What Exactly Is It?
René Girard, a French anthropologist of the twentieth century, invented the concept of mimetic theory after realising that human desire is not private but public. This has been a root cause of war and bloodshed for all of human history.
There are four steps involved in mimetic theory:
Mimetic Desire: When people’s physiological demands (for food, sex, safety, and shelter) are addressed, they enter a realm of desire where their instincts and biological “radar” no longer play a role. Their focus shifts to other people rather than threats. Many individuals share the desires of the masses. Wanting is a communal experience.
Conflict: There will be competition for the same resources since people want what other people want. Mimetic desire causes mimetic competition.
Scapegoating: Historically, human communities have responded to mimetic contagion by resorting to the scapegoating mechanism, in which groups (via a mimetic process) identify a single individual or problem as the cause of the community’s issues and then seek to forcibly exclude or eliminate this member of the community.
The Cover-Up: Human culture develops in response to the implementation of the scapegoating process, which serves to conceal the first murder. The original foundation murder is ritually reenacted over and over as a form of catharsis and a strategy to prevent the spread of violence, and taboos, prohibitions, and other laws are imposed to prevent the proliferation of violence that led up to the original founding murder. An complex cultural cover-up, if you will. This holds true for all social units, from countries to neighbourhoods to businesses to families.
René Girard’s mimetic theory developed from an insight into desire into a comprehensive philosophy of interpersonal connections. Girard, drawing on the works of great authors and playwrights like Cervantes, Shakespeare, Stendhal, Proust, and Dostoevsky, came to the conclusion that human desire is not a linear process, as is commonly believed (Meredith’s longing for McDreamy, for example). Rather, we desire in accordance with the desire of the other (the fact that so many women find McDreamy attractive may have led Meredith to believe that he is irresistible). To learn about ourselves and what we want, we look to intermediaries or role models. However, conflicts arise when we try to imitate others, as our role models quickly become competitors for the same resources.
Since our shared desire strengthens and inflames our conviction in the value of the object, imitation leads to escalation. This escalation threatens to turn into a global conflict.Girard claims that the scapegoat mechanism, whereby conflict is resolved by uniting against an arbitrary other who is ostracised and blamed for all the chaos, was the fundamental technique by which total escalation was avoided. Now that the perpetrator is gone, the fight is over, and life can get back to normal. However, this method of establishing social order only works if everyone involved in the exclusion is convinced that the excluded individual or group is truly guilty or harmful.
An analysis of many “myths of origin” by Girard showed that scapegoats have always been made to bear the burden of a community’s sins, regardless of whether or not they were actually responsible for them. When read backwards, these tales shed light on how people in pre-industrial societies dealt with the challenges of maintaining peace and stability in the absence of formal institutions. According to Girard, the foundation of all human culture is found in the practise of scapegoating and the repetition of rituals. A deeper understanding of the victim’s innocence made available in Jewish and Christian scriptures has prompted a reappraisal of our cultural canon, leading to a greater awareness of this mechanism and its aftereffects and the possibility of disrupting these processes in order to reach a different sort of peace.
Mimetic theory, in a nutshell, is made up of the mimetic desire, the scapegoating mechanism, and the disclosure phases. To better understand these shifts, it’s best to start with desire and go backwards.