Last year, after meeting my friends from The Raven Foundation in Chicago, I had the opportunity to visit the exhibition Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity at The Art Institute of Chicago.
As the exhibition points out, the modern fashion industry was born in Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century. Since then, fashion – la mode – has become one of the main forces in today’s so-called individualistic and free market-driven western society. The fashion industry thus reveals one of the main paradoxes if not contradictions in modern man’s self-concept. Although nowadays we consider ourselves to be emancipated and autonomous individuals we nevertheless remain highly susceptible to herd behavior. René Girard might help us to understand this situation more broadly. [Read also the second part of a previous post by clicking here].
René Girard’s mimetic theory explains that, beyond physical needs, human desire is structured according to mimetic (i.e. imitative) interactions. People model each other’s ambitions and aspirations. As is well-known, the convergence of desires on the same object (e.g. two or more children wanting the same toy) or on the same goal (e.g. two or more people wanting the same job promotion, status or power) often leads to rivalry and sometimes even violence. Not surprisingly, the escalation of this mimetic rivalry (i.e. rivalry based on mimetic/imitative desires) within groups threatens the stability and even survival of communities.
History shows that human communities developed several traditions to prevent the potential destructive outcome of mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry. The French Ancien Régime, still deeply rooted in the feudal system of the Middle Ages, was incredibly hierarchical both socially and politically. There were three different Estates in society, the First being the Church, the Second the Nobility and the Third the so-called Common People. The common people had to accept their unprivileged position in society. They were told that they would evoke the wrath of God if they would question the privileged position of the Church and the Nobility. At the same time, the common people were told that a reward awaited them in “an afterlife” if they “behaved well” and accepted their fate. In other words, the Third Estate could not aspire to the position of the other Estates. In still other words, mimetic desire was suppressed by a religiously established system of taboos and rituals. People had to understand and accept that there were differences in society from birth.
Throughout the ages, Christian reformers criticize the Church whenever she lends herself to sustain a society where differences between people are based on oppression. From Saint Benedict to Saint Francis to Saint Ignatius to the “Prince of the Humanists” Desiderius Erasmus – all of them call for a return to the God of Christ, the God of the Gospels, to question the authority of the God who justifies certain types of violence and oppression. It is no coincidence then that several historians (Marcel Gauchet being one of them) understand the Enlightenment and the dismemberment of a principally hierarchical society on the basis of traditional religious means as a consequence of the Judeo-Christian influence on the western world. To quote Marcel Gauchet, Christianity is the “religion of the end of religion”.
Eventually, because Christianity gradually destroyed the authority of the God(s) of traditional religion, the hierarchical nature of society was no longer accepted. The French revolutionists cried égalité! and the idea of a principally egalitarian society was born – all human beings (should) have equal rights. This meant that mimetic desire became less suppressed, and this led to the emancipation of different groups in western society. First, factory workers started to compare themselves to the wealthy factory owners. Why shouldn’t the workers enjoy the same rights as their employers? In other words, the workers started to desire what their employers possessed and this mimetic desire could no longer be suppressed. Second came the emancipation of women. They started to desire the rights owned by their male counterparts. Third came the full revolt of blacks (heir to black slaves) in the US. Then came the emancipation of gay people who compared themselves to heterosexuals and desired and demanded equal rights… Finally, together with the aforementioned emancipatory movements, the emancipation of children and youngsters (and the phenomenon of a so-called youth culture) poses new challenges to our personal and social self-understanding. There’s a strange interaction going on, with a rivalry between young and old to become each other’s model or example. [Read more on the consequences for young people by clicking here].
What is striking in all these cases is that standing up for one’s own identity is based on a comparison with the identity of others. In standing up for themselves people imitate others.
Now, let’s interpret the phenomenon of fashion again from these observations. At the birth of modernity the traditional guidelines which structure the behavior of the individual members of society begin to erode. Individuals more and more find themselves in a vacuum concerning the way they could or should behave and lead their lives. However, instead of developing a life from a so-called very own autonomy and freedom (as people often believe they do – Girard calls this the romantic lie), people look at what others are doing to give their life (their desires and ambitions) direction. Hence a phenomenon like fashion. The fashion industry really rests on the assumption of individuals that they are free to create their own identity and thus is able to enslave those very same individuals to a never-ending cycle of mimetic desire. The price for a so-called free identity is an identity constantly on the brink of being sacrificed again to the latest trend. It’s what drives our economy on the one hand, and might destroy our natural environment on the other… It’s what drives our consumerism yet might destroy our soul (as we attach ourselves to what’s perishable)… I guess G.K. Chesterton is right, in a profound sense, “For when we cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing, we worship anything.”
In short, the liberation of mimetic desire in western society has some good as well as bad consequences. Anyways, perhaps we should keep our desires “to have more (but never enough)” in check in order to prevent the next financial, ecological, social and personal crisis?