A week ago I graduated from the University of St. Andrews. The graduation ceremony was very enjoyable, but was made far more memorable on account of the fact that René Girard was being presented with an honorary doctorate.
I have long been a huge fan of the work of René Girard. In contrast to many other thinkers, Girard is renowned, not for many insights in various areas of study, but for a singular idea of profound explanatory potential, a simple insight that illuminates innumerable otherwise perplexing questions. Girard’s great insight is that human desire, far from being purely individual and arising within us apart from external influence, is imitative and ‘inter-dividual’ in its constitution. From this single insight great light is shed upon social and interpersonal dynamics, religion, mythology and culture.
Girard claims that we learn what to desire by imitating the desires of others. This form of behaviour is easiest to observe in the case of children. Put two children in a room with a hundred toys and it is quite likely that they will end up fighting over the same one. Rather than arising spontaneously or being fixed on predefined objects, each child’s desire for the object is mediated and reinforced by the desire of the other. Girard argues that desire is ‘mimetic’ in character; our desire does not directly fix itself on objects, but is mediated by the desire of others for certain objects. Invested with the aura of the other’s desire, certain objects can become suddenly greatly desirable to us.
The relationship of imitation (often mutual) between the desiring person and the mediator of their desire is deeply important. Objects of desire are largely interchangeable, but the bond between the individual and the mediator of his or her desire is far stronger than this. This relationship of imitation can be manifested in a deep attraction between the top mimetic partners, an attraction that can transform into antagonism with incredible ease. Both the attraction and the antagonism find a common source in the imitative relationship that exists between the two partners. In such a mimetic relationship the one who desires wants to be like the model of his or her desire in all things, to occupy their position (Girard’s account of the Oedipus complex follows this line).
As they both seek the same object of desire and cannot share it, it is not surprising that rivalry develops. Girard finds this dynamic in much great literature. For instance, two friends desire the same woman and become each other’s rival. For Girard, the most important relationship in this classic love triangle is the relationship between the two friends. In such a relationship the woman may well be interchangeable with almost any other woman. What makes her significant is not what she is in herself, but what she is as surrounded by the aura of the other’s desire. She is desirable because she is desired by the other. Girard observes the way in which such mimetic rivalries escalate and how ‘scapegoats’ serve as lightning conductors for the violence that these rivalries breed. Warring parties can be reconciled through the scapegoat mechanism, as they join together in venting their violence on a third party.
The fact of imitative desire helps to explain the contagious power of certain evil actions. After the first stone has been thrown, each following stone becomes progressively easier to cast, having a model to follow. Imitation and the scapegoat mechanism illuminates the manner in which evil reports and false accusations can gain virtually unstoppable momentum; the initiation of such a report is like the first fall of stones down a mountainside, which starts the landslide. The guilt of the scapegoat is everywhere presumed and no fair hearing is given. As a single false report is repeated and parroted enough, it gains in credibility with each repetition, until the unanimity created by the contagion of imitation makes its truth appear undeniable.
Girard’s insight concerning mimetic desire can help us understand some of the mechanics of dysfunctional relationships and psychologies. For instance, the masochist is someone who desires the unobtainable, or always thwarts his own attempts to gain the object of his desire. He desires the failure of his desire to reach its supposed object, subconsciously aware of the fact that, if the desire were to achieve its object, it would merely have secured its own death. If the masochist were in fact to gain the object of his desire, it would cease to be desirable to him. The thing that makes the object desirable is the obstacle (whether the prohibition or the person) that obstructs the way.
Masochism is central to the psychology of sin. Sin is aroused by the Law, because the Law sets up a system of prohibitions, which invests the transgression with the aura of desirability for it. Apart from the Law sin lacks this degree of desirability. In the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden we see such a dynamic in operation. The fact that the fruit is forbidden is used by Satan to excite the desire of Adam and Eve. Satan portrays God as a model-obstacle to Adam and Eve: God places a taboo on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil because he wishes to prevent Adam and Eve from achieving the self-sufficiency that he enjoys. Satan thus twists the natural relationship of imitation that mankind should have with God into a perverted and masochistic one. Rather than the positive imitation of God’s desire that mankind should display, Satan presents God’s desire as an obstacle.
It is this sort of logic that Slavoj Žižek appeals to when he observes that, with the ‘death of God’, far from everything being permitted, nothing is permitted. The perverted desire of sin depends on God for its survival. Where there is no God left to prohibit, everything ceases to be desirable. Sin is drawn to death. It desires that which is forbidden, but it cannot satisfy that desire. Every forbidden fruit will turn to dust in its mouth. Sinners desire the death of God, but this death of God leaves them further from satisfaction than they were beforehand.
Mimetic desire can explain why we often chose as models of desire people who are indifferent to us or despise us (unsmiling models create the aura of desirability that goes with top brand products). Their indifference is seen to be indicative of a self-sufficiency that we lack. We desire to be self-sufficient like them and so we desire the objects that they desire.
Our sense of self-worth is not unaffected by mimetic desire. Our self-worth can often involve imitation of how others value us. This can produce ugly relationships on occasions. The girlfriend who keeps returning to the abusive boyfriend can be hooked on him like a drug. As he continues to mistreat her, her sense of self-worth plummets and becomes increasingly dependent on any displays of affection that he might give her. Far from undermining his role as a model of her self-valuation, the abuse of the boyfriend may actually serve to reinforce his role. A person in such an abusive situation may well reject the very people who most care for her (their care and love being taken as a sign of their insufficiency), while being irresistibly drawn to the one who despises and abuses her. The violence of the boyfriend reinforces her belief that beyond this violence lies the promised land of self-worth. However, deep down she knows that this is an illusory promise; if the violence were to cease, she would not enjoy the self-worth that she seeks. Ultimately it is the violence that creates the illusion; were the violence to end the illusion would disappear too.
Girard’s insight into the mimetic character of desire challenges us to ask questions about the reasons why we desire and don’t desire certain things. For example, do we pay a high price for items because we value them, or do we value items because we pay a high price for them? I know a bookseller who sends out a regular mailing list. If one of the books doesn’t sell after a number of mailings he will, counter-intuitively, raise the price of the book in question. The book almost invariably sells in the next mailing. Supposing the price tag to be an indicator of the desire of the other, we can invest certain objects with an aura of desirability that they might otherwise lack. Girard also helps us to uncover the hidden causes of our rivalries and exposes the manner in which we have unwittingly used others as our scapegoats.