My mum -v- mimesis

I’ve been noticing a strong element of mimesis in some circles recently. Rene Girard had some fairly sound ideas about mimetic desire, it seems to me, and indeed I was rather prone to it in my youth. My mother called it “keeping up with the Joneses”, and devoted a lot of rather stern words to trying to cure me of wanting things which other people seemed to like, which she regarded as a foolish thing to want. For her, we were the Joneses, and people could try to keep up with us if they wanted.

As far as I can see, this mimetic desire is a very widespread phenomenon. I don’t know if everyone without exception feels it (or at least felt it when younger, as it seems to me something which can be trained out of), but I can’t think of anyone I grew up with who didn’t display some element of this. However, I find people suggesting that we don’t have any desires of our own, it’s always “the desire of the other”, which we try to guess at – and my obvious response, which is “why not just ask them what they desire if you’re bothered about it?” meets the “ah, but they don’t know their desire either”.  Mum was very keen that I examine why I wanted anything, and rejecting the “because they/everyone wants that”. What reason was that to me? Why was I bothered? Didn’t I have my own reasons for wanting something?

On the whole, she was pretty successful, to the extent that I really don’t any more really understand the impulse to want something just because someone else wants it (or, even worse, because some amorphous “other” wanted it. This may well be the “big other” which Peter Rollins talks of frequently. Yes, I can occasionally dimly feel the impulse, but have been practising not answering its call for a long time now.

On the whole, she was pretty successful. That, of course, led in part to me wanting things which my parents wanted (as I think, with Douglas Hofstadter, that we internalise at least a semi-working model of those close to us, notably parents and spouses), which was far more acceptable, but I then pursued the same strategy – did I want these things just because mum wanted them? OK, I was also aided in those days by being a teenager, and often rejecting what my parents wanted. And that was ultimately also a bad reason for wanting something, though that realisation took me a bit longer.  I will say that as I matured, to a considerable extent I decided that what mum wanted was generally pretty good – not without examination, of course!

It was, of course, perfectly OK to want something mum wanted because to provide that would please mum (or in my more rebellious moments, because it would annoy her – not a good reason, but one which did operate sometimes). Once over my rebellions, I like people having what they want, recognising that that isn’t necessarily something I would want. I quite like being able to talk with people about what they like while understanding something of it (OK, that’s never worked to make me like watching most sports, or being interested in cars or the clock-speed of my friend’s computer or who Susie Jones from down the street has been seen with… It seems that however hard I try, these are just not topics which I have any desire to interest myself in). But I have problems when, for instance, Lacanians suggest that desire is always the desire of the other. Where, in that event, does any desire originate? Someone has to be the Joneses, surely? It can’t be a complete loop, unsupported by any first instance. Indeed, the creation of desire is a major feature of marketing (which I touch on in a post on “The Devil’s Evangelism”). Yes, the “other people desire this” is a big feature of marketing, but not by any means the only one.

Incidentally, this business of trying to work out what the desire of the other is and satisfy it seems to have been a major mechanism in my wife’s family, and one which she hasn’t completely recovered from. Her mother and grandmother, in particular, used to make up expectations about how she would act towards them without ever actually spelling it out, and she was left spending amazing amounts of time second-guessing what that action might be in any particular circumstance. Some of that rebounds on me to this day – I am absolutely not good at taking half-hints about what she would like. That may, of course, be because I don’t spend nearly enough time trying to work that out (I am, after all, a self-centered entity at root, just somewhat decently socialised – which is the nearest I get to “original sin”). It is, in my opinion, no way to live your life, even given that a more abundantly compassionate person than myself might at least toy with the idea that it is.

So, how do I see the desire of the other? It’s quite clearly a factor in our desiring, so there’s some wisdom in the Lacanian view – but it’s not a totalising answer. Things are more complex than that. Clearly (as per my post on the Devil’s Evangelism”), there are also in play things like the perversion of the basic needs found in the lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid to want not just to provide for today, but for the entire future. If there’s a feature of modern consumer society which I find most pernicious, it’s this “more is better” attitude. Whatever happened to “sufficient unto the day”? (Which does not merely apply to evil, but also to good). Let’s face it, in the first world we already consume far more than we could ever need, and far more than is sustainable on a limited planet.

Enough, already…


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