Desire, Technology, and Politics

Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 6 (1):85-95 (1999)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:DESIRE, TECHNOLOGY, AND POLITICS Pieter Tijmes University ofTwente This essay examines the relationship between desire, technology, and politics in three stages. First, I discuss modernity as a deviation from the general human way of life. By that I mean the general life pattern of human beings since "the foundation of the world," since the emergence of human culture. The expression designates the traditional pattern of subsistence economy. This general pattern is contrasted with modern life as of the sixteenth-century in the West, from which time capitalism governs habits of accumulation and spending that we take to be "natural." But it is in fact exceptional when seen from a larger historical perspective. In the wake of René Girard and in particular Paul Dumouchel, modernity is to be interpreted as the realm of scarcity which is the result of a new way of dealing with mimetic desire. Second, this theory of scarcity is connected with Albert Borgmann's device paradigm of technology which is shown to fit the paradigm of scarcity perfectly. According to Borgmann technology is a matter of devices that procure commodities. In modern ideology technology turns out to be the ally against scarcity. Third, this pattern of the device paradigm is recognized in all our societal and political processes. In this context political problems are solved along the lines of the device paradigm. The consequence is that political ideas and ideals have been eroded. I. Traditional and Modern Society The human way of life that has emerged in the West since the Middle Ages is a new phenomenon in history. One could even argue that modernity as the new life pattern is a deviation from the general human way of life. Nearly everybody agrees on the difference, but there is no unanimity about the nature of the difference between traditional and specific modern 86Pieter Tijimes patterns. A host of interpreters, Karl Marx, Georg Tönnies, Max Weber, Norbert Elias—to mention only a few Germans—have commented on the transition from what I am calling the general way of life to modernity as a kind of deviation. In the wake of René Girard and Paul Dumouchel I would characterize modernity as a different way of dealing with the problem of mimetic desire as the basic form of human behavior. By mimetic desire I mean that people do not cherish authentic desires, but take their desires from others. They imitate others in their desiring. It is the other who tells them what is desirable. This theory of mimetic desire is at bottom a theory of conflict, because conflicts arise from the situation where one desires what another also desires, with the result that the two desires clash with each other over the same object. The norm in traditional cultures is to restrict mimetic desire by various taboos, rites, etc. It is specifically modern to set it loose, with consequences I shall examine herein. Let me formulate this theory in another way: we are not born with fixed ideas, wishes, desires, but we learn them from the social and cultural environment we were dependent upon. Our parents were the first significant others. We learned to look at the world through their eyes. To us reality looked as they saw it. They provided us with their frame of reference to interpret it. This social and cultural learning process is of eminent importance for how and what we think, want or feel. What we found after our birth became our point of departure and was considered as "normal." In this sense, children are the most adapted beings. They will only speak the language they hear, although they have an innate ability for every possible language. Thus we desire in terms of the desires we meet in our environment. We do not start life with a fixed identity, but identity is the result of a learning process that goes on through our whole life. On the one hand, mimesis opens up our possibility of relationships with our fellow men and the world, and on the other hand, mimesis can also be an invasion route for all sorts of entanglements, conflicts and rivalries. How to deal with mimetic desire is a cultural problem. In...

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