Mimesis Versus Imitation

Mimesis is a funny word. It would make Strunk & White (who taught us never to use unnecessary or overly complicated words) cringe. So why use it? It turns out there’s a good reason

Quite simply, mimesis is not the same as imitation. It refers to something far more common, far more powerful, and far more hidden.

The Etymology of Mimesis

Mimesis comes from the Greek word mīmeisthai, which means “to imitate.” But the reason that we use the fancy, Greek-derived word “mimesis” rather than “imitation”—and why it’s mimetic theory, and the Mimetic Summit, not imitation theory or the Imitation Summit (who would want to go to that?)—is because the English word “imitation” doesn’t capture the essence of one very strange aspect of human behavior.

An Example of Mimesis

Imagine you let twenty kindergartners loose in a classroom full of toys and tell them to go have at it. You tell them to play until their hearts are content. There are not only enough toys for every kid—there are 10 times the amount of times as there are kids. 200 toys. Duplicates of many. Scattered all over the room.

Etymology of Mimesis

What happens? Ask any teacher (or parent, for that matter). One child takes a casual interest in a toy. This arouses the interest of a second child. The second child’s interest in the toy awakens a stronger desire for it in the first child, which awakens a stronger desire for it in the second child as she sees how tightly he’s clinging to it.

Meanwhile, three versions of the same toy lying on the floor beyond her.

It’s not long before other kids begin to be interested in the toy. Soon three of them have their paws on it, trying to yank it away from the others and possess it for themselves.

But ask any of the kids who wanted it first, and they will always tell you that it was them. “I had it first!” says the first kid.

Sure, he had it. But did he really want it?

“But I wanted to play with it first!” protests the second child, unaware that she wouldn’t have given it a second thought had she not noticed it in the hands of the first girl, with the pretty red bow in her hair. (If only she had that toy, maybe she’d look as cute and happy as that girl!)

None of the kids—and none the adults in the room—will be able to locate the first moment of desire for the toy—because there is none. Desire, it turns out, is social. The toy that the kids were fighting over didn’t stir up any desire at all; it was the other children who did. And none of them, individually, generated this desire. It was the result of a complex process of imitation.

Actually, of mimesis.

The Relevance of Mimesis

It was Girard who, beginning in the 1960s, began to see the importance of imitation to explain a much larger proportion of human behavior than was ever imagined.

Silicon Valley

While Plato and Aristotle and their heirs confined imitation to behaviors and words and external “things”, Girard realized that human powers of imitation extend into the very core of our beings—to what we desire and to how we form our identities. Mimesis, then, is a constituent part of human nature.

In a world in which the role of imitation has been downplayed and relegated to something that should be avoided at all cost (Silicon Valley exemplifies this attitude), Girard’s theory was radical, provocative, and dangerous.

That’s because the very people who despise imitation and flee from it at all costs are themselves engaged in the deepest and most hidden forms of imitation—a kind of imitation that has been driven into the “underground,” where it is better known as mimesis.

It’s an underground hell from which many people are trying to escape.