At the age of ten – c. 1953 – I threw an especially odious tantrum. Already an avid reader, I had the notion even then of becoming a writer of some kind. I had also decided that the first successful step of my ascent to literary grandeur must be the ownership of a very particular fountain pen, heavily advertised at that time. When my parents told me they couldn’t afford this I sulked hideously for a week over my blighted career.
I remember this now because my complaint had absolutely nothing to do with any ‘ism’ that I was aware of – least of all ‘materialism’. The plastic, rubber, metal and other constituent materials of that gleaming object were not of the slightest interest to me. I had instead, and not for the last time, fallen victim to magical thinking – the attribution to a cloned advertised object of the power to enhance my own personal ‘nobody’ status. That particular pen alone, I had convinced myself, would surely make me a famous writer. The very inferior pen I already owned, although made of the same materials, was surely the reason I hadn’t yet written a novel and wasn’t already a celebrity.
Reflection on this, on other similar episodes in later life – and on the way that advertising works generally – has convinced me that the church’s standard diagnosis of the global plague of material accumulation is hopelessly off centre and misdirected. The charge of materialism implies to me that the feverish purchasing of inessential objects is driven by a deep interest in matter per se, or maybe even by a belief that nothing but matter exists. Nothing could be further from the reality that I have observed. The diagnosis of ‘materialism’ is totally ineffectual because none of us can see that we are actually guilty of it.
What is fundamentally wrong with us has nothing to do with any materialist philosophy, or with entirely innocent matter. Our basic acquisitive complaint – and it seems to be almost congenital – is deep and recurrent doubt as to our own personal value, accompanied by a deep desire to enhance it. Reinforced by media, and too often by other aspects of our surrounding culture, it is this complaint above all that makes us vulnerable to ‘iconic’ advertised objects designed to ‘change your life’.
Ireland’s Breda O’Brien once told the story of a friend exasperated by a teenage son. This boy had rebelled when his mother had tried to persuade him that it would be foolish for her to spend an extra €50 simply to enable him to wear the logo of a more expensive branded jacket. When she asked him why on earth she should do that he said, instantly: “Because I’m worth it!” A clever slogan designed to enhance the pulling power of an entirely different class of branded goods had lodged fast in this boy’s consciousness – to be deployed later to bully his own poor mother!
Here again, obviously, this boy was totally uninterested in the constituent material of the jacket. The brand logo – a simple memorable image – had become ‘iconic’ for him, a mysterious guarantee of the personal value and status that an unbranded item of exactly the same material could not give its owner.
This is not simply undifferentiated ‘wanting’ or ‘desiring’ either. Simple lack of food causes an entirely specific kind of wanting and desire, for which we have the precise name ‘physical hunger’. The wanting that fixates upon a particular ‘iconic’ object also surely deserves a specific and descriptive name, a name that isn’t ‘materialism’ either. (Isn’t food, even the Eucharist, material, after all, and clothing also – and don’t we need both?)
Mysteriously we don’t have in common use today a precise name for this particular desire for ‘iconic’ objects.
René Girard and Mimetic Desire
Thankfully, however, this kind of wanting now has a fully descriptive name, learned gratefully by me from the work of the American-French Catholic academician René Girard. He uses the pinpoint term ‘mimetic desire’ for that specific kind of desire that unconsciously mimics the observed desire of someone else – someone we mistakenly believe to be more highly valuable than ourselves. The power of most of the world’s multinationals is based on a deep understanding of how our mimetic desire can be manipulated to buy ‘designer’ objects of every kind – from clothing to cars, from lipsticks to the very latest smartphone or tablet computer.
Despite our obvious need to understand and resist this phenomenon, I have yet to hear a Mass homily on this problem of truly contagious mimetic desire. How has it come about that our clergy do not notice or speak insightfully about a pervasive problem of modern culture – a problem that is obviously also moral and spiritual?
This question becomes even more interesting in light of René Girard’s compelling argument that mimetic desire is the very problem denoted by the biblical word covetousness. How come that no homilist in my experience has ever noted that in the decalogue the triple warning against coveting links this sin in every case to something possessed by a neighbour, i.e. by someone we know? Surely that ox of the decalogue was the sleekest and strongest one, the one that belonged to the richest farmer in the community. Proud possession by someone else is crucial to the transmission of mimetic desire. It is usually the higher perceived status of the owner that transfers addictive desirability to the desired object. This is why celebrities are paid millions to use and to be photographed in association with big brand logos.
There is a further reason our homilists need to notice this. Girard shows convincingly that when mimetic desire becomes focused by two or more people upon anything that cannot be shared, real violence looms. For Girard the Bible is the world’s greatest literary source of illustrations of this. Cain killed Abel because he concluded that Abel’s animal sacrifice had won God’s preference before Cain’s own sacrifice of grain. Desiring the intangible divine preference that Abel apparently now possessed, and the unattainable status that went with it, Cain went mad with jealousy and killed his brother.
Similarly Saul hated the young David as soon as David had won the greater admiration of the women of Israel. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery out of mimetic desire for the ‘coat of many colours’ – the garment that marked him as his father, Jacob’s, favourite. Absalom rose in rebellion against his father David out of mimetic desire for the kingdom of Israel. And the land of Israel’s ‘milk and honey’ – the produce of its richest soil – made it mimetically desirable to its neighbours, such as the Babylonians and later the Romans. There was even a near outbreak of violence among the apostles themselves, when they visualised one of their number being granted the highest status in heaven, next to Jesus himself. This is a clear echo of the story of original violence between brothers.
The Bible even tells us that the desire of the people of Israel to have a king was a contagious borrowing of an institution that ‘all the other nations have’. (1 Sam 8: 4,5) Could the reason for that particular mimetic desire be that surrounding kings were apparently better at the high-prestige art of warfare?
As for violence and mimetic desire in Irish history, what about the extraordinary tale of the Cathach, the copy of the Psalter made by the young Colmcille from another copy owned by St Finnian? It was this quarrel of two saints that reputedly led to the war that ended in Colmcille’s self-exile on Iona.
Centuries later it was rivalrous desire for the kingdom of Leinster that led to the conflict that brought the Normans to Ireland – and the competing desires of England, France and Spain led to many further troubles. Far more recently, Charles J. Haughey’s absorption of the desires of 18th century Irish landlords led to the greatest scandal in living Irish political memory.
In the case of conflict in Northern Ireland, the legend of the red hand of Ulster is obviously also about mimetic desire. What else do we need to explain the irreconcilability of the competing nationalisms that still plague the north-east? Surely it is a mistake to point the finger exclusively at either of the competing traditions when essentially the same desire drives both – for possession of the security that goes with sovereign authority.
As for ‘consumerism’, today’s mass production of desirable objects has allowed the many rather than the few to possess apparently identical objects, hiding from us the full violent potential of mimetic desire in day-to-day life (unless at end-of-year sales!). However, teenagers have been murdered in the US for possession of top-brand sneakers. And the sweat-house production of branded clothing in the developing world – an almost inevitable product of globalisation – has caused inexcusable violence to exploited workers, for example in the building of criminally unstable factories. Chinese factory workers have sometimes been driven to suicide by the terms of employment in factories that produce our highest status electronic goods. Profit-driven multinationals, their managers dependent upon the favour of investors, seem too often indifferent to the pressures this creates for employees at the manufacturing base. And those managers and investors too are likely to be mimetically driven – to afford higher-status homes, transport, personal technology and ‘bling’. A world driven by unseen mimetic desire will necessarily be an abusive and unjust one.
René Girard (d. 2015) was writing about mimetic desire, and its connection with all kinds of violence, from 1961. He gathered around his mimetic theory a community of distinguished academics in the fields of sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science, philosophy, literary criticism, history and theology. Probably no other modern intellectual is so influential in so many fields. Having delved as a historian into just a fraction of this work I am convinced that Girard’s insight is set to have profound consequences for the future of Christianity, as well as for the social sciences and the arts – and even the second level school curriculum. It is not going too far to say that Girard has brought the secular Enlightenment back to its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and that his work is set to transform the relationship between the churches and the secular world.
In subsequent articles here I will develop this argument.
Sean O’Conaill 2015
Fascinating, Sean! I suppose we could all nod our heads and say, “mea culpa” as each of us is guilty at times of giving in to mimetic desire. Perhaps partly because we don’t believe that we “are worth it?” I’d like homilists to stress that point in their preaching, that each and every one of us is made in the image of God and loved unconditionally by God and that it is love, acceptance and encouragement that helps the child’s self-esteem to flourish. I realise that this can go to extremes and that there is the danger of increasing individualism but it is heartbreaking to think of the little souls who grow up feeling less worthy and unloved and who therefore need to satisfy this mimetic desire to make themselves feel better.
Great to see the (very well chosen) images breaking up the text too as lazy readers like me find it more accessible than just plain script. Like Alice (of Wonderland fame) I can sigh at the thought of a book without pictures and have to psyche myself up to read such text.:-) I sincerely hope some of our ordained homilists pick this up and act on it. Isn’t it such a pity that canon law only allows the ordained to preach? That, to me, is an injustice and a shameful waste of excellent resources in the faith-filled women and men in a parish who could give us much food for thought on a Sunday.
Thanks, Mary. You could not be more to the point in what you say about the need for homilists to stress the unchanging and unconditional love of God for all of us. Our daily context is a series of challenges to this belief. And, as Richard Rohr so wisely tells us, ‘Satan’ means ‘the accuser’ – that spirit of negativity that tells us how useless we are. Girard agrees with Rohr on this, and sees that spirit of accusation at work in, for example, bullying. That’s why constant prayer is necessary, accompanied by a spirit of affirmation and respect towards those around us. Obeying the Great Commandment is the means to a happier life and a happier world.
As for individualism, this too arises out of the problem of self-dislike. It rests upon a belief that ‘at all costs I must prove myself’ – and it is this mistake that leads the individual to ignore the needs of others.
Mimetic desire is a reality but not as generalizable as this article may suggest. Each has his/her own reasons for going to confession but not everyone suffers from mimetic desire. Many are not fashionable as regards things or issues. I think many of our priests are the same.
Insofar as the people I am referring to covet things in relation to other people, it happens in a form of seeking to be as organised or professional or skilful or wise, or at times as “happy” or as at ease as their peers seem to be. At times they wish to be as successful as other people at certain things, but not in the acquisition of goods and services. They are often envious of others’ abilities but not of their success.
They may be materialistic in that financial security is more important to them than is the norm, but they still give generously to others. From a Catholic point of view many should be giving more and this is a sign of a less that proper trust in God. But they do not desire a car or house as big as those next door, nor holidays as expensive or clothes as flashy as others.
They buy things as they buy golf clubs – to enable them to play better or manufacture things better, or to make things look more artistic or beautiful, or to please someone with a present. In regard to the latter they may be mimetic. They acquire things because they are useful, not because somebody else has them. They save and wait to buy something that looks good, for the sake of it looking good. If it’s a front gate people will see it and if they comment favourably that creates satisfaction.
Similarly they may not be slow in describing the better features of a recent holiday. They name-drop at times.
Correlating it with psychological states or levels of self-confidence or indeed with levels of belief in God is a very complex task. As with materialism, the notion of “other gods” arises.
The core tenet of Girard’s theory of mimetic desire is that we tend to desire according to the desire of another – i.e. that desire is often triangular. The desiring person (1, the subject) chooses what to desire (3, the object) according to what he/she supposes to be desired or valued by one or more other people (2, the model).
So, when you describe people wanting to be ‘as happy or as at ease as their peers seem to be’ you are describing mimetic desire. It is the supposed greater happiness of the peers (the model) that determines what is to be desired by the subject.
Again, when you describe someone choosing a gate ‘for the sake of it looking good’ – that too is mimetic desire. The triangular relationship is again present, because ‘satisfaction’ is dependent upon the approval of a third party or parties.
As it is also usually in the idea of ‘success’. As for wanting to be good at sport doesn’t that require also usually an observing third party to confirm success?
The article does not argue that mimetic desire is the only sin. It argues, first, that it is a pervasive phenomenon; second, that it is almost certainly the same thing as ‘coveting’ – and, third, that it is an obvious likely source of violence and injustice. You do not seem to challenge any of this. Why then is it invisible, in my experience at least, to homilists?
What exactly is the usefulness of the word ‘materialism’ as applied to behaviour? What precise behaviour does it describe? Am I being ‘materialistic’ when I build a shelter or consume the Eucharist or sit on a chair? If not, why not? What threshold of over-consumption or hoarding must I cross to become ‘materialistic’? If that can’t be defined precisely, there can be no identifiable sin of materialism – so the word is morally useless. Mimetic desire on the other hand is a pinpoint term.
As, then, is ‘covetousness’ also – a sin identified three times by the Decalogue. Time to recover the word.
To seek to teach a lesson successfully in class is something a teacher does not only for the benefit of for students but also for the thrill of it. Similarly to hit a good golf shot, to grow a beautiful flower garden, to fix the toilet, to pray a good holy hour, to reach a location quickly, to climb a mountain on a bicycle, to back a successful horse, to influence a successful appointment – these are all things that may be done for their intrinsic satisfaction, and have no relation to what third parties may think or do. As such they are not mimetic.
As for materialism, Christ more or less suggests that if we ignore the needs of the poor, we will probably go to hell. Placing the acquisition or retention of goods (worldly) or position ahead of keeping the Commandments is an act of materialism.
Mimetic desire applies to a certain range of behaviours only. it would have limited relevance to the behaviours of Bl Teresa of Calcutta.
Great – you have set yourself the task of identifying activities that are not mimetic and come up with a good list. In the process you have identified why deserts and isolated places have always been favoured by those seeking God.
Jesus did that too – without ever using the word or concept ‘materialistic’. He spoke always in simple words identifying emotional states – e.g. ‘hardness of heart’ in connection with lack of charity. The hard, closed heart comes from fear – of what people will think of us unless we do or get x (the fear that leads to mimetic desire), or that fear of the future that tells us to be obsessive hoarders. When those two fears are combined – as in the case of the farmer who decided to build bigger barns to house his great harvest – you get a ‘perfect storm’. (His basic preoccupations were prestige and security, not ‘matter’.)
So to convince me that we need the word ‘materialism’ to explain ‘hardness of heart’ you will need to explain why. The first usage of the word in that sense doesn’t occur in English until 1850. To me it implies that the spiritual and the material world are somehow opposed – and that is the Manichaean heresy.
If you search scripture you will find that matter and spirit are never opposed in that way. St Paul uses the word ‘material’ only when speaking of the material needs of the poor.
The use of the word ‘materialism’ to explain lack of charity involves a failure to understand human psychology, and to go below the surface appearance of things. If you think otherwise you need to explain why – describing people whose interior ‘materialistic’ preoccupations you actually know. What psychological state does ‘materialism’ accurately point to? Do you know of anyone who collects material things because of the atoms and molecules they consist of? (Why, for example, do people collect diamonds but hate soot – when both consist of exactly the same element – carbon?)
I guess any activity for that matter could be done without mimetic desire (unless it being one of the 14 sins). I don’t see this as being the point of the article, however. Why do we compete? What pushes us to over-consumption? These ideals are not compatible with humanity’s survival as we no longer participate in the food chain globally. I think what Girard is trying to tell us is that the qualities which pulled us out of the food chain (the mimetic desire to constantly do “better” for ourselves no matter the situation) has prevented us from not creating this same food chain within our species. Those who allow mimetic desire to completely overhaul their existence (as in some type of mental illness), can not be trusted with the leadership of our nations. Point well taken.
Yes indeed, Lloyd Allan. Mimetic theory does claim to explain all competition in terms of covetousness or mimetic desire – including the ‘infectious greed’ that Alan Greenspan identified as the source of the 2007 global crash. If we envy the greater wealth of another and seek to better it, a ‘money race’ begins. That’s what happens with the Forbes rich list. We know that it is scanned for ‘where am I today?’ by at least some of the super rich. There is an excellent article on this by George Monbiot here: http://www.monbiot.com/2013/05/06/enough-already/
What exactly is ‘materialistic’ about wanting – essentially – status or priority, rather than any kind of tangible matter? And hoarded wealth then becomes a resource denied to the meeting of the basic needs of children globally. That is exactly why 1% of the gobal population is on the point of owning more than the remaining 99% – if that hasn’t already happened.
You are not far off the mark either when you compare this to mental illness. The word ‘discognition’ occurs to me – an almost deliberate not knowing, and not wanting to know, of the consequences of one’s own absorption in one’s own preferred competitive sphere, whatever that is. That race is all in all.
So thank God for the One who was so totally non-mimetic, and loving, that committed imitation of Him is still the open door to a different future.
I may disagree with you there Sean – I believe He was totally mimetic however was emulating not only a workable model but also the finest example. I believe this quality is also intrinsic to self preservation, not self-destruction.
This trait is the most important one of all but only if that workable model is attained. It’s now humanity’s priority to “evict” the tenants who create an unrealistic model. Today, those who display the most cunning strategy linked to their mimetic desire are rewarded with the keys to the city, so to speak. When this reward is stopped and when those who show the most compassion to mankind are rewarded, then the world flips – and quite quickly I believe.
The problem is that the coming generation most impacted by this model is becoming a void. A revolution won’t flourish within it unless there are as many people supporting acts of defiance from within the debilitating status quo as there are people joining the revolution.
To be mimetic is to imitate an historical or living model. There was certainly much of the prophet about Jesus, but his embodiment and declaration of the Kingdom of God is a complete break with the centralised kingship modeled by e.g. Saul, David, Solomon. He certainly didn’t imitate Herod or Pilate or Caesar or Caiaphas either.
He tells us plainly that centralised power structures have had their day, and that Abba’s preference is to ‘make his home’ in us as individuals. That’s surely the symbolism of both Eucharist and Pentecost also – the multiplication of body and spirit to decentralise our thinking also.
It’s in that way that I see the usurping tenants evicted – not by some reactive violent revolutionary overthrow of those at the summit of the pyramids created by mimetic desire. Jesus overthrows them by bringing Abba to us in our hearts, restoring our sense of our own sacred dignity and waking us up to the needlessness of wishing for what others have, especially the elites.
It was the Enlightenment that thought that Utopia could be built by slogans such as ‘Liberty, Fraternity, Equality’, ‘Power to the Proletariat’, etc. But always those movements sought to retain overarching, centralised power structures. Blood flowed in the streets as brothers fell into rivalry over that centralised power, and then personality cults developed around supermen such as Napoleon I, Lenin, Stalin, Mao et al.
Now everywhere those centralised structures are losing traction as people wake up to the unlikelihood of ever combining centralised social and political power with virtue. Time to evict the landlords from our minds and hearts and wake up to the Lord’s presence there – and in the persons beside us.
I sense deep anger in you, LLoyd Allan. It is justified – but beware of a rivalry with the Landlords that will exhaust you – and distract you from the beautiful, renewed world that surrounds you as your own estate. The pyramids fall as soon as we cease to see them as permanent and necessary. The Lord is our shepherd – within and among us – and all we need.
No anger Sean – my wish is for them to be evicted, and forgiven. What overcomes me is a sense of urgency. Our time on this planet is limited and this issue is one that gets passed from generation to generation – the empire we live under is one which was in full force in 1st century and its power continues to centralize at an alarming rate.
Our religion, no matter what it decrees or how defiant it may be on the outside, continues to sustain it. As a taxpayer, we sustain it. Through democratic election, it is sustained. As we consume and purchase, it is sustained. As new markets emerge and populations uncovered and converted, it is sustained.
Unlike an ancient relic obelisk, it controls our mimetic desire. So for one instant you tell us that a deeply seeded level of our innate behavior is being manipulated by the masses of a self controlling elite group, that without them and proper leadership we’d easily tackle such misfortunes as poverty, curable disease and the environment and then you go on to warn me against rivalry with the lot that they might exhaust me…”distract me from the beautiful, renewed world that surrounds me.”
So is this beyond our abilities to change?
This temptation that the elites suffer from, is it too much to overcome? I’m waiting for the Vatican to start overturning tables but maybe they still wish for an intervention.
No need to judge me Sean on this matter, my rivalry is 20 years in progress and continues to be a peaceful protest no matter how dreary times become. The weapon I fight with is logic. Where there is a law, there is always a small doorway slightly open.
What I sense in you is what I sense from most people in your generation – apathy – we systematically created these issues and now our only recourse is to not exhaust ourselves with the repair – just sit back on our laurels and see the world for what it is : renewed and beautiful – even when it is clearly not the renewed and beautiful world we wish it to be.
Not apathy, Lloyd Allan. Why would I have written that article if not to wake everyone up to the greatest stumbling block there is to human progress? If you visit my website at seanoconaill.com you will see that since retirement from teaching in 1996 I have spared no effort in that cause – despite indifferent health.
It is a mistake to attribute to any generation a greater or lesser degree of virtue or vice. If you see some kind of intentionality behind the building of the power structures that misgovern the planet that is a mistake also. The Saudi prince who wants to be the world’s richest man doesn’t know that it is out of this desire that all injustice comes. It is that not knowing that is the problem – not any conscious conspiracy.
What is the point of seeking scapegoats? It wasn’t simply sentimentality that led Jesus to say ‘they know not what they do’ but literal fact. Until we awake from the mimetic dance we are sleepwalkers who see the world amiss, and no generation has immunity from that.
We cannot bring peace either until we have it to a deep level in ourselves. We cannot assure anyone else that they are loved by God unless it is that same love that gives us peace – and until one experiences that peace one cannot truly wake up to the covetousness in oneself.
Make no mistake: peace is not passive acceptance of the status quo but a subversion of it. Until we are content with very little we cannot persuade anyone else to abandon futile desire.
I guess that is where our opinions collide – you see these millenia-old power structures as unintentional works of progress. The Saudi Prince who wants to be the world’s richest man can’t know that richness is built of resource and where one man has much, one likely has naught. Sounds like a supremely evil upbringing, no? Tell your children : “grow old, amass the wealth of millions in a structure that denies a majority its basic necessities, then die happily.” Is this why Jesus said it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven?
The “they” that Jesus was referring to was the common man not the autocracy. He knew full well what the autocratic were up to and how committed they were to the militarization of society to keep the flock at bay and power centralized. This is evil, Sean. Now societies the world over use our own human nature against us to construct systems of enslavement which keep a choice few in power and the planet’s resources as a hostage to their desires.
I think it is again apathetic to say that up and coming generations have no right to express their views on how previous generations fared against this system. Your generation voices the most concern than any previous but this problem needs more than a voice. It requires a disobedience that the ACP/USACP/PI have embraced but have yet to fully achieve.
I think the reason that anyone starts a blog is to assess your social environment. Do you hold opinions that correlate to your peers or are you off on your ideas? If this is no concern of yours, you would never publicly feel the need to display your opinions. I love your contributions because you welcome feedback. The one point I don’t subscribe to is how those who control the media, the economy, and the government are somehow simply just pawns in this chess match. They, like you on this blog, have ultimate control of the opinions expressed or disobedience allowed.
Sure, Lloyd Allan. That saying of Jesus, that those who deny basic necessities to the poor are denying the same to God, must surely be somewhere in the Islamic conscience too. And if media moguls have no such social concern, their consciences too cannot be leaving them at ease.
And of course you must be free to wham away at older generations – elder blindness must also be challenged. (I’m reminded of Dickens characters such as Scrooge and Ralph Nickleby here. Dickens was targeting the avarice of the ‘city’ – brilliantly.)
However, the serenity prayer comes to mind. No one of us can change everything overnight. We can easily wear ourselves out by raging at distant evildoers whose way of going will always be outside our influence. I hope that is my only concern in saying this – that you do not harm yourself by butting a distant brick wall.
To answer your question about my peers, I am working on that. Too many have not had my advantages of time to read people like Girard, and listen to the great questions of children impatient with over-complexity. The impression given by Catholic magisterial authoritarianism, that nothing remains to be revealed about the Gospel that isn’t in the Catechism, has dulled the minds of many and sent them away empty and alienated.
However, even that glass is more than half-full. We need the Catechism too.
This is certainly in the tenets of Islam – without question. You see it as wailing away at a wall – I see it as a hot knife cutting through butter. They only make up one percent of the population, Sean. And when God is not on your side, you have no might.
If your generation can’t see this, then elder blindness certainly is next on my docket.
Re feb 16 above.
none of the below is my own work but it answers your request for psychological data. If (=if) you are interested google any paragraph below to read the full article.
The Lord would hardly approve
Materialism reveals itself in crude displays of opulence often intended to incite envy. Researchers define as “a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project”, is both socially destructive and self-destructive. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It’s associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships.
There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, a series of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. As they become less materialistic, it rises.
In one study, the researchers tested a group of 18-year-olds, then re-tested them 12 years later. They were asked to rank the importance of different goals – jobs, money and status on one side, and self-acceptance, fellow feeling and belonging on the other. They were then given a standard diagnostic test to identify mental health problems. At the ages of both 18 and 30, materialistic people were more susceptible to disorders. But if in that period they became less materialistic, they became happier.
In another study, the psychologists followed Icelanders weathering their country’s economic collapse. Some people became more focused on materialism, in the hope of regaining lost ground. Others responded by becoming less interested in money and turning their attention to family and community life. The first group reported lower levels of wellbeing, the second group higher levels.
In another study, the psychologist
All very interesting, but ‘displays of opulence’ suggest to me not an interest in matter but an interest in being well thought of – ‘mimetic desire’. How exactly do these authors define ‘materialism’? What motives do they see behind it? Are they the same that drive e.g. careerism, the desire for status and feedback as to their success? If so the motivation is not aimed at matter but at something totally intangible – a sense of their own importance. That’s why I believe the word ‘materialism’ points us in the wrong direction. We need to be talking about status anxiety (worldliness) and mimetic desire (covetousness).
But please come back with those definitions and what this work reveals about motivation! That last bit about happiness being associated with focus on family life and relationships is especially interesting.
Again, the Lord’s focus on emotions rather than ‘isms’ is the correct one, I believe. ‘Materialism’ suggests the head, rather than the heart, when it is the heart that actually drives us.
Are we exploring here also the dynamic that leads to so much Internet conflict? Am I so reluctant to let go my original contentions that I cannot let either Prodigal Son or LLoyd Allan have the last words? Is that in the end what all arguments are about, even academic ones – our need not to be ‘bested’, especially on a public forum? If we sense a put-down, will we typically respond in kind – even if none was intended. And so on, escalating to nuclear insult?
So I’ll just say thanks to both now, for making me think more clearly, and make this my last contribution under this title.
And wait to hear from those who have honoured me with their attention.
And wonder at the patience of Jesus before Pilate, who asked, probably with a curled lip ‘what is truth?’ Richard Rohr’s question occurs: ‘Where in the Gospel does Jesus say “Thou shalt be right”?’
I’m not quite sure what my next article should be under this heading. I’ve ordered Michael Kirwan’s book ‘Girard and Theology’ and may let that guide me.
Well I will let you have the last word Sean – even if it behooves me to do so.
I started reading Baudrillard in ’99 after researching a book prominently displayed in the film the Matrix – Simulacra and Simulation – an interesting read to say the least and a ground-breaking film. If you haven’t watched it, at the moment when you see the real world and the fields of mindless bodies stacked on top of each other being used simply as batteries to fuel artificial intelligence – that is the real world as we know it.
I never confuse the truth with what I experience – these are totally different things. It is always the truth that conceals that there is none.
And if you have a spare moment – watch two videos I created. The idea I had in my head was how if our saviour were to present himself to society today, he would be such an outcast that the church itself could be complicit in his death, as it was 2000 years ago.
Thanks for my introduction to the topic of mimetic desire. We are never going to be right all the time. Christ would have wanted us to be faithful to the truth. Not every blog allows the extent of contrary views as this one. Your new topic: “Girard and Jesus.”
I’ll include this comment here based on a Rohr conversation started on the ACP site – I think there is just as much or more prophesizing on this website lately – Excellent Job Sean at getting conversation going. 5 star blog entry!
Well, this is probably the most inspiring article I’ve read in a long time – leave to Fr. Rohr, the man is amazing. I can say that I’ve spent the past 17 years on the edges of the inside and there is no better way of explaining it: working for some of the largest companies in the world, all the while peacefully protesting the worldwide distribution of wealth conducted by government and taxation policies.
The heart of this peaceful protest is that now 85 people hold more wealth than 50% of the global population (most of which do not have basic necessities of life). There is something fundamentally wrong with this statistic. For me, it is almost embarrassing to consider them to be our “fellow man/woman” yet they are truly the Kings and Queens of our time.
On a side note, it seems that this group has been mimetically buying up their own Lonely Mountains in New Zealand at an alarming rate. It seems strange that a story like the Hobbit, with an overarching portrayal of a gold-sick king, sitting on a gold reserve of billions, supports exactly what we see today.
In true corporate fashion, the New Zealand government breached international labor relations to retain the production of the film. In bypassing the ILO convention on “freedom of association”, the government was “extorted” by the film’s producers which were given an unfair subsidy to protect multinational business interests. Does this sound like extortion to you or the men being led to the mountain only to be told the gold is not theirs…? We’d like some kickbacks from this franchise but we certainly question those who are in need who are responsible ultimately for its creation.
Those New Zealand stories, Lloyd Allan. Can you give any links – the mountains, the Gold, the Hobbit, the NZ gov ??? I’m fascinated. I’d really like to get chapter and verse.
We have our own small but thriving film industry here – but the supposed ‘jewel in the crown’ is ‘Game of Thrones’ – shot largely on location here. That’s mostly just a sex-and-violence fest, as far as I could stomach it – and ultra-vulgar in some respects. Imagine conceiving of thousands of years of swordplay, jousting, butchery, betrayal, rape, incest – with no one waking up to the mimetic wretchedness of it all, or inventing gunpowder.
I’m told the author was dissatisfied with the first draft of the penultimate novel and destroyed it – so does he know where he is going?
Tolkien had a compass, but does George RR Martin? Or the NI film industry?
Wikepedia will give you everything you really want to know about the film the Hobbit – with an explanation of the story-line with spoilers…and the New Zealand film was world wide news coverage so it is included in the article as well. Listen, everyone who has a compass, or claims to have one based on work this illustrious and grandiose today, is really the antagonist of the story in the Hobbit – the gold sick king who will do anything to secure his keep. The problem is everywhere there are protagonists like me who can keep the “money-ill” in check, like Bilbo Baggins was to Thorin Oakenshield in the story. And he managed to do so throughout the film with a clear heart and a simple trick of disappearance and observation to save the whole lot. Bilbo was certainly the prophet of the film.
And the Davos group’s meeting in Switzerland this year is what kicked it off. They are seemingly awaiting Gandalf to recruit Bilbo Baggins to save the day…lol. Funny thing is – in 17 years, I’ve pretty much figured out what needs to be done.
Many thanks, LLoyd Allan.
Here is a link to the documentary : the Century of the Self. I think this information and Girard’s ideas walk hand in hand together. Although the 1920’s calls for something that Freud had uncovered during his theories on psychoanalysis.
I often come back to revisit these articles to see if they still hold weight or in fact predict Catholicism’s next move. I made this a priority some years ago – report on what it is that was important, universally, and see if the entry to the universe could take hold.
In this wonderful document, “tax” and “taxation” is mentioned no fewer than 15 times. Ireland has made unbelievable leaps towards a fossil-free status. That sadly doesn’t close a loop that is being exploited and enhancing exploitation the world over. Tax avoidance schemes are a threat to humanity in more ways than one.
There are things to do and at best, we stay one step ahead of these detractors at all times. It’s a full time job to curb mimetic desire and luckily we were given the “book” to do it. With open ears and eyes and our hearts focused on the future, we channel the wishes of our children and project them to the present in building the future that guarantees their survival. It’s our universal livelihood first and foremost and everything we do after that becomes our cultural identity.
We have to reclaim this first important universal identity before we can claim to have any culture beyond that. This is not our legacy.
Here is my succinct (1-page) summary of René Girard’s Theory of Contagion.
“Skandalon is what makes it so hard not to take the bait, so hard just to walk away.”
Exactly, Barry. That page is an excellent summary of Mimetic Theory OK – thanks for it!
The most troubling political examples just now are (from my viewpoint) NI (UK) and the USA, but it amazes me that no one ever twigs that e.g. ‘Mastermind’ and the UK’s ‘University Challenge’ are driven by the same dynamic. General knowledge quizzes are far less dangerous than gang violence – but it is mainly economic/educational privilege that makes the difference.
It’s time someone set a top Oxford/Cambridge team up against a supercomputer programmed for ‘Mastermind’. René saw far more by spotting the patterns.
Imagine 6 years later, being referenced by the P2P Foundation. Michel Bauwens has been associated with two pontifical commissions and is a globally recognized commons-based researcher.