Monday, February 4, 2013
Alsion 2 of 9
2. Desire according to the other
The understanding of desire which Girard has been putting forward for almost half a century, and which is often referred to as “mimetic” is about as far removed from this picture as you can get. The key phrase which I never tire of repeating is “We desire according to the desire of the other”. It is the social other, the social world which surrounds us, which moves us to desire, to want, and to act. This doesn’t sound particularly challenging when it is illustrated in the way the entertainment industry creates celebrities, or the advertising profession manages to make particular objects or brands desirable. For few of us are so grandiose as to deny that some of our desires show us as being easily led and susceptible to suggestion. It becomes much more challenging when it is claimed that in fact it is not some of our desires that are being talked about, but the whole way in which we humans are structured by desire.
For what Girard is pointing out is that humans are those animals in which even basic biological instincts (which of course exist, and are not the same thing as desire) are run by the social other within which the instinct-bearing body is born. In fact, our capacity to receive and deal with our instincts is given to us through our being drawn towards the social other which inducts us into living as this sort of animal, by reproducing itself within us. And what makes this draw possible is the hugely developed capacity for imitation which sets our species apart from our nearest simian relatives.
Thus, to cut a long story short: gesture, language and memory are not only things which “we” learn, as though there were an “I” that was doing the learning. Rather it is the case that, through this body being imitatively drawn into the life of the social other, gesture, language and memory form an “I” that is in fact one of the symptoms, one of the epiphenomena, of that social other. This “I” is much more highly malleable than it is comfortable to admit. And even more difficult: it is not the “I” that has desires, it is desire that forms and sustains the “I”. The “I” is something like a snapshot in time of the relationships which preexist it and one of whose symptoms it is.
This picture is severely unflattering in that it seems to un-anchor the “I” from a cosily sacred certainty of being “something basically good in the midst of a somewhat ‘iffy’ world”. Instead it points out that it is not so much that we are afloat on a dangerous sea, as that we are the dangerous sea we are afloat on. Our economic systems, our military conflicts, our erotic life, our ways of keeping law and order are all part of each other, run by the same patterns of desire. Or in other words, we humans are not only slightly affected by, but are actually run by, a culture of war, and of violence. We are found as the species which acts in groups to grab at identity “over against” some conveniently designated other; and which relies on a violent contrast in order to survive, and to define value and forge culture.
As you can imagine, prayer is going to look somewhat different if this is the sort of animal who is to be doing the praying. Because in this picture, prayer is going to start from the presupposition that we all desire according to the desire of the other. It is going to raise the question: Yes, but which other? We know there is a social other which gives us desire and moves us this way and that. But is there Another Other, who is not part of the social other, and who has an entirely different pattern of desire into which it is seeking to induct us? That of course is the great Hebrew question, the discovery of God who is not-one-of-the-gods, and our texts on prayer are part of our way into becoming part of the great Hebrew answer.