What Is 'Mimetic Desire'?

Christopher Fowler
'I'm either taking feminist studies in eighties Hollywood films or unleashing my inner fairy,' I was told by an intelligent, educated young woman deciding on university courses. She seemed (to me at least) to have so little understanding of her own identity that these were being held before her in equal balance as viable alternatives. Mimetic desire became the late 20th century's defining consumerist characteristic. If you don't know what you are, who you are or what you want to be, you watch others for clues. You see what they like and subconsciously adopt their tastes, their style, their politics. This is an idea with deep Christian theological roots. Most human behaviour is based on imitation. These copycat desires create a conflict within us, so we use a scapegoat to restore balance.  Imitation is an unavoidable trait, but it's not necessarily bad. Creative people base themselves on outside influences at first; we have to start somewhere. We roughly want the same things, which means we'll have rivals for them who need to be discredited, or un-believed. We also have shared memories; Skeuomorphism is an offshoot of these - that little bin which makes a noise of crumpled paper when you empty it from your laptop is one. Its form is a distant physical memory now translated to an all-purpose symbol you feel comfortable with. What if you don't have mimetic desires? My husband seems entirely unaffected by outside influences of any kind. He's hardly ever seen a TV commercial and has few shared experiences to attach to his needs and desires. His opinions seem to have been born free-standing from the partisan gathering of information. He feels free to make his own decisions even if they sometimes set him against his peers. Meanwhile, my young friend opted for her inner fairy combined with her innate feminism, and became a lingerie model.Then she set up her own company. She did terribly well.  


Helen+Martin (not verified) Thu, 08/12/2022 - 18:23

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"She did terribly well." Her choice may not have been so bad, then, and may have actually reflected her inner self. I don't think most of us would recognize our inner selves if they rose up and whacked us alongside the head. Sorry, Chris, but it all seems like black magic to me and not very helpful.

Ace (not verified) Thu, 08/12/2022 - 20:29

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

What a complicated lot these humans are eh, wot admin ? May I suggest adding 'expectations' to life's libretto: actual or imposed, perceived and lacking ? We develop them one way or another from our earliest sentient days and I have to believe they underlie mimetic desire to a large extent. I seem to recall from 'Paperboy,' there were few expectations placed on your thin shoulders, other than perhaps not killing local cats or taking shortcuts through neighboring gardens. Although (and certainly correct me, if I misspeak from memory here) your mother tacitly approved of your obsession with words, she did little directly to raise the expectation that one day you would earn a life and a living from them. You did that pretty much on your own with perhaps the help of the fictional characters who served as intellectual chaperones during your formative years. Then, as a successful author, you were faced with a whole new set of expectations from publishers, agents and the reading public --- and the awareness of the power imitation holds over the publishing industry. Not sure we ever know who we "really" are, as Helen suggests -- and, in fact, if there is a quintessential  "us" as opposed to a kind of personal, psychic Rubik's Cube made up of faces formed by others

Brooke (not verified) Thu, 08/12/2022 - 22:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

What Helen said. Too much like a disorganized TED-Talk. Except the paragraph about Pete whose unfiltered perspective I would love to hear.

Ace (not verified) Fri, 09/12/2022 - 00:33

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'm with Brooke. Only fair we hear from the defendant. In the absence of the husband's testimony, a working hypothesis for his 'rugged individualism' might be that growing up a Kiwi, the only true (and closest) outside influences were probably Australian (I'm quick to add that some my best friends are Aussies). Then there is the fact that living on one of the world's most earthquake-prone landmass for any length of time does tend to make you generally more wary, if not excessively self-sufficient. Just a theory, mind.

Peter T (not verified) Fri, 09/12/2022 - 09:35

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I followed a path into engineering rather than the obvious alternatives, because, even if things didnt go well, I wouldn't end up a school teacher, a profession for which I realised I was totally unsuitable. Now, you reveal my error, I should have become a lingerie model. Oh well, success and failure, imposters, etc. We may criticise Kipling and his work, but he deserved a Nob Lau just for those wise words.

Hazel Jackson (not verified) Fri, 09/12/2022 - 12:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

My husband sounds just like yours, Chris.

Brooke (not verified) Fri, 09/12/2022 - 13:35

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Peter T: it's a joy to read your comment.

Brooke (not verified) Fri, 09/12/2022 - 14:21

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Mr. Fowler, Is your friend a baroness by chance?
And I think "her innate femininity," rather than "innate feminism" would be a more appropriate description. Being successful in "male gaze" enterprises has little to do with feminism.

snowy (not verified) Fri, 09/12/2022 - 17:55

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Hmmm.... Tough crowd!

Mimetic desire is... something of a fringe theory in French philosophical thought, [regarded within more mainstream circles as 'les conneries totale'].


[It hasn't stopped the creation of a slew of Mimetic Desire Self-Help books though, all much less useful than: 'Bombproof Your Horse', 'Collectible Spoons of the 3rd Reich', 'Knitting With Dog Hair: Better a Sweater from a Dog You Know and Love Than from a Sheep You'll Never Meet', 'How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You' and 'Everything I Know About Women I Learned from My Tractor'].

L Anderson (not verified) Fri, 09/12/2022 - 17:59

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Reading your post lifted my spirits. It’s good to know I’m not alone.

Brooke (not verified) Fri, 09/12/2022 - 19:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Dear Snowy, thank for the holiday gift books suggestions. I was running out of ideas.

Re: our recent conversation, P. Everett's The Trees won the Wodehouse prize for funniest novel of 2022. The book made all the usual "best 2022" lists here in the States. .

Paul c (not verified) Fri, 09/12/2022 - 19:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Mimetic desire - as a teenager I wanted to be Houdini, Elvis and Mark Twain. I think those ships may have sailed....

My books of the year are the 3 books by ex surgeon Henry Marsh which i've just discovered. A genuinely great man.

Ace (not verified) Fri, 09/12/2022 - 20:02

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It strikes me that while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery (according to the great Oscar), it is more likely to get you sued these days.

snowy (not verified) Fri, 09/12/2022 - 23:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

B, I thought it might, it had a sort of... 'popular appeal', here it lost out to 'The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida' by Shehan Karunatilaka in the Booker Prize.

An alternative for anybody tempted into buying a rubbish book that your intended <del>victim</del> recipient will doubtless discard, is to buy them a nice bound notebook and then create a fake dust jacket for it. [Online book cover creators abound, though quality and ease of use varies considerably].

Jo W (not verified) Sat, 10/12/2022 - 06:38

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Good morning all. I’ve realised that by reading the comments on this blog, written by the wise and great Christopher, my mimetic desire to be silly and slightly skewed has happened. Yes!
Btw Snowy, do you know where I can track down a copy of Bombproof Your Horse, I’m in a quandary about a festive present for ‘im indoors.

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Sat, 10/12/2022 - 11:14

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I wanted to be a librarian so that I could read all the books, or a mounted policeman so that I could ride a horse. Trouble was, women weren’t allowed in the mounted force, and I didn’t really fancy the rest of the job.
Aren’t cats always plotting to kill you?

snowy (not verified) Sat, 10/12/2022 - 12:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Jo, I was very disappointed by the book, I followed the instructions to the letter and it didn't work.

[P.S. Anybody interested in 147 bags of very cheap mince?]

Jo W (not verified) Sat, 10/12/2022 - 13:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Oh Snowy!! YUKKKKK,

See, I said this is where to be infected with silly, really silly. ;-)

Peter T (not verified) Sat, 10/12/2022 - 17:14

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

In fact proper dogs, sheepdog type dogs, not the rat type things that some regards as dogs, proper dogs have a layer of furry hair that you're only aware of if you brush them. The furry stuff would be suitable for spinning and knitting. It could be made into pullovers for the rat types. I'm sure the lingerie model would buy one for her rat, especially if it were dyed pink.

Ace (not verified) Sat, 10/12/2022 - 18:23

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Peter --- You've certainly opened a can of worms (or is it Pedigree ?) with your comment about 'proper' dogs. My Jack Russells would take exception to being called rodents --- also a large piece of your pant leg.

Wayne Mook (not verified) Sat, 10/12/2022 - 19:15

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Well the big thing up to the pandemic was FOMO, (Fear Of missing Out.) and many a tech company did their damndest to make people believe it, you just have to look at all the advertising to see the trend, perfume is usually the worst and they are now in really ugly gimmicky bottles, oh look a crap robot, a fake flower by an idiot trying to draw like a kid.....

In the innocent days of the past we had stars hawking cigarettes, a Ronald Reagan ad for chesterfield's also advertised his latest cinema smash, 'The Voice of the Turtle.' or Basil Rathbone extolling Fatima cigarettes, there is a whole load of vintage cig ads and the number of times it states this brand is smooth on the throat and other similar things it becomes apparent that they knew about the dangers of smoking.

Mimetic behaviour is one of the pillars of advertising, and sadly it does work.


Helen+Martin (not verified) Sat, 10/12/2022 - 22:15

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Ace, Jack Russells are certainly not any kind of undesirable rodent; quite the opposite in fact. Have you seen what a Jack Russell will do to your neighbourhood rat? It's what they were invented for. Who was Jack Russell any way. Don't worry I can look it up myself. The only problem with the smaller breeds is the tendency to be all over the place and loud with it. And it appears to be unnecessary because I watch all the dogs and their human attendants going by and those dogs are all quite polite, even the ones who are happiest dancing about on two legs.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Sat, 10/12/2022 - 22:21

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

There is no mention of rodents in the Kennel Club descriptions and the dogs were developed by a fox hunting parson. Am I confusing them with something else or do the kennel club people not want to admit that rats will haunt stables and other places where grain is stored?

Ronald Smyth (not verified) Sat, 10/12/2022 - 22:40

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

All your life people keep telling you who to be. Parents, teachers, pastors, friends, politicians, commercials. everyone. As I grow older (I'm seventy) I consider it more and more that deciding, for yourself, who you really are, is the most fundamentally important task a person has.

Ace (not verified) Sun, 11/12/2022 - 01:06

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Helen --- You're right --- they can be a handful especially when younger, as were my lads (brothers) --- but with some rigorous training and age, they have (more or less) mellowed. Still high-spirited with the energy that characterises the breed, but I don't know what they would do if they actually caught anything. May be the vestige of an inherited trait. They were originally bred, as you determined, for fox hunting, but only to pursue and bolt the fox, not physically attack it. They're content to terrorise squirrels, rabbits and sundry other small mammals, but more in the manner of pursuing animated playthings, not prey. And no, you're not confused. They are usually included among a number of other terriers dubbed 'ratters,' or those capable of taking up the vocation.

Martin Tolley (not verified) Sun, 11/12/2022 - 01:42

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Jack Russels are fine, but I couldn't eat a whole one.

Peter T (not verified) Sun, 11/12/2022 - 02:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Any animal that's had to survive by catching rats for fox hunters deserves a great deal of sympathy or better still some of Snowy's excellent mince.

chazza (not verified) Sun, 11/12/2022 - 14:02

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Someone, please shut down the human race...

Joan (not verified) Sun, 11/12/2022 - 14:41

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I have a ratter, a noisy clever Cairn Terrier! He shakes everything to death. My Mum told when she used to visit the farm when they were harvesting, the terriers used to grab the mice and rats fleeing and give them a good shake and toss them aside quickly. And he is smart enough not to retrieve, leaving that to dumber dogs!

Roger (not verified) Sun, 11/12/2022 - 20:04

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

" If you don’t know what you are, who you are or what you want to be, you watch others for clues."
You begin by trying to be someone else and end up turning into yourself.
Where did I go wrong?