Rene Girard and the Genealogy of Consumerism
Ask for more– the catch phrase, brought up by the campaign promoting one of the most popular drinks in the world, shows the essence of persuasion given by the contemporary culture.
Consumer culture ceaselessly enlarges our needs by the power of uncontrolled and unlimited desire. The desires are today not only a thing that should not be limited and controlled, but are encouraged. Coming to an end with the vicious circle of desire would be the worst nightmare that the marketing experts could imagine.
The roots of desire were the matter of many derivations during the history of human thought. Nevertheless the problem does not seem to be accomplished. The aim of this article is to explain one of the concepts of desire – Rene Girard’s mimetic desire and to present it in the context of consumerism.
Rene Girard’s mimetism
Quintessential for Rene Girard’s theory is the problem of mimesis. His understanding of the term is though distant from Plato or Aristotle’s understanding of mimesis. For Girard mimetism is a term referring to the essence of human nature, and is more close to the biological understanding of the term. In biology mimetism is a strategy based on imitation and similarity of one organism to another or to an object in its surroundings, like, for example, the chameleon.
In Girard’s theory mimetism is the mechanism, which motivates human choices and actions. And the essence of the motivation is the imitation of other people’s desires and choices.
Girard passes the idea of free choice and exchanges it to the idea of conditioned and limited freedom. The axe of the concept is the imitated and secondary nature of human desire, which is legitimised by the claim that there are no objective criteria, which would suggest us what to desire – none apart from imitation. That is why Girard claims that all human desires are mimetic.
Desire is not the same as willingness. Willingness is a biological urge that is not mediated, but comes from necessity grounded in the body. The instincts turn into desires while they focus on certain object. And only picking a mediator of the desire can allow us to choose the object. The freedom we have is the freedom to choose the mediator.
It is also important to understand the difference between the mimetic mechanism and the mimetic desire: „ The phrase » mimetic mechanism« includes a wide spectrum of phenomenons: refers to the whole process, which begins with mimetic desire, lasts in mimetic emulation and crests in the mimetic or sacrificial crisis, that ends up with scapegoating”1.
The mimetic desire is the wish for the object that the model of desire owns or desires. The desire is also metaphysical (‘metaphysical desire’) as it is a desire for the ontological status of the model. The subject wants to reach the fulfilness of the model.
There are though three actors of desire: the subject, the object and the model, which are set up in a triangle of desire2:
- The model, which can transform into a rival during the process, was ascribed with the authority by the subject. The authority legitimises his position as a model.
- The object of desire is desirable only as the target of the model’s desire.
- The subject desires the object not for its special attributes (not for the object itself), but for the symbolic meaning of the object, the code that the object embodies. The subject needs the object only to reach the status that is ascribed to the model – mediator of the desire. There is though a distance between the mediator and the subject, which cannot be understood as the space distance, but rather as a mental gap.
Mediation can be divided on two categories by the distance3:
- external- the mediator- my favourite actor for instance- who becomes the model of my desire, and the subject, do not share the same surroundings, so direct contact between them is not possible. The external mediation does not lead to the conflict.
- internal – the subject and the model/mediator share the same surroundings: „(…) if he is my neighbour, the objects he possesses or desires- are in range. Therefore the emulation establishes”.4
Mimetic mechanism makes the Other both the model and the rival, and, therefore, can create antagonism. The object of desire becomes less and less important and simultaneously emulation grows. The triangle of desire – Girard states- is isosceles. The desire increases as the mediator nears, and at the same time the importance of the object decreases. The goal is no longer to possess the object; the goal is to defeat the competitor.
External mediation often escalates and blurs the differences between the subject and the model: „At the end the subject becomes the model for its model, and the imitator becomes the imitator of its imitator.”5 The mutual relation becomes more intense and guides the model and the subject straight to become doubles: „Mimetic crises is always a crises of doubles.”6 – Girard claims. Subjectively polarized, the mediator and the subject, are, however, almost identical – the desire they share unites them and is at the same time „contagious” to the members of their community: „ Internal mediation appears when the neighbour’s desire catches one, just like the paste or cholera is caught, transmitted from person to person. (…) The external mediation epidemic is so common, everyone can possibly become the mediator for one’s neighbour, without even realizing the role. (…) What used to be just a whim turns into passion. Everyone knows that the desire shared with someone else intensifies. Identical triangles faced opposite directions are congruent. The desire begins to circulate between rivals, gaining speed and intensity, just like electricity circulates in a charging battery.”7
When the Sequence of the community – the hierarchy of imitation – is strong, mediation is external and can be a positive power for cultural changes. Such hierarchy points the outside object of desire. When the Sequence weakens – the crises begins. Everyone begins to desire the same object and imitate one another.
As Mikołajewska notices: „The engine of mimetic desire is the desire for model’s b e i n g., which was previously stated as a transcendent value. When the Sequence falls, other beings become sacred. Mimetic desire is a metaphysical desire – the desire to be the Other.”8.
The same author presents the evolution of mimetic desire:
Phase I – shaping the triangle of desire.
Possessed object gains value through other people’s jealousy. The owner needs the confirmation of his desire focused on the already possessed object. That is why he shows it “to the public”. If there is anyone imitating his desire for the object – the owner gets the confirmation and his desire increases. That is how the triangle of desire establishes and the undifferentiation begins: the owner and the imitator follow the same desire.
Phase II – dissolution of the triangle of desire – monstrous double.
Capturing the object of desire does not give expected satisfaction, as it does not bring the metaphysical transformation. It does not convert the captor into the model. Instead, capturing the object deprecates the sacredness of the model and its power.
Phase III –Metamorphosis and the corruption of language
The actors of the triangle see their positions as extremely polarised. However they are in fact becoming more and more undifferentiated: „ When the polarized perception shakes and begins evolve, the language used for describing the experience, spoils. The actor cannot any longer describe the contradiction of notions, which was grounded in difference. The language looses control of the changing individual.”9
Phase IV: Double bind mimesis and the mimetic manipulation
As a result of mimetic mechanism the subjective polarization establishes. There are now two positions: extreme self-disdain and extreme narcissism.
Satisfying the desire turns out to be disappointing. That is why the desire can sometimes focus on the object that can never be reached. The desire wants to stay unfulfilled and abjures the object to become a desire for desire.
There are also positive aspects of mimetic mechanism. Girard believes that it is crucial for human culture, upbringing and socialization. He trusts that not every mimetism is the evil one.
To sum up: According to Girard the desire is always mediated – it is always borrowed. The conviction of spontaneous and individual desire is a myth. The desire must be learned. The subject does not know what to desire until the moment the mediator appears. The freedom of desire is not to pick the object, but to pick the mediator.
The owner gains confirmation of his position by manifesting it. He initiates the desires without an intension to share what he possesses.
The desire is in essence metaphysical. It is a desire for b e i n g the mediator: „Desire by the Other account is always the desire for being the Other.”10. The mimetic desire descend from the aspiration to a higher ontological status that was assigned to the mediator. It is necessary for the subject to reaffirm the higher position, the prestige, that the mediator- the one that is now imitated- was awarded. The subject is convinced that the ontological status can be transferred. That the object is the base of prestige and that possessing the object can ennoble the subject. The nobilitation increases as others desire the object, and the more it is desired the more powerful the object becomes. The mechanism evokes the triangle of desire and creates the vicious circle of envy.
Globalisation and consumerism are most important phenomenons in the contemporary world. Defining them is not easy and is certainly divergent and full of contradictions. The definition proposed by Wątroba seems the most sufficient for the phenomenon I would like to explain. According to him globalisation is “ the process of intensification of the social global relations, which link distant communities. The events happening in one place determine the events in another place.”11. The free flow of capital, services, population or information, technological progress and the media development foster the conviction that we live in a “global village”.
Global dependency constitution effected the social space: „ Everything has entirely changed since the virtual communities appeared – local bonds (neighbourship) or national identity (citizenship) have become marginal. The traditional division to the real, three-dimensional world and the created, virtual one blurs or even disappears. The electronic space is often treated as the only social space”12.
In Castells’s opinion the distance is no longer the determining factor for the social interactions. He is, though, far from the statement that the virtual relationships will replace traditional relationships. However he believes that the virtual friendships and the virtual exchange of information cannot be ignored: „ The internet network, when congealed, can create virtual communities – different from the physical ones, but not inevitably less functional.”13.
Giddens also stresses the interconnection as the core: „[Globalisation] is the intensification of global social relation, which link distant communities in a way that the local event are shaped by the events happening in places many kilometres far away, and vice versa” 14.
The media have become crucial for globalisation by generating and transmitting consumption, as well as the awareness of global interactions.
What differs the contemporary world from the modern world is the centrelessness. Modernity was horizontally and vertically organized. “Postmodernity, in contrary, links with undifferentiation, blurs the criteriaand breaks the separateness of each sphere”15. This leads straight to the authority crises, or, as Girard would say, the crises of Sequence. Wątroba claims: „Postmodernity favours the prestige hierarchy decomposition and causes disorientation among mandatory norms. The new social roles pass the traditional frameworks like family, job or territory. Individuals are free to choose various roles from the variety presented by the media. Consumption becomes the most important stimulant and causes increasing fragmentation of roles, positions and signs.”16.
Globalisation translates into spreading the mimetic desire. The media enable wider spectrum of reference. It is not only the neighbour and the member of the same, local community to become a model and a reference, but it is also an anonymous person, who can never be met. The lack of physical contact is not an obstacle for imitation – the mimetic triangle can be still established. It does not even require a concrete model, which I discuss later.
The consumers all over the world, regardless race, age, origins, social status, absorb the models created by the media and especially by commercials. The rich and the poor imitate the same desires.
Girard does not focus on the problem of consumerism, however he is aware that his theory can be translated to the present phenomenons: „The uniqueness of modernity is the wide spectrum of models to choose. There are no more caste or class differences in traditional meaning, however there are differences in what people can afford. The external mediation collapsed. The members of the lowest social category desire goods that members of the highest social category possess.”17
Democratisation of desire leads to social undifferentiation. Among the variety of products (or identities) consumers make usually similar, repeated choices. For instance, there are tourists that go to exotic trip to have lunch in a far away McDonalds, which resembles the one they visit in their own neighbourhood.
It does not seem inevitable for undifferentiation (which I see more as a dangerous tendency than a fact)to lead consumer society – as according to Girard’s theory –to crises. The variety of goods, and models, which are rewarded with prestige, make t less possible. At the same time the distance between the model created by the media and the subject is distant enough to prevent the conflict. The chances for antagonism between Nicole Kidman promoting Chanel and myself are low. And that is not only because meeting the famous actress is not very common, but also because the actress in a commercial is in a double ‘role’. She is not herself, but she is an idea, an archetype, an embodied ideal of imaginary model.
Consumption and the mimetic desire
Consumption is no longer an act of paying out goods in order to fulfil needs, but is rather a way of life.
In contemporary culture the meaning of the terms ‘desire’ and ‘need’ have been shifted. Wątroba claims that, production was the central issue of the industrial economy, and today, in post-industrial world, there is consumption in the middle. That is why the role of desire has grown. And widening its area is crucial not only from the economic perspective, but also in a social ground. „Consumer culture is the world of new desires. Nonetheless it is the world where the real needs are hidden under a flow of pseudo- needs created by commercials.”18
Commercials, as the main tool of social control, become more and more important. For the power of the commercial myth stands the fact that its methods are used not only by commerce, but also by social and political campaigns. The power of the persuasion grounds in mimetism. Girard notices the same: „Nowadays, temptation is obviously more important than it ever used to be. Modern technologies expedite mimetic outcomes, repeat them and extend them to the whole world, but they do not change their mimetic character. They transform mimetic desire into respected industry called the commercial. (…) Marketing experts, in order to evoke desire, try to convince us, that all the glorious people love their product.”19
Marketing slogans refer to the mimetic desire – usually without being aware of it – and follow the magical rule it creates that „ there is nothing more encouraging for a desire than a desire itself.”20
Commercials the celebrities as starring in as models, are perfect example. The message is clear: admired actor has chosen the product- therefore I am going to make the same choice. He wants the thing- I want the same.
Another example is high-profiled campaign that uses the slogan: „I’m lovin’ it!”. The sentence: „I’m lovin’ it!” involves suggestion addressed to us- the consumers. The anonymous, in fact, speaking subject, implicite puts itself in a position of an authority to imitate, and expects us to follow and direct our desire to the object he offers.
The magic of commercials, and the mimetic desire, is grounded on believe in the unique attributes of the object. These attributes are not the features that belong to the object, but the meanings linked to it. According to Girard: „ In the frames of consumer society more and more often the signs are exchanged instead of real objects.”21
Wątroba states the same: „ In the consumer culture most of the consumers greedy desire, and so, try to get, and flash with goods, which are socially useful not for the pragmatic reasons, but because they reflect social status, evoke envy or just simply provide new sensations. Modern consumption used to fulfil immanent, existential needs. Postmodern consumption, as symbolical in essence, provides satisfaction by self- labelling and collecting codes involved in the consumed goods”22. The status that the object provides to the owner is the base for the magic of desire. It is the chance for imitators to change their status. They believe that the magical power of the object can convert a frog into a princess.
Mimetic desire, as I have mentioned before, has metaphysical dimension. It is desire for being the model. Girard explains that as follow: „The envy, as well as mimetic desire, submits desired thing to the ‘prerogative’ person. The envy desires privileged being, which belongs not to the model himself, and not the object, but to their conjunction.”23
The object itself, as explained before, is meaningless. The objects are disposable and the desires circulate. The profit is not p o s s e s s i n g, the profit is the symbolic message given by the object – the ontological status that it provides to the subject during every day performance.
The symbolic message, as the consumers believe, is supposed to miraculously change our existence. The prestige involved in the code is to pass into the subject and make him ‘be’ the model.
The bubble obviously pricks and the subject slowly discovers his own misery. The conclusion though is not usually extended and seen as a universal phenomenon. Generally we believe that the illusion works for the Others, and that we are the only one stigmatised and fail every time.
Why is the conversion so important? Consumption spreads to more and more spheres and what you consume decides about who you are: „Contemporary societies become the sphere where almost everything can be sold, where people are linked to what they consume- or rather what the symbolic value (sign) of the consumed object says about them.”24 The base for identity formation is the quantity and quality of consumption. Acts of consumption are a part of the searching and discovering identity process, and are supported by flattering slogans like the one used in Pepsi campaign in Poland: “Be yourself – choose Pepsi”
The consumer’s choice is therefore not just a choice between products. It becomes a choice of identity.
The problem is though that such identity refers ‘outside’, to the Other. Desiring, according to Girard, is always desiring by the Other, and what we desire is a part of our identity – hence our identity depends on the Other: „ Our desires are not convincing until they are mirrored by other people’s desires. Just below our clear consciousness we guess our friends’ reactions and direct them to our weak choice – the direction our desire should tend in order not to seem mimetic.”25
Girard considers the problem of mediated identity and the mimetic essence of narcissism and snobbery in his first book: Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure.
The salvation, in Girard’s opinion, is to reject mediation and the divinity of the model. Recognizing and respecting one’s own position can salvage: „By abjuring divinity, the actor abjures enslavement. The level of existence turns symmetrically and all effects of metaphysical desire switch to opposite effects. The truth replaces the lie, reminiscence replaces fear, qualm changes to calmness, hate to love, humiliation to humility, desire by the Other to desire by Oneself and the reversal transcendence to the vertical one.”26
The consumer is a product of globalisation. Technological development enabled wider spectrum of reference, and so, the spectrum of mimetic desire. We compare ourselves not only to celebrities, as mentioned, but also to members of community that we identify with. Identification though does not restrict to the traditional affiliation and is no longer limited by the distance. For example the point of reference for a polish plumber, or a doctor, is now a fellow from another country – and the reference is not necessarily favourable.
The mimetic triangle is based on symbolic code involved in the products – objects we desire. Its essence is the believe, that the magic conversion of the subject, is possible by the power of possessing. The believe that the object can change the imitator into the model- and make him the object of admiration. An easy transformation offered by mimetic desire is a dangerous fantasy; the more dangerous the more effective in blurring our, as Sartre would say, authentic existence.
Such approach effects human relations, as Girard states: „Mimetic desire changes human beings to moral and physical monsters”27Ceaseless desires are liquid and unstable. People following them direct to objects to get satisfaction, and so, they require other humans to provide the same pleasure. Disposable products are equalled with disposable relationships. The Other becomes, above all, the model, or the imitator that is needed only as a mirror of admiration.
The power of commercials, or rather our susceptibility, slowly changes us to obedient consumers, who do not bother about consequences of their choices.
Consumers, however, command an undervalued power. Choices they make are one of the most shadowed phenomenon and are translated into different ‘numbers’ and incomes. The choice is interpreted and used for future strategies. Consumer’s choice resembles voting and conscious consuming is a moral problem and a chance for a change.
12 W.Wątroba, Społeczeństwo informacyjne a ponowoczesna kultura konsumpcyjna, http://winntbg.bg.agh.edu.pl/skrypty2/0096/365-373.pdf , access:20.03.2008, p.366