On mimeses

Girardian foundations

What is the basis of imitating Jesus? It cannot be his ways of being or his personal habits: imitation is never about that in the Gospels. Neither does Jesus propose an ascetic rule of life in the sense of Thomas a Kempis and his celebrated Imitation of Christ, as admirable as that work may be. What Jesus invites us to imitate is his own desire, the spirit that directs him toward the goal on which his intention is fixed: to resemble God the Father as much as  possible. - Girard. 

Mimetic theory attempts to address timeless questions of intransigent conflict by beginning with a thoroughly relational understanding of individuals due to our mimetic propensities. This archetype sees mimesis as fueling our attraction to desirable others while also being instrumental in our rivalries. And because rivalries and uncontrollable violence would have seriously threatened early humans who otherwise had no other cultural means of extinguishing possible annihilation, opting for small scale violence in the form of scapegoating another must have been viewed as a miraculous, even godlike intervention. See Jesus and Platos conception of the perfect man being murdered. Timeless tale.

Any study with the ability to move humans from a place of portentous violence to peaceful calm must have served as a type of religion or doctrine for early humans. Perhaps the tendency even now to pass on our pain, blame, and violence to others is an ancient solution humankind has only been trying to shake since the ancients alerted us to this flawed method of transcendence a mere two thousand years ago.

Media

At our most fundamental level human beings are creatures of mimicry. We desire to be and to belong. Rene Girard is best known for his theories of mimetic desire: that man learns to desire by observing the desire of others: and of scapegoats, which he says found, preserve, and unify culture. Girard is not known to all, but his teachings have influenced the people and the companies that these people run. Both of which now influence you.

Media and social media specifically have proved to be more important than initially thought, because they tap into our natures. Mimetic theory has not been widely applied in social analyses of the internet, in part because Girard himself did not touch on the subject in a meaningful way in his works. Yet, the omission is startling given mimetic theory’s cursory resemblance to the more often discussed “meme theory,” which similarly postulates imitation as the basis of culture.

Meme theory started with Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene and has been applied broadly to varied media and internet phenomena. Yet, Girard’s account of mimeticism has significant theoretical advantages over Dawkins-derived meme theory, at least for anyone interested in making sense of the sociopolitical dimensions of technology. Meme theory tends to reify memes, separating them from the social contexts in which their circulation is embedded. Girard, in contrast, situates imitative behaviors within a general social theory of desire.

We observe and learn by mimicking others, and the most important thing we learn from others is desire. Girard understood something important about desire; so did Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, and so do Bad Bunny and AOC.

Girard’s theories are being validated in the concept of social media. Social media amplifies the power of mimesis. One no longer compares oneself to just their neighbor, their friends, or their co workers. No. One now compares oneself to those which used to be out of reach - the elite, the famous, the wealthy. This inclusion is not good for mental health or peoples pocket books. Do people still use pocket books and wallets? A more fitting analogy may be to ones its frictionless phone payments on or their native web browser wallet like Metamask or their catch all crypto address oxab234…I digress.

Desire

The beauty of mimetic theory is its providence, beginning with the concept of mimetic desire, this pervasive tendency for humans to imitate others, not deliberately or consciously, but somewhat helplessly. Unlike natural appetites directed at real objects, human desire is largely an act of imagination where desire rests not in an object itself, but in a model who indicates for us an object’s value. René Girard developed mimetic theory based on his comparative analysis of great novels and the common finding that characters in these stories, often at a loss to know what to want, end up desiring the same things others around them desire.

Girard’s theory of mimetic desire is simple in its basic framework but has permitted complex, detailed analyses of a wide range of cultural and social phenomena. For Girard, what distinguishes desire from instinct is its mediated form: simply, we desire things because others desire them.

There is nothing spontaneous, nothing natural, about human desires. Free will anyone? Our desires are ersatz. We are taught to desire. Compare this with Girard’s statement:

Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and who turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.

According to Girard, mimesis is the process by which we learn how and what to desire. Any subject’s desire, he states, is based on that of another subject who functions as a model, or “mediator.” Thus, as he first asserted in his book Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, the structure of desire is triangular, incorporating not only a subject and an object, but also, and more pressingly, another subject who models any subject’s desire. Furthermore, for Girard, the relation to the object of desire is secondary to the relation between the two desiring subjects – which can eclipse the object, reducing it to the status of a prop or pretext.

One of the best interpretations of this phenomenon and its consequences comes from Luke Burgis. Luke writes a masterful newsletter about mimetic theory titled Anti-Mimetic and is coming out with a new book titled Wanting. Luke explains how mimesis drives modern preferences, politics, and media. Both are must reads for anyone interested in the topic.

Models are people who show us what is worth wanting. - Luke Burgis

The applications of this thinking to social media and media at large are obvious. The structures of social platforms mediate the presentation of objects: that is, all “objects” appear embedded in, and placed in relation to, visible signals of the other’s desire. The accumulation of such signals, in turn, renders objects more visible: the more mediated through the other’s desire, the more obvious a post or tweet becomes on one’s feed, and hence the more desirable.

Desire begets desire. Furthermore, social media platforms endlessly order users, through various means, to enter the iterative chain of mimesis: to signal their desires to others, eliciting further desires in the process. The algorithms, as it turns out, are programmed on mimetic principles.

Yet it is not simply that the signaling of desire happens to create relations with others, but that the true aim of the signaling of desire is to produce relations with others. This is what meme theory masks and mimetic theory makes clear: memes, far from being autonomous replicators, as meme theory states, function entirely as mediators of social relations; their replication relies entirely on those relations. It seems that relation is truly core of all being.

According to Girard, the desire for any object is always ensnared in social linkages, insofar as the desire only comes about in the first place through the mediation of the other. A reading of Girard’s analyses of nineteenth-century fiction or of ancient myth suggests that none of this is at all new. Desire seems to be a human universal.

Media has not altered the structures that underlie social relations. It merely renders certain aspects of them more clear. According to Girard, what stands in the way of the discovery of mimetic desire is not its ambiguity or complexity, but the baseness of the behaviors that reveal it: envy, jealousy, arrogance, copycat behavior. All are too awkward to seem socially, much less politically, significant.

Violence

Mimetic violence, which, for Girard, is the necessary corollary of mimetic desire is another important aspect of Girard’s work. The failure of modern secular politics to contend with the foundational role of violence in the social order is a glaring mistake in modernity. This failure has led media and institutions to function as a mechanism for the containment and channeling of mimetic violence in the face of an ineffective state. See Curtis Yarvin’s excellent writings on The Cathedral. Who is watching the watchers?

Girard’s mimetic theory states that humans choose objects of desire through contagious imitation: we desire things because others desire them, and we model our desires on others’ desires. As a result, desires converge on the same objects, and selves become rivals and doubles, struggling for the same sense of full being, which each subject suspects the other of possessing. The resulting conflicts cascade across societies because the mimetic structure of behavior also means that violence replicates itself rapidly. The entire community becomes enmeshed in reciprocal aggression.

The ancient solution to such a “mimetic crisis,” according to Girard, was sacrifice, which channeled collective violence into the murder of scapegoats, thus purging it, temporarily, from the community. While these cleansing acts of mob violence initially occurred spontaneously, as Girard argues in his book Violence and the Sacred, they later became codified in ritual, which reenacts collective violence in a controlled manner, and in myth, which recounts it in veiled forms. Religion, the sacred, and the state, for Girard, emerged out of this violent purgation of violence from the community. Yet, he argues, the modern era is characterized by a discrediting of the scapegoat mechanism, and therefore of sacrificial ritual, which creates a perennial problem of how to contain violence.

Victimism uses the ideology of concern for victims to gain political or economic or spiritual power. - Girard 

For Girard, to wield power is to control the mechanisms by which the mimetic violence that threatens the social order is contained, channeled, and removed. Girard’s personal politics, are ambiguous, late in his life he was best described as a Catholic Pacifist. Girard criticizes conservatism for wishing to preserve the sacrificial logic of ancient theocracies, and liberalism for believing that by dissolving religion it can eradicate the potential for violence. Enlightenment rationality needs to be coupled with Christian divinity. However, Girard’s religious commitment to a somewhat heterodox Christianity is clear: he regards the non-violence of the Jesus of the gospel texts as a powerful exception to the violence that has been in the DNA of all human cultures, and a cure to mimetic conflict.

It is not obvious to what degree Girard regards this conviction as reconcilable with an acceptance of modern secular governance, founded as it is by the state monopoly on violence. For many political thinkers throughout history, a society cannot achieve any meaningful cohesion without an enemy to delineate itself against. Violence is fundamental to social order. This is one of the major issues we face today, do we resuscitate the scapegoat in order to maintain the state’s cohesion, or as Girard wanted, put a final end to scapegoating and sacrifice. The former is warranted, but the latter is what is espoused. Thus, we are left with no clear end to the current wave of resentment and violence.

Regime

Girard insists on the primacy of the collective over the individual. Girard disdained the “the romantic lie”: the myth of the autonomous, self-directed individual that emerged out of European Romanticism. Girard suggested replacing the term “individual” with the neologism “interdividual,” which better conveys the way that identity is always constructed in relation to others.

According to Girard’s capricious analysis, monarchical power is the opposite side of scapegoating. Monarchy has its origins in the role of the sacrificed scapegoat as the unifier and redeemer of the community; it developed when scapegoats managed to delay their own ritual murder and secured a fixed place at the center of a society. A king is a living scapegoat who has been deified, and can become a scapegoat again.

Girard did not believe that a return to monarchical rule is plausible: the ritual underpinnings that were necessary to maintain its credibility, Girard insists, have been irreversibly demystified. The closest we have come to monarchial rule in modernity is in the corporation. The founder of an organization rules over his employees as a king. This is the rule, not the exception. A maniacal drive to succeed is needed in the founding of anything great.

Our world is filled with competition, frenzied ambition in every domain. Each of us is acquainted with the spirit of competition. This spirit is not a bad thing in and of itself. Its influence has long been felt in personal relations within the dominant classes. Subsequently it spread throughout the whole of society, to the point that today it has more or less openly triumphed in every part of the world. In Western nations, and above all in the United States, it animates not only economic and financial life, but scientific research and intellectual life as well. Despite the tension and the unrest it brings, these nations are inclined on the whole to congratulate themselves for having embraced the spirit of competition, for its positive effects are considerable. Not the least of these is the impressive wealth it has brought a large part of the population. No one, or almost no one, any longer thinks of forgoing rivalry, since it allows us to go on dreaming of a still more glittering and prosperous future than the recent past. Our world seems to us the most desirable one there ever was, especially when we compare it to life in nations that have not enjoyed the same prosperity. - Girard 

The consequences for the way we think about media are profound. Medias ability to channel mimetic desire, also serves as conduit of the violence that goes along with it. That, in turn, would suggest that abuse, harassment, and bullying – the various forms of scapegoating that have become constants of online behavior – are features, not bugs: the platforms’ basic social architecture, by concentrating mimetic behavior, also stokes the tendencies toward envy, rivalry, and hatred of the Other that feed online violence. This gives media elites a way to direct desire and violence. For someone overtly concerned about the threat posed by such forces to those in positions of power, a crucial advantage would seem to lie in the possibility of deflecting violence away from the prominent figures who are the most obvious potential targets of popular resentment, and into internal conflict with others.

Girard helps illuminate what media does, and why it has become so central to our lives By revealing that the management of desire confers power, mimetic theory can help us make sense of how media and its elites administer our desires, and to whose benefit. For Girard, modernity is the prolonged demystification of the basis of power in violence. Unveiling the ways that power operates through media can continue that process.

More and more, it seems to me, modern individualism assumes the form of a desperate denial of the fact that, through mimetic desire, each of us seeks to impose his will upon his fellow man. - Girard 

I think, is that we are creating an immune system for media that will protect us from its amplification and its affects on our relationships with ourselves and our relations with others. A modulator of sorts that modulates ones desire/violence loop. As many choose to represent themselves first online and then in person there will be a natural pullback of online presence once the desire for in person interactions hits a certain threshold, ironically driven by a desire cultivated online through pictures, videos, and print. Online first vs in real life first identities is a a topic that will need to be addressed for many years to come. Some will choose online lives over in person lives and be perfectly happy doing so.

There is more control over ones online persona(s) and peer groups, in large part they are curated by the user, though after reading about Girard, one realizes that the cultivation is heavily influenced by mimetic desire. But, the false sense of control or power is intoxicating for the individual and if it is stoked more so online than in real life, people will gravitate towards it. So, the question remains, how does one lead a fulfilled life when shaped by memetic desire and limited by mimetic violence? Recognition.

In the recognition of the reality of mimesis, that even our desires are not our own, there is a new appreciation for the other as fundamentally a part of one’s own creative unfolding. Understanding involves more than a philosophical shift. It requires more than simply realizing there are no pure victims and no pure perpetrators. Even with the best of intentions, each of us finds ourselves invariably guilty of scapegoating others and at other times being the recipient of the same. Progress entails more than simply letting go of our own pettiness and grievances which, by itself, might simply entail a withdrawal from the social world to avoid conflict.

This new way of being human demands a “transformational and vigilant process that must be renewed daily against the tide of new or ancient resentments, and it must complete itself in an active reaching out to the other, a willingness to try again. Much of the language of psychology tends to suggest or imply that humans move from conflictual or painful periods in search of some kind of pain-free mode of existence. Recognizing the power of mimetic desire forces us to concede that human life is always lived as part of a larger existential strain that must be embraced.