I’ve blogged about the French-born anthropologist Rene Girard before (here’s my summary of key Girardian ideas); what I find particularly insightful in his work is the emphasis he places on how our desires develop through mimesis. In other words, we learn what to desire often just by imitating others. A few Girardian moments this summer reminded me of the validity of this point.
The first came at the first birthday party of my niece, the adorable Chloe, who I’ve mentioned before. Chloe has idiosyncratic tastes; she’s as often interested in gnawing on someone’s shoe or a newspaper as she is in playing with her toys. The one thing you can do to make her more interested in the toys, however, is to start playing with them yourself. Once Chloe notices someone else playing with a toy, she crawls resolutely across the floor and takes it from them! Mimetic desire starts early.
I thought of Girard again in northeast India when the fifth graders in the remote mountain village where I taught started flashing gang signs whenever I took their picture. Of course, when I asked them what they were doing and why, they had no real idea—they were just imitating something they had seen on TV.
I should back up a bit here and say that even though the village where I worked has no telephone connections, paved roads, refrigeration, radio reception, or indoor plumbing, nearly every house has satellite TV. An enduring image of the journey will be that of The Dish sticking out from under the thatched roofs of bamboo huts.
Satellite TV is a mixed blessing. Having it meant that I could watch the World Cup this summer (an especially mixed blessing given Italy’s atrocious performance), but it also means that village children are subject to all the influences present in the Western entertainment media.
Not that all the media influences are Western. I often found my students using the phrase “dressing Korean” to describe each other’s appearances. Upon investigation, I learned that Korean telenovelas are wildly popular in northeast India (perhaps more popular than in Korea). I didn’t watch any myself, but from descriptions I heard, the genre seems to consist mostly of melancholy tales of unrequited love with names like “Eternal Autumn” and “Spring Never Comes.”
Imitating the fashions seen in these Korean television series—spiky hair, black and white checks, pants which tighten around the calves—is known as dressing Korean. Some of the students at Jesuit schools I visited even altered their school uniforms in order to make them more “Korean.” (A word of warning to any Indian student out there contemplating doing so: altering your uniform will not go over well with the Jesuits or the nuns at your school. Don’t even think about it.)
The point of this digression into South Korean film and fashion is that we human beings often mimic what we see without really considering why, without questioning whether it is good or bad to do so. Girard points out how this irrational process can even lead to violence. Another point, important if not original, is simply the power of the global media to influence our desires in profound and dramatic ways.
As I alluded to in last week’s post, I found something refreshing about living in a “Third World Church,” removed from many of the distractions and complications we confuse ourselves with in the wealthy West. When I left the village I spent an afternoon depressed and agitated at the Jesuit regional headquarters in Guwahati because I had picked up an issue of the British Catholic magazine The Tablet. Now, I have no particular beef with The Tablet, nor with the articles in that issue, but reading the magazine that afternoon reminded me of all the acrimony and politics that so often characterizes the life of the Church in the West, everything I had left behind for the summer.
As I acknowledged a few weeks ago, contention and politics are part of living in any human community and the Church is no exception, but I felt a real desire at that moment to head back to the village, to what seemed a simpler, purer life. In some ways, life in a mountain village really is simpler and purer—but today even mountain villages have The Dish. For better or for worse, the West, and America particularly, is an exporter of culture, and this makes the Western missionary field a particularly important one.
It is a complex mission field to be sure and one where, particularly in the realm of media and popular culture, we face many built-in disadvantages. But this mission field—at times this battlefield—is so important we simply cannot ignore it. We have to fight the good fight for our culture—for faith and truth and justice—even if that sometimes means muck and contention, weariness and cost, even if it means, sometimes, losing.
I’m always a little mystified when overseas at those aspects of American culture which become popular—why is Michael Jackson popular in Nagaland? What’s the appeal of the WWF to an Indian? It certainly doesn’t seem like the best aspects of our culture get the most play overseas, but perhaps there’s hope in the randomness of the process, in the mystery of it. Even with the odds against us, if we keep fighting, a little grace sometimes slips through, too.