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.