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What to Want: Mimesis and the Unconscious

After doing some related reading, I have started the noted book. It looks to be extremely interesting and useful in my field.

What is mimesis?

First, I will clarify myself a bit here, from the first version of this post. Mimesis is not specifically about memes, as most of us refer to memes these days.

However, the process of the creation and imitation of memes can show mimesis at work, depending on what happens with the entertaining or annoying little memes on TikTok or captioned posters of cats.

Mimesis is, instead, a theoretical way of talking about how we come to our desires by wanting what others seem to want. It can also explain a lot about how we form identities (by identifying with our ‘models’), how rivalries begin, and more. Very useful for a modern psychology and in therapy.

The main explainer of the mimetic theory was Ren√© Girard. You may recognize the similarity between the word ‘mimesis’ and the words or ‘mime’ or (perhaps) ‘mimeograph’. I’ll stay with the example for now, but remember I am not limiting this to internet memes.

To look at memes within the structure of mimesis, note that people acknowledge memes and then put their own spin on them. Now, what might happen if everyone thought that they could be the only winner of fame and money for the best spin on a given meme?


  • The spins on memes come faster, but the originality gets thinner or less important.
  • If the contest seems vital to win, there will be conflict and competition.
  • In cases that are more serious than an internet meme (societal forces or interpersonal dynamics), the process can end badly:
  • That is, someone becomes a ‘scapegoat’ to blame and punish; a single target that benefits everyone else.

Everyone cooperates again–against the scapegoat.¬†Exile or worse. ‘Othering’. The envious aspects can be summed up by the saying, ‘crabs in a bucket [all prevent one from getting out]’. Etc.

More generally, mimesis is a process by which we develop and pursue desires, unaware of their sources.

Still, we sometimes insist we made up our own desires. That’s the ‘unconscious’ part: we are blind to their origins. In reality, aside from basic physical survival urges, we have choices but do not know what to want. We learn from others what we should desire.

But we almost always gloss over what we do not notice.

If we realized about mimesis, then the ‘self’ might seem empty and weakened. One connection I might try out is that we would feel a deep ‘lack’ and a compulsion to fill it (see David Loy).

Sounds like the dysfunctional part? This portion is. The other portion? Rebecca Adams had some very interesting things to say there. Her paper is quite helpful for giving hope and a bright face to these ideas.

Adams’ addition is that mimesis can be productive, expansive, and based in love.

  • Mimetic processes are not solely about the prevention, growth, and resolution of violence.
  • The solution also does not have to be a religious, transcendence to ‘jump out of’ the whole mess.
  • The key is to want to know the subjective realities of others, instead of wanting things and people like objects to be won.
  • If others want that too, there is no destructive rivalry. If they do not want to share, that is all right because one only wanted to see if they would help one to know. No rivalry.
  • Cooperation, mutuality, and appreciation emerge, instead of scapegoating, division, and envy.

Sound related to therapy, healthy family and friendships, mentorship, etc.? I say yes.

One thing I might venture is that mimetic processes can take place between two or more persons, or in the mind of just one person. We all have different ‘states’ or ‘parts’ that can get into conflict or that can help one another…

This book by Nidesh Lawtoo looks to be intriguing and useful

Here are some sentences (and summaries by me) I found in just the Introduction…

“The greatest part of our being is unknown to us…We have a phantom of the “ego” in our heads, which determines us many times over” -Nietzsche

Lawtoo explains he will talk not of simple imitation, but also a form of “unconscious communication” that can lead to questions about the boundaries and process of ‘being an individual’.

He includes processes like hypnosis, identification (identifying or identity), mind-body symptoms, extreme politics, magical beliefs, emotional contagion, mass media trends. He looks through lenses of crowd psychology (social psychology, sociology), anthropology, psychoanalysis. He states all these fields, and some classic authors of modernist fiction, sensed the same “phantom” coming and,

“warn modernity against the…dangers of appearing to be oneself, while being someone other.”

Timely in today’s society and media environment?

Lawtoo introduces this book as a door to the unconscious that is not based on the idea of repression but is, instead, based upon the untracked, unrecalled process of mimesis.

Looking forward to this ride. Hope you enjoyed my little thoughts as I start down this road.

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