Saturday, November 1, 2008

A bit about Rene Girard's theory of mimetic desire: Part 1

I've been reading a new book by Frederiek Depoortere, Christ In Postmodern Philosophy, which describes the various Christological impulses found in the writings of contemporary thinkers Gianni Vattimo, Rene Girard, and Slavoj Zizek. It's enjoyable and highly readable, if you are interested in any of these thinkers and how they might relate to the Christian religion. I am well into the section on Girard, and I thought I'd post a bit about his "mimetic theory," which is an anthropological theory that I find fascinating and, overall, quite compelling. Here are a few quotes from Girard (and my comments) that describe "mimetic theory," taken from pp. 35-42 of Depoortere's book:

"There is nothing, or next to nothing, in human behaviour that is not learned, and all learning is based on imitation. If human beings suddenly ceased imitating, all forms of culture would vanish."

"Mimesis" or "mimetic" basically means imitation/to imitate. All humans imitate other humans. Why do all humans imitate other humans? Because we all lack something, and we look to others who we think might help us fill this lack. Girard calls this something "being," which indicates that who we are, and who we might be, is not something directly accessible to ourselves. We need others to help us ascertain that which we lack. This might be something physical, emotional, educational, vocational, rational... we all seek ways to become more than what we currently are, whether we realize it or not.

"[A person] desires being, something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess. The subject thus looks to that other person to inform him of what he should desire in order to acquire that being. If the model, who is apparently already endowed with superior being, desires some object, that object must surely be capable of conferring an even greater plenitude of being."

So, each of us looks to another (or many others) to find that which we seem to lack in ourselves, and then each tries to imitate the other in an attempt to fill what is lacking. However, in doing this, a person will slowly begin to come into conflict with the other, because now they are competing for the same fullness of being. We will return to this in Part 2. There is also the realization that, each time, the object one finds does not ultimately satisfy all that one lacks. So there is the danger of a person endlessly desiring some object (a HUGE problem! Whatever we objectify essentially controls us...), which can, in its radical form, actually turn into a desire NOT to find the object. Girard poetically describes this search:

"A man sets out to discover a treasure he believes is hidden under a stone; he turns over stone after stone but finds nothing. He grows tired of such a futile undertaking but the treasure is too precious for him to give up. So he begins to look for a stone which is too heavy to lift - he places all his hopes in that stone and he will waste all his remaining strength on it..."

In other words, we humans are prone to place so much hope in finding something that will satisfy all of our desires that we may actually look for ways to develop patterns of thought and/or behavior that actually make it impossible for us to find that thing we think will satisfy - because of the fear that when we find it, it won't actually fulfill what we lack after all. So we build up structures that, in effect, keep us from finding what we're really looking for. This has many intriguing connections to religion that I won't explore here, but leave for you to consider.

Additionally, though, there is an even greater danger that stems from human mimesis. It is violence. And that will be the subject of Part 2...

No comments: