Notes Towards a Critique of Girardian Mimetic Desire Theory

Daniel Avatar

I am teaching a course on Freudian-Marxism and the theory of the social bond starting on February 4th with the Global Center for Advanced Studies. I encourage you to register to join my course for only $54 if you sign up by tomorrow January 27th. Find the discount code by becoming a Patron. This essay builds on some of the work around Girard’s thought that I have developed in my book Psychoanalysis and the Politics of the Family.


In Freud’s short text, “On Narcissism” he writes that “narcissism is not a perversion, but the libidinal complement to the egoism of the instinct of self-preservation, a measure of which may justifiably be attributed to every creature.”[i] Freud’s essay was written right as he was fleeing Jung’s influence in 1914. When the two met seven years prior they committed to a full on intellectual solidarity with one another which Freud once characterized as a “communism of the idea” in a letter to Jung. We won’t get into the political dynamics which led to the dissolution of their relationship, except to point out one important debate that emerged over the “nonsexual” basis of hysteria and paranoia.

Freud observed a nonsexual sublimation of homosexuality in his paranoid patients. He observed that paranoiacs sought to protect themselves from any overly sexualized social instinctual cathexis which is why Freud said that it is “sublimation that ails paranoiacs.”[ii] In the “On Narcissism” essay, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen argues that Freud sought to remove the rivalry—the mimetic truth of desire—in the development of his thought and that the actual rivalry between he and Jung formed an ‘other scene’ by which this evasion of mimetic desire took place for Freud.

For Freud, the delusion of grandeur in narcissism is “not a return to the original solitude of a monad walled in upon itself.”[iii] This means that when I desire an object, I desire myself in it. To realize myself, in Freud’s estimation, I must resemble myself. The myth of narcissus is what adds the German word selbst (self) to Freud’s lexicon, which by implication means that the ego is always already homosexual, i.e., the first other is always first myself.

There is an interior otherness in Freud’s account of the subject, the subject is formulated in a comedic structure; if what I am giving to the other is myself, what I recognize in the other, what I love in the other, is myself. There is a recurrent loop where the subject encounters an otherness which is always a doubled otherness, the otherness in me, the otherness in the other, and so on.  

Freud concludes “On Narcissism” with the following statement: “the ego ideal opens an important avenue for the understanding of group psychology. In addition to its individual side, this ideal has a social side; it is also the common idea of a family, a class or a nation.”[iv] The ego ideal is what one wishes to be. It is the object of assimilation. There is a double process at work in the ideal: the Idealbildung involves the constitution of an internal ideal through a mimetic internalization of an external ideal. The ego speaks to itself as others speak to it, it mimics their discourse and out of this mimicry “moral conscience” is born. The ego is not dealing with an other form of imitation in its formation that imposes the imitative demand: “be like me” etc. the ego is rather imitating itself.

But this idea of a ‘primary ego’ makes no sense because if that were true than the ego would incarnate itself as law, voice, ideal. If the subject is at the beginning, why would it subject itself? In Borch-Jacobsen’s view, which he shares with René Girard, there is no “mimetic I” that precedes an identification we have with other persons. It is only through identification itself that the subject comes into being.[v] If desire is mimetic and rivalrous, this means that desire itself is what seeks to replace the other and it is the process of identification that brings the subject into being. Desire as such does not exist until it is staged or presented to the subject to be desired.

Borch-Jacobsen’s The Freudian Subject argues that the Freudian theory of the subject is a ‘mimed subject’ which means that Freud has a theory of mimetic desire, but he misses its centrality in the very account of the psyche that he develops. In Borch-Jacobsen’s view, desire is more about “to be” than it is “to have.” Desire is not prohibitive due to some sort of constitutive deadlock in enjoyment as we find in Lacan, and nor is desire formed through imagination or hallucination of an object. From the outset, desire is mimetic and rivalrous, it is built around an impulse to replace the other. Girard writes in Violence and the Sacred that

“Rivalry does not arise because of the fortuitous convergence of two desires on a single object; rather, the subject desires the object because the rival desires it. In desiring an object the rival alerts the subject to the desirability of the object. The rival, then, serves as a model for the subject, not only in regard to such secondary matters as style and opinions but also, and more essentially, in regard to desires.”[vi]

Girard argues that Freud’s thinking is “a last surrender to mythological thinking,” a final manifestation of that ancient belief that human violence can be attributed to some outside influence—to gods, to Fate, to some force men can hardly be expected to control. Freudianism, in Girard’s view is a mode of thought that refuses to confront human conflicts squarely. It is an act of evasion, an attempt to “pass the buck” and find an alternate sacrificial solution in a situation which makes such a solution increasingly difficult.

In Girard’s Deceit, Desire and the Novel he introduces the concept of the ‘triangle of desire” which I have diagrammed to demonstrate the core movements involved with the theory of mimetic desire.  

It is important to note that Girard has a theory of the unconscious but it is not a repressive theory of the unconscious but is rather formed around a refusal of the “model-obstacle.”

In Violence and the Sacred he notes that “the more frenzied the mimetic process becomes, caught up in the confusion of constantly changing forms, the more unwilling men are to recognize that they have made an obstacle of the model and a model of the obstacle.”

Here we encounter a true “unconscious,” he writes, one that can obviously assume many forms.[vii] Girard supposes to have unveiled a curious mystery that promises to put to rest and uncover a fundamental trait of all human relations, and to reveal “the universal double bind of imitated desires.”

Borch-Jacobsen’s Misreading of Freud’s Group Psychology:

With this background in Girardian mimetic theory, we can now return to Borch-Jacobsen’s critique of Freud. To support his claim about identification playing such a central role in the formation of the subject, Borch-Jacobsen argues that the analysis of the ego is always already a social analysis, and it is true that Freud seeks a “socialization of the psyche.” [viii] At the site of the bond with the other, Freud places a fundamental opposition between “narcissistic psychic acts” and “social psychic acts.” He argues that Freud’s theory of the social bond should be understood as working back to what “social relations presuppose.” No social relation can come about without understanding who holds the key to the “before” and this same subject also holds the key to the “after.”[ix]

In Totem and Taboo, Freud develops a theory of what comes ‘before’ in a study of the ontogenesis of social relations that situate the more primal basis of our social relations. The opposition that Freud develops here, which is an opposition that is inherent to social psychology, is between narcissistic acts that are of no concern to others and have no reliance on others, and which elude all sociality, and those which concern others. The question concerns what is primary in sociality: does sociality begin in the stage of transition toward the object, of the face-to-face encounter with others? Or does it precede the positioning of others, which means the positioning of the ego as well?[x]

In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego the crowd is studied as a “seemingly a marginal phenomenon or even a transgressive one with respect to normal sociality” but it remains so important because the crowd “manifests the deepest essence of normal sociality better than social institutions do.”[xi] The crowd is chosen as a primary unit of analysis by Freud due to the influence of Gustave Le Bon’s landmark text The Crowd (1895) which Freud takes aim at, specifically the claim that the crowd produces a hypnotic social bond with the leader. For Freud, the crowd “lays bare the unconscious substratum”, it acts as a single individual and its members are driven by an “ancestral unconscious.”

For Freud, crowd psychology is nothing but the psychology of the unconscious, which means that the unconscious is ipso facto found in the collective group. But for Le Bon, the crowd has no subjective ground; the crowd is a womb, associated with hysteria. It has no soul. Le Bon goes down a fatally flawed path as he understands subjects of crowds as mediums entranced by the crowd.

Freud’s unconscious crowd is distinctively an asocial “monadic” subject and instead of hypnosis as the basis of the crowd’s pre-individual psychology, it is the unconscious that is the primary driving force of any crowd. This means that there is no agency in a crowd, there is an “other” that is suggestive in the crowd, a suggestion that its members can’t locate or predict. This is the infamous “suggestion theory” which for Le Bon, “the command (the suggestive injunction) is always already older than the subjects it directs, it belongs to no one”[xii] and the leader arises as “an ultimate guarantee of the social body.[xiii]” For Le Bon, the leader is the subject: the political and the subject are one and the same. Counter to this hypothesis, Freud argues that it is eros that binds the group together and forms the social bond.[xiv]  It is eros (affect) that functions as the primitive social bond, the “primal band.”

But importantly, the social bond is paradoxical—we return now to the narcissism essay—in the sense that the subjects ‘subject themselves’ to a leader. The subject does not bind; it binds itself. Therefore, every social bond is an impasse and the role of the leader at the site of the social bond is never fully resolved for Freud.  As Borch-Jacobsen writes:

“The lack of individual freedom, “the principal of group psychology” thus results neither from a constraint imposed by force nor from a social contract of the juridical type, nor from a natural suggestibility, but from a sort of seduction destined to extort from each Narcissus the free gift of his freedom.”[xv]

If love for the leader is the first bond, it is love for the leader that creates equality amongst the group. The organization of the group creates the same structure as that of the family and as such, the disappearance of any leader: religious, political or ideological risks “an unleashing of violence.” The idea of a leaderless group introduces the affect of panic into the equation, and we now have two primary affects at work in groups and crowds, or what Freud calls “spontaneous groups.” It is a major omission in Borch-Jacobsen’s The Freudian Subject that he fails to make the distinction between “artificial groups” and “spontaneous groups” for everything hinges on this distinction. Moreover, it is this distinction that separates Freud from Le Bon’s bourgeois aristocratic analysis of groups and crowds.

Artificial groups (the church, army, the school etc.) keep subjects in a relation that is akin to infant dependency. In this sense they are Oedipal but in such a way that the function of the leader is not necessarily bound up with eros. Artificial groups rely on social bonds wherein there is a non-sexual libidinal bond whereas in the spontaneous or revolutionary group the bond of eros is qualitatively different. I argue that this is one of the reasons that Freud’s Group Psychology so useful for Marxist study, it provides us with an understanding of groups that oppose bourgeois, or ‘artificial’ groups.

It would be far too banal of Freud to say that groups cannot be leaderless or that they rely on the eros of individual narcissistic bonds amongst a group, and therefore become unthinking automatons to the will of the leader. But this is what Borch-Jacobsen suggests, that Freud never escapes or eludes Le Bon’s hypnotic theory in his analysis of groups. He argues that the key concept is identification. When Freud writes that “libidinal bonds are not the only manner of ties with other people”[xvi] he points to the fact that the bonds of identification are what unite crowds:

“The disappearance of the libidinal-political bond that ensured the cohesion of the group does not liberate narcissistic egos in a pure and simple unbonding. In a way, it liberates nothing at all, and especially not autonomous subjects (individuals), since panic consists precisely in an unmasterable overflowing of ego by way of (affects of) others; or to put it differently, panic consists in a mimetic, contagious epidemic narcissism.”[xvii] 

The paradox that Freud hits upon in Group Psychology is the following one: individuals are open to one another through the affect of panic in the same way they are drawn together in love. And in chapter four of Group Psychology he writes that it is identification that “makes me experience the same affect as another person, just as verbal suggestion makes me think like the other person making the suggestion, just as imitation makes me reproduce the conduct of the model.” What this indicates for Borch-Jacobsen is that mimetic relations and mimetic desire are bound up with Freud’s theory of identification in Group Psychology.

If the libidinal tie with the leader produces panic at the moment the leader is removed or absent from the social bond, then the social bond must stand in some relation to the violent bond of ‘each against all’ which is the constant bond of bourgeois society. As Freud comments, “It is only in the erotic destruction of the object that death and life come into being.” The problem then becomes how a group might be composed by a non-libidinal bond without the panic of a father stand-in figure. But as we mentioned above, this is already mastered in artificial groups of bourgeois society. So Borch-Jacobsen gets himself caught up in knots as he misses the critical distinction between the different types of groups that Freud analyzes. Across these groups there are three types of identification bonds:

  1. Emotional tie with an object
  2. A substitute for a libidinal object.
  3. A bond over a common quality shared amongst the group that is non-libidinal.[xviii]

There must be two distinct bonds if Freud is to produce the Oedipal solution to the group: the first is a bond over an ideal model and the second is an object ideal. Since Freud insists that identification takes place in a prehistory of the unconscious prior even to the moment of mimetic identification that the group undergoes,the question becomes whether affect is produced prior to the social bond or is bound up with the identification processes in the social bond?

“We must make no mistake about it: by declaring that sympathy proceeds from identification, Freud in no way means to make affect an effect of mimesis; quite the contrary. The concept of identification, as he uses it, has precisely the function of reversing the mimesis-affect relation implied in the concept of sympathy. It signifies that affect precedes mimesis instead of being produced or induced by it.”[xix]

Putting oneself in the place of the Other, “always presupposes the feeling of self and feeling itself.” The crucial point Borch-Jacobsen makes—which underscores his larger argument of mimetic desire and identification—is that affect does not come from the Other, it is entirely one’s own. “I begin by having a feeling, and then I identify.”

And this is clear in Freud himself when he writes, “[w]e already begin to divine that the mutual tie between members of a group is in the nature of an identification of this kind, based upon an important emotional common quality: and we may suspect that this common quality lies in the nature of the tie with the leader.[xx]” he argues that the bond is formed on an abyssal point of identification, where no Law can serve as the basis of society:

“For the Law (the ego ideal, the Other, the Father, the Name of the Father, or whatever one wishes to call it) will always be “I,” the Ego, in my impossible identity. And the basis, the founding bond of society, is thus itself without foundation. The edifice of society has no basis.”[xxi]

Borch-Jacobsen presupposes the entirety of Freud’s social writings as devoid of a critique of bourgeois society. What is the identification at work in the artificial group? As Léon Rozitchner notes in Freud and the Limits of Bourgeois Individualism the wish is “for the foundation of my being to remain eternally in place and for it to serve as the subjective support for the invariable permanence of the systems, institutions and the negation of historical time.”

In the bourgeois group the lasting bonds with the father are reaffirmed themselves through the leader in the duration of the bonds that tie me to the global. This is a repressive form of dependency which originated at the heart of the social form that is the bourgeois family and is prolonged in the social institutions. The artificial groups such as the church or army preserve the same form of dependency that the self-enclosed adult maintains in the preservation of his or her infantile sensibility.

What makes Freud’s theory of groups so radical is precisely the notion of the leader. It is the distinction between the director of the artificial group and the leader of the masses in a spontaneous revolt which moves history, thus the eros towards the leader in a group that is a breakaway from the artificial group is qualitatively distinct to that of the artificial group bond. Again, this distinction is totally absent in Borch-Jacobsen.  

Girard and Borch-Jacobsen argue that there is no primal identification, the rivalry is locatable in the very encounter with the rivalrous double. Freud did not need to transpose his rivalries with Jung onto a primordial pre-social basis to resolve the issue. As Gillian Rose once said of Girard in the Broken Middle, “all desire is mobilized in the service of nothingness, from which only the novelist or the member of the group, gives up being an eternal victim and gives up seeing his beloved as a monstrous divinity.” Girard’s mimetic desire theory stands as a Gnostic rebuttal to Freud, and the Gnosticism in Girard argues there remains no mystery prior to the rivalrous identification. Direct knowledge of this rivalrous scandal has been made apparent. But the problem with this banal Gnosticism resides in the fact that Girard effectively sees the “scapegoat victim” in every social process of identification. The Girardian now possesses a transparent capacity to treat the crisis of the double bind and to locate and restore a “common direction for all” as well as to “explain myths of origin.”

Girard’s mimetic desire theory is useful in its lifting of the veil on mimetic rivalry mechanisms but what has yet to be fully grappled with is how Girard’s prescriptions for treating the violence of the social bond results in a conservative cessation of all rivalry tout court. As I argue in my book, this pacifying tendency makes Girardian thought an inadequate partner to Marxist and socialist analysis.

For Freud, hypnotism must be abandoned because authority must be thought “prior to the theory (and) the subject” but this only leads Freud to be unable to think identification adequately according to Borch-Jacobsen. If Freud’s entire theory of the social bond is one in which “the members of the group are carried away by suggestion, by means of identification.[xxii]” than Freud cannot think how hypnosis itself dissolves authority and this leads Borch-Jacobsen to argue that Freud’s subject remains in ‘voluntary servitude’ due to the residue of hypnosis that Freud never effectively gets around: “The object-put-in-the-place-of-the-ego-ideal is not loved, it hypnotizes, and this object is the leader, the Fuhrer.”[xxiii]

The libidinal constitution of the group is formed around hypnosis wherein there remains something that Freud refuses to grapple with. In Freud’s “Note on the Unconscious in Psychoanalysis” he indicates that hypnosis is the state by which the subject obeys the law:

“But not the whole of (the order) emerged into consciousness: only the conception of the act to be executed. All the other ideas associated with this conception – the order, the influence of the physician, the recollection of the hypnotic state, remained unconscious even then.”[xxiv]

Borch-Jacobsen says that it is “in hypnosis, [where] we find a forgetting of the Other”—the hypnotist’s command gives no order to the subject because it never presents itself to consciousness.[xxv] The command of the leader obliges beyond any desire for submission and any voluntary servitude – the subject withdraws from what it enjoins: the subject “does not know that he is obeying.”[xxvi]

Borch-Jacobsen misses the logic of the identification process involved with the ego ideal and how it is taken over by the group ideal. In this process, a new collective form of the ego ideal is discovered, and at this moment the individual discovers, like the first human beings at the origin, the possibility of a fraternal alliance as opposed to the relations of submission to their oppressive power, which is the current prolongation of the primal father in the artificial group.

As Balibar has demonstrated in his essay “The Invention of the Superego”, the Freudian subject is not thought in a relation of voluntary servitude as Borch-Jacobsen assumes, and this is not even the condition of the subject in the artificial group. I develop an analysis of why this is not the case in chapter three of my book.


[i] Freud, “On Narcissism,” p. 73 – 74

[ii] Ibid, 83

[iii] Ibid, 93

[iv] Freud, Group Psychology, p. 101

[v] Borch-Jacobsen, p. 47

[vi] Girard, 154 – 155

[vii] Girard, Violence and the Sacred, p. 199

[viii] Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego p. 129

[ix] Borch-Jacobsen, pps. 130 – 131

[x] Ibid, 135

[xi] Ibid, 135

[xii] Borch-Jacobsen, 143

[xiii] Ibid, 145

[xiv] Borch-Jacobsen, 155 – 156

[xv] Ibid, 161 – 162

[xvi] Freud, Group Psychology, 103

[xvii] Ibid, 166 – 167

[xviii] Freud, Sigmund, Group Psychology 107 – 108

[xix] Borch-Jacobsen, 108

[xx] Freud, Sigmund, Group Psychology 108

[xxi] Borch-Jacobsen, The Freudian Subject p. 225

[xxii] Freud, Group Psychology, p. 130

[xxiii] Freud, Group Psychology, 226

[xxiv] Freud, Note on the Unconscious, p. 12:261

[xxv] Borch-Jacobsen, The Freudian Subject pps. 229 – 230

[xxvi] Ibid, 230

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