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  • Mimetic Theory and Its Rivals:A Reply to Pablo Bandera
  • Richard van Oort (bio)

There are three ways to respond to a rival theory. You can ignore it, you can assimilate it to what you already believe, or you can assess its merits independently and then either reject it or adopt it as the better, more powerful theory. Let us briefly review these three strategies.

  1. 1. Assuming you are already in possession of a sufficiently powerful theory, a safe bet is simply to ignore the newcomer. Contrary to appearances, this is not a totally unreasonable strategy. Time is in short supply. Those in possession of a theory adequate to their purposes will naturally be hesitant to investigate a new one, the understanding of which may require considerable investment in time and imaginative effort. Better to let others do the risky and quite possibly foolhardy work of inventing and elaborating new theories. Chances are their attempts will fail anyway. Truly original ideas are hard to come by and, given this fact, it only makes sense to stick with what works rather than waste time on unfamiliar and unproven ideas.

  2. 2. The second response is, on the surface at least, more gracious and benevolent, but this benevolence masks an intransigence quite as dogmatic [End Page 189] as the first. Thus we welcome the new theory into the fold, but with a view to assimilating it to what we already know. The new theory is not our rival but our friend. Rather than emphasize the differences, we point to the theory's similarities with our existing framework. The new theory is said to improve our understanding of one or two details, but these are held to be merely minor modifications and not at odds with what we hold to be fundamentally true. Thus the new theory is not really new at all. It is but another disciple of the old. Its claim to a place at the table is not at the head, as a rival leader and master, but alongside the other disciples whose collective task it is to disseminate the teachings of the one true master. This strategy is in fact extremely common and entirely understandable, from the viewpoint of both the adherents of the old theory and those of the new. For while the adherents of the old theory receive further confirmation of the superiority of their way of looking at the world, the adherents of the new theory receive a measure of respect by gaining access to an existing center of attention. As we all know, the mimetic attention space is by definition limited. We can't focus on everything at once, and sometimes the best strategy for a new theory is, so to speak, to follow the money. One piggybacks on the existing centers of attention. But the drawback is that the more one piggybacks, the less "new" one becomes.

  3. 3. The third and final response is to take the new theory seriously as a rival center of attention. But this forces us into a genuine dilemma. For now we have to choose between theories that are accepted, for the time being at least, as equals in terms of their rivalry for our attention. But if both claim to be equally foundational, equally deserving of our attention to first things, then both cannot be equally true. One theory must come first; one must be superior to the other. But which?

In a recent issue of Contagion, Pablo Bandera urges Girardians to adopt the third strategy when assessing Eric Gans's generative anthropology.1 We must recognize the theory's status as a genuine rival. Bandera believes that once the assessment has been fairly made, we must end up rejecting Gans's theory, at least insofar as it purports to be a theory of mimetic desire. The trouble is, Bandera claims, that most Girardians have adopted the second strategy, that is, they have simply assimilated Gans as a (slightly modified) version of Girard, without bothering to notice the very real differences between the two. The first strategy, complete ignorance of Gans's work, Bandera believes to be inaccurate as a description of the current situation. Indeed, he goes so...


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pp. 189-203
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