affection is a mode of being of a particular “body” when another “body” is present.

affection is a mode of being of a particular “body” when another “body” is present.

Experience is the discursive flow of affections, and co-affections, through which self unfolds. (Pg.145)

From my reading of Spinoza (1677/1994), affection is a mode of being of a particular “body” when another “body” is present. (Pg.145)

The desire for self-continuity, then, is the referent in relation to which both affects and ideas occur. When self-perseveration is delayed, sadness emerges. On the contrary, when perseveration is facilitated, happiness emerges. (Pg.146)

Experience is an activity whose starting point is difference, divergence, and tension, and whose main operation may be defined as articulation, or in Zittoun and Gillespie’s words, integration. However, from this point of view, what is integrated is not experiences but rather “pieces of meaning,” affections.

Zittoun and Gillespie (this volume) make an important contribution in trying to conceptualize the diversity involved in psychological life. Using the notion of affection I also see distinctive dimensions of this difference. First, there is a diverse range of forms that alterity may take (forms of affection) and through which it may affect: ideas, concepts, gestures, recallings, stories, motor responses, works of art and dreams, among others. Second, there are different performative functions of affections (many of which may be involved in one affection). For instance, to critique, to agree, to contest, to reveal, to recognize, to impose, to praise, to discredit, and so on. Consequently, and third, there is a diversity of type of affects provoked by different type of affections. Among these affects one may find sadness, anger, fear, certainty, loneliness and pride, among others. Coherently, the effort of articulation involves rhetorical, esthetical, logical, grammatical, and ethical operations, among others. Experience, as this effort, goes on through these articulating operations.

Hence, integration is a key process of experience that should be further elaborated. Zittoun and Gillespie’s chapter (this volume) constitutes an important contribution to this. They take diversity (of experiences) as a starting point and propose a vision of the integrating process. They identify different types of integration (lateral, vertical and intersubjective) based on the work of both classic (such as James, Wundt, Freud) and contemporary authors. Then, they show in the analysis of the case of June how these integrating movements may operate, which is particularly interesting. However, and despite the fact that both, June diaries’ analysis and the theoretical elaboration on integration, directly refer to the self, the effort of self-constitution as a central aspect of the notion of experience is not fully theoretically elaborated in Zittoun and Gillespie’s chapter (this volume). From my point of view, one should be explicit about this when elaborating the notion of experience. As an activity experience takes place because of an interest, and this interest is intimately related with the self. In the next section, I will briefly develop the role that self-constitution plays in experience. (Pg.147)

Experience may be conceived of as the effort after the articulation of affection that affects, which produces a flow. The central process of this effort, the bonding process, is self-seeking and self-construction. Experience may be conceived of as one side of the same coin: as an effort to articulate the affecting affections involved in self-constructive processes; or, the effort after the articulation of diverse affections, which in turn affects, given the self-seeking interest and self-construction processes. Thus, experience supposes a notion of self as an effortful movement of recognition, which is the primary interest. Experience as the brush of the other, coming back to the previous section, illustrates precisely how and why the self as a process may hurt: because it matters the most. Experience has the form of a reply insofar as every affect is at the same time a reply. The reply then is the basic principle of articulation of different affecting affections. And it is this principle, the reply, that characterized its articulating efficacy.

Second, and related to this last point, Ricoeur (1995) places emphasis on the narrative as the place in which the self unfolds and sheds light on the role discourse plays in self. As has been developed elsewhere by many authors, self is not something expressed by discourse but rather it is possible because of it:

When a subject becomes a competent player of diverse semiotic games, she becomes, by the same token, a competent self, that is to say, an autopoietic agent, who continuously instills energy into the fabric of language and, thus, recreates herself by recreating the texture of experience. (Jesus, 2011, p. 82)

Self-construction occurs in and through discourse. On the one hand, language offers semiotic means that allow temporal and spatial articulation of the “I” (Benveniste, 1977/1987), as is clear in the analysis of June’s diaries. The use of personal pronouns (I, we, he, or she), verbal modes or indexicals, enable one to weave, almost automatically, the threads of multiple subjective aspects otherwise dispersed temporally and spatially. On the other hand, the thinking tendency to generalize and unify through words enables the identification of a particular spatiotemporal “I” (agent) with a previous “ME” (object) (James, 1890/1952). That is to treat one particular subjective occurrence as part of a class or genre. However, most importantly, from my point of view, discourse is a dialogic dynamic of distal and proximal affections enabled by and occurring through language in which every speaker participates creatively and recreatively. Discourse structures social encounter. It is the place of alterity, but also, as a result of language, discourse structures history and memory, giving them their psychological efficacy. Consequently, self, both as a process and a feeling, is a product of discourse. Human conatus, therefore, is structured both in and by discourse, as is experience. The latter has not only a discursive structure, the reply, but also a discursive texture: through discourse distal affections (both anticipated and past) intrude into our present affections, tensioning experience, challenging the effort after articulation. I therefore agree with Stenner (this volume) when he states that from process-oriented philosophies subjectivity is not the cause of experience. However, I disagree with the idea that subjectivity is the effect of experience. I rather propose that subjectivity unfolds through the effort after articulation that I call experience. (Pg.150)


The main point I wanted to make throughout this chapter is that experience should be conceived as an activity, an effort. Integration may be conceived of as a central movement of this effort. Zittoun and Gillespie make a significant contribution when discussing how integration may occur. However, three aspects are worth noting. First, articulation may occur through other movements as well: isolation, diversification, and negation, among others. Generalization and abstraction, but also singularization and expression, are psychological movements involved in these articulating activities. Second, from the view I developed in this chapter, experiences are not what have been integrated. Rather, experience is the ongoing activity of integrating affections, which, in turn, hurts or relieves, which worries or provokes anger, and so on. Third, this activity is driven by the interest of self-seeking and is structured by self-constructing processes. What has been integrated, negated, or isolated has been so typically because of its contribution to self-construction. Experience goes on through the discursive and continuous fabrication and re-fabrication of a self and the inscription on that self in the broader historical and societal context. Experience is part of the artifice, of the artistic insistence in personal affirmation. (Pg.150)

“When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michel Treguer (Studies in Violence, Mimesis & Culture)” by René Girard, Trevor Cribben Merrill


Mimetic Desire: Shakespeare rather than Plato

MT: At the beginning of your thesis there was the word “mimetic.” Can you tell us again how it should be understood?

RG: Human relations are subject to conflict: whether we’re talking about marriage, friendship, professional relationships, issues with neighbors or matters of national unity, human relations are always under threat.

MT: Under threat from what, by whom?

RG:…from the identity of desires. People influence one another and, when they’re together, they have a tendency to desire the same things, primarily not because those things are rare but because, contrary to what most philosophers think, imitation also bears on desire. Humans essentially try to base their being, their profound nature and essence, on the desire of their peers.

MT: They can’t desire in the absolute, so they desire by imitation? We only exist via others? There’s no autonomous self?

RG: At the time I wrote Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, under Stendhal’s influence, I contrasted mimetic desire with a “spontaneous desire.” But I’ve gotten into the habit of using the word “desire” to refer to the various appetites, needs, and appropriations that are shot through with and governed by imitation. Mimetic phenomena interest me not only because they’re present in a bunch of phenomena that seem unrelated to them, but also because using them makes it possible to think about genesis, structuration, and destructuration in a very effective way. That’s why I place so much emphasis on them. But I’m not saying that they exclude all other types of explanation.

For example, I believe in the love that parents have for their children, and I don’t see how you could interpret that love in a mimetic fashion. I think that sexual pleasure is possible to the extent that the other is respected—and maybe there’s no true satisfaction except in that case, when the shadowy presence of rivals has been banished from the lovers’ bed: that’s probably also why it is experienced so rarely. I’m not saying that there’s no autonomous self. I’m saying that the possibilities of the autonomous self are always hindered by mimetic desire and by a false individualism whose appetite for differences tends to have a leveling effect.

MT: All desire is religious? Even my desire for my pretty next-door neighbor?

RG: All desire is a desire for being.

MT: Why did you just say that “contrary to what most philosophers think, imitation also bears on desire”?

RG: For Plato, the real is only the imitation of distant “ideas,” everything is subject to imitation except acquisitive behavior. In truth, if you take a close look at his work, The Republic in particular, you notice that it’s haunted by the true conflict born of imitated desires, the conflict between people who are close to each other, who desire the same thing, and who all of a sudden become rivals—the sort of conflict I talk about, and that I found in the work of novelists and playwrights—but he doesn’t conceptualize it.

Now if human relations are threatened by rivalries, this must have repercussions for the organization of human groups. We have a tendency to think about societies from the vantage point of their normal state, their daily functioning as it’s described by very peaceful, calm people who don’t think about violence. One of the great founders of political science is Hobbes, who, to a certain extent, managed to ground his thinking in crisis. He hasn’t yet been entirely forgiven for that. In turn, I said to myself: if there’s a normal order in society, it must be the result of a prior crisis, it must be the resolution of that crisis. And so what we have to look for and investigate is that crisis. If mimetic conflicts are contagious, in other words if there are two individuals who desire the same thing, there will soon be a third. Once there are three, four, five, six, the process starts to snowball, and everyone desires the same thing. The conflict begins with an object. But it ends up becoming so intense that it leads to the destruction or the forgetting of the object, and is transferred to the level of the antagonists who, in the absence of any real desire, become obsessed with one another. The contagion of desires gives way to that of antagonisms.

MT: Just a word about the object that’s already disappeared. What was it at the start? Food?

RG: Food, land, women. When you study primitive societies, these three essential objects stand out.

MT: Now wait, let’s stay politically correct. When you say “women,” you’re talking about the object of sexual desire. You could have spoken of men as the object of rivalry between women, no?

RG: Of course. Except that in primitive societies, it is indeed men who fight over women, because the men are stronger and have the sexual initiative.

Let me also say a word about what I call double mediation, to give you a better understanding of how the crisis escalates. Your desire, the desire I’m imitating, could have been insignificant at first, maybe it didn’t even have much intensity. But when I go for the same object as you, the intensity of your desire increases. You thus become my imitator, just as I am yours. What’s essential is this feedback process that makes it so that any two desires can become a sort of infernal machine. That machine produces more and more desire, more and more reciprocity, and thus more and more violence.

MT: Before coming back to the consequences of all of this for the formation of societies, let’s stay on the individual level, since you were talking about novelists and playwrights: the very mechanism that you see as being at the origin of all religions and all political regimes, of history and prehistory, is also the one that we’re constantly wrestling with in our daily lives, namely problems with jealousy, with love triangles (and polygons). And this is the path you started on, before coming to the more general questions with which we began.

RG: Yes, exactly. I’d noticed that in writers like Stendhal and Proust the same geometry governed human relations even though they were describing different worlds. Then I found the same forces at work in Cervantes, Shakespeare, Molière, Marivaux, Dostoevsky, Joyce, and so on. Not to mention cases that are almost too obvious like Carmen over which we throw the hypocritical veil of “bad taste”: “If you don’t love me, I love you! If I love you, you’d better watch out!” It’s too obvious. At the end, the counterpoint between the bullfight and the execution of the victim—it’s facile, of course, but it’s also magnificent. When works of art are so hugely successful, there are profound reasons for it.

And ask yourself why this colossus of desire and conflicts that’s called The Ring begins with scenes of grotesque marivaudage, the amorous provocations of the three Rhine maidens? It’s a visionary beginning, straight out of Marivaux, but also straight out of Shakespeare. The gold is nothing, clearly, since it’s the ray of sunshine that alights on it and transfigures it. And yet the gold is everything, since it’s what everyone is fighting over; it’s the fact of fighting over it that gives it its value, and its terror.

Little by little it became apparent to me that psychoanalytic suspicion didn’t go far enough. Freud’s sham “radicalism” ceased to impress me, and I understood that what the critics have always disdained in novelistic works—the recurrence of fascination and jealousy, the reciprocal manipulations, the lies aimed at others or at oneself, and so forth—everything that they disparagingly group under the heading “literary psychology” or “amorous scheming,” everything that puts off their delicate aestheticism by its repetitive character, are the fundamental maneuvers and ruses of mimetic desire: what Proust rightly calls “psychological laws.”

Only the great writers succeed in portraying these mechanisms without distorting them to spare their egos: here we have a system of relationships that paradoxically, or rather not paradoxically at all, is less variable the greater a writer is. “Psychology” really is a matter of laws, and the aesthetes don’t want to see it because they only appreciate the singular, the supremely original or, in our day and age, “differences,” which are the same thing democratized. Contemporary aesthetic sensibility is still the prisoner of romantic conceptions.

MT: These days you’re more likely to cite Shakespeare, to whom you devoted a book.

RG: Shakespeare’s first works are haunted by the following insight: friendship and hatred go hand in hand, best friends are also the ones most threatened by ferocious enmity. Take the two gentlemen of Verona: they’ve always lived together, they imitate each other in every way, they like each other, they adore each other, neither of them can do without the other; and, suddenly, amorous rivalry strikes, like lightning, as a mere variant of that same imitation. I think that all the excessively optimistic attitudes we have about human beings hide the following truth from us: in human relations there is a conflict principle that can’t be resolved by rational means. The conflict between rivals in love, or between two ambitious rivals, will never be healed by an idea or by recalling the distant past.

My Bible of mimetic desire is Troilus and Cressida, but I first discovered Shakespeare through A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From a literary standpoint, it’s the best memory of my life. I first saw the play on television. I didn’t completely understand it because I hadn’t read it. But I was ready to read it: I had developed the whole hypothesis of mimetic desire, and suddenly I found it in Shakespeare in its most complete form, with direct anthropological repercussions. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is in the first place a comprehensive treatise on mimetic desire, which concerns four lovers but eventually leads all the way to the violent destruction of society. In a few pages, we’re taken from the most ridiculous rivalries—boyfriends and girlfriends without any personality who flirt with and imitate each other—to the production of mythological monsters. A Midsummer Night’s Dream verified for me the truth of the itinerary that had led me from Marivaux to sacrifice, and it did so in magnificent language, with incomparable poetry. In the play you find literal definitions of mimetic desire, formulations like: “O hell! to choose love by another’s eye!”

Then, in Troilus and Cressida, I turned up: “It’s mad idolatry when the service is greater than the god.” Idolatry is the fascination exerted on us by a human being who doesn’t deserve so much devotion. It’s the war, the mimetic rivalry that drives Helen’s value up to insane heights, transforming her into an idol in the eyes of the Greeks but also the Trojans.

MT: I think we can now begin to understand why some academics turn up their noses in disgust when faced with the ramifications of your hypothesis: not only do you lead them back to church, where they haven’t set foot in ages, but you’ve also dragged them out of the conference room, with its polite discussions, and into the bedroom.

RG: Joyce recounts a scene like that in Ulysses. Stephen Dedalus (who is Joyce’s double) is giving a brilliant lecture on Shakespeare, in whose works he discovers, in my view, the mimetic mechanism. And a critic stands up and says: “You have brought us all this way to show us a French triangle?” In other words, “All this talk just to bring Shakespeare down to the level of some vaudeville love triangle?” And the contradictor adds:

“Do you believe your own theory?” Petrified, Dedalus says: “No.” Even today, the critics think this is the acknowledgment that the mimetic Shakespeare is a joke, without any relation to the truth. But, ten lines later, Dedalus murmurs: “I believe, O Lord, help my unbelief!” It’s a phrase from the Gospels, spoken by the father of a healed child, and it means “strengthen my desire to believe,” to believe in God for the speaker in the Gospels, and in the divinized Self in the case of Dedalus-Joyce. As soon as Dedalus is alone, his theory is reborn, his theology of the Self reemerges. But in the moment, among the group, he is mimetically crushed. And right afterwards you have these incredible sentences: “Who helps to believe?” “Egomen” (the self). “Who to unbelieve?” “Other chap,”1 the other. Everything is there, in three lines. How can you expect a hurried reader to understand Joyce? It took me a year and a half to unpack this text. And the “French triangle”! I can’t tell you how many people in the United States have told me: “Mimetic desire is interesting, but it only works for French literature, it’s a French thing.” Joyce had obviously had the same experience.

MT: Joyce is talking about himself through Dedalus and Shakespeare?

RG: In this text he’s complaining indirectly about having been hounded from Ireland by the lack of understanding he faced in his intellectual milieu.

MT: You’ve even said that Joyce had to avoid being understood in order to prove that he was right.

RG: The text portrays incomprehension, and that incomprehension is reproduced and mirrored in current literary criticism. Thus to understand the text, you have to understand it in a context of incomprehension that was deliberately perpetuated by Joyce himself. It begins with the lecture, Dedalus’s reading of Shakespeare: to understand the mimetic Shakespeare, you have to be as mimetic as him. But the text about Shakespeare is a mise en abyme of Ulysses, of the entire novel. Joyce is saying to his critics: “You’re all blind, you don’t understand Shakespeare. I’m just as mimetic as him, I share his sickness and I share his genius.” He’s trying to establish a more or less secret complicity between himself and Shakespeare. It’s pretty incredible!

One of his listeners says scornfully to Dedalus: “You’re doing petty biographical criticism?” And he cites Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, who said: “Let’s leave the writer’s life to his servants, and speak only of literature.” The fake avant-garde derealizes literature, whereas Joyce, to the contrary, is secretly saying: “Ulysses is my experience, it’s my life.” Joyce couldn’t care less about the avant-gardist literary values that are ascribed to him. Indeed, his letters to Nora contain the entirety of Dostoevsky’s Eternal Husband, which is to say a model of mimetic literature. He displays obsessive jealousy toward a fellow who had courted Nora (before Joyce) and who died of an illness.

It’s this death that heightens to a maximum the ordeal of rivalry, to the extent that the rival, once dead, is invulnerable; it’s a situation from The Eternal Husband. What’s most amazing is that Joyce is totally unaware that he’s repeating in both his work and his life Dostoevsky’s work and life (and correspondence). What he sees in Shakespeare’s case he doesn’t see in Dostoevsky’s.

MT: I’ll leave our readers to imagine for themselves the personal echoes that René Girard, who has revealed Joyce to us in this new light and who has himself written a book on Shakespeare, may hear resonating in this analysis. To come back to the philosophers—you think the novelists are ultimately much more profound than they are?

RG: I don’t want to say anything bad about philosophers…or at least nothing too bad! In Plato’s particular case there is something respectable in his determination not to open the mimetic wound: it seems to me that he’s afraid of aggravating it by its mere mention. In an era when Christianity didn’t yet exist, to say “ideas don’t play nearly as great a role as you think they do in stirring up the major human conflicts” could lead only to a form of cynicism, even nihilism; I can thus understand his scruples.

MT: You make me think of Dante, who saves Virgil and a few others from the Inferno, “because, being born before Christ, they couldn’t have known….” RG: It’s true that I’m not as indulgent with modern philosophers like Nietzsche and Heidegger. But maybe I’m wrong. I’m not condemning anyone. Everything I put forward is exploratory and tentative in nature. (Pg.8)

WE&P by: EZorrilla.

(1) “Integrating Experiences: Body and Mind Moving Between Contexts (Niels Bohr Professorship Lectures in Cultural Psychology)” by Brady Wagoner, Nandita Chaudhary, Pernille Hviid

(2) “When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michel Treguer (Studies in Violence, Mimesis & Culture)” by René Girard, Trevor Cribben Merrill.