Objections to Mimetic Theory?

From time to time I’m confronted with objections to mimetic theory that, looked at more closely, are based on some misconceptions. Here are some clarifications, hopefully. (For more on scientific research concerning imitation, click here: Mimesis and Science).


Already in 1961, publishing Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, René Girard made the world familiar with his concept of mimetic desire. Mimetic desire is literally desire based on imitation. Like so many others before and after him, Girard observes that human beings are highly mimetic creatures. Humans imitate each other in all sorts of ways and thereby learn from each other – they learn good as well as bad behavior… To name but one example, people imitate the sounds of their environment and learn to speak, for instance, with a Texan accent. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing :).

By introducing the concept of mimetic desire, Girard stresses that our desire is structured by imitating others who function as models for our desire. It is important to distinguish this type of desire from our basic biological or physical needs. When you’re walking in the desert alone and your body is yearning for water, your desire for water is, of course, not based on the imitation of someone else’s desire. True, nature has its impact on human life. However, when our basic physical needs are met, our desire goes beyond them. Our basic need for water is transformed in what eventually became a supermarket world that asks us to choose between different types of water, juices and soft drinks. Growing up, we develop a certain taste, transmitted to us by our social and cultural surroundings. We might even develop desires that not only go further than our physical needs, but also against them (anorexia being one example).

coca cola thirst asks nothing moreSo, it’s not just nature that defines human life, nurture has its way too… We all have the biological need for food, but if we were born in another part of the world we would probably have developed different eating habits. It’s as simple as that. We imitate others. We mimetically learn to quench our natural thirst and to satisfy our natural hunger in a certain, culturally dependent way. No one is born with the desire for the newest soft drink produced by The Coca-Cola Company (indeed, Thou Shalt Covet What Thy Neighbor Covets – click to read this article by famous marketeer Martin Lindstrom), as no one is born with the desire to become a police officer. Our identities are not ahistorically determined from birth, they’re co-created with others.

We always write our personal history together with others, and we mutually influence each other. Since we’re social creatures we cannot escape this influence. Relationships precede and shape our (sense of) identity. Even if we go against our tendency to imitate an immediate social environment that seems indifferent towards the victim of some crime or accident (see “Bystander Effect” – click for more), we probably still imitate heroic examples from stories we grew up with (“The Good Samaritan” may be one of them).

Two questions often appear after these considerations, which show just how hard it is to let go of any type of Ego Illusion:

  1. We often imitate others to adjust to our social environment. We imitate others because we desire social recognition. So, our desire for social recognition must be more fundamental than our mimetic tendencies, no?
  2. If we imitate each other’s desire for something, someone still has to be the first to desire that something. Surely, the latter’s desire cannot be based on imitation, can it?

I’ve answered the first question before, but I’ll repeat it here. Of course we often imitate others to ‘fit in’. However, we could not develop a desire to fit in if it weren’t for our mimetic abilities. Our mimetic abilities allow us to put ourselves in each other’s shoes. They allow us to pretend that we are someone else. For instance, a little girl playing with her dolls pretends being a mother by imitating real mothers. Our mimetic abilities allow us, thereby, to imagine – however preliminary – what others are experiencing, expecting and desiring. So our ability to empathize and to adjust to the expectations of others (maybe to gain their recognition) rests on mimetic ability.

The second question seems very logical. Confronted with real life cases, the quest for ‘the first model’ is not that easy to answer though. Even simple situations show it might be the wrong question. Think, for instance, about two babies in a room full of toys. Let’s name the two Bobby and Johnny. Bobby starts playing with a little ball. Note that he didn’t necessarily wake up with the desire to play with a ball. Already in this sense his desire isn’t his own. It is awakened by people who left him the ball to play with. After just ten seconds, Bobby gets tired of the ball. He doesn’t really enjoy playing with it. So he starts playing with some other toy. He has no desire to play with the ball whatsoever. In comes Johnny. He saw Bobby playing with the ball and this raised Johnny’s attention. Now that the ball is left, Johnny takes the opportunity to start playing with it himself. In this situation Johnny is the imitator. However, when Bobby notices Johnny playing with the ball, he immediately leaves the toy that was more fun to him and tries to lay his hands on the ball Johnny is playing with now. In this situation Bobby is the imitator. In short, Johnny’s desire rests on the imitation of Bobby as model for his desire, while Bobby’s desire rests on the imitation of Johnny as model for his desire. It’s no use asking “Who’s first?” Johnny and Bobby mutually reinforce each other’s desire by becoming each other’s model and imitator. Thereby they become each other’s rival. René Girard speaks of the rivalry between mimetic doubles. More generally, we become each other’s rival if we cannot or do not want to share the object of our mimetic desire. Here’s an example – it could have been Bobby and Johnny 🙂 – CLICK TO WATCH:


Some consider René Girard’s explanations on the origin and maintenance of human cultures far-fetched. Well, are they?

René Girard considers the very first sacrificial rituals as imitations of a scapegoat mechanism in groups of primitive humans whose internal (mimetic) rivalry threatened to destroy the group itself. Primitive human societies experienced the killing of one member of their group by a significant part of the community as something which restored calm and order. This must have happened so much in primitive human societies that they started making certain associations.

On the one hand primitive societies experience turmoil as long as ‘the common enemy’ is alive, while on the other hand they experience peace after he is beaten to death. Gradually they will associate new situations of disorder with the resurgence of a former victim of group violence. In other words, they experience a person who is not visibly present anymore, but whose presence is ‘felt’ in situations of turmoil. In other words still, one of the former victims of group violence has become a ‘ghost’ or a ‘god’. At the same time, primitive human societies also ‘learn’ that killing someone apparently restores order. So together with the belief in ghosts and gods considered responsible for all kinds of possible violent disasters, the belief originates concerning the effectiveness of sacrifices to restore, renew and/or keep order, life and stability in human society. If primitive societies would have seen that the victims of group violence are no more responsible for violence than other members of the group, they would not have developed these beliefs. Violence became something sacred because the victims of group violence were considered exclusively responsible for the violence they were associated with. Those victims were scapegoats.

ancient human sacrificeGirard argues that all other associations regarding ‘the sacred’ rest on this first association between violence and divinized victims of group violence. Everything that can be associated with violence had the potential to become sacred or divinized as well. Sexuality became sacred. Indeed, sometimes males fight over females. Food became sacred. Indeed, people fight over food sometimes. Territory  became sacred. Indeed, people go to war sometimes because of territory. Nature as a whole became sacred. Indeed, natural disasters are ‘violent’ and provoke violence if they cause lack of food and water… And so the world and the experience of man became sacred.

Religions came and went, but the age-old associations regarding the sacred were transmitted down the generations. The Greeks still had Ares, god of war, as they had their goddess of love, Aphrodite. The Romans copied (indeed, ‘imitated’) the Greeks and spoke of Mars and Venus.

Asked why they perform their rituals and sacrifices and why they respect their taboos, primitive societies always answer: “Because our ancestors did it, and because we have to respect the ghosts and the gods in order to sustain our community…”

Could it really be true that the structure of ancient human sacrifice goes back to a mechanism that can still be observed in our ape cousins? And that this mechanism provides the foundation of the archaic sacred? Is it far-fetched to suspect that the former fact (the structure of ancient human sacrifice, which begins with a fight!) has something to do with the latter fact (the scapegoat mechanism)?

Pavlov DogGirard has argued that the dividing line between human and ape lies in the way mimetic quarrels became a threat to the survival of primitive human communities. Precisely because the mimetic ability of humans grew, their tendency towards near uncontrollable mimetic rivalry increased likewise. Hence it became possible that humans began to make associations that their ape cousins could not make regarding the communal killing of a group member. Compare to Pavlov’s dog: a dog who has only arbitrarily or sporadically heard a signal while getting food will not drool if he hears the signal, while Pavlov’s dog who has systematically heard the signal while getting food will at some point start to drool from the moment he merely hears the signal… Apes won’t associate turmoil with a victim, while primitive humans will start to do exactly that at some point. The consequences can be suspected: primitive humans will start to consciously ritualize the scapegoat mechanism, while apes only experience this mechanism sporadically. Here’s a powerful example of the mechanism, nonetheless, observed in a group of monkeys. We can almost observe how it must have been like that ‘a loathed enemy’ became ‘a revered god’. This also explains why gods have a ‘dual’, ‘ambiguous’ quality.They’re good and bad…