Double Bind - Girard's Mimetic Double Bind

Girard's Mimetic Double Bind

René Girard, in his literary theory of mimetic desire, proposes what he calls a “model-obstacle”, a role model who demonstrates an object of desire and yet, in possessing that object, becomes a rival who obstructs fulfillment of the desire. According to Girard, the “internal mediation” of this mimetic dynamic “operates along the same lines as what Gregory Bateson called the ‘double bind’.” Girard found in Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory, a precursor to mimetic desire. “The individual who 'adjusts' has managed to relegate the two contradictory injunctions of the double bind—to imitate and not to imitate—to two different domains of application. This is, he divides reality in such a way as to neutralize the double bind.” While critical of Freud's doctrine of the unconscious mind, Girard sees the ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus the King, and key elements of Freud's Oedipus complex, patricidal and incestuous desire, to serve as prototypes for his own analysis of the mimetic double bind.

Far from being restricted to a limited number of pathological cases, as American theoreticians suggest, the double bind—a contradictory double imperative, or rather a whole network of contradictory imperatives—is an extremely common phenomenon. In fact, it is so common that it might be said to form the basis of all human relationships.

Bateson is undoubtedly correct in believing that the effects of the double bind on the child are particularly devastating. All the grown-up voices around him, beginning with those of the father and mother (voices which, in our society at least, speak for the culture with the force of established authority) exclaim in a variety of accents, “Imitate us!” “Imitate me!” “I bear the secret of life, of true being!” The more attentive the child is to these seductive words, and the more earnestly he responds to the suggestions emanating from all sides, the more devastating will be the eventual conflicts. The child possesses no perspective that will allow him to see things as they are. He has no basis for reasoned judgements, no means of foreseeing the metamorphosis of his model into a rival. This model's opposition reverberates in his mind like a terrible condemnation; he can only regard it as an act of excommunication. The future orientation of his desires—that is, the choice of his future models—will be significantly affected by the dichotomies of his childhood. In fact, these models will determine the shape of his personality.

If desire is allowed its own bent, its mimetic nature will almost always lead it into a double bind. The unchanneled mimetic impulse hurls itself blindly against the obstacle of a conflicting desire. It invites it own rebuffs and these rebuffs will in turn strengthen the mimetic inclination. We have, then, a self-perpetuating process, constantly increasing in simplicity and fervor. Whenever the disciple borrows from his model what he believes to be the “true” object, he tries to possess that truth by desiring precisely what this model desires. Whenever he sees himself closest to the supreme goal, he comes into violent conflict with a rival. By a mental shortcut that is both eminently logical and self-defeating, he convinces himself that the violence itself is the most distinctive attribute of this supreme goal! Ever afterward, violence will invariably awaken desire... —René Girard, Violence and the Sacred “From Mimetic Desire to the Monstrous Double”, pp.156–157

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