Rieger on the Production of Desire, Keeping Up With the Joneses, and a Riff on Girard’s “Mimetic Desire”

Beyond-the-Spirit-of-EmpireIn his book, Beyond the Spirit of Empire:  Theology and Politics in a New Key,  co-authored with Néstor Míguez and Jung Mo Sung, Joerg Rieger discusses how the production of a specific kind of desire functions within capitalistic Empires.  “Demand is infinite since, unlike needs, desires are infinite as well.  Thus, unlimited desire provides the basis for unlimited consumerism.  As a result, limited resources must be negotiated with potentially infinite desires” (58).  Rieger then turns to Girard’s notion of “mimetic desire.”  As its name indicates, mimetic desire is “not the ordinary desire of particular objects but the imitation of other people’s desire”[1] (58).  On this model, a “conflictual relation” emerges between the one who imitates another’s desire and the one whose desire is imitated.[2] This kind of struggle or conflict relation does not apply merely to individuals but to relations between larger social configurations.  As one can imagine, poorer nations often find their natural resources exploited, not to mention the exploitation of workers, that is, human beings de-valued and transformed into a cheap labor force so that desires of the wealthy can be satiated—not that they actually are satiated.  Such inhumane, instrumental treatment of course affects how the poor perceive themselves.  The poor, however, are not the only ones whose  subjectivities are shaped (internally and externally) by this never-ending-always-chasing-after-more social apparatus, the subjectivities of the wealthy are likewise constructed.  As Rieger explains,

Mimetic desire helps us to understand some of the deeper levels of human relationships and subjectivity under the current conditions of Empire, Subjectivity itself becomes what we might call ‘mimetic subjectivity’.  Competition is not simply based on the scarcity of desirable objects, as is often assumed, it is based on mimetic desire.  What drives economic progress, consumption, and the progress of the structures of Empire from this point of view, is that others want what the wealthy already have.  The result is the extraordinarily intense competition that has come to be accepted as the essence of free-market economies.  It is not hard to see that there is little room for [… ] an active subject, except at the very top of society.  But even there a constant battle ensues about who tops the lists, who is wealthier and more powerful, […] Mimetic desire can never be satisfied.  The problem is compounded, of course, for those who cannot keep up. When they are drawn into this system, they can only perceive themselves as failures, as theorists from the Southern Hemisphere have pointed out.  What makes this mimetic desire so effective in the pursuit of Empire is that it seems to have a snowball effect, and it seems that we are witnessing this effect in extreme forms today.  Moreover, there is a built-in reciprocity that leads to further escalation, since, in Girard’s words, “the model is likely to be mimetically affected by the desire of its imitator’ [Girard, “Mimesis and Violence,” 12] (48-49).


[1] See Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 146

[2] Ibid., 147.

2 thoughts on “Rieger on the Production of Desire, Keeping Up With the Joneses, and a Riff on Girard’s “Mimetic Desire””

  1. Great to see engagement with Girard on this issue. Does Rieger discuss the Christological formation of ‘pacific’ desire? I wonder about his way ‘beyond’ the Spirit of Empire.

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