Mimetic Theory

A theory by Rene Girard, which is based on the tendency of human beings to subconsciously imitate (mime) others. Our desires are victim to this phenomenon: we only desire things because we notice that someone else desires it too.

Mimetic Desire

We see a coke advertisement where everyone is having fun and drinking coke, and then we also want coke.

Human beings naturally imitate other human beings. Our desires are derived from another person's desires: someone signals a desire for a particular thing, and now you discover that you want that thing.

Triangular desire

Desire therefore has three components rather than two:

  • the desirer
  • an object
  • a mediator (or model)

It just seems like there are two because desire operates at a pre-rational level. Neurological studies have shown that this reflexive imitation is present even in newborns. We are blind to the "second-hand" nature of our desires, which Girard calls the “romantic” delusion.

Acquisitive mimesis

Put two kids together with a surplus of toys and their desire(s) will inevitably latch onto the same toy, beginning a tug-of-war and mutual cries that “I wanted it (or had it) first!”

Aquisitive mimesis is a strong desire to possess an object. Whene there are multiple people desiring the same thing then the person who is mimicking their mediator will see their mediator as a rival.

Mimetic escalation scandal

Think of countries in an arms race: a nation-state perceives another nation-state as a threat so it arms itself defensively. Its defensive preparations appear like aggressive provocations to the other side, and they also arm themselves defensively. And so on and so on.

Defense of an acquisitive desire reinforces the desire in the rival. The desire between the desirer and the mediator then escalates. Girard calls this mimetic escalation scandal, after the Greek word skandalon, suggesting a “trap” or “snare.”

Metaphysical desire

We see famous people and we also want the fame that they have.

Since mutual interest in the object of desire is generated by human interaction, objects of rivalry can be manufactured out of thin air by mimetic conflict. Examples might include prestige, fame or success.

Inherent Scarcity

A family gets a round of ice creams, but one of the children wants to eat their father's ice cream. If the father gives the kid his ice cream and starts eating the child's ice cream instead, then the kid suddenly wants that ice cream.

This comes to three things:

  • Fake scarcity. Even when something isn't scarce, we want it even . This is contrary to classical economics, which posits that competitition emerges from the scarcity of goods. Instead, it is competitive struggle that creates the scarcity
  • Diminished value: the value of it is diminished when shared. If I belong to an exclusive club and so does my rival, then the club isn't as valuable than if I belonged to it and my rival didn't.
  • A paradox of success. We no longer want what we have acheived if that thing is shared or is no longer wanted by a rival. In eliminating my obstacle, I also eliminate the originator and sustainer of my desire.