25 Anti-Mimetic Tactics for Living a Counter-Cultural Life

The social rewards that come from imitating others feel good, but they come at a high price

Luke Burgis

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Only live fish can swim upstream; dead fish float downstream. Don’t be a dead fish.

Sometimes going with the flow is nice. Nobody wants to be the disagreeable, anti-mimetic guy in a group that makes it impossible to gain consensus among a group of friends about where to grab a beer or a bite to eat. And I consider it a positive thing to be infected by the calm, even lazy, disposition of a non-workaholic friend if that helps you chill on Sunday and make good on the day of rest.

The word ‘mimetic’ was coined by the French social theorist René Girard. It is related to the word ‘mimic’—the human propensity to mimic what the people around them are doing. But Girard’s finding went deeper: it’s not only what they do, but what they want that we also mimic. We adopt their desires as our own, unconsciously—and then convince ourselves that our desires are entirely our own. He called this mimetic desire, and I’ve written about it extensively in my book Wanting.

Below are some of the ways that we may cultivate some ‘anti-mimetic’ habits so that we’re not constantly struggling to keep up in the hamster wheel of desire that most of the people around us are running on—and reinforcing the wheel for one another. I hope some of these tactics will help you step off and chart your own course a bit more easily.

As nice as it is to ‘fit in’, there are other times when it’s necessary to exercise self-possession, freedom, and intentionality to choose a course of action that isn’t quite so mimeticthat is not primarily the product of social imitation but the product of our innermost sanctum: our conscience, our understanding of our vocation, our deliberate and fully ‘owned’ choice of what we believe to be true, good, and beautiful. It is through these kind of intentional acts that we become who we are.

Being “anti-mimetic” does not mean being a ‘contrarian’ or refusing to imitate one’s peers. That’s what every hipster thinks he’s doing, too. “Everyone leaves the beaten path only to fall into the same ditch,” wrote the social theorist René Girard, the father of mimetic theory. This kind of naive rejection of the culture is not what we’re talking about here.

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Luke Burgis

Author of “WANTING: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life.” Find more at read.lukeburgis.com