Positive Mimesis

The idea that there is such a thing as positive mimesis is a somewhat controversial one. Girard himself used the term “mimesis” (derived from the Greek) rather than “imitation” partly to disambiguate it from mere imitation. Mimesis is something that is usually, but not always, hidden. It easily and often leads to some sort of conflict.

There is no doubt that there is a positive form of imitation—for instance, the imitation of virtuous people, the imitation of artistic masters for art students, or the imitation of Christ for Christians. The imitation of love, as in a healthy marriage, is another example of positive imitation. The current debate is whether “positive mimesis” is the best term for this.

The philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who never writes specifically about mimetic desire and seemed to have more of an individualist version of desire than Girard, nevertheless refers to “emulation” — “the desire for a thing which is generated in us from the fact that we imagine others like us to have the same desire” (Ethics, Part 3, Proposition 27, Scholium).

Notre Dame professor Ann W. Astell has a commentary on something that could be called positive mimesis with her essay “Saintly Mimesis, Contagion, and Empathy in the Thought of René Girard, Edith Stein, and Simone Weil.”

The question of what to call the positive manifestations of mimetic imitation is an open one. Is there a better term than “positive mimesis”—like “emulation”? Others, like author Luke Burgis, has suggested that some imitate in a way that simply contains less of the negative mimetic components, and that they are anti-mimetic. This does not mean a lack of imitation, but a lack of the negative aspects of mimesis.

In general, positive imitation, or positive mimesis, is thought to involved decrease envy, rivalry, and resentment. The model does not become an obstacle and scandal to the one imitating. They are pursuing a good which is not scarce or which will cause conflict.