Mimetic Theory: Is This The Best Way To Understand The World?

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. —Archilochus

Rene Girard's Mimetic (not to be confused with memetic, which is a different word — with an "e" — and coined by Richard Dawkin in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, coining the derivative word meme to sound like gene; Dawkin's word and theory represents a whole another approach to thinking about how non-material things—like ideas and desire—spread in groups) Theory says that we are all mimetic creatures. Unconsciously, we all imitate the desires of the people around us. And that our desires are not of our own. When we eat, the eating is a need whereas the food we chose is largely a choice or desire. The need and the desire are different and not the same thing. It's easy to overlook that.

The Girardian theory is built around a core set of interrelated ideas:

mimetic desire, the mimetic nature of rivalry, mimetic desire as the origin of violence, the scapegoat mechanism, and the religious and cultural rituals, taboos, and prohibitions (the development of law) designed to prevent mimetic crises and resulting violence.

At the heart of the mimetic theory is the mimetic desire, which is largely a social process. We imitate the desire of the people around us, largely unconsciously. Mimetic desire is not a direct nor formal recognition of the desire of another, it is quite unconscious. Girard's work is part anthropology, philosophy and theology.

The Buddhists say eliminate desires and eliminate suffering. Whereas the Mimetic Theory says, the true problem is not when everybody wants different things; the true problem is when everybody wants the same thing; the problem is not from the differences: the problem is from desiring the same thing.

“The principal source of violence between human beings is mimetic rivalry, the rivalry resulting from imitation of a model who becomes a rival or of a rival who becomes a model” (Rene Girard, I See Satan, 11).

Girard talks about mimetic desire being triangular: object -> model -> subject.

A subject isn't another desiring person. Another desiring person is a "model"; a subject is you as the desiring person. Desire requires a model that we inherit from our culture, which goes back forever. Models can be healthy or unhealthy, but they must be given as there is no clean slate.

Myths are the shrouds of the original chaos or violence that we don't remember. There are two kids, let's say. One picks up a toy rather disinterestedly, let's say. The other kid sees him playing with the toy, and he tries to claim it for himself. The original child then defends his toy against the other, ascribing more value to it than he ever would have if the other kid had not wanted it. The fight escalates very quickly between the two parties. The mimesis then reflects outward into the tribe or collective.

The competition arising from desiring the same thing can escalate into violence. However, the violence will not escalate forever and ever, indefinitely. People will deescalate the violence at some point. To initiate the deescalation, people, according to the mimetic theory, psychologically transfer all the problems onto one person or thing and then purge the scapegoated. This is what all the archaic religions had done and were all about. The archaic religions were all about the collective violence against one person, the scapegoat. Like the saying, history is written by the victor, the archaic religionists give voice to the narrative of the persecutors while suppressing the narrative of the scapegoated and persecuted person. Christianity, on the other hand, gives voice to the narrative of the scapegoat. Christianity is also about the collective violence against the scapegoated person. But here, the perspectives have been switched from that of the persecutors to that of the persecuted.

The word scapegoat itself comes from the Levitical ritual story of transfering all the guilts of the community onto a goat, an act done ritually by a priest. Annually, the priest takes two spotless goats: one goat will be sacrificed for the Lord while the other goat, the scapegoat, will be driven into the wilderness. The priest will tie a red ribbon on the head of the scapegoat and, while ritually placing his hands on the head of the scapegoat, transfer all the guilts of the people on it and then let it go to the wilderness. Whoever that saw the red ribbon-bearing goat will viscerally shoo away the animal, chasing the animal from the locality into the wilderness, eventually.

Our violence is always good but other violence is always bad, we all tend to think and act that way. We slay our opponents, defending our perspectives, defending our mental frames, defending our psychological territory. Mimetic Theory uncovers the origin of violence from the absolute fundamentals of humanity: we imitate the desire of others, including their desire to scapegoat others, consciously and unconsciously. Imitation is the primary transmitter of culture: even when we fight, we imitate the desire of our opponent to slay us. Things are so ingrained that in today's society most people don't have the capability to see the incredibly prevalent mimetic devices at work.

In the German-speaking world, the mimetic theory has long been excluded from theoretic discussion. Wolfgang Palaver asserts that the trauma of Hitler's National Socialism hindered engagement with a theory that focuses foremost on crisis and conflict. In other countries, however, Girard’s works were quickly translated and given significant attention in academic circles. Whereas the scholars in the German realm have been hesitant to tackle Girard’s works until only recently.

Co-founder of Paypal, Peter Thiel, said, in the 22nd century, people will look back to Rene Girard as one of the great intellectuals of our time.

Rene Girard's works:
Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World
Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: DECEIT, DESIRE, & THE NOVEL: SELF AND OTHER IN LITERARY STRUCTURE
Violence and the Sacred
The Scapegoat
I See Satan Fall Like Lightning

The primary text, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: DECEIT, DESIRE, & THE NOVEL: SELF AND OTHER IN LITERARY STRUCTURE, is difficult to read as it is written in the language that speaks to those who are into anthropology and philosophy and theology. I found the secondary sources to be far more accessible:

René Girard's Mimetic Theory (Studies in Violence, Mimesis & Culture)

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