Mimesis means imitation (from the Greek, it has been pronounced both “mim-e-sis” or mim-ay-sis). In terms of the Mimetic Theory, mimesis is best understood as desire passed from one individual to another. We do not simply imitate each other’s actions, attitudes and beliefs but more fundamentally we imitate one another’s desires. On reflection, this may seem obvious, but for the most part, this imitation happens at the unconscious level.
Mimetic theory the unconscious aspect of this imitation. The broad definition of mimesis used throughout Western thought, from Plato to Heidegger, saw imitation only in terms of type and copy. A painter portraying a landscape imitates what she sees. While true, this understanding of mimesis is not the only manifestation. Mimetic theory asserts that all desire is taught to us, “mediated” by an Other. We only want what is first modeled to us as desirable. Of course, it is easy to recognize that this is precisely the way the advertising industry works by getting us to want what celebrities have. It is more difficult for each one of us to see this work out on a personal level since we would all prefer to believe that desire arises from within us autonomously.
The assertion of the completely autonomous “I”, reflected in everything from the Cartesian ego to modern political theory is, according to mimetic theory, an illusion, a lie. Indeed, Girard traces the history of this lie throughout the Great Literature of Western culture.
Mimetic theory acknowledges that we are all interconnected. This interconnection can also be seen in the biblical tradition, in the concepts of corporate personality (the Son of Man sayings) and in the Pauline understanding of the church as the Body of Christ. Both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth argued that the notion of ‘image of God’ in the Genesis narrative reflects a relational understanding, we are our relationships. No person is an island, no person stands alone. We are all together in this thing called life, although it must be confessed that we do not often share life together.
Negative and Positive Mimesis
It would not be enough to state that mimesis is simply mediated or imitated desire. Mimesis has severe consequences. Have you ever put two children in a room full of toys only to have an argument break out because they both want the same toy? Have you ever seen a parking space only to realize that another has seen it as well and you fairly fly through the parking lot to get there first? How many Holly wood movies revolve around the theme of two men wanting the same woman? We either model desire or we are imitating desire.
Mimetic or mediated desire inevitably leads to rivalry. We humans will fight over everything whether honor or money, ideology or relationships and we do so to the death. This is the curse of mimesis. If you posit something as desirable (gold, diamonds, that new SUV, power, etc), and I imitate your desire, we have a problem because we cannot both possess the same object. Someone will lose. Taken to its extremes, this rivalry often leads to some sort of violent behavior in order to possess the object desired.
While it is recognized that animal species other than humanity also learn by imtation, nevertheless, humans lack the ‘braking mechanism’ of animal species where rivalry ends when one submits to the other (dominance-submission). As mentioned above, we humans, in imitating one another’s desires, will go to any length to secure the object of our desire. This, not some primordial stain, is the mystery of that which the church calls ‘original sin.’
When it is recognized that desire is imitated (and does not arise spontaneously within), the necessary outgrowth of this new knowledge is to see that we are all interconnected. We are not so much individuals as ‘interdividuals’ (a term coined by Girard). We are all connected. One does not have to go far to see that this understanding of humanity has more insight than that of the so-called individual. It fundamentally reorients us. Jesus’ social teaching and understanding of relationships comes into powerful focus here. Forgiveness, love, peace, reconciliation are all relational terms and this insight restores the bond between spirituality and sociality that is cleanly separated in the modern notion of the individual ego.
What then does the gospel have to say about mimesis? A most instructive text here is the hymn of Philippians 2:5ff. This hymn which Paul cites speaks of the relation of the Father and the Son as a relation of not grasping, that is, Jesus does not grasp at divinity. Ralph Martin (Carmen Christi) has shown that this hymn may be considered as a reflection of the Genesis story, paralleling Christ and Adam, something the apostle does in Romans and Corinthians. Unlike Adam who engaged God mimetically and grasped divinity (in taking and eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), Jesus does not engage God mimetically but instead does the Father’s will, listens to the Father’s voice, even to the point of the becoming the scapegoat (s.v.). Therefore, God has highly exalted him. This positive mimesis, where the Son only seeks to do the will of the Father, to imitate the Father, is one of the most important themes in the Fourth Gospel. The Synoptic tradition gives us the obverse side of this in the call to follow (imitate the desire of) Jesus and his Abba.
Mimesis, this imitative desire that leads us to violence, has been redeemed through the person and work of Jesus. Just as Jesus imitates the Father, so we who have been called by him, imitate him. That is, redemption consists of a real alternative; to imitate one another or to imitate God.