Mimetic Desire 102

On Rivalry, The Double Bind, and the Difference Between Memes and Mimes

We ended the first installment of this series on mimetic desire by exploring the difference between internal mediation (Freshmanistan) and external mediation (Celebristan). 

In this installment, we’re going to take one more step in the mimetic process and explore reflexivity, the double bind, and the difference between meme theory 🤌and mimetic theory 👉👈.

This is stage 2 in what I expect to be a (roughly) 10-stage education in mimetic theory. For now, it’s free.

Things will get more complex and nuanced as we go, so please stick with me here. I promise that by the end you’ll have gone from Holy Shit (look at all this mimesis all around me) to Oh, Shit (look at all this mimesis inside me). And that’s a very good thing.

I would encourage everyone to use the comments section below liberally if any questions or comments arise. I will respond to all of them. And I would especially love to hear from anyone whose experience validates these insights.

The Freshman’s Dilemma

Let’s start with a very brief review of Freshmanistan and Celebristan. Grasping the difference between these two “worlds”—understanding how mimetic desire operates differently in each one—is the most important step in developing a robust knowledge of mimetic theory. Here we go.

What René Girard calls “external mediators” of desire live in Celebristan (my term). This world is unreachable, untouchable to us. We’re separated from it by some kind of barrier, whether death, time, space, or social status. The caste system in India is one example of a barrier.

People in Celebristan want differently than we do. There is no possibility of competing directly with them for the objects of their desire. They seem to be on a different plane, existentially or socially.

(Note: a person can appear to exist in Celebristan even when two people are very close physically. In the Netflix show The Sinner, which I’ve been watching these days, the character Cora, played by Jessica Biel, is in Celebristan to her sickly younger sister, Phoebe—even though they sleep in the same room together every night.) 

What Girard calls “internal mediators” of desire live in Freshmanistan (my term). It’s a world in which everyone has a high degree of sameness—like kids in a Freshman class. They are all jostling for position, each one trying desperately to differentiate themselves, yet each of them has far more in common with the others than they realize, or at least would ever admit. 

The most important feature of Freshmanistan is that everyone has the possibility of coming into contact with and competing with everyone else for the same things. If taken far enough, this can create a Hobbesian war of all-against-all. (But we’ll get to that in installment 3 or 4 of this series.)

For now, please just note that because everyone in Freshmanistan is basically in the same situation, their desires are highly reflexive (to borrow a term from financier George Soros).

It’s as if everyone in Freshmanistan is standing on the same small trampoline. One of them can’t jump without exerting some force on all of the rest. That’s the situation with their physics, though, but with their desires

Mimetic desire is a force very similar to gravity. What gravity is to physics mimetic desire is to psychology.

Here’s the difference between Celebristan and Freshmanistan in a concrete example: 

I could care less what kind of car the actor Tracy Morgan just bought because he lives in Celebristan from my perspective. But I do care deeply about what kind of car a fellow entrepreneur, Derek—who is in the same startup “incubator” as I am—just bought.

He’s working alongside me in the same coffee shops. Our company valuations are roughly the same (or so I hear). He is someone I’m always paying attention to. What new apps is he using for productivity? Who are his investors? What kind of customer growth and retention rate does he have? Is he hiring the top dev talent? I keep tabs on him.

(This is the danger of any startup incubator or accelerator. I generally like Y-Combinator. It produced a Garry Tan. This experience adds a ton of value for many, many entrepreneurs. But that doesn’t prevent me from also thinking that the hypermimetic explosion of “Shark Tank-style competitions” and incubators and accelerators are—for the vast majority of entrepreneurs—Girardian incubators of terror….to adapt a phrase from Dan Wang.)

My ears perk up when Derek starts saying that he spurned Tesla and pre-ordered himself a Rivian R1T truck instead. 

Meanwhile, I’m sitting here with my gas-guzzling SUV wondering what this means about the future of my company and maybe even my whole life. 

You can bet that when the time comes for me to upgrade, I’ll be thinking about Derek’s decision to pre-order a Rivian.

See, I can’t help but be affected by what he wants. We both live in Freshmanistan together. And I have secretly taken him as a model—though I would never admit that to myself.

Memes Vs. Mimes

To understand what’s about to happen next, we have to understand the difference between memes and mimetic desire.

“Meme” is a term coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. The term is meant to be a riff on the word “gene.” A “meme” is a cultural equivalent of a biological gene. A meme ‘survives’ by replicating itself as many times as possible in the greatest number of hosts, caring little about who those hosts are so long as they replicate and propagate the meme to others. 

Like genes, memes can undergo small, random adaptations as they move through a culture—but those adaptations are never the result of an intentional process. (That’s precisely why Internet memes are not memes, in Dawkins’ purist view. An Internet meme is intentionally altered by different people to be funnier or to be more ‘viral’). 

There are many more things I could say about memes, but here are three key points to know in terms of their relationship to mimesis: 

A — Memes seek to imitate or replicate themselves perfectly 

B — Memes don’t care who their host is

C — In meme theory, imitation is viewed as positive because only what is imitated survives

Now let’s take a look at the mimetic theory of René Girard to understand how mimetic desires spread, contra memes. 

“Dawkins has no awareness of mimetic rivalry, mimetic crisis, scapegoating and other figures uncovered by mimetic theory.” —René Girard

Mimicry is Not a Meme

The exact opposite is true for each of these three points when it comes to mimetic desire. Let’s take a closer look:

A’ — Differentiation

Mimetic desire doesn’t spread through imitation; it spreads through mimesis, where the imitation is never about making an exact replica of another’s desire but about one-upping it, or differentiating oneself from it. 

Mimesis is differentiation through imitation. In the case of rivalry, it is imitation through escalation (a particular form of differentiation).

A mimetic rivalry happens when two people have taken each other as models of desire. 

In the case of my startup incubator, I imitated Derek by buying a Tesla Model S. This helps me differentiate myself from him with his stupid Rivian (it probably also signals something about my admiration for Elon Musk, if you want to go deep enough). 

But the fact that I got a luxury electric vehicle in the first place—before I felt financially ready to—probably has a lot less to do with my concern for the planet than the concern I like to signal to people. It has to do with my concern for Derek.

It’s worth noting that I could have never bought a Rivian—lest I imitate Derek too closely, which would be embarrassing. But my choice of a Tesla is still totally mimetic.

I would’ve loved a Rivian, in fact. But because Derek got one, I need to show that I’m different. My move to get a Tesla is a product of his initial move. My desire for a Tesla is a response to his desire for a Rivian.

(Gucci Mane wrote in his autobiography, which is excellent, that his decision to make a song called Black Tee was completely driven by a rival rapper making a song called White Tee.)

When Derek notices that I bought a nice Tesla—when I start rolling up to our shared incubator space every day in my new whip, while he’s still waiting for his Rivian truck to come from the factory (they aren’t out yet)—Derek begins taking me as a mimetic model. I got him.

René Girard calls this situation a double bind: we are bound to each other through mimesis, unable to escape the hold that the other’s desires and decisions have over us. What I want affects Derek; what he wants affects me. We’re in a reflexive tug-of-war. 

Derek goes back on the Rivian website and adds a few extra features to the model he ordered. 

Both of us want to be seen as the more environmentally-conscious, the more progressive thinker, the more successful entrepreneur, and a slew of other things. In the end, we want all of the same things.

The Double Bind

This dynamic of a mimetic double bind, by the way, even plays out in romantic relationships or the relationship between a husband and wife who have been married for 25 years. 

The French neuropsychiatrist Jean-Michel Oughourlian, a friend and close collaborator of René Girard, calls these teeter-totter or seesaw relationships. One person can’t be up unless the other person is down. 

They are people who claim to love each other—but they are also mimetic rivals to one another. Their rivalry is probably even more important than their love—or at least it colored the way they love each other. 

There is mimesis in every relationship. The only difference is between people who recognize it and people who don’t. Understanding how this dynamic works is critical if we want to begin extracting ourselves from these mimetic cycles and do the hard, anti-mimetic work of developing relationships in less mimetic ways. 

B’ Obsessive focus with who the ‘host’ is

With mimetic desire, unlike with memes, the person imitating another person cares deeply about who that other person is.

In meme theory, hosts are mere carriers for some unit of cultural information known as a meme. When it comes to mimetic desire, it’s the people that matter and the information itself that doesn’t matter.

A model of desire could change what she wants 100 times; the person imitating her will also change what she wants 100 times. It’s the model that really matters, not the object of the model’s desire. It’s the model that is being imitated—not any particular ‘thing.’

What we want is every thing the model wants.

One more thing. Desire, as we saw in the last installment (Mimetic Desire 101), is ultimately a search for something metaphysical. Metaphysical desire is the desire for being—the being of the other that we feel we lack. This is completely different from a meme, for which the category of being doesn’t matter. 

Mimetic desire is a human phenomenon—something relational—for which nothing is more important than the other person “carrying” the desire. That other person’s desire is merely derivative—a secondary concern to us. Our greatest concern is who that person is and whether or not we believe they possess something that we do not.

The Brutal Truth

The uncomfortable truth about mimetic desire, then, is that we never take anyone as a model unless we secretly believe that they are superior to us in some way. Otherwise, we’d never take them as a model.

This is why it’s so hard to admit that we have mimetic models. To admit that we have a model is to admit that we want to be more like another person—that we’re not “authentic” in a hyper-individualistic age of “authenticity.” It would mean admitting our own envy. And that is the hardest thing to admit of all. 

Girard quipped once that the reason everyone talks so much about sex—indeed, talking about sex is celebrated—is because nobody would dare talk about their envy, which is still something embarrassing. 

As talking about sex became less and less of a taboo, envy went deeper into the closet. 

Girard is worth quoting again here:

“When we borrow the desires of those we admire we must play the deadly serious game of mimetic rivalry with them. Whenever we lose, our models successfully thwart our desires and, because we admire them, we feel rejected and humiliated. But since their victory over us confirms their superiority we admire them more than ever and our desire becomes more intense.”

C’—Imitation has a dark side

Dawkins never seems to make the connection that imitation is anything but positive. Imitation, in Dawkins’ myopic view, is just how things survive. 

In mimetic theory, the process of imitation (which Girard calls mimesis) is a process that more often than not leads not to survival but to destruction. People are even willing to destroy themselves if that means they can destroy their enemies. 

Mimetic theory admits that imitation has a dark side: it is the cause of conflict and violence. And few things are more mimetic than aggression.

Below is a depiction of the nodes of a social network called Weibo—China’s equivalent of Twitter—showing how quickly various emotions spread on the app during a 6-month research period in 2010. The four emotions are joy (green), sadness (blue), disgust (black), and anger (red).

State Key Laboratory of Software Development Environment, Beihang University. Rui Ran, Ke Xu, and Jichang Zhao. “Higher Contagion and weaker social ties mean anger spreads faster than joy in social media.

The lex talionis—the law of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’—seems like it’s almost hard-wired into humans at an instinctual level, our default response. When someone hits us, we want to hit back. When someone is rude to us in line at the supermarket, we naturally want to snap back at them.

This is why the message contained in the gospels, especially in the beatitudes, is so radical: there is a call to transcend this base mimetic impulse in order to start a new mimetic cycle rooted in self-sacrificial love. If someone strikes your cheek, give them the other cheek to strike as well. If someone compels you to walk one mile, walk two with them. Mahatma Gandhi, with his non-violent resistance and protest, practiced a similar type of anti-mimetic response.

This is highly subversive behavior from a mimetic standpoint—it is anti-mimetic behavior—which is also (paradoxically) highly mimetic, because it kicks off a positive cycle of mimetic desire. 

The term anti-mimetic (not coincidentally, the name of this newsletter) could be thought of as a form of disruption, or reversal, of negative mimesis—destructive forces that are transformed into positive forces. 

In the next edition of this series, we’ll explore the scapegoat mechanism and how the process of scapegoating has been and can be disrupted by even one person.

So what now?

Dawkins is right. Imitation can be, and often is, a positive thing. Without our advanced powers of imitation, there would be no human culture. There would be no progress.

The imitation of love between two great lovers or between friends, or a transcendent leader who inspires others to want more than they thought was wantable—these are examples of powerful mimetic forces that attract others because they are mimetic in the best possible sense. They are a sign of contradiction in a world that has become all too comfortable with negative mimesis. Just turn on the news.

In a world so dominated by mimetic rivalry, it takes a radically different kind of mimesis to get anyone’s attention—a disruption. Disruptive empathy. Disruptive speech. Disruptive love.

But here is the conundrum:

Given enough time, mimetic desire becomes rivalrous in even its noblest pursuits—say, the Christian ideal of pursuing holiness. It’s enough to visit any seminary in the world to see how this happens. 

Believe me—I’ve spent time in one. 

One guy starts looking at the guy next to him who is praying on his knees instead of seated. And what’s more: he’s bare-flooring it, on the marble, eschewing the padded kneelers in the pews. Man, that guy looks like he’s praying so hard…

And so it begins.

Text 🐐 to me at 202-918-3743 to get a text notification when the next edition of this series on mimetic desire comes out (it might contain a word or two about goats…) and to receive highly infrequent updates from me on mimetic theory. Or you can just say hi. I receive all texts personally and reply to what I can.

For short-form content like this, sign-up for #MimeticMonday, a 3-bullet-point email that I send out every Monday.