Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World: the implications of René Girard’s thought for consumer society.

Max Familioe considers the work of René Girard on desire, and it's relevant to Rethinking Demand and Facing up to Climate Relativity.

English Translation of Book by René Girard

The French philosopher and literary critic René Girard, who died in 2015, was one of the most significant thinkers of our time. His work, which spans numerous fields including literature, theology and the social sciences, has such a momentous scope that, in many ways, it defies categorisation. However, there are at least three clear themes that motivate his thought and provide the intellectual framework for all his subsequent ideas. These are the attempt to characterise the nature of desire, scapegoating and violence, and the exploration of their ramifications for human societies. These two themes are dealt with at length in what is arguably the most comprehensive overview of Girard’s ideas, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, first published in French in 1978 under the title Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde.

The book is an exposition of Girard’s central theory of mimetic desire and its application to a number of areas, including psychoanalysis and the Judeo-Christian texts. Mimetic desire is based on the philosophical term mimesis, which means the characteristically human capacity for imitation. What distinguishes the word mimesis from ‘imitation’, however, is the possibility it has to encompass both the positive and negative possibilities of imitative behaviour as opposed to ‘imitation’, which has more positive connotations in its everyday usage. At heart mimetic theory argues that beyond basic appetites such as hunger and thirst, much of human behaviour is fundamentally mimetic, or imitative. He argues that ‘there is nothing, or next to nothing in human behaviour that is not learned, and all learning is based on imitation. If human beings suddenly ceased imitating, all forms of culture would vanish. Neurologists remind us frequently that the human brain is an enormous imitating machine’.1 Thus, Girard believes that what distinguishes desire from appetite is the fact that it is mimetic, or that it is shaped by another person. In most cases the object of our desire is not determined by ourselves, but by another person that Girard terms a mimetic ‘model’.

One of the major criticisms of Girard’s thought is that it places too much emphasis on mimesis as the key to understanding human behaviour. It also doesn’t necessarily account for the genesis of specific desires. It could be argued that at some point in time, somebody had to have desired a given thing before anyone else. In spite of this, whether or not we accept Girard’s theories about human nature in full, it is clear that mimesis plays a key role in many of our desires. If this were not the case, it would not be possible for cultures to exist with any degree of coherence. Regardless of their common identity, any group of people needs some form of mimesis to bind them together. In addition to this, the work done by neuroscientists on mirror neurons over the past thirty years seems to confirm that mimesis plays a significant role in human behaviour. Also, even if we accept that there may be individuals whose desire or specific desires are not mimetic in certain cases, this does not preclude mimesis playing a role in the desires of the majority. One only has to turn on the television briefly to see that the advertising industry clearly operates under the premise that most of us are susceptible to mimetic desire in some way.

To illustrate how mimetic desire functions, Girard uses the example of snobbery, explaining that in ‘snobbery, you desire something not because you really had an appetite for it, but because you think you look smarter, you look more fashionable, if you imitate the man who desires that object, or who also pretends to desire it.’2 The idea that our desire is fundamentally mimetic brings us on to his other two principle ideas, namely the scapegoating mechanism and the origins of violence. Put very briefly, Girard goes on to say that the mimetic nature of our desire inevitably brings us into conflict with the models we imitate. If we both pursue the same objects of desire, this often leads to a clash of interests, especially if the desired object is scarce. Girard claims that historically societies have had two ways of controlling the conflict that arises from mimetic desire and these are, prohibitions and the scapegoat mechanism. Prohibitions are a simple way of reducing the potential avenues through which conflict can flow but the scapegoat mechanism is more sophisticated. Girard contends that in a complex society, prohibitions alone are not enough to quell the potential conflict inherent in the mimetic desire of individuals in the community. Therefore, when tensions rise as a result of clashes caused by mimetic desire, rather than turn violently on one another, the select a surrogate victim, or what Girard terms a scapegoat.

The scapegoat is then blamed for all the ills of the society and either exiled from the community or killed. After this, the sense of unity the people feel at having dealt with a common enemy helps create bonds between people, that reconciles the previously fractured community. It is in this powerful feeling of reconciliation which Girard believes lies the origin of the sacred. In this mechanism Girard sees the origins of not only sacrifice, but ultimately of all rituals in human society, and in Things Hidden, he explores the numerous and varied ways in which this manifests itself across all cultures. Girard believes that this scapegoating mechanism is basis of religion and all subsequent institutions and thus that it is the foundation of human society itself. For this reason, religion and culture are not only fundamentally rooted in the human capacity for violence, but also in the wish to contain it.

It must be underlined that one cannot begin to do justice to either the nuances of Girard’s thesis or the vast amount of ground that it covers. It is beyond the scope of this short piece to explain how as Things Hidden processes, Girard applies this framework to the Judeo-Christian texts, psychoanalysis and modern culture as a whole. It is worth noting however, that in Christianity, Girard sees a complete reversal of the traditional pattern followed by religion and an unequivocal rejection of the scapegoat mechanism and violence (see Book II: The Judeo-Christian Scriptures in Things Hidden). One aspect that clearly stands out from the book is how in the Judeo-Christian texts, Girard sees a revelation that has the potential to transform human beings’ violent tendencies into peaceful ones. According to Girard, at the heart of this is a deep understanding of how mimetic desire drives conflict in human societies and it is this idea that has implications for our consumer driven culture today.

Most visibly, mimetic desire is the driving force behind advertising. Given that advertising contributes £120 billion to the United Kingdom’s GDP annually3, harnessing mimetic desire is extremely profitable. Mimetic theory provides a powerful theoretical framework through which we can understand how our own desires, and those of society, are often defined by other people. It is a simple idea that we are all aware of on some level, but mimetic theory, distils it down to its most basic elements, and gives us a clear picture of how we are constantly led to buy things we do not need. Corporations and advertising agencies are constantly bombarding us with mimetic models in order to determine the objects that we desire. In simple terms, the modus operandi of advertising is to convince us how our lives will be better or how we will be happier if we buy a certain product or service by offering us innumerable examples to imitate. In its crudest manifestations it tells us that if we drink the same drink as the deeply satisfied people in the advert, we too will be satisfied. However, in the age of the internet and big tech, advertising is constantly find more and more sophisticated ways to exploit the mimetic desire of consumers. One only has to cast one’s mind to the plethora of targeted adverts one receives to realise how big tech companies use mimetic models that tantalise us with visions of the kind of person we would like to be to generate huge profits.

Girard’s thought offers us insight into the nature of our desire and, in this way, it can be harnessed as a defence against the constant drive to consume that governs our economy and our culture. Regarding the future of the planet, the implications of this could have real impact, as it asks us to call into question the validity of the very thing that drives all consumer-based economies, namely our desire. Girard’s ideas on the scapegoat mechanism and the origins of violence also have endless potential applications when examining the origins of many conflicts that destabilise or have the potential to destabilise the world today, which are often linked to the resources needed for an economic model based on endless consumerism. If mimetic desire plays an important role in escalating conflicts and our desire for scapegoats, then finding other avenues for our mimetic desire is essential for deescalating conflicts and avoiding violence. This is also significant if we apply it to our desire for things that rely on the finite resources of our planet. If as a species are able to better understand what drives our desire, we would be better placed to channel it other directions, and even towards new economic models (e.g. circular economy). If we are able to reduce or redirect our own desires, the implications for our relationship with the natural world could bear great fruit.

In this way, mimetic theory could help to frame and inform one of the key points in Green House’s strategic vision. If ‘facing up to climate reality’ entails avoiding focus on climate change as a stand-alone challenge, then Girard’s thought provides a theoretical framework through which we can understand it as part of a wider environmental and human crisis. If the problem of our continuing industrial expansion and crisis of biodiversity are driven in large by human desire, then understanding how desire operates is the first step to countering our destructive and expansionist tendencies. Understanding the climate crisis as driven at least in part by mimetic desire opens the possibility of drawing people’s attention to what drives them and even directing their desires to more ‘positive’ forms of mimesis in light of the environmental crisis. The majority of us will not find the religious solution implicit in Girard’s work tenable or convincing, yet the theoretical framework of mimetic desire gives us an insight into what often lies at the heart of our destructive impulses and thus, the potential to combat them. Therefore, using Girard’s thought to unpick the basic presuppositions of our current trajectory has the potential to act as corrective to the evidently destructive path that the majority of us persist in following.

1 Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, p.7