On Being a Good Dad: Mimetic Desire, Toys, and How Not to Love Your Neighbor

I consider myself to be a good dad.

And that’s where the problem began.

One of the main reasons that I consider myself to be a good dad is that I buy my children really cool toys…that I get to play with… Well, a few years ago I bought them a toy rocket with a launch pad. When I…err…I mean *they*…stomp on the pad the rocket launches 50 feet in the air! My status as a “good dad” increased last year when I bought my oldest son a set of Loom Bands. He loves making bracelets and necklaces with the little rubber bands. And, last April, when we moved to a new neighborhood halfway across the country, my status flew off the “good dad chart” when I bought him a brand new bike!

So, you see, my children have really cool toys. And that makes me a really good dad.

But then we met our neighbors.

A few days after we moved into our new house, my son took his rocket launcher outside. As he started sending it into the air, a neighbor boy came over to play. “Hey!” the boy said. “I have a rocket launcher that goes even higher!” He ran back to his house and brought his super-duper deluxe rocket launcher that he stomped 75 feet in the air!

My son was very impressed with that rocket launcher. Me? Not so much. I began to feel a sense of inferiority. The thought crossed my mind, “His dad bought him a better rocket launcher! Maybe I’m not such a good dad after all.”

Dragon made of Loom Bands.

Dragon made of Loom Bands.

When we went outside the next day, the neighbor boy came over again. “Hey!” he exclaimed as he looked at my son’s Loom Band bracelet. “You make Loom Bands too! I’ll show you some of the things I’ve made!” He ran home and came back with a frog, turtle, horse, and a freakin’ dragon made of Loom Bands. As my son looked in awe upon our neighbor’s Loom creations, the thought crossed my mind, “His dad not only bought him Loom Bands but also encouraged him to make a freakin’ dragon with them! I’ve only encouraged my son to make these sorry looking bracelets!”

And then it happened. I bought my son a new bicycle. He was riding it with pride when (deep breath) the neighbor boy came out of his garage driving his new Power Wheels!!! My son instantly ditched his bike and ran toward our neighbor’s new car. I stewed there in my resentment as my dad ego deflated and I thought to myself, “You gotta be kidding me! That dad has an answer for every toy I buy. What a jerk!”

I share this with you not just because of my masochistic tendency to share my failures in parenting and in general being a human. I also share it with you as an example of mimetic desire at work in my life. Mimetic theory’s basic claim is that human desire is imitative. We “desire according to the desire of another.”

In other words, we want what others have. We have an innate desire to “keep up with the Jonses.” Do you remember the 10th Commandment? To paraphrase, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s stuff.” The 10th Commandment warns us against desiring our neighbor’s stuff because when we desire this way it leads resentment, envy, and often to violent conflict.

But even more than wanting our neighbor’s stuff, we want our neighbor’s identity. Sounds kind of creepy, right? Well, it happens to us all and you can see how it happened to me. I want to be a good dad and one of the ways that I know I’m a good dad is that my children have cool toys. But what happens when another dad buys his child cooler toys than I buy my children? I start comparing myself with him. I start thinking that I’m not enough. I become resentful. In my own head I compete with my neighbor in a rivalry for the coveted prize, “Dad of the Year.”

Comparing ourselves with others is a fundamental aspect of human mimeticism. We are always comparing ourselves with others. As a blogger, I compare my stats with other bloggers. Businesses are always comparing their bottom line with other businesses. Politicians compare themselves by how many votes they get. Nations compare themselves by their military might. And, yes, dads compare their fatherly prowess by the toys they buy their children.

It sounds silly and ridiculous, I know, but it’s also human. Now that I look back on my silly mimetic behavior that led me to compare myself with my neighbor, I can gently laugh at myself. I can remind myself as I navigate the traps of mimetic desire of what I already know deep down – being a good dad is not about buying cool toys for my children. Being a good dad is about having children who know they are unconditionally loved.

Being a good dad also means modeling not just the refusal to desire our neighbor’s stuff, but also the desire to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

And so I walked over to my new neighbor, shook his hand, and said, “That is such a cool Power Wheel. Thanks for letting my children play with it, too.”

“You’re welcome,” the dad responded. “Our previous neighbor got one for his children. So I thought I’d get one, too.”

It’s silly, isn’t it? But that is mimetic desire at work.

The Beatles and “Queenie Eye” through the Lens of Mimetic Theory


The Beatles cover of Abbey Road. Courtesy of Wikipedia

(This article written by special guest contributor Curtis Gruenler, Professor of English at Hope College)

On March 21, 1964, “She Loves You” hit the top of the U. S. chart. It was The Beatles’ second American hit, but their first triangular song—the first to begin to explore love as a relation not just between two people, but involving a third who acts as a model of desire and can become also a rival and an obstacle or, potentially, a reconciler. Woven throughout the rest of The Beatles’ catalog and beyond, all the way up to Sir Paul McCartney’s recent “Queenie Eye,” are songs that explore the ins and outs, ups and downs of our relational life in ways that come into sharper focus through the lens of René Girard’s mimetic theory.

“She Loves You” sprang from McCartney’s idea of writing a song in the third person rather than the usual first or second, as in their earlier British and American hits “Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The third person in the triangle plays a mostly reconciling role (“Apologize to her”) except for a hint at the end of the singer’s own desire for the woman: “With a love like that, you know you should be glad.” The singer offers his own admiration to help turn his friend’s heart back to the woman who, the singer believes, still loves him.

Mimetic theory would say that our hearts are always turned by the model of others. That’s how human hearts work, not driven just by appetite or instinct, but by the desires of those around us, especially those closest to us and those we most want to be like. This imitation of desire for a cookie or a Cadillac is unconscious. But it is in romantic relationships that we are, paradoxically, both most likely to become aware of the importance of a third person’s desire and most resistant to that knowledge. I want my desire to hold your hand to be an expression of my unique individuality and a sign of what makes you my unique soul-mate. Yet we all know about love triangles.

A third person becomes a problem on “You Can’t Do That,” released March 16, 1964, as the B side of what would become The Beatles’ third U.S. hit, “Can’t Buy Me Love.” On the flip side of this typical romantic declaration that love can’t be bought with money is a more penetrating insight into what does actually ignite passion. What the singer tells his lover she can’t do is talk to “that boy” again. Possessive lovers are provoked into rivalry by the smallest sign of anyone else’s desire for their beloved. As the song’s chorus admits, the singer’s possession of the girl is no doubt what has drawn the other boy’s interest. But as soon as the singer spots it, that boy becomes the singer’s own model of desire and inflames his passion even more: “I can’t help my feelings, I go out of my mind.” In fact, his feelings are fixed more on preventing the rival and potential obstacle than on wooing the girl.

Ian MacDonald, in Revolution in the Head, reads “You Can’t Do That” as also a statement of rivalry between Lennon and McCartney. After their early, “head-to-head” collaborations like “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the two had begun to write more independently. McCartney wrote what looked to be a success with “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Lennon responded with “You Can’t Do That” and elevated the competitiveness that would lead them to ever greater heights throughout their careers, both together and apart. There were dark sides to this competition, but at its heart was mimetic rivalry in one of its happy modes, when the object, such as musical creativity, is not finite, like a romantic love interest, but infinite.

Of course they were also competing for success, and having plenty of it, which not only allowed them to stray farther and farther from the usual love-song narratives, but also gave them a privileged window into human relations. Surely the only bigger mimetic phenomenon than Beatlemania at the time was war. What must it have been like to be the object of all that screaming and fainting? No doubt the boys from Liverpool were doing their best to be attractive, but they must have realized that their haircuts and the quality of the music was not enough to explain it. An old word for one of the dangers mimetic desire leads to is envy, and the chorus of “You Can’t Do That” identifies both the cause and its worst consequences: “Everybody’s green ’cause I’m the one who won your love. But if they’d seen you talkin’ that way, they’d laugh in my face.” The worst is not the rivalry between two but when rivalry among a whole crowd focuses on one victim.

This establishment of solidarity among a group by scapegoating a single victim is, according to Girard, the way human communities since pre-historic times have managed to preserve themselves against the violence that is always simmering because of mimetic rivalry. It’s a long and winding road from the sacrificial rituals of primitive religions to the more supposedly advanced forms of culture that are still based on legitimated, sacred violence against an excluded other. The Beatles had a privileged position to witness this too, not just as innovators of a counter-culture, but especially after the popularization in the U.S. of Lennon’s remark, “We’re more popular than Jesus now.” Christian groups especially were provoked into rivalry and even violence.

The irony here is that Girard points to Christ’s non-retaliatory giving of himself to death as the conclusive, world-historical exposure of the single-victim, scapegoating mechanism, bringing it out from the shadows as the hidden driver of institutions and opening another way of human community based on a non-possessive, non-rivalrous love. Lennon seems to have grasped some of this too, singing in “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” “Christ you know it ain’t easy, you know how hard it can be. The way things are going, they’re going to crucify me.” More could be said about “All You Need Is Love,” “Come together right now over me,” many other Beatles songs, and solo songs by its members. The end of the story for Lennon came when someone scandalized into rivalry by his remark about popularity shot him four times in the back. Thus he became a martyr for witnessing (the original meaning of “martyr”) to what he saw in people: the mimetic faddishness, the rivalries, the scapegoating.

The latest chapter for McCartney’s never-ending creativity is the wonderful album New and its featured song “Queenie Eye.” Always the sunnier of the song-writing pair, given to casting third parties as reconcilers (“Hey Jude”) but aware too of the dynamics of scapegoating even if told as nursery rhymes (“The Fool on the Hill”), McCartney here recalls a game from the streets of Liverpool. A child tosses a ball backwards and then, after it is caught, turns around and identifies who is holding it behind their back; that one will then be singled out as the next thrower. The game, with its central gesture of pointing out the one with the “queenie eye,” turns inside-out the sequence of pointing and throwing in the most primal sort of scapegoating: stoning.

The song begins, “There were rules you never told me,” and they seem to cover much of the game of success as McCartney has witnessed it through 50 years of celebrity. Central to this game is the mimetic fickleness of crowds that can turn someone from darling to goat in an instant: “O.U.T. spells out, that’s out, without a shadow of a doubt, ’cause you been putting it about. Hear the people shout. Hear the people shout.” Perhaps the finger of the song points especially to those who start the contagion of blame: “Lay the blame on the snitches. Wicked witches fan the flame. Careful what you touch in case you burn.” McCartney has been burned plenty of times. But a witch-hunt is also one of our modern terms for recognizing making up victims in order to preserve solidarity. Beneath any complaint in the song, and more in keeping with its sound, is a rueful acceptance that this is how the game works. And behind that, one wonders if the “you” of the first line is Lennon and the song is another of McCartney’s tributes to the genius of his old rival and friend. If so, the line “Never pick a fight you’re going to lose,” brings to mind the fight Lennon inadvertently picked and lost. And the whole song, then, urges us not so much to avoid fights as to carry on the infinite game that both friends played, the game of creative freedom and compassionate witness, despite the way finger-pointing games tend to end. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

illustration by Susan Drawbaugh

Valentine’s Day: The Myth of Love and Desire

The most recent short lived celebrity marriage lasted only two weeks: Rachel Snider is filing for divorce from Terrell Owens, claiming he only married her for her money. Yet, in announcing her plans to divorce Terrell, Rachel says this of their relationship: “I really valued his love and friendship for 5 years. Out of the love in my heart, I tried to help him. We had a secret relationship for 5 years and I married him for love.” We can’t help but wonder, what the heck happened? If we believe her explanation, we have to believe that she misread him completely for five years. That’s possible, of course, but the phenomenon of marriage vows destroying relationships is not unique to Rachel and Terrell. Brief celebrity marriages appear regularly in the tabloids – Britney Spears and Jason Alexander lasted 55 hours; Dennis Rodman and Carmen Electra hung in for all of 9 days; which makes Nicholas Cage and Lisa Marie Presley look like an old married couple after a whopping 107 days of wedded bliss. I remember when my husband and I got married in 1979, not a few of our friends warned us that marriage would spell the end of our love. These friends of ours were resolutely committed to making no formal commitment to each other. They believed in the love-destroying power of the legally binding agreement and so they maintained a safe distance from marriage the way you might give wide birth to a rattle snake.

The fact that vows can sometimes end love can teach us a lot about how we fall in love in the first place. When vows go wrong we get a glimpse behind the myth of romantic love. The mimetic anthropologist, Mark Anspach, summarizes the Hollywood version of the myth in his article Giving and Loving, or What’s the Most Important Thing?:

Much of contemporary culture tells us that the most important thing in anyone’s life is finding true love: not giving something, but loving someone… That special someone, Mr. or Ms. Right, who was created to be the perfect mate for you. In Hollywood love stories, there are always obstacles and misunderstandings to be overcome before both parties realize that, yes, they were made for each other – at which point the music soars to a crescendo and the movie ends.

Because Anspach uses mimetic theory to analyze culture, he is keenly aware of the way that obstacles can intensify desire. The more an object seems unattainable, the more valuable it appears to be. The fairy tale princess under a witch’s spell, imprisoned in a castle in the center of an impenetrable forest is a perfect metaphor for this idea. The most desirable is that which we cannot have without a fight. Why is that? Because it’s not necessarily true. How many of us have been disappointed after a valiant pursuit of a lover who finally consents to our entreaties? Too many, I’m afraid. The reason that we connect unattainability with desirability is because our desire is always mediated for us by another person.

To understand what I mean by that we have to see through another myth, the myth of spontaneous desire. Our desires for things or people or positions of status and power do not arise spontaneously within us nor are these things imbued with innate desirability. If that were so, advertisements would be pointless! Advertisers know that our desires need to be aroused and given direction, they work overtime to grab our attention and point it at their products, trying to convince us that without their products our lives will be incomplete, unfulfilled and generally blah. In other words, they count on us to imitate (mimetic means imitation) the desires of the models in their ads.

When we are young and our desires are being shaped by those around us, one thing we learn fairly early is that the things our parents value the most are the things we cannot have! We are not allowed to touch dad’s autographed baseball or the vase Aunt Millie left to mom. Why? Because of how valuable mom and dad think those things are and we know they value them because of the obstacles they have put in our way. Do you see how easy it is to mistakenly equate obstacles with desirability? Instead of falling in love with another person, we can become enthralled by “obstacles and misunderstandings” so much so that without them love cannot survive.

Failing to understand the basics of how desire works can get us all tangled up in our pursuit of love. In my book, The Wicked Truth About Love: The Tangles of Desire, I identify five tangles that many of us fall into and one of these is the Super Hero who has confused love with impossible odds. Like cartoon heroes who defeat powerful opponents to save the day and then retire to their secret hideout until the next crisis, Super Hero lovers depend on obstacles to keep their love alive. Once they have attained the love of someone who resists their advances, their love can fizzle. For the Super Hero lover, marriage can be the outward sign that all obstacles have been overcome. Before the honeymoon is over, the one whom we couldn’t live without, descends into ordinariness.

Is that what happened to Terrell and Rachel and the other short lived marriages? I can’t say for sure, of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it played some part because of how quickly their love died. This Valentine’s Day, when the myth of romantic love is hard to avoid, it might be fun to take the Tangles of Desire quiz to see if you can sort out the truth from the myth in your own relationships. You might discover that you fall into the Super Hero tangle or one of the others: Best Friend Forever, Celebrity Chef, Rock Star, Sidekick, or the most surprising one of all that reveals love at its best, the Custodian. Enjoy the quiz and happy Valentine’s Day!


David Brooks and Religious Hostility: Tasting Goodness

In his column for the New York Times called Alone, Yet Not Alone, David Brooks laments the “strong vein of hostility against orthodox religious believers in America today, especially among the young.” Even more disturbing for Brooks is that in his experience, the opinion of young people is too often justified. He observes that religious believers can be “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “old-fashioned” and “out of touch” and he wonders why that’s so. Brooks, who is Jewish, knows that the Judeo-Christian tradition reveals a God who desires mercy and not sacrifice, who calls us toward a radical love that includes our enemies. As evidence of the core of orthodox belief, he offers two giants of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Augustine, who give testimony to lives of compassion and love inspired by devotion to the Biblical God. Lives that tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty as essential components rather than disqualifiers of faith.

So what gives? Why do religious believers spend so much energy reinforcing their (our – I’m one of those orthodox believers) borders, building thicker and higher dividing walls designed to keep out the undeserving, the sinners whom not even God can love? Just who is kept out varies widely, but it seems religious people are utterly convinced that they are on the inside with God. No doubt about it. Musing on this sad fact, Brooks comments:

There must be something legalistic in the human makeup, because cold, rigid, unambiguous, unparadoxical belief is common, especially considering how fervently the Scriptures oppose it.

Brooks is on to something here – there is something rooted in our “human makeup” that the Scriptures fervently oppose, but it is not legalism per se. It results from the part of being human that makes legalism such a temptation for both the religious and secular alike. For it is just as likely that a secular or atheist or spiritual-but-not-religious person can engage in the wall building exercise too, dividing the world up into the good and bad, the right and the wrong, always and forever finding that – what luck! – I am on the right side of things. Certainty, it seems, can masquerade as doubt when doubt becomes the dividing line we build our walls upon.

The temptation to build legalistic definitions of who we are is rooted in our desire to belong, a desire so fundamental to human nature that we must feed it or die. Legalism is the fast food of this desire, a quick fix that reassures us beyond a shadow of a doubt that we know who we are, that who we are is good, and that God loves us. This way of defining ourselves is unfortunately an endless buffet of empty calories, for despite repeated trips to the buffet our hunger returns sometimes stronger than ever. That’s when we madly try to reinforce the boundaries of identity by exaggerating our claims of goodness and the wickedness of others. What the Bible knows about us is how dependent we are on this way of building identity and how bad it is for us. The Biblical term for it is idolatry and it’s an understatement to say that the Scriptures oppose it!

What Scripture teaches us is not that there is a choice between worshipping God or not worshipping at all. Human beings will always worship something, it’s just who we are. Worship is how human beings create a sense of belonging and goodness. We cannot accomplish this on our own. We are not born knowing who we are and to whom we belong. We must be taught these things, we must be given these things from those who love and nurture us into being. Religious people call that being who loves the ones who love us so that we can love ourselves and others, who is the source and ground of all being, God. By rejecting the antiquated and delusion practices of religion, the secularist believes he is entirely freed from worship but all he accomplishes is to give idolatry a new disguise. What for the religious person is conscious and intentional, goes underground for the anti-religious. If you deny your need for worship, that need will not go away. It will simply hide out of conscious view.

This, of course, is not religious talk, not really. The reality of worship is basic anthropology and the social and neuro-sciences offer us their non-religious language for talking about it. Family systems theory is a wonderful example in which the therapist no longer treats people in isolation from their network of relationships. In the brain sciences, mirror neurons are offering evidence that we are wired to imitate the intentions of others. In other words, we are built with the ability to learn what to desire from others, an ability that may be the foundation for worship in all its forms. The great theorist of anthropology and the origins of human culture, René Girard, has taken as the basis for all his work the simple fact of human mimeticism: that we are intimately intertwined with one another down to the level of desire and identity formation.

Which is why the religious and secular alike are prone to grasping after cheap, fast-food identities – we cannot know who we are without help from a friend. Or an enemy lurking just outside the wall. Brooks offers singer/ songwriter Audrey Assad as one example of the “silent majority” whose faith has led them to a sense of self and belonging that less and less makes use of walls, “who experience a faith that is attractively marked by combinations of fervor and doubt, clarity and confusion, empathy and moral demand.” Her lyric from I Shall Not Want, a song Brooks invites us to listen to, expresses exactly what I have been trying to say about legalism as an example of false worship or idolatry. She sings:

From the need to be understood
From the need to be accepted
From the fear of being lonely
Deliver me O God
Deliver me O God

And I shall not want, I shall not want
when I taste Your goodness I shall not want
when I taste Your goodness I shall not want

Audrey is singing the truth that it is our need to be understood and accepted, our desperate fear of loneliness that causes us to grasp onto the nearest bit of cheap identity like a drowning man thrashing for a lifeline. To put that need on hold a little while, we need the faith of child that our needs will be met by one who is waiting for us, who is reaching out for us if only we can stop thrashing long enough to see.

As Brooks quotes Augustine as saying,

There is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God — a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.

Our need to be understood and accepted longs for a good meal. At whose table will you feast today?

little prince

Watching Super Bowl Ads with the Little Prince: From Delusion to Freedom

There’s an absurd character in The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who reveals more about our capacity for self-delusion than we might want to admit. He’s called the King and when it comes to desire, he is as deluded about his own power as we are about ours. The King’s delusion is this: he believes that the movements of the sun, moon and stars are the result of his commands. That’s right – the sun rises and sets because the King commands it to be so. Our delusion is nearly identical: we believe that we are the source of our desires, that they arise and fall at our command. Because of our shared delusions, we and the King are quite out of touch with reality. Remarkably, the cure for us is also the same – spending some quality time with the Little Prince.

First, let’s spend a few moments with the King to see what we can learn from him. If you are familiar with this French tale, you will remember that the Little Prince and many of the people he meets as he journeys through the solar system are the sole inhabitants of their tiny planets. When the Little Prince arrives on the King’s planet, the King is seated on his throne unperturbed that he rules over a kingdom with no subjects. Convinced of his royal powers, the King tells the Little Prince that even the stars, moon and sun obey him. Justifiably skeptical, the Little Prince asks for a demonstration. Here’s the scene as it is now being dramatized at The Lookingglass Theater in Chicago through March 16:


Well, then, if you please, sire – could you possibly order a sunset? I should love to see a sunset.


And so you shall!


(after nothing happens) When?


Oh, mm, I’d say – this evening about twenty to eight. You’ll see how well I am obeyed.

Clearly the King is delusional. He has convinced himself that he is the cause of the sunset, and his delusion cannot be overturned by reason. In fact, he has managed to construct a convoluted logic that appears to him to be quite reasonable. It goes like this: “I, the King, command the sun to set today. The sun set today. Therefore, I have caused the sun to set.” The Little Prince, to his credit, realizes that the King cannot be argued out of his delusion and begins to take his leave. But the King pleads:


Wait! Don’t go, don’t go. I’ll make you a minister of justice.


But there’s no one here to judge.


Then you shall judge yourself. That is the most difficult thing of all…


Judge myself?


It is much more difficult to judge oneself than to judge others.

True enough. The King cannot see his own delusion, though it is plain enough to the Little Prince and to us. That’s the nature of delusion – it is much more difficult to judge the correctness of our own logic than it is to pass judgment on the flawed logic of others. But let’s try to judge ourselves anyway! We will let the Little Prince help us.

Let’s imagine that the Little Prince drops in unannounced just as we waiting for our friends to arrive for our Super Bowl party. Guess what absurdity he wants to ask us about? That’s right – the ads! He wants us to explain why a 30 second Super Bowl ad costs $4 million! Remember, he’s from another planet so it seems a bit strange to him.


Is $4 million a lot of money?


You bet it is! And you won’t believe what they spend producing them, too – a fortune!


Why do they do it?


Because they want us to buy their products.


Does it work? Do you buy their products?


I guess it works on some people. But not me. I just watch them because they are funny sometimes. Entertaining, you know. Last year there were some real standouts – you should have seen the Volkswagon commercial! And I loved the Bud Lite one – they always do something memorable. And then there was the Oreo ad and the one for Doritos – the Old Spice ad was a killer!*


(looking around at our snacks) Excuse me, but I should be going –


Hey, wait – don’t go yet. I drove my Volkswagon to pick up some Bud Lite, Oreos and Doritos for the game. And seriously dude, you might want to try some of my Old Spice before the ladies get here.

The Little Prince can see what we cannot – that we are delusional. We have convinced ourselves that advertisements have no effect on us because we believe our desires arise from within us. Unfortunately, like the King our delusion cannot be overturned by reason. In fact, we have managed to construct our own convoluted logic that goes like this: “I could really go for some Doritos. I saw an ad for Doritos. What a coincidence!” As with his encounter with the King, the Little Prince realizes immediately that we cannot be argued out of our delusion. If he should try, we would probably say something like this:


Oh sure, maybe my desire for those things is the result of advertising, but those aren’t my real desires. My real desires are not given to me from some advertiser. They are mine, I tell you, all mine!


(unable to restrain himself) Friend, can’t you see that the advertisers aren’t just selling you products? They are selling you identity and belonging and sexiness and popularity? You buy all those things not because there is anything inherently good or wonderful about them, but because the advertisers have convinced you that if you possess those objects you will possess a new and improved self.

The Little Prince quietly leaves as our guests arrive. He understands that our convoluted logic about desire leads us to falsely conclude that if our desires are not our own then that must mean we are inauthentic at the core of our being, more like puppets rather than independent, self-starting, self-reliant individuals. But hiding from the truth of our desires is what leads to false identity, to dependence on whoever is clever enough to catch our attention. We become the puppets of advertisers and marketers and cultural idols who crave our admiration so they can separate us from our money, and in the process, disconnect us from reality. The truth that our desires arise outside of us means that we are freer than we imagine, free to desire anything, free to shift the object of our desires as we learn and mature into who we will become. The Little Prince is right when he says what we really want isn’t the product for sale but the thing we can never buy – being and belonging. Cars, snack foods, and toiletries just can’t deliver on that promise because the advertisers and manufacturers and sexy models don’t love us – we are simply a means to an end for them. Learning what to desire from those who truly love us is what will ultimately set us free.


*These were among the top ten ads aired during Super Bowl XLVII in 2013. 

Mannequins in Caracas, Venezuela. Photograph: Meridith Kohut/New York Times/Redux / eyevine

New York Times Video and Mimetic Theory Part 2: Busty Women and True Beauty

Big boobs.

No, I haven’t reverted to my sophomore year in high school. The New York Times brought up the topic, so I feel like now I have to talk about them.

According to the New York Times, big boobs are all the rage in Venezuela. Of course, we can’t just accuse Venezuela for cleavage run amok. Women throughout the world are paying big bucks to augment their breasts. The question is why?

In my first post in this series, we used a New York Times video to explore how mimetic theory, and the recent discovery of mirror neurons, explain why yawning is imitative. Well, in this post we are going to use another New York Times video to explore how mimetic theory explains the imitative phenomenon of the desire for big boobs.

Hey, someone had to bring mimetic theory and big boobs together…Right?

In his book, Virtually Christian: How Christ Changes Human Meaning and Makes Creation Anew, Anthony Bartlett describes how we are mimetic by nature, and how mirror neurons open us up to be radically influenced by others. “[H]umans and the higher primates are characterized by the activity of ‘mirror neurons.’ These neurons have the effect of making someone else’s intention an immediate ‘personal’ experience of my own. ‘I am the other…I want (exactly) what you want’…this can escalate with unbelievable speed…”

All of this shows that when it comes to desire, humans are not autonomous. Because we are mimetic, we imitate the desires of others. Just as we imitate another’s yawn without realizing it, we soon imitate another’s desire for big breasts without realizing it. The desire is contagious and indeed “escalates with unbelievable speed.”

René Girard and anthropologist Mark Anspach discuss the same mimetic phenomenon of contagious desire, but relate it to anorexia as opposed to breasts. In their book Anorexia and Mimetic Desire, they argue that mimesis explains the contagion for extreme thinness and base that desire in imitation of cultural models. As Girard states, “Imitating the same cultural model that other women imitate—imitating those who imitate that model—and taking the imitation as far as possible is what leads these women [and, Girard acknowledges, increasingly men] to sacrifice themselves on the altar of thinness.” The New York Times article could have said the same thing: that some have sacrificed themselves on the altar of big boobs and butts.

The New York Times video begins with the head of the Miss Venezuela Pageant, Osmel Sousa, stating, “I say that inner beauty does not exist. That’s something that unpretty women invented to justify themselves.” I was offended when I first heard that despicable statement. “What a jerk!” I thought. But then I realized that deep down I know that much of Western culture believes that lie. Sousa explicitly tells us what we are implicitly told every freakin day on television, billboards, and magazines. Because we are mimetic we absorb these cultural standards of beauty and they become our own. Images of monstrous women with overblown chests, gigantic lips, big butts and incomparably small waists are the ideal of beauty.

What’s wrong with that? I love beauty just as much as anyone else, but when we use beauty to define others as ugly we have turned beauty into an ugly excuse to scapegoat another. We tell a certain group of people that they are not worthy of being loved. What’s worse, perhaps, is that no one can keep up with our cultural standards of beauty. It’s a cultural machine that invites women in just to regurgitate them out in a matter of moments. As René put it in Anorexia and Mimetic Desire, “The imperative for which these women allow themselves to die of hunger comes from the whole society. It is a unanimous imperative.”

Of course, another problem with this idolization of beauty is that it’s narcissistic. As we imitate one another’s desire to be beautiful, we emphasize ourselves over and against one another. The imitative escalation leads us into a destructive rivalry with our neighbors for prestige and beauty.

Okay. I’m sufficiently depressed.

But there is good news. Although this idolatrous view of beauty is a dominant model within Western culture, there are other models, too. What matters is undergoing a healthy pattern of desire that leads us away from a sense of beauty that depends on defining ourselves against someone who is ugly. Beauty is found in our relationships with one another. For Anthony Bartlett, the ultimate model of relational beauty and love is found in Jesus, the beloved Son of God. When Jesus invites us to “follow him” he’s asking us to imitate him in “a new way of being human. It becomes the arrival of compassion in the immediacy of the lived world. Human beings are invited to pour themselves out in imitation of the Beloved. Self-giving compassion begins to govern concrete existence, and so bring about the new creation our Eternal Beloved has always intended.”

This new creation that Jesus inaugurates transforms our whole selves, including our mimetic desire for beauty that leads us to scapegoat the “ugly.” The truly beautiful is not found in outward appearances, nor is it found on the inside. True beauty is found in participating in relationships of self-giving love with our fellow human beings.

Why Mimetic Theory Explains Everything about Desire – Even Why I Want the ShamWow!

Vince Offer and his ShamWow

Vince Offer and his ShamWow

Late at night, when I can’t sleep, I watch infomercials.

Vince with ShamWow has always been my favorite. He’s so excited about the ShamWow and he makes such a convincing argument. (See the video below.)

“It just does the work. Why do you want to work twice as hard?”

“It’s made in Germany. You know the Germans always make good stuff.”

Then he does the cola trick … I love the cola trick.

But I really want the ShamWow when they cut to regular people.

“I love the ShamWow! I can’t live without it!”

“Oh. My. Gosh. I don’t even buy paper towels anymore.”

“If you are gonna wash your car or any other vehicle, you’d be out of your mind not to own one of these.”

Then Vince says, “But if you call now, within the next 20 minutes because we can’t do this all day, we’ll give you a second set absolutely free.”

Oh man. I’m buying that.

Something strange happens when I watch infomercials. I feel incomplete. You think I’m joking?!? Sit in front of Billy Mays cleaning your clothes by “unleashing the power of OxiClean” or watch a group of people partying with the Magic Bullet and you will feel incomplete, too.

One infomercial recently told me, “You owe it to yourself to buy this product.”

Vince and your ShamWow … you complete me.

René Girard never talks about Vince and the ShamWow in his books, but they are the perfect example of mimetic theory’s explanation of human desire. In his magnum opus Violence and the Sacred, Girard says this about desire:

Once his basic needs are satisfied (indeed, sometimes even before), man is subject to intense desire, though he may not know precisely for what. The reason is that he desires being, something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess.

Infomercials are a great example of this because Vince, for example, seems to have the fullness of being. He seems to be satisfied because of the ShamWow. And so do the people being interviewed. I feel a lack of being within when I hear people saying, “I can’t live without it!” “I don’t even buy paper towels anymore!” and “You’d be out of your mind not to own one of these things.”

Like all good marketers, Vince tells me what I’m lacking and tells me how I can acquire fulfillment, what Girard calls, “being.” Of course, once you purchase the ShamWow you realize that it isn’t as great as Vince makes it out to be … not that I know from experience … or anything …

In religious language, we would call this idolatry. Idols are always those objects that make BIG promises of fulfillment, but cannot keep those promises. In the ancient world, people sacrificed to the gods who made promises. There were the war gods, the rain gods, the hunting gods, and the ever popular fertility gods.

Today we sacrifice our money to other idols that promise fulfillment – even an idol that has the word sham in it. Seriously. Whoever came up with the name ShamWow is a genius because we are wowed by the sham.

These idols provide a temporary sense of fulfillment. The first time you hold a ShamWow in your hands, you have a sense of fulfillment. (Again, not that I know from experience…) But that sense of fulfillment is only temporary as you realize that the ShamWow is pretty much just a towel. And then you have to buy either the “new and improved” ShamWow, or you go buy the latest iPhone. It’s the same principle of mimetic desire that points to our lack of being.

So, here are my questions: With all of these idols that can’t follow through on their promises of fulfillment, can we find fulfillment in this world? Is there any way of truly satisfying our desires or are we doomed to experiencing a lack of being? I’d love to hear your thoughts.



How Abercrombie and Fitch Became Uncool

The Abercrombie and Fitch ideal of beauty on its shopping bagsI hate Abercrombie and Fitch.

It all started a few years ago. A member of my youth group worked at one of their stores in a suburb of Chicago. I was minorly troubled that she was employed at the store. But what really flamed my loathing for Abercrombie was when they asked her to model their clothes for their catalogue. She told me about their offer and I responded in the only way an over-protective youth pastor could:

“NO! Absolutely not! No way in Hell are you doing that!!!”

I don’t think that Abercrombie is evil per se. I only hate them because they stand for everything that I’m against!

Over the weekend, published an article titled “Abercrombie and Fitch Refuses to Make Clothes for Large Women.” The article included a comment made by Abercrombie CEO Mike Jeffries in 2006. He described his business strategy by stating:

In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny.

Doesn’t that just get your blood boiling?

I’m trying not to blame Jeffries here. He would make an easy scapegoat. The truth is that he is part of the marketing and advertising industry. He doesn’t necessarily have to be noble and compassionate. His job is to motivate people to buy his product.

How does the marketing industry sell produce? It’s all about desire. Desire for stuff is contagious. It spreads from one person to another. “Cool” is contagious too. Desire and cool are mediated to us through others, and in the case of advertising, through models. Companies spend millions of dollars on models who infuse their products with cool. This drives our desire for products. So, if you want an easy, albeit likely expensive, way to become cool, just wear the same clothes as the model.

Or, ironically in Abercrombie’s case, wear the clothes that their models don’t wear.

Advertising is about identity. It emphasizes membership status and labels people either “in” or “out,” “cool” or “uncool.” It’s not just Abercrombie and Fitch that does this. I’m a 34-year-old-slightly-overweight-but-don’t-tell-anyone-about-that-last-part man. My favorite retail store is Costco. Talk about membership! I have to pay $110 per year just so that some dude named Earl will let me through the front door.

As angry as I am at Abercrombie, their strategy is not much different than other companies. Abercrombie is a product of an American culture that idealizes certain standards of beauty. Those cultural standards are dangerous to everyone’s souls.

Many have already said that Jeffries’s comments are demeaning to the kids who are not “cool,” but what I’d like to point out is that they are just as cruel to the “cool” kids. The reason that I told my youth group member that there was no way in hell she was going to model for Abercrombie was because it would mess with her self esteem. Abercrombie is part of an American culture that tells people their ultimate value is achieved through beauty. But this “achievement” is unattainable because it is always based on mediated desire that enthralls us to endless cycles of cut-throat competition, tearing our neighbors down so that we can feel superior to them. Because it’s not just about being beautiful or cool; it’s about being more beautiful and cool than your neighbor. We don’t want to just keep up with the Jonses; we want to surpass the Joneses. And then the Joneses want to surpass us. Once we delve into that competitive trap we risk becoming enslaved to an insatiable rivalry with our neighbors that consumes our lives.

The good news is that Abercrombie’s advertising model isn’t working. According to Robin Abcarian of the Los Angeles Times, the company is becoming uncool – their stock has dropped 20% since the time of Jeffries statement in 2006.

That, I hope, is a sign that it is becoming outdated in American culture to divide the world up into a cut-throat competition of “cool” and “uncool.” Maybe, just maybe, our culture is beginning to redefine our standards of human worth so that they aren’t based on the clothes we wear and our cultural ideals of beauty.

Maybe. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s important to remind ourselves that the only way out of Abercrombie’s trap is by a desire that is mediated through an entirely different model. This model would encourage us to give up our competition to be “cool”; this model would lead us away from basing our worth on the clothes we purchase; this model would lead us away from tearing down our neighbor so that we can feel good about ourselves. Instead, this model would encourage us to derive our worth from building up our neighbors and loving them as we love ourselves.

Desire Blogalogue Part 1: The Power of the Kiss Cam

Hey, Adam – Have you ever wondered what possesses people to do embarrassing things on camera? I heard a story on the radio this weekend about a guy doing something he swore he’d never do, all because of a Kiss Cam. I think this guy’s apparent self-betrayal is crying for mimetic analysis and I’d love to discuss it with you. Here’s the story that appeared on NPR’s This American Life with Ira Glass:

Even Barack Obama can't resist the power of the Kiss Cam. (Photo: Getty Images)

Even the most powerful man in the world can’t resist the Kiss Cam. (Photo: Getty Images)

Bill Langworthy is a reality TV producer whose job it is to recruit people to do “things on camera they would never do in real life.” He believed that the folks he convinced to come on his shows were a bit odd, certainly not anything like himself. In the radio story he said he believed that “if I were on one of these shows… I would handle myself so differently.”

His sense of superiority suffered a blow at a Dodgers game. Bill was with his ex-girlfriend’s best friend and another married couple. To set the stage, Bill explained “all you need to know is this is a girl I cannot kiss, under any circumstances. There are just so many rules against that.” The married couple was approached by the “Kiss Cam guy” and they agreed that at some point later in the game, they would smooch for the crowd. So the guy recorded their seat numbers and everything was set. However, by the time the Kiss Cam was directed at their seats, Bill and his ex-girlfriend’s best friend were in the seats formerly occupied by their married friends. Bill blamed it on too many beers and trips to the bathroom. I’ll let Bill and Ira narrate the rest of the story:

Kiss Cam & Tell

Bill: Instead of being pointed at the married couple, [the Kiss Cam is] pointed at me and my ex-girlfriend’s best friend. I have a producer who’s looking at me, expecting something of you. The stadium is literally, you know, screaming at us. Five seconds earlier I would have promised you under no circumstances would I ever kiss this woman, and I leaned over and kissed her on the lips.

Ira (to listeners): He didn’t have to kiss her. There would be no penalty, there was no contract, no money had changed hands.

Bill: That didn’t even cross my mind. Not doing it was not an option. You couldn’t have paid me a million dollars to do it, but I was on camera. I had to do it.

Ira: But that makes no sense! You of all people know that you don’t have to do it.

Bill: I certainly would have told you that right ahead of time, but I just got this feeling that I was letting everybody down. I was letting the producer down, you know, that I was letting the audience down – 50,000 people were looking at the Jumbotron and they wanted one thing and one thing only. I realized that I’m just not that much different than the people I put on TV.

Why’d Bill Do It?

Bill didn’t recognize it at the time, but he later realized that he and the Kiss Cam guy “have exactly the same profession – finding strangers to do embarrassing things on camera.” Bill had become one of “those people”, and the thought seemed to sadden him. He’d become like the people he had disdained.

So Adam, what made Bill kiss the woman he’d sworn never to kiss? Is it the power of the Kiss Cam, the crowd, or is Bill just weak? Help me unpack how mimetic theory explains this phenomenon in Part Two…

3 Reasons Why I Love Billy Joel

Something positively mimetic happened at a Billy Joel concert at Vanderbilt University last January.

After Billy Joel played a concert for the students, he did a little Q & A session. During the session, freshman Michael Pollack raised his hand. When his fellow students pointed at him, Billy Joel followed their finger pointing (in good mimetic fashion!) and called on Michael. Michael nervously said,

My favorite song of yours is ‘New York State of Mind.’ Umm…I’ve been very fortunate, I was able to play with Richie Cannata many times in New York City and I was wondering if I could play with you…I would accompany you…

Billy Joel simply replied, “Okay.” Michael walked onstage, sat at the piano, and they performed the song.

It’s the positive and uplifting kind of story that goes viral on the Internet and gets you a spot on the TODAY Show. Which leads me to ask a question: Why do we love these kinds of stories so much?

When we use mimetic theory to answer the question, we discover:

  1. How important our models of desire are. The problem is, we live in America and Americans are a proud people. We are rugged individuals who know what we want without any help from anyone else, thank you very much. But individualism is a myth. We all need models as much as Michael does, but he has the courage to admit it.
  2. How hard it is to admit our need for our models. Why? Because it’s risky, and if your model rejects your overtures, that is a blow to your pride. Viewers of the video hold our collective breaths as we wait for the response from Billy – will he be gracious or a jerk? What’s beautiful about the video is that when Michael took a risk he was rewarded. And that feels good!
  3. How we can be really good models for others. Sometimes models of desire are as insecure as their fans. They feel threatened by any hint of competition. Instead of seeing Michael as a competitor, Billy welcomed him as a collaborator.

That’s why this story gives us goosebumps. We see how being vulnerable has its rewards. Maybe Michael will become our model and we will risk it ourselves.