Girardean mimesis, Bourdieusean distinction
S. Rashani 1999, The Eternal Tao—Mimesis and Distinction in Everyday Life:
From Girard, we learn that a man’s observation of his neighbors shapes, in a serious way, the form of his own desires. That desire does not so much originate in a “natural,” pristine, and pre-social self—to be discovered within—but is deeply social, located outside the self. We will refer to this social construction of desire as the call to convention and kinship—a kinship, paradoxically, attained via conflict.
Simultaneously, Bourdieu points us toward our drive for distinction. We seek constantly to differentiate ourselves, to set ourselves apart from those around us, establish a niche into which we might slip and say, “We are not like them.” The motivation for this drive is economic in the broad sense of being capital-driven (financial, social, sexual)—perhaps is even an existential imperative. To the information theorist, distinctiveness is a prerequisite for the possession of identity.
Our identities are products of the ongoing negotiation between these contrary impulses, which like the horses used to draw-and-quarter medieval prisoners, threaten constantly to tear a self apart. “Like these people, but not like those” sings the ego, modified masochistically by Groucho Marx. Once a club accepts us, we discount the value of its invite, climbing ever upward, re-weighting our social ambitions. We differentiate ourselves to reach a subculture; we feel we have boarded the “mothership,” and found our “people”; soon after, we begin our rebellion, or are acculturated into pre-exisitng party lines. (Narcissism of small differences.) To borrow a term from the new CSS2 programming language, our signals are never “absolute positioned,” always relative-positioned; they are geared toward an audience of near-comrades, showcasing the ways we are different and the ways we are similar.[^1] To belong, and to be exceptional. We live under the threat of forgetting the similarity—of emphasizing our differences while leaving the overlap unvoiced and implicit. But is this a threat, or a natural evolution of our assumption ground? A subculture looks much different to an insider than an outsider: heterogeneity, instead of homogeneity; a landscape of conflicts and micropolitics replacing a unified field. As our belonging becomes taken for granted, our sense of self shifts, slowly, to emphasize intra- over inter-, this landscape of subdivision, an ever-receding tribe. Old “thems” are forgotten; the old “us” fragments into a new “us” and several “thems.”
In the Girardean frame, because our desires are inevitably over scarce resources, our shared desiring brings us into conflict. In light of Bourdieu we might say that it is specifically status and distinction (identity) which are the central contestations between mimetic rivals.
[^1] What would an “absolute position” look like, after all? Cartesian coordinates are themselves a system of relative position; the absolute position of CSS is merely relative to the browser window’s edge.