What is Mimetic Theory? A Short Summary
Mimetic theory is a concept developed and advocated for by René Girard, 20th-century French anthropologist. Mimetic theory’s key insight is that human desire is not an autonomous process, but a collective one. Said most simply: we want things because other people want them.
As more and more people want something and that object remains scarce, this creates conflict. There are only so many Lamborghinis or huge houses or political offices and as more and more people desire a particular thing, the competition to get it becomes ever more fierce.
This began as a natural phenomenon: animals and humans learn by imitating other members of their groups. Broadly, this is a useful trait: babies learn to speak and function as a result of imitation. However, Girard pointed out that neither humans nor animals are able to differentiate between good, non-acquisitive mimesis (learning skills from others in your group) from bad, acquisitive mimesis (desiring scarce objects – money, fame, power, someone else’s mate, etc.)
In Girard’s view, mimesis was at the root of all societal conflict because it is so deeply ingrained in human nature. Girard proposed a cycle where a single person or group started to desire something and then through mimesis, more and more people sought the same scarce resource. This created conflict, sometimes devastatingly so. The conflict could only be resolved through what Girard called the scapegoat mechanism. If the conflict over a scarce object became too intense, the community subconsciously choose a scapegoat which was sacrificed (literally or metaphorically).
A common example would be how business CEOs often go from the next hot thing and darling to public enemy number 1 as more and more people try to imitate them and aren’t able to be as successful.
Traditional religions and rituals were ways of transforming the scapegoat mechanism into institutions which could then be used over and over to resolve the mimetic conflict. According to Girard, all of human culture is built on top of the scapegoat mechanism and its ritual repetition.
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Mimetic Theory: Summary of Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World
Section 1: Fundamental Anthropology
The primary source of conflict in society is mimetic conflict. That is, humans want something more because other humans want it which makes yet others want leading to inevitable conflict over scarce resources.
In most religions, there are myths which tell the story of there resolution of mimetic conflict through scapegoating, a sacrifice that is imbued with the source of mimetic conflict. Often this involves doubles or twins – Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus. One of the brothers must die in order for the conflict to be resolved.
Noah’s flood which appears in many religions is an example of mimetic conflict being washed away by sacrifice.
“There is not prohibition which cannot be related to mimetic conflict.”
The rivalry is always over some scarce object, it is acquisitive mimesis, the desire of many for something scarce.
Most traditional rituals were devised to imitate and transfer the mimetic conflict onto a scapegoat and imbue them with it then kill them (sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically) to destroy the perceived source of mimetic conflict and greater violence
Prohibition and ritual have the same goal – avoiding mimetic conflict. Prohibitions attempt to avert the crisis by prohibiting behaviors that provoke it, but if it happens nonetheless then ritual attempts to channel it towards a resolution and reconciliation of the community at the expense of an arbitrary, surrogate victim.
As rivalry becomes more acute, the rivals are more apt to forget about whatever they are fighting about and right purely over rivalry and prestige. In this way acquisitive mimesis dissolves into conflictual mimesis where two or more individuals converge on the same adversary and wish to strike them down. (Possible examples – Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Ireland, Hatfield vs McCoys)
The community satisfies its rage against an arbitrary victim in the unshakable conviction that it has found the one and only cause of its trouble.
So once acquisitive mimesis has produced a sufficient degree of division and conflict, it is transformed into conflictual mimesis which requires a scapegoat, ritually executed, to dissolve.
Mimesis is inherited from animal ancestors because it is an essential trait. Animals must imitate to learn and so imitations and mimesis is not itself problematic but becomes problematic when the imitation is over desire for a scarce good, what Girard calls acquisitive mimesis.
Ritual and prohibition emerged as cultural adaptations to manage this biological problem that could destroy communities of humans.
What is essential to ritual is that the participants don’t understand it. If they know that the victim is merely an arbitrary, surrogate one rather than the true source of the conflict, killing the victim does not eliminate conflict. Only if the victim is truly believed to be the source of conflict will it resolve the mimetic crisis. The effectiveness of ritual is directly proportional to the failure to understand it. True ‘scapegoats’ are those whose humans never recognize as scapegoats, in whose guilt there is unshaken belief. A ritual as simple as “drawing straws” can work if people believe it.
Culture and myth is the combination of ritual and prohibition and religion is the making legible of culture. In this way, the sacred is fundamentally violence, it is scapegoating. Religion is focused on peace but the means of achieving it relies on violence towards the scapegoat. Shakespeare’s tragedies are all examples of mimetic sacrifice. E.g. Julius Caesar.
When some religion becomes seem as this source of violence, it decomposes and the religion itself becomes the scapegoat. People fail to see that it is humanity that is the source of violence.
This cycle also happens in politics where politicians choose scapegoats to resolve mimetic conflict. E.g. “Crooked Hillary”
The founding murder – the victim is held responsible for the crisis which polarizes the conflict between the victim and the community. The victim is sacrificed which founds the community anew.
Religious systems keep the peace by scapegoating when mimetic rivalry threatens to tear the community apart. By linking an infraction of a prohibition with divine vengeance rather than petty desire, religion gives them a mystery that makes the sacrifice effective at convincing the community that the conflict is now resolved.
Religion stays around because it serves this very useful (i.e. high mimetic fitness) purpose.
Monarchy and kings also serve this purpose. The king is enthroned given the image of power, he is the future scapegoat. Kings survive by consolidating power before mimetic conflict arises and having the ability to transfer the mimetic crisis to an aide to serve as scapegoat.
Institutions broadly are emergent from the rituals and myths designed to prevent mimetic conflict. CEOs/presidents/coaches are enshrined as future scapegoats but can transfer it to a VP/cabinet member/assistant coach unless it gets too big. This is in contrast with the modernist/structuralist vie which sees institutions as primary and ritual as emergent.
One example is funerals which emerged as a way to celebrate the death of surrogate victim and elimination of mimetic conflict. The pyramids then are talismans of the death of a surrogate victim (kinpharaohah) and restoration of piece. Funeral rites are basis of all subsequent culture, not vice versa.
Not all human conflict dissolves into a sacrifice and fight to the death because humans are able to translate it into a symbolic framework and act it out at a symbolic level.
As human society developed more and became more socially scalable, mimetic conflict intensified. There were more and more people competing over equally or more scarce goods. Instagram, Snapchat, etc. all exacerbate this.
Humans are also unique because of the asymmetric in violence they are capable of. This is increasing overtime. Scapegoating in a post-nuke world is an existential threat.
“The national are not wise enough to abandon the power of creating mutual terror, nor are they made enough to unleash irreversible destruction. So we must reckon with a complex situation that falls between these two positions, and all the forms of mankind’s past and future behavior can be discernedd there. Either we are moving ineluctable towards non-violence of we are about to disappear completely.
The genuinely new element is that violence can no longer be relied upon to resolve the crisis. Violence no longer guarantees a firm base. For violence to be capable of carrying out its cyclical development and brining back piece, there must be an ecological field that can absorb the damage done in the process. Nowadays, this field covers the entire planet … The environment can no longer absorb the violence humans can unleash.”
Most games and sports like gambling, theatre, boxing, etc. are a result of mimesis but with the sacrifice left off the end. We love them b/c they tap into a deep part of human psychology.
Racial and religious minorities are often scapegoated because they are most obviously “different.” A Girardian reading of The Holocaust might be as an attempt for the Germans to destroy the mimetic conflict resulting from Depression + Treaty of Versailles. It was different from prior scapegoating rituals because (1) it lacked the appropriate ritual so it didn’t resolve any conflict, just horribly tragic and (2) humans had much more power and so could do much more damage than a single sacrificial victim.
Both these trends are persistent so modern society is marked by more and more sacrifice to less and less effect.
Science in some ways looks like a trap. By desacralizing and getting rid of religion, there may be no victim mechanism to save man and by increasing the asymmetry of man’s power, it allows for self-destruction.
There are three key moments in mimetic conflict
- Dissolution, removal of the differences and hierarchies which prevented conflict
- The founding murder – all against one of collective violence
- The development of prohibitions and rituals to sustain society going forward
Section 2: The Judeo Christian Scriptures
Cain’s murder of Abel founded Caininite tribe. Cain was marked with a symbol by God which would tell other that if they struck down Cain, he would strike them down.
“‘Very well, then, Yahweh replied, ‘if anyone kills Cain, sevenfold vengeance shall be taken from him’ So Yahweh put a mark on Cain to prevent whoever might come across him from striking him down.”
The Old Testament is mostly about recurring mimetic conflict and how it is endemic to humanity. This is similar to all preceding religions.
Satan is identified with the circular mechanisms of violence. Satan is the embodiment of the mimetic process, the source of rivalry and disorder and deceit. Most religions worship (metaphorical) Satan, religion is a way to bling ourselves from the founding murder so we may go on killing.
All cultures which have survived are those which have succeeded in obscuring the founding murder and embedding it in ritual.
The law is just a cultural creation arising from prohibition and ritual with the goal of justifying the verdict of the court of popular opinion, to sacrifice the scapegoat. The mythology around the law merely obscures that that is what happening, making it more effective. The decision to crucify Jesus was first a decision of the crowd, blessed by the court of Pontius Pilot.
Myths and culture as well as the cultural forms grafted on them like philosophy and anthropology tend to justify the founding murder then eliminate the traces of it so as to convince humanity that it is innocent of these murders. The Bible stars to differentiate in that it forces humans to look at the founding murder.
The New Testament, particularly the Gospels, are subversive text whose purpose is to reveal to humans the cycle of mimetic violence. Jesus death is not sacrifice, but has been contorted and seen that way by the Church as a way to fit it to other religions/myths and justify violence.
The notion of love in the Gospel is the antidote to violence. Love thy neighbor as thyself means to put an end to mimetic conflict.
Modern atheism is incapable of brining the victimage mechanism to light. It’s empty skepticism about all religion constitutes a new method of keeping these mechanisms invisible, whereas the gospel text explicitly reveals the foundations of all religions in victimage b/c Jesus remains non-violent.
Section 3: Inter-individual Psychology
“In the long run, the pessimism of reactionaries never proves to be justified, but neither does the optimism of revolutionaries. The expansion of human potential that the latter expect from the final, complete liberation of desire never turns out to be the triumph that they expect.”
By this Girard seems to be criticizing the strong drive of modern people to rid themselves of pre-existing prohibitions and rituals. He goes on:
“Modern people still fondly imagine that their discomfort and unease is a product of the strait-jacket that religious taboos, cultural prohibitions, and in our day, even the legsl forms of protection guaranteed by the judiciary system place upon desire. They think that once this confinement is over, desire will be able to blossom forth; tis wonderful innocence will finally be able to bear fruit.”
None of this works out says Girard because of acquisitive mimesis: “To the extent that desire does away with the external obstacles that traditional society ingeniously established to keep it from spreading
The more people think that they are realizing the Utopias dreamed up by their desire – in other words, the more they embrace ideologies of liberation- the more they will in fact be working to reinforce the competitive world that is stifling them.
The best method of chastising making is to give people all that they want on all occasions.”
You can read this into both the anarcho-capitalist/libertarian/free speech movement and social justice momvement. Both want to remove certain traditional constraints but Girard would argue that in doing so they are recreating the mimetic conflict those prohibitions and rituals prevented so no one is any better off.
This doesn’t mean that what they are denouncing isn’t wrong or a from of persecution, it may be but getting rid of it will just create new, potentially worse forms of persecution and mimesis
But likewise we can not return to constraints of the past. “From the moment cultural forms begin to dissolve, any attempt to reconstitute them artificially can only result in the most appealing tyranny.”
“When we try to make these processes effective once again, people are tempted to multiply the innocent victims, to kill all the enemies of the nation or the class, to stamp out what remains of religion or the family as the origins of all forms of ‘repression’”
I read Girard to be describing many of the tragedies of the 20th century from the Holocaust in Europe to the Cultural Revolution in China. These were attempts to scapegoat a particular group but because humankind’s power to kill is so much greater while the rituals are weakened, there was vast human tragedy without actually creating an effective scapegoat.
Today we have a vast proliferation of desire because “desire is what happens to human relationships when there is no longer any resolution through the victim
Desire now flourishes within a society whose cathartic resources are vanishing”
There is a double bind of imitation here because mimesis is essential for society to function “No one can do without a highly developed mimetic capacity in acquiring cultural attitudes-in situating oneself correctly within one’s culture.
Everything we know under the titles of apprenticeship education and initiation rests on this capacity for mimesis.”
The problem is that humans, particularly children, can’t distinguish between non-acquisitive forms of behavior, those which are good to imitate, and acquisitive forms which create rivalry and conflict.
As modern society pulls down barriers to ‘freedom,’ Morden society is putting more people into a double bind in more areas of their lives.
Prohibitions, rituals and institutions are forms of “negentropy” that return society towards a more stable equilibrium, as those disappear, we see more entropy and volatility.
A lot of section 3 is devoted to rebutting Freud. Girard argues mimetic theory is more primary than Freud’s Oedipal Complex. The Oedipal complex is Freud’s theory that sons are in conflict with their fathers over their mothers (vice versa for daughters) and that humans generalize this triangle of rivalry beyond just their literal parents to symbols. Girard says this is true in some cases, but is just another example of acquisitive mimesis, two rivals fighting over the same thing.
Because there is some fundamental desire by humans to be in mimetic conflict, we elevate the model which creates the conflict and take the side of the model against ourselves, secretly justifying the hostile treatment and interpreting it as condemnation we deserve.
E.g. You want more money so even though you feel persecuted and judged by society for not making enough money, you go on trying to make more money by elevating the desire (money) and condemning yourself. This can go on indefinitely and would explain why someone even with a huge amount of money or income by most people’s standards would still feel broke.
Girard also explains a sort of meta-mimesis using fashion. Fashion becomes powerful because people are trying to be different, but different in the same way so that giving up fashion then becomes fashionable (see Hipsters).
Everyone is always deserting the reigning fashion in order to imitate what has not yet been imitated, what everybody is only beginning to imitate.
Mimetic conflict is then no longer about a certain object (one particular fashion) but about the model (being fashionable, whatever it means at one point in time and culture) which is always evolving out of reach.
The essential point is that we never really want ‘the thing,’ we want to desire the thing so we always choose something ungraspable. The label masochism is often used for this, but it is just another form of mimesis. It decides that the only objects worthy of being desired are those that can not be possessed. The only rivals are those who are invincible.
Girard believes that the one advantage we have is that we are a “more advanced stage of the historical process which is accelerating towards the truth” and that if the mechanism of mimesis can be revealed to all as the gospels tried to do then it can be overcome.
All the religions of mankind are intermediate stages between animal life and the crisis of the present day. This crisis is in large part driven by science and humanism which in removing pre-existing prohibitions of religion have given way to the terrifying violence of the 20th century.
What we need is meaning: “There are not recipes any more, not even a Marxist or a psychoanalytic one. Recipes are not what we need, nor do we need to be reassure-our need is to escape from meaninglessness.
Generally, I think there is definitely a “there there” with Girard and his theory is useful for a broad range of phenomena. He seems to have believed that it was “The Theory to End All Theories” which seems like a stretch. Some ways that mimetic theory seems to be useful to me:
Understanding various social situations in terms of the need of finding a scapegoat to sacrifice, if not violently with some kind of resolution and catharsis. E.g. Firing the assistant coach after a bad season. Shows the drive bad/manipulative political and economic pundits tap into.
Understanding the import of “mimetic desire,” namely the desire to copy others, and also why this is not always an entirely peaceful process (becuase of scarcity).
Seeing violence as a chronic problem of human societies, rather than as the result of a bug in rational choice or the collapse into a bad game-theoretic solution.
Christian gospels as the deconstruction of Jungian/Campbellian mono-myth rather than another example of it.
Institutions broadly are emergent from the rituals and myths designed to prevent mimetic conflict. CEOs/presidents/coaches do this to by sacrificing a VP/cabinet member/assistant coach. This is in contrast with the modernist/structuralist view which sees institutions as primary and ritual/religion as emergent.
Emphasis on religion on symbology over platonic modernism as the starting point of analysis. High modernists a la Plato see religion as a parasite that grew on human institutions whereas Girard see the reverse. I think Girard’s point is under-apprecciated. (Cultural platonism = conviction that human institutions have been more or less the same for all of eternity, a platonic object.)
Maybe democracy works in part because the election is a ritual of a founding murder? One candidate is sacrificed. As Toqueville observed, it is a pressure release valve where indiviudals feel they have control and agency without actually having any real say?
Mimetic theory would suggest that as society has gone more global and universal, strife would increase because more and more pople can see the “top of the pyramid” and want it.
Girard was a big influence on venture capitalist Peter Thiel. Thiel says you don’t want to have competitors because you want to avoid mimetic rivalry which is always more agents competing over fewer resources. The is why he doesn’t like “disrupt” as a verb to describe because it suggests mimetic conflict – that you are fighting over some scarce good instead of creating a blue ocean.
Seeing the Law and legal system as much more a product of the court of public opinion then as an impartial source of Justice
Pressfield’s concept of The Resistance is a way to leverage scapegoating in a productive way by making the scapegoat an invisible force to push against.
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Last Updated on May 14, 2022 by Taylor Pearson