Many popular slogans instruct us to be authentic by refusing to imitate others:
Be yourself, everyone else is taken;
You were born an original, don’t die a copy.
What these sayings incorrectly imply is that the less influence one allows others to have on oneself, the more authentic one will be. It assumes that self is an independent entity that needs no-one else to be itself. But humans are by nature reflective and imitative.
My intention is to show that it is the human capacity for imitation, ironically, that makes us unique. To be original is not the capacity to draw on some inner genius that needs no model, but rather, it is genius to understand the influences that form self and how combining such influences can result in a truly original reflection.
Few areas of recent research have shed as much light on our understanding of human nature as those that address with fresh insight the unique and foundational properties of human imitation. Far from being the simple and mindless act that we typically associate it with (“monkey see, monkey do”), imitation is now understood as a complex, generative, and multidimensional phenomenon at the heart of what makes us human. In fact, imitation may very well be the basis for not only how we learn, but also how we understand each other’s intentions and desires, establish relational bonds, fall in love, become jealous, compete with one another, and violently destroy each other, all the while operating largely outside of our conscious awareness. 1
The concept of imitation often carries negative connotations. Why? Let me illustrate with a personal example. For me the negative association began at an early age. My grandad was an artist and visits to his studio instilled an appreciation for painting in me. Although my dad did not pursue it as a career, he was also an accomplished painter. So drawing and painting was part of the fabric of our family. All the paintings in the house were originals – prints were simply not allowed. By the age of thirteen I was enrolled in an art school. As I studied the great masters of art, it seemed to me that each of them had a style uniquely their own. And some of them, like Leonardo da Vinci, openly spoke against imitation.
In this context, imitation became the very opposite of creativity and authenticity. “I don’t want to imitate, I want to be authentic!”, I thought to myself while studying with great interest the styles and techniques of the masters. The artists I enjoyed most were those whose brush strokes seemed bold and spontaneous. They were obviously comfortable with their own style; it seemed as if they painted without hesitation, drawing from an unrestrained source within them. I practiced this kind of spontaneous painting. With each repetition my technique improved and eventually I produced a painting with which I was pleased. It was an oil painting, produced within a few hours, with bold brush strokes and vibrant colors. It gave me such a sense of satisfaction because it felt as if I was true to myself. I painted without hesitation, drawing from a boldness within. There was a sense of an undiscovered self being released. The very formation of this self was dependent on claiming these artistic talents and expressions as originating in myself.
I was blissfully unaware that what I adored as being an authentic expression of my artistic self was all suggested to me by the art and artists I scrutinized in my studies. I did not recognize that my desire to imitate no one, was itself an imitation of Da Vinci’s desire to imitate no one. Da Vinci himself might not have been aware of the fact that everything he learned, from the language he spoke to the social interactions he had with others, was all learned through a process of imitation.
From an artist’s point of view (such as Da Vinci’s), it is understandable that explicit imitation would be discouraged. If the very mechanism by which art is produced was exposed, the very qualities that we so adore – the authenticity, originality and genius of the artist – would be threatened. However, creativity is not the complete absence of imitation but rather the unique combination of reflections. The painting I produced was unique, not because nobody influenced me but because of the unique combination of influences and interpretations of those influences.
What does it mean to be authentic, creative and original?
Understanding the role of relationships in forming self has given birth to a whole new model of Psychology called Interdividual Psychology.
This relationship with the other seems to me so close and so fundamental that it should not be seen as merely a relation between two individuals, two subjects, but as a reciprocal movement of back and forth, carving out in each of its poles, by its very motion, an entity that can be designated as the “self.” That is why Girard, Lefort, and I, in Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, named the psychology of this relationship “interdividual psychology.” We intended by this to found a new psychology, at the point of convergence of our psychological and anthropological research, that would no longer be a psychology of the individual or monadic subject, but rather a psychology of the relationship as such. It is the force of attraction exercised and undergone by each subject in relation to all others that supplies the psychological energy necessary for movement. 2
To claim originality by denying any influence is nothing but delusional pride.
A move in the right direction is to acknowledge the models that influence us. Becoming aware of the relational movements that shape us, is a significant step towards a more realistic self-awareness. Such an awareness opens up a creative opportunity to re-invent the model and uniquely combine different aspects of multiple models. Imitation is therefore not a slavish copy of the model, but an essential capacity for creative re-invention.
Desire and the Formation of Self
But what energizes these relations movements? In ‘Desire Found Me’ I name this force as desire.
Desire constantly moves in the spaces between us, and by its very movement, carves and energizes our characters. Desire is not created by self, but rather self is formed by desire. That means that you are not the sole source of your desires but rather you have your origin in the desires that formed you. Self is therefore not an independent substance or reality that exists by itself, rather, it is a self-of-desire. Self is constantly deconstructed and reconstructed – a dynamic construct that is deeply dependent on realities beyond itself. As such I need a reference beyond myself to know myself. 3
As stated before, finding or developing your authentic self has to do with becoming aware of the models that influence you. In addition it is recognizing that the quality within our models that we reflect most unconsciously, is desire.
Who am I?
I’ll get closer to an answer if I change the question to: “What do I desire?”
And following on from that question: “Where do these desires come from?”
- (2011-10-31). Mimesis and Science: Empirical Research on Imitation and the Mimetic Theory of Culture and Religion (Studies in Violence, Mimesis, & Culture) (Kindle Locations 189-194). Michigan State University Press. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Oughourlian, Jean-Michel; Oughourlian, Jean-Michael (2009-12-15). The Genesis of Desire (Studies in Violence, Mimesis, & Culture) (Kindle Locations 657-663). Michigan State University Press. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Rabe, Andre (2015-01-24). Desire Found Me (Kindle Locations 300-304). Andre Rabe Publishing. Kindle Edition. ↩