Where do man’s desires come from?
Apart from the basic desire to survive (food, shelter, rest), what motivates people? Where did the desire for status, fame, honor, legacy, pride, vanity come from?
One thinker who conceived of a simple yet brilliant answer to this question was Rene Girard, a literary theorist who spent decades looking for a unifying theory in literature (to understand what truly motivated people).
Instead of focusing on what makes literary works stand apart, which is what literary theorists usually do, Girard wanted to find what they all have in common, because it is only the great writers that succeed in representing the mechanisms of human behavior faithfully, without distortion. The greater the writer, the less variable are the human systems of relationships, and the more truthful they are.
It is the feeling for the general in the potential writer, which selects material suitable to a work of art because of its generality. He only pays attention to others, however dull and tiresome, because in repeating what their kind say like parrots, they are for that very reason prophetic birds, spokesmen of a psychological law.”Proust, A Remembrance of Things Past
Mimetic Theory not only seeks to explain why human beings are motivated to do things other than survive, but why conflict arises in the first place, why scapegoating is a universal phenomenon and why there is a tendency for people who are closer together to fight more frequently.
Girard says that we borrow our desires from other people. We are not autonomous beings that select for ourselves our own authentic goals. Our desire for an object (prestige, popularity) is provoked by the desire of a model (someone we aspire to be like) for this object. The subject does not directly desire the object, he desires the desire of the model.
There is an indirect triangular relationship between the subject, object, and the model.
Through the object, one is drawn to the model, whom Girard calls the mediator: it is in fact the model who is sought. Girard calls desire “metaphysical” in the measure that, as soon as a desire is something more than a simple need or appetite, “all desire is a desire to be”, it is an aspiration, the dream of a fullness attributed to the mediator.Wikipedia
Mimesis can either be positive or negative. You can either emulate model’s positive desires or negative desires.
If the model is a successful politician, you will emulate his desires, which is the recognition of his peers, fame or vanity. These are negative traits. Positive traits to be emulated can be diligence, self-sacrifice, and honor.
It is up to the subject to decide which traits are worth emulating. We speculate, and for good reason, that the less conscious the emulation, the less deliberate the process of carefully choosing to desire superior traits.
Competing Theories for Innate Desire
In one lecture, Girard explains his theory by contrasting it with the theories of three major thinkers in the 20th century; they include Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. Freud said that man is driven by sexual desires (Eros) and the death instinct (Thanatos), and that he represses them. This is necessary for the functioning of civilization. Man must overcome this tendency by learning how to keep his instincts under control – to avoid the conflicts that result from this desire. The damaging effect of this repression is neurosis.
Marx said that man’s essential desire is economic, and the way to avoid conflict from the scarcity of wealth is to distribute it equally across the population. Nietzsche wrote that it is in fact power that drives man. And the solution is not to rationalize away his need for power, but to embrace it – to strive to become a ‘superman’ (ubermensch).
Girard can sympathize (although he does not agree) with Freud and Marx, since after they have diagnosed man’s primary psychological drive, they opt for a solution, a way out of the dilemma so that peace is maintained. But Girard cannot sympathize with Nietzsche since the latter does not call for us to keep our desire for power in check, but to pursue it fully, at all costs.
One comparison should be made, and it is with Hegel. In The End of History and The Last Man, Fukuyama does a great job at explaining the Hegelian idea of the first man.
To some extent, Girard and Hegel are in agreement that the source of human desires is the other. That is, the human being, a hyper-social creature, when he chooses to go beyond naturalistic desires such as food and shelter, must look to his fellow man as a source for his own desires.
For Girard, the other person is the source of desire because the subject desires what the other (model) desires. But for Hegel, this is a secondary consequence of something much more important. Man is really driven by recognition. And unlike Marx, who says that human motivation is a question of difference between the social classes, Hegel conceives of a man, similar to the man in “a state of nature” of Hobbes and Rousseau. Hegel’s first man engaged in warfare with his fellow man.
This initial state of nature of all-against-all is a point that Girard, Hobbes, Rousseau, and Hegel are in agreement about. But for Hegel and Girard, the idea of a social contract is rejected. And for Hegel, the first man was motivated by the need to be recognized by his adversary, and this can only be done by risking his own life (this proves that that the first man was capable of overcoming the biological prerogative to survive at all costs).
And it is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained; only thus is it tried and proved that the essential nature of self-consciousness is not bare existence, is not the merely immediate form in which it at first makes its appearance… The individual, who has not staked his life, may, no doubt, be recognized as a person; but he has not attained the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness.-G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind
What happens when man determines that he should risk his life is of crucial importance. So, imagine what would happen when man finds himself in conflict with another man before the emergence of social order. There are but three scenarios that can unfold. But before I discuss these, there are some ideas I need to expand on.
Keep in mind that Hegel presupposed that man, in addition to his animalistic desires, is born with the human desire to be recognized by the other. For that to be possible, man must prove that is capable of subverting his animal instincts for higher goals. Only then can he prove that he has free will.
We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is: ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’
Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get MAD! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. (shouting) You’ve got to say: ‘I’m a human being, god-dammit! My life has value!’
So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell: ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!’Howard Beale, Network
An animal cannot rage about injustice, or about a world it perceives as crazy. An animal cannot choose to do anything about its condition, or act despite its fear – it is a hostage to its instincts.
A human being is free. Man can assert his desire, despite his fear.
But Hobbes had a much more basic definition of free will. He thought that free will was not about having the ability to counter your instincts, but simply about obstruction. A rock rolling down the hill without anything blocking its path is free. And a bear feeding in the woods is also free if nothing gets in its way. But the rock and the bear are wholly determined by natural forces they have no control over.
The rock’s freedom, in the Hobbesian sense, can only be determined by whether it is obstructed by anything else, but the rock does not decide the force of gravity or the slope of the hill, and the bear has no control over its instinct to eat. The rock and the bear are products of natural forces. What about man? Man is free as long as nothing stands in his way.
But this definition does not take into account automatic behavior – when man behaves out of instinct rather than conscious will.
In contrast, Hegel argues that man is different precisely because he can choose to go against his natural conditioning. Hegel does concede that many of man’s behaviors are biologically determined, but there are at least some behaviors that go against biological conditioning. A man can choose to go on a hunger protest, to be celibate, and to commit suicide. Thus, man is free.
It is possible to argue that on a purely scientific basis, we have no choice but to reduce all human behavior to underlying natural forces that have nothing to do with free will. It can be the case that man’s ability to defy his own nature is itself a natural part of evolution that endows man with exceptional survival advantages. Snobbery, prestige, honor can all be reduced to sexually selective forces, for example. This would be The Red Queen’s argument. Nowhere is there room for free will. Even the behaviors that are apparently destructive are, in the end, serving a biological function, that can often and does often, conflict with other biological imperatives such as self-preservation. And these can be observed in the animal kingdom as well as in human society.
Returning to Hobbes, he explains the logic of violence in The Leviathan by using fewer than a hundred words.
So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory. The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men’s persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan
Hobbes thought that competition was an unavoidable consequence of agents’ pursuing their interests. He also thought that we lacked freedom. Given that we lack freedom, and since we must compete if we are to further our interests, perpetual conflict is inevitable.
“The condition of man… is a condition of war of everyone against everyone”Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan
In light of what we know about evolution, aside from sexual selection, there is also the urge to survive. People will compete because they carry DNA that are designed to replicate. In order to increase the chances of replication, it must survive. In order for DNA to survive, the holders of genetic code must compete in society for scarce resources like food, water, and desirable territory so that it can outproduce its competition. This means that the world of humans is really the world of survival machines that are best adapted for such competition.
The problem with the Hobbesian and evolutionary account, is that it leaves no room for human agency. Indeed, Kant anticipated that the natural sciences would pose a great threat to human freedom, and he tackles this question in depth in The Critique of Pure Reason.
Hegel’s First Man
But to move on from this point, we should only assume that Hegel’s definition of freedom is as described: man’s ability to act against his own instincts. If he is right, then the Hobbesian and evolutionary narrative face a problem.
According to Hegel, there are three scenarios that can unfold in a state of nature, when man is in a war against man, and they are as follows: (1)They can both die, (2) one of them can die, or (3) one of them surrenders.
If they both die, then there is nothing to talk about. If one of them dies, then the survivor will be disappointed because he has gotten rid of the conscious being that would have recognized him as man. If the third scenario unfolds, and one of the men surrender, then the man who was willing to risk his life, who proved his freedom as a human being, becomes master. And the man that surrendered becomes slave. Thus, a relationship develops between the two based on bondage and slavery. And here, the “free” man who proved that he could go against his instinct of self-preservation is exalted.
This recognition by the other’s superiority, of being truly human, truly free, is what drives human beings.
The desire for recognition has two components. The first is basically Mimetic Theory: I desire what the other desires.
The second component is about the recognition of one’s own humanity. Because I defy death and fear and hunger (biological imperatives), you are forced to recognize me.
We now come to the conclusion of Hegel’s thought about the first man. Like Hobbes and Girard, he sees in human nature itself the cause of violence.
Man is a social animal, directed by others, but his sociability does not lead him into a peaceful civil society, but into a violent struggle to the death for pure prestige. For Girard, prestige is just a by-product of mimesis. What is missing in Girard is an explanation for why prestige is a meme that is desired in the first place. But Girard would simply say that the memes themselves are irrelevant, all that matters is the mimetic mechanism.
Hegel’s account adds an additional layer. Not only are humans mimetic, they are innately prestige-seeking. The reason why prestige is important is that human beings were born with the desire to be recognized by the other. But why were humans born with this instinct?
Hegel’s task is to show why human beings are born with the instinct to be recognized, whereas for Girard, it is easy to avoid this problem, since human beings are only born with the instinct to imitate (an animal instinct, but one that is taken to an extreme with human beings).
The Origin of Culture
A great overview of some of these ideas is Girard’s Mimetic Theory, by Wolfgang Palaver. In a systematic, careful synthesis of Girard’s thought, Palaver summarizes the mimetic insights that were derived from authors such as Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Flaubert, and Proust. And finally, he shows the precise stories of the Old and New Testament that confirm Girard’s thesis. What is Girard’s thesis?
Man is fundamentally mimetic; he imitates the desires of others (models). If the models are internal (within his social sphere), he may reach a point of conflict with his model because they are both competing for the same desire. If the model is external (outside his social sphere), then there will be no conflict since there will be no rivalry. Because man is more mimetic than any other animal, he has the capacity to imitate abstractly. But the ability for abstract imitation was only earned after the discovery of the first instance of language, the first symbol.
Mimesis > Scapegoating > The First Sacred Symbol > Language > Ritual -> Religion -> Culture
Like Freud, Girard agrees that the beginning of culture occurred because of a primordial murder. Freud thought that this murder was patricidal (hence the Oedipal Complex). Girard did not think that was necessarily true. Instead, Girard tells us that in the beginning, before society and language developed, when man found himself competing for resources with other men, in a state of all-against-all, a chance development occurred.
Man was able to, for a moment, to see beyond the physical reality that he was part of, he was able to think abstractly. This occurred precisely when, by accident, the conflict of all-against-all turned to a conflict between
all-against-one. The first scapegoat, according to Girard, was the birthplace of language and consequently, society. The survivors of the conflict realized that when the scapegoat was murdered, there was momentary peace in the community.
When this phenomenon was repeated across time, it became embedded as
an abstract symbol. And because it was a symbol that represented a momentary break from conflict, it became sacred. This first symbol was the cause of man’s cognitive development, and eventually, because man became capable of abstraction, language was possible, and this led to the creation of society.
That is a very rough sketch of Mimetic Theory as it pertains to the origin of society. But the other part of Mimetic Theory is what happens after the founding of society. And according to Girard, the social mechanism that led to momentary peace, the scapegoat, was in fact, based on a lie. It was based on the presumed guilt of the victim. For the scapegoat mechanism to work, all members of the community must believe that the victim is indeed guilty. When the victim is killed, scapegoated, then the perception is that the evil in the community has been purged. And this brings peace, but the peace will only last until conflict once again arises.
This phenomenon became inscribed in mythology, and was celebrated. Using ancient texts such as Sophocles (Oedipus the king), Girard demonstrated that sacred and archaic religion is based on the scapegoat mechanism.
A crucial point should be made. It is not that Girard was saying that all myths included the scapegoat, but that of the myths that did include the scapegoat, they all shared a common feature, and that was the belief that the scapegoat was indeed guilty. This continued for millennia, until it was interrupted by Christianity. The Christian story subverted the mythological mechanism by diffusing its most important feature (the unawareness of the
perpetrators with regards to the innocence of the victim).
At the heart of I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, a book Girard published in 1999, one finds a comparative analysis of religious myths and Judeo-Christian revelation. In Girard’s eyes, it is precisely the difference between these two forms of religion that displays the truth of Christianity
In Girard’s Mimetic Theory, Palazer cites numerous examples from the Bible, such as the Book of Job, Cain and Abel, King Solomon and the Two Harlots, and the story of Jesus Christ, to show that in each case, there was a clear rejection of mimesis. There was a rejection both of scapegoating and of man’s imitation of man.
Since Girard was originally a secular literary scholar, before he became a Christian, his discovery of mimesis came from literary works, and these are also cited in the book.
From the beginning, René Girard’s mimetic theory was independent of the influence of traditional theories of secularization. This was because he was more interested in theoretical approaches that assumed a maverick role with regard to the question of religion and, in great contrast to the secularist theories dominating the humanities, did not foresee any impending end to religion.
In people who are closer, such as siblings, the desire to be unique from each other is dominant. But both are alike in that they both want to stand apart. They are more alike that they are comfortable admitting to themselves.
The narcissism of small differences is the thesis that communities with adjoining territories and close relationships are especially likely to engage in feuds and mutual ridicule because of hypersensitivity to details of differentiation.
Enzensberger, the German author, notes that “it is generally the rule, rather than the exception, that man destroys what he most hates, and that is usually the rival on his own territory. There is an unexplained linkage between hating one’s neighbor and hating a stranger. The original target of our hatred was probably always our neighbor; only with the formation of larger communities was the stranger on the other side of the border declared an enemy.”
Similar to Girard, who refers to man’s “centripetal tendency” for violence, the German author says that violence within the group precedes external violence. The cultivated wars between nations is an explicitly recent development.
And herein is an apparent paradox. If a belief in God brings harmony to people, then why do groups fight? A potential answer is Freud’s narcissism of small differences. Because these groups are similar in so many ways, the small differences are exaggerated to the point that they become sources of conflict. But Girard’s mimetic theory would explain this differently. It is not simply the existence of small differences, but the existence of similarities that is the culprit. Because these people have much that is in common, they fight.
There is a confusion between who the emulator is, and who the model is. In hierarchical systems (within a religion), this conflict is lacking, but when two separate authorities that are similar in most ways (Catholics versus Protestants or Sunnis versus Shiites), it is not clear who should be following the other, or who should command more power, resources, or people. Civil wars between rival groups in the same country are more frequent and lengthier but less intense than wars between different countries.
That is why conflict is most common in nuclear families where the relationships are closest. Two siblings exist in almost the same reality. They have the same parents and have been exposed to many of the same things. They share the same genes, amplitudes, and they probably look alike. But the hierarchy is not always obvious. Knowing this, siblings strive to be different from each other, but ironically, their efforts at standing apart from the other makes them even more alike.
Mediation is external when the mediator of the desire is socially beyond the reach of the subject or, for example, a fictional character, as in the case of Amadis de Gaula and Don Quixote. The hero lives a kind of folly that nonetheless remains optimistic. Mediation is internal when the mediator is at the same level as the subject. The mediator then transforms into a rival and an obstacle to the acquisition of the object, whose value increases as the rivalry grows. This is the universe of the novels of Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust and Dostoevsky, which are particularly studied in this book.
Girard’s Mimetic Theory
Thus, mimesis is resolved through hierarchies. When there is possibility for competition, when one side is clearly superior to the other side, then rivalry does not exist, and so, conflict does not exist. It is only when the metaphorical distance between the subject and the model is minimal that rivalry intensifies, and conflict becomes inevitable.
The Mimetic Taboo
In culture, there is a taboo against mimesis. We praise originality and shun copycats and emulators. We refuse to admit our mimetic nature. But according to Girard, man lacks being, he feels intrinsically empty – this is a similar idea to Kierkegaard’s man who is doomed to a life of anxiety.
The solution, the one most available to man is to adopt the desires of the group, to model himself after what other people value. But once this is accomplished, his desires become a source of conflict. While there is truth to this idea, one can object that it is not clear when such desires are indeed because of imitation, or because of hidden biological needs, or evolutionary imperatives that give man an advantage in surviving.
Anti-Mimetic Mimesis of Advertising
No other phenomenon displays the workings of mimetic desire more clearly than modern advertising. In commercials, we don’t see the advertised object on the screen by itself – it is accompanied by people who possess and desire the object, to activate the viewer’s imitation. Advertising is a “phenomenon of envy” according to German psychologist Rolf Haubl, who unknowingly alludes to mimetic theory, although he is unfamiliar with it.
“The economies of developed consumer societies are not faced with the task of eliminating shortages, but rather—in a world of superabundance—of creating them. Advertising is the portal through which these shortages are communicated. One strategy of creating shortages consists of making consumers envious: they should desire the goods that the models on billboards and commercials already possess.”
It is obvious that advertising is a mimetic phenomenon. Girard goes further and elucidates its paradoxical nature: although advertising presupposes mimetic desire, it must promote the anti-mimetic modern message (be original). Advertising promises originality, by promising the customer that they will become exceptionally unique, and differentiated from the mundane horde, once they own the product that is advertised by models.
But this promise is contradictory since imitation and desire are mutually exclusive.
Fashion, for example, is clearly an ideal that is based on imitation. And the paradoxical nature of fashion is apparent: everyone wants to be unique in the way that they dress, but they do so by copying the inventions of other people.
The human being has a natural tendency to compare his behavior to that of a more important person (the child with adults, the lower-ranking person with those of higher rank) in order to imitate the other person’s ways. A law of this imitation, which aims at not appearing lower than others, especially in cases where no regard to utility is paid, is called fashion. Fashion therefore belongs under the title of vanity, because there is no inner worth in its intention; and also of foolishness, because in fashion there is still a compulsion to let ourselves be led slavishly by the mere example that many in society give us.
Objections to Mimetic Theory
There are other desires, one could argue, such as the need for security, popularity, status, power– that are not based on imitation, only, but are necessary for survival in one way or another. Even fashion, it can be argued, aids in sexual selection and the multiplication of genes.
But such an objection does not invalidate mimetic theory, because what we clearly see around us, is not uniformity in terms of what people desire. If everyone was motivated purely by biological necessity or by innate personally quirks, we should not expect to find that culture makes any difference at all to what the individual within that culture desires.
What we see, as outlined in Huntington’s famous work, The Clash of Civilizations, is that there are multiple civilizations that exist in the world (not the same as countries). The Chinese, Western, and Muslim civilizations each have their own hierarchical systems that determine what is most valuable and what is least valuable.
People who belong to these different civilizations desire different things, they have different values. They are dominated by different memes (ideas). The idea of a meme is a self-organizing cluster of ideas. Huntington’s thesis can also be interpreted in a different way, perhaps more obvious. It is not similarities (as Girard would argue) that brings rise to conflict, but rather the differences between people. But such an objection could be reconciled, if we think about the idea of internal and external mediation.
The clash between civilizations occurs, because on the grand geopolitical stage, there is no longer external mediation, but only internal mediation. External mediation, when the model is outside your social (and competitive) sphere, is not a cause of conflict because as a subject, you have no way of competing for the same resources.
You occupy a different world, where only metaphysical imitation is possible, but acquisition at the expense of your model is not possible. This picture radically changes when we have internal mediation. Here, the subject and the model occupy the same world (close conflict), and zero-sum games become possible. That is why, on the grand geopolitical stage, civilizations can be in conflict with each other – each civilization sees, as their natural right, to be the dominant civilization. But not all civilizations do this.
The civilizations that clash are the civilizations that have a claim to power. It is rare (or impossible) to see a clash of civilizations where one is vastly superior to the other.
Another objection is that divinity is not necessary, even if we grant that Christianity subverted the scapegoating mechanism.
What about free will? If human behavior is mimetic, and all desires are the result of a mimetic mechanism that is biologically programmed, then what choices are truly available? Can we choose from an infinite number which desires of models are worth emulating, or are these desires pre-determined by the availability of a limited number of models?
Girard would here invoke the idea of faith in God. Since external human models worth emulating determine some of the desires of most people, and internal human models determine some of the desires of each person, then desires based on other people cannot possibly be original or free. The only free choice is to imitate God. And this is an interesting argument – the perception of a belief in God is generally seen as opposed to the idea of free will since such a belief would reduce one’s options. But the alternative to God is the human ideal (which is a result of mimesis) – thus man is left with the choice to worship God or a lesser god (human ideals), but cannot choose to worship nothing at all.
A Digression into Memes
In some cultures, honor is more sought after than other cultures, while in other cultures, it is wealth or piety or popularity or prestige that is most valuable. Memes, although not articulated by Girard, forms the basis of mimesis. We want what our model wants, but the meme itself is what drives our model’s behavior, so it is what drives all behavior.
However, Girard would maintain that these memes are essentially products of language – if they cannot be articulated, then they will cease to exist. And since language, as we will shortly see, is a by-product of mimesis, then memes are a by-product of mimesis.
To sum up this relationship. Mimesis created language which then created memes.
Sex, Power, Mimesis
As discussed before, the competing theories behind human motivation take the form of either sex, power, or mimesis. But one must ask the question: are they mutually exclusive? Can power not be a disguised drive that ultimately leads to procreation? And can mimetics not be the mediator between the two, in that the will to power, or the urge to procreate are different forms of mimetics, that we emulate each other’s sexual and power desires?
Such a synthesis would resolve the conflict between Girard and Freud, and Nietzsche. But such a resolution may not be possible after-all. If Girard is right, then sex and power are nested within mimetic theory, but sex and power would not be primary, which undermines the Nietzschean and Freudian arguments.
For Mimetic Theory to be true, we would have to witness forms of emulation that are universal and have nothing to do with power or sex. One such form, which is mentioned in the Girard’s Mimetic Theory, is snobbery. Another is religious life. The Buddhist monk, for example, who lives a modest life where he exercises no power over others and does not marry, cannot be said to be motivated by either power or sex.
Further, the artist or writer who desires to be anonymous, and who’s work is only discovered after they are dead, does not seem to be motivated by power or sex. But mimetics can explain these seemingly paradoxical natures of people. It is possible for the monk to be motivated by the desire for nirvana, which was inspired by his teacher, and for the artist to be driven by an innate urge for private self-expression, or by beauty, or by the emulation of a hero (famous artist).
The psychoanalyst Carl Jung would agree with Girard on the point that sexuality and power are not primary. Jung’s falling out with his mentor, Freud, was precisely about this very point. Jung saw no convincing evidence that sex was behind all human activity, he identified different agents within the unconscious that desire different things, and these archetypes are not all interested in power or sex.
The Desire for Being
But doesn’t this just mean that people have different desires because they have different personalities or upbringings or genetic predispositions? Even if we grant that power and sex are not the ideals that animate the behavior of people, It could simply be that that some desires are shared because the personalities of people fall into universal categories, and it is not that desires result from models that are being imitated, but by a personality quirk that leads someone to gravitate to some things more than others.
And to that objection, I believe Girard would cite writers such as Proust, Dostoevsky, and Flaubert, that show through the characters of their novels, that personalities themselves are products of mimetic behavior.
The waiter acts in such a way, with a pattern of motion, speed, and attitude stimulate the model of ‘waiter’ in his mind, he is copying an ideal that he finds more security in than his improvisation. He is acting out a character, as observed by Sartre. The man who feels that a woman is attractive because others find her attractive, or because a role model of theirs finds her attractive.
In advertising, this phenomenon is taken for granted, and it manifests in a more straightforward way. The athlete or actor on the poster holding the drink/perfume/sunglasses, is the ‘model’ holding an object. If you want to be like this athlete or actor, then you must desire this drink or sunglasses, which they also desire. In the triangular model, you are the ‘subject’, the drink, or sunglasses the ‘object’, and the athlete or actor the ‘mediator’ or ‘model.’
Thus, we base our behaviors and desires according to models that we find are superior to us. We have models that we want to emulate, because we are not secure enough in our own foundations, but the problem is that that human models will inevitably lead to conflict.
By emulating the desires of the mediator, the subject finds himself in competition for an object that is desired by many other subjects, and this will result in conflict. Unless these desires are simple, such as the need for food and shelter, then they are based on others, hence the existence of snobbery and vanity.
Mimesis: Extent & Intensity
Girard says that desire is an intersubjective by-product. We want what we do only because other people desire it. We want fame because others want fame – the extent to which this desire is powerful, is dependent on who we are surrounded by. The answer to the objection, as mentioned before, to Girard’s theory (the objection is that some desires are hidden but innate, and are not based on imitation) is that we can see how cultures vary to the intensity with which some desires are experienced, the extent to which individuals of this culture share these desires, and the hierarchy of the objects that are desired.
Of course, there exists a difference of opportunities between nations. Perhaps a Tibetan and a New Yorker are equally driven by material wealth, but the desire is only more apparent in the New Yorker because they have more access to opportunities, but this does not negate the fact that cultures do not have the same priorities. Countries and civilizations that share the same degree of economic opportunities and wealth may still differ in their attitudes towards it.
The Buddhist in Tibet does not only shun possessions because of a lack of opportunities compared to the banker on Wall Street, but because of ideological differences. Girard would argue that this difference exists because each have different models that they are imitating. Since it is possible for an American or a European to decide to reject these opportunities because they are attracted to the Buddhist model, it is not merely the existence of opportunities that determines the level or type of desire.
And this is a consequence of globalization. It would have been true to say, that in the past, memes that individuals adopted were passed down from their own cultures, but now this is only partially true. And just as Mimetic Theory would predict, the internet has closed the gap between existing memes so that it is possible for a teenager in the Middle East to adopt Western memes, or for a Western teenager to adopt Buddhist memes. So that now, as part of the fourth generation warfare that is taking place, the war of civilizational memes, through the mechanism of the internet and global media channels, has created a new kind of conflict that is much more democratized and much less controllable.
The Development of Language
And now we go to the beginning. After explaining what mimesis is, the competing theories for human motivation, we will now turn to an explanation for why language, which made memes and thus mimetics possible, came to being.
The first development of language, according to some is Machiavellianism. People had to develop sophisticated ways of outcompeting their rivals, and this increased neural complexity, which led to the development of language.
But the theory that hominization occurred because of the development of language begs the question, why humans? The theory that Machiavellianism evolved in humans, does not explain the bigger brains of humans. Chimps engage in Machiavellianism but have not developed anything close to human language. Further, why would it have developed in humans in the way that it did, even if Machiavellianism played a part?
Machiavellianism fails as an explanation because it begs the question.
But Girard argues that language developed from countless observations of the scapegoating process.
Primordial men imitated the desires of each other, but the objects of their desire were scare, so this created conflict, and lead to a situation of all against all. This must have went on for a very long time, until a development happened that made the resolution of conflict much more economical. The death of a single victim rather than mutual destruction of the tribes, created a moment of temporary peace. This temporary peace which interrupted conflict was etched into the minds of the survivors as a symbol (the first instance of symbolic language).
Thus, the process of scapegoating resolved dispute, brought peace, and was observed intensely. It was the first non-instinctual observation, the first instance of language (symbol representing something outside of itself), and this process continued for millennia. The scapegoat was a symbol for momentary peace. And from this process, our brains evolved.
Why did man, and not some other animal, develop this tendency to scapegoat, and to watch repeated rituals of this scapegoating process? Because man is the most imitative animal, by far. That is Girard’s foundational thesis and is an Aristotelian observation.
Each human is mimetic. But because it is necessary does not mean it is not a problem. Usually, when we think of mimesis, we bring to mind the image of cultural institutions, in that humans are taught to imitate the work of other human beings, but there is nothing to stop mimesis itself from being nefarious and acquisitive. Envy, for example, is the closest Christian sin to mimetic rivalry and remains a taboo even among postmodernists.
Girard thinks the social contract is an Enlightenment lie and a preposterous one. When you imagine how primitive man lived, in his vicious and barbaric state, where all was pitted against all, it is difficult to imagine that on some kind of a whim, they suddenly agreed to calm down for a few hours, and negotiate a social contract.
The Origin of Political and Religious Institutions
A more likely scenario, as mentioned above, is that this war of all against all persists with no rational stopping point, until one person becomes the scapegoat. The death of this person unites the community and brings limited peace to the survivors.
This murder is the secret origin of religious and political institutions, remembered as myth. But this violence which is at the heart of society had to be concealed by the myth that the slain victim was truly guilty.
Violence is at the heart of society, myth a discourse ephemeral to violence. Myth makes this violence sacred. Sacrifice thus became sacred, and anyone who rejected it, sacrilegious. But now, the cat is out of the bag. The scapegoat is not as guilty. But for society to function, there had to be a lack of understanding of this basic truth. In the modern world, this no longer works.
The Straussian Moment
In other words, the power of the myth no longer holds sway because its mechanism has been uncovered. We now know that the scapegoat is not as guilty, we understood the victimhood of the scapegoat in many cases is there, and this creates a barrier to normal functioning of the myth.
As Thiel says, the problem of mimesis, has not gone away. One can easily imagine a nuclear arms race that stems from mimesis. Not enough people are aware of the mimetic mechanism, although it seems that sufficient people are aware of the scapegoating mechanism.
In short, society understands the error in persecuting the innocent (yet scapegoating persists) but does not yet understand the origin of why this persecution arose, and that is mimesis (imitation of the desire of others).
Uncovering the Scapegoat Mechanism
The scapegoat can be internal (someone in the culture) or external (when one nation may go to war). Once you begin to grasp it, you see it everywhere.
Myth is different form the myth of the Bible, according to Girard, in contrast to conventional readings of mythology.
In the Bible, the sacrifice of Jesus is not a victory for the community, not a continuity of a past tradition, not a celebration of scapegoating. It is the opposite. It is the condemnation of the scapegoat mechanism, and the condemnation of mimesis itself.
The Wise King
In the Old Testament, there is story of King Solomon.
The story is that two harlots, alike in every way, were about to give birth, but one harlot, after she had discovered that her baby had died because she had smothered it, replaced her dead baby with the baby of the other harlot, which was alive. When both harlots appeared before the wise king, to resolve the conflict of who the rightful mother of the baby was, Solomon put them through a test.
He asked for a sword so that he would divide the baby in half, and give each harlot half a baby. One of the Harlots, the rightful mother, yelled out in protest. She told King Solomon to give the baby to the other harlot, but not to kill the baby. That is when the wise king knew who the real mother was, and ordered that the baby be given to her.
The harlot who did not object would have been perfectly happy to see the baby cut in half, for she did not want her rival to be better off. But the true mother risked everything.
She knew, before saying anything, that her cries of protest could easily be interpreted as an admission of her own guilt. After-all, the sight of a dead baby would be too unbearable for a lie to persist, which had now grown too large. She could not have known how King Solomon was going to interpret her actions, but she took the risk anyway, and in this sense, there is an element of self-sacrifice.
That is the point that Girard makes in Things Hidden Since The Foundation of The World. The harlot engages in self-sacrifice, but not in order to attain divinity. The Harlot did not know she was going to be rewarded with her baby after she sacrificed herself. And Jesus was not made immortal by the resurrection, he was already immortal, and the resurrection was just a consequence of that fact.
Whereas in mythology, the act of sacrifice is one where the hero, who is sacrificed is divinized. In fact, many practices that still survive, make this apparent. When the prisoner who is sentenced to death, for example, is given a last meal of his choosing and a glass of rum.
Past cultures treated sacrificial victims like Gods. In the archetypal myth, the sacrifice is what rescues the community. The scapegoat brings about temporary order and restores the peace. The scapegoat is glorified. Human mimesis is celebrated. Girard is saying that this is all in stark contrast to the message contained in the Bible.
Jesus explicitly denounces mimesis, the idea of coveting what one’s neighbor is in possession of is considered morally wrong.
To live for the attainment of wealth or fame or pleasure, or for the satisfaction of any earthly desire is a sin, since they are the products of other men. These desires are products of mimesis.
The cyclical process of mimesis, conflict, and finally, sacrificial resolution through the scapegoat, is contradicted by the story of Jesus.
The end of the ritualistic scapegoating process that brought peace, came with Christianity, when this unconscious process was revealed, but came with it two important repercussions. The birth of freedom and responsibility, and the end of the soothing ritual of the scapegoating process.
Girard’s ultimate solution to this problem is Christianity, which he believes precludes mimetic conflict, because instead of emulating a human model which may eventually be a rival, and thus a source of conflict, and instead of building a society of emulators of one another, which will eventuate in competition, which will create less opportunities for each individual, and inevitably result in conflict, we should emulate a divine model (also Kierkegaard’s solution), to let go of our vanity and pride, and to accept our fate as creatures that have a creator.
It is specifically the imitation of Christ that Girard argues for since Christ is the anti-myth. Myths all share a common structure: there is a disruption of peace in the community, there is a scapegoat, the mob kills the scapegoat, peace is restored. In the story of Christ, the structure is opposed to the standard mythical narrative. Instead of being on the side of the mob, it stands on the side of the victim, Jesus. It is not only that Jesus preached against mimesis, but his actions advocated this counter-narrative directly. And so, we find in this counter-narrative, a pathway that leads to the end of violence, and the subversion of the devil (which Girard argues is the mimetic mechanism itself).
Why do men compete? Is it because of genetic programming that compels the individual to be selected, replicate and survive or do they compete out of vanity – out of a drive to accumulate what their model desires ? Are men free to not compete, to counteract their own conditioning? If so, is this proof of free will?
There other causes of desire that differ from mimesis (as Girard would accept), not all desires can be accounted for by the mimetic mechanism, but many can. Since we know that it is true that human beings are the most mimetic creature, we know that human beings must have the capacity for the highest forms of emulation and the lowest forms. But what is meaningful about Mimetic Theory? It is not that it accounts for all human desires, but that it proves that if we we allow unconscious mimetic tendencies to take control of our decision making, we may find ourselves in the pursuit of goals that we do not value or need. And out of such a pursuit, we may find ourselves caught in the inevitable conflict that results.
It appears that there are two ways out of the mimetic trap. One is to externalize one’s models. The further the model from one’s immediate reality, the less the chance for a conflict of interests. A baker on a corner street in Rome is better off modeling a famous bakery in France than a famous bakery across the street. The other is to avoid blind the idealization of human pursuits.