There are two related misconceptions about what mimetic theory says about being human: that (1) we are inherently violent and (2) unavoidably slavish imitators, incapable of individual or original expression. Mimetic theory, a theory of violence and imitation, says nothing of the sort, in fact it leads to the opposite conclusions. The problems arise because of misconceptions about violence and imitation that most of us bring with us, clouding our ability to see the ways in our preconceptions are being undone.
Mimetic theory is the brainchild of René Girard who chose to use the Greek word “mimetic” rather than imitation to name his theory in large part to head off the misconceptions that we are talking about today. For Girard, human mimeticism is our defining characteristic, the thing that separates us from other animals and which makes possible the amazing diversity and flourishing of human culture. Without our ability to imitate, in other words, to learn from one another, we would have remained bound by instinct, as unable as a horse to create French cuisine or a mouse to speak Chinese. Freed from instinctual behavior we became tool makers and artists, musicians and storytellers. Able to pass on our knowledge to the next generation because of our mimetic abilities, each generation has built on the success of what has come before it.
Does this mean that human beings are therefore incapable of original thinking or individual expression? To the contrary, and this is the second reason Girard chose the word mimetic over imitation. Imitation implies carbon copying, which is precisely not what mimetic behavior is about. Each of us brings something to the mimetic process, our own genetic makeup and unique experiences, through which all of what we absorb and learn from others is filtered, sifted and made new. You may detect hints of the nature/ nurture debate here, which, from Girard’s perspective is not a divide but a dance. Martha Graham, the mother of modern dance, was well aware of this interplay between us and the world, and this quote is one of the best expressions I have ever read of what our mimetic natures make possible.
There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU. Keep the channel open… No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others. [As quoted in “Dance to the Piper and Promenade Home” (1982) by Agnes de Mille]
Theologians working with Girard’s theory would approve of Graham’s acknowledging the presence of a “divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest” in all of us. Girard’s insight that desire itself is mimetic, that we learn what to love and hate, bless and curse through the mimetic process leads to a profound theological insight. All the things our culture teaches us to desire, all the objects, the people, the experiences, the admiration and prestige, all these things are but attempts to satisfy our desire for a source of being where we can rest safely and be held securely. For Christians, this source of being is God. The Christian life, then, is the process of learning to let go of our culture’s claim that we can satisfy our desire for being in worldly things in order to receive our desires from God who loves us beyond imagining. Receiving desires from God does not remove us from the world, but returns us to the world imbued with God’s love and forgiveness for all of Creation, including ourselves. As Graham so beautifully put it, to fully unleash our creative potential we must keep the channel to the divine open without judgment as to our own contributions.
Girard recognized that there is an inevitable but not necessary outcome of learning what to desire from others, which is that we will come into conflict for things we have learned to desire together. Violence flows from this conflict over shared desires, what Girard calls mimetic rivalry, but violence and even rivalry are not necessary or essential human qualities. Our mimeticism is our defining human characteristic. That it can lead to either the powerful and unique expression of a Martha Graham or the self-destructive violence of feuds and warfare is our blessing and our curse. Therein also lies our choice, as the ancient wisdom found in the book of Deuteronomy 30:19:
I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.
Being mimetic means that we are unique among the creatures of the world, blessed or perhaps burdened by choice. Whether we express ourselves through violence or dance is up to us.