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Mimicry and mastery
On recovering real freedom in an age of automatism
A farmer once found an eagle’s egg that had fallen out of its nest. Because the egg was still miraculously whole, the farmer decided to place it under a brooding hen to see what would happen. Well, a little eaglet hatched and, soon enough, he started to imitate the chicks and chickens around him. He scratched at the earth for worms. He clucked. He flew low and never very far. And, just as chickens are accustomed to doing, he looked nervously around him with unblinking eyes, constantly bewildered by everything he saw.
Then, one day, he noticed a magnificent eagle flying high above him. He was utterly spellbound. You would forgiven for thinking that this was to be his great moment of awakening, the moment he realised that he was destined for greater things. But no. A rather poetic rooster nearby said, “That’s the king of all birds, the eagle. The sky is his throneroom and the light of the sun is his crown. But we are just chickens. We belong on the ground, not up there like that majestic raptor.” And so the eagle continued to live like a chicken; and he died like a chicken, for that is what he had always believed he was.
It seems rather common for people, like that poor eagle, to become accustomed to scuttle and scratch about, living fairly adequate but ultimately mediocre lives, because they have misunderstood something fundamental about who they are. It is especially common today that people’s relationship with freedom is compromised. Freedom seems to be assumed but little thought is generally given to what it means to be free.
I would argue that one of the great traps of modern society—and I mean society at a global scale—is that a mediocre life, a life of unfreedom, can be rendered not just as habitual but as desirable. This is noticed by Ernst Jünger in his wonderful 1951 book The Forest Passage, which I say more about below. “The real issue,” Jünger observes, “is that the great majority of people do not want freedom, [and they] are actually afraid of it.” But how is this possible? How can people end up, often so easily, wanting what is not good for them?
To somewhat answer this question, I want to look at another familiar story. In the third chapter of the first book of the bible, Eve is out wandering in paradise when she encounters a serpent who asks her if God really meant for her not to eat the fruit of any tree in that paradise. Eve corrects the serpent by pointing out that only the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is off limits; that the rest of the fruit in that garden was fine to eat. The serpent responds that God only commanded this because if she were to eat the fruit of the knowledge tree, she would be like God, knowing good and evil. Instantly, the fruit that Eve initially had no desire to eat looks very alluring to her; it suddenly becomes desirable. Eve takes it, eats it, and gives some to Adam. Instantly they are plunged into a sense of terrible vulnerability from which humanity has never fully recovered.
Although it is worth keeping in mind the Augustinian interpretation of this story, which marks it as a symbol of the fall of man into sin and death, the interpretation I want to focus on here is the one suggested by the philosophy of René Girard. The story clarifies something about the nature and implications of desire, which is what Girard’s work is all about. People who think of human nature in largely liberal, individualistic terms, tend to assume that desire emerges spontaneously within each of us. Desire seems to them to be self-authored. But this story suggests something else; that desire is, in an important sense, external. The serpent is the source of Eve’s desire.
It was while reading novels that Girard confirmed his original insight about the nature of desire, an insight he had arrived at by paying attention to his own experiences of being in love, then falling out of love, and then falling in love again. Girard noticed that unrealistic stories worked with a romantic conception of desire, which regarded desire as a personal and self-generated possession. This understanding of desire, which turns out to be faulty, holds that desire travels along a straight line from a person to a desirable object. Against this, Girard found that realistic stories—stories that feel believable in their portrayal of human psychology and behaviour—work with the very idea we find in this Genesis story. The idea, to use Girard’s more technical language, is that desire is mimetic. Desire is copied, imitated, filtered, and channelled. Desire is mediated via another or by various others.
Part of why we might find it easy to brush aside the lack of realism in the story of the eagle who thought he was a chicken is because we all intuitively understand the realism of the eagle’s imitation of the chickens around him. We all recognise in that fabled eagle something of our own capacity for imitation. But, as Girard noticed, we are profoundly attuned not only to the actions but also to the motives and intentions of others. In particular, our capacity for imitation is especially attuned to their desires. We don’t just look at what people do, we interpret their actions as resulting from desire. To be clear, then, Girard’s claim is not that some of our desires are mediated but that all of our desires are mediated. Desire is always mimetic. Peer pressure, I’m sorry to say, is not reserved only for adolescents; it is present throughout our lives, from the moment we are born to the very moment we succumb to death.
To clarify what this means, it helps to distinguish between our natural appetites and our desires. We naturally want things like food, sustenance, warmth, shelter and safety. But this wanting is appetitive; it is rooted in our basic biological nature. This is to say, we don’t really need to be taught to address our biological needs. Even an infant knows when it is hungry or cold. But beyond this, we tend not to really know what is worth desiring. We need others to model desire for us.
Because desire is always mimetic, you can find concrete examples of its influence everywhere you go. If you look carefully at your own life, chances are that you’ll spot how others around you have shaped the road you’ve taken through life. Here’s a simple hypothetical example. Let’s say you’re sitting at a restaurant not quite sure of what you want to order when someone at your table says to the waiter that they want the gemsbok schnitzel with bacon and mushroom sauce; and suddenly, quite inexplicably, you know what you want. “I’d like the same,” you tell the waiter. You’ll find mimetic desire in the way people mirror each other’s facial expressions and gestures, in how people within the same subculture dress alike and act alike, in the jobs people find desirable within specific social circles, in the way people end up reading what their friends are reading and consuming the same entertainment as their friends, and so on.
The idea that desire is mimetic suggests that desire is not linear, after all, but triangular in its structure. It travels from a desiring subject via a model to an object of desire. As it turns out, the model of desire is more important than the object of desire. This is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in advertising and marketing. Instead of a serpent luring Eve to take the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil you have Ryan Gosling, the latest face of TAG Heuer, luring some consumers to buy a wristwatch. Modern advertising is just the story of the fall of man retold again and again and again. And you will be like God, apparently, knowing good products and evil products. And you will be kicked out of paradise sooner or later because of this so-called knowledge.
How is it that mimetic desire takes root? Girard proposes that all of us are profoundly attuned to our incompleteness; that is, our lack of being. Our appetites are a decent metaphor for this. As I’ve suggested, we know that we are dependent beings right from the start. We know that we need food and water for sustenance, and our natural appetites for warmth, shelter and safety aren’t difficult to identify. But we also feel our need for more than just what our natural appetites tell us. This feeling for more is what Girard calls metaphysical desire, which is the desire to address our sense of lack and, to use Spinoza’s language, to persist in and transcend our being. The idea of metaphysical desire means that we naturally look to others who seem to us to have this ‘moreness’ for clues about how we might correct our sense of lack. We try to copy others we hold in some esteem because we feel, although usually beneath the radar of our conscious awareness, that they hold the key to our fulfilment. If we could just be like them—or better, if we could somehow become them—then our problems would be solved, wouldn’t they?
Unlike our appetites, the guide for this metaphysical desire is society itself. In essence, we can’t know what will address our sense of incompleteness without the help of others. This is not to say that others necessarily know what the best answer to their own sense of incompleteness is but we intrinsically understand that they, especially if they have a certain status and appeal, are better guides than we are. This fact doesn’t just destroy the so-called romantic lie of individual desire but destroys the modern liberal notion of the individual itself. There are individuals, no doubt, but individualism is definitely a myth. As Jean-Michel Oughourlian says in The Mimetic Brain (2016),
“At each moment the state of the self is constructed, from the ground up. It is an evanescent reference state, so continuously and consistently reconstructed that the owner never knows it is being remade unless something goes wrong in the remaking … the self is … saturated with otherness … The self will be perpetually reshaped, made up of a patchwork of all selves formed in the course of its history.”
There are profound implications in this very simple idea of mimetic desire for understanding everything from personal psychology to social interactions to politics to geopolitics, and for understanding harmonious human relationships, as well as conflicts. We see mimetic desire at work in various forms of social contagion, for instance, as in the many strange behaviours of people during the recent pandemic, as well as in the prevalence of neo-Marxist rhetoric in educational institutions, and, at the extreme, in the current confusion around gender especially in Western countries. I have even made use of mimetic theory to explain how humour works.
But here I want to explore only the idea of mimesis itself and its existential meaning, concerning personal freedom. In the Genesis story, Adam and Eve are given tremendous freedom. God tells them that they can eat whatever fruit they like as long as they don’t eat the fruit from that one tree. We find an analogous prohibition in the fairy tale about Cinderella, who is permitted to dance as much as she wants, as long as she leaves the ball at midnight. Wisdom tells us that a limit like this is not against freedom but is required for freedom. People put fences around playgrounds, not because they want children to be miserable but because they want children to have fun. Fun means, in this case, not finding it too easy to run off into a busy street.
However, the modern understanding of freedom that many people carry around in their heads effectively makes the presence of constraints detestable. I’m thinking of Rousseau’s famous idea that man is born free but is everywhere in chains. As Roger Scruton writes, in The Uses of Pessimism (2010), “Rousseau provided the language, and the avenues of thought, with which to introduce a new conception of human freedom, according to which freedom is what is left when we take all institutions, all restraints, all laws and all hierarchies away.”
Rousseau’s followers believed, Scruton continues, “that this freedom, once obtained, would express itself in the happiness and brotherhood of mankind, and not in that ‘war of all against all’ that Hobbes had described as the true ‘state of man’”. However, what really happens, at worst, when people embrace this notion of freedom, even if they don’t articulate it with Rousseau’s sophistication, is something like a Robespierresque ‘despotism of liberty’, where heads roll when those heads, while still attached to bodies, have a problem with the sort of freedom being propounded. At best, this negative form of freedom produces a kind of ADHD mode of desiring: a scattershot approach to desire that attempts to find a sense of self by imitating various others in a more-or-less haphazard way. The best-case scenario for Rousseauan desiring is the Mattel Barbie slogan and ethos: “You can be anything.” But this, as we know, amounts to an extremely shallow sense of self. Barbie is a symbol of the self as an Absolute Consumer who has no depth, no spirituality, and no soul. The self becomes plastic in more ways than one here.
The trouble with confusing license for freedom is that having the ability to desire whatever you want is no guarantee that (a) you are desiring something worth desiring and (b) that you know how to value what you desire. The idea of mimetic desire shows us that, given a sufficient force of mediation, where social pressures are especially strong, it becomes very easy to set desire against our good and the good of others. If you take away principles and limits according to which the social mediation of desire can be channelled, you don’t get wide variation but a sort of bland homogeneity. Everything becomes ‘same-ified’. The most obvious categories of desirability come into play. This is one of the lessons of Milgram’s famous experiments. It is the lesson of every form of totalitarianism, from the hard totalitarianisms of Russia, Germany and China to the softer totalitarianisms that result from modern liberal democracy. When freedom is taken to mean the denial of all principles, norms, values and hierarchies, the only limit on freedom is ‘the other’.
But, as Byung-Chul Han has compellingly argued, the time of ‘the Other’ is not just under threat but “over”. As Han has said,
“The negativity of the Other now gives way to the positivity of the Same. The proliferation of the Same constitutes the pathological changes that afflict the social body. It is made sick not by denial and prohibition, but by over-communication and over-consumption; not by suppression and negation, but by permissiveness and affirmation.”
Without any guiding principle—that is, without limits—mimetic desire has unleashed on the world a tendency towards dull uniformity. We live in a time of almost painful homogeneity, where language itself is dominated by the procedural and the bureaucratic. Anything genuinely particular and local is soon smoothed out to match the demands of global fashions. Soon, the local gets remade to fit the stereotyped expectations of international people. You can see this, especially in so many cultural products from toy design to architecture, where new things no longer have any significant defining sense of personality. In the managerialisation of politics, it is often difficult to distinguish one party from another because almost all of them seem to be just variations on the theme of liberal ideology.
Democracy, at least in the form most of us are familiar with in South Africa—although my interpretation here applies more widely, too—tends not to mean that people are actively involved in political life but means, rather, that freedom is reduced to a series of false choices. The number of choices presented does not properly account for the actual options available. We all know that the commonplace rhetoric of diversity, equity and inclusion is by no means about celebrating otherness, such as in something like diversity of thought. Rather, it is, at root, about ideological conformity. As Ryszard Legutko puts it in his brilliant book The Cunning of Freedom (2021), many of the words used today to pay lip service to variety, richness and depth soon acquire a “sinister” meaning:
“Pluralism means monopoly; diversity [means] conformity; tolerance [means] censorship; [and] openness [means] rigidity. In just about every private or public institution, school, or corporation, there are offices responsible for diversity, tolerance, and pluralism. All of them are gruesome ideological agencies, spreading fear and imposing conformity, not unlike their inglorious Communist predecessors.”
In short, minor variations and differences are allowed on the surface only if the ideological substructure remains intact.
Liberal democracy turns out to be a solid symbol of fashionable mimesis. As the domain of false choices, it tends to mean that the things on the menu may turn out to be worse than the things excluded—all of them may be poisonous to one degree or another—and yet the mimetic consensus dictates that you must only choose from the menu. Eat the poisoned food, for that is what society expects from you! Predictably, given the widespread failure of people to see the downsides of democracy, they are likely to end up voting for the ‘least bad form of government’ simply because the best form of government is not available to them. They will opt for lesser forms of slavery because real freedom is not one of the options on offer.
The point remains that too often people buy into a diminished view of self and the world. To function efficiently, mimesis without principles and limits has to adopt a weak concept of personhood. The result, to quote Jünger again, is so many “expropriations, devaluations, equalisations, liquidations, rationalisations, socialisations, electrifications, land reallocations, redistributions, and pulverisations” that “presuppose neither character nor cultivation.” Character and cultivation are not generally held in much esteem because they are fundamentally at odds with the modern obsession with automatism; that is, the modern obsession with homogenising everything, usually by technological means. Thanks to the force of mimetic desire, so many eagles get convinced that they are merely chickens; they become certain that they are doomed, rather than destined, to live substandard lives. And society, taking the path of least resistance, often helps them to be reconciled to this terrible fate.
In the face of such considerations, Jünger wonders what it would mean for the individual—for you and me—to recover and preserve genuine freedom in this world of automatism, and that’s exactly what I’ve been wondering. Jünger proposes that the individual, who is by no means someone who buys into the myth of individualism, needs to become what he calls a ‘forest rebel’ and carve out a ‘forest passage’. We need to recover a sense of harmony with the natural order against the administrative state; that is, against Leviathan.
Of course, it is difficult to distil what freedom ought to mean in a short space. To be brief, then, it must be, at a minimum, the capacity, supported in the natural, social, and political sphere, for full self-realisation. If you are a ‘chicken’, so to speak, then that is what you should be free to become, and tyranny would mean that you are being forced by various social and political pressures to deny your ‘chickenish’ nature. If you are an ‘eagle’, then that is your destiny and you should be able to make that destiny manifest. To be free means to become what you truly are, and this is impossible if freedom is not also bound to truth, goodness, and beauty, and to a social context within which such things are prized. True freedom is ultimately inextricably linked to virtue, which Josef Pieper reminds us is an ontological and not a merely epistemological issue. Virtue means the fullest possible disclosure of the being of people. Virtue means living out your best in the company of others who have higher things in mind. Virtue also means retaining a sense of humour in the face of the over-seriousness of Leviathan.
What the two stories I’ve referred to represent, though, is an ontological shrinkage; and so they also represent a radical shrinkage of reality and freedom. It is a shrinkage that is echoed at so many levels in our world today. The method for ensuring this shrinkage is to diminish desire itself. Desire is often neutralised today through a demand for equality, which, far from seeking to elevate everyone to a higher standard or to measure everyone by the same standard, tends to demand that aristocrats of the soul conform to the average. The funny thing is that this diminishing of desire often looks very demanding; it is taxing to keep up with the trends, to follow the fashions, to make sure you have the right technology, and to keep in step with the latest ideological rules. It is demanding to always be online, to always be keeping up with the latest fake news, and to make sure that you’re on top of various market developments.
But this is not real freedom and we know it. Thankfully, Girard’s work offers us a clue not just into what happens when freedom is corrupted by unhinged mimesis—that is, mimesis without principles and limits. His work also offers us a clue into what freedom can look like. We should keep in mind, right at the outset, that we do not get to choose whether or not desire is mimetic. The merely negative option of not imitating others is not available to us, in the end, because it is in our very nature to imitate. As Girard shows, people who refuse to emulate others out of rivalry are caught up in mimesis, probably more than those who don’t. This is why oppositional politics, by the way, always gets us parties whose essential principles are the same. Rivalry is just mimetic desire with superficial differences; although that is a topic for another day.
Nevertheless, Girard’s insight into the mimetic nature of desire does mean that we get to choose who we want to emulate. Mimetic desire means that desire manifests in the individual as the distillation of the ‘being’ he or she regards as ultimate. This means that we can look at what sort of being we should regard as ultimate, and also that we can place ourselves within the sphere of influence of that being. To do this means shifting from a world of mimicry—a world of mere sameness and imitation and ADHD mammonite fashion-mongering—to seeking mastery.
To be caught up in mere mimicry is to reduce ourselves to the smallest and most immediate of our desires. It is to adopt a mode of perception that is indistinguishable from binge-watching, which as Han notes, “refers to the consumption of videos and films without any temporal restrictions.” As mere consumers of ‘reality’, “consumers are continuously offered those films and series that match their taste, and therefore please them. Like consumer livestock, they are fattened with ever-new sameness.” To be caught up in mere mimicry is to be at the mercy of the social-media ‘like’ button, caught up in immediacy and oblivious to mediation. Mere mimicry would have us live life only superficially.
But mastery means placing ourselves under the influence of someone, or more likely in the context of a host of others, who demand that we embrace our depths; who demand that we become what we are—meaning, that we transcend our current state of being, albeit in keeping with our natures and natural capacities. The archetype of mastery is a healthy family, within which it is possible to live out our fullest capacities while still bound to others by duty and love. For this reason, it should surprise no one that the primary battleground of contemporary hypermimetic identity politics is the family itself, which is dismantled and deconstructed in the name of further homogenisation. In and beyond the family, nowadays, we increasingly find personal relationships mediated by state interests. This does not bode well for civilisation. It does not bode well for freedom.
Against all shallowness and procedurality, however, is the notion of mastery. Mastery means excellence, depth, and personality. It means apprenticeship. Since I am out of time, I must leave it to you to think about what this might mean in this world of ours, which today seems to have been built around mere mimicry at the expense of mastery. There are fewer and fewer masters, given how utterly fragmented life has become. But mastery is possible again if we would dedicate ourselves to its pursuit. But this requires stepping outside the given paradigm of democratic mimesis and a world of false choices. It means stepping back into virtue. One example I find rather lovely is in Dostoevsky’s Karamazov Brothers (1880), where that great author discusses the relationship between a disciple and an elder within the Orthodox Christian church:
“So then, what is an Elder? An Elder is someone who takes your soul and your will into his soul and his will. Having chosen an Elder, you give up your own will and render it unto him in full obedience, with full self-abnegation. This test, this terrible school of life is accepted voluntarily by the one who dooms himself in the hope, after long ordeals, of conquering himself, of mastering himself to a degree where he may at last attain by dint of lifelong obedience a total freedom, that is to say, freedom from himself, and avoid the lot of those who live all their lives without ever finding the self within themselves.”
To conclude, although at the risk of introducing yet another idea into the mix of what I’ve already said, I want to revisit the Genesis 3 story, keeping in mind this little paragraph from Dostoevsky, but rereading it in the light of the the Aristotlean-Thomistic distinction between act and potency. As St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Act and potency divide being.” This is an echo of something we all experience. Being, meaning everything that has reality, involves a constant interplay between act, meaning the actual, and potency, meaning potential. As this distinction suggests, reality can be understood in terms of what things are and what they could be.
One of the principles attached to this distinction is implied by what Dostoevsky says and is also evident in Girard’s idea of metaphysical desire. It is the idea that higher actualities—things with more of a certain kind of reality—are required to activate and realise potencies in being. Water, for example, cannot heat itself up. It does not have within itself the power to generate heat. Something else is needed that has the power to heat up water: a kettle or a stove, for instance. Moreover, to take an example from the educational sphere, a student at a university requires teachers who know more than they do to help them realise their potential for greater knowledge and insight.
With this in mind, let’s go back to that little story in the book of Genesis. We have a lot of actualities in play there. But what is striking is the serpent’s promise to Eve. If she eats that fruit, or so the serpent was effectively claiming, she is supposed to become equal to God. Here, the serpent puts forward the insane idea that something very low down in the order of reality is supposed to be capable of actualising the highest possible reality. And yet, this is precisely the problem of the modern world of mere mimicry. So many people expect to address their lack of being by tapping into almost anything and everything that cannot possibly grant them what they are missing. What Dostoevsky suggests, which is also very much what Girard gets at, is that the only way to become more is to allow a higher actuality to help us realise our potentialities. With regard to freedom, if perhaps against standard expectations, the only way to be free is to discover the meaning of obedience.
Such obedience must be willfully chosen and cannot be only an external imposition. Personal agency is involved but without adopting the illusion of individualistic desire. Mind you, obedience is not at all the same as mere compliance or conformity because it requires that we discover the wild and profound complexity of ourselves; it requires that we nurture and actualise the best we are capable of being. We lose our lives so that we can really find them. In short, we must pay close attention to who we want to imitate, to allow the best to influence us. To achieve any sort of mastery, we need to apprentice ourselves to a master.1
This is a written version of a talk I have recently in Tulbagh, South Africa. Many of the ideas here will no doubt be familiar to my long-time readers but hopefully the new framing presents some fresh possibilities for further thought. I owe huge thanks to Russell Lamberti and Piet Le Roux for the opportunity to share these and other thoughts with such a marvellous group of people.