Cassis Kilian

"If I were a horse: mimesis as a means to overcome anthropocentrism"

As an actress, I learned to embody animals. This learning across species boundaries resulted in a hypnotic state. I will consider it in the light of findings from neuroscience and argue that it is worth looking at my experience with regard to Ingold’s plea for anthropology beyond humanity.

Mimesis is a travelling concept that has made a career in arts, humanities and sciences. Biologists have distinguished mimesis from mimicry to describe protective or aggressive mimetic phenomena in flora and fauna. Homi Bhabha borrowed the term "mimicry" from biology to analyse human behaviour during colonialism. Today, mimetic experiences with animals are not the centre of academic interest; anthropologists mostly consider them a “strange” cultural practice. Currently they are studying mainly mimetic phenomena in the context of globalisation and often look at mimesis through the lens of highly abstract concepts. However, findings from neuroscience prove that mimetic behaviour frequently bypasses the so-called “higher cognitive functions” of the human brain. Acting teachers value the study with animals because they help actors to avoid self-reflection and premeditation, which hinder them from following mimetic impulses. From an academic perspective, such an attempt may appear an anthropomorphical phantasy. Most anthropologists might object that we perceive animals through the lens of symbolic connotations specific to our culture, but acting teachers consider embodying animals a purposeful and actual unlearning of cultural patterns that stifle actors.

I will argue that embodying an animal can provoke inspirations, which undermine the assumption that humans are superior and fundamentally different from non-humans.


Cassis Kilian ist Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin am Institut für Ethnologie und Afrikastudien (ifeas) der Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz. Ihr Promotionsprojekt „Schwarz besetzt: Postkoloniale Planspiele im afrikanischen Film“ wurde durch ein Stipendium des Forschungszentrums Sozial- und Kulturwissenschaften Mainz (SoCuM) gefördert. Ihre Doktorarbeit wurde 2011 mit dem Preis der Sulzmann-Stiftung für eine herausragende Doktorarbeit ausgezeichnet. Kilian arbeitete vor diesem Projekt als Schauspielerin und erforscht heute mit Schauspielern aus Afrika und Europa, wie sich Vorgehensweisen der darstellenden Kunst für die ethnologische Forschung fruchtbar machen lassen. Außer der Publikation ihrer Doktorarbeit hat sie verschiedene Artikel und Aufsätze zum afrikanischen Film, zu Cosmopolitanism, Verkörperung und sinnlicher Wahrnehmung verfasst.

Cassis Kilian is a lecturer (Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin) at the Department of Anthropology and African Studies (IfEAS). Her research on the project “Post-colonial Experiments: The Appropriation of ‘White Roles’ in African Film“ was granted with a scholarship for doctoral candidates from the Research Center of Social and Cultural Studies Mainz (SoCuM). She was awarded a PhD with distinction (Preis der Sulzmann-Stiftung für eine herausragende Doktorarbeit) from Mainz University in 2011. Prior to her research, she worked as an actress. Together with actors from Africa and Europe, she is currently exploring affinities of anthropology and performing art and artistic approaches to topics that are difficult to access for scholars. She has authored a book, diverse journal articles and book chapters on African film, cosmopolitanism, embodiment and sensory perception.