Entitled Opinions – Mimetic Desire

11 June 2009 | philosophy

A conversation with Professor René Girard about his theory of mimetic desire.

Host: Robert Harrison
Guest: René Girard (prof of French Lit, Stanford)
Date: 9/18/2005

Harrison introduces Girard as being on the forefront of research and inquiry into "the fundamental mechanism of human desire", drawing together anthropology, literary criticism, and psychology.  Girard was inducted in 2005 into the Académie Francaise, honoring him as a treasured intellectual (and a little perspective on the remarkableness of Stanford having TWO such professors: no other department in the U.S. has even one Académie Francaise inductee).

Girard has branched into the formulation of an anthropogenetic theory of culture, and his next book Violence and the Sacred explores scapegoat rituals, sacrifice, and the origins of religion.

The following is a partial transcription (roughly 50%) with commentary and interpretation.

MIMETIC DESIRE

GIRARD:

"Mimetic desire is fundamentally a desire in which this choice for the object the individual is going to desire is not determined by that object itself, as we normally believe, but by a third person.  We imitate that third person, which is what mimetic means. 

In order to understand this, you can take almost any example – why do all girls have been baring their navels for the last 5 years?  Obviously they didn’t all think for themselves, that it would be nice to show one’s navel, or maybe one is too hot in the navel and one must do something about this.  We see the mimetic nature of desire the day that fashion collapses. Suddenly, it’ll become very old-fashioned to show one’s navel, and no one will show it anymore. And it will be because of other people, just as now it is because of other people that they show it."

HARRISON: 

"But how far do you want to go in saying that desire by its very nature in human beings is fundamentally mimetic?"

GIRARD:

"Well, maybe one can start from this question. What is the difference between need, appetite, and desire?  And need and appetite all animals have.  And we know very well that if we are alone in the Sahara desert, and we are thirsty, we don’t need a model to want to drink.  It’s a need that we have to satisfy. 

But most of our desires in a civilized society are not like that.  And if you think of such thing as vanity, snobbery, you know — what is snobbery?  In snobbery  you desire something not because you already have an appetite for it, but because you think you’ll look smarter, you’ll look more fashionable, if you imitate the man who desires that object, who also pretends that he desires it."

Antagonism is named as an "inevitable result" of mimetic desire.

GIRARD (on the role of literature in human culture):

"Literature is just like another Other.

So in other words, the contents of a narrative, whether fictional or historical, conjure the same mimetic desires as real world interpersonal interactions, because the brain is able to set up the literature as the Model which the reader should desire to imitate.

GIRARD (on the incitement of desire):

"The denial of the object is extremely, very linked to the presence of the Third Person who might steal the object from you, and absence is a form of mediation."

GIRARD (on Cervantes):

"Why does Don Quixote want to become a Knight Errant in a world with no more knight errants?  …because he reads novels of chivalry."

HARRISON:

"So literature not only reveals these mechanisms of mimetic desire, it also proposes models of imitation for readers. Of course this is something we see everywhere, not only in readers of literature, but obviously movie-goers, television-watchers; I think it’s undeniable that we live in a culture where we’re steeped with models of imitation."

GIRARD:

"That’s right. And of course the more recent media are more powerful than books [?].  Today we try to get children to read books and not to watch television. But in the old days, books were really fascinating because they played the role of television today, and they were a temptation per se.  When you try to convince students that they should read them against their mimetic impulse, of course, you more or less tell them that they have no interest for them.  That they are not going to get any incitement of their desire in them. That’s probably why it’s so hard to teach little children today."

[…]

HARRISON:

"Perhaps what you’re describing is correct and accurate when it comes to a country like France [vanity, snobbery, etc]… but if it doesn’t apply equally accurately to [other cultures]… to what extent are there claims are universality…?"

GIRARD (around 22:00)

"There is a claim of universality because it doesn’t matter which type of desire it is.  I mean, of course, in these novels, sexual desire plays a greater role.  But in a world of entrepreneurs… mimetic desire is very important too.  The institution which is the most mimetic of all is the greatest institution, capitalistic institution, which is the stock market.

You desire stock, not because it is objectively desirable – you know nothing about it – you desire stock exclusively because other people desire it.  And if other people desire it, its values goes up and up and up, and therefore, in a way the mimetic desire is absolute monarch, you know, it’s an official thing.  And what is very interesting is that the analysts of the market have not yet discovered that.

When they tell you psychology’s getting into the market, they mean that the mimetic wave which makes stocks rise is getting out of bounds – it has no more relationship to reality.  Because of course, behind it there is objective information, but the stock market is always threatened with a mimetic wave of such importance and such a lack of objectivity that there will inevitably be a collapse.  which is also lacking in objectivity. 

Just as the fashionable woman in Balzac, when she is abandoned by her lover, she may be abandoned by all potential lovers at the same time and it’s a total disaster for her. She becomes like a stock that has lost its value.

The error of Marx was to believe that the economic aspect of these things is more fundamental than the other ones. They are all equal – there is no reason – the error of Freud was to believe that the sexual aspect was the only one which was fundamental.  But the relationship between Freud and Marx, mimetic desire reveals it. Each one of them limits mimetic desire to one sector, one aspect, of human activity, which is regarded as the only important one, the key to everything."

Harrison probes Girard as to the quality of his theory of desires, saying  "it’s not a psychological theory… not based in psychological premises… it’s human relations and it’s also structures contained between people and not in the human psyche."  Girard agrees and declares a pattern in the animal kingdom that he feels supports his concept of mimetic desire.

GIRARD (around 24:00):

"In the animal world, you know, you have what are called dominance patterns – there are the males fighting for the females.  And the males are so eager to fight for the females, that sometimes the females will disappear and they will continue to fight, just because they are mimetically aroused.  And the fight is more important than the object. 

But! They will never kill each other.  Whereas human beings invent vengeance.  Vengeance is the ultimate form of mimetic rivalry, because each act of vengeance is the exact imitation of the preceding one.  If you study vengeance, you realize how mimesis, imitation, is all over the place in all manifestations of desire.  So in human beings it’s pushed to such an extreme, that you have death, you have vengeance, which cannot be limited."

Conversation moves to Envy…

GIRARD (around 26:00):

"I think that envy today is the… emotion that plays the greatest role in today’s society, which is all directed towards money, or you envy the people that have more than you have, and you cannot talk about your envy.  I think the reason we talk so much about sex is that we don’t dare talk about envy.  The real repression is the repression of envy.  And of course envy is mimetic – you cannot help imitating your model.  And of course if you want money very badly, you’re going to go into the same business that man is in, and so forth, and more likely than not, you will be destroyed by strength. 

So when people talk about masochism and so forth, they are still talking about mimetic desire.  They are talking about the fact that we move always to the greatest strength in the direction of the desire we envy most… And we do because that power is greater than ours, and probably is going to defeat us again. 

So there will be repetition for it, because repetition in psychological life, which is linked to the fact that we are obsessed by what has defeated us the first time.  Our victorious rival in lovemaking becomes a permanent model.  So novelists like Dostoyevsky, you know, and Cervantes himself, will show you characters who literally ask their rival to choose for them the girl they should love."

HARRISON (28:26):

"In the middle ages, envy was often depicted iconographically as a woman blindfolded, and I think it probably has to do with a false etymology of invidia, of not having sight. Do you see a blindness at the heart of envy in this regard… Is there a blind spot in our own failure to recognize envy one of the most dominant passions in our society?"

GIRARD (around 29:00):

"Yes, it’s the most difficult to acknowledge because it involves your whole being, you know. In a way envy is a denial of one’s own being, and accepting the fact that you prefer the being of your rival. And this is so hateful to you that it awakens a desire for murder, for murder of that Other you envy and cannot repress that envy."

HARRISON: 

"Sometimes murder, but you could say also in other cases, Admiration…and…"

GIRARD:

"That’s the same thing!"

HARRISON:

"Well, hopefully they have different outcomes.  I’m thinking whether the advertising industry doesn’t know what you’re saying, the lesson of Envy, very well."

GIRARD (29:34):

"Oh, I think they know it very well, because if you really look at advertising, they are never trying to demonstrate to you that the object they are selling is the best possible from an objective point of view, from the point of view of… scientific objectivity.  They are always trying to prove to you that this object is desired and possessed by the people you would like to be.  Therefore, Coca-Cola is drunk on a very beautiful beach, marvelous sun, a bunch of people sun-tan in an ideal way, who are always between the age of 16 and 22, who are everything you would like to be… so everything you might envy.  Therefore there is something sacramental, religion is always mixed up in these things.  If you consume Coca-Cola, maybe if you consume a lot of it, you will become a little bit like these people you would like to be. It’s like a kind of Eucharist that will turn you into the person you really admire."

Conversation rests on Shakespeare as a master investigator of mimetic desire.

"O hell! to choose love by another’s eyes." -Shakespeare (from A Midsummer’s Night Dream)

Shakespeare demonstrates that quite often, desire is generated by envy or admiration of the third-party, who is to be imitated in his desire for the Object.

Hamlet sees the similarity between the father and the uncle, sees the futility of it, and places himself outside of the mimetic desire circuit.  But in so doing, he finds himself weighing options that all seem futile and pointless, and thereby unable to act.

GIRARD (40:28):

"The inability to act, in our world, is in a way an awareness of the stupidity of mimetic desire.  And how equivalent things are to each other.  The more you act, the more you get into these mimetic situations which are circular."

[Long discussion of Shakespeare, especially focused on Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet. Harrison then changes the subject…]

HARRISON (around 51:00):

I promised I wouldn’t do this, but I think I have to ask whether, we’ve been talking about literature and mimetic desire… in relations between individuals — blood feuds, vengeance, reciprocal violence — these are all geopolitical realities in the world we live in.  Do you see any sort of pulling back from the endless repetition of the old cycles, or do you see a danger, a kind of vortex, in which we never really get beyond the cycles of reciprocal violence? in political terms.

GIRARD (51:40):

"I think we are free. It’s a question of understanding and of, well, human beings are so passionate that they always get caught in their own traps. We ourselves do, we are committed to what we do, we want to succeed. And we always succeed at the expense of someone, and therefore, I really think we are moving more and more towards more and more violence, because of rivalry. 

You know, I’ve talked a lot about literature, but recently I read a book which was very informative for me, which was Klausovitz on War… and what Klausovitz [said is that] it’s a "rise to the extremes", and in order to win you have to imitate your enemy, constantly.  And if you start reading Klausovitz carefully, you can see it starts working exactly like a mimetic novel which would be explicated because fundamentally a drama, a novel, is a war.  It doesn’t matter which side wins, because Klausovitz does not teach you how to win.  But he constantly shows you the mimetic nature of war.  In order to beat the French, you know, he was a Prussian during Napoleon’s victory.  In order to beat the French, you must have a popular war, you must draft everybody.  So here we see the move towards total war.  And he sees very well, too, that the technical side of war, the power of the artillery, for
instance, is a mimetic game.  If you have a big gun, I must have a bigger gun than you have.  So in other words, he shows us the move towards total war and total mimetic conflict."

HARRISON (53:35):

If they were to listen to you, what would you propose to politicians in order to try to avoid falling into this syndrome?

GIRARD (around 54:40):

Well I think that knowledge — it’s a complicated question, because my vision fundamentally is religious.  And I believe in nonviolence, and I believe in the knowledge of violence being able to teach you to reject violence. Because it will assure you that we are always getting into a game which is exactly like the previous ones, which is going to be a constant repetition.

HARRISON:

Yeah, but Hamlet already saw that; it didn’t save him.

GIRARD:

"ah… Shakespeare had to bring in Laertes, and if Laertes had been another Hamlet [laughter] there would have been no end to the play, it would have been the end of tragedy. But when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, what he said is, I’m tired of tragedy. And he’s really very close to the end of tragedy. And after that, he goes to the romances. And the romances, it’s really a bunch of characters who repent their violent desire, mimetic desire, for vengeance. "

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