In the world of espionage, sources are often revealed not by single events, but rather though patterns which emerge over time.  This view was reinforced when Chaos Theory emerged in the 1980’s, and popular science seized on the analogy of a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world which causes a hurricane at the antipodes.  One of our most predictable patterns of behaviour is the Great Escape, when thousands of cars simultaneously depart the city each summer to head for the sunshine.

Now, bear with me while I put forward a proposition.  The pastime of sitting in stationary cars during summertime is frustrating, and while we think we’re acting on our own volition, perhaps we’re actually the subjects of an experiment carried out by social theorists.  How ironic, they smile, that in order to escape from the confines of the city we climb into a crocodile of cars and travel along the confines of the motorway.  What fun the sociologists will have with that one.

Social learning theory suggests that people learn by observing others, intentionally or otherwise, and that process is known as learning through imitation, or “modelling”.  Our choice of a model is influenced by a variety of factors, such as age, gender, status, and similarity to ourselves.  The congested motorway is an ideal place to observe what others do, and provides plenty models for us.

The French philosopher René Girard thought along similar lines, and developed a theory called “acquisitive mimesis”.  While I’d like to believe that I’m a free agent and that I visit places because I’m inherently interested in them, Girard supposes that I’m heavily influenced by what’s going on around me.  He proposes that human behaviour is learned, and learning is based on imitation.  Basically, our desire for a certain object is always provoked by the desire of another person - the model - for this same object.

Hence he suggests, we’re all sheep, following each other down the motorway towards freedom - and that’s why we all end up trapped in the same traffic jam.

In the new world which emerged after September 11, the efficiency of the plane was reduced by the time and energy wasted in security queues.  In fact, you have to travel more than 800 km for flying to become more efficient than high speed trains – the latter travel from city centre to city centre, rather than landing at outlying airports which require a further journey to reach your destination.  Plus you can take whatever you like with you, and return without having to worry about baggage allowances.

In theory, the car is not much use after 300 km, because the train will always beat you.  Trains also avoid the enormous traffic jams which spring up across the continent during holiday season.  The French have an apt description for traffic congestion which keep starting and stopping.  The cars, they say, are en accordéon, and anyone who travelled down the Rhone Valley last summer on the celebrated A6 – l'Autoroute du Soleil – on a “red” or “black” day will understand perfectly.

Perhaps you can avoid the jam … if you can recognise the emerging pattern.  Whether the source of distraction is a beautiful chateau, a phone call or an accident to gawp at, drivers rarely maintain the same pace.  If they slow down, the cars behind them brake, too.  As with molecular gas flows, all the particles behind back up and then these compression waves propagate, so you end up with a series of concertina-style traffic jams.

According to Girard’s theory, we’re doomed to sit in that jam, or in the security queue at the airport, or trapped on a train speeding through the Rhone, if that’s what our peer group does.  Even the most counter-intuitive thinking will be defeated as we have to battle very hard to overcome our own act of mimesis.  In one sense, that’s depressing and constraining, since it suggests that we lack free agency.  However, sometimes the mimesis is even more literal.

A couple of years ago, Girard contributed to a book, Architects and Mimetic Rivalry, which argues that buildings are shaped by imitating architectural forms, and by imitating the identities of their creators.  The term “mimetic rivalry,” coined by Girard, suggests that we’re in competition for things which are commonly shared and desired.  Although some architects dismiss the idea, Girard argues that their rivalry is not a result of personal or ideological differences, but instead the desire to imitate a master which ultimately becomes the desire to use the same forms, and by association to reach the same status.

That’s a strange and frightening premise.  It suggests that if we can’t separate the person from the work, then we’ll pursue a cult of personality in our attempt to re-create our own version of someone else.  However, as with other walks of life, you can have supremely gifted people with foul, devious personalities - and sweet, kind people with no talent at all.  If you get it wrong, you may end up copying a tyrant’s character traits without isolating his creative spark.

Similarly, there is a real danger that architecture becomes a business of chasing status, rather than creating things.  Girard seems to say, question your motives.  Why did you decide to train as an architect?  Was it something inherent in you, or are you simply copying your fellow travellers?

Girard’s thesis also relies on the splitting down of creative folk into people who “are”, and people who “do”.  For example, performing arts folk “are”, in the sense that they have extrovert personalities and want to show them off.  Visual artists who “do” can happily live in the shadows, content for others to see their work while learning nothing about its creator.  For the rest, perhaps we do behave like sheep some of the time.

In an attempt to avoid accordions, we travelled to Metz overnight at the end of the year.  When we got up the next morning, the winter air was clear and still, the chapel bells rang out, and the dead steelworks of Arcelor at Florange and Gandrange stood like ghosts of progress.  Once he realised we were Scots, the hotel manager quizzed us about Glasgow’s football teams, and in response we offered a Gallic shrug.  Bof… In return, he expressed amazement: no-one comes to Lorraine to take photos of the steel industry, monsieur! 

Perhaps we had succeeded, unwittingly, in confounding Girard’s theory.  We headed south to Belfort and from there it was on up to Geneva, over the impressive fly-overs of Bellegarde and to the Bourg-en-Bresse where, the French will tell you, they rear the best chickens in Europe.  >:^)

Meantime, if you see M. Girard stuck in a traffic jam, give him and all his pals a cheery wave…

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