“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.

Rome, René Girard and the Sixteen-Year-Old Researcher

Linde Van den Eede, one of my high school students for almost two years now, wrote a very interesting paper on the end of the Roman Republic from the perspective of René Girard’s “mimetic theory”. She chose it as an assignment for her English class (English, mind you, is a third language here in Belgium).

Linde is one of those people who likes to reflect on our cultural history and on the ideas of what it means to be human. Her paper is a precious little pearl, well-researched and opening up perspectives for further reading and writing. Today, Linde celebrates her 17th birthday, which means that she was only 16 when she wrote her paper. I am convinced that whoever reads her paper will be quite astonished, as I was, about the academic level of her writing.

I am very happy and grateful to be able to share this piece of hard work on the occasion of Linde’s birthday – click here: PDF NON MOS, NON IUS.

vincenzo_camuccini_-_la_morte_di_cesare

AN AFTERTHOUGHT (A REFLECTION AFTER READING LINDE’S PAPER) 

Dictatorial regimes like the creativity of artists, novelists, philosophers and scientists insofar as that creativity proves useful for the maintenance of the totalitarian system. In extreme right wing and extreme left wing regimes, art becomes propaganda, novels serve as censured forms of escapism, philosophers turn into political ideologues, and scientists become technicians who are no longer interested in knowledge of reality as a whole.

In a totalitarian system governed by money, creativity is allowed insofar as it serves the goals of capitalism, which is to yield ever more money. Art becomes propaganda at the service of “supply and demand”, only now it is called “publicity”. If there are any novels left, they are supposed to be “entertaining”, thinking is reduced to “management”, and science only serves technological innovation.

What dictatorial regimes don’t like is freedom. They don’t like the true creativity of artists, novelists, philosophers and scientists, which is the creativity “to move beyond the system”. True creativity allows us to reflect on the system that we are part of, which is also a way of distancing ourselves from that very same system. Being able to reflect on a system means that we are not totally defined by that system. This kind of freedom makes us human.

True artists and novelists imagine “new worlds” that enable us to question the world we are living in. They don’t just offer forms of escapism. True philosophers and scientists ask new questions or ask age-old questions anew, and open up unprecedented perspectives. If humanity has found ever new ways of “being in the world”, it is not because people burned books that were deemed “not useful” or “a threat to the existing system”. No, it is precisely because there were people who rescued and revisited ideas that were supposed to be burned.

We give up our own humanity if we just ask ourselves how to function in a given system. Of course that is an important question, and we are always at the same time part of the systems that we are able to question. But to safeguard our humanity we should cultivate our ability to ask what it means to be human (and asking the question is more important than answering it). This liberating ability is quite unique to us, human beings, and therefore contains our humanity.

Let’s hope we never lose it.

cicero denounces catiline (cesare maccari, 1889)

 

 

The Coach = An Easy Scapegoat

Ruben Van GuchtRuben Van Gucht, a Belgian sports journalist, did a little research on the question whether soccer teams really benefit from firing a coach and attracting a new one when a team is not delivering expected results. He presented his results on De Afspraak (December 8, 2015), a Belgian TV-show.

The short answer to Van Gucht’s research question is NO.

Similar research done in other countries already suggested this outcome.

Often there is a short-term effect, but this has more to do with statistical regularity, especially when considered from the perspective of long-term effects. Indeed, in the long run there seem to be no significant differences between the results under the guidance of the former coach and those of the new one.

Victories as well as defeats of soccer teams are just that: TEAM EFFORTS & EXPERIENCES. Of course it is tempting to look for a scapegoat in times of crisis. And coaches are easy targets. But as Van Gucht’s research reveals: a coach is not a decisive factor; he’s just one of many.

Coincidentally, I wrote about the tendency to use coaches as scapegoats in an introduction to my course on René Girard’s mimetic theory in high school. Here’s an excerpt:

Scapegoat Team BuildingThe mimetic building blocks of our psycho-social fabric are at once responsible for the preservation and disintegration of that very same fabric. One of the well-tried means to restore a social order that is in crisis because of escalating mimetic rivalry, is the so-called scapegoat mechanism. This restoration again rests on mimetic processes. Let’s turn to the example of the soccer team once more. When a team loses time and again, that’s normally no favorable factor for the group atmosphere. Teammates start blaming each other for bad results, maybe even sabotaging each other. There also might be ill-will towards the coach by players who feel they’re not given enough opportunities to play matches. And when the coach becomes part of the rivalry and frustrations within the team, that’s usually the end of his career there. As more players imitate the ill-will of some teammates towards their coach, the latter becomes the one held responsible for all the major problems within the team, and he’ll be fired by the board in the end. Instead of recognizing the mimetic origins of social disorder, people tend to blame one outsider or a group of outsiders. This scenario is well-known. Coaches indeed often function as convenient scapegoats, as they are outsiders because of their position of leadership, and they are easily blamed unjustly for a crisis they’re not or only partly responsible for. Like other scapegoats they’re interpreted in a twofold manner by the group they’re expelled from: perceived as the main cause for the tensions, divisions and disorder within the group, and experienced as the main cure while being sacrificed (expelled, or worse) to restore unity and order within that same group. Scapegoats are at once villain and hero, monster and savior, hated and loved, unwanted and wanted, scorned yet needed. Think, for example, of dictatorial regimes who blame all their domestic problems on foreign enemies. As long as a dictator can unite his citizens against some outside enemy, he can at least prevent them from uniting against himself and remain in the saddle. This means that he cannot completely destroy the enemy he publicly loathes. Dictators need the periodic sacrifice of their scapegoat in order to preserve the social fabric on a very large scale, but human beings in general tend to use the scapegoat mechanism on a day-to-day basis, albeit often in smaller ways.

READ ABOUT an example in the world of baseball:

Mike Redmond and the easy Marlins scapegoat

READ ABOUT an example in the world of soccer:Rafa Benitez

Rafa Benitez is an easy scapegoat for problems at Real Madrid

Mimetic Theory in High School

Some of us working on mimetic theory would like to develop some material that could be useful in high school curricula, in different disciplines. I’ll be posting some ideas and present some possible content in the months to come. This is how an introduction to a high school course on mimetic theory could look like. Any suggestions are welcome!

CLICK HERE TO READ A PDF VERSION

A.      HUMAN BEINGS AS CRISIS MANAGERS

We all have to deal with crisis situations. A crisis happens when we are challenged to renew or change the order of things as we know it. Therefore it is always a threat, big or small, to the systems that bring stability to our lives. A crisis is a time to make decisions in order to preserve a given system of stability or to create a new one. As such it is not just an event which forces us to adjust to its course, but also an opportunity to imagine other ways of being in the world. A crisis is violent when it is primarily experienced as an assault on our personal integrity and our socially defined identity. On the other hand, a crisis might contain the promise of a better protected personal integrity and an enhanced social identity when it is experienced as an assault on systems of stability that actually suppress us. In short, the crisis situations that befall us and subvert the world as we know it are experienced either as a curse or a blessing, either as doom or chance.

Confronted with crisis situations, every human being is able to ask three clusters of questions, one scientific and two philosophical. Here’s what the crisis manager named human might think about:

  • SCIENTIFIC QUESTIONS:

How can a crisis situation be explained? What are its causes and consequences? How do we, people, deal with it and what explains our behavior?

To use a business analogy:

How do people behave within the company and what problems arise out of this behavior?

  • A FIRST SET OF PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (MEANING):

Where do we want to go from here, confronted with this crisis? What is the ultimate goal of what we are trying to do? What are we hoping for?

To use the business analogy:

What does this company stand for? What goals does it hope to accomplish?

  • A SECOND SET OF PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (ETHICS):

How should we behave ourselves if we want to accomplish our goal, dealing with this crisis? Should we deal with the crisis situation like we normally do, or should we change our behavior?

To use the business analogy:

How should people behave within the company in order to accomplish its goals?

Once the two sets of philosophical questions are answered, science of course functions as a means to make the fulfillment possible of thought-through goals which transcend (and therefore guide) the merely scientific endeavor.

B.      MIMETIC THEORY – INSPIRATIONAL THINKING IN TIMES OF CRISIS

I.                    CONSIDERING “CRISIS MANAGEMENT” QUESTIONS

As long as we are alive and well as human beings, we are mimetically connected to each other. It is because of our mimetic (i.e. imitative) ability that we are social creatures. Mimetic theory, as it was initially developed by René Girard, tries to understand and explain the possibilities and pitfalls of human social behavior by studying its mimetic interactions. It attempts to answer the three clusters of questions, identified previously, concerning “crisis management” as the condition humaine:

  • SCIENTIFIC QUESTIONS:

How do crisis situations in human life arise out of mimetic interactions? How are these mimetic interactions influenced by conditions of the natural environment? Or, on the other hand, how do mimetic interactions construct patterns of human behavior that influence the natural environment in negative or positive ways? How do we normally deal with crisis situations arising out of mimetic interactions?

  • PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (MEANING):

What goals are desirable for human life, considering the mimetic nature of human beings? What are we trying to accomplish by studying mimetic interactions?

  • PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (ETHICS):

How should we behave if we want to accomplish our goals? Should we deal with crisis situations, arising out of mimetic interactions, like we normally do – like our ancestors did, for instance? Should we accept certain morals (of which the origins can be scientifically explained)? Or should we try to change our behavior?

II.                  OUTLINE FOR A COURSE USING MIMETIC THEORY

  • MIMESIS AND EMPATHY

Any course using mimetic theory starts with a simple observation: the way we think about ourselves and the way we develop a sense of identity is always mediated by our social environment. And that which makes something like a social environment possible precisely is our – indeed mimetic – ability to put ourselves in each other’s shoes.

Man as Social Being (Wolfgang Palaver)

Neuroscientists have discovered that so-called mirror neurons in our brains play a very important role in this regard. These brain cells allow us to imitate others. They allow us to pretend that we’re someone else and to take another person’s point of view. And this allows us to imagine what others are experiencing, thinking, expecting or even desiring. In short, our mimetic ability is the conditio sine qua non to empathize and bond with others, and to develop a sense of self.

double mediation

Of course our imaginative projections about others can be wrong. That’s why we, rather unwittingly, constantly look for the confirmation of mutually established social expectations. The question “Am I doing this right?” seems to be the ever present subtext to our behavior. It really structures the interaction between ourselves and others. As it happens though, the recognition we get from one social group might be of more importance to us than that of another. We might empathize more with the members of the San Francisco symphony orchestra we’re part of than with the homeless of that same city. Or we might feel so close to our favorite football team that we become really hostile to its adversaries.

So our ability to empathize with others turns out to be a two-edged sword. It connects us with and disconnects us from others at the same time. It can connect us to the members of a group we want to be part of against a common enemy. Even more so, it can stir rivalry between members of the same group or the same social environment. That might be surprising, but on second view it will turn out to be quite logical. Our mimetic ability allows us to take other people as models for our behavior. It allows us to learn from them in all sorts of ways, but it also plays a significant role in structuring our desires and ambitions. For instance, there’s more than one twelve year old soccer player walking around with a shirt of Lionel Messi or some other soccer idol, secretly dreaming of being the next soccer sensation.

  • MIMESIS AND RIVALRY – THE PROBLEM OF MIMETIC DESIRE

There seems to be no harm in identifying with someone you admire and take as an inspiration for your own desires and ambitions in life. At first glance, that is. As long as the model you imitate belongs to quite another world than your own, as long as there is a significant distance between yourself and your model – in space, in time, or both –, chances of a conflictual relationship with the model are reduced. On the other hand, when that distance is no longer experienced, things might turn ugly, both for yourself and your model. As a twelve year old forward in a soccer team, it’s fairly easy to admire Lionel Messi, but it might be a hell of a lot harder to appreciate the talents of the new teammate who comes in and takes your spot. Identifying yourself as being the forward (or even “the Messi of the team”) immediately complicates your relationship with this newcomer, as he arouses the desire for your former status and the recognition it is supposed to bring. You might, for instance, try to get rid of the new guy by locking him out. Good coaches, though, know how to deal with these types of situations, even strengthening their team in the process. When two or more forwards imitate and thereby reinforce each other’s desire to be the best player on their position, it indeed can make them all better players in a consequently better team.

Mimetic Rivalry

Good coaches and managers are able to use mimetic rivalry in constructive ways, allowing their employees to recognize and respect that “the best has won.” However, all management efforts aside, mimetic rivalry remains a tricky thing. It is literally rivalry based on the imitation of desires for certain material and/or immaterial objects (e.g. a trophy, some sort of social recognition or status, power within a company, wealth, etc.).

Envy Pride Mimetic Desire

Human desire is, beyond instinctive needs and wants, highly mimetic (i.e. based on imitation). True, we’re all born with certain physical needs (for food, water, oxygen, etc.). But no one is born with the desire to become, say, a culinary chef. That is a socially (and therefore mimetically) mediated ambition that gets different cultural expressions. Mimetic desire and mimetically mediated ambition can easily lead to frustrations and destructive conflicts between people who take each other as model.

Mimetic Desire

When two or more people, consciously or more often rather unwittingly, imitate each other’s desire, they become each other’s annoying obstacle when they cannot or do not want to share the object of their desire. In short, they become antagonists because of mimetic desire. Paradoxically, it is because people are close to each other and can imagine what it is like to be in the other’s shoes, that they can become each other’s archrivals in the context of a mutually shared desire. As said, our mimetic ability connects and disconnects.

  • THE SCAPEGOAT MECHANISM AS RESPONSE TO MIMETIC CRISES

The mimetic building blocks of our psychosocial fabric are at once responsible for the preservation and disintegration of that very same fabric. One of the well-tried means to restore a social order that is in crisis because of escalating mimetic rivalry, is the so-called scapegoat mechanism. This restoration again rests on mimetic processes. Let’s turn to the example of the soccer team once more. When a team loses time and again, that’s normally no favorable factor for the group atmosphere. Teammates start blaming each other for bad results, maybe even sabotaging each other. There also might be ill-will towards the coach by players who feel they’re not given enough opportunities to play matches. And when the coach becomes part of the rivalry and frustrations within the team, that’s usually the end of his career there. As more players imitate the ill-will of some teammates towards their coach, the latter becomes the one held responsible for all the major problems within the team, and he’ll be fired by the board in the end. Instead of recognizing the mimetic origins of social disorder, people tend to blame one outsider or a group of outsiders. This scenario is well-known. Coaches indeed often function as convenient scapegoats, unjustly blamed for a crisis they’re not or only partly responsible for. Like other scapegoats they’re interpreted in a twofold manner by the group they’re expelled from: perceived as the main cause for the tensions, divisions and disorder within the group, and experienced as the main cure while being sacrificed (expelled, or worse) to restore unity and order within that same group. Scapegoats are at once villain and hero, monster and savior, hated and loved, unwanted and wanted, scorned yet needed. Think, for example, of dictatorial regimes who blame all their domestic problems on foreign enemies. As long as a dictator can unite his citizens against some outside enemy, he can at least prevent them from uniting against himself and remain in the saddle. This means that he cannot completely destroy the enemy he publicly loathes. Dictators need the periodic sacrifice of their scapegoat in order to preserve the social fabric on a very large scale, but human beings in general tend to use the scapegoat mechanism on a day-to-day basis, albeit often in smaller ways.

Scapegoat Team Building

  • GOALS OF THIS COURSE

Because of the widespread presence of the scapegoat mechanism and the sacrifices that go along with it in the preservation of social order and peace, it is a real challenge to imagine other ways of building human communities. The question is how to create communities where differences between people don’t lead to escalating rivalries that tend to leave no difference at all – except for the violently established difference between a group and its scapegoat or sacrificial victim. In other words, are there ways to create a social order and peace that leaves room for non-violent, creative conflicts that originate in the irreducible yet fascinating differences between ourselves and other human beings?

The goal of this course is, first, to become more aware of the psychological and social mechanisms this introduction already briefly touched upon. Among others, it will present three ways by which mimetic connections between ourselves and other human beings might become mentally and/or physically violent and destructive. Some stories, old and new and from different media, will function as mirrors that reveal some of those important aspects of who we are as human beings. It will allow participants to analyze actual events and to reflect upon their own life. For those interested, extracurricular background information is given, including some scientific and philosophical material. Secondly, this course invites participants to actively grow into a way of being that prospers non-sacrificial peace and a way of life that is giving and joyous.

Pleasantville and Biblical Feminism

Once again, this post is a translation from a chapter in my book Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll – Met René Girard naar een dialoog tussen het christelijk verhaal en de populaire cultuur (Women, Jesus and rock-‘n-roll. Taking René Girard to a dialogue between the Christian story and popular culture).

Pleasantville (Gary Ross, 1998) is a movie about the twins David and Jennifer who miraculously end up in David’s favorite TV-show, Pleasantville, and become Bud and Mary Sue Parker. At first everything is, also literally, very black and white in their new world. Life is very predictable, every citizen has a clearly defined role, even the roads are like the daily routine: they go in a circle. There’s nothing outside the enclosed 1950’s world order of small town Pleasantville.

Pleasantville 17Pleasantville 16

Bit by bit, however, things start to change with the arrival of David/Bud and Jennifer/Mary Sue. Some people divert from their normal activities and turn from black, grey and white into technicolor. Bill Johnson, for instance, Bud’s boss at the soda shop where he is working, discovers his creativity and artistic freedom as a painter. Other citizens become avid readers, studying books and using their minds to gain wisdom and imagine things “outside of Pleasantville”. In the end, the road doesn’t go in a circle anymore but “keeps going”. This means that life is no longer predictable, the future is open-ended, and individuals get more chances, as well as responsibilities, to work out their own project in life. In other words, the people in Pleasantville abandon the cyclical worldview that was aimed at preserving an order installed by “higher powers”. In yet other words, they move from the ancient mythical view of time as circular to a Jewish and Christian “linear” view of time: instead of leading a life according to the so-called scenario of “the powers that be”, people are liberated to write their own history.

Cyclical vs Linear

Thomas Cahill wrote a very interesting book on this shift, The Gifts of the Jews – How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. From the cover: “The Gifts of the Jews reveals the critical change that made western civilization possible. Within the matrix of ancient religions and philosophies, life was seen as part of an endless cycle of birth and death; time was like a wheel, spinning ceaselessly. Yet somehow, the ancient Jews began to see time differently. For them, time had a beginning and an end; it was a narrative, whose triumphant conclusion would come in the future. From this insight came a new conception of men and women as individuals with unique destinies—a conception that would inform the Declaration of Independence—and our hopeful belief in progress and the sense that tomorrow can be better than today.”

On the other hand, a sense of stability and certainty seems forever lost with the arrival of the linear view of history. No wonder, then, that the anxious community in Pleasantville at first tries to suppress the newly found creativity and individual liberties: books are burned, rock ‘n’ roll music is forbidden, painters are not allowed to use colors besides black, white and grey, “(techni)colored” people are separated from the others and sexuality, in particular female sexuality, is considered inappropriate.

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Indeed, the women especially begin to question the status quo of the patriarchal society in Pleasantville. Following the example of Mary Sue (a powerful “mimetic model”), girls invite their boyfriends into the garden of Lover’s Lane to explore their sexuality. Bud also imitates his sister, as he takes Margaret on a date to Lover’s Lane…

Pleasantville 9

There, Bud is offered an apple by his girlfriend. Afterwards he is reproached for eating it by the deus ex machina of the movie, a mysterious TV repairman, who yells at him that he doesn’t deserve “to live in this paradise”. This all too obvious reference to the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis raises questions about whether or not Judeo-Christian tradition supports oppressive patriarchal social structures. The story of the Fall from Eden eventually blames the woman, Eve, for being the first to succumb to an inappropriate desire, causing her man Adam to sin and resulting in them both being banned from the Garden. The obvious message of the story concerning women seems clear: like her Greek counterpart Pandora, Eve and her female boldness means trouble (for more on this, click here). So far for the Jewish critique of archetypal mythic structures, so it seems…

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René Girard helps us understand why women are depicted as troublemakers and how they, more specifically (sexually) emancipated women, become scapegoats, unjustly held responsible for all kinds of evil in the world. The sexist reasoning often goes something like this. Emancipated women are no longer dependent on their husbands. This means that they can more easily divorce them. Divorces potentially trouble the mind of children and youngsters, who might lose the security of a “home”. Hence juvenile delinquency could increase as young people get together in gangs to create a sense of self-worth and identity. Thus the stability of society as a whole is threatened by women who refuse to remain faithful to the man they’re married off to. Moreover, sexually independent women can stir rivalry and violence between men, which once again destabilizes the internal cohesion of a community. Indeed, sex (eros) might lead to death (thanatos).

To avoid these potential troubles patriarchal societies have the tendency to suppress the freedom of women. This means women have to pay for the potential rivalry between men and the potential lack of responsibility of other members of the society. Instead of taking responsibility for their rivalrous and even violent desires and instead of taking control of them, patriarchal men blame women for their own behavior. And instead of taking more responsibility as a parent, patriarchal men also blame women if their offspring ends up on the wrong track… Peace and order in society, according to the patriarchal system, can only be obtained by keeping women in check. In other words, women and their freedom are violently sacrificed in order to establish “peace and quiet”.

As said, the Genesis story of the Garden and the Fall (the third chapter of the book) seems to support this view and seems to legitimize the sacrificial structure of the patriarchal society. More specifically, the story seems to consider (female) sexuality taboo. Eve invites Adam “to eat from the fruits” of the “Tree of Knowledge” in a “Garden Paradise”. In ancient Middle Eastern Cultures gardens are symbolical of sexuality and female sexuality in particular. The Song of Songs for instance, one of the smallest books of the Bible, gives voice to a young woman in a dialogue with her beloved man. At some point she invites her lover to “come into her garden and taste its choice fruits”. Talk of sending a clear message… Moreover, “knowing” often has a sexual meaning or erotic tone in Hebrew. “To know someone” has to do with “intimate wisdom”, with “gaining insight” by “penetrating into” something. So eating from the “Tree of Knowledge” and discovering, afterwards, that you are “naked” adds to the interpretation of the story as containing a taboo on sexuality and the female lust for “knowledge”. No wonder then, again, that the citizens of Pleasantville fear women who “go to the library”, “think” and take the initiative to go to Lover’s Lane… Women shouldn’t become too smart, as “shrewd” women are hard to control, and the third chapter of Genesis seems yet one other sexist story that gets this message across.

Song of Solomon (Raoul Martinez)

A strange thing happens, however, when Genesis chapter three is compared to the already mentioned Song of Songs. At a certain moment, the young woman of the Song complains about the patriarchal society and its taboos. She went looking for her lover but the “watchmen of the city” violently punished her for having an intimate relationship with a man outside her family or outside the ritualized context of marriage. Thereon she eventually sighs (Song of Songs 8:1): If only you were to me like a brother, who was nursed at my mother’s breasts! Then, if I found you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me.” So the Song of Songs lets the victim of patriarchal violence speak out and act against the regular patriarchal order. A comparison between Eve in Genesis and the young woman in the Song of Songs might shed new light on how to interpret the emancipation of women in the story of Pleasantville from a Biblical point of view. Here it is (CLICK THE PAGES TO ENLARGE OR CLICK HERE FOR PDF):

Pleasantville Garden of Eden and Garden of Female Sexuality

Pleasantville Watchmen

The question from this comparison is whether the God of the Genesis story is on the side of the watchmen who are supporting the patriarchal society and who harass (sexually) emancipated women. At first glance, it seems that this is the case. However, the Song of Songs does allow the victim of patriarchal violence to speak out against this kind of discrimination.

In order to get a fuller understanding of what is actually condemned by the Genesis story, the broader context of the book of Genesis is needed. Read in the broader context of Genesis and the story that immediately follows (Cain and Abel), Eve is not condemned because she is a woman, but because she cannot respect the difference between herself and someone else (“the Lord God”) – just like Cain cannot respect the difference between himself and someone else (“Abel”). Both stories condemn an anxious type of envy and even resentment! In the case of the confrontation between the young woman and her harassers in the Song of Songs, it is clear that the harassers are led by envy, resentment and fear. From the particular Biblical point of view, developed from the broader context in Genesis, they’re the ones whose acts are to be condemned. They fear the emancipation of women because this might mean that women no longer automatically obey the men they’re married off to – which is very frightening for patriarchal men’s status and sense of self-worth. Most probably their wives too resent the emancipated woman, as they secretly envy the life she leads but dare not abandon their own situation for fear of being punished.

The Gospels show how Jesus of Nazareth also takes sides with the woman as a potential victim of patriarchal violence. More specifically in John 8:1-11, when he is confronted with a woman caught in adultery. It might be good to take a fresh look at this well-known text:

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

A Depiction of Jesus and the Woman taken in Adultery (Vasily Polenov)

Jesus prevents the establishment of an order based on sacrifice by making people reflect on their own desires and trespasses, as they might be similar to those of the adulterous woman. Jesus believes God desires “mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13).

It is telling that Jesus approaches the woman, who already committed adultery, mildly while he firmly condemns men who merely think of adultery (Matthew 5:27-30):

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

It’s his hyperbolic verbal way of compensating for the double standard in patriarchal societies, where adulterous men are often all too easily justified as “victims” of “evil, seductive women” (who are all too easily condemned by the patriarchal system). Apart from this, there are other “feminist” traits in the behavior of Jesus. The situation between Jesus, the crowd and the adulterous woman as it is told in the Gospel of John contains a subtle clue for a subversive, anti-patriarchal reading of the third chapter in Genesis (John 8:3): The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle.” Indeed, the woman is said to stand “in the middle”. Compare this to Genesis 3:3, as Eve responds to the snake: God told us, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden. You must not even touch it, or you will die.‘” In other words, Jesus wants to prevent the crowd from “touching” what “stands in the middle” just like the God figure in the Genesis story wants to prevent Adam and Eve from eating from the tree “in the middle of the garden”. In both situations, the acts of “touching what’s in the middle” imply that people are led by envy, resentment and lust for prestige, that they are unable to respect “the other”, and that they want to erase the differences between themselves and the other (by killing themselves or the other – for more on this: click here).

In consonance with Genesis, Jesus calls out for love of one’s neighbor and a refusal of the sacrifice of the other to establish a “peace”. That’s why he says (Matthew 10:34-36):Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” The “sword” Jesus talks about is not the sword of “violence” (indeed, in Matthew 26:52 Jesus, upon being arrested, clearly warns against violence, when he demands one of his companions who tries to defend him: Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”). It is reminiscent of the sword at the end of the Genesis story about the Fall: The Lord God placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and the flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. This sword is a symbol of a Love that creates and preserves differences between people – differences of “color” and personality that is, not of “hierarchy”.

not peace but a swordPeace I leave with you

Jesus time and again questions a peace, order and unity based on the expulsion of a common enemy (a “scapegoat”) and on dictatorial, oppressive leadership (often of a “patriarch”). He tells people, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44), which causes conflicts within the groups people belong to but once again prevents people from establishing a community at the expense of certain “enemy victims”. That’s why he can say that his kingdom – his way of organizing society – is, most of the time, “not of this world” (John 18:36). And that’s why he can also say: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

In short, Jesus as a Jew, in consonance with the Scriptures of the Jewish people, wants to establish a peace that allows for non-violent conflicts between people (as people dare to show their “true colors” and thus might clash with each other), while he refuses to establish a violent “easy” peace based on sacrifice (the “Pax Romana”).

In Pleasantville, Bud prevents the community of condemning his mother Betty. She committed adultery, leaving her husband George for Bill Johnson, the owner of the soda shop. Bill painted a portrait of a naked Betty on the front window of his shop, after which an agitated and scandalized crowd “stoned” it. Like Jesus confronted with a crowd and a woman caught in adultery, Bud prevents further violence. He enables people to discover that they’re not so different from Betty and other “coloreds” – which, paradoxically, allows them to respect Betty’s and the others’ own “color” and choices in life.

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Of course, life doesn’t become much easier if we’re trying to respect one another, protesting against “easy sacrifices” of vulnerable victims. Society does become more complex, the future more open and uncertain, but also more interesting, fertile and creative. It certainly is a challenge to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to allow for relationships that are based on a Love born from freedom, and not based on a fear for punishment or a desire to be rewarded and compensated. But hey, it’s better to have an emancipated woman love her man than to have a bitter, scared “slave” stick to her husband, isn’t it? In the words of 1 John 4:18:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

no fear in love

‘Guess we all still have some growing to do, but on a personal note: deep down inside, I do prefer the peace of Christ’s “critical” and flexible Love to the peace of the sacrificial powers in our world. A lot of growing to do, though, but happy to…

To conclude, Bruce Springsteen on the “secret garden she hides…” – CLICK HERE…

More from my book Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll – Met René Girard naar een dialoog tussen het christelijk verhaal en de populaire cultuur (Women, Jesus and rock-‘n-roll. Taking René Girard to a dialogue between the Christian story and popular culture):

  1. Mimetic Theory in High School (click to read)
  2. Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism (click to read)
  3. Scapegoating in American Beauty (click to read)
  4. Philosophy in American Beauty (click to read)
  5. Real Life Cases of Ressentiment (click to read)
  6. Eminem Reads the Bible (click to read)
  7. The Grace of Prostitutes (click to read)

See also: Finish… The Social Sciences (click to read)