Extending Mimetic Awareness in Modern Society

Editor’s Note: This article was submitted by guest author Joan Cooney.

After observing steady increases in violence in society, some people have begun to ask: Are there any ways that René Girard’s Mimetic Theory can be used to reduce violence in communities?

To deal with the problem of mimetic violence, people need to first understand how mimetic rivalry and violence occur suddenly between two persons, and then to apply those findings, especially the intensity and invisibility of the desires, to groups such as political parties or even nations which, having similar attitudes and desires, imitate each other until hostilities erupt.

It appears to me, however, that an abstract understanding of mimesis by third parties has not been sufficient to control these polarized conflicts.  What is necessary is for people to recognize the operation of mimetic desires within themselves, so that they can become aware of the type of responses needed to defuse potentially explosive situations.

Jean-Michel Oughourlian, a French psychiatrist, has integrated Mimetic Theory into his psychiatric practice.  As a student, he had met Girard in 1971, was impressed by his evolving theory on mimetic desire, and collaborated with him on publishing the results of their anthropological and psychological research in 1978.

In the 1990s, Oughourlian incorporated the scientific discovery of “Mirror Neurons” by Rizzolati, Fogassi, and Gallesi of Parma University, which provided firm scientific evidence of the physiology underlying mimetic imitation.

This has resulted in the publication in English of three of his books that explain the structure and operation of Mimetic Theory: Genesis of Desire in 2010, The Mimetic Brain in 2016, which focused on dyads, i.e. the relationship between two individuals, and Psychopolitics: Conversations with Trever Cribben Merrill in 2012 which discussed the mimetic interactions between two groups.

Oughourlian’s goal has been to make people aware of the “mimetic mechanism that manipulates them” and to provide them with strategies leading to solutions.

The topics include the nature of mimetic desire: its origin, transmission, misrecognition or invisibility, and its explosion into uncontrollable rivalry and violence.  On the philosophical side he discusses the apparent determinism of mimetic behavior and the question of free will.  In Psychopolitics, he expands his thoughts to include violence between groups and indicates the knowledge, attitudes and skills required to lessen or prevent the escalation of violence between rival groups.

Taken together, Oughourlian’s three books describe the fine points of mimetic rivalry which in real life situations are usually embedded with other factors that can complicate the recognition of true mimetic behavior. In addition, it is necessary for mediators to correctly understand the culture in which these rivalries occur in order to avoid counterproductive interventions.

Some scholars have already started searching for signs of mimetic activity in their areas of expertise. Roberto Farneti, a political scientist, has reported his findings on mimesis in politics, government and war in his 2015 book Mimetic Politics, and the sociologist, Stefano Tomelleri, has described social and economic resentments in his 2015 reflection entitled Ressentiment.

Both Farneti and Tomelleri show how the simple outlines of pure mimetic theory can be distorted and complicated by the unexpected.  For example, Farneti shows how hidden rivalries can bring to naught agreements painfully achieved by long hard negotiations, and Tomelleri shows how changes in economic conditions in a country can generate unrest.

However, since a systematic understanding of mimetic violence really only began in the late 20th Century with Girard’s synthesis, it will take a long time for Mimetic Theory to widely affect popular behavior. Even when the theory has been understood and accepted, reductions in violence will depend on the free will efforts of individuals acting both independently and cooperatively in groups to choose cooperation instead of self-promotion.

Image: Photo of books provided by Adam Ericksen.

Joan Cooney is a retiree who learned about Mimetic Theory about 15 years ago, and has been reading about it ever since.

Editor’s Note: Would you like to submit an article for consideration to The Raven Foundation? Find out how in the guidelines of our new section, “Your Voice.” Articles published do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the staff at the Raven Foundation, but are selected primarily because of the way they enhance the conversation around mimetic theory.

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