“All the World’s a Mimetic Stage…” – Some Revealing Comedy

The following is a collection of (tragic) comical references to some of the cornerstones of René Girard’s mimetic theory, especially its analysis of the reality of mimetic desire and rivalry in human relationships. They appeared on Mimetic Margins throughout the years.

Have fun with the short videoclips from Mr Bean, Chris Rock, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Seinfeld and The Big Bang Theory!

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MIMETIC MR BEAN

It’s all there below, in this classic piece of British humour – some of the basic elements of René Girard’s mimetic theory: mimetic desire, mimetic competition or rivalry and the haunting nightmare of the mimetic double. Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean really is the master of ceremonies here. Indeed, we often take more than we need when there are other people circling around the same buffet.

Moreover, mimetic dynamics generally are at work in the development of our eating habits. It would be very interesting to create an intensified dialogue between Paul Rozin’s research on the acquisition of likes and dislikes of foods and René Girard’s mimetic theory. Although some scholars already made some connections between the two (for instance in Culinary Cultures of Europe: Identity, Diversity and Dialogue, ed. by Darra Goldstein & Kathrin Merkle, Council of Europe Publication, 2005), much promising work remains to be done. Click here for a previous post on the subject, Mimetic Food Habits.

Enjoy this clever excerpt from Mr Bean in Room 426 (first broadcast 17th Feb 1993):

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CHRIS ROCK ROCKS MIMETICALLY

American comedian Chris Rock refers to yet another example of mimetic dynamics (in the TV Special Never Scared, 2004), the potential rivalry between two good friends over the same potential partner:

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WILL SMITH’S FRESH PHILOSOPHY

“I hate all this philosophical mumbo-jumbo! It just doesn’t make any sense!”

I’ve experienced reactions like these from my students quite often while trying to teach them some philosophy. They express the normal frustration people get when they just don’t seem to succeed in mastering the issues they’re facing. To be honest, I more than once imitated their feelings of despair by getting frustrated and impatient myself about their inability to understand what I was trying to say. The story of students blaming teachers for not explaining things well enough, and of teachers responding that their students just don’t try hard enough, is all too familiar. But, at the end of the day, having worked through some negative emotions, I somehow always manage to sit down at my desk and try to improve upon my part of communicating. I can only hope it stays that way.

The writings of Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas are not always easy to understand, let alone agree with. Roger Burggraeve, one of my professors at the University of Leuven, has proven to be an excellent guide to introduce me to the philosophy of Levinas (click here for an excellent summary by Burggraeve). But explanations at an academic level are not always easily transferable to a high school level. Regarding Levinas I’m faced with the challenge to explain something about his thoughts on “the Other” and “the Other’s face”. Although Levinas’ musings often appear to be highly abstract for someone who didn’t receive any proper philosophical training, his thinking springs from very “earthly”, even dark realities and experiences – especially the experience of the Holocaust. Levinas’ response to the threat of totalitarianism is actually very down to earth, but because it wants to be “fundamental”, I can imagine it indeed sometimes comes across as mumbo-jumbo to sixteen year olds.

Luckily enough for me, as a teacher, an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (season 3, episode 12 The Cold War) can help to make clear what “the encounter with the Other” could be like in a particular situation. Moreover, it also serves as a good way to connect René Girard’s mimetic theory with some of Levinas’ main insights. Here’s the story:

Will and his nephew Carlton have a crush on the same girl, Paula. Carlton had been the first to date Paula, but after introducing her to Will, she also becomes Will’s object of interest. Will imitates the desire of Carlton and, upon noticing this, Carlton in turn reinforces his desire for Paula by imitating his new rival Will. This is a prime and archetypal example of what Girard has labeled mimetic (or imitative) desire, which potentially leads to mimetic rivalry. Will and Carlton become each other’s obstacles in the pursuit of an object (in this case a person, Paula) they point to each other as desirable. They become jealous of each other and try to out compete one another. They both fear the other as a threat to their self-esteem and independency. Ironically however, as they try to differ themselves from each other by unwittingly imitating each other’s desire, they resemble each other more and more. In fact, their sense of “being” becomes truly dependent on the other they despise. They end up dueling each other in a pillow fight, trying to settle the score.

At one moment, near the end of Will and Carlton’s fight, something happens which indeed illustrates what Levinas means with “response to the Other’s face” (click here for some excerpts from Levinas’ Ethics as First Philosophy). Will pretends to be severely injured (“My eye!”), whereon Carlton totally withdraws from the fight. Carlton finds himself confronted with Will’s vulnerability, and is genuinely concerned for his nephew’s well-being. The Other he was fighting turns out to be more than his rival, more than the product of his (worst) imaginations. Indeed, before being a rival the Other “is simply there“, not reducible to any of our concerns, desires or anxieties. Carlton is not concerned for his own sake: he doesn’t seem to fear any punishment, nor does he seem to desire any reward while showing his care for Will. He abandons all actions of self-interest “in the wink of an eye”.

This is an ethical moment, as Levinas understands it. It goes beyond utilitarianism which, as it turns out, justifies itself as being “good” by arguing that self-interest (i.e. what proves useful for one’s own well-being) eventually serves the interest (well-being) of others as well. Putting forward the effect on the well-being of others as justification for utilitarianism is telling, and shows that utilitarianism in itself doesn’t seem to be “enough” as a foundation for ethics. Moreover, utilitarianism serves the interests of “the majority”, which threatens to overlook what happens to minorities “other than” that majority. Sometimes sacrificing a minority might seem “logical” from this point of view. By contrast, in what is “the ethical moment” according to Levinas, one fears being a murderer more than one’s own death. In other words, provoked by the Other’s “nakedness” and “vulnerability” (the Other’s face which lies beyond our visible descriptions and labeling of the Other), OUR FEAR OF THE OTHER IS TRANSFORMED IN FEAR FOR THE OTHER. The mimetic rivalry between Will and Carlton is thus interrupted until, of course, Will reveals he was only joking about his injury… and the pillow fight continues.

CLICK TO WATCH:

Eventually, Will and Carlton quit fighting and start confessing their wrongdoings towards one another. They no longer imitate each other’s desire to assert themselves over against one another, but they imitate each other in being vulnerable and forgiving, recognizing “each Other”. They imitate each other’s withdrawal from mimetically converging desire and rivalry. It is by becoming “Other” to one another that they paradoxically gain a new sense of “self”, as an unexpected consequence…

Enjoy that grand twist of humor in Will Smith’s unexpected philosophy class…

CLICK TO WATCH:

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SHAKESPEARE MUSTA LOVED SEINFELD

In the book Evolution and Conversion – Dialogues on the Origins of Culture (Continuum, London, New York, 2007), René Girard talks about popular culture and discusses the power of mass media. His approach is very nuanced, as he distinguishes between positive and negative aspects of these phenomena. He even dares to compare television series Seinfeld to the works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Girard develops his thoughts in a conversation with Pierpaolo Antonello and João Cezar de Castro Rocha. The seventh chapter, Modernity, Postmodernity and Beyond, reads the following (pp. 249-250):

Guy Debord wrote that ‘the spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion’ brought down to earth. Could we consider the expansion of the mass-media system, and the ideological use of it, as a ‘kathechetic’ instrument as well?

Of course, because it is based on a false form of transcendence, and therefore it has a containing power, but it is an unstable one. The conformism and the ethical agnosticism induced by media such as television could also produce forms of mimetic polarization at the mass level, making people more prone to be swayed by mimetic dynamics, inducing the much-feared populism in Western democracies.

Do you agree, however, that movies, TV and advertising draw heavily on mimetic principle, therefore increasing our awareness on this score?

Yes and no, because the majority of Hollywood or TV productions are very much based on the false romantic notion of the autonomy of the individual and the authenticity of his/her own desire. Of course there are exceptions, like the popular sit-com Seinfeld, which uses mimetic mechanisms constantly and depicts its characters as puppets of mimetic desire. I do not like the fact that Seinfeld constantly makes fun of high culture, which is nothing but mimetic snobbery, but it is a very clever and powerful show. It is also the only show which can afford to make fun of political correctness and can talk about important current phenomena such as the anorexia and bulimia epidemic, which clearly have strong mimetic components. From a moral point of view, it is a hellish description of our contemporary world, but at the same time, it shows a tremendous amount of talent and there are powerful insights regarding our mimetic situations.

Seinfeld is a show that gets closer to the mimetic mechanism than most, and indeed is also hugely successful. How do you explain that?

In order to be successful an artist must come as close as he can to some important social truth without inciting painful self-criticism in the spectators. This is what this show did. People do not have to understand fully in order to appreciate. They must not understand. They identify themselves with what these characters do because they do it too. They recognize something that is very common and very true, but they cannot define it. Probably the contemporaries of Shakespeare appreciated his portrayal of human relations in the same way we enjoy Seinfeld, without really understanding his perspicaciousness regarding mimetic interaction. I must say that there is more social reality in Seinfeld than in most academic sociology.”

Maybe a small example can lift a tip of the veil. I chose a short excerpt from Seinfeld’s episode 88 (season 6, episode 2, The Big Salad). Jerry Seinfeld is dating a nice lady. However, when he finds out his annoying neighbor Newman is her former lover, his face darkens… One doesn’t have to watch the whole episode to know what will happen next. Indeed, Jerry eventually breaks up with his date, imitating what Newman did and ‘ending it’. The reason Jerry’s desire for his girlfriend diminishes precisely lies in the often imitative or, as Girard would call it, ‘mimetic’ nature of desire. Jerry just doesn’t desire his date directly all the way, but he is – like all of us – sometimes heavily influenced by certain models who point out what he should or should not desire. In this case, Newman turns out to be a model who negatively influences Jerry’s desire…

This scene is fun, because it’s all too recognizable and it mirrors some aspects of our tragic comic behavior – good, refined humor as it should be!

Click to watch:

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MIMETIC BIG BANG THEORY

Sometimes, just sometimes, quite revealing scientific insights slip into popular culture. I was watching a rerun of an episode of The Big Bang Theory sitcom on Belgian television. More specifically, I found out, I was watching The White Asparagus Triangulation (episode 9, season 2 ).

Mimetic DesireThe title itself can already be connected to a basic concept of René Girard’s mimetic theory, namely mimetic desire. As it turns out, “triangulation” indeed refers to the triangular nature of human desire (beyond instinctive needs) as described by Girard: the desire of a subject towards a certain object is positively or negatively influenced by mediators or models (click here to watch an example of negatively mediated desire from another popular sitcom, Seinfeld). Humans imitate others in orienting their desires – their desire thus is mimetic.

In the case of this episode from The Big Bang Theory: Sheldon tries to positively influence the desire of Leonard’s new girlfriend, Stephanie. After all, she is the first of Leonard’s dates to meet Sheldon’s high intellectual standards, so Sheldon does everything to increase Stephanie’s desire for Leonard. At some point he tries to persuade the girl next door, Penny, to present herself as a rival/model for Stephanie. Here’s the script for this scene.

Scene: Outside Penny’s door.

Sheldon (Knock, knock, knock) : Penny (knock, knock, knock) Penny.

Penny: What?

Sheldon (Knock, knock, knock) : Penny. Zucchini bread.

Penny: Oh, thank you.

Sheldon: May I come in?

Penny: No.

The White Asparagus Triangulation Penny and Sheldon Zucchini

Sheldon: I see. Apparently my earlier inquiry regarding you and Leonard crossed some sort of line. I apologize.

Penny: Well, thank you.

Sheldon: So, have you and I returned to a social equilibrium?

Penny: Yes.

Sheldon: Great. New topic. Where are you in your menstrual cycle?

Penny: What?

Sheldon: I’ve been doing some research online, and apparently female primates, you know, uh, apes, chimpanzees, you, they find their mate more desirable when he’s being courted by another female. Now, this effect is intensified when the rival female is secreting the pheromones associated with ovulation. Which brings me back to my question, where are you in (Penny slams door). Clearly, I’m 14 days too early.

Female Chimpanzee Sexual Swelling KanyawaraSeveral lines of evidence indicate some female competition over mating. First, at Mahale, females sometimes directly interfered in the mating attempts of their rivals by forcing themselves between a copulating pair. In some cases, the aggressive female went on to mate with the male. At Gombe, during a day-long series of attacks by Mitumba females on a fully swollen new immigrant female, the most active attackers were also swollen and their behaviour was interpreted as ‘sexual jealousy’ by the observers. Townsend et al. found that females at Budongo suppressed copulation calls when in the presence of the dominant female, possibly to prevent direct interference in their copulations. Second, females occasionally seem to respond to the sexual swellings of others by swelling themselves. Goodall described an unusual incident in which a dominant, lactating female suddenly appeared with a full swelling a day after a young oestrous female had been followed by many males. Nishida described cases at Mahale in which a female would produce isolated swellings that were not part of her regular cycles when a second oestrous female was present in the group.
The White Asparagus Triangulation eventually gets its title from another scene in the episode. Sheldon tries to establish Leonard as “the alpha male”. Sheldon will pretend that he is unable to open a jar of asparagus. If Leonard then opens the jar he will have won the mimetic competition over the question “who is the strongest?”, resulting in an increase of his sex appeal. Of course, for the sake of comedy, things go terribly wrong :). Here’s the script for this scene.

Scene: The apartment.

Leonard: All I’m saying is if they can cure yellow fever and malaria, why can’t they do something about lactose intolerance?

Steph: Leonard, you’re going to have to let this go. You had a little cheese dip, you farted, I thought it was cute.

Sheldon: Oh, hi Stephanie.

Steph: Hi.

Leonard: Want some more wine?

Steph: Yeah, I assume I’m not driving anywhere tonight. (Sheldon lets out a loud noise).

Leonard: What are you doing?

Sheldon: I have a craving for white asparagus that apparently is destined to go unsatisfied.

Leonard: Excuse me. What the hell is wrong with you?

Sheldon: I’m helping you with Stephanie.

Leonard: By making constipated moose sounds?

The White Asparagus Triangulation Big Bang Theory

Sheldon: When I fail to open this jar and you succeed it will establish you as the alpha male. You see, when a female witnesses an exhibition of physical domination she produces the hormone oxytocin. If the two of you then engage in intercourse this will create the biochemical reaction in the brain which lay people naively interpret as falling in love.

Leonard: Huh? Would it work if I just punched you in the face?

Sheldon: Yes, actually it would, but let’s see how the lid goes. I’m not strong enough, Leonard, you’ll have to do it.

Leonard: Oh, for god’s sakes.

Sheldon: Go ahead, it’s pre-loosened.

Steph: Do you want some help with that?

Leonard: No, no, no, I got it.

Sheldon: No, yeah, yeah, he’s got it, and that’s not surprising. This is something I long ago came to peace with in my role as the beta male. Open it. (Leonard tries again. Then taps jar on counter. Jar breaks.)

Steph: Oh my god, are you okay?

Leonard: No, I’m not. I’m bleeding.

Sheldon: Like a gladiator!

Steph: Oh, honey, you’re going to need stitches.

Leonard: Stitches? With a needle?

Steph: Well, yeah, I mean, just a few.

Leonard: Oh, okay, yeah, hang on a sec. (Throws up in sink)

Sheldon: FYI, I was defrosting a steak in there.

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