The Mimetic Theory: Listening to Madonna with Girard

Today as I exercised, a song by Madonna called Celebration came on, and I was struck by one of the lyrics:

And if it makes you feel good then I say do it
The lyric is one of the best, most compact examples of the Mimetic Theory I have ever encountered, and I was unable to stop thinking about it for the rest of the day.  Now, with my children in bed, and some time to reflect, I wanted to spend some time thinking about this line.

The Mimetic Theory is the work of French thinker and writer, René Girard.  Girard is one of the people who has most influenced my own thinking, and his ideas are never far from my own reading of the world.

What is the Mimetic Theory?  First, mimesis comes from the Greek, mimetikos, and means imitation.  We still hear its echo in our English word 'mime.'  Girard develops a theory of relation based on mimesis, which is a kind of unconscious imitation of others.  We experience the world, and have our desires shaped by those around us.  Girard stresses that we are unaware that we do this.  The Other, what Girard calls the Model, mediates reality (i.e., the world, experiences, specific assumptions about life, etc.) to us, to the subject.  As humans we are constituted by the other, the self is a set of mimetic relationships operative in the individual, both in the present and from the past.  Here is Girard discussing his theory at a conference last year:

The Mimetic Theory says that our desire, our experience of the world, is mediated through the other, that our desire is the desire of the other.  His thought will later pick-up on the problem of this circularity, where my desire is yours, and yours mine, and develop a theory to explain violence, and still later, the operation of the scapegoat and sacrifice.  But without getting into that now, let us return to this song by Madonna.  Here again is the line:

And if it makes you feel good then I say do it
If you listen to the rest of the song, and even in this line itself, there is clearly a conversation with another person--the speaker is talking to the boy with "a reputation."  This line is the response to a question we never hear uttered, but is implied: "Should I do this?"  In terms of the Mimetic Theory, this question is the only question, it is always asked, regardless of whether it is uttered.  The song is filled with the hesitation of the other--"I don’t know what you’re waiting for"--who waits for a response to the question.  Both the speaker and the other negotiate with one another, trying to get a response.

At first reading the answer to this question is obvious and plainly stated--of course, if it feels good to you, you should do it.  But then we are forced to return to the dialogic nature of the line; this is a response.  Obviously the fact that it feels good is not enough (i.e., it would have felt good or not regardless of this exchange with the speaker).  That it feels good is clearly not enough because if that is all it took to come to a decision, the decision would have been made.  No, one needs something else and specifically, the permission of the other--"if it makes you feel good then I say do it."  The question belies the fact that the desire is not for what feels good, but for what the other would want him to do, for what the other desires.  This is further emphasized through the use of the imperative by the speaker who is forced to command, "I say do it."  This is the first side of Girard's mimetic triangle.

The second side is also visible in the exchange.  The speaker makes her suggestion to the other based not on the action itself, or anything she can know about it, but on the experience of the action to the other.  We never know what the action is, nor does it matter.  The speaker responds not to the action or its implications, but only to the other's experience of it: if it feels good to you.  Said another way, she reveals her desire as being the desire of the other.  All the while, the quick and compact nature of the response, and the omission of the question itself, emphasizes the unconscious nature of the exchange.  The song wants us to believe that this is nothing more than innuendo about the desire for the other.  The speaker and the other clearly know no different.  However, we see that this is not so.

There is no object of desire, but only the desire for the desire of the other, only the imitation of the other.  Girard stumbled on this idea while reading Proust, but one need not look any further than today's popular culture to find further evidence of it.  I don't typically enjoy listening to Madonna, but this was a pleasant surprise indeed.

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