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Metadata of Note

Type: 🌰 Seed [Nomenclature present here.]

Source: Summary and Notes: Things Hidden Since the Foundations of the World by Rene Girard by Johnathan Bi

Tags: #Mimetic Desires  

Date: May 23th, 2022


It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it. – Alexis de Tocqueville


Mimetic Rivalry

Girard’s apocalyptic warnings begin with a seemingly innocuous observation: a fundamental, if not the fundamental, characteristic of humanity is imitation. Imitation is any act conscious or unconscious, deliberate or unintentional that reproduces another’s behavior. We imitate the language and customs of our cultures, but more worryingly, we also imitate the desires of those around us. This mimetic nature of desire naturally propels groups of people to desire a select set of objects, and thus competition begins.

Initially, the attention and effort expended upon this competition would be quite reasonable as individuals are merely acting to procure the objects for themselves; success and failure is determined by the obtainment of the object. But eventually the objects take second place and it is the models whom they imitate, their competitors, that the individuals become fascinated with. They now want to best their models more than simply to procure the object. When the model takes priority over the object in competition, sober object-competition gives way to what Girard termed “mimetic rivalry”. The discrete representation of the following graph should not obscure the continuous nature of competition. In reality, competition can lie on a gradient between these two extremes.



The goal of object-competition, to acquire the object, is clear and success is more or less secure. The goal of mimetic rivalries, to best the rival, is ambiguous and success is unstable. There is no clear criteria for superiority over the rival and even if we are confident in our temporary victory, lasting dominance over a dynamic and adapting rival is unstable. This ambiguity and insecurity cause much more tension and suffering than object-competition does. When mimetic rivalries proliferate between members of a society and the tension within is too great, an arbitrary and innocent scapegoat is often blamed and expelled in an act of collective murder.


Origins of Myth

This transference of aggression would work so well in premodern societies that the murderers would often credit the drastic difference between the peace after the act of sacrifice and the chaos before to the divinity of the scapegoat and begin to form a religion around the now deified scapegoat. This, Girard argues, is the anthropological origins of myth. Within this myth, cultures would create two general sets of structures that guarded against another society-wide escalation of mimetic rivalries.

  • The first set were prohibitions which included hierarchies like the caste system, rules like the banning of mirrors, and social conventions like those regulating sexual behavior. Prohibitions prevented groups of people from imitating one another: an Indian Shudra could not imitate the lifestyle of a Brahmin anymore than a Medieval woman could copy the social functions of a man. This limitation on mimesis, although arbitrarily oppressive, restricted the formation of mimetic rivalries which would decrease the fuel for violent scapegoating.
  • The second set were rituals that sought to reproduce the original sacrifice in a controlled manner. A placeholder, such as a lamb, would represent the first victim and the catharsis from the act of murder amplified by its connection to the original would release whatever tension was built up from rivalry. Rituals prevent violence in society by acting as a release valve which diffuses mimetic rivalries before they escalate, channeling it in a direction that would lead to resolution.



Issues With Modernism

Modernity, with its high esteem for rationality, is a force of demystification that has severely weakened the last causal arrow of myth-making. Prohibitions, labeled as oppressive and arbitrary, have been torn down by progressive movements. Rituals, especially sacrificial rituals, are even more foreign and unacceptable to our cultural psyche.

Girard sees modernity as veering towards apocalypse because we have unleashed mimesis and accelerated the formation of mimetic rivalries by tearing down prohibitions while throwing away the tool of ritual that could tame such forces. As a result of this built up in societal tension, we resort to scapegoating at a dizzying frequency and scale. Girard would point to the atrocities of scapegoating in the Communist and Fascist regimes of the twentieth century as evidence of our increased capacity and need for violence:

Entire categories of humans are distinguished (the Jews, the aristocrats, the bourgeois, the unfaithful, the faithful…) and we are told that utopia depends on the necessary condition of the elimination of the guilty categories. As the power of the mechanism breaks down, sacrifices at a larger and larger scale must persist to achieve the same calming effect. Before we could bring peace by sacrificing a goat or a few men, but now we must kill an entire race, religion, class — the eradication needs to be total, hence the “omnipresent victim”.