It would hardly be controversial to mention beauty and desire in the same sentence. We desire to be beautiful, to own beautiful objects, to be with beautiful people. Yet, whilst many theories of beauty search for its origins and role, the nature of desire itself is often neglected. Our daily experiences assure us that desiring something is a conscious, spontaneous act. The things we desire are the things we have chosen. But what if this is not the case? What would this mean for a theory of beauty?
Rene Girard (b. 1923), a French anthropologist, literary critic and religious writer, questions the assumption that desire is conscious and spontaneous. He views desire as something that is formed in the relationships people have with each other rather than as something found within individuals themselves. Perhaps more importantly, he stresses that imitation underlies the relationships in which desire is created. He claims that "humans learn what to desire by taking other people as models to imitate." (1) In contrast to the Platonic tradition in philosophy in which wanting is separated from imitation, Girard's theory of mimetic desire is significant in its connection of these two concepts. As an example, my best friend who is more beautiful than me wants to buy a dress. The theory of mimetic desire says that I also want the dress, not because I believe it to be a beautiful dress but rather because it is a dress that is desired by my beautiful friend.
Two important points emerge from this scenario. The first is that my desire to have the dress is a direct response to the way in which I compare myself unfavourably with my friend. Moreover, by owning the dress she likes, I hope to take on the qualities I admire in her but perceive to be lacking in myself. In essence, I am trying to become my friend when I copy her desires. As Girard states, "aware of a lack within ourselves, we look to others to teach us what to value and who to be." (2) Desire is therefore about self-identity. Advertising can be seen to exploit this insight. How much more fiercely do we desire a product when it is pictured in the hands of a celebrity with whom we identify than when it is held by someone unknown?
The second point is that my friend is likely to take my imitation of her desire for the dress as a competitive threat especially if there is only one such dress hanging on the shop rail. As Girard writes, when "two hands reach for the same object simultaneously, conflict cannot fail to result." (3) However, mimetic desire is not limited to my friend and myself. It is present among whole communities of people. Think about the heated tension that characterises the "I must have" attitude of buyers in shop sales.
Interestingly, mimetic desire can also be observed in higher order apes, the species closest to the point of hominisation. A chimpanzee desires to have exactly the same banana that another desires, even when alternative bananas are available. Rivalry escalates until the weaker chimpanzee surrenders and the dominant chimpanzee wins the banana. However, Girard highlights an important difference in the resolution of such conflict among humans. He claims that we lose sight of the object that initiated our rivalry. We struggle instead to win prestige over our competitors. In other words, we forget about the banana. There is therefore no natural braking mechanism in violence among humans because the weaker will not surrender. Girard claims that order is only restored when a number of people join together as a community to punish an otherwise innocent scapegoat through acts of sanctioned violence.
The Aztec myth of the sacrifice of the god Tezcatlipoca illustrates this scapegoating mechanism. The reign of the god-king Quetzacoatl ended when the ostentatious behaviour of Tezcatlipoca led to social chaos among the people who admired him. These very people who first adored Tezcatlipoca now turned against him, slaying him horrifically. The social reconciliation that followed convinced the crowd that they had in fact slain a god. Temples were built and sacrifices offered to worship the god Tezcatlipoca. It is striking that this ancient Aztec story closely resembles the fortunes of such beautifully "deified" celebrities as Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana. Generating both admiration and envy among their adoring public, their mental health problems and untimely deaths are modern parallels to the slaying of Tezcatlipoca.
There is a sense in which the fashion industry itself is part of the scapegoating mechanism. We all want the same things and these are provided through the marketing of beauty products. On one side, many people profit from the consumption and exchange of goods. On the other side, however, there are many losers, or victims. Is the fashion industry, which has itself a limited life span, nothing more than a sacrificial procedure?
What does this mean for a theory of beauty? In answer to our original question, we can see that mimetic desire challenges traditional theories of beauty in a number of ways. Firstly, it argues that beauty as such may not exist as something that an object or person individually possesses, but is socially constructed through the imitation of another person's desire. This leads to the insight that the act of finding someone or something beautiful is ultimately about our own self-identity. Finally, competition and rivalry are revealed to be an inherent part of the desire for beauty. The creation of fashion scapegoats and beauty icons allows us not only to conceal our own insufficiency from ourselves, but also to avoid accepting responsibility for the part we all play in the processes of mimetic desire.
(1) Lefebure, L. D. (1996) 'Victims, violence and the sacred: the thought of Rene Girard' in The Christian Century , 113, 4, p. 1227.
(2) Ibid, p. 1227
(3) Girard, R. (1988) To Double Business Bound: Essays on Literature, Mimesis and Anthropology, John Hopkins University Press, p. 201
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