20. September 2022

Dr. Daniel Villegas Vélez Guest Lecture

Dr. Daniel Villegas Vélez (Montreal) will give a talk entitled "Protean Natures and Enlightenment Mimetologies: Naturalism and Analogism in the Rousseau-Rameau Debate"

There was a moment, towards the middle of the eighteenth century, when everybody knew—or thought they knew—what Aristotle meant when he stated that art imitates nature, ars imitatur naturam. Not only did they think they knew what this meant, but they thought it was true, as they iterated the phrase which, torn from its context in Aristotle’s discussion of teleology, is mediated by Aquinas’ commentary on the Physics and countless variations in early modern sources. Yet, as Diderot remarked about Charles Batteux’s Les Beaux arts réduits à un même principe (1746), even if writers agreed that “art imitates nature,” there was little agreement about what “nature” itself was or should be as an object of imitation. In this paper, I examine how eighteenth-century interpretations of mimesis—or mimetologies—contributed to the construction of the modern idea of nature as a source of scientific certainty, moral grounding, and aesthetic value. I focus on the debate between Rameau and Rousseau in the context of the querelle des bouffons to show that, beyond their individual aesthetic preferences (Italian music vs. French; melody vs. harmony, etc.) what ultimately distanced the two writers was a different understanding of mimesis and consequently a different ontological understanding of nature itself. Whereas Rousseau emphasized the role of cultural differences in constituting aesthetically salient values, Rameau considered nature itself to be harmonically structured according to musical proportions. In other words (Philippe Descola’s, to be precise), Rousseau espoused a naturalist ontology where a stable nature underpins a variable culture, while Rameau defended a particular form of analogism in which cultural uniformity shapes natural variation. Attending to the role of mimesis in musical aesthetics, I conclude, can help us understand the colonial legacies of Enlightenment notions of nature and culture.