Lecture I: Introduction to Mimetic Theory | René Girard’s Mimetic Theory (Part 1)

Key Takeaways

  • Over the next seven lectures, Johnathan Bi is going to cover the entirety of Girard’s system in a structured and understandable way while exploring the relevance of his ideas to the contemporary world
    • “My goal is to give you a map with which you can identify the Girardian forces animating our world and your life to navigate its relatively choppy waters.”Johnathan Bi
  • Achievements are meaningless if they aren’t out of our desires but a product of mimesis
  • Girard’s theory of human nature explains the true origin of desire and its consequences if not directed properly 
    • His ideas do not magically make us stop being mimetic
  • The mimetic theory gives us a framework to avoid situations that inspire debilitating desires; what type of person to avoid and who to keep close
  • For Girard, there are two branches of motivational forces of human nature
    • Metaphysical desire (identity)
    • Physical desire (aims at experience)
  • The desire to be at the heart of metaphysical desire is aimed at the “fullness of being” 
    • Metaphysical desire takes form as a pursuit of objects in the most general sense of the term
  • Girard believes that the way we go about choosing which objects to go after is by imitating those whom we already consider possessing this fullness of being (celebrities, parents, entrepreneurs, etc.)
  • The mimetic logic behind advertisements
    • The one line and celebrity advertisement that gives it all away is the tagline in the Gatorade commercial with Michael Jordan 
    • It’s not just a product or utility (jump like Mike, or score like Mike) but the being and prestige of Michael Jordan
  • Just as mimesis and metaphysical desire can make people conform they can also make people divide
    • Breaking away from the group to carve your own path can also be socially determined
  • The most important feature of Girard’s psychology, according to Johnathan Bi
    • Sociality is the most powerful and explanatory element within the human psyche
    • Our values, aesthetics, taste, and even philosophical positions are often heavily defined by others in deep and unconscious ways 

Intro

  • Recipe for misery: Pursue things because society tells you to, not because you truly want them
  • “If there were ever a set of ideas that radically changed my life, these would be it.”Johnathan Bi
    • Johnathan Bi (@JohnathanBi) is a startup founder and independent scholar interested in the work of French philosopher René Girard. Johnathan shares his story and how mimetic theory can help us escape from the suffocating web of prestige
  • This is the first part of the first lecture (of seven) in the series “Interpreting Girard: Exegete of Apocalypse,” a lecture series given by Johnathan Bi and moderated by David Perell
    • “René Girard showed me how I was caught up in meaningless status competitions and how much I was driven by desires that weren’t even my own.”David Perell
  • Host – David Perell (@david_perell)

The Goal of These 7 Lessons

  • Girard’s writing is hard to understand 
    • His theories seem antiquated and abstract without an apparent structure 
    • Over the next seven lectures, Johnathan Bi is going to cover the entirety of Girard’s system in a structured and understandable way while exploring the relevance of his ideas to the contemporary world
  • The following seven lectures are theoretical and practical
    • Theoretically, Johnathan aims to give us an encompassing overview of Girard’s entire theory (from psychology to his theology)
      • “From his theory on human evolution to predictions for apocalypse from readings on greek literature to his critique of modern institutions I will present to you the entirety of Girard’s system.”Johnathan Bi
    • Practically, he wishes to show us how this theoretical system applies to our lives in modern society via historical and contemporary examples (celebrity advertisements, romantic relationships, social media, etc.)
  • “My goal is to give you a map with which you can identify the Girardian forces animating our world and your life to navigate its relatively choppy waters.”Johnathan Bi

What Led Johnathan Bi to René Girard?

  • Personal failures and suffering are what led him to René Girard
    • It wasn’t out of a mindset of achievement or even theoretical curiosity, he crawled to him out of a desperate existential necessity
    • During his first years at Columbia, Johnathan was struggling in a deeply personal and existential sense
  • Most of us aren’t doing things for their own sake but out of what Gerard would call mimesis – our natural capacity and tendency to imitate others 
    • “2000 of allegedly some of America’s smartest and most independent kids all end up after college wanting to go into four fields finance tech law and medicine.” – Johnathan Bi
  • Achievements are meaningless if they aren’t out of our desires but a product of mimesis (e.g. some kind of social pressure)

The Impetus of Genuine Desire vs the External Shell of Social Expectation

  • We can see the influence of mimetic theory in so many aspects of society 
    • People who take out a loan to buy a fancy car they can’t afford
    • Parents are competitive and devious over where their children would go to schools
    • People have lost their way and aren’t even aware of the nature of their desire
    • “I was the most guilty that I was the most mimetic of them all and what was so frightening to me was the realization as a sophomore that I could live my entire life like this fundamentally not for myself.”Johnathan Bi
  • Girard’s theory of human nature explains the true origin of desire and its consequences if not directed properly 
    • His ideas do not magically make us stop being mimetic
    • Johnathan is just as susceptible to mimetic forces as he was before 
  • “When you are already deeply envious or prideful the battle is already lost, there’s nothing about understanding mimetic theory can do for you.”– Johnathan Bi
    • The mimetic theory gives us a framework to avoid situations that inspire debilitating desires; what type of person to avoid and who to keep close
    • It teaches us how to construct a social environment that is relatively sober and how to identify ones that are prone to mimetic contagion
    • “Mimetic theory does not give us the power to resist damaging instances of mimesis at the moment but it does give us the foresight to avoid them altogether.”Johnathan Bi
  • Girard hits on fundamental truths of the human condition, truths that are overlooked or perhaps even more provocatively, and systematically hidden by modernity
    • These truths help us better understand ourselves, the world, and even the trajectory of history

Theory of Mimesis

  • Mimesis is what defined our evolutionary breaking away from our great ape cousins
    • It’s our gradually increasing capacity and the tendency for imitation
  • Example to better illustrate Girard’s point:
    • Think of co-vibrating violin strings  
    • As you flick one string, a similar frequency of vibration will translate to the other
    • For humans, these vibrations are actions experiences, judgments, intentions, etc.
    • Humans are social animals prone to this type of co-vibration 
    • Just as strings on a violin aren’t independent, neither are we
  • Mimesis is the fundamental capacity and tendency to gain access to the subjectivity of others as well as to reproduce objective cultural forms 
    • This is what constitutes us as social beings and makes us different from other animals
    • We have a tendency to ingest the behaviors and values of those around us
    • This could be the reason why prestige and recognition matter so much to us
  • When the majority of a group believes something is good or beautiful, we tend to slowly duplicate those beliefs via mimesis 
    • Our everyday notions of prestige already have an understanding of mimesis 
    • When we say something is prestigious we are perhaps also saying that on its own it does not deserve the value we attribute to it (Rolex, Harvard, Bentley, etc.)
    • The value we attribute to it is not fully accounted for by the objects themselves (there’s some value the object doesn’t deserve)
    • Girard would say that that extra value does not come from the object but the value of our peers; we ingest their opinions via mimesis
  • For Girard, mimesis is in everything, and everything to some degree is mimetic
    • The species of mimetic behavior that most concerns Girard in both senses of the word is desires

Two Branches of Motivational Forces of Human Nature

  • “It’s fine and dandy when what mimesis transmits is accents or cultural codes but when mimesis converges the desires of people, well, that invites them into competition conflict, and often violence.”Johnathan Bi
  • For Girard, there are two branches of motivational forces of human nature
    • Metaphysical desire (identity)
    • Physical desire (aims at experience)
  • Metaphysical desire is directed at what objects say about us
  • Physical desire is directed at an experience confirmed by the qualities of the object itself 
    • E.g., we can pursue sex for the experience out of physical desire (pleasure or intimacy feelings) 
    • We can also pursue sex for what having sex with a certain type of person says about us (the psychology of the Don Juan)
  • Physical desire aims at utility whereas metaphysical desire aims at the identity 
    • This boundary between utility and identity is not so clear 
  • Who we think we are changes our experiences as much as our experiences shape our self-conception 
    • Think about pursuing a profession because the work is engaging versus doing it because it’s the right job to have 
    • Dating a person because you like spending time with them versus dating some person because you like to be seen with them
    • Traveling to a place because you’re interested in the culture or because you just want to be seen in the coolest locale
  • The desire to be at the heart of metaphysical desire is aimed at the “fullness of being” 
    • Metaphysical desire takes form as a pursuit of objects in the most general sense of the term
    • Wanting to climb Mount Everest, buying a particular car or dating a particular person
    • In all of these experiences, Girard would say it’s never objects we are after
    • “I don’t think this is a foreign concept to us, this-worldly achievement-focused consumer society we want to acquire objects to bolster and back up our identity.” – Johnathan Bi
  • Girard believes that the way we go about choosing which objects to go after is by imitating those whom we already consider possessing this fullness of being (celebrities, parents, entrepreneurs, etc.)

Be Like Mike (Gatorade Commercial)

  • The mimetic logic behind advertisements
    • The one line and celebrity advertisement that gives it all away is the tagline in the Gatorade commercial with Michael Jordan 
    • It’s not just a product or utility (jump like Mike, or score like Mike) but the being and prestige of Michael Jordan 
    • “Girard’s central thesis is that what often appears to be a subject pulled towards an object due to the intrinsic value of that object is really the subject wanting to acquire that object to be like some model.” Johnathan Bi
  • What we are really after isn’t the object but the being of the model
    • For Girard, desire is actually triangular (proceeding from a subject through a model to the object)
    • What is at stake in metaphysical desire is our identity. It is the strongest drive in the human motivational repertoire
    • The metaphysical desire usually directs us towards a limited set of objects
    • We’re always oriented at different stages in our lives towards something and these are the objects pointed to by metaphysical desire
    • “We define progress as inching towards the object and whenever it slips away however subtly or minutely your heart just thuds and you feel a deep existential despair.” Johnathan Bi

The Negative Phase of Mimesis

  • Just as mimesis and metaphysical desire can make people conform they can also make people divide
    • Breaking away from the group to carve your own path can also be socially determined
    • Showing up with a cheap shirt to a dinner where everyone is wearing expensive suits is in some sense also a power play
    • You are so much better than the rest of them that you aren’t even playing the same game – this is the logic of the negative phase
    • Distance oneself to show one’s superiority
    • This type of behavior is no more authentic or independent than conformity because your choices are still made for what they say about you and not the object itself 
  • Girard is trying to take down what he conceives of as the “romantic lie” 
    • We’re all individuals with a core of what we call the authentic self and layers of social constraints 
    • Removing these social layers can be just as socially determined as rigid adherence
    • “You’re confusing difference for autonomy you’re confusing distance for independence and your confusing originality for freedom.” Johnathan Bi
  • Mimesis and metaphysical desire then entrap us in every direction both in conforming as well as in breaking free
  • The most important feature of Girard’s psychology, according to Johnathan Bi
    • Sociality is the most powerful and explanatory element within the human psyche
    • Our values, aesthetics, taste, and even philosophical positions are often heavily defined by others in deep and unconscious ways 
    • They are not chosen for their own sake
    • “We may think our desires are our own, we may think we desire our spouse just because of who they are or at the very least because of their physical attractiveness but Girard shows that even this turns out not to be the full extent of the story.” Johnathan Bi
  • What makes us unique is not our ability to determine the truth but our capacity to believe in lies to the degree as others around us do as well
  • “For the modern mind, this is a deeply alien conception of human nature and it opens a pandora’s box of questions.” Johnathan Bi
Uncategorized : , , , , , ,
Notes By Dario

More Notes on these topics

Top Insights and Tactics From

31 Best Podcasts of All Time

FREE when you join over 35,000 subscribers to the
Podcast Notes newsletter

No Thanks