Monday, July 15, 2013

Thoughts on Desire

I had a wonderful weekend at the annual COV&R conference held at the University of Northern Iowa. The Colloquium On Violence & Religion meets annually to reflect upon, discuss, and develop the insights of René Girard and his mimetic theory.

Now, using the phrase "mimetic theory" is sure to raise eyebrows. Rather than trying to give an abstract explanation of it, let me use a really popular commercial from 2011. Remember this one:

What is it that is being sold? If you said a Chrysler 200, you're right...but only in a sense. If they wanted to tell you how great a car it was, they could simply have put up the statistics and done some cross-comparisons between the Chrysler 200 and other models. Yet this is not the strategy employed, for Chrysler is not interested only in selling a product. They are trying to sell you a way of life. In fancy language, they are selling an ontology but, since I still drink beer out of a bottle rather than a glass, let's stick with "way of life."

Theorist RenĂ© Girard has dedicated himself to exploring the contours of human desire. His insight is that desire is mimetic or imitative. The handy catch-phrase might be articulated as "I desire according to the desire of another." How is it that a person comes to desire anything at all? By observing what others want.

Quick thought experiment: you know how sometimes you bring home leftovers without any thought of actually eating them? You push the container into the refrigerator and resign yourself to throwing them out in a week...until your spouse or roommate comes by and eats them. "Hey! I wanted that!!" Did you, though? Why is it that you want it now, all of a sudden?

If you have kids, you know that there are certain treats that often go uneaten. Like purple popsicles. Especially that last remaining purple popsicle, slightly melted, buried in the back of the freezer. God forbid one of your children dare to eat it in the presence of another child. Won't it elicit the "HEY!! That's mine!! I was saving that!"

Or imagine a three-year old with 20 toys set out before him. He can have any toy he wants but which one will he want? He will want the very toy that some other baby will choose. From infancy, perhaps, it is true that "I desire according to the desire of another."

Watch the commercial. Look at what Chrysler is really selling. You have Gospel music (music originating in the experiences of slavery, of oppression, and that gives rise to hope) and Eminem juxtaposed: the old and the new. You have gritty images of abandoned buildings, rough edges, yet these are played off against images of real people doing everyday things. You are confronted with a sense that this is a city that has stared into the abyss of nothingness and has, somehow, managed to pull itself back from the brink.

Thus, when you buy the Chrysler, you aren't buying just a car. You are buying a lifestyle, a way of "being in the world." In buying the 200, you buy not just an automobile, but a statement of your life's values. The commercial shows you a way of life in accordance with a come-from-behind type of city. Who, after all, doesn't love the underdog?

If you don't believe me, start watching commercials. It's funny that marketing agencies know how to influence our way of seeing reality, but too often we neglect this fundamental dimension of being human. We think ourselves immune to suggestion, we see ourselves as autonomous in our decision making but, it might be worthwhile to consider, why do you wear the brand of clothing you do? Drive the car you do? Live in the type of house you do? 

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