Features, Social Science

Mimesis Machines and Millennials

In 1956, a young Liverpudlian named John Winston Lennon heard the mournful notes of Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, and was transformed. He would later recall, “nothing really affected me until I heard Elvis. If there hadn’t been an Elvis, there wouldn’t have been the Beatles.” It is an ancient human story. An inspiring model, an inspired imitator, and a changed world.

Mimesis is the phenomenon of human mimicry. Humans see, and they strive to become what they see. The prolific Franco-Californian philosopher René Girard described the human hunger for imitation as mimetic desire. According to Girard, mimetic desire is a mighty psychosocial force that drives human behavior. When attempted imitation fails, (i.e. I want, but fail, to imitate my colleague’s promotion to VP of Business Development), mimetic rivalry arises. According to mimetic theory, periodic scapegoating—the ritualistic expelling of a member of the community—evolved as a way for archaic societies to diffuse rivalries and maintain the general peace.

As civilization matured, social institutions evolved to prevent conflict. To Girard, sacrificial religious ceremonies first arose as imitations of earlier scapegoating rituals. From the mimetic worldview healthy social institutions perform two primary functions,

  • They satisfy mimetic desire and reduce mimetic rivalry by allowing imitation to take place.
  • They thereby reduce the need to diffuse mimetic rivalry through scapegoating.

Tranquil societies possess and value institutions that are mimesis tolerant. These institutions, such as religion and family, are Mimesis Machines. They enable millions to see, imitate, and become new versions of themselves. Mimesis Machines, satiate the primal desire for imitation, and produce happy, contented people. Through Mimesis Machines, Elvis fans can become Beatles.

Volatile societies, on the other hand, possess and value mimesis resistant institutions that frustrate attempts at mimicry, and mass produce frustrated, resentful people. These institutions, such as capitalism and beauty hierarchies, are Mimesis Shredders. They stratify humanity, and block the ‘nots’ from imitating the ‘haves’.

Girard’s thinking raises several interesting questions about the current moment,

  • Can mimetic theory explain, in part, the increasing volatility of American society and politics?
  • Have the Mimesis Machines of American society somehow broken down?
  • Is the ancient practice of scapegoating on the rise as a result?

I argue yes to all three. Today’s frenzied politics are a direct result of malfunctioning mimesis systems. Additionally, these systems are the most broken for the youngest cohort of society. Unable to diffuse mimetic rivalry, young Americans are embracing ancient rituals, and this is fueling the rise of scapegoating-centric social movements such as Social Justice.

Mimesis Machines: Religion and Family

To Girard, Christianity was the ultimate antidote to mimetic rivalry and scapegoating. In The One By Whom Scandal Comes he wrote, “Christ is the only man to overcome the barrier erected by Satan. He dies in order to avoid participating in the system of scapegoats, which is to say the satanic principle.” Religion more broadly is a powerful Mimesis Machine. I see a good Buddhist, and mimetic desire makes me want to become a good Buddhist.

Monks in meditative practice.

Through a relatively simple program of meditation, ritual, and behavior I can become a good Buddhist. There is no scarcity of spiritual fulfilment, and my serenity does not prevent yours. Almost anyone with base amounts of discipline, restraint, and social skill can become a good Buddhist, (or Muslim, or Christian, or Sikh). Religious traditions are excellent at diffusing mimetic rivalry, and delivering contentment to a populace. Perhaps this a reason that religious and mythical traditions have accompanied every settled civilization in human history.

Family is another Mimesis Machine. I see a good father pushing a twin stroller in Central Park, and mimetic desire makes me want to become a parent. After finding a willing mate, traditions of parenting, advice from my own parents, and instinct will allow me to become a good father. Akin to religious fulfilment, reproduction has no scarcity value, and children can be created at will, (and by accident), by almost anyone. Once more through the institution of family, mimesis is achieved and conflict is avoided.

Mimesis Shredders: Wealth and Beauty

But that is not the whole story. Our society contains many institutions that amplify conflict and rivalry. Capitalism is a major Mimesis Shredder. When I see Jeff Bezos, I want his power and his billions. But becoming Jeff Bezos is, just to let you know, extremely hard. It takes a mixture of factors, both internal (intelligence, industriousness, conscientiousness) and external (social network, academic credentialing, luck), to become a successful capitalist. The vast majority of people are not equipped to compete at the highest levels of the global economy. Indeed, the extremely unequal information economy, whose products are produced by dozens and used by billions, has intensified capitalism and arguably worsened mimetic rivalries.

Gal Gadot

Maybe you don’t want Bezos’ billions, but instead desire his bulging biceps. Beauty hierarchies, and their epiphenomenon of narcissism, are also major Mimesis Shredders. No matter my effort, I am incapable of imitating Ryan Gosling’s or Gal Gadot’s arresting symmetry and physical magnetism. However, the $62 billion American cosmetics market and the $8 billion plastic surgery market demonstrate that many, many people are attempting to. And while the ratio of beauties to un-beauties is relatively stable over time, awareness of beauty inequality is increasing due to our social media selfie-culture. In 2017, the average person is acutely aware of their beauty-status relative to the outwardly lovely demi-gods who sit atop our culture.

Mimesis and Millennials

While the imbalance between Mimesis Machines and Mimesis Shredders affects all portions of society, it is most acute for those under 35. In every category, (religion, family formation, wealth accumulation, and beauty-status anxiety) Millennials struggle. These broken systems frustrate mimetic desire at every step, and produce the angry, discontented people who staff the radical political movements of 2017. Lacking ways to diffuse mimetic conflict and rivalry, the young are returning to the oldest human rituals.

Every culture maintains its own particular form of scapegoating, from the Greek practice of Pharmakos to the Babylonian Submission of the King. The contemporary American practice is Disemployment, an expulsion ritual in which a mob pressures an employer to terminate a condemned individual. In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard describes the purpose of expulsion, “this act was supposed to transfer onto the animal everything likely to poison relations between members of the community. The effectiveness of the ritual was the idea that the sins were expelled with the goat and then the community was rid of them.” Over the past decade the practice of purging individuals to purify the community has undergone a troubling revival.

This is not to say that Americans of the past did not engage in periodic hysteria and scapegoating. Rather, it is to note that the Social Justice movement represents an increase in this behavior. Indeed, scapegoating has become a monthly ritual in American life. Those of us concerned about halting political correctness and the Social Justice movement should spend less time on the first order problem of refuting their ideas. Instead, we would should think how we can fix or replace our society’s broken Mimesis Machines, and provide young Americans with healthy outlets for their desires and rivalries.

 

References

Girard, Rene.  Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Stanford University Press. 1987

Girard, Rene. The One By Whom Scandal Comes. Michigan State University Press. 2014

Girard, Rene. I See Satan Fall Liking Lightning. Orbis Books. 2001

Davis, Hunter. The Beatles: The Authorized Biography. W. W. Norton & Company 1968

Filed under: Features, Social Science

by

George is a technology executive and writer living in New York City. He is currently finishing his first novel, which follows an American infantryman through a career of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. George Gallatin is a pseudonym. Given the current climate surrounding political expression his name is being withheld.

19 Comments

  1. Really brilliant article. When people aren’t able to embody their ideals successfully, they fall into chaos. If society becomes too closed, and people feel they are too far from their goals to ever reach them, then people will begin to act out of resentment and not hope.

  2. Chester Draws says

    Capitalism isn’t like that. It’s not zero sum, and money doesn’t see colour or birth.

    Someone else’s wealth does not prevent me from becoming wealthy. I might be an immigrant, but my money is as good as anyone else’s. I might be poor, but my children can still earn good money if talented or hard working.

    But most societies which are not free market have political or social value taking the place of money. But since those ARE zero sum they act in the way beauty does. Communist states are far more hierarchical than any Capitalist one. Blat (connections) was the real currency of the USSR.

    The happiest people live in free market states. The world’s hell-holes invariably are not blessed with capitalism. Hence poor countries copy the way of rich countries, in their own memisis, and capitalism is becoming more common.

    • George Gallatin says

      Thank you for the comment Chester, and I definitely see your critique. I was trying to make an argument that our current system “global information economy” appears to be way harder on most people than the previous system “national industrial economy”.

      A look at wage data, since the 1970’s I think bears this out, at least in the United States. http://www.epi.org/publication/charting-wage-stagnation/

      I don’t think there is any real contest in capitalism vs. communism. Capitalism is a zillion times better. However, I am interested in finding ways to soften the edges of the information economy, especially for people on the lower half of the wage and education distribution.

  3. Epson Maverick says

    Great piece. Another way of looking at it: our intrasexual status heirarchies (wealth for men, beauty for women) are supercharged on steroids because of social media.

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  5. John Dickinson says

    An idea whose time, erm, doesn’t exist.

    There’s a word for “mimetic rivalry” and “mimetic desire”. Envy. We’ve no need for another pretentious framework for the complex-wordiness-seduced folk to get attached to.

    Millenials are not “struggling” with religion. They’re rejecting it. Hooray.

    If one ignores the tenuous co-option into this argument of John Lenon and artistic creation, there are some superficially plausible arguments to be found. e.g. “…mimetic desire makes me want to become a parent … reproduction has no scarcity value … mimesis is achieved and conflict is avoided”. Great! Let’s all go and reproduce! Do I need to spell out the cynical, intentional blindness going on here? … Envy induced copycat reproduction is not exactly a good reason to have a child. Yes, we can see a possible desirable life, but the burden is invisible. It is wiser, and much more considerate to a partner, children, the wider world, and yourself if such a choice is made with full consideration of the consequences, rather than a naïve response to envy.

    If you want to make an argument for a conservatism of religion and family (who’s anti family?) please don’t dress it in this florid finery.

    • Taupe Pope says

      Millennials are not struggling with religion, they are rejecting Christianity instead they’re accepting other religious beliefs like Islam, buffet-style spiritualism and Social “Justice”.

      “Who’s anti-family?” I’ve encountered many ‘greens’ who sound the false alarm of overpopulation and call for a reduction in the human population which is to be achieved by abstaining from forming families. I’ve encountered many who wanted white people in particular to abstain from having children because doing so is somehow harmful to nonwhite people.

    • I think the parenting example was simply to show a (presumably) desirable outcome that can be achieved by nearly everyone, in contrast to those that can’t.

      But your main point is right – this whole article was describing envy and (implied) an entitlement culture whereby, if some groups perceive (however subconsciously) their ambitions to be unachievable, they prefer to dispossess the subjects of their envy, rather than trying to emulate them.

  6. Religious traditions are excellent at diffusing mimetic rivalry, and delivering contentment to a populace

    .

    Are you kidding? Religion is one of the main causes of conflict in the world. Even the slightest deviation from accepted norms is enough to kick off mimetic rivalry. By contrast capitalism is benign. You don’t see KFC staff beheading staff from Burger King or throwing McDonald’s staff off buildings for preferring a special sauce.

    • Taupe Pope says

      He probably meant within a singular religious community. If there is one set of widely agreed upon virtues that can be exercised by anyone – which anyone can be recognised for – there will be less conflict.

  7. Richard Cocks says

    One element missing from your analysis is that according to Girard, social hierarchies actually suppress competition and rivalry. I can’t be the rival of, for instance, the king so I don’t try. It is the modern egalitarian tendency and my believing that I can be Jeff Bezos that puts me into competition with him,. When parents rule, peace prevails. When children reject parental authority rivalry ensues.

    • George Gallatin says

      Richard totally agree with you on this one, and I didn’t explicitly address it. My take is as family formation decreases those old structures stop working just as you described.

  8. Kurtz says

    Any piece promoting Girard gets a thumbs up from me! But the applicability of Mimetic Rivalry to the Social Justice movement doesn’t strike me as obvious. Aren’t the most conspicuous cheerleaders of this movement ultra-privileged students whose background and studies will all but guarantee them access to recognition, social networks and the means to settle down and start a family? What could possibly be the “model” the desires of whom these students are trying to emulate?

    • Taupe Pope says

      While many of the worst SJWs are incredibly privileged they are empowered by the belief that they are acting in the interests of the allegedly oppressed. They can easily ignore their own privilege because their virtue-system, intersectional feminism, requires much self-abnegation.

  9. Seth Alan Vayda says

    I feel this article takes observations that are true at surface level and then extrapolates meaning where there is none. For example, noting that imitation takes place in society as a means to an end is obvious but then concluding that failure in implementation of mimicry is contributing to societal unrest doesn’t seem like a helpful observation at the level of individual analysis. In many instances, imitation is indistinguishable from learning and imitation itself is not a motivating force, rather it is subject to a myriad of motivating forces. Vanity, ambition, admiration, gratitude, greed, curiosity, and many other underlying factors could be a reason for an individual imitating something and two individuals could be imitating the same thing for different reasons. Imitation as a motivating force in society only works when analyzing the group level, and I would be wary of such theories without hard proof.

  10. John Witner says

    I’m not pretending to be an intellect here, nor compete with intellects. But thanks for your article. The terminology is brand new to me and I can garnish some sense from it as I am puzzled over the state of things today. The cultural revolution today reminds me of the 60s with one major difference: The hippies who existed when I was 8 years old were all about giving peace a chance. These millenials, on the other hand, appear to me to want blood. You had me at John Leenon and Elvis.

  11. Jeremy Morris says

    Brilliant piece. One additional point to bear in mind is that young people are genetically predisposed to rebel as a mechanism to ‘flee the nest’. As a proud but frequently exhausted parent of three strong teenage females I welcome the advent of any mimetically-driven movement or cause that gets them out of the damn house!

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