Pop explanation of René Girard’s anthropology of mimetic theory. We all imitate, but are rarely aware of it. Many relatable examples, though not a clear takeaway.
We want things through the imitation of someone else: a secret model.
Not spontaneously, not out of an inner chamber of authentic desire, not randomly.
We desire many things not through biological drives or pure reason, but through imitation.
Our profound openness to other people’s interior lives lets us imitate desire.
After a person has fulfilled their basic needs, they enter a universe of desires that does not have a stable hierarchy.
Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is too neat.
Models are people or things that show us what is worth wanting.
Models - not our “objective” analysis or central nervous system - shape our desires.
Your personal style, the way you speak, the look and feel of your home - all have models.
It’s difficult to figure out why you bought certain things.
It’s hard to understand why you strive toward certain achievements.
Human beings fight not because they are different, but because they are the same.
In their attempts to distinguish themselves, have made themselves into enemy twins.
The more people fight, the more they come to resemble each other.
When a person’s identity becomes completely tied to a mimetic model, they can never truly escape that model.
Doing so would mean destroying their own reason for being.
What do you want?
What have you helped others want?
Buried in a deeper layer of our psychology is the person or thing that caused us to want something in the first place.
Desire requires models - people who endow things with value for us merely because they want the things.
Models transfigure objects before our eyes.
You walk into a consignment store with a friend and see racks filled with hundreds of shirts. Nothing jumps out at you.
But the moment your friend becomes enamored with one specific shirt, it’s no longer just a shirt on a rack.
It’s the shirt that your friend Molly chose - Molly the assistant costume designer on major films.
The moment she starts ogling the shirt, she sets it apart.
It’s a different shirt than it was five seconds ago, before she started wanting it.
We choose brands, schools, and dishes at a restaurant by them.
There are always models of desire.
If you don’t know your models, they are probably wreaking havoc in your life.
We don’t want things that are too easily possessed or that are readily within reach.
Desire leads us beyond where we currently are.
Models are like people standing further up the road, who can see something around the corner that we can’t yet see.
Lenny Bruce modeled a new way of doing comedy, and George Carlin used it to break out of the status quo.
Models are often a person’s secret idol.
We become fixated on them without realizing it.
Rather than learning what other people want so that we can help them get it, we secretly compete with them to possess it.
Humans imitate romantic ideals, sexual fantasies, food preparation, social norms, worship, gift-giving rituals, professional courtesies, and memes.
We notice the slightest deviance from what we could call acceptable imitation.
If we receive a response to an email or text that doesn’t sufficiently tone-match, we can go into a mini-crisis.
(Does she not like me? Does he think he’s superior to me? Did I do something wrong?).
Communication practically runs on mimesis.
Assigned to negotiate with other students:
Those who mirrored others’ posture and speech reached a settlement 67 percent of the time.
Those who didn’t reached a settlement 12.5 percent of the time.
Babies who follow their mother’s gaze become adults who watch their neighbors for the slightest clues about what is desirable.
The open imitation of the infant becomes the hidden mimesis of adults.
Sometimes we imitate in a mirrored way, doing the opposite of whatever he does.
Models are most powerful when they are hidden.
If you want to make someone passionate about something, they have to believe the desire is their own.
Her lack of desire for him affected the strength of his desire for her.
The interest that other men showed in her affected him. They were modeling her desirability to him.
Through her withdrawal from him, she was modeling it, too.
Models show us something worth wanting that is just beyond our reach - including their affection.
An insecure guy who feels sparks on his first few dates with someone. They both decide to get more serious.
The first thing he does is introduce her to all his friends - because he desperately needs their approval.
He’s looking for some indication that at least one of them might want to be with her, too.
When none of them seem interested, he begins to doubt that he made the right choice.
The moment a person exempts themselves in their own mind from the very thing they see all around them is the moment when they are most vulnerable.
He thinks he has transcended the mass of plebeians that Pepsi must be advertising to - and then he goes out and buys more Pepsi, for reasons that he thinks are different.
And if he doesn’t drink more Pepsi, then he will be more likely to drink something else that he feels separates himself from the masses - maybe kombucha.
The pride that makes a person believe they are unaffected by or inoculated against biases, weaknesses, or mimesis blinds them to their complicity in the game.
If a news organization can convince its viewers that its programming is neutral, it disables their defense mechanisms.
In both bubbles and crashes, models are multiplied.
Desire spreads at a speed so great we can’t wrap out rational brains around it.
Strange or shocking behavior mesmerizes people.
People are drawn to others who seem to play by different rules.
When people don’t seem to care what other people want or don’t want the same things, they seem otherworldly.
They appear less affected by mimesis - anti-mimetic, even.
And that’s fascinating, because most of us aren’t.
Imitation is seen as a source of embarrassment, a sign of weakness, even something that can get you into trouble.
Nobody wants to be known as an imitator.
Imitate the cultural norms, but make sure you stand out.
While everyone’s flattered by imitation, being copied too closely feels threatening.
Rivalry is a function of proximity.
When people are separated from us by enough time, space, money, or status, there is no way to compete seriously with them
These models are “out of your league”.
They influence desire from outside of a person’s immediate world. Unattainable, untouchable.
Social sphere that puts them out of reach.
A barrier separates these models from their imitators.
They're separated from us by time (often already dead), space (live in a different country or aren’t on social media), or social status.
Because there’s no threat of conflict, they are generally imitated freely and openly.
Nobody can officially be declared a saint while they are alive.
No athlete can be inducted into the Hall of Fame while still playing the game.
People only truly become legends after they retire or die because they enter into a different existential space.
High models can guard their identities to heighten our sense of intrigue.
Hiding themselves from view them appear to exist in a different plane.
We often strive not for any particular thing but for some new way of living or being metaphysical desire.
In Greek, the word meta means “after.”
Aristotle had studied the physical world and learned all that he could learn about it. Then he asked, “What now?”
He applied himself to the study of what would later be called metaphysics, which literally means “after the physical.”
All true desire - the post-instinctual kind - is metaphysical.
It’s not the handbag they are after. It’s the imagined newness of being
Anorexia nervosa and bulimia are cases of metaphysical desire overpowering physical needs.
People are desperate to find something solid to hold on to in today’s “liquid modernity”
We are in a chaotic phase of history in which there are no culturally agreed-upon models to follow, no fixed points of reference.
The fastest way to become an expert is to convince a few of the right people to call you an expert.
We prefer experts because we think of ourselves as more rational than ever.
Experts promise a kind of secret, salvific wisdom.
Someone ready to impart the specific knowledge needed to be happy and make people feel that they have escaped the fate of the masses.
It’s easy for someone to become an overnight expert on “productivity” merely because they got published in the right place.
Scientism fools people because it is a mimetic game dressed up as science.
People’s willingness to speak freely depends upon their unconscious perceptions of how popular their opinions are.
People who believe their opinions are not shared by anyone else are more likely to remain quiet.
Their silence itself increases the impression that no one else thinks as they do.
This increases their feelings of isolation and artificially inflates the confidence of those with the majority opinion.
When mimetic rivals are caught in a double bind, obsessed with each other, they go to any length to differentiate themselves.
Their rival is a model for what not to desire.
Mirrored imitation: the opposite of whatever a rival does.
For a hipster, the rival is popular culture - he eschews anything popular and embraces what he believes to be eclectic, but he does so according to new models.
The effort to leave the beaten paths forces everyone into the same ditch.
Imagine coming out on top of a rivalry.
The act of winning paradoxically brings about defeat.
It signals to us that we picked the wrong model in the first place.
In a mimetic rivalry, objects take on value because the rival wants them.
If the rival suddenly stops wanting something, so do we. We go in search of something new.
You probably follow at least a few people who function as unhealthy models of desire for you. You care what they think. You care what they want.
Distance yourself from the force they exert on you. Unfollow them.
Social media is more than media - it’s mediation.
Thousands of people showing us what to want and coloring our perception of those things.
It’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.
Culture is formed primarily through the imitation of desires.
The most effective personal flywheels come from people who know themselves well.
You probably already have a tacit knowledge of what things increase and decrease the likelihood that you’re going to want to do something in the future.
The key is to make the cycle explicit, and then to put it in motion.
A hierarchy of values is especially critical when choices have to be made between good things.
A hierarchy of values is an antidote to mimetic conformity.
They need to be ranked.
Jenny Holzer: PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT
Her plea to be protected from what she wants is something that everyone can relate to.
Each of us has desires that, if followed to the end, are dangerous to ourselves and to others.
The Torah contains an account of a strange ritual in ancient Israel. Once a year, on the feast of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, two male goats were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. Lots were drawn to determine which goat would be sacrificed to God and which one would be sent away to Azazel, an evil spirit or demon believed to reside in remote regions of the desert. The high priest would lay his hands on the head of the goat that was bound for Azazel. As he did so, the priest would confess all the sins of the Israelites, symbolically transferring them onto the animal. After the priest had said the appropriate prayers, the people would drive the goat out into the desert, to Azazel, expelling their sins along with it. This goat came to be called, in English, the scapegoat.
The idea of the scapegoat was not unique to the Jews, though. The ancient Greeks had their own version of a scapegoating ritual - but they sacrificed humans, not animals. During plagues and other calamities, the Greeks would select a pharmakós, a person at the margins of society - usually a castoff, criminal, slave, or someone thought to be excessively ugly or deformed. The word pharmakós is related to the English word “pharmacy.” In ancient Greece, the pharmakós was someone initially seen as a poison to the community. The people believed that they had to destroy or expel this person to protect themselves. The people often tortured and humiliated the pharmakós in a public place.
By way of the ritual, they experienced what Aristotle called catharsis: the process of releasing strong emotions or impulses through participation in some external event.
Aristotle thought catharsis was the purpose of tragic drama. Through it, audience members could release some of their sorrow and pain, thus giving those emotions a safe outlet.
After the ritual was complete, they would unanimously participate in some form of expulsion or killing.
In the Greek city of Massalia - today, Marseilles - crowds forced the pharmakós to the edge of a high cliff and gathered around him, blocking all routes of escape. They eventually forced him over the edge to certain death. Because eliminating the pharmakós was a collective and anonymous process, the benefits flowed to everyone.
Who was responsible for the murder? Everyone, and no one. No single person would feel responsible, absolving each of them from guilt; at the same time, the entire group reaped the benefit of discharging violence onto someone without the threat of retaliation.
Unanimous violence is always anonymous violence.
There’s psychological safety in mobs, just as there are in firing squads.
“Can’t be sure that I’m responsible” is always a good defense - at least to oneself.
Why is throwing the first stone so hard?
Because the first stone is the only stone without a mimetic model.
The thrower of the first stone, often acting in a violent rage, gives the crowd a dangerous model to follow.
A scapegoat remains effective as long as we believe in its guilt.
Having a scapegoat means not knowing that we have one.
We didn’t stop burning witches because we invented science.
We invented science because we stopped burning witches.
We used to blame droughts on witches.
Once we stopped blaming witches, we looked for scientific explanations for drought.
Humanity still tends to revert to a primitive, sacrificial mindset. Rationality takes a back seat.
While the rest of the prohibitive Ten Commandments forbid acts, the tenth commandment forbids a certain kind of desire.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
The crucifixion of Jesus: Girard read this story primarily as an anthropologist.
The mob attempted to make Jesus their scapegoat. But the mechanism was subverted.
The scapegoat mechanism has been so thoroughly subverted that there is some semblance of a reverse scapegoating mechanism, whereby an innocent victim is recognized as having been treated brutally and then a wave of support swells up around that person.
The reverse process brings chaos out of order.
The chaos is meant to shake up the “orderly” system, predicated on violence, until something serious is done to change it.
Victimism uses the ideology of concern for victims to gain political or economic or spiritual power.
One claims victim status as a way of gaining an advantage or justifying one’s behavior.
Victims now have the power to make new scapegoats of their own choosing.
Those alive today who look back at people living in Nazi Germany, or in 1950s America, or at the time of Christ, swear that they could never have participated in such ideology or racism or demagoguery.
That is exactly what makes the scapegoat mechanism possible - the idea that you are not capable of it.
We lack the humility to see that we are all caught up in mimetic processes.
The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
We’re going to have to develop some machinery in our guts to help us resist dangerous mimesis.
That will require being anti-mimetic.
An anti-mimetic action - or person - is a sign of contradiction to a culture that likes to float downstream.
Our goals are the product of our systems.
We can’t want something that is outside the system of desire we occupy.
People aren’t fully responsible for choosing their own goals.
People pursue the goals that are on offer to them in their system of desire.
Goals are often chosen for us, by models.
And that means the goalposts are always moving.
Sébastien Bras set a goal to maintain his restaurant’s three Michelin stars, and he pursued it vigilantly. Then one day he realized the pursuit was killing him.
Some goals - even good ones - overstay their welcome.
It’s worth asking where goals come from in the first place.
Every goal is embedded within a system.
VCs and social media platforms thrive on mimesis.
If two people argue on a social media platform, drawing others into the feud, who wins? The platform.
We can’t know ourselves without knowing the history of our desires.
You don’t have to buy into and play a mimetic game and win before you can opt out of it with a clear conscience.
“Don’t knock it till you try it” is a sophomoric argument.
Say that you extend your hand to me, and I leave you hanging. I don’t imitate your ritual gesture. What happens?
You become inhibited and withdraw - probably equally as much, and probably more, than you sensed I did to you.
If I decline to shake your hand, if, in short, I refuse to imitate you, then you are now the one who imitates me, by reproducing my refusal, by copying me instead.
Imitation, which usually expresses agreement in this case, now serves to confirm and strengthen disagreement. Once again, in other words, imitation triumphs.
This is how negative mimetic cycles start.
Getting to know people at their core reduces the possibility of cheap mimetic interactions.
Sharing and listening to a particular kind of experience: stories of deeply fulfilling action.
Knowing and relating to these stories produces empathy and a greater understanding of human behavior.
Sympathy starts with sym-, meaning “together.” Sympathy means “feeling together.”
The em- in empathy means “to go into.” It’s the ability to go into the experiences or feelings of another.
I spent more time looking sideways than I did forward. I was looking for ways to measure success.
Core motivational drives are enduring, irresistible, and insatiable.
They are probably explanatory of much of your behavior since the time you were a child.
Think of them as your motivational energy.
Share stories about times in your life when you took an action that ended up being deeply fulfilling.
Tell about a time in your life when you did something well and it brought you a sense of fulfillment.
Ideology: the idea that everything is either good or bad.
To cut through ideology, it helps to pay attention to the coincidence, or coexistence, of opposites: paradoxical figures, walking contradictions.
Monks brought stacks of books with them when they pray in the chapel.
They are habituated to think that without “input” there can be no “output.”
To get started practicing meditative thought, look at a tree for an hour.
Adolescence inaugurates a hyper-mimetic phase.
Trying to answer fundamental questions: Who am I? Who do I want to be?
We usually behave as if we were blind.
We look to other people who we think can “see” better than we can, to learn what is worth looking at and pursuing.
Fictional characters who model great, thick desires can be a counterbalance to real-life models of weak, thin desires.
The purpose of work is not merely to make more but to become more.
Desire is a contract that you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want.
Stalk your greatest desire.
When you find it, let all of your lesser desires be transformed so that they serve the greatest one.
Relationships: we help other people with their wants in one of three ways: we help them want more, we help them want less, or we help them want differently.
The author’s first draft is an attempt at self-justification.
The experience of reading that first draft devastates and disillusions the author, striking a blow at their pride and vanity.
This existential downfall is the event that makes a great work of art possible.
ACHIEVE POTENTIAL: Identifying and realizing potential is a constant focus of your activities.
ADVANCE: You love the experience of making progress as you accomplish a series of goals.
BE UNIQUE: You seek to distinguish yourself by displaying some talent, quality, or aspect that is distinctive and special.
BE CENTRAL: You are motivated to be a key person who holds things together and gives them meaning and/or direction.
BRING CONTROL: You want to be in charge and in control of your own destiny.
BRING TO COMPLETION: Your motivation is satisfied when you can look at a finished product or final result and know that your work is done and that you have met the objective you set out to accomplish.
COMPREHEND AND EXPRESS: Your motivation focuses on understanding, defining, and then communicating your insights.
COLLABORATE: You enjoy being involved in efforts in which people work together for a common purpose.
DEMONSTRATE NEW LEARNING: You are motivated to learn how to do something new and show that you can do it.
DEVELOP: You are motivated by the process of building and developing from start to finish.
EVOKE RECOGNITION: You are motivated to capture the interest and attention of others.
EXPERIENCE THE IDEAL: You are motivated to give concrete expression to certain concepts, visions, or values that are important to you.
ESTABLISH: You are motivated to lay secure foundations and to be established.
EXPLORE: Pressing beyond the existing limits of your knowledge and/or experience, you explore what is unknown or mysterious to you.
EXCEL: You want to excel or at least to do your absolute best as you exceed the performance or expectations of those around you.
GAIN OWNERSHIP: The nature of your motivation is expressed through efforts to acquire what you want and to exercise ownership or control over what is yours.
IMPROVE: You are happiest when you are using your abilities to make things better.
INFLUENCE BEHAVIOR: You are motivated to gain a reaction or response from people that indicates you have influenced their thinking, feelings, and behavior.
MAKE AN IMPACT: You seek to make an impact or personal mark upon the world around you.
MAKE IT RIGHT: You consistently set up or follow standards, procedures, and principles that you believe are “right.”
MAKE IT WORK: Your motivation focuses on fixing something that has broken down or is functioning poorly.
MAKE THE GRADE: You are motivated to make the grade and gain acceptance into a group in which you want to be a member or participant.
MASTER: Your motivation is satisfied when you are able to gain complete command of a skill, subject, procedure, technique, or process.
MEET THE CHALLENGE: Your sense of achievement comes in looking back over a challenge you have met or a test you have passed.
ORGANIZE: You want to set up and maintain a smooth-running operation.
OVERCOME: Your motivation focuses on overcoming and winning out over difficulties, disadvantages, or opposition.
SERVE: You are motivated to identify and fulfill needs, requirements, and expectations.