Why should we take mimesis as the specific difference of the human? Doesn’t that imply that we all just copy each other?
René Girard will go down in history as the person who rediscovered this concept that reveals the unity of the human. Girard reminded us that mimesis generates difference as well as sameness, rivalry as well as harmony, indeed, that its intense human form falls so easily into rivalry that harmony becomes problematic and we create for ourselves a culture to defer it.
The richness of our culture and technology testify to the creativity of mimesis for good and for evil. We cannot all copy each other because that way lies mimetic crisis. On the contrary, because we copy each other so well, we must endlessly differentiate; this is the path that only our species has taken.
The simplicity and elegance of these basic ideas are signs of their power. But as mimetic theory tells us, power provokes fear. The empirical mind-set of the social sciences, concerned with collecting data on various behaviors in order to predict them marginally better than before, corresponds to the ancient wisdom of ne quid nimis, nothing in excess. GA, in comparison, by making global claims, sets itself above the marketplace of consumable ideas. Its simplicity inspires the fear that there might be nothing left to think. But understanding the centrality of mimesis brings order to our self-knowledge, not limits. Given the tool of originary thinking, our best minds would build we know not what edifices. If this mode of thought has enabled so few to say so much about so many things, how much more would a whole profession, or even a reasonable subset of it, be able to accomplish!
The question is whether we desire to understand how the real world of appetite and the other world of signs and culture are joined, or whether we prefer the existence of the latter to remain explicable only through faith, or simply left unexplained.
The social sciences tell us that a sign is simply one thing substituted for another. Signs are used by animals as well as humans; our sign system is merely more elaborate, not different in kind. We have religion because we are weak and observe the strength of the forces of nature, we are mortal and observe the permanence of the world beyond our death. And as for culture, animals too make beautiful displays, birds sing lovely songs, and who can say that whales don’t tell each other stories…
Our choice is between these worthless explanations and originary thinking: there is no other unified explanation of these phenomena.
Signs “imitate” their object as we imitate each other. But the being that sustains the sign, its Idea or Signified, is not subject to the temporal decay of worldly objects. No materialist monism can deal with this truth. Ideas are mental objects, but they are not the equivalent of their correlate in our brain cells, any more than our words are equivalent to their expression in print or in sound. There is a mystery to the origin of language and signification from a prelinguistic state that natural science cannot explain. To comprehend the mystery is not to eliminate its leap of faith, only to reduce it to its minimal core. Every science takes such a leap, clothed as it may be in the language of rationality. First principles cannot be demonstrated. We think of this as a merely formal necessity, without remarking that it is of the same kind as the undemonstrability of the existence of God. The mental world of signs subsists only within the human community of their users. It cannot be guaranteed by anything out there in the real world, yet we must seek the most plausible hypothesis for its emergence.
What stands behind the sign is not its immediate referent but an atemporal being that the referent incarnates. The one word that is most significant in all languages is a word whose referent can never be concretely instantiated: the name-of-God. Why would such a hypothetical being ever become useful to us? or conversely, why would God reveal himself to humanity? GA offers the first explanation of the emergence of the God-concept from the imitation of worldly behavior.
Mimesis is the key to understanding the sign-world because it provides the link between it and the world of nature. It is entirely understandable that higher animals can make marginal use of language through the use of their near-human mimetic powers. Our near-relatives are not far from being able to make the mysterious leap that separates them from the human. Their use of our linguistic symbols shows how close they can come. Animals, even plants have concepts in the sense of slots into which some phenomena fit but not others. A dog who sniffs my socks can distinguish me from anyone else; he possesses a Gans-concept. Chimpanzees can be taught to use sign-language to manipulate such concepts. But animal sign-manipulations are not only unspontaneous, they do not take off into culture. If language were merely an evolutionarily advantageous development, why is it not taken up and elaborated further by those chimps who learn it? Whatever level of sophistication they attain is possible only in communication with humans, not with other animals. Their mimetic capacities allow them to learn a repertory of manipulations that we reward, but never to experience the sacred fear of mimetic conflict that originally made these manipulations necessary.
The chimps’ use of language is a reductio ad absurdum of Skinner‘s behaviorist theory of language. Behaviorism explains the language of the chimp, but it cannot explain the emergence of human language, let alone that of religion and the other phenomena of culture; it cannot thematize human historicity, the event-consciousness that alone explains this emergence.
The theorization of mimesis tells us many things, including why these insights are not yet generally accepted. Resistance to theory is fear of the sacred, fear of mimetic convergence. Originary thinking forces us to dissolve the barriers between our separate domains of expertise and admit the real power of thought.
The elegance of this way of thinking gives it a potential market value that cannot be indefinitely denied. In some form or other, GA will have its day. This day will come sooner if the readers of this column contribute to spreading, developing, and transforming its ideas within their own spheres of activity. This is our own peaceful version of Marx‘s demand that we participate in the movement of history.