Mimetic Theory: The Origin Of Conflict

Sud Alogu
20 min readOct 21, 2020

Human Motivation

What is behind human motivation? Freud would tell you that all human goals are manifestations of the biological need to reproduce. All our desires, including intellectuality and aesthetic taste, are merely by-products of sexual signaling.

Competing Theories for Innate Desire

In one lecture, Girard explains his theory by contrasting it with the theories of three major thinkers in the 20 thcentury; they include Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. Freud said that man is driven by sexual desires, and that he represses them. This is necessary for the functioning of civilization. Man must overcome this tendency by learning how to keep his instincts under control — to avoid the conflicts that result from this desire. The damaging effect of this repression is neurosis.

Marx said that man’s essential desire is economic, and the way to avoid conflict from the scarcity of wealth is to distribute it equally across the population. Nietzsche wrote that it is in fact power that drives man. And the solution is not to rationalize away his need for power, but to embrace it — to strive to become a ‘superman.’

More recent books build on the Freudian theory. Matt Ridley’s thesis in The Red Queen, which builds on the ideas of Darwin and Freud, is that all human characteristics are the result of sexual selection, including artistic talent, intelligence, and wittiness. Comedians are not witty because there is anything unique about their personality, but because it enhances their chances of standing out, and of being sexually selected.

Simply put, anything that increases reproductive success will spread at the expense of anything that does not — even if it threatens survival.

The Red Queen, Matt Ridley

Girard can sympathize (although he does not agree) with Freud and Marx, since after they have diagnosed man’s primary psychological drive, they opt for a solution, a way out of the dilemma so that peace is maintained. But Girard cannot sympathize with Nietzsche since the latter does not call for us to keep our desire for power in check, but to pursue it fully, at all costs.

Mimetic Theory

An alternative theory, that seeks to explain human motivation is Girard’s mimetic theory — and it not only seeks to explain why human beings are motivated to do things other than survive, but why conflict arises in the first place, why scapegoating is a universal phenomenon and why there is a tendency for people who are closer together to fight more frequently.

Girard says that we borrow our desires from other people. We are not autonomous beings that select for ourselves our own authentic goals. Our desire for an object (money, popularity, pleasure) are provoked by the desire of a model (someone we aspire to be like) for this object. The subject does not directly desire the object, but there is an indirect triangular relationship between the subject, object, and the model.

Through the object, one is drawn to the model, whom Girard calls the mediator: it is in fact the model who is sought. Girard calls desire “metaphysical” in the measure that, as soon as a desire is something more than a simple need or appetite, “all desire is a desire to be”, it is an aspiration, the dream of a fullness attributed to the mediator.

Mimesis can either be positive or negative. You can either emulate a bad model or a good model.

Girard is a literary theorist who spent decades looking for a unifying theory in literature. Instead of focusing on what makes literary works stand apart, which is what literary theorists usually do.

Girard wanted to find what they all have in common, but more specific than that, he wanted to find what the great works have in common, because it was only the great writers that succeeded in representing the mechanisms of human behavior faithfully, without distortion. The greater the writer, the less variable this system of relationships, the more truthful they were.

It is the feeling for the general in the potential writer, which selects material suitable to a work of art because of its generality. He only pays attention to others, however dull and tiresome, because in repeating what their kind say like parrots, they are for that very reason prophetic birds, spokesmen of a psychological law.”

Proust, A Remembrance of Things Past

Close Conflict

In people who are closer, such as siblings, the desire to be unique from each other is dominant. But both are alike in that they both want to stand apart. They are more alike that they are comfortable admitting to themselves.

The narcissism of small differences is the thesis that communities with adjoining territories and close relationships are especially likely to engage in feuds and mutual ridicule because of hypersensitivity to details of differentiation.

Enzensberger, the German author, notes that “it is generally the rule, rather than the exception, that man destroys what he most hates, and that is usually the rival on his own territory. There is an unexplained linkage between hating one’s neighbor and hating a stranger. The original target of our hatred was probably always our neighbor; only with the formation of larger communities was the stranger on the other side of the border declared an enemy.”

Similar to Girard, who refers to man’s “centripetal tendency” for violence, the German author says that violence within the group precedes external violence. The cultivated wars between nations is an explicitly recent development.

And herein is an apparent paradox. If a belief in God brings harmony to people, then why do groups fight. A potential answer is Freud’s narcissism of small differences. Because these groups are similar in so many ways, the small differences are exaggerated to the point that they become sources of conflict. But Girard’s mimetic theory would explain this differently. It is not simply the existence of small differences, but the existence of similarities that is the culprit. Because these people have much that is in common, they fight.

There is a confusion between who the emulator is, and who the model is. In hierarchical systems (within a religion), this conflict is lacking, but when two separate authorities that are similar in most ways (Catholics versus Protestants or Sunnis versus Shiites), it is not clear who should be following the other, or who should command more power, resources, or people. Civil wars between rival groups in the same country are more frequent and lengthier but less intense than wars between different countries.

That is why conflict is most common in nuclear families where the relationships are closest. Two siblings exist in almost the same reality. They have the same parents and have been exposed to many of the same things. They share the same genes, amplitudes, and they probably look alike. But the hierarchy is not always obvious. Knowing this, siblings strive to be different from each other, but ironically, their efforts at standing apart from the other makes them even more alike.

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 Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust and Dostoevsky, which are particularly studied in this book.

Girard’s Mimetic Theory

Thus, mimesis is resolved through hierarchies. When there is possibility for competition, when one side is clearly superior to the other side, then rivalry does not exist, and so, conflict does not exist. It is only when the metaphorical distance between the subject and the model is minimal that rivalry intensifies, and conflict becomes inevitable.

The Mimetic Taboo

In culture, there is a taboo against mimesis. We praise originality and shun copycats and emulators. We refuse to admit our mimetic nature. But according to Girard, man lacks being, he feels intrinsically empty — this is a similar idea to Kierkegaard’s man who is doomed to a life of anxiety.

The solution, the one most available to man is to adopt the desires of the group, to model himself after what other people value. But once this is accomplished, his desires become a source of conflict. While there is truth to this idea, one can object that it is not clear when such desires are indeed because of imitation, or because of hidden biological needs, or evolutionary imperatives that give man an advantage in surviving.

Fashion, for example, is clearly an ideal that is based on imitation, according to Girard. And the paradoxical nature of fashion is apparent: everyone wants to be unique in the way that they dress, but they do so by copying the inventions of other people.

Yet there are other desires, such as the need for security, popularity, status, power- that are not based on imitation, only, but are necessary for survival in one way or another. Even fashion, it can be argued, aids in sexual selection and the multiplication of genes.

But such an objection does not invalidate mimetic theory, because what we clearly see around us, is not uniformity in terms of what people desire. If everyone was motivated purely by biological necessity or by innate personally quirks, we should not expect to find that culture makes any difference at all to what the individual within that culture desires.

What we see, as outlined in Huntington’s famous work, The Clash of Civilizations, is that there are multiple civilizations that exist in the world (not the same as countries). The Chinese, Western, and Muslim civilizations each have their own hierarchical systems that determine what is most valuable and what is least valuable.

People who belong to these different civilizations desire different things, they have different values. They are dominated by different memes (ideas). The idea of a meme is a self-organizing cluster of ideas.

A Digression into Memes

In some cultures, honor is more sought after than other cultures, while in other cultures, it is wealth or piety or popularity or prestige that is most valuable. Memes, although not articulated by Girard, forms the basis of mimesis. We want what our model wants, but the meme itself is what drives our model’s behavior, so it is what drives all behavior.

However, Girard would maintain that these memes are essentially products of language — if they cannot be articulated, then they will cease to exist. And since language, as we will shortly see, is a by-product of mimesis, then memes are a by-product of mimesis.

To sum up this relationship. Mimesis created language which then created memes.

These memes vary between civilizations, and they point to the metaphysical reality of human beings, that goes beyond power and sexuality. It is too simplistic to say that people are motivated by power and sex. They are, but to what extent? And what other things are they motivated by? And what are the things that influence what people are motivated by?

If we agree that cultural ideals and envy are responsible for the variability of human desire, then we cannot accept the thesis that humans are only driven by sex or power.

Superorganisms

The idea of the superorganism by Howard Bloom, is relevant here.

Every nation is a superorganism, a cluster of billions of cells, that attempts to gain power, whenever an opportunity presents itself. And each superorganism has its neural net, or its collective consciousness. What forms this collective consciousness? Memes.

The way in which this superorganism animates its people (organisms) into action is through memes. Memes are clusters of ideas that self-organize; they use people to spread. This idea is not Bloom’s, but is an old idea, of course, that was described by Jung (the collective unconscious) ecept that the latter emphasized the importance of archetypes that we were not conscious of. And later by Dawkins who wrote about memes, but did not associate a tremendous importance to them.

As Bloom’s thesis goes, there is a global pecking order, and you are either on top or at the bottom. The U.S is currently at the top, but it would be a mistake to think that they will remain there forever. The rest of the world is constantly trying to undermine the position of the U.S, including China. Russia, and Iran.

It is likely that the memes that exist at first dominate superorganisms (nations or civilizations). And this is different from saying that the memes dominate governments, because the governments (made up of law makers) are influenced by the tradition of their own culture (historical memes) as well as the memes that dominate other governments (Girard’s mimesis).

So the nation is characterized as an entity that is connected by ancient and modern memes, which translate to a hierarchy of values, that is then passed down to its citizens. The process is cyclical. It starts out bottom-up, and then becomes top-down. And so on.

While these superorganisms have different memes that are prevalent within them, they all do compete for power, and in this sense, Nietzsche is right. But here the mimetic principle is operating on these superorganisms. They emulate each other in the race for better weapons, energy systems, and communication networks. According to Bloom, the most powerful civilizations are able to impose their memes on others. In that sense, they are motivated by the will to power. And one can even argue, that this will to power is no more than a by-product of primary sexual motivation. The most powerful civilizations will be prosperous enough to procreate. The memes themselves are no more than agents for procreation. The dominant meme helps one civilization in its battle against the other (US vs China).

Individual people are nested within these superorganisms, and their desires are based on the social structures of their societies. They are undoubtedly influenced by what is most prized in their own culture. Mimetic theory operates on the level of nations and civilizations and on the level of individuals simultaneously.

Sex, Power, Mimesis

As discussed before, the competing theories behind human motivation take the form of either sex, power, or mimesis. But one must ask the question: are they mutually exclusive? Can power not be a disguised drive that ultimately leads to procreation? And can mimetics not be the mediator between the two, in that the will to power, or the urge to procreate are different forms of mimetics, that we emulate each other’s sexual and power desires?

Such a synthesis would resolve the conflict between Girard and Freud, and Nietzsche. But such a resolution may not be possible after-all. If Girard is right, then sex and power are nested within mimetic theory, but sex and power would not be primary, which undermines the Nietzschean and Freudian arguments.

For mimetic theory to be true, we would have to witness forms of emulation that are universal and have nothing to do with power or sex. One such form, which is mentioned in the Girard’s Mimetic Theory, is snobbery. Another is religious life. The Buddhist monk, for example, who lives a modest life where he exercises no power over others and does not marry, cannot be said to be motivated by either power or sex.

Further, the artist or writer who desires to be anonymous, and who’s work is only discovered after they are dead, does not seem to be motivated by power or sex. But mimetics can explain these seemingly paradoxical natures of people. It is possible for the monk to be motivated by the desire for nirvana, which was inspired by his teacher, and for the artist to be driven by an innate urge for private self-expression, or by beauty, or by the emulation of a hero. And it is possible for the snob to be motivated by his mentor, who is a snob.

The psychoanalyst Carl Jung would agree with Girard on the point that sexuality and power are not primary. Jung’s falling out with his mentor, Freud, was precisely about this very point. Jung saw no convincing evidence that sex was behind all human activity, he identified different agents within the unconscious that desire different things, and these archetypes are not all interested in power or sex.

The Desire for Being

But doesn’t this just mean that people have different desires because they have different personalities or upbringings or genetic predispositions? Even if we grant that power and sex are not the ideals that animate the behavior of people, It could simply be that that some desires are shared because the personalities of people fall into universal categories, and it is not that desires result from models that are being imitated, but by a personality quirk that leads someone to gravitate to some things more than others.

And to that objection, I believe Girard would cite writers such as Proust, Dostoevsky, and Flaubert, that show through the characters of their novels, that per­­­sonalities themselves are products of mimetic behavior.

The waiter acts in such a way, with a pattern of motion, speed, and attitude stimulate the model of ‘waiter’ in his mind, he is copying an ideal that he finds more security in than his improvisation. He is acting out a character, as observed by Sartre. The man who feels that a woman is attractive because others find her attractive, or because a role model of theirs finds her attractive.

In advertising, this phenomenon is taken for granted, and it manifests in a more straightforward way. The athlete or actor on the poster holding the drink/perfume/sunglasses, is the ‘model’ holding an object. If you want to be like this athlete or actor, then you must desire this drink or sunglasses, which they also desire. In the triangular model, you are the ‘subject’, the drink, or sunglasses the ‘object’, and the athlete or actor the ‘mediator’ or ‘model.’

Thus, we base our behaviors and desires according to models that we find are superior to us. We have models that we want to emulate, because we are not secure enough in our own foundations, but the problem is that that human models will inevitably lead to conflict.

By emulating the desires of the mediator, the subject finds himself in competition for an object that is desired by many other subjects, and this will result in conflict. Unless these desires are simple, such as the need for food and shelter, then they are based on others, hence the existence of snobbery and vanity.

Mimesis: extent and intensity

Girard says that desire is an intersubjective by-product. We want what we do only because other people desire it. We want wealth because others want wealth — the extent to which this desire is powerful, is dependent on who we are surrounded by. The answer to the objection, as mentioned before, to Girard’s theory (the objection is that some desires are hidden but innate, and are not based on imitation) is that we can see how cultures vary to the intensity with which some desires are experienced, the extent to which individuals of this culture share these desires, and the hierarchy of the objects that are desired.

Of course, there exists a difference of opportunities between nations. Perhaps a Swede and a New Yorker are equally driven by material wealth, but the desire is only more apparent in the New Yorker because they have more access to opportunities, but this does not negate the fact that cultures do not have the same priorities. Countries and civilizations that share the same degree of economic opportunities and wealth may still differ in their attitudes towards it.

The Buddhist in Tibet does not only shun possessions because of a lack of opportunities compared to the banker on Wallstreet, but because of ideological differences. Girard would argue that this difference exists because each have different models that they are imitating. Since it is possible for an American or a European to decide to reject these opportunities because they are attracted to the Buddhist model, it is not merely the existence of opportunities that determines the level or type of desire. If that were true, we would expect people’s desires to be wholly determined by the culture they belong to. But clearly this is not true, which can only mean that mimetic models can exist beyond one’s own culture.

And this is an interesting consequence of globalization. It would have been true to say, that in the past, memes that individuals adopted were passed down from their own cultures, but now this is only partially true. And just as mimetic theory would predict, the internet has closed the gap between existing memes so that it is possible for a teenager in the Middle East to adopt Western memes, or for a Western teenager to adopt Buddhist memes. So that now, as part of the fourth generation warfare that is taking place, the war of civilizational memes, through the mechanism of the internet, has created a new kind of conflict that is much more democratized and much less controllable.

The Development of Language

And now we go to the beginning. After explaining what mimesis is, the competing theories for human motivation, we will now turn to an explanation for why language, which made memes and thus mimetics possible, came to being.

The first development of language, according to some is Machiavellianism. People had to develop sophisticated ways of outcompeting their rivals, and this increased neural complexity, which led to the development of language.

But the theory that hominization occurred because of the development of language begs the question, why humans? The theory that Machiavellianism evolved in humans, does not explain the bigger brains of humans. Chimps engage in Machiavellianism but have not developed anything close to human language. Further, why would it have developed in humans in the way that it did, even if Machiavellianism played a part?

Machiavellianism fails as an explanation because it begs the question.

But Girard argues that language developed from countless observations of the scapegoating process.

People imitate the desires of each other, the objects of their desire are scare, this creates conflict, and leads to a situation of all against all. This must have went on for a very long time, until a development happened that made the resolution of conflict much more economical. The death of a single victim rather than mutual destruction of the tribes, created a moment of temporary peace. This temporary peace which interrupted conflict was etched into the minds of the survivors as a kind of symbol.

Thus, the process of scapegoating resolved dispute, brought peace, and was observed intensely. It was the first non-instinctual observation, the first instance of language (symbol representing something outside of itself), and this process continued for millennia. The scapegoat was a symbol for momentary peace. And from this process, our brains evolved.

Why did man, and not some other animal, develop this tendency to scapegoat, and to watch repeated rituals of this scapegoating process? Because man is the most imitative animal, by far. That is Girard’s foundational thesis and is an Aristotelian observation.

Each human is mimetic. But because it is necessary does not mean it is not a problem. Usually, when we think of mimesis, we bring to mind the image of cultural institutions, in that humans are taught to imitate the work of other human beings, but there is nothing to stop mimesis itself from being acquisitive. Girard’s hypothesis is that people emulate the desire of other people. Envy is the closest Christian sin to mimetic rivalry and remains a taboo even among postmodernists.

Girard thinks the social contract is an Enlightenment lie and a preposterous one. When you imagine how primitive man lived, in his vicious and barbaric state, where all was pitted against all, it is difficult to imagine that on some kind of whim, they suddenly agreed to calm down for a few hours, and negotiate a social contract.

The Origin of Political and Religious Institutions

A more likely scenario, as mentioned above, is that this war of all against all persists with no rational stopping point, until one person becomes the scapegoat. The death of this person unites the community and brings limited peace to the survivors.

This murder is the secret origin of religious and political institutions, remembered as myth. But this violence which is at the heart of society had to be concealed by the myth that the slain victim was truly guilty.

Violence is at the heart of society, myth a discourse ephemeral to violence. Myth makes this violence sacred. Sacrifice thus became sacred, and anyone who rejected it, sacrilegious. But now, the cat is out of the bag. The scapegoat is not as guilty. But for society to function, there had to be a lack of understanding of this basic truth. In the modern world, this no longer works.

The Straussian Moment

In other words, the power of the myth no longer holds sway because its mechanism has been uncovered. We now know that the scapegoat is not as guilty, we understood the victimhood of the scapegoat in many cases is there, and this creates a barrier to normal functioning of the myth.

As Thiel says, the problem of mimesis, has not gone away. One can easily imagine a nuclear arms race that stems from mimesis. Not enough people are aware of the mimetic mechanism, although it seems that sufficient people are aware of the scapegoating mechanism.

In short, society understands the error in persecuting the innocent (yet scapegoating persists) but does not yet understand the origin of why this persecution arose, and that is mimesis (imitation of the desire of others).

Uncovering the Scapegoat Mechanism

The scapegoat can be internal (someone in the culture) or external (when one nation may go to war). Once you begin to grasp it, you see it everywhere.

Myth is different form the myth of the Bible, according to Girard, in contrast to conventional readings of mythology.

In the Bible, the sacrifice of Jesus is not a victory for the community, not a continuity of a past tradition, not a celebration of scapegoating. It is the opposite. It is the condemnation of the scapegoat mechanism, and the condemnation of mimesis itself.

The Wise King

In the Old Testament, there is story of King Solomon.

The story is that two harlots, alike in every way, were about to give birth, but one harlot, after she had discovered that her baby had died because she had smothered it, replaced her dead baby with the baby of the other harlot, which was alive. When both harlots appeared before the wise king, to resolve the conflict of who the rightful mother of the baby was, Solomon put them through a test.

He asked for a sword so that he would divide the baby in half, and give each harlot half a baby. One of the Harlots, the rightful mother, yelled out in protest. She told King Solomon to give the baby to the other harlot, but not to kill the baby. That is when the wise king knew who the real mother was, and ordered that the baby be given to her.

The harlot who did not object would have been perfectly happy to see the baby cut in half, for she did not want her rival to be better off. But the true mother risked everything.

She knew, before saying anything, that her cries of protest could easily be interpreted as an admission of her own guilt. After-all, the sight of a dead baby would be too unbearable for a lie to persist, which had now grown too large. She could not have known how King Solomon was going to interpret her actions, but she took the risk anyway, and in this sense, there is an element of self-sacrifice.

That is the point that Girard makes in Things Hidden Since The Foundation of The World. The harlot engages in self-sacrifice, but not in order to attain divinity. The Harlot did not know she was going to be rewarded with her baby after she sacrificed herself. And Jesus was not made immortal by the resurrection, he was already immortal, and the resurrection was just a consequence of that fact.

Whereas in mythology, the act of sacrifice is one where the hero, who is sacrificed is divinized. In fact, many practices that still survive, make this apparent. When the prisoner who is sentenced to death, for example, is given a last meal of his choosing and a glass of rum.

Past cultures treated sacrificial victims like Gods. In the archetypal myth, the sacrifice is what rescues the community. The scapegoat brings about temporary order and restores the peace. The scapegoat is glorified. Human mimesis is celebrated. Girard is saying that this is all in stark contrast to the message contained in the Bible.

Jesus explicitly denounces mimesis, the idea of coveting what one’s neighbor is in possession of is considered morally wrong.

To live for the attainment of wealth or fame or pleasure, or for the satisfaction of any earthly desire is a sin, since they are the products of other men. These desires are products of mimesis.

The cyclical process of mimesis, conflict, and finally, sacrificial resolution through the scapegoat, is contradicted by the story of Jesus.

The end of the ritualistic scapegoating process that brought peace, came with Christianity, when this unconscious process was revealed, but came with it two important repercussions. The birth of freedom and responsibility, and the end of the soothing ritual of the scapegoating process.

Girard’s ultimate solution to this problem is Christianity, which he believes precludes mimetic conflict, because instead of emulating a human model which may eventually be a rival, and thus a source of conflict, and instead of building a society of emulators of one another, which will eventuate in competition, which will create less opportunities for each individual, and inevitably result in conflict, we should emulate a divine model (also Kierkegaard’s solution), to let go of our vanity and pride, and to accept our fate as creatures that have a creator.

It is specifically the imitation of Christ that Girard argues for since Christ is the anti-myth. Myths all share a common structure: there is a disruption of peace in the community, there is a scapegoat, the mob kills the scapegoat, peace is restored. In the story of Christ, the structure is opposed to the standard mythical narrative. Instead of being on the side of the mob, it stands on the side of the victim, Jesus. It is not only that Jesus preached against mimesis, but his actions advocated this counter-narrative directly. And so, we find in this counter-narrative, a pathway that leads to the end of violence, and the subversion of the devil (which Girard argues is the mimetic mechanism itself).

Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com.

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