Conversion and Reflective Mimesis: The Quest for the Good Mimesis in Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory.
By Anthony Ekpunobi.
Conversion, the realization of the illusion of the object of desire, is the only way out of the vicious circle of double mediation, whose climax is masochism. According to Rene Girard, the best work of the great novelists – Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoyevsky – represent conversions from the death to which rivalrous desire leads. Mimetic desire is the unconscious, involuntary and uncontrollable driving force of human events. The inescapable and interdividual nature of desire make the positive mimesis difficult to attain. We are not aware in the mimetic rivalry which we are part, but we can only describe that which we are not part.
Reflective mimesis agreeing to the above proposes a conscious and nonconflictual mimesis through awareness. Mindfulness draws from the various ancient methods of meditation and prayer, yoga and the tai-chi, to help individuals to focus and attune to the present. What appears missing in mimesis is the awareness of the aspects of the mind itself. This work is an attempt to reestablish mindfulness in the human mimetic process. Reflective mimesis is a scientific combination of the above without any reference to religious faith. One need not be a Hindu to practice yoga.
Key words: misrecognition, mind, suggestion, imitation, reflection, mindfulness, rivalry.
1. Mimetic desire
Human desire is mimetic. Mimesis is a human natural form of exchange. Rene Girard specified that mimetic desire is always a desire to be Another. (Girard, 1976:83). Desire is undoubtedly a distinctively human phenomenon that can only develop when a certain threshold of mimesis is transcended. (Girard, 1978:283). Desire is triangular in nature. The mimetic process according to Girard involves a mediator or model, a subject and an object of desire. The illusion that the subject desires directly at the object is destroyed by the practicality of the triangular desire. According to Girard in I See Satan Fall Like Lightening, we do not each have our own desire, one really our own…. Truly to desire, we have recourse to people about us; we have to borrow their desires. (2001:15). According to James Alison, we desire not lineally, from subject to object, but according to the desire of the other, in a triangular fashion. (Alison, 1998: 12).
The triangular nature of desire equally depicts its interdividual nature i.e. its relational aspect. Mimetic desire is responsible for human relations. According to Girard,
The human subject does not really know what to desire, in the last resort. He is quite incapable on his own of fixing his desire on one object and, on his own, of desiring that object consistently and relentlessly. That is why he is given over to the paradoxes of mimetic desire. (Girard, 1987: 374).
Imitative desire opens a person to relationship through acquisition. Desire thus is relational. Jean-Marie Oughourlian affirms that, every desire is born from a relationship; it emerges from within it. (Oughourlian, 2010: 19). Desire is born in an unconscious contact with another known as the model, as explained earlier. Thus, the unconscious imitation of the model’s desire through the object is the entire picture of human relation. The desire of the model gives value to the object and attracts the desire of the subject. For Per Bjørnar Grande, value is nothing inherent or static; rather it is regulated by mimetic desire. (2007:63). Mimetic desire is the unconscious, involuntary and uncontrollable driving force of human events. (Grande, 2007:56). Desire sets the attraction between individuals.
Besides the interdividual nature of desire, Girard is convinced that the somewhat convergence of the desires of the model and the subject on the object is responsible for the fragility of all human relations. (Girard 2001, 10). Girard insists that the principal source of violence between human beings is mimetic rivalry, the rivalry resulting from imitation of a model who becomes a rival or a rival who becomes a model. (Ibid: 11). Rivals are unconscious of the illusion of the object of desire. The object’s value is dependent on desire. Rivalry does not arise because of the fortuitous convergence of two desires on a single object; rather, the subject desires the object because the rival desires it. In desiring an object, the rival alerts the subject to the desirability of the object. The rival, then, serves as a model for the subject, not only in regard to such secondary matters as style and opinions but also, and more essentially, in regard to desires. (Girard 1979, 145). The rivals are in constant denial of the entire process as each claims ownership of the desired object in contention. The paradox is that the resistance itself brings about the reenactment. (Girard 2001, 20). Rivalry therefore only aggravates mediation; it increases the mediator’s prestige and strengthens the bond, which links the object to the mediator by forcing him to affirm openly his right or desire of possession. (Girard 1976, 13). Blinded by the illusion of the object of desire, which has long disappeared, they go for each other’s jugular.
2. Conversion and the illusive object
Conversion in Girard’s Mimetic Theory is the realization of the ‘illusion’ inherent in mimetic rivalry. The realization that the value of the object depends on the desire of the model reveals one’s involvement in the rivalry. This is capable of breaking the circle of reciprocal violence of rivalry. According to Oughourlian, “Mimetic desire, beyond the object, bears on the very being of the mediator, or model. The illusion consists in believing that it is the possession of such and such an object that gives the model this extra quotient of being that fascinates us and that we covet”. (Oughourlian 2016, 6). Mimetic desire borrows the desire of the model for an object in the hope that it accords similar social prestige. Unfortunately, the desire collide leading to rivalry. Rivals are on the denial of the mimetic process as each claims ownership of the desire. Unconsciousness plays an important role in the mimetic process in the sense that both the subject and the model are unaware of the exchange of desires. The model unconsciously suggests his desire, while the subject unconsciously accepts the desire thus suggested. This borrowing occurs quite often without the loaner or the borrower being aware of it. (Girard, 2001: 15). There is no room for concealment of the exchange because in imitating the desire of the model, the subject gives the impression that there is good to desire the same object, thus the intensity of the model’s desire keeps increasing. (Ibid: 10). The unveiling of the unconsciousness expels the illusion.
Conversion presupposes the realization of the exchange of desires, which leads to the renunciation of the will to further violence. When Girard speaks of renunciation, he has in mind conversion from mimetic rivalry and not mimetic desire. Conversion from mimetic rivalry determines a true novelist. In The Girard’s Reader, he argues; this victory over a self-centeredness, which is other-centered, this renunciation of fascination and hatred, is the crowning moment of novelistic creation. Therefore, it can be found in all the great novelists. (Girard 1996, 50). What the novelists display is a conversion from mimetic rivalry. It comes at a great cost to convert due to the mimetic desire that controls reciprocal violence. The natural tendency of rivals is to resist or deny the exchange of desire. According to Girard, the paradox is that the resistance itself brings about the reenactment. (Girard, 2001: 20). The certainty is that mimetic desire is inescapable and invincible, but the regulation of desire is possible. Girard argues that ‘even if persons cannot resist it, they can convert away from it’. (Girard 1996, 62). This will require great courage; hence, Girard describes it as ‘victory over a self-centeredness’. What is possible is that we detect and explicate the rivalry in which we do not participate. (Girard, 2001: 183). This is the authentic source of the knowledge of the mimetic crisis. We can easily detect rivals as long as we are not involved. This knowledge is of importance to conversion, although Girard could not see beyond it. In his opinion, the power of mimetic rivalry is difficult to break. (Ibid: 189). He advocates for a superior power over mimetic rivalry, which he pegged on divine intervention of the Holy Spirit.
The reality of conversion is evident as a rational remedy, but Girard is not specific on the practicality of conversion. Recourse to divine intervention is understandable from a religious perspective, but it is contradictory if we hold his earlier claim that the Mimetic Theory enables an interpretation of the cross without reference to religious faith . The rational explication of the mimetic mechanism is possible, when one is not involved in the rivalry. The contention is how to get the either of the rivals mindful enough to come to terms with the illusion holding sway of the rivalry. How is a rational intervention possible in the unconscious mimetic desire?
3. The self of desire as the object
Rene Girard specifies that we borrow from our models a mass of behaviors, attitudes, things learned, prejudices and preferences. (Girard, 2001: 15). The object is merely a means to an end. Oughourlian affirms that desire is drawn by the desire of others rather than by the object it pursues. (Oughourlian, 2010:19). Girard affirmed the reality of universal mimesis in the description of double mediation in his work Deceit, Desire And The Novel. According to him;
“In the world of internal mediation, the contagion is so widespread that everyone can become his neighbor’s mediator without ever understanding the role he is playing. This person who is a mediator without realizing it may himself be incapable of spontaneous desire. Thus he will be tempted to copy the copy of his own desire. What was for him in the beginning only a whim is now transformed into a violent passion. We all know that every desire redoubles when it is seen to be shared. Two identical but opposite triangles are thus superimposed on each other. Desire circulates between the two rivals more and more quickly, and with every cycle it increases in intensity. (Girard, :99).
The proponents of Interdividual Psychology – Rene Girard, Jean-Marie Oughourlian and Guy Lefort in Things Hidden Since The Foundation Of The World- understand clearly the social relationship of mimetic desire; how one is related to the other in a universal mimesis. The interdividual nature of mimetic desire is a back and forth movement as we saw in the citation above. A relationship gives birth to desire. This relationship, writes Oughourlian, should not be seen as merely a relationship between two individuals, two subjects, but as a reciprocal movement of back and forth, carving out in each of its poles, by its very motion, an entity that can be designated as the “self”. (Oughourlian, 2010: 31). The self of desire is the convergence of the anthropological and psychological aspects of desire. The mimetic character is all-encompassing. Walter Benjamin affirms in his article, On the Mimetic Faculty 1933 that, there is perhaps not a single one of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role. (Benjamin, 1999/1933: 720). The self of desire designate an embodiment of the contents of the reciprocal movement of the mimetic relationship. The self of desire bears in itself all – behaviors, attitudes, things learned, prejudices etc. – borrowed or shared in the mimetic process.
The realization of the “mimetic self of desire” in the Interdividual Psychology is not an attempt to naturalize the mind as accused by Jean-Pierre Dupuy in Naturalizing Mimetic Theory. While naturalization is largely governed by desire-belief model, the self of desire is a theory of the mind that is in line with the main argument of the Mimetic Theory, namely, the denial of the autonomy of desires or beliefs. Dupuy writes that in the desire-belief model, actions find their reasons and their causes in mental states, called desires (aka preferences) and beliefs (aka representations). (Dupuy, 2011: 195). The self of desire is not subject to a cause, but a product of relationship controlled by mimetic desire. The reality of the self of desire serves a didactic purpose in the rational explication of Mimetic Theory.
Desire gives birth to the self of desire. The individual is not self-contained nor self-enclosed entity, rather the individual is found in a mysterious transparency of the relationship between two persons. (Oughourlian, 2010: 34). Every imitation proceeds from a suggestion, and conversely the imitation becomes itself a new suggestion that will be imitated in turn. (Ibid: 36). Suggestion and imitation constitute a single psychological reality called mimetic desire. Human relationship is a universal mimesis constituted by the reciprocal exchange of suggestion and imitation. Suggestion is imitated and imitation is suggested simultaneously. Oughourlian concludes by stating that we must abandon the idea that the self is the source of desire. The movement of desire – suggestion and imitation – gradually brings the self into existence by constituting it as a self-of-desire. (Ibid: 98). The exchange inherent in mimetic desire is a self. Desire gives birth to the self.
4. The self of desire and unconsciousness
The unconscious nature of the exchange of desires is understood from the relationship between suggestion and imitation. The Mimetic Theory states clearly that the exchange of desire happens with both subject and model unaware of it. A Suggestion is different from and an order. According to Oughourlian, to carry out an order, one must remember that one is doing so. To carry out a suggestion, on the other hand, one must forget the suggestion during the process of imitation that follows it: we appropriate to ourselves the action or the thought that has been suggested to us, while forgetting that it comes from another. (Ibid: 65). The forgetting inherent in suggestion explains the reality of unconscious mimesis.
The self of desire is shared between two individuals in a mimetic relationship. It is the object of desire. The self of desire is exchanged through the suggestion-imitation relationship between individuals. The self of desire is a reflection, the copy of the other’s desire. (Oughourlian, 2016: 38). What is understood as unconsciousness is a misrecognition arising from a resemblance. The self of desire is both a suggestion and an imitation. “In reality, it is not a matter of mere forgetting because if one forgets something, this implies that one once knew it. It is in fact a matter of active misrecognition …” (Ibid: 39). The self of desire is suggested and imitated simultaneously. We can describe it in the physical time, but recalled as memory in the psychological time. Oughourlian distinguished between the ‘physical time’ and the ‘psychological time’. In the physical time the sequence is from the past to the future, while the psychological time, the sequence is reversed, from the future to the past. We can say that suggestion and imitation operates simultaneously on both the physical time and the psychological time. The mimetic intensity operating in double mediation reveals the memory of a psychological time. The subject unconsciously and simultaneously imitates and suggests, but is able to remember only the suggestion that is an imitation of the model. This is memory and it is possible in the psychological time. Mimetic desire creates the mind; it is not biological.
5. Desire and the mind
The Mimetic Theory is a theory of the mind. It is an attitude of the mind in relation to reality. In his defense of the Mimetic Theory over other theories of the mind like Analytic Philosophy of the Mind and the Cognitive Science, Jean-Pierre Dupuy states that the mimetic theory demystified the desire-belief model by stating that neither desire nor belief is autonomous. Memory as we have seen is created by mimetic desire in the psychological time. Mimetic desire operates interdividually, thereby making it a different kind of mental activity. The difference lies in the fact that mental states in not an ontological monism, but a mechanism. According to Dupuy, the mimetic theory is a morphogenetic principle, generating self-organizing systems whose evolution is endogenously determined. (Dupuy, 2011: 204). The mimetic theory gives us a clue of the constitution of the mind to the extent that we can fashion out the good mimesis – reflective mimesis.
The understanding of the mimetic mind gained so far points to the mind a product of the mimetic process. According to Friedrich August Hayek in The Fatal Conceit;
What we call mind is not something that the individual is born with, as he is born with his brain, or something that the brain produces, but something that his genetic equipment (e.g., a brain of a certain size and structure) helps him to acquire, as he grows up, from his family and adult fellows by absorbing the results of a tradition that is not genetically transmitted. (Hayek, 1988:22).
Implicit learning, which supports mimesis, agrees with Hayek, that the mind is constituted in the mimetic process. According to Christoph Wulf of Freie Universität Berlin, Germany in Implicit Learning , opines that;
The children attempt to make themselves similar to these persons, e.g. by answering a smile with a smile. However, by using their already acquired abilities, they also produce the corresponding reaction in adults. In these early processes of exchange, small children also learn emotions, among other things. They learn to create them in themselves in relation to others, and to evoke them in others. Their brain develops in this exchange with their environment, i.e. some of its possibilities are developed while others are neglected. (Wulf, 2008: 56).
Mimetic desire is similar to implicit learning due to lack of awareness. Rene Girard believes that only mimesis can cure mimesis. He insinuated this at the end of his work on The Girard’s Reader. According to him;
It seems that it wouldn’t make sense, in light of your theory itself, to say mimetic desire should be renounced, because mimetic desire is itself a pharmakon — a medicine or a poison. The claim at the end of Things Hidden that to “give up” or renounce mimetic desire is what we must do is, I think, particularly misleading in this regard. Perhaps mimetic desire per se is not to be done away with, but is to be fulfilled — transformed, “converted.” (Girard, 1996: 62).
Girard’s view of conversion from the point of view of pharmakon, informs our present study which derives from the mimetic nature of the human mind. The mind’s subjectivity to mimetic desire presupposes flexibility. True conversion for Girard is the realization of one’s involvement in rivalry. The unconsciousness similar to misrecognition characterizing double mediation is to be unlearned through a new mimesis, the good mimesis. This new mimesis will incorporate the mind in relationship with the brain. The mind is not possible outside mimesis. Thus, we have to link the mind – psychological, with the brain – biological. We recall the definition of mimetic desire as the unconscious, involuntary and uncontrollable driving force of human events.
6. Reflective mimesis and mindfulness
Reflective mimesis aims at achieving conversion from mimetic rivalry. Rivalry or double mediation has greatly assisted in arriving, for didactic purpose, at the mimetic mechanics that constitute the human mind. Girard insists that conversion requires a subjective realization of one’s involvement in rivalry. “I maintain that knowing the emissary victim requires a certain kind of conversion, namely, that one has to come to see oneself as a persecutor” (Girard, 2014: 60). The subjectivity of experience is achieved in the psychological time advocated by Jean-Marie Oughourlian earlier. He speaks of a recognition as opposed to misrecognition that greatly describes the unconsciousness of the mimetic doubling. The mind works according to the psychological time. According to him, it is thus in psychological time the only time that has meaning – that the issue of recognition or misrecognition can be decided. (Oughourlian, 2016: 43). Recognition realizes the otherness of desire. The otherness is the self of desire that rivals share unconsciously.
Reflection is a way of conditioning the mind in psychological time, to recognize the self of desire. Daniel J. Siegel explored mindfulness in his work, The Mindful Brain. He observed that the difference between jogging “mindlessly” versus jogging “mindfully” is that in the latter we aware, each moment, of what we are doing as we are doing it. (Siegel, 2007:13). He completely agreed with Oughourlian on the mimetically developed mind. Siegel explored the activities of mindfulness in the context of a relationship. According to him, ‘mind is not “just” brain activity; energy and information flow happens in a brain within the body and it happens within relationships. (Ibid: 49). What lacks in mindless activities is a relationship between the brain (biological) and the mind (psychological). Awareness is achieved in mindful cognition of the relationship between the mind and the brain, which enables us ‘to be open to contexts, embrace novel ways of perceiving, distinguish subtle differences in ideas, and create new categories of thinking in our awareness concepts in the moment’.(Ibid: 48). Reflection is the achievement of this relationship between the mind and the brain.
Daniel J. Siegel defined the mind as a process that regulates the flow of energy and information. (Ibid: 5). Reflection conditions the mind in the psychological time in order to regulate and not judge events. Reflection derives from a conditioning that is found in enduring religious traditions. ‘Christian Centering Prayer, yogic practices, tai’chi chuan, and Buddhist forms of meditation have each been studied in recent years, and they appear to harness neurologic and immune improvements in the practitioners’ lives’ (Ibid: 96). The various meditation practices above help to condition the mind to reflection.
Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara is a Soto and Zen teacher in the White Plum Lineage . She is the founder and abbot of the village Zendo in New York City. In association with her friend and student, she wrote her work on Zen spirituality titled, Most Intimate: A Zen Approach To Life’s Challenges. In this work, she recollects the Zen reflective experience. According to her;
That all of life is a process of continuous change is a core insight derived from Buddhist teachings but even more directly from our own experience in meditation. When we are still, we realize that everything is in motion, even our stillness. How is that? “Oh, look, there are motes of dust floating around me, a slight breeze, changes in the light.” Realizing this current of change, we may be disposed to rediscover our relationships, to see them as evolving energetic fields – all of us together, changing and revealing new aspects of ourselves. (O’Hara, 2014: 21).
The primary aim of reflection is to bring to the fore a novelty inherent in every experience. On the one hand, Misrecognition is a blindness to ‘novelty’, the self of desire. Recognition on the other hand, recognition is a realization of the otherness of desire, the self of desire. What makes it a new experience is the practice of reflection, meditation. Reflection is guided by the psychological time, which we agree to be the reality. O’Hara equally recognized in her work the relationship that we call universal mimesis. In her description of the gift of a robe received from the members of her Zen community. The robe was made from pieces of cloth contributed by members sown together. According to her;
There are many other pieces as well¬ – from a school uniform, a waiter’s apron, a silk tie, a dish cloth, a piece of old embroidery. It’s awesome to see all these pieces together forming one robe. The robe calls to mind people I see every day, those who are far away, those whose relationships with others and with me have changed, and those who have died. Actually, “memory robe” or not, this is the way we all live: in relationship with everything all the time. But we forget that, or it can be merely an idea rather than a lived experience. (Ibid: 20).
The movement of mimesis envisioned by Oughourlian makes apparent the universal mimesis of human experience. The discovery of the self of desire via the Interdividual Psychology enables both a didactic and mechanistic approach to the discovery of the mimetic mind. The psychological time that constitutes our memory, explains the enigma of unconsciousness that characterize and govern the entire mimetic process. Overcoming misrecognition is the secret of wisdom and peace. Reflection establishes a ‘now’ that is devoid of the confusion of the simultaneous suggestion- imitation sequence that the mind tries to capture as the rivals claim ownership of the self of desire. This ‘now’ is charged with novelty, making it easy to identify as real i.e. a shared desire. It is important to note; recognition and misrecognition will take place in every single minute of physical time and that recognition, if it is to happen, will happen physically “now”, in the present, but will enlighten and heal all the preceding, earlier misrecognition. (Oughourlian, 2016:43). Therefore, to gain wisdom and peace, to escape from the rivalry that lies in wait for us, we have to see reality as it really is, to learn the truth about the mimetic desire that runs through us. Doing this is what … Rene Girard calls “conversion”. (Oughourlian, 2010: 96). The mind regulates behaviors only in relation with the brain, the body. Reflection is the art of conditioning the mind to see novelty in all reality. It has the ability to capture the self of desire as it is; that which is simultaneously exchanged in relationship. This is the good mimesis. It is devoid of conflict.
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