The French polymath René Girard identified mimesis (mi-mee-sis)—imitation—as the most important force shaping our lives and our culture.
Humans possess powers of imitation that far surpass any animal. This ability is tremendously important and largely positive. It’s what allows us to learn complex languages, recipes, social norms, advanced math, and flirtatious conversation starters that actually work.
Theoretically, we have the power to choose most of the models that we imitate as adults. When we’re children, though, our parents are an immediate and obvious exception. In fact, our teachers, extended family, and high school friends are usually given to us based on the constraints of our environment.
At my Catholic high school on the west side of Grand Rapids, MI, I convinced myself that there wasn’t a single person in the school worthy of imitation. But that was a product of my adolescent naïveté. I imitated or reacted against everything. I couldn’t help myself.
And sometimes, that’s okay. Here’s Girard himself, imitatively laughing with the people around him at a University of Buffalo arts faculty meeting in July, 1971.
As we grow older, if we’ve developed interior freedom, we can begin to make distinctions and choose who to follow in a more intentional way. We can choose not to jump off cliffs or go down rat-infested rabbit holes like some of the people around us.
When disastrous outcomes are set before our eyes, a mature adult—usually, but not always—chooses a different model, one more worthy of imitation. This, too, is thanks to our highly advanced powers of imitation.
Our modern, developed, and (mostly) civilized culture is a product of millions of people imitating millions of other people across hundreds of thousands of years.
But there’s a dark side to our powers of imitation. Girard noticed that we easily slip into a form of hidden, rivalrous imitation that causes conflict and misery to everyone involved. Children imitate openly and proudly; adults imitate secretly and shamefully. Usually, we don’t even know we’re doing it.
It turns out we do often jump off cliffs and go down rat-infested rabbit holes because people around us are doing it. This insidious and mostly negative imitation is primarily what Girard means by the word mimetic. Mimesis is so dangerous because it’s so subtle.
Girard’s most important discovery is that humans don’t just imitate outward things like facial expressions, speech, and style (representative imitation). Humans go further. They imitate the very desires of others. He calls this mimetic desire.
This newsletter is called Anti-Mimetic, the meaning of which will unfold during the course of its life.
Being Anti-Mimetic doesn’t mean being non-mimetic. I don’t claim that transcending mimetic desire is possible, or even desirable, in this life. It’s a constituent part of our humanity. We can, however, learn to live a healthy and fulfilling life by harnessing the power of mimetic desire in positive ways.
Mimetic desire is like gravity. It just is. Some people don’t exercise their core muscles and let gravity wreak havoc on their body. Others experience that same force of gravity and find ways to go to the moon. Mimetic desire is like that. How we choose to live with it is up to us.
Anti-mimetic does not mean the opposite of mimetic in the way that Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile is the opposite of fragile. It doesn’t mean being contrarian, either, since being contrarian can simply be an example of “mirrored imitation” in which one person does the opposite of what their rival does—which, if you really think about it, is a form of imitation.
Nobody thinks they’re a hipster. That is, nobody realizes how silly mimetic rivalry actually is or that they’re involved in.
(The hip-hop artist Gucci Mane made a song about robbing in his “Black Tee” solely because a rival rap group had success with a song about wearing their “White Tees.” I rob in my black tee / Hit licks in my black tee / All in ya house searchin’ for bricks in my black tee (Crank it) / I kill in my black tee / I steal in my black tee / I’m real so I gotta keep it trill in my black tee (O-kay-kay-kay). His autobiography is filled with examples of mimetic rivalry.)
Rather, anti-mimetic refers to anything or anyone that counteracts the prevailing forces of negative mimesis. Mimetic forces work like an accelerant. Anti-mimetic forces are like decelerants. Sometimes, as we’ll see, they even throw a wrench in the entire system and make it come crashing down.
I’ll be sharing thoughts here on human ecology, technology, culture, and other things through the lens of mimetic desire. I’ll draw on classic philosophical and theological resources that can help us gain some insights into what’s happening in the world around us—without getting caught up in the anxiety and confusion of the mimetic frenzy.
The world seems more chaotic than ever. But we can only control what is ours to control. I believe that we’ll be better off if we understand the forces at work in the world, starting with our own lives.
Then we can do our part to redeem it. Even the ugliest wounds and most broken things are capable of being transformed into things of beauty.
I’ve dedicated my book and this entire year of my life to Hope. I’ve done so with the great hope that none will give in to despair and that we’ll all will see and take hold of the opportunities before us.
Thank you for being here.
Until next time,
P.S. One of my favorite poems is contained in this book by Charles Péguy called The Portal of the Mystery of Hope.
“But my hope is the bloom, and the fruit, and the leaf, and the limb,
And the twig, and the shoot, and the seed, and the bud.
Hope is the shoot, and the bud of the bloom
Of eternity itself.”
Charles Péguy, 1912, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope