Mimetic Resonance

Xenia1If we desire through the desires of other people, do we have any freedom in our desires, or are our desires determined by the desires of others? And then are other people’s desires determined by ours? This starts to look like a vicious circle, similar to the vicious circle of mimetic rivalry where nobody started the fight; it seems that it had no beginning and maybe will have no end. Actually, this vicious circle of determining each other’s desires undergirds the vicious circle of mimetic rivalry. Nobody starts a cycle of desire; it was already there before it started, or so it seems. (See Human See, Human Want.)

Questions of free will and determinism are the staple of philosophy, often starting with Philosophy 101. Most of us are humiliated at any notion of not being totally free in our desires and our actions. After all, many of our ancestors fought for freedom and many of us are still fighting for it. Besides, if we are not free in our actions, we are not responsible for what we do and we can’t hold anybody accountable for anything. On the other hand, we there are well-known factors that seem to compromise freedom. Psychoanalysis often suggests we are determined by our subconscious, at least until we become more conscious of what is there. Social and environmental forces can greatly shrink options for many. St. Paul writes about how we are slaves to sin unless freed by Christ. What about mimetic desire?

Mimetic desire is often presented in small scenarios such as two people in a bookstore converging on the same book on the sale table. Were both determined by mimetic desire beyond any free will? In the broader scheme of things, many people model many desires to us to the extent that we simply cannot imitate all of them all of the time. That is, there is a lot more going on than two people converging on the sale table. Do we choose what model to follow when there are many of them? It seems likely that in such cases we do make choices, or at least we can and do make them some of the time. To the degree that mimetic desire is deterministic (if it is at all), the desire modeled by the most people will likely win out, or the desire modeled by the person with the greatest impact, such as a parent or best friend will have the strongest effect, maybe even a determinative one. If most of my friends like Mozart, chances increase that I will like Mozart. But then why do I hang out with a Mozart crowd instead of a Led Zeppelin crowd? Of course, this question only applies if both crowds are moving about in my environment.

One can speculate endlessly about such questions but I am going to cut to the chase with a suggestion that gives us a sense of direction for approaching them. The way mirror neurons seem to work is that they resonate with the visible intentions of others. (See Mirroring Desires) These intentions are fueled by desires. This resonance happens on a pre-conscious level. That is, we resonate with the desires of others before we know it is happening, and maybe we never realize it is happening. Our environments are complex and that means that we are resonating with many desires. Many of us working with Girard’s thought call this a field of desires, using an analogy with the gravitational field in Einstein’s physics. Just as moving objects exert a force on other moving objects, desires in a field move other desires in that field.   At this level, I wonder if “mimetic desire” is actually the best term for this phenomenon. Are we necessarily desiring what others are desiring at this stage? Maybe, at least in some cases. But maybe not. I suggest that we use the term “mimetic resonance” for this stage of interacting with the desires and intentions of others. This pinpoints the reality that all of these desires are exerting an influence on us while our desires are influencing them in return.

This mimetic resonance tends to be pre-conscious but it is possible to cultivate a greater awareness of this resonant mimetic field through self-discipline. Of course, the more people who model this self-discipline, the better the chances that I might. These resonances may pull us primarily in one direction or they might pull us in many, depending on how homogeneous or heterogeneous the environment. Sooner or later, usually sooner, we have to act on some of these ambient desires and that is where it is more meaningful to speak of “mimetic desire,” even if this mimesis is still not conscious. So when one person reaches for the book on the sale table that another had just looked, and the first person becomes more interested in the book than before, we are seeing mimetic desire in action, even if neither believe they area imitating the other.

So let’s consider introducing “mimetic resonance” into our vocabulary?

Longing for God’s Desire

treespath1In one way or another, human desire has always indicated that something is lacking. My stomach is empty so I desire to fill it with food. I don’t have as much money as I would like for the necessities and treats I want so I feel empty until I get enough money to get them. I lack the satisfaction of seeing my favorite baseball team win unless they win. If they do win, I am back to square one with the same emptiness and the same desire by the next day.

René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire pushes the lack that leads to desire a step further. We don’t just lack possessions or a girlfriend; we don’t know what food or what girl to desire until we see what food and what girl somebody else desires. As we learn from scientists’ study of our mirror neurons, we don’t necessarily desire what other people want because they want it or we think they want it. Rather our desires automatically resonate with the desires of others and we need to learn to navigate these resonances as part of human maturation. This prevents us from automatically copying every desire we see in others but the less conscious we are of the impact others’ desires have on us, the more likely we will be driven by others’ desires and the more empty we will be as a result.

Those desires of ours that are drawn from other people easily become conflictual. When that happens, the emptiness opened by mimetic desire deepens into an abyss. When we are wrapped up with a rival, it is never enough to have what the rival wants. As Girard points out, we need to become the other person. We believe (wrongly) that the other person has a certain fullness of being that we don’t have because they have—or seem to have—what we want but don’t have. So it is that we covet not just the ox or wife or car of another but the very being of another person. This is why we never have enough money or possessions or anything else as long as we are in rivalrous relationships. For Girard, this is not an ontological statement but an anthropological one. That is, it is about human relationships. The problem is that we can covet the being of another person until the end of the world and we’ll come up empty. Since the alleged fullness of being on the part of another is illusory, we are only “chasing after wind” (Eccl. 1:14).

Christian thinkers have consistently averred that we are instilled with a longing for God as a gift from God and that this longing means that we cannot be totally satisfied with anything else, no matter how wonderful. As the Psalmist says: our souls “thirst for the living God” (Psa. 42: 2).If we see mimetic desire as fundamental to humanity, it follows that this trait is willed by God and used by God in a fundamental way for our salvation. The certain lack of being caused by mimetic desire gives us an ongoing openness to God, an opening for God to enter into us and dwell within us as Jesus promised us in John’s Gospel. We are created to resonate with the desires of others so that we can resonate with the Desire of the other Other. The phrase “cdeep calls from deep: (Psa. 42: 7) has often been interpreted as the depths of our humanity crying out to the depths of God. This depth is our desire resonating mimetically with God’s Desire. While it is an illusion to think that a human rival has a plenitude of being, God really does have such plenitude. Moreover, God is infinitely generous with God’s plenitude of being. If we open ourselves to God’s Desire, we participate in that Desire is such a way that we can be equally generous with others.

I Me Me Mine

abyssEach of us knows what my own self is, right? Yeah, my self is right here, right inside of me, running my life. My self is who I am. What could be more obvious? “Everyone’s weaving it, coming on strong all the time!” Hmm. Who is doing the driving, who the weaving. “I-me-me-mine” is doing it according to George Harrison put it? So where is my self in all this?

If René Girard is right, then the human self is not in the midst of our desires, I-me-me-mine, where we tend to locate it. Rather, we derive our desires from the desires of other people and they from us. (See Mimetic Desire and Mimetic Rivalry) Well, we don’t want other people driving our desires or snatching ours away, so we fight back, insisting that I-me-me-mine is the one who wants whatever it is and others are copying I-me-me-mine. The problem is, the whatever-it-is falls away as a desire defining the self and the entire self of I-me-me-mine is embroiled with this rival. Some autonomy. So, I-me-me-mine will try refusing to desire what anybody else desires. This is resentment. Of course, resentment I-me-me-mine me into the enemy’s desire since opposition to a desire is as strong a driving motor as combat over the desire. (See Resentment)

This spiral of desire tilts I-me-me-mine to the abyss that shows this desiring self to be an illusion, a void. While reflecting on Chuang Tzu’s Taoist writings, Thomas Merton suggested that “it is the void that is our personality, and not our individuality that seems to be concrete and defined by present and past, etc.” This “not-I” is seen by Chuang Tzu and Thomas Merton as a source of freedom, but “we are completely enslaved by the illusory.” (Merton & the Tao)

In New Seeds of Contemplation Merton warns us that “every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man I want myself to be who cannot exist, who cannot exist because God cannot know anything about him.” The false self a.k.a. I-me-me-mine, is constantly in rivalry with other false selves who have the same alias. “All through the night, all through the day, everyone’s saying it, flowing more freely than wine.” Like Merton, George Harrison warns us that an epidemic of desire threatens to flood the whole world.

We aren’t lost in this abyss of “not-I.” If we let go of the matrix of desires that I-me-me-mine clings to, than we find ourselves called by name. This calling voice asks us why we are persecuting him? Persecuting? We weren’t doing nuthin’. I-me-me-mine’s desire machine blinds us to what we are doing to other people, all of whom Christ identifies with.

When we answer with our names to the voice in the abyss, the self is still not-I, but that does not matter because the Persons of the Trinity are filling this void with their forgiving love that clarifies what all this forgiveness is about.

Well, Jesus did say something about dying in order to live.

Mimetic Desire and Truth (2)

yellowTulips1We tend to think our likes and dislikes and beliefs and unbeliefs are our own. “I like apple pie.” “I hate pickles.” “I believe that Jesus rose from the dead.” “I don’t believe in a conspiracy of interplanetary lizards to take over the planet earth.” As I admitted in my first post in this series, I reflexively think in these terms in spite of all the reading and reflection on mimetic desire that I’ve done. But if desire is mimetic, then all of our likes and dislikes, beliefs and unbeliefs are connected with those of other people.

There is, of course, a distinction between appetite—our bodily needs and gut reactions to various things—and desire, which is mimetic, but pinpointing the distinction in our ongoing experience is sometimes tricky. We all need to eat, but the specific foods we desire are colored by desires of others for specific foods. What we eat may depend on what is available, but when there is a choice, although individual preferences may be present, the desires of other people tend to make some foods more desirable than others. My parents encouraged a desire for roast beef and shrimp. The former never take that much but the latter sure did. Even so, during an impressionable period of my life when I was just starting to live into my conversion back to Christianity, a couple of my best friends were so strong on the desire for steak that I fooled myself into falling in with their desire when I really would have preferred crab cakes. I wasn’t really put under pressure or anything; it was just the ambient desire trumped what I more naturally liked.

In non-rivalrous situations, this imitation of desire is not a problem and is often a good thing. It was the sharing of a desire for good music in the church choir I sang in as a boy that awoke my own interest in music. One could speak of this as an individual choice in that not all choristers got interested in music to the extent that I did, but following up this interest brought me into the community of music lovers. Books, such as The Victor Book of the Symphony and people I knew introduced me into the “canon” of classical music and instilled in me a desire for the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms and others. I was dismayed and disappointed when the Symphonie-Fantastique by Berlioz didn’t take and it leaves me cold to this day. In those days, Gustav Mahler’s canonicity was in dispute until Leonard Bernstein put him in the composers’ hall of fame so I had to make a choice. It was a no-brainer as soon as I heard one of his symphonies.  Even so, my growing sense of what I liked and disliked was never unaffected by the mimetic desire floating about in my musical ambience. When a sophisticated friend of mine dismissed some great works, it was difficult for me to see beyond his prejudices and get a sense of what was true about the music.

It is also more possible to see the truth of other people in a non-rivalrous situation than one fraught with rivalry. In such a situation, two young men can appreciate the qualities of the young woman who is currently coupled with his friend, sharing gently in his friend’s desire but not becoming a rival. This is the situation in the beginning of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s TaIe. Polixenes appreciates the qualities of his friend’s wife Hermione without envy, but Leontes projects is own jealousy on his friend with terrible results. That is, with the entry of envy and rivalry, the truth ceases to be expansive and shared; it becomes distorted. I will examine this distortion in my next post in this series.

Continue on to Mimetic Desire and Truth (3)

See also Mimetic Desire and Mimetic Rivalry

Connecting our Desires

vocationersSayingGrace1If mimetic desire, grounded in our mirror neurons, holds us all together whether we like it or not, why are we human beings so far apart and alienated from each other? Perhaps the catch is: “whether we like it or not.” If we don’t like being connected with the desires of other people, we will either claim ownership of our desires and dare anybody to challenge this ownership or try to expel the other. Both claiming ownership or expulsion only lock us tightly in rivalry with them so that our desires don’t connect. Instead they crash into each other into a soup boiling over so that nobody gets anything except more rivalry for the sake of rivalry. [See Mirroring Desires below if you haven’t read it already.]

In the history of race relations between blacks and whites in the U.S., from the standpoint of while people, we have had ownership through the institution of slavery and expulsion through segregation such as Jim Crow Laws or what one might call “social custom.” Those of us who deplore such attitudes and their results tend to expel racists, convinced that they deserve it. There is a dangerous tendency to believe that rivalry is a good thing in a righteous cause. Unfortunately, righteousness with this attitude is self-righteousness and rivalry in a good cause still makes that cause disappear in through over-involvement with our rivals.

There is an even more insidious problem here, however. It is well-known that the people who most strongly deplore others for certain actions or attitudes are often disturbingly prone to at least the temptations to the same actions and attitudes. Although statistics consistently estimate that roughly six times as many white people than blacks commit drug offenses, ten times as many blacks are sentenced to prison for drug offenses. All the while, there is consistent denial from those involved in the justice system that there is any racial bias affecting this situation. If these denials are as sincere as, to a chilling degree, I fear they are, then there is a lot of preconscious racial bias circulating like a plague. Speaking for myself as I confessed in Recovering Racists, I think that we all have a serious need of becoming more aware of our preconscious attitudes.

This post isn’t just about race relations; it’s about human relations. Our connections to the desires of other people can attract us to some but repel us from others. We tend to find ways to feel righteous about being repelled by some people but we are often rationalizing our preconscious reactions without ever actually thinking about them. Other posts on this blog and my book Tools for Peace look at spiritual practices for living with mimetic desire constructively. On technique is what moral theologians traditionally call a moral examen. This examen needs to be focused on our preconscious reactions to people so as to make them more conscious. This gives us the chance to do something constructive with them. One thing I find helpful is to look a person in the eye. That can easily transform the person before us.

The Infinite Round Dance

churchDistanceBlossoms - Copy

Imagine an endless round dance of three persons dancing in and out of each other, dancing with a Desire they share infinitely with each other with such intense love that the three dancers are one, yet so strong is their love for each other that they desire that there also be three. The persons are not personas, as in fake faces of actors or hypocrites, neither are they rugged individualists believing in every person for oneself. These persons are pure relationship through their shared Desire of love.

This round dance could have gone on forever with nobody the wiser except for one amazing thing: the love of these three persons was so ecstatic, so explosive, that it overflowed into a world of galaxies and stars and planets and flowers and giraffes and humans with teeming brains filled with desire, all with the intent of making countless beings much the wiser for the infinite round dance.

The overflowing love of the infinite round dance required that all desires to dance be free so that humans could look at a tree and desire that tree’s fruit before receiving the fruit as a gift from the infinite dancers. When the desire flowing through humans turned into rivalry with the infinite dancers and with each other, suddenly countless trees disappeared in the conflagration, leaving only centered the few trees that drew the humans ‘desires.

As humans fought over their crossed desires and gathered only to share a desire to kill or expel a victim blamed for the violence overcoming them, the infinite dancers continued to dance through the human desires, inspiring desires to share the trees and fruits and poems and songs in tune with the Desire of the infinite dancers.  The infinite dancers poured their Desire into humans who proclaimed the Desire to others, even when they were stoned or ridiculed or cut off from the land of the living.

So strong was the Desire of the infinite dancers that with the fire and love of the other two persons, one person entered into humanity and became vulnerable to all the shared rivalrous desires that spread like a plague among humans. The Son, conceived in a human womb by the Holy Spirit, gave up his spirit when the humans he came to save chose to kill him. The Son received the spirit back as he was raised from the dead, and then forever after sends that spirit into the desires of all humans.

And so the endless round dance continues with the overflowing love of dancers’ shared Desire that all humans be ecstatically the wiser for the dance.