My book about mimetic theory, Wanting, will be published this coming Tuesday, June 1st. Pre-order it here.
René Girard (1923–2015), the great Stanford professor known by some as the mentor to Peter Thiel, called “the Darwin of the social sciences” and the “Father of the Like button”, was a genius of a different order. He made visible what is normally invisible: the delicate dance of desire that human beings play from the moment they’re born, and which explains some of humanity’s more “irrational” behavior.
As we’ll see, it’s not irrational; it’s mimetic. Because pundits on CNBC don’t understand the mimetic impulse in human beings, they scratch their heads when there’s an inexplicable parabolic rise in a stock or when GameStop investors and hedge funds battle it out in the market with no regard for the underlying fundamentals of a company. The media seems perplexed when Republicans and Democrats are locked in stalemate politics and ignore obvious priorities or wins because the desire to punish their opponents is greater.
Girard’s ideas also explain why we’ll never “fix” the so-called Cancel Culture with some kind of artificial ceasefire because it would ignore the fundamental and perennial desire of human communities to purge themselves of perceived threats to their stable order. (Even when the order being preserved is violent, and it always is.)
The first words out of Girard’s mouth in one of the courses that he taught early in his early at SUNY Buffalo were:
“Human beings fight not because they are different, but because they are the same, and in their attempts to distinguish themselves have made themselves into enemy twins, human doubles in reciprocal violence.”
A far cry from the typical sleepy-eyed “Welcome to the class. Now, let’s go over the syllabus.”
Girard was interested in the most fundamental questions that plague humanity, and he applied his brilliant mind to them with great intensity while leaving out most concessions to his readers.
I am reminded of how Satoshi Nakamoto responded to a question about his nascent crypto project: “If you don’t believe it or don’t get it, I don’t have the time to try to convince you, sorry.”
Girard was a hedgehog with one big — one massive — idea: mimetic desire. Its discovery changed his life forever in the fall of 1958.
Have you ever had an important insight come to you in the nature of a gift? Not as the result of a conclusion, as if you’d reached the end of a long math problem, but as the experience of a revelation? That seems to be the way that Girard experienced his initial insight into mimetic desire as he was working on the last chapter of his book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel.
It happened to him as he was on a trundling train from Baltimore to Bryn Mawr to teach a class.
“I was thinking about the analogies between religious experience and the experience of a novelist who discovers that he’s been consistently lying, lying for the benefit of his Ego, which in fact is made up of nothing but a thousand lies that have accumulated over a long period, sometimes built up over an entire lifetime.”
(From Cynthia Haven’s excellent biography of Girard, Evolution of Desire.)
“Everything came to me once,” he recalled. “I felt that there was a sort of mass that I’ve penetrated into little by little. Everything was there at the beginning, all together. That’s why I don’t have any doubts. There’s no ‘Girardian system.’ I’m teasing out a single, extremely dense insight.”
So let’s tease it out a little. Here are some of the implications of that insight, starting with the core one.
1. Mimetic Desire Governs the World
“Mimetic desire is an absolute monarch,” Girard wrote.
Mimetic desire means that human beings don’t desire anything completely autonomously, as we are prone to think; rather, desire is generated and shaped in the relationship between people. People imitate the desires of other people—almost always without knowing it. We are social creatures, and our desires are the product of complex social processes.
The mimetic nature of desire is the connective tissue that binds people together and pulls them apart. It is the “thing hidden since the foundation of the world”, to borrow the words of Girard’s magnum opus (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World). Girard, in turn, took them from the gospel of Matthew.
“I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 13:35)
Bold. Comparing yourself to Jesus?
That’s not what Girard was doing, though. He saw his work as a working out of the core anthropological truths about human relations that were already present in the gospel text — nothing more.
In other words, Girard didn’t view himself as having had some “new” idea. He saw himself as having seen something in the historical unfolding of the Judeo-Christian scriptures (not just the texts themselves, but also the events that the words gave meaning to) that others failed to fully grasp.
And that thing was mimetic desire.
It was present at the dawn of humanity. The mythological language in the Book of Genesis tells us of something important about desire in the story of Eve and the Serpent. It’s often overlooked.
Eve desired to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree only after the desire to do was suggested to her — in other words, modeled to her — by the serpent.
It was the first instance of what we might call deviated desire. Eve’s desires were hijacked, taken off track, by the desire for the fruit. She never would have desired it had the desire not been modeled to her by the Serpent.
Suddenly, a new desire was kindled inside of her for something that she believed would give her a special power — the knowledge of good and evil — but which instead blinded her to the truth of her own desires and caused them to become disordered. As the scriptures tell the story, these disordered desires immediately began to be passed down to her children and their children and to the rest of humanity.