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Culture War as Imitation Game

The French social theorist René Girard, born in 1923, is not quite yet a household name, but his work does occasionally make it into popular culture. Take the second season of the hit HBO show The White Lotus, where one main character suggests that his friend and former romantic rival has “a bad case of mimetic desire.” This would have made Girard laugh, since his theory partly explains how ideas become fashionable.

Mimetic desire was Girard’s central idea. It is the notion that humans don’t generate their own desires but rather mimic the desires of others — and that this is at the root of human conflict. Mimetic desire formed the basis for a theory of history and culture that captivated his students and thousands of scholars across disciplines as diverse as literature, sociology, philosophy, theology, and history. One of his most famous students, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, has said, “I suspect that when the history of the twentieth century is written circa 2100, he will be seen as truly one of the great intellectuals, but it may still be a long time till it’s fully understood.”

Girard passed away in 2015, after a long career as a professor of French language, literature, and civilization at Stanford. In 2005, he was inducted into the Académie Française, at which point his fellow member and Stanford colleague Michel Serres called him the “new Darwin of the human sciences.” The year 2023 is the centennial of René Girard’s birth, and since interest in his work continues to grow due to its explanatory power — for everything from makeup trends to love triangles — you should expect to hear more about Girard in the coming months. (I am hosting an anniversary celebration for him in Washington, D.C. in November.)

Once you see mimetic desire in everyday life, it’s hard to unsee. It helps to explain competition in college admissions, stock market bubbles, and why romantic attraction is often attached to social cues that signal desirability. But I also believe that Girard’s work can help us make better sense of the dynamics gripping American politics today, and might even offer a way out of our crippling polarization.

Read more here.

Originally published Summer 2023 at The New Atlantis.


Mimetic Desire 101

What is Mimetic Desire? Nearly everyone (unconsciously) assumes there’s a straight line between them and the things they want. >>

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