Mimesis in the Works of Girard and Derrida

Mimesis in the works of Derrida and Girard plays a decisive role. Both see mimesis as a fundamental force in the act of forming culture. However, in the work of Girard mimesis is the force governing all human relationships and cultural life. Girard’s main hypothesis indicates a new theory on cultural origins and development: Culture is formed by mimetic desire and thereby transformed into scapegoating. Thus the scapegoat becomes a decisive factor in human development. Scholarly work on mimesis means mostly seeing mimesis as something representational. Derrida and Girard, however, tend to use mimesis differently. They do not dismiss mimesis as representation, but they do emphasize two distinct traits in mimesis: firstly, mimesis as desire, and secondly, mimesis as acquisition. Also, acts of imitation among some modern literary critics seem to be seen as something one can freely adopt and which differs from the original. Girard’s and Derrida’s understanding of mimesis departs from the classic understanding of mimesis by using it in a generative manner, as a motivational desire. Instead of showing how fiction mainly is a representation of reality (like Auerbach), they seem keen to uncover a desire attached to mimesis which is interdividual, acquisitive and violent.

Erich Auerbach’s work on mimesis can, superficially, be seen as a starting point to understand Derrida’s and Girard’s concepts of mimesis as they, like Auerbach, begin by locating mimesis in literary works and identify changes in society via literary analysis. But, when considered against a background of understanding mimesis and desire, Auerbach’s work appears limited as it focuses mostly on literary style. It seems as though mimesis is formed by literary style and not vice versa.

Mimesis and Deconstruction: Derrida and the Deconstruction of Mimesis

When compared to Auerbach's understanding of mimesis, however, Derrida and other deconstructionists have been more eager to analyse and interpret mimesis as a concept and phenomenon. (Auerbach never analyses the concept mimesis.) Mimesis is clearly seen as a central concept in the process of deconstruction. According to deconstructionist theory, mimesis dissolves existing orders and hierarchies. Mimesis can be seen as a tool in breaking down logocentric thinking. The floating nature of mimesis dissolves established structures engendered by binary classifications. Derrida’s own concepts such as pharmakon, supplement, hymen, between and trace are only capable of having their oscillating character because of their mimetic character.

Both Girard and Derrida, like so many other contemporary thinkers, criticize Plato’s idea-world. They are critical of the belief in an inner wisdom, or inner revelation, which may be attained from outside the act of imitating. Girard has criticized, as mentioned above, Plato’s dismissal of mimesis as falsified copying and the lack of considering mimetic acquisition. Derrida, on the other hand, interprets Plato’s mimesis from a slightly different angle, questioning the inner truth, the aletheia of essential forms which are free of mimesis. The privilege of the spoken word, as both origin and self-preserved truth, needs to be deconstructed, while mimesis actually prevents the unproblematic reference to the ideal, the essence.

Copy and Original

Let us take a look at Derrida’s critique of mimesis as copying and doubling of the original. In the second part of Dissemination, entitled ‘The Double Session’, Derrida uses Mallarmé’s prose-text Mimique to demonstrate the free, floating and non-copyistic nature of mimesis  (even when there is initially a concrete copying of a plot). Mallarmé’s prose-text Mimique is a story taken (imitated) from a story by Fernand Beisier, about a husband who kills his unfaithful wife by tickling her to death. According to Derrida, some literary critics regard Mallarmé’s version as a rather uncomplicated mimetic copying of the ‘original story’. Derrida claims that Mallarmé’s re-telling of the story is so different, so far from the ‘original’, that there can hardly be any imitation in a copying sense, as Mallarmé’s version lacks any clear reference to Beisier’s story.

Derrida wishes to deconstruct both the notion of the original story and the copy-version. Every imitation is a supplement, something distinct from that which is imitated. Like Deleuze, Derrida sees the repetitive elements in writing, not as producing likeness, but as producing something different. Derrida actually goes further in 'The Double Session'. Mimesis is located as something unique in itself; mimesis with no before or after, no repetition, no imitation, no reality, no right or wrong similarity, no truth outside the mimetic. Mimesis is something in itself with no reference outside itself, and should not be reduced to anything else. The result of this desire for the uniqueness of mimesis is that it becomes indefinable. Mimesis is unique in the sense that it is autonomous, even if it is anything but uncontaminated. There is, therefore, no attempt in Derrida’s work to define mimesis.

Girard pays little attention to non-representation, which also holds for mimesis. That mimesis is something different from all its traditional attributes, presents no problem in mimetic theory. The problem arises when mimesis is seen devoid of its desiring nature. Derrida would probably hold that mimesis could exist without desire. For Girard this would mean imitation without any engendering, which again would mean no mimesis. There is, however, the case of non-rivalistic mimesis, but, seen against the whole of mimetic theory, the imitation of Christ is no different from mimetic desire in any way other than that the model differs. The deliberate vagueness in Derrida’s concept of mimesis, would be dismissed by Girard, not because of any need to define mimesis, but because it would blur the representational aspects of mimesis. Girard’s concept of mimesis, however, is not based on any clear-cut definition of mimesis; it is more an instrument with which to uncover reality. The repetitive element in mimesis is self-evident in Girardian theory, but the distinction between direct copying and (innovative) imitation is seldom considered. The emphasis, from a normative context, is on what one is imitating. Thus the emphasis lies on the model.

From Derrida’s point of view of relating mimesis to something indefinable, Girard's understanding of mimesis might appear somewhat moralistic, even if the starting point in Deceit, Desire and The Novel is a phenomenology of desire. Girard’s emphasis on the model’s qualities is not, however, a part of his basic understanding of mimesis. Morality comes into play when the process of mimesis reaches a rivalistic stage. 

Every text stands in a mimetic relation to another text. For Derrida there is no first writing, only different imitations or repetitions of previous texts. This does not mean that there is copying without innovation; it means that writing is an intertextual game, without beginning and without end. Mimesis is a kind of productive force in the writing of texts, as every text is an imitation of previous texts. The productive force of mimesis can be seen as the way in which it multiplicates images, words, thoughts and actions without becoming tangible itself. The supplement also refers to originality; it could even be labelled as the most original, and therefore the most liable for expulsion. Every copy (which is not direct copying) brings with it something supplemental. The supplement can, in certain expressions, be seen as the original. In this respect the original or originality will often stand in danger of being excluded from textual production-machines. This is not only a phenomenon within the borders of writing and speech, it is also a sociological aspect of writing. This has become embarrassingly clear in the 20th century, when great authors such as Proust, Joyce, Beckett, Hemingway, Golding and others, were not only initially rejected, but also, some of their best writings, even great masterpieces, were refused by publishing houses. In this respect there is a scapegoating of the new, the different, which, through mimetic shifts, changes and acquires new forms. In the late 20th century, continuing into the 21st century, however, there seems to be a tendency to reject anything which smacks of imitation.

Like Girard, Derrida is also sceptical about the notion of the autonomous original, the idea of the original as something not imitated. In a way, Girard dissolves the question of originality and copying by turning everything into mimesis. Derrida, who perhaps is more conservative (especially as a venerator of the classics) than is usually presented, is nonetheless eager to discover the radically new, focusing on science as being able to work on themes that are not even interdisciplinary. His involvement in the International College of Philosophy whose aim is to ‘discover new themes, new problems, which have no legitimacy, and are not recognized as such in existing universities,’ illustrates both his involvement and belief in innovation.  Such an a priori belief in the possibility to uncover something radically new does not exist in Girard’s writings. When everything depends upon mimesis there can be no innovation outside imitation. The totally new indicates discovering something without imitating, which for Girard is ‘to expect a plant to grow with its roots up in the air.’

Thus Derrida is preoccupied with originality. Girard is preoccupied with origins. As we have seen, Girard has made mimesis an essence in his thought. Mimesis is originary, even, in my view, primary to violence, and the primal force in cultural evolution. Derrida has deliberately criticized Girard for this. By making mimesis an essence, Girard betrays mimesis by making it a property, he claims.  This also goes for the act of defining mimesis: to render mimesis as imitation, reproduction, simulation, similarity, identification, analogy, will only amputate the indefinite nature of mimesis. According to Derrida, every (affirmative) discourse on origins will reveal a Theology. This manner of thought, according to Derrida, makes both Girard and Plato ripe for deconstruction, as they both operate with a concept of revealed truth; Plato in claiming the Idea as truth, and Girard by discovering anthropological truth through mimesis. In this respect mimetic theory is branded metaphysical and in need of having its own concept of mimesis deconstructed. Girard, on the other hand, regards mimetic origin as a starting point of a generative theory, which would, without a drive, be limited, unable to locate the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. Girard may have betrayed the essence of mimesis (by fixing it), but has, nonetheless, been able to make use of it. Derrida has no starting point, no primary force whatsoever, and it seems as though his working aim is merely to find tensions, contradictions, and heterogeneity, while Girard works within the realm of synthesis, bringing together central themes such as mimesis, scapegoating and violence into one theory. To say that Derrida is a minimalistic thinker, and Girard a maximalistic thinker, would be justified in that Derrida’s main preoccupation is to deconstruct tradition, while Girard’s is to restructure it. On the other hand, there is enormous scope within the deconstructionist project for destructing the philosophic and theological tradition, even for attempting to deconstruct the metaphysics of the humanistic sciences as a whole. This aim could be described as maximalistic.


Girard has reacted favourably to Derrida’s concept of supplement, although he gives it a meaning according his own theory. The supplement is, according to Girard, basically the victim, the victim’s voice that has been excluded. While Girard concentrates on the exclusion of the victim, Derrida concentrates on the exclusion of writing. There is also something supplemental about imitation, as it is different from the thing that is imitated. In this respect mimesis is supplemental in nature. And when we consider mimesis in art, there is always an element of exclusion of the supplement, of that which is different and lacks a clear reference to previous art. Both Girard and Derrida focus on what is excluded: the supplements arising from scapegoating, the ‘left overs’ in society. But here there seems to be a certain ideological difference: Girard is more concerned about whether imitation (meaning what one imitates) is substantial and true, than about whether it is a copy or not. He does not care much about the degree of copying or innovation, so long as it reveals something which is true, realistic and commonsensical. Even if originality in Derrida’s work is not primarily based on copying or advanced copying, there is greater emphasis on the supplement in writing, which has also been within the logocentristic tradition something disturbing, in need of being expelled. But the desire to expel seems to refer to something beyond writing.

Referring to the Victim

The question surrounding the authenticity of mimesis must, however, be seen in relation to the victim. According to Girard, Western thought has tried to efface the trace of the founding violence. Derrida has, according to Girard, substituted the trace for being, in the Heideggerian sense. Derrida’s use of trace, as far as I can see, does not eliminate scapegoating even if expulsion is modified, in my view, by the emphasis on the symbolic scapegoating of writing.  Gebauer and Wulf, when discussing Derrida’s understanding of (mimetic) scapegoating in writing, claim that for Derrida the pharmakeus (which also designates the scapegoat) by being killed and expelled from the city, offers the means by which social crises are overcome. In Athens human scapegoats were regularly identified and ritually sacrificed as a practical measure to preserve civil order. The pharmakos (which Derrida describes in Plato’s Pharmacy) is, both in its etymology and historical reality, the scapegoat of the city. He is the victim in the desire to create a heterogenous society.

The character of the pharmakos has been compared to the scapegoat. The evil and the outside, the expulsion of the evil, its exclusion out of the body (and out) of the city (…). (Derrida. Dessimination, 130.)

Derrida thus goes on to explain that the scapegoats’ genitals were cut off in order to chase the evil out of their bodies. They were then killed in order to purify the city. Derrida, in exactly the same way as Girard, sees these sacrificial acts to purify and restore the city. In his analysis of Greek scapegoating, Derrida mentions that Socrates, whom Plato explicitly designates as a pharmakos, was also made a scapegoat. And the imitative side of writing materializes in the fact that Plato began writing after the death of Socrates, imitating and representing his thoughts. Plato’s writing is motivated by the scapegoating of Socrates, revealing how culture arises in a purposeful attempt to atone for violence. In this respect writing is a consequence of violence, becoming a trace back to the sacred violence.

Despite Gebauer and Wulf’s (when presenting Derrida’s understanding of mimesis) claim that Socrates’ death was the sacrifice that served to establish social peace in the city, Derrida does not focus on the effect that scapegoating actually has in holding violent societies together. Derrida seems more focused on the supplements arising from expulsion, and on the suspension of the binary oppositions which the pharmakos brings. In this respect Derrida focuses on the non-sacrificial effects, on the culture arising after expulsion.

Truth and Rationality

Both Girard and Derrida criticize the belief in an inner, revealed truth outside any representation. Derrida, in the tradition of Heidegger, claims that truth as a metaphysical referent is something outside of the philosophical realm. Girard belongs to the thinkers who believe that there are (qualitative) truths to be found, and it does not matter if these are found through dismissing or neglecting the boundaries between philosophy, anthropology, literature and theology. Derrida does not directly dismiss this truth (Mimesis resembles truth insofar as truth never resembles itself), but has no such aim in his philosophy, even if deconstruction has, despite so many claims of irrationality, the aim of furthering rationality by deconstructing it within traditional rationality (a rationality which is not rational). But it seems legitimate to ask whether revealing irrationality is not also a question of revealing untruth? It does not seem, however, plausible that the deconstructionists can reveal the irrational simply by taking more account of desire in their discourse. Rather they should see the overall structure of the whole discourse as governed by desire. Desire has a tendency to blindfold research, also the research of the deconstructionalists and the Girardians - especially if we do not take into consideration the mimetic destabilizing caused by rivalry.

Systems and Supplements

Derrida’s somewhat aggressive attitude towards thinkers, who profess truth and operate with synthesis, is actually what motivates his deconstruction project, even if he does not avoid seeing the worth of these grand systems of thought. Derrida is far from being a positivist. His project resembles an art-scientific ideal, without his considering, like Girard, the scientific value of artists and writers. Derrida’s supplement functions as a protection against a closure, a closure which is a sort of unconscious aim among thinkers who consider science as something more or less finished with them. There is an element of closure in Girard when he indicates the process of the death of philosophy, and sees the death of literature in the emptying of all mimetic games.

Academic Self-Effacement

There is something both profound and slightly comical in the way academics today dismiss their own profession as thinkers. Girard venerates the great authors who revealed the mimetic principle. Derrida sees an academic ideal in the subjective, non-teleological, playful and open way writers such as Mallarmé and Blanchot describe their experience. There seems to be a dialectic consisting of humility towards one’s own metier’s limitations and the praising of fiction. When this self-effacement becomes too dominant, it seems to stem from academic rivalry. At the same time, there has been a profound discovery of the scientific and structural value of literary texts, which really consists in the deconstruction of certain positivistic ideals, which, since the 19th century, apparantly enhanced human science.

Enemies of Mimetic Essence:  Lacoue-Labarthe

As we can see, Derrida clearly regards mimesis as representation, although mimetic representation has no definitive essence attached to it. Desire in Derrida's thinking does not seem to be so decisive that representation becomes secondary, which is the case in Girard's work. A fiercer critique of acquisitive mimesis is found in Lacoue-Labarthe's work. According to Lacoue-Labarthe, Girard objects to the view that mimesis contains representation and can be controlled by a process of representation – or (re)presentation. This is, as we have seen, clearly an exaggeration. Mimesis as a representation of reality is, however, not the essential element in mimetic theory. Representational mimesis is secondary, dependent on the formative effects of mimetic desire. Lacoue-Labarthe also claims that Girard holds representation or repetition to be original  (originary), which, from the point of view of deconstructing originality into mimetic parts, is indeed Girard’s position. It would not be precise to say that Girard regards representation as originary. It would be more accurate to say that representational mimesis refers to originary mimesis, which is mimetic desire. If, however, Lacoue-Labarthe interprets Girard’s view on representation and repetition as intertwined with the mimetic process, he is right about representation/repetition being originary.

Lacoue-Labarthe claims that mimesis has no essence, only representation. This is the same view held by Derrida in his Introduction to Labarthes’ book Typography, which is a deliberate critique of Girardian mimesis. Both Derrida and Lacoue-Labarthe regard Girard’s concept of mimesis as referring to an ultimate signifier. Derrida claims, through a reading of Lacoue-Labarthe, that Girard wishes to appropriate and identify mimesis, and by that very act, betrays its essence. (Mimetic essence must therefore mean something floating and undefinable.) Lacoue-Labarthe claims that Girard’s mimesis is conceived as assimilation (primitive doubling), where, in actual fact, the doubling will never become doubling. As Deleuze claims in Difference & Repetition, there is never a total correspondence in imitation. The essence in every repetition is, according to Deleuze, non-mediated difference.

Mimesis is Pre-Representational

As we have seen, Girard operates with a concept of doubling, one which takes place only in the later phases of mimetic desire. The act of miming (an example of primitive doubling) is far from the Girardian concept of an essential mimesis – as it is totally conscious. Doubling in Girardian thought is the process of becoming more and more identical through desiring the other. This does not mean that there are not numerous differences between the subject and the model. Girard’s point is that mimetic desire creates greater symmetry between the desiring parts. Desire has a tendency to turn people into doubles as they become more and more afflicted by the same desires. If this were primitive doubling, it would also be, according to Girard, a common, contemporary doubling. In this respect, Girard's modern mimetic version is also primitive.

According to Lacoue-Labarthe, there is no faculty that is not taken from representation. Everything begins with representation. For Girard everything begins with mimesis. Mimesis is pre-representational. Representation is something that comes much later in human history. There is, generally speaking, a fundamental breach between Girard and most contemporary French philosophers on this issue, which I think points to a basic difference concerning their worldview. Girard, as a religious thinker, considers reality as basically something a priori and attainable, while Lacoue-Labarthe clearly sees reality as something construed, claiming that maintaining the religious means the denial of representation, as this denial is belief. He also criticizes the claim that there is something prior to representation. Lacoue-Labarthe's claim that everything begins with representation seems indicative of a modern type of nihilism. Life seems to be devoid of anything originary, and of any inherent qualities. On the other hand, putting an extreme emphasis on mimesis, also means that everything as related to human culture depends upon various forms of imitation. This not only questions autonomous forms, it can also be seen as questioning any kind of originality. In this respect Girard, despite his proclaiming God or Christ as the ultimate signifier, deconstructs most forms of autonomous and original concepts into acts of imitation.