Mimetic Theory Glossary
Apocalypse is the Greek word for revelation. This word is mistakenly thought to mean that at some undisclosed time God will violently intervene in human events to establish God’s peaceful reign on earth. However, what the biblical tradition reveals is not a prophetic warning of God’s violence, but the truth about human violence and its consequences. The Cross itself is an apocalypse, the long prepared for unveiling of God’s nonviolence and humanity’s misplaced faith in violence to achieve peace. As René Girard explained, “The Gospel does not provide a happy ending to our history. It simply shows us two options (which is exactly what ideologies never provide, freedom of choice): either we imitate Christ, giving up all our mimetic violence, or we run the risk of self-destruction. The apocalyptic feeling is based on that risk.”
Appetites refer to physiological needs and do not involve imitation. They are distinct from desire. Hunger, thirst and sexuality are part of our biology and are instinctual. The drive to satisfy appetites is not the result of the imitation of models.
Competition is synonymous with mimetic rivalry. Used to describe sports, economic or political rivalries, competition pits rivals against each other in contests of power and dominance. The mimetic dynamics of the competitive relationship remain hidden, for despite insisting on how completely different they are from one another, the rivals are imitating each other’s desires to obtain the same things such as the trophy, market share, or a political office. See Mimetic Doubles.
Rather than autonomous, independent individuals, human beings are extremely open to being influenced by each other. (See Interdividual.) Because of that we can “catch” desires from one another. Likes and dislikes, loves and hatreds, can spread through a community or around the world in a way that mimics the contagion of a virus. Contagious desire describes mass phenomena such as trends in fashion, music, and the latest must-be-seen-drinking cocktail. It also describes how opinions and memes spread across the internet and how online mobs can quickly unite against a scapegoat.
Desire is a spiritual longing unique to the human species. Desire is not directed by instinct toward an object which will satisfy it. We desire but we know not what we desire – this is the human condition. In order to find objects to satisfy our desire, we turn to others to see what they desire. We copy their desires, mistaking them as our own. See Mimetic Desire.
Human beings are formed and sustained by our relationships. We do not exist as independent, autonomous individuals but are dependent on one another to know who we are and that we are loved. Because we are mimetic, the most authentic expression of ourselves is found within our connections to the network we move through and live in daily. Every interaction holds us in being, the casual ones with shop clerks as well as our most intimate ones. Relationships are the source of who we are and what we desire. To represent this oft misunderstood reality, psychologists working with mimetic theory coined the new word, interdividual.
Méconnaissance or unknowing is the key to the scapegoating process. In order to have a scapegoat, you must not know you have one. The object of your scorn, hatred, or violence must appear to you as absolutely guilty of the accusations against them. Often the scapegoat is described in monstrous terms and is dehumanized in order to justify violence against them. To awaken to the humanity of a scapegoat is to know what has been hidden, that you have unjustly persecuted a fellow human being. See Scapegoat.
The model or mediator is the person or cultural norm that we take as a model for our desire. Despite appearances, there is not a straight line between our desires and the object we long to possess. There is always a third party, often unacknowledged by us, that exists between us and the thing we want. Whether we desire something as concrete as a smart phone or as intangible as respect, we have always learned to desire it from imitating the desire of our model.
Mimesis is the highly developed ability to imitate that makes us human. Because this ability is not limited to simple rote imitation, we use the Greek word for imitation, mimesis, to call attention to its expansive and generative powers.
This is the term for the unbreakable link between desire and mimesis/ imitation. This link makes love, friendship, compassion, and empathy possible. René Girard’s great insight was that mimetic desire is also the cause of conflict, especially conflict that escalates into violence. In his writings, Girard often used “mimetic desire” exclusively in the conflictual sense because he was developing a theory of violence. However, he explained that, “Mimetic desire, even when bad, is intrinsically good, in the sense that far from being merely imitative in a small sense, it’s the opening out of oneself… Nothing is more mimetic than the desire of a child, and yet it is good. Jesus himself says it is good. Mimetic desire is also the desire for God.”
As mimetic rivalries intensify, an odd thing happens: the rivals feel more and more different from each other but in reality they are becoming mirror images or doubles. Their desires are growing in tandem, but they see only differences. Each makes identical claims: that their desire is original and unique and that the rival is copying them with malicious intent, to ridicule them or thwart them for the sport of it.
Rivalry is a natural but not an inevitable outcome of mimetic desire. When we learn what to desire from one another, our desires can easily converge on the same object. That is not a problem if there is plenty of it to go around, like any trendy, mass produced item. But if the item is scarce or one of a kind, like a piece of land or a lover, then conflict will ensue unless one rival steps away from the contest. Mimetic rivalry is characterized by two things: 1) the rivals’ denial that they are imitating one another and 2) the real object of desire is the rival’s being. For a rivalry to become a full-blown mimetic phenomenon, the object becomes less important that defeating the rival and taking his or her place. This is illustrated well by rivals who destroy the very thing they claim they are fighting for. See Scandal/ Skandalon.
We tend to think that myths are completely imaginary stories that arose out of the primitive mind of early man. But René Girard realized that myths have their origin in real, traumatic outbreaks of violence that threatened the survival of early human communities. Myths retell the story of how the violence ended when a scapegoat was found and killed, bringing calm and peace to the group. But myths conceal the truth, portraying the victim not as a scapegoat but as a divine being who first sowed discord and then sacrificed himself to bring peace. This is why an ancient god is a mixture of good and bad, a threat to humans and a source of goodness as well.
Mimetic theory distinguishes between two types of religions: archaic religions and revealed religions. Archaic religions are sacrificial which means that they are organized around rituals, taboos and myths which involve temple sacrifice. Human and animal victims or grain offerings were “consumed”– killed or burned – on altars as offerings to appease the gods. Ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Aztec cultures practiced sacrificial religion. Emerging out of the ancient world was another type of religion, one that began to undermine sacrificial practices and ultimately led to their demise. The Judeo-Christian scriptures record humanity’s movement out of sacrificial religion. The God revealed in scripture does not demand sacrifice but offers himself as a sacrifice to us, giving us a new ethic to live by: self-sacrifice for the sake of others.
Sacred refers to the ambivalence at the heart of archaic, sacrificial religions. The sacred is extreme violence against the scapegoat and also the peace that the community feels in the aftermath of the killing, whether it is spontaneous or ritualized. Sacred myths tell the story of the violence from the point of view of the community. Therefore the violence is concealed and the peace celebrated. Girard put it succinctly: “Violence is the heart and secret soul of the sacred.”
When the Greek word skandalon appears in the Gospels it is translated as scandal or stumbling block. This is the word Jesus uses to call our attention to the maddening result of mimetic rivalry: the one who is the model for our desire is also the one who is standing in our way. He becomes our obstacle and as the rivalry escalates, so does our fascination with our model/obstacle. Political rivalries offer a good example: opposing political parties claim to want to serve their constituencies. Yet they can lose sight of their good intentions and become more and more focused on a shared goal: winning. Each becomes scandalized by the other’s apparent pigheadedness and willful disregard for the truth. Name-calling takes the place of problem-solving. Outrage and resentment are signs that we have become scandalized by someone who is both our model and our obstacle.
A scapegoat is a person or a group of people against whom an individual or community unifies itself, creates belonging and ends the discord which may lead to violent cycles of revenge. Scapegoats are randomly chosen but have certain things in common: they have physical differences that set them apart from the social group or they are socially isolated so that when they are attacked, expelled, demonized or killed no one will seek to defend them or retaliate on their behalf. In other words, for a scapegoat to function it must not put the community at risk of further discord or violence. Our scapegoats always appear to us as guilty evildoers who deserve our hatred and the punishment they get. But we are able to see other people’s scapegoats for what they are, innocent victims who are falsely accused of wrongdoing. See Méconnaissance/ Unknowing.
Also called the sacrificial mechanism or single-victimage mechanism, it functions to unify and resolve tensions caused by mimetic rivalry. Rivalries create resentment, anger, and hatred threatening the ability of a community to work together constructively. The scapegoating mechanism can cleanse the community temporarily of the ill effects of rivalry by unifying everyone against a common enemy. Once there is unanimity against a scapegoat – referred to by the formula unanimity minus one – the community can achieve catharsis by expelling, demonizing, imprisoning or killing the scapegoat. Unanimity is therefore essential: for the community to benefit from their choice of a scapegoat, there must be no dissenting voice, no one speaking up on behalf of the scapegoat’s humanity.
When we talk about humans and violence, we are talking about relationships because everything human is relational. Violence is a relationship that causes physical or emotional injury or suffering. It may be intentional or unintentional, conscious or unaware of itself. Human violence is a relationship characterised by coercive force that is applied and justified against others. See Interdividual.