jan 5

Innovation and repetition

By René Girard*

‘Innovation,’ from the Latin, innovare, innovatio, should signify renewal, rejuvenation from inside, rather than novelty, which is its modern meaning in both English and French. Judging from the examples in the Oxford English Dictionary and the Littré, the word came into widespread use only in the 16th century and, until the 18th century, its connotations are almost uniformly unfavorable.

In the vulgar tongues, as well as in medieval Latin, the word is used primarily in theology, and it means a departure from what by definition should not change — religious dogma. In many instances, innovation is practically synonymous with heresy.

Orthodoxy is unbroken continuity and, therefore, the absence of innovation. This is how Bossuet defines the orthodoxy of the great ecumenical councils: ‘Nothing was innovated at Constantinople, but nothing was innovated at Nicea either.’

All uses of the word are patterned on the theological. Good things are stable by definition, and therefore untainted by innovation, which is always presented as dangerous or suspicious. In politics, innovation is almost tantamount to rebellion and revolution. As we might expect, Hobbes loathes innovation. In Government and Society (1651), he writes:

There are many who supposing themselves wiser than others, endeavor to innovate, and divers innovators innovate in various ways.

Besides theology and politics, language and literature seem threatened by unwanted innovation, especially in ‘classical’ France. The 17th-century French grammarians and literary theoreticians are against innovation, of course. Here are two mediocre lines of Ménage:

Don’t innovate or do anything to the language, and you will do well.

Hostility to innovation is what we expect from conservative thinkers, but we are surprised to find it under the pen of authors whom we regard as innovators. When Calvin denounces ‘the appetite and desire to innovate, change and stir up everything,’ he sounds just like Bossuet. So does Cromwell in 1658, when he attacks what he calls ‘Designs… laid to innovate upon the Civil Rights of Nations, and to innovate in matters of religion.’

The reformers see the Reformation not as innovation, but as a restoration of original Christianity. They profess to return to the authentic imitation of Christ, uncorrupted by Catholic innovation.

Mutatis mutandis — the humanists feel just like Protestants. They, too, hate innovation. More than ever they look back to the ancient models that the Middle Ages revered. They indict their medieval predecessors not on the grounds that they selected the wrong models, but that they did not imitate the right ones properly. The humanists differ from the Protestants, of course, in that their models are the philosophers, writers and artists of classical antiquity.

Montaigne hates innovation: ‘Nothing harries a state except innovation; change alone gives form to injustice and tyranny.’ In the Essays, innovation is synonymous with ‘nouvelleté,’ a word which the author also uses disparagingly.

A social and political component is present in all this fear of the new, but something else lies behind it, something religious that is more archaic and pagan than Christian. The negative view of innovation reflects what I call external mediation, a word in which the need for and the identity of all cultural models is taken for granted. This is so true that, in the Middle Ages, the concept of innovation is hardly needed. Its use is usually confined to technical discussions of heresy in Latin. In the vulgar tongues, the need for the word appears only in the last phase of external mediation, which I roughly identify with the 16th and 17th centuries.

People accuse each other of being bad imitators, unfaithful to the true essence of the models. Not until a little later, with the great Querelle des anciens et des modernes, does the battle shift to the question of which models are best, the traditional ones or their modern rivals? The idea that there must be models still remains common to both camps. The principle of stable imitation is the foundation of the system, and is the last to be questioned.

The world of external mediation genuinely fears the loss of its transcendental models. Society is felt to be inherently fragile. Any tampering with things as they are could unleash the primordial mob and bring about a regression to original chaos. What is feared is a collapse of religion and society as a whole, through a mimetic contagion that would turn the people into a mob.

We have many echoes of this in Shakespeare. In Henry IV, the king speaks of

Poore Discontents, which gape, and rub the Elbow at the newes Of hurly burly Innovation.

Henry IV, Part I, V,1,78.

‘Hurly burly’ means tumult, confusion, storm, violent upheaval. In 1639, Webster mentions ‘the Hydra-headed multitude that only gape for innovation.’ On the subject on the English Revolution, Bossuet speaks a similar language and reflects a similar mentality:

Something very violent stirred in the bottom of their hearts; it was a secret disgust of everything having authority, and an urge to innovate incessantly from the moment of seeing a first example of it.

A taste for innovation is supposed to denote a perverse and even a deranged mind. The unfavorable implications of the word were so well established that we still find them under the pen of a thinker as radical as Diderot: ‘In a government, every innovation is to be feared.’ There is an apocalyptic ring to this old use of innovation that contrasts sharply with the modern flavor of the term.

The Jacobin Terror was enough, apparently, to keep this fear alive, but only the most eloquent traditionalists can play the old tune successfully — Xavier de Maistre, and, on occasion, Edmund Burke. He calls the French Revolution ‘a revolt of innovation; and thereby the very elements of society have been confounded and dissipated.’

Paradoxically, the Revolution did not reinforce the ancient fear of innovation, but instead greatly contributed to its demise. The guillotine terrified many people, of course, but it was ‘political’ terror in the modern sense, and no longer something mysterious and uncanny. What disappeared at that time was the feeling that any deliberate tinkering with the social order was not only sacrilegious, but intrinsically perilous, likely to trigger an apocalyptic disaster.

Even if the bad connotations of our word occasionally resurfaced in the 18th century, the story of the hour was not perpetuation of the past, but its overthrow. It was not the core meaning of ‘innovation’ that changed, but its affective ‘aura.’

The reason, of course, was the shift away from theology, and even philosophy, toward science and technology. The word was interpreted in a new context which caused examples of brilliant and useful inventions to spring to the mind. That good impression automatically spilled over into areas and disciplines unrelated to science and technology. This process exactly reversed the earlier one, when the bad connotations rooted in theology extended to the non-theological uses of the word.

In his Histoire philosophique (1770), Abbé Raynal rehabilitated innovation through the contextual change just defined. In typical philosophe style, he discarded the theological background with alacrity. Addressing his reader directly, the abbé writes:

You will hear murmured all around, that’s not possible, and when that would be possible, it’s innovations, innovations! Right, but so many discoveries in the sciences and in the arts, haven’t they been innovations?

All it takes to nip intelligent reforms in the bud is to brandish the old scarecrow, ‘innovation.’ The very sound of the word has been so unpleasant, traditionally, that no further argument is needed. Since inventions in the arts and the sciences are also innovations, the bad connotations are unfounded, and should be replaced by good ones.

As Raynal was writing, the change he advocated was occurring. The foul smell of heresy finally dissipated, and was instantly replaced by the inebriating vapors of scientific and technical progress.

From then on, in all walks of life, would-be innovators leaned upon the prestige of science in order to promote their views. This is especially true in the political and social sphere. Social organization was now perceived as the creation of mere human beings, and other human beings thus had the right to redesign it in part or even in toto.

As early as the beginning of the 19th century, innovation became the god that we are still worshipping today. In 1817, for instance, Bentham characterizes some idea as ‘a proposition so daring, so innovational..!’ (Someone must have found ‘innovative’ too short a word, and forged the longer ‘innovational.’ That someone may have been Bentham himself. Innovation to him is like candy to a child — the bigger the piece, the more slowly and voluptuously it will dissolve in your mouth.)

The new cult meant that a new scourge had descended upon the world — ‘stagnation.’ Before the 18th century, ‘stagnation’ was unknown; suddenly it spread its gloom far and wide. The more innovative the capitals of the modern spirit became, the more ‘stagnant’ and ‘boring’ the surrounding countryside appeared. In La Rabouilleuse, a supposedly conservative Balzac deplores the retrograde ways of the French provinces: ‘Alas! To do things as our fathers did, to innovate nothing, such is the law of the countryside.’

In an amazingly short time, a systematically positive view of innovation replaced the systematically negative one. Everything was reversed and even the least innovative people found themselves celebrating innovation.

Innovation and Imitation

As I said before, the negative view of innovation is inseparable from a conception of the spiritual and intellectual life dominated by stable imitation. Being the source of eternal truth, of eternal beauty, of eternal goodness, the models should never change. Only when these transcendental models are toppled, can innovation acquire a positive meaning. External mediation gives way to a world in which, at least in principle, individuals and communities are free to adopt whichever models they prefer and, better still, no model at all.

This seems to go without saying. Our world has always believed that ‘to be innovative’ and ‘to be imitative’ are two incompatible attitudes. This was already true when innovation was feared; now that it is desired, it is more true than ever.

The following sentence is a good example. Michelet deplores the influence of moderate elements on the French Revolution: ‘They made it reformatory, prevented it from being a new foundation, from innovating and creating.’

The romantic historian puts innovation on a par with foundation and creation itself, creation ex nihilo, no doubt, that, up to that time, had been the exclusive monopoly of the biblical God.

During the 19th, and much of the 20th centuries, as the passion for innovation intensified, the definition of it became more and more radical, less and less tolerant of tradition, i.e. of imitation. As it spread from painting to music and to literature the radical view of innovation triggered the successive upheavals that we call ‘modern art.’ A complete break with the past is viewed as the sole achievement worthy of a ‘creator.’

At least in principle, this innovation mania affects all aspects of human existence. This is true not only of such movements as surrealism but of writers who, at first sight, seem to continue more traditional trends.

Consider, for instance, the implications of the following sentence in Raymond Radiguet’s Le Diable au corps: ‘Tous les amants, même les plus mediocres, s’imaginent qu’ils innovent.’ If the novelist finds it necessary to say that the innovation of mediocre lovers is imaginary, he must also believe that it can be real, when it proceeds from genuinely talented lovers.

Just as the measure of a painter’s talent is now his capacity to innovate in painting, the measure of a lover’s love is his or her capacity to innovate in the field of love-making. To be ‘with-it’ in the France of 1920, one had to be ‘innovative’ even in the privacy of the boudoir. What a burden on all lovers’ shoulders! Far from exorcizing the urge to mimic famous lovers in literature and history, compulsory innovation can only inflame it further.

Even philosophy succumbed to the ‘terrorism’ of innovation. When French philosophers began to look for an insurance policy against the greatest possible ill — fidelity to the past, the repetition of dépassé philosophies — one of their inventions was la rupture épistémologique. This miraculous concept made it possible for the communist Althusser to be an old-style aparatchik on the one hand and, on the other, one hundred per cent innovative, almost as much so as Marx himself, since Althusser was the first to take the full measure of the prophet’s innovative genius.

The psychoanalyst Lacan pulled exactly the same trick with Freud. Very quickly, however, one single rupture épistémologique for all times and for all people seemed paltry. Each thinker had to have his own, and then the really chic thinkers had several in a row. In the end, everybody turned themselves into a continuous and monstrous rupture, not primarily with others, but with their own past.

This is how inconsistency has become the major intellectual virtue of the avant-garde. But the real credit for the tabula rasa school of innovation should go to Nietzsche, who was tired of repeating with everybody else that a great thinker should have no model. He went one better, as always, and refused to be a model — the mark of genius. This is still a sensation that is being piously repeated today. Nietzsche is our supreme model of model-repudiation, our revered guru of guru-renunciation.

The emphasis on ruptures, fragments and discontinuities is still all the rage in our universities. Michel Foucault has taught us to cut up the history of ideas into separate segments with no communication between them. Even the history of science has developed its own counterpart of Foucault’s épistémé. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn tells us more or less that the only scientists worth their salt are those who make themselves completely unintelligible to their colleagues by inventing an entirely new paradigm.

This extreme view of innovation has been dominant for so long that even our dictionaries take it for granted. Innovation is supposed to exclude imitation as completely as imitation excludes it. Examples of how the word should be used are of this type: ‘It is easier to imitate than to innovate.’

This conception is false, I believe, but its falsity is easier to show in some domains than in others. The easiest illustration is to be seen in contemporary market economies. This is certainly a domain in which innovation occurs on a massive, even a frightening scale, at least in the so-called developed countries. It is not difficult to observe the type of behavior that fosters economic innovation. In Economics, innovation has a precise definition; it is sometimes the bringing of a technical invention into widespread practical use, but it can also be improvements in production technique, or in management. It is anything as yet untried that gives a business an edge over its competitors. That is why innovation is often regarded as the principle, even the sole source of profits.

Business people can speak lyrically about their mystical faith in innovation and the brave new world it is creating, but the driving force behind their constant innovation is far from utopian. In a vigorous economy, it is a matter of survival, pure and simple. Business firms must innovate in order to remain competitive.

Competition, from two Latin words, cum and petere, means to seek together. What all businessmen seek is profits; they seek them together with their competitors in the paradoxical relationship that we call competitive.

When a business loses money, it must innovate very fast, and it cannot do so without forethought. Usually, there is neither the money nor the time for this. In this predicament, business people with a strong survival instinct will usually reason as follows:

‘If our competitors are more successful than we are, they must be doing something right. We must do it ourselves and the only practical way to go about it is to imitate them as exactly, as we can.’

Most people will agree that there is a role for imitation in economic recovery, but only in the first phase of the healing process. By imitating its successful competitors, an endangered firm can innovate in relation to itself; it will thus catch up with its rivals but it will invent nothing really new.

This common sense makes less sense than it seems. To begin with, is there such a thing as ‘absolute innovation’? In the first phase, no doubt, imitation will be rigid and myopic. It will have the ritual quality of external mediation. After a while, however, the element of novelty in the competitor’s practice will be mastered and imitation will become bolder. At that moment, it may — or may not — generate some additional improvement which will seem insignificant at first, because it is not suggested by the model, but which really is the genuine innovation that will turn things around.

I am not denying the specificity of innovation. I am simply observing that, concretely, in a truly innovative process, it is often so continuous with imitation that its presence can be discovered only after the fact, through a process of abstraction. Not so long ago in Europe, the Americans were portrayed as primarily imitators — good technicians, no doubt, but the real brain power was in Germany or in England. Then, in very few years, the Americans became great innovators.

Public opinion is always surprised when it sees the modest imitators of one generation turn into the daring innovators of the next. The constant recurrence of this phenomenon must have something to teach us.

Until quite recently, the Japanese were dismissed as mere copiers of Western ways, incapable of real invention in any field. They are now the driving force behind innovation in more and more technical fields. When did they acquire that inventive spark which, supposedly, they lacked? At this very moment, imitators of the Japanese — Koreans, Taiwanese — are repeating the same process. They, too, are fast turning into innovators. Hadn’t something similar already occurred in the 19th century, when Germany first rivaled and then surpassed England in industrial might? The metamorphosis of imitators into innovators occurs repeatedly, but we always react to it with amazement. Perhaps we do not want to know about the role of imitation in innovation.

‘It is easier to imitate than to innovate.’ This is what the dictionaries tell us, but it is true that the only short-cut to innovation is imitation. And here is another sentence that illustrates the meaning of innovation: ‘Many people imitate when they think that they innovate.’ This cannot be denied, but it should be added that many people innovate when they think that they imitate.

Innovation and Competition

In economic life, imitation and innovation are not only compatible but almost inseparable. This conclusion runs counter to the modern ideology of absolute innovation. Does it mean that this precious commodity comes in two varieties, one that relies on imitation and one that does not — a lower type reserved for business and a ‘higher’ type reserved for ‘higher’ culture?

This is what many intellectuals want to believe. If we agreed with them, we would nullify the one great insight of Marx — that the same competitive pattern dominates all aspects of modern culture, being most visible in economic life. On this particular point, Marx is our best guide.

The radical view of innovation is obviously false. But why does our culture so stubbornly cling to it? Why are modern intellectuals and artists so hostile to imitation?

In order to answer this question, we must go back to our example of mimetic inventiveness — business competition. The very fact that those who compete are models and imitators shows two things — imitation survives the collapse of external mediation, and a crucial change occurs in its modus operandi.

In ‘external mediation,’ either the models have the advantage of being long-dead or of a standing so far above their imitators that they cannot become their rivals. This is not the case in the modern world. Since competitors stand next to each other, in the same world, they must compete for the things that they desire in common, with resulting reciprocal imitation. This is the great difference between ‘external’ and ‘internal’ mediation.

All imitators select models whom they regard as superior. In ‘internal mediation,’ models and imitators are equal in every respect but one — the superior achievement of the one, which motivates the imitation by the other. This means, of course, that the models have been successful at their imitators’ expense.

Defeat in any kind of competition is disagreeable for reasons that go beyond the material losses that may be incurred. When we imitate successful rivals, we acknowledge what we would prefer to deny — their superiority. The urge to imitate is strong, since it opens up possibilities of bettering the competition. But the urge not to imitate is also strong. The only thing that the losers can deny the winners is the homage of their imitation.

Unlike external mediation, the internal variety is a reluctant mimesis that generally goes unrecognized because it hides behind a bewildering diversity of masks. The mimetic urge can never be repressed entirely, but it can turn to counter-imitation. The losers try to demonstrate their independence by systematically taking the course opposite to that of the winners. Thus they may act in a way detrimental to their own self-interest. Their pride turns self-destructive. No political or freudian ‘unconscious’ is necessary to account for that.

Even in economic life, where material incentives to imitate are strongest, the urge not to imitate may prove even stronger, especially in international trade which is affected by questions of ‘national pride.’ When a nation cannot successfully compete, it is tempted to blame its failure on unfair competition, thus paving the way for protectionist measures that put an end to peaceful competition.

Innovation in the Arts

It is not a deficit but an excess of competitive spirit that makes productive competition impossible. If this occasionally happens in economic life, where the incentive to compete is greatest, what about more subtle but even more intense forms of competition, like in the sciences, the arts, and philosophy, where universally-acknowledged means of evaluation are lacking?

In my opinion, the tendency to define ‘innovation’ in more and more ‘radical’ and anti-mimetic terms, and the mad escalation that I sketched earlier, reflect a surrender of modern intelligence to this mimetic pressure, a collective embrace of self-deception which Marx himself, for all his insights, remarkably exemplifies.

Like many 19th- and 20th-century intellectuals, Marx sees competitiveness as an unmitigated evil that should be abolished, together with the free market, the only economic system that channels the competitive spirit into constructive efforts instead of exacerbating it to the point of physical violence or discouraging it entirely. Marx’s purely historical thinking misses the complex anthropological consequences of democratic equality which Tocqueville perceived. Marx did not detect the change from one modality of imitation to another; he was unable to define the mimetic rivalry unleashed by the abandonment of transcendental models, by the collapse of hierarchical thinking.

In spite of many glorious exceptions, our recent intellectual climate has been determined not by a lucid analysis of these phenomena, but by their repression, which produces what Nietzsche described as ressentiment. Most intellectuals take the path of least resistance vis-à-vis internal mediation, and their obsessive concern with their own mimetic rivals is always accompanied by a fierce denial of mimetic rivalry, and a determination to crush this abomination through political and cultural revolution.

As a result, most theories fashionable in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries have been the philosophical and aesthetic equivalents of the economic autarkie that preceded World War II, and their consequences have been no less disastrous. Instead of re-examining imitation and discovering its conflictual dimension, the eternal avant-garde has waged a purely defensive and ultimately self-destructive war against it.

When the humility of discipleship is experienced as humiliating, the transmission of the past becomes difficult, even impossible. The so-called counter-culture of the sixties was a climactic moment in this strange rebellion, a revolt not merely against the competitiveness of modern life in all its forms but against the very principle of education. Avant-garde culture has disfigured innovation so badly that we have to look to economic life to see why our world of internal mediation is so innovative.

Economic life is an example of an internal mediation that produces an enormous, even frightening amount of innovation, since it ritualizes and institutionalizes mimetic rivalry, the rules of which are willingly obeyed. Economic agents openly imitate their successful rivals instead of pretending otherwise.

False as they are, the theories that dominate our cultural life are ‘true’ in that they truly influence the cultural environment. In the arts, the scorched-earth policies of the recent past have led to a world in which radical innovation is so free to flourish that there is little difference between having it everywhere and having it nowhere at all.

The dazzling achievements of modern art and modern literature seem to give the lie to what I just said. And it is true, indeed, that, in these domains, spiritual autarkie has a fecundity which has no parallel in science, technology or economic life. Romantic and post-romantic literature thrives for a while on a diet of anti-heroes, and on critical or naïve portrayals of individual reactions to the pressures of internal mediation, the retreat of the modern ‘consciousness’ into ‘itself.’

Rousseau was the first great explorer of a territory that already had a large population when he began to write. In no time at all, he became immensely popular and he had countless imitators. He ruled over the underground realm whose most lucid master is probably Dostoevski. The Russian novelist’s greatest work is a prodigious satire of self-pity, a luxury that much of the world cannot afford. From Rousseau to Kafka and beyond, the best of modern literature focused on the ‘fausse conscience’ to which intellectuals are more prone than others because of their preoccupation with those purely individual pursuits — books and works of art — that become the yardsticks of their being. The private question of being seems entirely separate from another and supposedly minor one — the question of where these artists and thinkers stand in relation to each other. However, in reality, the two questions are one.


After providing a great deal of genuinely innovative material, and postponing for more than a century the day of reckoning with our solipsistic ideologies, the rich vein of failed spiritual autarkie has finally run out, and the future of art and literature is in doubt.

Most people still try to convince themselves that our ‘arts and humanities’ will remain forever ‘creative’ and ‘innovative,’ fuelled by ‘individualism,’ but even the most enthusiastic espousers of recent trends are beginning to wonder. Innovation is still around, they say, but its pace is slackening.

The pessimism, which I share, is a subjective judgment — but in such matters, can there be any other? It seems to me that the still genuinely innovative areas of our culture are those in which innovation is acknowledged in modest and prudent terms, whereas those areas where ‘innovation’ is absolute and arrogant hide their disarray behind meaningless agitation.

I do not say this because I believe in an intrinsic superiority of the still innovative areas in our culture — science, technology and the economy. But I think that our cultural activities are vulnerable in direct proportion to the spiritual greatness that should be theirs. The old scholastic adage always applies: Corruptio optimi pessima — the corruption of the best is the worst.

The true Romantics believed that if we gave up imitation entirely, deep in our selves, an inexhaustible source of ‘creativity’ would spring up, and we would produce masterpieces without having to learn anything. Mistaking the end of transcendental models for an end of all imitation, the romantics and their modern successors have turned their ‘creative process’ into a veritable theology of the self, with roots in the distant past, as we have seen. In the old dispensation, innovation was reserved to God, and forbidden to man. When man took upon himself the attributes of God, he became the absolute innovator.

The Latin word in-novare implies limited change, rather than total revolution; a combination of continuity and discontinuity. We have seen that from the beginning, in the West, innovation departed from its Latin meaning in favor of the more ‘radical’ view demanded by the extremes of execration and adulation alternately triggered by the idea of change.

The mimetic model of innovation is valid not only for our economic life, but for all cultural activities whose innovative potential depends on the kind of passionate imitation that derives from religious ritual and still partakes of its spirit.

Real change can only take root when it springs from the type of coherence that tradition alone provides. Tradition can only be successfully challenged from the inside. The main prerequisite for real innovation is a minimal respect for the past, and a mastery of its achievements; i.e. mimesis. To expect novelty to cleanse itself of imitation is to expect a plant to grow with its roots up in the air. In the long run, the obligation always to rebel may be more destructive of novelty than the obligation never to rebel.

But isn’t all this ancient history? Hasn’t the modern theology of the self been fully discredited and discarded along with the rest of ‘Western Metaphysics’? As the deconstruction of our philosophical tradition proceeds, shall we not be ‘liberated’ at long last, and won’t a new culture automatically flourish?

The blurring of all aesthetic and intellectual criteria of judgement underlies what is now called ‘post-modern’ aesthetics. This blurring parallels the elimination of truth in post-Heideggerian philosophy. Our age tries to overcome the modern obsession with the ‘new’ through an orgy of casual imitation, an indiscriminate adoption of all models. There is no such thing anymore as a mediocre lover in the sense of Radiguet. Pierre Mesnard’s perfect copy of Don Quixote is just as great as the novel of Cervantes. Imitation has lost its stigma.

Does this mean that concrete innovation is back? Before we become too hopeful, we must observe that mimesis returns to us in a parodic and derisive mode that is a far cry from the patient, pious and single-minded imitation of the past. The imitation that produced miracles of innovation was still obscurely related to the mimesis of religious ritual.

The real purpose of post-modern thinking may well be to silence once and for all the question that has never ceased to bedevil ‘creators’ in our democratic world — the question of ‘Who is innovative and who is not?’ If such is the case, post-modernism is only the latest modality of our romantic ‘false consciousness,’ one more twist of the old serpent. There will be more.

*Transcribed to Markdown from a printed 1990 SubStance periodical. I do not own the rights to this content. I transcribed it, here, so that I could mull it over easier, as my paper copy is falling apart.