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In a global digital culture of influencers, followers, and attention-deficit disorders, mimetic theory helps show that imitation shapes much more of human behavior than once thought and that even desire is mimetic. People want what they see others wanting, which often means conflict. It is an idea with complex implications, but its kernel is simple and its ap-plications are helpful and powerful. This essay outlines a first-year university seminar that explores this new understanding of copy culture, rivalry, and scapegoating, and it argues that since imitation is inevitable, whom we imitate may be our most important decision of all. Matthew Packer is Associate Professor of English at Buena Vista University.

Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.—Simone Weil1

The ability to focus will be the skill of the century, according to psychologist Nir Eyal.2 It is a forecast suggesting a global information culture out of control, which for educators especially should be alarming. But already there are count-less scholarly works, pop psychology and self-help bestsellers, blogs, and online articles urging us to pay attention, to take back control of our lives by avoiding the temptations of distraction.3 Life online, reports blogger Andrew Sullivan, has become an “endless bombardment of news, gossip, and images.” It is a blizzard that turned him into a “manic information addict,” just as it may be corrupting us, too.4 Obviously connected to this distraction sickness, somehow, is the rise of the technology designed to keep us addicted, to “liking” and to “following,” deliberately engineered to keep us hooked. But missing in all the commentary, in the advice and the “life hacks,” for the most part, are genuine insights into precisely how the technology leads to distraction. Only gradually are we rec-ognizing, amid the proliferation of media for influencing and following others, just how interpersonally distributed, or “interdividual,” our identities are. Only slowly are we realizing that imitation, as René Girard discovered, shapes much more of human behavior than once thought and that even our desires are mimetic. We imitate the desires of others, Girard explained, and questions about who we imitate and follow are crucial.

In education, where modeling is key, the implications of Girard’s theory are partly obvious but also far-ranging and richly promising as a field for exploration. Mimetic desire is certainly complex in its consequences and therefore suitable as a topic for upper-level university classes, graduate courses, and research programs. But the idea is also extremely simple, Girard notes, providing helpful and powerful personal applications. It is in many ways suitable for general education courses, especially first-year seminars.5 In fact, since the goals of general education are to provide a foundation of intellectual, ethical, and cultural knowledge, as well as a core set of skills for critical inquiry and problem-solving, the interdisciplinary adventure offered by mimetic theory makes it a marvelous topic for first-year students, who can fairly be expecting big new ideas anyway. The topic introduces a radical understanding of human nature, surveying mimetic desire and conflict across an array of academic fields and popular culture, and it prompts students to ask fundamental questions about human identity and its development. The ideas can be suddenly catching but steadily fascinating, too, and compelling in what they require of us. They stimulate. They apply to daily life. And they lead to large spiritual questions. They are exciting to explore with students.

In my experience teaching a first-year seminar at a small liberal arts college in the American Midwest, one of the easiest approaches to introducing mimetic theory has been via a quick survey of the ways in which imitation has been regarded at times throughout history. Anchoring the inquiry are some of the ancients’ intuitions—for example, Aristotle’s notion that humans differ from the other creatures in their greater aptitude for imitation. Plato’s fear of mimesis also is an intriguing, telltale sign of the darker role of imitation in human behavior. Since I specialize in literary studies, I like to emphasize to students that mimesis lies at the heart of humans’ storytelling, is key to the artistic representations of the world around us, and is vital for the propagation of these stories and culture throughout history. Early in the course, however, it becomes critical to differenti-ate between representational mimesis and the more problematic social types of imitation, particularly what Girard calls acquisitive mimesis. Precisely because of the ubiquity of representational mimesis and its role in education, tradition, and the spread of culture, imitation is often regarded as behavior so common it goes without saying.6 Much imitative behavior has appeared harmless and therefore also insignificant. In the age of digital reproduction, copies are everywhere and second nature to us.

But there also appear to be, in our time, growing anxieties about an increased number of copy phenomena—like cloning, plagiarism, intellectual property theft and piracy, and debates about copycats and originals—all suggesting that somethingabout imitation is more problematic than once thought, that imitat-ing has a dark side. In “The Perils of the Imitation Age,” an article from Harvard Business Review that students find especially helpful, Eric Bonabeau contends that “modern marketing and technology are amplifying humans’ copycat tendencies” and entangling us in our own feedback loops.7 After considering the story of the South Sea Bubble of 1720, as well the contagious behavior of crowds in other crashes, fads, and fashions, which are becoming “ever more frequent, severe, and complex,” Bonabeau points out that “in consumer purchases, financial markets, and corporate strategy, what others do matters more to us than the facts. When there is simply too much information to process, imitation becomes a convenient heuristic [and this is] the basis for a self-referential society.”8 Imitation, he hastens to point out, has its virtues (as we observed above), but it also promotes instability and unpredictability, as in the many situations of the “blind leading the blind” and of destructive business behaviors like derivative product development and copycat rivalries. Students will recognize at this point the clustering effects of herd behavior, as in the example Bonabeau gives of “café swarming”: Two neighbor-ing cafés may have similar decor, menu, and prices, but the café that first attracts a couple of customers is much likelier to draw in a third passerby looking for a cappuccino than the second, empty cafe—and so on. Another day it might go the other way. Other similar social scenes involving “strange attraction” include John Maynard Keynes’s famous judgment of a beauty contest and the dynamic where “investors often don’t choose the stocks they find attractive, but rather are guided by their expectations of other people’s expectations.”9 Students are likely to offer their own examples for discussion. They are also likely to identify with the motivations from evolutionary psychology that Bonabeau offers for these pat-terns: people like safety in numbers; there is the urge to conform for success; “the belief that the other guy knows better”; and finally, the motivation of greed.10As economist Charles Kindleberger puts it, “there is nothing so disturbing to one’s well-being and judgment as to see a friend getting richer.”11Bonabeau concurs that this widespread fear of missing out is at the heart of speculative bubbles, as well as the “tragedy of the commons.”12 These are all valid points that certainly resonate with students.

The trouble is, Bonabeau fails to follow through. His article certainly tills the soil to allow for a better understanding of copy culture. And it closes with some intriguing and positive recommendations for managing our lives in the Imitation Age. We ought to “target the hubs,” or be mindful of opinion leaders and influencers.13Businesses (and by implication, we too) ought to “be rocks,” or the kind of fundamentals which, in an age of instability, people cannot afford to ignore.14 These and other tips seem fairly healthy as prescriptions. But Bonabeau’s own diagnoses call for deeper analysis. The self-referential culture he identifies is indeed “exacerbated by the diminishing importance of traditional ‘beacons’: government leaders, the church, celebrity role models, the SEC, and others who in the past provided moral, legal and other types of reference points.”15 Decen-tralized culture and networks have their benefits, but he suggests we are at times moving into social vacuums, where, “lacking trusted references, human beings are unsure whom to imitate and thus more likely to imitate the wrong people. Some of those models are dishonest; others, merely misguided.”16The compounded effects are deeply troubling, sometimes including “the total uncoupling of deci-sions from fundamentals, a circumstance that produces a hall-of-mirrors effect in which reflections of reflections multiply infinitely, growing ever murkier and more remote from original sources.”17 One example is the self-reflexive voting dynamic during the 2004 US presidential primaries, which became, as New York Times columnist David Brooks writes, “an election about itself, with voters vot-ing on the basis of who could win votes later on.”18 The self-referential society is upon us, sometimes spinning out of control, and, concludes Bonabeau, “the best we can do is learn to live with it.”19

But his oversights are alarming. And if students fail to pick out the problems, it is important to signpost them. For a start, it is not simply, as capitalists routinely claim, greed that drives the world. As Warren Buffett himself points out, it is envy. It is interpersonal greed, or greed in relation to others, just as FOMO or ‘the fear of missing out’ is obviously a kind of anxiety about what others are doing or receiv-ing. Students brought up on social media probably already recognize this fear, but if any reminder is needed, The Guardian writer Moya Sarner’s opinion piece, “The Age of Envy: How to Be Happy When Everyone Else’s Life Looks Perfect,” certainly identifies the symptoms of complicated fear, resentment, and loathing now associated with social networks. Before tackling envy in terms of Girard’s theory of acquisitive mimesis, however, it is worth a scientific detour with students to look at the recent discovery of mirror neurons and their implications, in order to appreciate just how deeply ingrained and foundational mimetic behavior is for human relationships.

The discovery itself, by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his research team, of a set of “mirroring” neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys is now well-known. But it remains a phenomenon with mind-boggling implications, which should confirm for at least the scientifically inclined class members how innate mimetic tendencies are in the human species. The eureka moment for Rizzolatti’s team—upon real-izing that a certain set of motor neurons in test monkeys, routinely given objects to grasp, were firing when the monkeys merely perceived these same grasping gestures in other monkeys nearby—is easy to understand and share with the class. It can seem positively spooky for the same set of neurons to have fired whether a monkey reached for an object or simply watched another monkey doing the same. And the perfectly titled chapter of Marco Iacoboni’s accessible study Mirror-ing People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others (“Monkey See, Monkey Do”)provides an appropriate entrée.20 Iacoboni himself has conducted, using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, observations of human subjects that revealed that “merely seeing an action performed significantly activated the neural areas as if the subjects were performing the same action.”21 Of course, as many have pointed out in debates about the discovery, imitation is more complex than the phenomena here described. But the mirror neuronal system may indeed be a mechanism underlying mimetic ability. As V. S. Ramachandran claims, the discovery may have the potential “to do for neuroscience what the discovery of DNA did for biology.”22

At the heart of my course, though, are the insights of René Girard. After having established the social, scientific, and historical understandings of imita-tion (above), it is fairly easy to present the idea of mimetic desire. In fact, given the wealth, variety, and availability of material now compiled by scholars of mimetic theory, this part of the course may be the most enjoyable and rewarding to teach. A quick outline of Girard’s life, from either Suzanne Ross at the Raven Foundation or the brief biography at, lets students see how Girard’s discovery of the “secret” of mimetic desire came from a study of some of the greatest novelists, and that the wisdom of writers like Cervantes and Dostoyevsky stems in part from their understanding of this secret of human relationship and community. This is what the novelists realized and quietly revealed in their dramas—that people desire what they see others wanting, which often unites us but just as often means we converge on the same objects, competing and fighting over them.23 Among the best summaries of this core idea is Girard’s own article, “Mimesis and Violence,” anthologized in The Girard Reader.24 Jim Grote and John McGeeney also offer helpful examples of mimetic desire and its complications in popular culture, in Clever As Serpents: Business Ethics and Office Politics, where a brilliant chapter on “The Secret of the Market: Borrowed Desire” explains all sorts of situations, pertinent for students starting careers. Grote and McGeeney point out the problem of “keeping up with the Joneses,” along with the seductive nature of advertising, which only works “because the structure of human desire is mimetic.”25 They also consider the classic problem of the double-bind, of the “contradictory double imperative” that the model imposes on the imitator: first, “Look what I have! Desire what I desire,” but second, “Stop copying me! Don’t try to acquire what I have.”26 Students know it from love triangles in fiction and film, as well as from kindergarten fights for toys that appear to be plentiful.

One of the critical challenges in coming to understand mimetic desire, how-ever—perhaps a turning point for students—lies in accepting the notion that our desires, those we consider our very own, are not really ours. As Girard argues, they are borrowed or copied from others. It can be humbling and unsettling to realize how dependent we are on others, how influenced we are by others. Crucial to point out here is the difference between what Girard calls external mediation and internal mediation. When a model exists beyond the sphere of the imitating subject, we often speak of a role model or hero, often a positive inspiration—a mediator with whom the desiring subject cannot come into competition. An external mediator lives in a different world or another league from the desiring subject, and Girard here quotes Don Quixote inspired by Amadis de Gaul, and the imitatio Christi.27 An advertising model and a character in a fictional world are other examples. But when the models are internal, when they live in the same world as the imitating subject—play in the same social scene or work in the same field—they can in turn imitate those they have inspired, becoming their rivals. They reveal a dark side to imitation, partly because rivals first of all seem (to themselves) to be able to gain from denying the other’s influence. One will deny the other’s primacy, maintaining his or her own originality, calling the other a copycat, which game the other can play as well. As rivalries escalate, the pattern becomes more obvious, and the many examples of the reciprocal nature of vio-lence make this an easy lesson. There are the tit-for-tat tales, the blood feuds, the Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction, as well as the films aware of mimetic violence like the gangster movie The Untouchables.28

The denial of the source of inspiration by rivals, however, far from being rare, is all too common. As Girard points out, there is nothing we cherish so much as the idea that our desires are our own. Fortunately, comedies like NBC’s Seinfeld help us appreciate the exposure of this “secret.” One of the best episodes is “The Maestro,” in which Jerry pursues a holiday house in Tuscany after first learning Elaine and her boyfriend, a conductor for the Policeman’s Benevolent Association Orchestra, are headed there. After the Maestro brags of the upcoming trip, only to realize Jerry is then interested in one of the villas, he and Elaine tell Jerry, “Forget it! It’s all booked!”—which only further inflames Jerry’s desire. Other episodes include the story of Jerry and Newman’s ex-girlfriend Margaret, whom Jerry stops dating when he learns that Newman had earlier broken up with her (“The Big Salad”); George’s fascination with a romantic rival named Neil, whom he tries to “out-Neil” (“The English Patient”); George’s interstate competition of verbal insults or “comebacks” with a business rival (“The Comeback”); George and the mimetic game of waiting for the “‘I love you’ return” (“The Face Painter”); and the episode about anorexia (“The Switch”), about which Girard himself has written.29

Fortunately, coming to terms with mimetic desire is a discovery that can also be liberating, as well as humbling—it can help students to become more aware of their motivations, to make wiser decisions in many ways. It is worth having them reflect on the borrowed quality of desire, among themselves in small groups, to let them consider who their role models are, first of all, and then who their rivals might be and from whom they draw inspiration. To become aware of one’s influences is surely to regain the ability to make decisions about what we might support and who we might follow—purposely, rather than subconsciously or absentmindedly.30 Having students establish their own personal feelings about mimetic desire at this point is important for moving on to the next stage of the course, which explores the larger social and group dynamics of copy cultures. Again, the first section of the course has covered different types of imitation and mimetic anxiety, along with individual desire, personal relationship, and the science of desire. This next module of the class brings a wider lens to the social scene, the crowd, the community, to history itself.

One approach here is to revisit Bonabeau, this time to zero in on the indi-vidual’s role in the larger dynamic. Bonabeau’s theme is largely business and marketing, but other angles on these topics, especially for a fashion-conscious class, are compelling. Take the phenomena of coolhunting and fashion waves, for example, famously analyzed by Malcolm Gladwell in “The Coolhunt,” a story in which the author went on the trail with a couple of high-end fashion sleuths, looking for The Next Big Thing. Overwhelmingly, Gladwell concluded, those “in the know” made their decisions based not on the product itself but because of the example and the opinion of their neighbors and peers.31 Among the paradoxes of the coolhunt Gladwell noted was that “the quicker the chase for cool, the quicker that cool moved on,” leading to a “triumphant circularity of coolhunting” and an unsettling pace of change that swept away players, including himself.32

Another example to share with students, the chilling “Nosedive” episode of the TV show Black Mirror, illustrates how compulsive a certain kind of mimetic social climbing can be, how addictive its competition can become, and how pre-carious and violent its outcome.33 Important for this module is to show how social media’s cult of comparison feeds so quickly the competition and rivalry that can spiral out of control. Protagonist Lacie Pound, in “Nosedive,” appears to be carefully gaming her social network’s rating system but ends up headed toward a maelstrom of social violence. Mimetic crises of this sort need to be carefully examined, since again, the individual’s complicity (and sometimes, innocence) are crucial for understanding the unfolding of the crisis. Helpful here is Suzanne Ross’s study The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things, which includes meditations on many of these loaded issues, like “High School Cliques” and “Juicy Scandal.”34 Another favorite for students, who have likely all seen it, is the Tina Fey movie Mean Girls, which showcases so many mimetic figures—like envy, rivalrous cliques, sado-masochism, and scapegoating—it would take another article to explore.35

The most searing stories in the course, for some students, may be the classic short stories, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. LeGuin and “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.36 These are compelling stories, but chill-ing as well for the virtual erasure of obvious mimetic rivalries. All the crowd, the community, are in accord by the time we see a scapegoat emerging. LeGuin’s tale, “Omelas,” presents a thought experiment: in a fairy-tale town by the sea, with all you could wish for, would you—could you—remain in this utopia, knowing all its beauty and glory depended upon the misery of a poor child locked up in a castle dungeon? Some walk away, as if resisting the collective violence imposed on the child. Are they complicit too, by avoiding an intervention? At least in the case of “Omelas,” the narrator allows readers a choice—what would you do? In “The Lottery” we are merely observers to an annual ritual, a sacrificial scapegoating, whose origins or purpose nobody can remember. That is the frightening part of the story—not just the stoning to death of an innocent woman, late to this summer lottery in the courtyard of a picturesque country town, but the fact that nobody knows the reason for the sacrifice, and all believe it necessary.

The point here is we are all complicit in scapegoating like this, all subject at times to peer pressure, the mimetic pressure to go with the crowd, to join in the “safety” of the mob. We might have protested, as in LeGuin’s scenario above, and vowed to refrain from joining the mob, but the Gospel story of Peter illustrates how, despite saying he will never disown Jesus, Peter does exactly that, unable to resist blending in with the crowd, to try to save himself.37 This stage is the hardest part of the course, as we all like to think that if it were us we would have done otherwise. The introduction of the Gospel here may be unsettling for some stu-dents, especially if they are unaccustomed to religious questions raised for a social science topic. But this “anthropology of the Cross,”38 his reading of the Gospel in terms of its revelation in history of the trouble of scapegoating and the dark side of our imitation and rivalry, is a powerful way to approach what Girard identi-fied in the Gospel of Matthew as these “things hidden since the foundation of the world.”39 Mimetic theory is a bridge, conjoining our contemporary pop-cultural world—where leaders and Twitterati blend together—with a deeper historical revelation about our collective mimetic violence and scapegoating tendencies, made possible by the example and self-sacrifice of Christ.

Students sometimes know this turning point in the story of mimetic violence and scapegoating—the passion and revelations of Christ—but it is important to spell out carefully Girard’s own explanation of how scapegoating has founded and sustained cultures through much of history. Again, Girard’s article “Mimesis and Violence,” and Carly Osborn’s concise overview, The Theory of René Girard, are instructive.40 Student ease in naming contemporary scapegoats, as well—like immigrants, foreigners, government, the poor, and people of an opposing politi-cal party—should help them to appreciate how much in the Christian age, in our own time especially, victimizing and scapegoating have been exposed as the false solutions to conflict that they are. If students are keen to explore the development of prohibitions and rituals as part of religion’s historical evolution, “Mimesis and Violence,” again, contains enough of the key terms to launch a final essay. Students can also find here careful descriptions of mimetic crises and how they snowball toward scapegoating, as well as an outline of the counter-sacrificial tradition within Scripture, from the self-sacrificial example of Judah in the Genesis story of Joseph and his brothers, to the Servant in Second Isaiah, and the demand in the Gospels “for nonviolence rather than sacrifice.”41 In other studies, such as I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard returns to mimetic desire and it consequences, pointing to the Ten Commandments, where the tenth concerns the problem of desiring your neighbor’s possessions, no matter what they are.42 There are many options for further reading for students who want to dig deeper.

Before the course ends, the focus moves to a couple of “big picture” scenarios. First, the current mimetic rivalry between the United States and China appears to be a contest that will shape the entire world in the coming decades. Both countries have risen to power with a reputation for being historically exceptional, but as political scientist Graham Allison writes, the relationship between the two nations now resembles the same fearful convergence that set Sparta and Athens on a path to war 2,500 years ago—a pattern that has led to conflict repeatedly throughout history.43 Even more critically, the two nations seem to resemble each other, to judge from the mirrored tactics of each country in recent exchanges—the damaging tit-for-tat tariffs, American anxiety at Chinese copy infringements, Xi Jinping’s bid to Make China Great Again, and President Trump’s awareness of the relationship, that “it’s reciprocal.” Students are alarmed to learn how technologi-cally advanced Chinese culture is already, but given the increasing prominence of this relationship, it is important to ask them, in light of the ethics covered above, how would they manage this standoff. Is it controllable? Or is it a case of what Girard called in his last work, Battling to the End, an escalation to the extreme?44 Neither side, it seems, can afford a conflict, whose costs would beggar belief—so how is this crisis going to need to be handled?

The other big picture is Christopher Nolan’s 2010 adventure-thriller Inception, which explores a variety of existential and spiritual questions. Its surface-level drama recalls a Bond movie, but its layers of reality, dream, and dream-within-a-dream, complicated by the puzzle for viewers of which narrator is really tell-ing the truth, make it a fascinating meta-fiction about the crucial question of who to believe—that is, which model storyteller to believe in following a story, whether it be in a film, a dream, or life itself. It’s a fitting philosophical end to the course options for students to explore in their projects, and the discussions prompted by Daniel Cojacaru’s clever review of the film usually lead a couple of class members to tackle Nolan’s art in an essay.45 Inception’s fundamental pointsare that who we follow can make all the difference to the story we experience, and that, as Jean-Michel Oughourlian writes, psychological reality is shaped by relationship, “It is relationship that gives birth to selves, and opens up endless creative possibilities”—a condition that Inception’s characters only sometimes manage to grasp.46

Sometime in the course, perhaps near the end, I also encourage students to think of the ways in which education itself is based on modeling. There are the old metaphors about education turning mirrors into windows, or being not the filling of a pail but lighting of a fire. But as educational researcher Ken Bain explains, after surveying a range of distinguished teachers as well as the research and theoreti-cal literature on cognition, motivation, and human development, “Knowledge is constructed, not [merely] received.”47 Contrary to the traditional view that memory is like a storage bin, when we learn, we bring together the vast sensory input we receive, and from there we construct the various mental models by which we then operate. Students first “use their existing mental models to interpret what they encounter,” and then later, with teachers’ assistance, “build new mental models of reality.”48 Bain points out that this can be a slow business, to bring about deep learning, because learners “must (1) face a situation in which their mental model will not work (that is, will not help them explain or do something); (2) care that it does not work strongly enough to stop and grapple with the issue at hand; and (3) be able to handle the emotional trauma that sometimes accompanies challenges to longstanding beliefs.”49 In terms of mimetic theory, the role of the teacher ideally remains one of external, non-conflictual mediation—though there are occasions when trouble stems from teacher-disciple relationships in which the student can be perceived as a rival threat to the teacher. Much remains to be researched, since, as well as learning by adopting ideas from authors and other role models, classmates, peers, and teachers often play an outsized role as models in other class members’ interest and success in learning. It is no wonder enthusiasm is one of the cardinal teaching virtues.

Returning to the problem of distraction, it helps to remember the connec-tions between our imitative tendencies and our “extreme mobility of attention,” as William James once described a child’s distractibility, such that it “makes the child seem to belong less to himself than to every object which happens to catch his notice.”50 Since this condition of mimetic sensitivity to the influence of others is surely channeled through our cognitive faculty for paying attention, Nir Eyal is correct in part that the ability to focus may be the greatest challenge of our time. But the public debate about social media’s responsibility for social ills shows just how much we have yet to understand concerning the root causes of distraction and the “attention-deficit disorders” that follow.51 In light of mimetic theory it is easier to see the ways in which today’s global proliferation of models, sirens, and beacons, of media calling out “follow me,” make the question of who to follow a daily concern for everyone. We should beware of the indifference or denial of media companies who insist they are merely connecting people and that distrac-tion is users’ own fault. As tech pioneer and co-founder of Apple Computer, Steve Wozniak, recently put it, these companies like Google and Facebook are not social media companies but advertising businesses—primarily dedicated to modeling desire.52 Eyal appears to make the same error that nihilists make in framing a problem negatively. His goal for the twenty-first century is to be “indistractible,” to develop the ability not to be distracted. But this is like thinking we can suppress or extinguish desire altogether. Since desiring and focusing seem to be irrepress-ible human qualities, the question is not so much how to resist them, but where to channel them. In the short video “René Girard Explains Mimetic Desire,” we are reminded: “imitation is inevitable. So we can’t just stop imitating. The most important choice in each of our lives, may not be where to go to school, what career to pursue, or even who to marry. It may be who to imitate.”53 Some models invite rivalry, since they encourage the same comparisons that social media depend on for their business, leading to the traps of addiction and escalating competition. Other models, however, as mimetic theory demonstrates, lead us beyond comparison and rivalry. In this sense, as Girard realized, Christ is a model without rival.

Cite this article
Matthew Packer, “Without Rival: Mimetic Theory in a First-Year Seminar”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 50:2 , 219-230


  1. Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, trans. Emma Craufurd(London: Routledge, 1987), 105.
  2. Nir Eyal, Indistractible: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life (Dallas, TX: Ben-Bella Books, 2019). See also Eyal, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products (New York: Portfolio, 2014).
  3. For a sample, see Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Currency, 2014); Daniel Goleman, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (New York: Harper, 2013); Adam Alter, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (New York: Penguin, 2018); Thomas Davenport and John Beck, The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business (Boston: Harvard Business Review, 2002); and Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (New York: Vintage, 2017). Note also the flood of books about time management, since time management, many contend, effectively means attention management.
  4. Andrew Sullivan, “I Used to Be a Human Being,” in New York Magazine, September 19, 2016. Among his many observations, Sullivan suggests that for churches “the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction.”
  5. René Girard, Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), 60.
  6. Imitation and mimesis can sometimes be used interchangeably. Often, though, imitation is reserved for more deliberate or conscious behaviors of copying, whereas mimesis, after Girard’s usage, is frequently employed to refer to subconscious or unwitting behaviors and also to encompass the full spectrum of imitative behaviors, whether conscious or subconscious.
  7. Eric Bonabeau, “The Perils of the Imitation Age” in Harvard Business Review 82.6(June 2004): 45.
  8. Bonabeau, “Perils,” 46.
  9. 9Ibid., 52. As Jim Grote and John McGeeney write, Keynes likens the behavior of the in-vestment world to a “particular kind of beauty contest (that newspapers used to run in the early 1900s) in which the contestants pick the face that they think other contestants will pick. Picking stocks is like picking pretty faces.” Clever As Serpents: Business Ethics and Office Politics (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997), 43.
  10. Bonabeau, “Perils,” 47.
  11. Kindleberger, quoted in Bonabeau, “Perils,” 49.
  12. Bonabeau, “Perils,” 49.
  13. Bonabeau, “Perils,” 53.
  14. Bonabeau, “Perils,” 54.
  15. Bonabeau, “Perils,” 50.
  16. Bonabeau, “Perils,” 50.
  17. Bonabeau, “Perils,” 50-51.
  18. David Brooks, cited in Bonabeau, “Perils,” 51.
  19. Bonabeau, “Perils,” 54.
  20. Marco Iacoboni, Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others(New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2009). See also Giacomo Rizzolatti and Corrado Sin-igaglia, Mirrors in the Brain: How Minds Share Actions and Emotions, trans. Frances Anderson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
  21. Scott Garrels, “Human Imitation: Historical, Philosophical, and Scientific Perspectives,” in Mimesis and Science: Empirical Research on Imitation and the Mimetic Theory of Culture and Religion, Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, ed. Scott Garrels (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011), 24-25.
  22. Ramachandran, cited in Iacoboni, Mirroring People, 8.
  23. See and Ross’s books The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things (Glenview, IL: Doers Publishing, 2007)and The Wicked Truth About Love: The Tangles of Desire (Glenview, IL: Doers Publishing, 2009) are also valuable resources for undergraduate students.
  24. René Girard, “Mimesis and Violence,” The Girard Reader, ed. James Williams (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), 9-19.
  25. Jim Grote and John McGeeney also offer helpful examples of mimetic desire and its complications in popular culture, in Clever As Serpents: Business Ethics and Office Politics, where a brilliant chapter on “The Secret of the Market: Borrowed Desire” explains all sorts of situations, pertinent for students starting careers. Grote and McGeeney point out the problem of “keeping up with the Joneses,” along with the seductive nature of advertising, which only works “because the structure of human desire is mimetic.”
  26. Jim Grote and John McGeeney, Clever As Serpents: Business Ethics and Office Politics, 44.
  27. René Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), 3.
  28. The Untouchables, directed by Brian de Palma (Warner Bros., 2004), DVD.
  29. Seinfeld (TV series; West-Shapiro, 1989-1998). See René Girard, Anorexia and Mimetic Desire (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), 15-1
  30. One reading option here is David Foster Wallace’s famous 2005 Kenyon College Com-mencement Address (, in which he insists, “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The choice we get is what to worship.”
  31. Malcolm Gladwell, “The Coolhunt,” The New Yorker, March 17, 1997,
  32. Malcolm Gladwell, “The Coolhunt.”
  33. “Nosedive,” in Black Mirror, directed by Joe Wright (House of Tomorrow, 2016), Netflix video.
  34. Suzanne Ross, The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things (Glenview, IL: Doers Publishing, 2007).
  35. Mean Girls, directed by Mark Waters (Paramount, 2004), DVD.
  36. 6Ursula LeGuin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” in New Dimensions 3, ed. Robert Silverberg (New York: Nelson Doubleday, 1973); and Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery,” in The New Yorker (June 26, 1948),
  37. Jn 18:15-27. See also Mk 14:31.
  38. See “The Anthropology of the Cross: A Conversation with René Girard,” in Williams, Girard Reader, 262-288.
  39. Mt 13:35.
  40. 0Carly Osborn, The Theory of René Girard: A Very Simple Introduction (Melbourne: Australian Girard Seminar, 2016).
  41. Girard, “Mimesis and Violence.” See also, “The Myth of Oedipus, the Truth of Joseph” in Oedipus Unbound: Selected Writings on Rivalry and Desire, ed. Mark Anspach (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 107-113.
  42. Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. James G. Williams (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001
  43. Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).
  44. 4René Girard, Battling to the End, trans. Mary Baker (East Lansing: Michigan State Univer-sity Press, 2010).
  45. Daniel Cojacaru, “Inception: Film Review” (, accessed: October 24, 2019.
  46. Oughourlian, cited in Cojacaru, “Inception.”
  47. Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 26.
  48. Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, 27.
  49. Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, 27-28.
  50. Cited by Christine Rosen in “The Myth of Multitasking,” The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society (Spring 2008): 109.
  51. Facebook and fake ads are one example of this debate. Nellie Bowles explores the larger question in her profile of Nir Eyal, “Addicted to Screens? That’s Really a You Problem,” New York Times (October 6, 2019). See also Bowles’s article about Tristan Harris and other protesting Silicon Valley technologists, “Early Facebook and Google Employees Form Coali-tion to Fight What They Built,” New York Times (February 4, 2018); and Thuy Ong’s article, “Sean Parker on Facebook: ‘God Only Knows What It’s Doing to Our Children’s Brains.’”, November 9, 2017.
  52. Steve Wozniak, 23rd William W. Siebens American Heritage Lecture (Buena Vista Univer-sity, October 7, 2019)
  53. “René Girard Explains Mimetic Desire,” (, accessed: October 7, 2019), YouTube video.

Matthew Packer

Buena Vista University
Matthew Packer is Associate Professor of English at Buena Vista University.