Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 3: Mimesis vs. Imitation
from Guide to Kingdom Living

True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth.

Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 3: Mimesis vs. Imitation

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

We will soon explore the implications of Girardian thought for Christianity, but first we need to gain a foundation in mimetic theory. Last week, I talked about how mimesis—observing and copying others—guides human desire. Mimesis is not the same as imitation, and this is a critical distinction

Imitation is a conscious process. As such, it is without emotional content. For example, if I wanted to learn how to fix my transmission, I would consciously choose to imitate the technique of a skilled mechanic. I would not feel envy towards the mechanic—in fact, I would probably appreciate the instruction.

In contrast, what we desire—in other words that which we believe will make us happy—is generated by unconscious mimesis. We see this all the time with children. In a room filled with toys, the one toy a child desires is the toy another child is playing with. We like to think that we adults have gotten past such childish thinking. To be sure, we’re more subtle than children, but mimetic desire’s pull on us is just as strong. Indeed, nearly all advertisement is aimed at creating mimetic desire.

To illustrate mimetic desire, I imagine a hypothetical brother-in-law who has a new sports car. He seems to love his car, and he often talks enthusiastically about its powerful engine and incredible sound system. I now find that his incessant “jokes” about my beat-up Pinto more annoying than usual. I wish I could afford a sports car, but I won’t admit to him or myself that the reason I desire a sports car myself is envy. Such an admission would further damage my bruised self-image—it would show me to be petty and a slavish imitator. So, I convince myself that the reason I want a sportier car is not because of mimetic desire, but because sports cars provide a more enjoyable ride.

However, since I can’t afford a sports car, I become resentful towards my brother-in-law. Again, (unless I’m unusually self-reflective and insightful) I won’t recognize the source of my resentment. I may say to myself that he’s “arrogant” or that he doesn’t show me the respect I deserve. While there is much about my friendly brother-in-law that I have liked, increasingly I resent him.

The above dynamic illustrates several things. First, my desire is mimetic—my brother-in-law’s love of his car convinces me that what it would take for me to feel good about myself is to have a sports car. Second, the object of desire is arbitrary. I naturally desire whatever someone else seems to desire. Third, the model—in this case my brother-in-law—can easily become my rival. Competition with one’s rival often leads to bitterness and resentment, which threatens to undermine an otherwise good relationship. Indeed, anyone who has seen sibling rivalry will likely recognize these dynamics.

Mimetic desire leads to rivalries, which readily induce anger when failure to successfully compete with one's rival causes a sense of humiliation. Next week, we’ll explore how anger is such a powerful passion that it can override reason. Furthermore, the object of anger can be just as arbitrary as the object of desire, because both are influenced by mimesis.

Go on to: Part 4: Anger
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