimesis1, mimesis2 and mimesis3) from Time and Narrative, to see how this might impact on the way that I explore/construct/analyse as I am building digital narratives.

Mimesis – Representation – Imitation – Transformation (Shift)

“…the break that opens the space for fiction” (Ricoeur 1984, 45).

Ricoeur separated mimesis into three parts (based primarily on his reading of Aristotle’s Poetics but also drawing on Rhetoric), mimesis1, mimesis2 and mimesis3. His discussion of each is extensive – I describe it (and reduce it) here to:

  • mimesis1 – pre-understanding (including cultural context, symbolism and genre – pre-existing knowledge that allows us to create, and also read and understand, a text or a work of art)
  • mimesis2 – the pivot (the creation, configuring activity)
  • mimesis3 – activity of consumption (as a reader of a text).

Mimesis1 (pre-understanding) – Ricoeur notes that this pre-understanding belongs to both writer and reader/audience. An example is symbolism, or meaning in a public sphere; it is decipherable, it can be understood by others (Ricoeur 1984, 57).

 “If, in fact, human action can be narrated it is because it is always already articulated by signs, rules and norms. It is already symbolically mediated.” (Ricoeur 1984, 57).

Mimesis2 (configuring activity) – The pivot between mimesis1 and mimesis3, with a mediating function between what precedes “fiction” (for which I read a created piece of text or illustration, from the imagination) and what follows it (Ricoeur 1984, 64). It is this type of mimesis that Ricoeur links to emplotment and to time: plot has a mediating function between individual events and the story as a whole because:

“it draws a meaningful story from a diversity of events or incidents”, it mediates “between events and a narrated story” and it draws “a configuration out of a simple succession” (Ricoeur 1984, 65).

Mimesis3 (consumption) – This is about the relationship between text and audience (reader/hearer). Ricoeur calls it the “…intersection, therefore, of the world configured by the poem and the world wherein real action occurs and unfolds in specific temporality” (Ricoeur 1984, 70).

Constructing digital narratives – research in progress/practice

I am in the process of creating various map-based digital projects that are associated with embedded audio files, oral histories about places and place attachment. Applying theories of mimesis1, mimesis2 and mimesis3, I could interpret mimesis1 as the pre-understanding that we have of this type of digital project, and how they are read (what is expected of them), mimesis2 as the creation of the project (the iterative and collective process that is ongoing) and mimesis3 as the experience of the audience for the project. Ricoeur was writing about texts, and digital narratives are very different – it’s worth exploring some of the differences.

Mimesis1 is the expectations and pre-understandings of the audience and the creators of the digital project. Paying attention to this (the things that users/readers expect when they use the internet) is important: usability expert, Jakob Nielsen, lists “Violating design conventions” as one of the most frequent mistakes that are made in web design (consistency is a powerful usability principle, since users form expectations of the digital project based on what is commonly done on other sites) (Nielsen 2011). While Ricoeur might see the process of testing the boundaries of convention as positive in text, it isn’t generally recommended on the web.

[Despite this, it happens of course, if it didn’t interface design would not evolve….and yet it does, and so quickly. Interface design has been studied by the INKE project, for example see this post.]

In digital projects, mimesis2, the process of creation is usually collaborative and collective. And, when, as recommended (see post about Claire Warwick’s work on users studies), this includes user studies, the creative process (mimesis2) occurs in conversation with mimesis3, the audience reaction/reading of the project. The effect of iterative stages of creation, with audience responses (mimesis3) feeding into creation (mimesis2) is not dealt with in Ricoeur’s analysis of the stages of mimesis. Yet even for the sole-authored text written in isolation it is likely that the author gets opinions from others (friends, editors) before the completed version of the text is finalised.


Nielsen, J. (2011). Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design. (Web article. Available at: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/top-10-mistakes-web-design/, accessed 27 January 2015).

Ricoeur, P. (1984). Time and Narrative. University of Chicago Press.