A Short Piece Featured in The Fate of Beauty
René Girard and the Problem of Justification
Mimetic desire as a response to “the conflict of mind.”
This work will assume readers are familiar with The Conflict of Mind by O.G. Rose.
I talk about it all the time, but “autonomous rationality” is impossible, and that means we can’t be rational “all the way down.” Also, The Conflict of Mind argued that we can never establish a “standard of justification” that would make it so we “ought” to believe x (ultimately, the choice to believe x instead of y at z point is arbitrary, though that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily incorrect). This being the case, how in the world do we make decisions? If we took the time to think about “how” we made decisions, we might be existentially terrified. So we don’t — instead, we outsource decisions to others.
Generally, René Girard theorized that we determine what we want based on what other people want: if John wants x, then x must be worth desiring, and so Sam will want x too (which makes conflict probable). In this way, we “mimic” others to determine what we should desire, how we should organize our lives (to get what is desire), to determine friends from foes — on and on. The key point I want to raise is that mimetics might be our natural tool for coping with the essential incompleteness of rationality.
Personally, I have always liked “Mimetic Theory,” but I’ve still wanted a good explanation for why mimetics happen. That they do happen seems undeniable, but what “naturally” motivates mimetics seems like a line of inquiry worth pursuing. I’m not saying Girard never provided such explanations— I’m not enough of a scholar to say — and I do think there are evolutionary, biological, and social explanations that are compelling. But in additional to those “whys,” I would like to add that “the incompleteness of thinking” may also be a contributing factor.
Since it is not possible for us to choose or desire anything “entirely on our own” (meaning “autonomously” and without any reference to “external sources”), then we must look “beyond” thinking to decide “what we should do.” Perhaps we look to emotions, experiences, and the like, but I believe it’s natural for us to look to “common life” (for I am very Humean in my thinking). And what do we see in our immediate experience? Other people living other lives. Why are they living those lives? Perhaps instincts got the ball rolling that gradually transitioned into thinking (but never “pure rationality,” even if “pure instincts” is possible) — hard to say.
As we are notably vulnerable to doing before Hume’s “philosophical journey,” if we see in our experience Sam doing x, then Sam provides “reason to think” x is worth doing. And better yet, if we do x (and it’s a mess), we can claim we’re only doing x because Sam did it — we’re innocent. In this way, perhaps another motivating factor for “mimetic desire” is to avoid responsibility and the existential anxiety of freedom, and since we ultimately must choose some external factor to decide our actions, why not choose the factor that “we have reason to think is reliable” that simultaneously absolves us responsibility and existential anxiety? It just makes sense.
If we choose to make our emotions or experiences the factor by which we decide (to desire) y, then we are more responsible for our desire then if we choose to make others the deciding factor. Is there any better situation than to want something without being responsible for that want? If we get the subject of our desire, we garner the benefits without the risks. “Mimetic desire” really does help us “get our cake and eat it too” (though unfortunately it necessarily leads to conflict that can only be resolved with a scapegoat that Jesus later denies — but that’s another story for another time): on the individual level, “mimetic desire” is a great choice.
If “autonomous rationality” was possible — if “true” and “rational” were similes — I could be more readily blamed for looking to an “external standard” for decision-making, but since they aren’t similes, I can only be but so criticized. After all, I have to decide relative to something external, and making “what others do” the “grounding” (“truth”) for my rationality seems like a notably good foundation (especially considering that it absolves me of responsibility). It can help me feel uniquely confident in my choices (paradoxically, it’s often easier to feel “more sure” in decisions that mimic others than in decisions that are entirely our own, due to the lack of social support); it might help me establish “commonalities” with others; and it might make me seem humble (and who doesn’t love a selfless person?). And life is so hard and confusing it’s just nice to have a guide, to not feel alone…
Yes, Girard is right that “mimetic desire” leads to conflict, but there’s also a positive dimension: “mimetics” help us feel like we all have something in common. If we take this too far, we have conflict, but this mostly tends to be the case regarding “mimetic desire.” General mimetics though regarding choices, actions — all of these are areas where we tend to do “what other people do” but don’t necessarily end up fighting. “The crowd” and “social order” are full to the brim with “mimetics” and “copying,” but these don’t seem to cause “conflict” as does “mimetic desire” in particular (do note though that I suppose “desiring to do what Sam” does is always technically a desire, but we’ll avoid that line of argument for now). In this way, mimetics help us establish sociological “given,” which “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose argues are necessary. Considering this, we have to be careful before we demonize memetics entirely, and considering the impossibility of “autonomous rationality,” we might be particularly doomed without them (even if we can take “memetics” too far like “givens” and oppress (free) individuals).
Mimetics radically formulate the sociological order, and a reason for this is because mimetics race in to “fill the gap” left by the impossibility of “autonomous rationality.” No, I’m not saying that’s the only explanation for why Girard’s “Mimetic Theory” is so accurate, but I think it’s an important factor to note (and it’s certainly critical to grasp for us to understand why rationality alone will not save us from “the cycles of mimetic desire”). Perhaps we are tempted to believe that if “we were just more rational,” mimetics wouldn’t be a problem, but I’m here to say that would not be the case. Rationality cannot save us from problematic “mimetics” — something else will be needed, perhaps something that makes us more “particular.” For me, that could be beauty, but that argument will have to be expanded on at another time.