Mimetic Theory 101

Mimetic theory is René Girard’s explanation of the process by which humans come to want the things that they want, and therefore how they shape culture: institutions, families, politics, businesses, and nations—and the specific rituals, taboos, and prohibitions that keep them in order.

Fundamental to the whole theory is the first step: mimetic desire. This is simply the idea that the genesis of all desire is the imitation of a model who desired something first. People cannot create desire out of anything; they catch and appropriate the desires of others, usually without realizing it.

The imitation of desire leads to an increasing degree of sameness. Since most people are horrified by sameness, this sets off a crisis of sameness in which everyone is competing to differentiate themselves from everyone else through a form of negative imitation. If you wear black, I wear white. I’m different—but my difference is a reflection of my imitation. The crisis of sameness and the need to differentiate oneself eventually leads to conflict.

“Imitation is human intelligence in its most dynamic aspect.” – René Girard (1)

Mimetic rivalry spreads in a group through contagion. Everyone close to a mimetic escalation gets sucked into it, like a political debate. Eventually, the group becomes completely embroiled in a mimetic crisis that threatens to destroy the group from within. As conflict boils over, the people fighting actually become more alike than different. In war, each side’s violence resembles the others. The way that human beings have traditionally got themselves out of a mimetic crisis, according to Girard, is a collective turning of all of the warring members toward an “outside,” someone who is different, who resolves the mimetic tension by turning the collective attention toward the immolation of a “poison” in the community whom they always misrecognize as being guilty.