Tuesday, 8 March 2016


Of course I copied this idea from M C Escher. Mimesis. 
Look at two little children playing. By and large the toy that little Alice wants to play with is not the biggest or the prettiest or the sparkliest one in the box; it is the one that Beatrice happens to have right now. So by subterfuge or main force Alice gains control of the coveted toy from Beatrice, and Beatrice, unperturbed grabs something else from the toybox. Alice immediately drops her recently won prize and puts all her efforts into gaining Beatrice's new plaything. All who have children know and despair of this behaviour, but really, it is just the expression of a universal human instinct.

We are born helpless and in the first few years of our life have to acquire an enormous amount of information and learn enough behaviours that we can function in our society. We do this largely, says Rene Girard, by mimesis - that is, miming or copying the people we see around us. There are, of course, a certain number of our behaviours that are purely instinctive, that is, they are hardwired into our brains, but most of the rest are learned; that is to say they are copied. And one of the behaviours that is copied is desire. We learn to like what we see other people like and want what we see other people wanting. There are certain people whose wants and desires we copy more readily than others; these are the prestigious people in our social circle.

Mimetic desire is one of the cohesive forces in any society. The members of a group, whether it is a friendship group or a family or a clan or a political party or a nation are bound together by their shared wants. New members of the group, admitted at childhood or grafted in as adults soon learn by watching what it is that is valued in the group, and by imitating these desires, that is by making these values their very own, integrate themselves as part of the group. In it's crudest form our mimetic desire is manipulated when some movie star is shown to us to be desiring a new brand of milk frother, and suddenly we find within ourselves a growing penchant for cappuccinos. Or when the design of a new flag is made attractive to many because Richie McCaw says how groovy he thinks it is. A fashion industry can't exist without mimetic desire, whether the fashion is in clothes, hairstyles or ideas.

Mimetic desire is a powerful cohesive force. But it is, simultaneously, a powerful deconstructive force because when all members of a group desire certain goods and service and the supply of those goods and services is not infinite, irreconcilable conflict must inevitably arise. And all groups formed around mimetic desire, that is, all groups,  are subject, eventually, to potentially destablising or even fatal conflict. Girard's analysis of the role of mimesis in the formation of all societies, and his analysis of the ways  societies deal with the conflict which is inherent in the very process by which they are formed is key to his theory of the development and social role of religion. It informs his theory of the role of the crucifiction and the resurrection of Christ; a theory I personally find compelling. Over the next few weeks I intend to present that theory in occasional, irregular, small, bite sized chunks, more probably for my benefit than for yours.


Elaine Dent said...

Well, we are certainly seeing this in our political campaigns. But my next question was going to be how this relates to following Christ? And I think it also relates to congregations and their renewal or decline, so I will stay tuned.

Kelvin Wright said...

For me it has enabled me to make sense - finally! - of the cross. The substitutionary atonement theory and its close relatives present to me a God who is nothing like the powerful and subtle and elegant and deeply loving one who is revealed everywhere in this universe if we take the trouble to look, and is also revealed in the person of Jesus. It helps me to make sense of Jesus who lived out his life not in a fallen universe but in an evolving one.