Our Mimetic Culture

People Who Influence (and Are Influenced By) the Desires of Others

Let’s have some fun.

I’ve plotted a few cultural figures on this four-quadrant grid. We can situate people and groups according to two criteria:

1)    Mimetic Axis (Left —> Right): We can plot from left to right according to how mimetic the person or group seems (the left is hyper-mimetic; the right is less mimetic)

2)    Proximity Axis (Top —> Bottom). We can plot from top to bottom according to how far the person or group is socially separated from others. In Celebristan (top), there’s generally a large distance separating models from imitators. In Freshmanistan (bottom), there’s less separation.

It’s important to note that the placement of everyone on this matrix only makes sense in relation to some “hidden” person who is not on the matrix at all—a person who stands in relation to everything. On my matrix, that person is some kind of everyman.

If the point of reference of this matrix changed from everyman to Elon Musk, then the whole thing would look differently. We’d be looking at the world through Musk’s eyes. And that could be a fascinating, or a frightening (ahem, Jeff Bezos anyone?), thing to behold.

(If you have any trouble reading the Matrix above, you can view this full-size, high-res version on my website—best viewed on a non-mobile device.)

How to Think About The Matrix

Here are quick definitions or refreshers (for my regular readers) of the matrix labels to help you make sense of this little creation:

Mimetic

People who imitate others—their mimetic models—to a high degree. Mimesis is a special kind of imitation, though.

  • It’s almost always hidden

  • It’s reactionary or reflexive

  • It’s never about imitating a model directly or to the same degree

It’s rivalrous imitation. It’s imitation that seeks differentiation.

Imitation can be positively or negatively correlated. Here’s an example of the difference. Ceteris paribus (all other things being equal):

Positive mimetic correlation: Person A moves further to the political left as Person B moves further to the political left, tracking Person B’s movement.

Negative mimetic correlation: Person A moves further to the political right the more Person B moves further to the political left, tracking Person B’s movement but in the other direction.

In both cases, Person A is equally mimetic. His mimesis just manifests itself in different ways, though.

We’re not merely talking about negative partisanship here, or the tendency of voters to form their opinions primarily based on the opposition of political parties they don’t like. There is indeed mimesis involved in negative partisanship. But mimetic rivalry runs deeper: two best friends can secretly be rivals of desire to one another. They derive their sense of self by the constant need to differentiate themselves from their subconscious model.

The difference between superficial rivalry (most Republicans and Democrats) and metaphysical rivalry (class and gender wars, for instance) is a blurring of the line between friend and foe. At the heart of any mimetic crisis is deep ambiguity and ambivalence in regards to the people who serve as models.

Girard captured this idea best:

“Modern individualism assumes the form of a desperate denial of the fact that, through mimetic desire, each of us seeks to impose his will upon his fellow man, whom he professes to love but more often despises.”

Anti-Mimetic

A person, action, or thing that counteracts the forces of mimetic desire or is less subject to them for some reason.

People can be anti-mimetic for positive reasons—for instance, if they have some other-worldly, or transcendent, model of desire that makes them less susceptible to the crowd or even worldly models of desire.

People can also be anti-mimetic for entirely negative reasons—because they’re dead or depressed or overly phlegmatic, like a person at a doctor’s office who fails the knee-jerk test of desire.

Our goal is not to be anti-mimetic. Our goal is to be mimetic in all of the right ways, and anti-mimetic where necessary.

Celebristan

This is the world of external mediators of desire, or models of desire who are far removed from the immediate lives of most people, with whom some kind of social barrier exists.

They live in a world that seems other-worldly (to most of us, at least) from the standpoint of desire. René Girard referred to these kinds of models as external mediators of desire.

For instance, Michael Jordan is an external mediator to many of us who play basketball or people who are ultra-competitive.

(Here’s MJ using his mimetic rivalry to fuel his greatness.)

Freshmanistan

This is the world of people who have the possibility of coming into contact with one another (or with us). There is a greater degree of similarity between people in Freshmanistan: they are in close social proximity to one another, and so they can take one another as models of desire and compete with one another for similar things. While Michael Jordan might be in Celebristan to us, he was in Freshmanistan to Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley because they all played in the League at the same time and competed against one another.

A Snapshot

This mimetic matrix is a snapshot of our culture at any given time (I made it last year, as you can tell…). I hope to update it and do more versions as time goes on—and I hope some of you will share your own.

It’s instructive to simply think about the question of which quadrant things fall in: 1, 2, 3, or 4.

The matrix is meant to be dynamic. Someone who is in Freshmanistan one day can be in Celebristan the next (the rise of a YouTube star, for example); someone who is in Celebristan one day can be in Freshmanistan the next (the rock-star PhD advisor whose student suddenly starts publishing in the same journals as her).

Once you’ve got the hang of it, then comes the hard and truly insightful part: plotting it out for your own life.

Drawing credit: Liana Finck, a regular contributor to the New Yorker whom I was lucky enough to collaborate with on all of the art for Wanting (which comes out on June 1st, by the way. And here’s the full-size version of the matrix, again.)