Mimetic desire

One of my favorite things in life is to discover counterintuitive truths. Hence, I was happy to recently learn about mimetic desire, as discovered by the French polymath René Gerard.

Let me reproduce some real zingers from the article:

 We borrow our desires from others. Far from being autonomous, our desire for a certain object is always provoked by the desire of another person—the model—for this same object. This means that the relationship between the subject and the object is not direct: there is always a triangular relationship of subject, model, and object. Through the object, one is drawn to the model, whom Girard calls the mediator: it is in fact the model who is sought.

Mediation is external when the mediator of the desire is socially beyond the reach of the subject or, for example, a fictional character, as in the case of Amadis de Gaula and Don Quixote. The hero lives a kind of folly that nonetheless remains optimistic. Mediation is internal when the mediator is at the same level as the subject. The mediator then transforms into a rival and an obstacle to the acquisition of the object, whose value increases as the rivalry grows. This is the universe of the novels of StendhalFlaubertProust and Dostoevsky, which are particularly studied in this book.

What Paris wanted, then, was not Helen, but to be a great king like Agamemnon. A person who desires seeks to be like the subject he imitates, through the medium of object that is possessed by the person he imitates.

This was, and remains, a pessimistic view of human life, as it posits a paradox in the very act of seeking to unify and have peace, since the erasure of differences between people through mimicry is what creates conflict, not the differentiation itself.

It is the last quote in particular that seems like a fundamentally counter-intuitive fact about the world. I was always taught that it is our differences that create strife and conflict, and that if we could reduce the differences amongst ourselves, we could be peaceful. However, it now seems clear on reflection that conflicts are the harshest between people that are similar or close to each other. This is because, at least according to mimetic theory, all conflict is a desire to become someone- someone who you envy. You desire what they have. And hence you’re ready to maim them, insult them, somehow occupy the exalted position that they currently command.

If we could accept our differences, and accept that we are unique and incomparable with everyone else, we would perhaps have peace. It is this acceptance of our differences that would reduce conflict. However, we do not consider ourselves to be fundamentally incomparable with people that we envy or despise. We want to become them, and think that we indeed can become them. And it is in this act of aspirational mimicry that we shatter any hope of peace or contentment.

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Graduate student

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