On the first Saturday of each month for at least the next little while I intend to share here one of the Weekly Wonders from that previous project. This week I will be reviewing Mimetic Rivalry, an interesting account of how humans learn to want things.
This week’s idea is mimetic rivalry. René Girard (b. 1923) argues that all desire is mimetic: that is, we learn to want something by seeing someone else (the model) want it.
I see you eating a nice apple, so I want a nice apple, too. This is called mimetic desire. So long as there is enough of the object of desire to go around, and so long as it is the kind of thing that can be shared, then you and I will be drawn together by our shared desire. If you have a whole bushel of apples, more than you could eat, in sharing those apples we will be friends. (Or, more realistically, in going to the opera together, or going for walks in the woods, or cooking fine Canadian cuisine together.) But if there isn’t enough to around, then we become rivals. Maybe there are three apples, and you have one, and I have one, and we both covet the last one. (Or, more realistically, you love someone, and I learn to love that person from you, and we’re all monogamists, so we become romantic rivals.) This is mimetic rivalry or, sometimes, Girardian rivalry.
The romantic example is the one most people think of when they talk about mimetic rivalry, and it is the one Girard discusses most extensively in Theater of Envy, his book on Shakespeare and mimetic desire. (His reading of Two Gentlemen of Verona is especially compelling, but I think most people would be more interested in his readings of As You Like It or Midsummer Night’s Dream.) The tragedy of life, Girard notes, is that the same force which draws friends together tears them apart a moment later.
Girard in subsequent books went on to explain how mimetic desire explained everything, including the origins of religion, language, and civilization itself. A professor of mine once said, “Be careful with Girard. He has a tendency to take over everything.” Girard certainly thinks mimetic desire explains all psychology, but this is almost certainly untrue: at minimum, it does not explain where the original desires came from, or why people choose to imitate one person’s desire rather than another’s. As a universal explanation it’s weak, but I have little doubt that mimetic desire, and mimetic rivalry, do exist in some frequency. Further, his explanation of how mimetic rivalry drives scapegoating is fairly convincing.
Eve Sedgwick draws on Girard’s work to talk about the way men used desire for women to manage relationships between them without fear of homosexuality (see especially Between Men). There’s some empirical indication that humans do use imitation quite a lot, and it might be that some economics is driven by mimetic desire.
Posted by Christian H.