The Mimetic Theory of Rene Girard, Part 1/3

(This is the first of three connected posts. If you would like to read all three parts in a single post, click here.)

The Mimetic Theory of Rene Girard is a chief source of insight for me both personally and academically. Since my book project will make constant use of Girardian ideas in interpreting Plato, I think its necessary to unpack this subject a little for the uninitiated  so that what I write later can make sense. For those who are already initiated in Girardian thought, I lift up my interpretation to your critical review in gratitude and humility so that you can help me distinguish between Girard’s theory and my interpretation of the same. This will take a few posts to get through, but here is a first attempt:

One of the marks of genius is to notice something vitally important and seemingly obvious but which never before had been recognized as important. Rene Girard’s great discovery of genius, a potential Rosetta Stone for the human sciences, is that human beings naturally imitate the desires of other human beings. (Have you noticed that? Obvious, yes?) Human desire is, by and large, mediated desire. Someone signals a desire for a particular thing, and now you discover that you want that thing. Most advertising works through this mechanism with demonstrated success. You and I are mimetic creatures.

Desire as analyzed thus has three participants: a desirer, an object of desire and a model/mediator — *not* just two, a desirer and object. So why does it usually seem as if desire is just between you and the object? Because mimetic desire operates on a pre-rational level. Neurological studies have shown that this reflexive imitation is present even in newborns. The phenomenon is “preconscious,” grasped only after a later act of reflection if at all. We are otherwise blind to the influence of our models in supplying us with desires and thus blind to the “second-hand” character of our desires. Girard calls this blindness to the role of mediators in the origin of desire (i.e. the belief that “I” am the originator of “my” desire) the “romantic” delusion. Mimetic desire seems obvious when self-consciously reflected upon, but such reflection is not at all common and is certainly not automatic.

Among the species of desire is acquisitive desire, which is similarly mimetic: an acquisitive gesture in one person begets a corresponding acquisitive desire in an another for the same object. (Defensive gestures similarly give rise to acquisitive desires in others, the well-known “forbidden fruit” phenomenon.) Acquisitive desires, subject to mimetic mirroring, will inevitably attach themselves to a single object within the same field of play and generate hostility and violence. In such cases, the model/mediator of desire first appears to his/her imitator as an obstacle/rival. (If the mimetic model doesn’t occupy the same “playing field” then there is no common object and thus no conflictual rivalry. Girard calls a model “distant” enough to avoid rivalry an external mediator, as opposed to the potentially rivalrous internal mediator.) The important thing to notice is that my mediator will first appear to the desirer as a rival, an obstacle, an opponent. Again, the mimetic phenomenon is preconscious, whereas the rival as rival stands all too noticeably in our way. Reaction against the rival’s potential (or actual) attempt to grab what I want *always* precedes the reflection that could uncover the truth source of my desire: that I only want it because she wants it. Put two kids together with a surplus of toys and their desire(s) will inevitably latch onto the same toy, beginning a tug-of-war and mutual cries that “I wanted it (or had it) first!”

Pursuit and defense of an acquisitive desire mimetically reinforces the desire of the rival/model/obstacle and vice-versa, leading to an escalation of conflict unless something external to the conflict (like a taboo or a legal authority) intercedes or unless one of the rivals submits or dies. Girard calls this mimetic escalation scandal, after the Greek word skandalon,  suggesting a “trap” or “snare.” A chief characteristic of scandal is that attempts to escape a problem only makes the problem worse (analogous to pulling against a snare). An example is the behavior of a nation-state perceived to be threatened by another nation-state. (A familiar situation?) Its defensive preparations look to its rival like aggressive provocations, which only increase the perceived threat. The rival then arms itself defensively, which is interpreted as aggression by the other side, and so on and so on. Therefore, the actions that were undertaken to secure each nation from threat have actually increased the threat and have fed a dynamic that is dangerously self-reinforcing (e.g. Europe, circa 1914.) Here is a link to a story nicely illustrative of the phenomenon of scandal.

Since mutual interest in the object of desire is generated by human interaction, objects of rivalry can be manufactured out of thin air by mimetic conflict. Examples might include prestige, fame or success. (T.S. Eliot calls such things “shadow fruit”. They may also be called “vanities.”) I like to call these objects, born of mimetic entanglement, “metaphysical objects,” objects whose objectivity is located solely in the resistance provided by rivals. Metaphysical desire, Girard’s term, is the desire to possess the quality of “being” attributed to the possessor of the object in dispute. We attribute to the glamorous, e.g. the successful or famous, a quality of being that we lack, unaware that they also feel inadequately lacking in comparison to their models and so on.

The scandal of metaphysical objects is that desire for such objects leads to an a priori frustration. In eliminating my obstacle, I also eliminate the originator and sustainer of my desire and therefore the substance of the object in question. This leads to the paradox of success aptly expressed in Groucho Marx’s quip, “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Metaphysical objects are essentially scarce and diminished when shared. Such scarcity extends even to material objects. Contrary to the assumptions of classical economics, which posits that competitive struggles emerge from the scarcity of goods, perhaps it is competitive struggle that creates the scarcity. And predictably when the rival falls away, the cherished thing no longer has its luster. A lyric by Terry Talbot in a song called “Stuff” is apt: “It’s treasure ‘till it’s mine then it ain’t worth a dime.


End of Part I — see Part II for the continuation. If you would like to read all three parts in a single post, click here.


Books to read to explore further the subject of mimetic desire:

Deceit, Desire and the Novel by Rene Girard — the first book to lay bare the phenomenon using examples from great European literature.

A Theater of Envy by Rene Girard — a collection of essays on Shakespeare, whom Girard credits as the first author to really understand the dynamics of mimetic desire.

Beneath the Veil of the Strange Verses: Reading Scandalous Texts by Jeremiah Alberg — explores the implications of the phenomenon of scandal through the lens of seminal Western thinkers and texts. Scandal is an underappreciated topic, too important not to understand in all its guises. Alberg’s book helps to grasp both this importance and these guises. Link here.

Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads by Gil Bailie — a terrific application of Girard’s thought to human culture and psychology.

14 thoughts on “The Mimetic Theory of Rene Girard, Part 1/3

  1. What role did “minetic desire” have in the development and evolution of man? Do animals display this same trait? Is this trait something man inherited with Original Sin or is it Good rather than Bad? Why did Onassis marry Jackie Kennedy?

    • Whew! Let me start with the easy one first: for his money!

      I will try to address some of your other questions in the next post on this topic. I can’t give a short answer to them here.

    • *Disclaimer – not a biologist, just a pediatrician*
      Primates are highly mimetic in general, which humans being the most mimetic. I think a positive form of mimetic desire occurs when an infant tries to imitate the speech and body movements of others, which is how we all learn to talk and walk. Speech is amazing, but for me the power of positive mimetic desire is most visible when an infant/toddler learns to walk. It is virtually always the case that, at the moment the infant learns to walk, it would be far more efficient for him/her to crawl or scoot to move from place to place than it would be to walk, yet the drive to imitate (to be like the others) is so strong that walking is the desired movement. They would move much more quickly by crawling!

      Another thing comes to mind – chickens. Not only is there a “pecking order” which is present in many other social animals (I think as a mechanism to limit conflict/violence similar to caste), but when a bunch of hens occupy a space which is too limited in a coop, commonly the group will turn on the lowest ranking member and kill it, and this will keep occurring until there is enough space for each member to feel secure.

      This reply is after reading the second post about scapegoating violence, which is why the last thing popped into my head. To me it’s all the more interesting because chickens, not being mammals, are more distant from humans genetically than primates. Perhaps it’s not a good example of a mimetic phenomenon, but it appears so to me.

      Thanks, Woody, for these posts.

  2. Clay, I didn’t know that about chickens. We can definitely observe mimetic behavior (such as flocking) in animals. The difference is that animals do not have “desires” in the Giradian sense. Desire is different from appetites or reflexes, which are push/pull, hit/hit-back *dyadic* phenomena. Animal communication is largely signaling (an *index* in semiotic terms) and operates mostly mechanically. Human desire is *triadic* and includes an element of (mostly tacit) interpretation of the mediator’s objective. It will look like animal signalling when a physical object is present, but mimetic rivalry in humans is a *symbolic* affair. (Here is a link to an short explanation of the icon/index/symbol distinction in Peircean semiotics: Terrence Deacon’s book THE SYMBOLIC SPECIES is the best book I know on this language difference in humans — Rene Girard himself first recommended it to me.) Aristotle claims in the POETICS that human beings are different from the other animals due to their higher capacity for imitation. Note that the word “ape” includes a suggestion of a developed mimetic capacity in our primate relatives also. Here is an article that suggests that the higher apes at least possess a rudimentary ability to employ symbols:, although I still think the evidence is inconclusive.

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