The False Binary of Imitation <> Innovation
Competition, Economic Cycles, and Transcendent Models
So steeped are we all in the Innovation Game that it’s easy to forget that innovation used to be an extremely dirty word.
One of René Girard’s most important essays is his “Innovation and Repetition,” found in this must-read collection of his writings on literature and criticism from 1953-2005. He explains the evolution in our understanding of imitation and innovation—and just how radical a view of innovation we hold in today’s world.
I encourage you to buy the book if you’re interested in this topic because the other essays found in it are stellar, too (particularly “Mimetic Desire in the Underground”). However, you can download a digital copy of the essay if you have access to JSTOR. Or you may find what is most likely a copyright-infringed ‘transcription’ of the full text if you Google the title of the essay and Girard’s name, which I won’t dignify with a link.
I’m not merely interested in regurgitating mimetic theory or translating it for a broader audience (although there is, by necessity, plenty of that involved, too—imitation comes first). Embedded in that effort is my own interpretation, though. I’m trying to make connections outside of those which have been already made. That’s what this essay of Girard’s is about: the inseparable link between imitation and innovation.
“Tradition can only be successfully challenged from the inside,” writes Girard near the end of the piece.
This is certainly true of religious tradition, for example. Those who attack a religious tradition from the outside don’t realize that their attacks will never lead to meaningful and lasting change because the transformation has to be driven from the inside. The same is true in many other domains of human life.
“The main prerequisite for real innovation is a minimal respect for the past and a mastery of its achievements,” Girard wrote. “To expect novelty to cleanse itself of imitation is to expect a plant to grow with its roots up in the air.”
Let’s explore what he means.
The earliest and most frequent uses of the word “imitation” were in a theological context. Good things were seen to be stable, immutable, unchanging—things like truth, beauty, and God himself. Good things were not only untainted by innovation; they had no need of it.
Imitating the right models was the primary concern. Being a good imitator was prized. To imitate well meant to imitate the masters, the great leaders, the saints.
We might even say there was mimetic rivalry in regards to who was the best imitator (a strange notion to many of us today). The rivalry was safe, though, because all of the models in the old world were external mediators of desire.
In other words, the models existed outside of the immediate world of the imitators. People were competing to imitate the Greeks or the Romans or the saints—models outside of their social sphere, which in some sense stood above them.
The models lived in a world which I call Celebristan.
They were untouchable. Most importantly, there was no possibility of any of the imitators coming into contact with their models. You could imitate Alexandar the Great without any fear of him imitating you back, or becoming your rival (which would’ve been a very precarious position for you to be in).
Innovation, on the other hand, was treated with extreme suspicion. Here is Hobbes writing in Government and Society as late as 1651:
“There are many who supposing themselves wiser than others, endeavor to innovate, and divers innovators innovate in various ways.”
Calvin denounces “the appetite and desire to innovate, change, and stir up everything.”
In 1658, Cromwell goes after “Designs...laid to innovate upon the Civil Rights of Nations, and to innovate in matters of religion.”
The Protestant Reformation was not about innovation; it was about a restoration in the eyes of the reformers. “They profess to return to the authentic imitation of Christ, uncorrupted by Catholic innovation,” notes Girard.
Same with the humanists. “They indict their medieval predecessors not on the grounds that they selected the wrong models but that they did not imitate the right ones properly.” Their models were not religious but artistic.
In diagnosing the cause behind the negative view of innovation, Girard sees that it came from a world dominated by external mediation—a world in which “the need for and the identity of all cultural models is taken for granted.”
What need was there to innovate when there were perfectly good models of excellence to pursue?
This was a world in which there were still shared models. Two sides in a war could share the same external mediators, the same models of heroism or values or destiny. The battle over Troy was fought by people who shared the same gods and similar models of excellence. (Contrast that with the radically different situation we find ourselves in today. Clashes are between sides that seem to have no shared models of anything at all.)
I recently mused on Twitter about the loss of “shared figures” that everyone could agree on. Today, it seems that if a Republic claims a figure, Democrats won’t touch that figure with a ten-foot pole, and vice-versa.
(Dave Chappelle, as usual, was way out in front of this trend.)
One of the only examples of a shared figure I received in response was Dolly Parton.
Dolly may be all we have left.
The Brave New World
In Girard’s view, it was the shift away from theology and toward science and technology (which began around the time of the French Revolution) that gave the word “innovation” an entirely new meaning and aura.
Eventually, innovation wouldn’t be a dirty word. It would be prized. At the same time, imitation began to be looked at as something to be avoided at all costs. This tectonic shift in meaning was like once every few thousand years when the magnetic poles of the earth reverse.
The egg laid in the French revolution finally came to hatch in the early 1900’s. That’s when, in Girard words, “innovation became the god that we are still worshipping today.”
There was now something new to be feared: “stagnation.” We hear this word brandished loosely today as if it is the worst possible thing that could ever befall humanity.
Prior to the 19th century, the concept of “stagnation” was virtually unknown. That’s not because stagnation didn’t exist. There just wasn’t a taboo surrounding it.
What had changed? The new obsession with innovation. Not innovating was paramount to stagnation.
We have to pursue innovation at all costs lest we fall back into oblivion. Sometimes it feels as if we’re scrambling up a giant mountain with the threat of an avalanche looming always before us.
It’s “only when transcendental models are toppled can innovation acquire a positive meaning,” writes Girard.
In other words, innovation can only be worshiped in a world in which there is no universal belief in god—or when science has become the god.
Innovation becomes the highest value in a world in which there are no longer any transcendent models to imitate—when there is no belief in a world that extends outside the one that we ourselves create. (“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” —Hamlet….)
Now, it seems that if we don’t continue to innovate fast enough we’ll simply implode. We’ll cease to exist.
This is a strange perspective considering the extent to which some of our innovations are the very things hastening our destruction, on a personal and environmental and societal level.
While innovation is touted as the thing that will save us, it is simultaneously bringing us closer to the precipice.
In our new world—a Zygmuntian liquid modernity where there are no stable hierarchies or shared models— “communities are free to adopt whichever models they prefer and, better still, no model at all,” writes Girard.
From here, Girard begins to chip away at the commonly held assumption that “to be imitative” and “to be innovative” are two completely different and incompatible things. In a Girardian framework, they are part and parcel of the same process.
We should view imitation and innovation as a continuum on which one can’t happen without the presence of the other. Just as there is no such thing as perfect imitation, there is also no such thing as absolute innovation. These are both myths.
While imitation and innovation can be more or less accentuated, there are never pure.
Synthesis: The Both/And View
To defend his position, Girard does something out-of-character: he uses business as his primary example of why the rupture between imitation and innovation is misguided.
Competition comes from the Latin words cum and petere, which means “seek together.” What all businesses seek together is profits, “in that paradoxical relationship that we call ‘competitive’”.
The irony of competition is this: it’s a fierce game of imitation, or mimetic rivalry, between competitors seeking the same thing. Competitors are by their very nature imitators, though they never think of themselves that way.
Companies often imitate more successful rivals in their industry until the point where they are perceived to be innovating. The same is true of countries. America was seen as a country of imitators in its early days (the real brainpower was in Germany or England); then, suddenly, Americans became great innovators. And until relatively recently, the Japanese were seen as imitators of the West; now they are seen as innovators. The same thing happened with K-pop in South Korea.
Girard sees imitation and innovation occurring on a spectrum, without clear distinctions or moments that can be labeled as “imitative” or “innovative.” He writes:
“I am not denying the specificity of innovation. I am simply observing that, concretely, in a truly innovative process, it is often so continuous with imitation that its presence can be discovered only after the fact, through a process of abstraction that isolates aspects which are inseparable from one another.”
Many people innovate when they think that imitate. And many people imitate when they think they innovate.
The abstract separation between imitation and innovation is analogous to the Romantic Lie, or the idea that our desires are entirely our own and not generated in our relationship with the desires of others.
From Celebristan to Freshmanistan
The fundamental insight of Girard in his essay is that the modus operandi of imitation has changed: competition used to be among people who had external models; now it’s among people (and businesses) who have internal models.
Imitation moved out of Celebristan and into Freshmanistan.
“Since competitors stand next to each other, in the same world, they must all compete for the same things that they desire in common, with resulting reciprocal imitation,” writes Girard.
In the modern world, almost everyone is an internal mediator to others. This creates a situation in which there is reciprocal imitation—a model can only be successful at their imitator’s expense.
In Freshmanistan, everything is a zero-sum game.
No business thinks of itself as having internal mediators. The story that every business tells to its investors is a story of its near-absolute uniqueness. A mythology of absolute innovation emerges to cover up the uncomfortable truth: competitors are stuck in a fierce game of reflexive imitation with one another.
Unlike external models of desire, internal models generally go unrecognized and hide behind masks. Mimetic companies, just like mimetic people, begin to do strange things. Girard notes:
“The losers try to demonstrate their independence by systematically taking the course opposite to that of the winners. Thus, they may act in a way detrimental to their own self-interest. Their pride turns self-destructive.”
We see this play out in geo-politics all the time. Where there may be material incentives to imitate, countries refuse to imitate out of a sense of ‘national pride.’ “When a nation cannot successfully compete,” writes Girard,” it is tempted to blame its failure on ‘unfair competition,’ thus paving the way for protectionist measures that put an end to peaceful competition.”
Actions that are perceived to be anti-competitive and anti-mimetic stem, in fact, from an excess of mimetic rivalry which has gone into the underground and become internal mediation.
The failure to distinguish between external models (Celebristan) and internal models (Freshmanisan)—and an understanding of the way in which imitation works differently in each of these two relationships—is the cause of confusion.
Girard doesn’t miss an opportunity to take a shot at Marx. He failed to see that the kind of competition he wanted to eliminate would only lead to a far more dangerous kind:
“Marx sees competitiveness as an unmitigated evil that can and should be abolished, together with the free market, the only economic system that, for all its faults, channels the competitive spirit into constructive efforts instead of exacerbating it to the level of physical violence or discouraging it entirely.”
The market, despite its shortcomings, has ritualized a generative form of competition; it has bounded it by certain rules and expectations that prevent violence from spiraling out of control.
A person or even an entire industry may suffer economic death, but they are always capable of a resurrection, a new start. Defeat is never final. The economic cycle is one of the more productive mimetic cycles relative to other forms—which create and resolve mimetic crises through physical violence.
Humans are mimetic creatures. We can’t abolish competition. Anytime we have attempted to, the result has been massively destructive. We’ve unleashed mimetic forces that we don’t understand.
Competition simply migrates to different outlets and is amplified. Ideological competition increases. Competition for profits turns into more sinister forms of competition between classes and races.
Mimesis characterized by internal mediation is a zero-sum game—one person or party or class can only win at another’s expense. We lose sight of any transcendent point of reference—a transcendent model—which might pull us out of our predicament.
“Our recent intellectual climate has not been determined not by a lucid analysis of these phenomena,” Girard writes, “but by their repression, which produces the type of effects described by Nietzsche as ressentiment.” He continues:
“Instead of examining imitation and discovering its conflictual dimension, the eternal avant-garde has waged a purely defensive and ultimately self-destructive war against it.”
An Anti-Mimetic Approach
The purpose of developing an anti-mimetic stance is to take the offensive against this destructive attitude.
To acknowledge and properly deal with systems of internal mediation, starting with our own.
To see that we participate in the creation of the world—we don’t just live in it.
To believe that it is possible to create real human value outside of the closed system of internal mediation. To escape the zero-sum mentality.
There are new forms of work, new forms of living, new forms of economics and politics that are yet to be discovered—but which we are in the process of developing—as we detach ourselves from the mimetic muck that has kept people stuck in stalemates: physically, ideologically, politically, spiritually.
These new forms of working, living, and finding more meaning in the commonplace probably won’t come through furious attempts to innovate our way out—but through finding new models, external models, that transcend the present moment. We might even have to find them in the past.
The only way out, in a very real sense, is through.
I believe the greatest innovations yet to come will begin with imitation. That will require the humility to look back at where we came from. The past need not be primarily a source of embarrassment and shame; it can and should be a source of innovation or renewal.
To repeat Girard:
“The main prerequisite for real innovation is a minimal respect for the past and a mastery of its achievements. To expect novelty to cleanse itself of imitation is to expect a plant to grow with its roots up in the air.”
We need new models. The most important is a model of what it means to be fully human and alive.
What or who is your ultimate model of humanity? Who has modeled humanity in the most beautiful way? At the very least, ask yourself if you are able to find a better model of humanity than the kind currently on offer.
We’ll have to look outside the mimetically-charged fishbowl of Freshmanistan to find it.