403. Mimesis and role models
René Girard proposed a theory of ‘mimetic desire’. Desire does not arise from within the individual but from mimicry, imitation of what others do. The closer one is to the other, the stronger this desire is, mixed with envy and grudges when not having equal access.
This leads on to mimetic violence, where rivalry and grudge escalate to the point that the original object of desire is lost from sight, and the grudge itself is imitated, evokes anger that is in turn imitated, and his escalates into mutual violence.
That leads to the need for a scapegoat, often quite arbitrary, to load off the blame onto.
That, in turn, according to Girard, leads on to the elevation of the scapegoat as a divinity, to carry the blame, and to constitute a taboo, to prevent a re-kindling of the violence, and to be pacified with sacrifice and ritual.
And that, Girard argues, is the beginning and the basis of all culture.
I want to give some opposition to all this.
In his early and late work, Girard allowed for a more beneficial view of imitation, which can generate empathy and sensitivity to political problems. I want to support the latter and expand on it.
In my analysis of causality, and is application, at several places in this blog, I adopted Aristotle’s multiple causality, which includes the exemplary cause, a model to be imitated or a role model to be followed (items 96 and 99 in this blog).
For example, as masters of phronesis, Aristotelian practical wisdom, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela served as role models. I noted that since good practice, also in professions, cannot always be captured in closed protocols, since much practice is too rich, i.e. too context-dependent and variable, an example to be followed may be the only effective form of guidance, leaving some room for personal interpretation of the ideal.
Such leeway for interpretation is not only beneficial for motivation and the intrinsic value of work, but also under conditions of uncertainty where no optimal choice of policy can be established and codified in advance, but room is needed for adapting to what emerges in new options and conditions.
While Girard associates imitation with envy and threat, that is not necessarily so. Similarly, in item 338 I opposed the view, propounded by Žižek and Lacan, of the other in terms of threat rather than also of opportunity. At several places in this blog I argued that opposition from the other helps to escape from one’s prejudice, and to learn and grow.
Also, in imitation an innovation realises its potential, becomes established, and there is nothing wrong with that. That is how people get to benefit from the innovation.
Next, imitation with variation is a source of further invention and innovation. I showed that in my ‘cycle of invention’, in items 31 and 35 in this blog. That arises, in particular, when some existing ractice is carried into a new context, in ‘generalisation’, to be imitated there, but then meets with new challenges, for which the first step is to differentiate the practice, tapping form memory of earlier trials and applications.
There is also an alternative view of the scapegoat, as designated by an authoritarian leader to load off the blame for not fulfilling the promises by which he captured the population.
I do not wish to deny that imitation can also be negative, in envy and rivalry, leading to an escalation of conflict and violence, as Girard argued.
However, in that there is also something else at play, as I argued in item 48 in this blog. That is associated with the idea of a hierarchy of needs (due to Maslow), with at the basis, on the most primary level, the most fundamental, physiological needs of food and sex, and safety and shelter. In that, people are more similar, and hence more rivalrous, than on the ‘higher’ levels of a need for social recognition and self-realization. There, I proposed, people differ more, and are less rivalrous, less involved in a zero-sum game, more complementary, in opportunities to learn from each other, so that beneficial imitation may be more prevalent.