Anxiety vs. Mimesis

Regular readers know I'm a huge fan of the work of René Girard. For those who are unfamiliar with Girard a quick overview so I can get to the point I want to make.

A central aspect of Giard's thought is how mimesis creates rivalry and how that rivalry gets defused through scapegoating.

The basic dynamic behind mimetic rivalry is simplicity itself. The central observation is that humans imitate each other (mimesis is the Greek word for imitation). But this tendency among humans inexorably leads us into rivalry and competition.

Girard describes this as a process of triangulation. We see somebody desiring an object. Due to imitation I begin to desire the same object. And with both of us desiring the same object a rivalry forms between us. This--mimetic rivalry--is the root cause of violence.

I agree with Girard about all this. But I'd like to argue that mimetic rivalry is not the fundamental, root dynamic. Specifically, Girard's model of triangulation presupposes a backdrop of scarcity. There is only one object of desire but there are two people. Thus, there competition between the two people to obtain the single object.

But what if there were two objects, one for each person? In that case, in a situation where there is "enough" or surplus, we don't have triangulation. In abundance we'd have mimesis but no rivalry.

My point here is that the anxiety produced by scarcity is what makes mimesis violent. That is, mimesis does not necessarily lead to violence. But mimesis does lead to violence in a world of real, potential or perceived scarcity. Thus I'd argue that anxiety, rather than mimesis, is the root cause of violence.

I'm not enough of a Girard scholar to know if this is an observation he's already made and addressed. My guess is that he has.

Regardless, my argument here is that fear is the root cause of human sinfulness.

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15 thoughts on “Anxiety vs. Mimesis”

  1.  The assumption (I think explicitly stated by RG -0 I don't have a reference at the moment) in Girard is that the desired resource is limited in some way, and that rivalry only results in violence when those resources are perceived to be limited to the point where desire can not be satiated across the network. 
    I think Girard is aware that abundant/unlimited resources (provided the actors see the resources as unlimited) do not result in rivalry . 
    Girard also goes on to say that Memesis can be good. For example, the imitatio Dei/ Christi. 

  2. I don't have a reference either, but I think it is (at the very least) implicit in Girard's theory that the resource in question is scarce - especially since his theory is ultimately one of human origins, and thus of circumstances where we can assume a greater likelihood of scarcity. Plus, quite often, a "resource" cannot be anything but scarce - for example, where two people desire the same mate.

    Also, I think it goes deeper than saying "where two people want the same thing, there's a likelihood of conflict". It's that how we come to both want an object in the first place is that I see you wanting it (and/or possessing it), which is what kindles the desire in me. So even if a resouce isn't scarce, what makes me want this one rather than that one is that you already have it, or also want it. (A phenomenon with which parents of two or more children will be depressingly familiar!)

    So my off-the-cuff conclusion is that mimesis, rather than fear, remains fundamental to "human nature". However, what tips mimetic desire over into sin (since, as Phil Smith observes above, mimesis is not necessarily sinful) may be the additional element of fear that arises (at least in part) from scarcity.

    Finally, Girard's theory seems to be more in tune with the Bible's account of sin's origins: the "desiring according to the desire of the other" that is seen in the serpent's tempting of Eve, and Adam's following of Eve: "when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a
    delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one
    wise, she took of its fruit and ate..." There is no fear in the Garden, but there is (mimetic) desire, and thus the possibility of desire being misdirected.

  3. "In abundance we'd have mimesis but no rivalry" King George and the Ducky,  King George had plenty of duckies, but he desired Junior's ducky  ... I can't see it being to do with fear in this case!

  4. It's not so much scarcity in the economic or commodity sense it's about wanting the Being of another person. There could be two people with identical objects, but since one person views reality and values objects through the eyes of another, the same object owned by another person could become more valuable. All that matters is who is the model or mediator of value. 2 kids could have the exact same toy, but if one is the model for the other, the kid who models the other will find that the toy of his model is somehow more valuable because it is owned by his model, even though his own toy is exactly the same. That's because he looks up to the other kid and wants to be the other kid.
    I would have to disagree with your last point. Having the wrong model, having the wrong mediator, essentially worshiping at the foot of idols is the root of human sinfulness. Obtaining your desires not from God, but from other people is the root of sinfulness.

  5. I don't know if Girard would be in agreement here, actually. I recall an example Girard gives in Things Hidden wherein he discusses a hypothetical experimental scenario in which a group of children is released into a room full of identical toys, with enough of the toys for each child. He asserts that it is overwhelmingly likely that these children would not each run to their own toy peacefully, but that one child would see the joy another gets from playing with a specific toy, and the jealous child would then try to take that specific toy. 

    Now, this is reconstructed from memory, so I may have the example all wrong. I recall this example being within the first chapter of Things Hidden. However, I am inclined to believe (at least my recollection of) Girard, here; I don't think anxiety is necessary to provoke mimetic violence, although it might be the most common cause.

  6. I think scarcity is an independent issue; as metacognizant pointed out, the classic example is two children in a nursery full of toys squabbling over one of them. In one sense, scarcity is irrelevant to mimetic anthropology: if there are two of us and only enough food for one, then that's going to produce conflict *regardless of* how our desires are structured, and if the scarcity touches survival, then violence is likely to break out.

    What MT shows us is how rivalry emerges even in the absence of scarcity, and how the violence ultimately centers on the rivalry itself, through an escalating process of mimetic mirroring in which the original supposed cause of the conflict is all but forgotten in the overwhelming drive to "get the other guy."

    In one sense though, I agree that fear is an underlying existential cause, but it's not a fear of physical scarcity; it's a more existential fear of not-having the self, of not-being because one is not-being-valued. That's why the gratuitous *givenness* of our identities, not over against anyone else at all, is so powerful.

  7. There's still the fear of loss, it's just an irrational fear - Junior's ducky was BETTER than his duckies. He might have more, but Junior had the GOOD one, meaning all his currently owned duckies were meaningless. If he didn't have Junior's ducky, he would never possess "true duckiness", and the joy that can only come from having the Perfect Ducky.

    I maintain it's the same thing. We're just able to still be afraid, even when we objectively have our needs met. We grasp for more because we feel that last thing might finally give us a sense of security and peace, and that fear will always exist unless we work conciously to curb it. Abundance doesn't remove it, it just exposes it - mostly exposes it to people who have even less - because really, we think that somehow that if WE had that same wealth, WE would be satisfied. And maybe we would... but again, if we were, it would be for the most part for inner reasons.

  8. is part of the problem is that in this fallen world we can never 'possess "true duckiness", and the joy that can only come from having the Perfect Ducky'.

  9. i am very much a girard newbie, but my take is that desire is not connected to actual need, or at least not necessarily. i'm thinking of his preliminary work on mimesis, "desire, deceit and the novel," in which he discusses madame bovary and several other books to develop his theory. madame bovary's tragic desires are not for actual things, though she does covet possessions. but her unhappiness is spawned by the romances she read when she was a schoolgirl. the things she desires (such as eternal, transformative romantic bliss), which she imagines will fill her emptiness and wretchedness, belong not to any real person but to characters in badly written stories—not only intangible but nonexistent. 

    at any rate, scarcity doesn't seem to me to be a fundamental precondition for mimesis, unless in the idea of scarcity we include states of being that exist only in the mind of the protagonist.

  10. The fall as described in Genesis involves a mental projection (seeded by serpentine suggestion) that God is withholding something ...some form of knowledge He wants to keep for Himself.  This could well be interpreted as the first human experience of scarcity in that there is something desirable that belongs only to God and is unavailable to obedient humans. That begs the question of whether or not the Creator can be trusted--which would certainly breed anxiety.  I would postulate that the act of sinful disobedience was a function of two erroneous projections--that God is not fully invested in our good (since He is withholding something good from us)--and therefore cannot be trusted with our well being.  Thus--the act of disobedience was (and still is in human life today) a misguided attempt to take care of ourselves.

  11. I suspect the truth is a complex relation between mimesis and scarcity. Girardians and Girard often give the example of a rivalry without scarcity when children in a playground both, for mimetic reasons, want the same toy even if their are plenty of Other toys.They imitate desire. So scarcity is not a necessary condition for rivalry. However it may have an impact on the process in that it increases the anxiety associated with the acquisitive desire. I think this is an interesting question.

  12. As several have already said here Girard would probably hold that mimetic rivalry can be violent even in the presence of abundance, because the mimetic nature of desire creates a false perception of scarcity. We don't just want something similar (or even identical) to what another person wants. We want the same thing. The example of two kids in a room full of toys fighting over the same toy truck is instructive. That isn't a hypothetical by the way. I watch it play out between my sons on a near-daily basis. A massive pile of legos can become a fight over a specific brick again and again.

    We can also see mimetic rivalry becoming violent (or at least oppressive) in our society in the way we presently deal with wealth. Over the last 40 years income and wealth have remained static or even declined for most people in our society while skyrocketing for the top few percent. This massive redistribution of wealth is called "growth" while any move to raise taxes or expand the social safety-net is called class-warfare and responded to with hysterics. We are manifestly in the midst of abundance. There has never been a people as wealthy as we are in the history of the world. But greed is as strong as ever.

    So I would introduce a further distinction into your observation above. It is not real scarcity that makes mimesis violent, but the perception of scarcity and that perception is itself conditioned by the mimetic nature of desire. A person with a billion dollars will still fight you over that one dollar both you and he want.

  13. You might look at William Cavanaugh's Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. If I'm not mistaken, he discussed the idea of scarcity in Christian economics.

  14. Rene Girard’s ideas are surely admirable and thought-provoking. In connection to this, handling anxiety may be very handful due to the potential risks by antidepressants like Zoloft. Zoloft linked with birth defects is a widely-discussed topic. You may want to know more about it.

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