Rene Girard

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"René Girard (1923-2015), philosopher, social scientist, literary critic, theological thinker, analyst of anthropology and culture—not to mention provocateur, sage, rebel and wit—many labels might be given to Girard, one of the 20th century’s most significant theorists whose work spanned decades, continents and disciplines.

He was Professor Emeritus of French Language, Literature, and Civilization at Stanford University.

He was inducted into the prestigous Académie Française in 2005 as one of their forty immortels. Michel Serres, receiving Girard into the academy, described him as ‘the new Darwin of the human sciences’.

René Girard was born in Avignon on December 25, 1923. He studied at the École des Chartes, Paris, before moving to Indiana University where his PhD in History was conferred in 1950.

Subsequently holding positions at Duke University, Bryn Mawr College, and Johns Hopkins University, Girard published his first book, Mensonge Romantique et Vérité Romanesque, in 1961 (translated as Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure in 1965). In it he argued that ‘great novelists’ such as Cervantes, Proust, Flaubert and Dostoevsky understood that desire is mimetic (that is, stimulated by and dependent on others).

The Guardian recently compared this book to ‘putting on a pair of glasses and seeing the world come into focus. At its heart is an idea so simple, and yet so fundamental, that it seems incredible that no one had articulated it before.’

In his later work, Girard demonstrated the origins of violence in competing mimetic desires. He also showed the origins of culture in the scapegoat-mechanism, in which an innocent victim is sacrificed to catharsise the community of violence. Religion, according to Girard, originated in these sacrificial mechanisms, but developed in the Judeo-Christian tradition into a denouncing of violence and the scapegoat-mechanism.

While holding positions at the State University of New York at Buffalo and Johns Hopkins University, Girard published the two books in which he developed his mimetic theory from a theory of desire to a broader conception of human culture, the nature of violence, and the notion of the sacred: La Violence et le sacré (1972; Violence and the Sacred, 1977) and Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde (1978; Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, 1987).

In 1981 he became Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature, and Civilization at Stanford University, where he remained until his retirement in 1995. During this period he continued to publish, eventually producing nearly thirty books including Le Bouc Émissaire (1982; The Scapegoat, 1986), A Theatre of Envy: William Shakespeare (1991), and Je Vois Satan Tomber Comme L’éclair (1999; I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 2001).

In Girard’s last major book, Achever Clausewitz (2007; Battling to the End, 2009), he engaged with the ideas of Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theoretician who wrote On War, to argue that human history is accelerating towards extremes in warfare and ‘apocalyptic’ violence. This book, according to a Stanford peer, ‘created the kind of firestorm only a public intellectual in France can ignite,’ placing Girard as a provocative contributor to 21st-century public debate.

Girard was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and twice a Guggenheim Fellow, as well as the recipient of many other honours, including a lifetime achievement award with the Modern Language Association."



Mimetic desire, mimetic violence, and the scapegoat mechanism

Max Leyf:

"As a groundwork for understanding the crux of Girard’s work, it is necessary first to come to terms with his theory of mimetic desire. In brief, this is the theory that desire is not a function of value or of scarcity, as contemporary economists are wont to affirm. Instead, Girard identifies desire as a function of imitation. Our tacit assumptions remain to this day largely shaped by the beliefs of such philosophers as John Locke and Adam Smith. As a result, most of us, if pressed, would likely affirm value to be a something like a function of (a) a combination of time and intensity of labour with (b) scarcity of the resource on which that labour is exerted. Value, in turn, serves to attract our desire in this view, which is the basis of the liberal and laissez-faire philosophies that largely inform the outlook of contemporary society. But Girard shows that, despite constituting a plausible theory, this conception of desire fails to sustain itself with a solid evidential foundation. Indeed, the theory of desire grounded in labor and scarcity succumbs to the characteristic source of error for so many of the doctrines of the liberal philosophers: namely, it assumes as its point of departure a concept of human nature that has very little to do with human nature as it is actually found. In this case, as in so many others, the liberal theory of desire and value entirely neglects the fact that “the sovereign individual” is an abstraction from concrete reality, in which our social relations are also constitutive of us as individuals and not mere accidents to our existence. We know this because we use language and language is essentially social. Thus, pace Locke and Smith, value is not merely a function of labour and scarcity. Instead, as Girard argues, we confer value on things according to whether our peers and role-models—those whom we wish to imitate—place value on those things. Desire, therefore, is not something that we calculate, but something we learn, and we learn it by imitating others. Thus, desire is mimetic.

Advertisers know this, and it is only theoreticians who imagine otherwise. For instance, it is comparatively useless for marketing purposes for a brand to emphasize how many hours of labour go into creating and refining their product, etc. and it is also comparatively ineffective to indicate the scarcity of the raw materials that are its ingredients. Instead, an effective marketer must simulate the desire for that product in other people with whom the consumer feels some affinity and will thus be inclined to regard as peers or models. All liquor advertisements confirm this theory to the letter. The history of the diamond industry also provides an exemplary demonstration of mimetic desire in action. In order to create a demand for diamonds amongst consumers, it was not sufficient merely to feign the scarcity of this comparatively common gem. Instead it was necessary to create the illusion that other women desired diamond rings from their fiancés. The artifice was quickly imitated by reality following the operation of mimetic desire as Girard described it.

An immediate conclusion can be inferred from the theory of mimetic desire, and Girard shows that it is a theory that is born out by the wealth of anthropological evidence. Namely, if we learn desire by imitating other people, success in the first thing will place us in competition with the second. Thus, rivalry follows as a matter of course from mimetic desire because imitation leads to the convergence of many people around a single object of desire. Consequently, the theory of mimetic desire has as its immediate corollary the theory of mimetic violence. Phrased in a more accurate and more figurative way: mimetic desire tends to generate friction. A single spark from the latter will at once set off a concatenation of violence and retaliation that threatens to consume the entire society in a conflagration of mimetic violence. Social harmony is extremely precarious. Its stability is an illusion and the reality is that few things are more volatile than the passions of a mob.

One remedy against the constant threat of mimetic holocaust has been the establishment of social hierarchy. Such ramparts of propriety function like firewalls. Thus, the spread of mimetic violence may be staunched by the barrier of various forms of stratification. But firewalls often prove ineffective in practice and it is the same with the subject of this comparison. In fact, stratification is merely a specific form of social differentiation. Differentiation itself is the polar antithesis to violence. Put another way, violence consists in precisely the eradication of difference. Violence against another is to transgress the integrity of his person, and the archetypal event of murder is a fortiori a quintessential transgression of this sort. Penetrating to the essential core of violence as such reveals its strange and inverted identity with sex and just as the eradication of difference in general bears an important affinity with love. Suffice it here to note this connection, to establish that it is not a proper identity, and then to move on to explore the theme at hand because a great deal more could be written on this topic than can be contained within the scope of the present study.

Clearly, differentiation and social hierarchy alone are insufficient to staunch the spread of mimetic violence. As long as mimetic desire constitutes an essential element of the human psyche, the cause of such an outbreak is continually present. The best that such measures can offer is a temporary reprieve. They must be thought of as palliatives and not as salvation. The quest for more effective palliatives to remedy this constant threat has led all societies around the globe to converge on a single one. Indeed, it might be hypothesized that any society that did not discover this remedy did not manage to survive the outbreak of violence and therefore left posterity no evidence of its existence. The Sphinx posed a riddle at the gates of evolution and any culture that failed to provide the single answer was devoured where it stood. The commonality of a single answer across such a diversity of cultures is difficult to discern because of the myriad ways in which setting and circumstance inflect its essential form. The genius of Girard was to articulate the theory that can now allow us to recognize it in any of its instances. This is infinitely easier than attempting to arrive at the principle by way of its instances, since it is only in light of the principle that we are able to recognize the instances for what they are. When I mentioned the one remedy above, I was, of course, referring to the scapegoat mechanism.

To understand the efficacy of the scapegoat mechanism, we must first picture a society in the throes of mimetic violence, in which all differences have been transgressed and all hierarchy abolished. On may invoke the image that begin Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as an illustration. Ordinarily, a man may have a handful of enemies, but social differentiation, stratification, and hierarchy ensure that his desires will not converge on the same object as everyone else and as a result, he need not consider every other person as a potential rival. But whenever the pot of mimetic desire boils over into mimetic violence, the integrity of these differences are at once put to the test, and invariably they will be found wanting. In Romeo and Juliet, the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets has not yet managed to transgress all social ramparts and, as a result, the Prince is able to at once restore order with his presence since none of the parties to the havoc is able to view him as their peer. If this bulwark against violence is breached, however, and the surge of mimetic violence is allowed to abolish these hierarchical differences, a war of all against all will ensure, and utter holocaust will be the inevitable result. The only way for a society to arrest this tendency to self-annihilation is to polarize all of the violence upon a single victim. This polarization has the effect of transmuting total animosity into unanimity. The scapegoat provides the only escape, and his blood “purifies” the society of all of its bad blood. Girard pursues these notions of “blood” and “purity” in extensive depth to reveal how all of the rituals, taboos, and proscriptions that appear as mere superstition before our eyes actually stem from this inexorable logic of the ineluctability of mimetic violence and its only known remedy.

Of course, it is not feasible to enumerate all of Girard’s arguments and evidence on this occasion. Suffice it to analyze one particularly egregious example of such apparent superstition to expose this underlying logic. Let us consider the pervasive notion of sacrifice to the gods to appease them so that they will bestow their blessings in the form of crop-yield and fertility. First, we must take care not to be led astray by false conceptions we might entertain of gods. It can often be shown that a god of one day was a mortal of the day before. As a result, it might be imagined that folk religions are sacrificing to memories of a distant ancestor. This would represent a genetic fallacy, however, unless the ancestor is understood to be the image or symbol of a cosmological power, in which case, the significance would deserve our attention and not the medium by which it is signified. The happy isolationism of the god of the Deists is entirely foreign to all traditional thought. To the unprejudiced eye looking on the natural world, nothing could be less obvious than the modernist conviction that it operates according to a plan of abstract mathematical laws universal over space and laid down on the first day of Creation. Rather, nature appears everywhere alive and multitudinous, which every element striving to realize itself against all others. No sooner has the blossom emerged than it begins to decay. The crests of order rise and fall again into the sea of chaos. These terms are already shadowy abstractions. Instead, we can see in the world the same mix of predictability and apparent capriciousness that characterizes the average inter and intra-personal relations. Indeed, nothing could be more straightforward than to adopt the prima facie assumption that the world and the human beings that indwell it are homogeneous in a basic sense, and therefore to conceptualize natural processes by analogy with human ones should strike us as a very rational approach. When it fails to do this, it may be because we no longer derive our theories from real life but from theoretical abstraction, pace modern scientific types who profess to be “evidence-based.”

Returning then to the scene of a society on the brink of mimetic holocaust: it is, to begin with, no wonder that crops would cease to produce if everyone is at each other’s throats. Moreover, it is understood that our understanding selects for and conditions which phenomena we regard as evidence—“all observation is theory-laden.” Thus, to a people caught up in a frenzy of mimetic violence, those natural events which “fit their mood,” so to speak, will be granted salience while those which do not will simply be passed over as “noise” that is disregarded for the sake of the “signal.” The one in anguish will notice the fact of the thunderstorm and not its resolution, as it were. Each perspective is both true and false so it is impertinent to evaluate perceptions of this sort according to whether we agree with them. The ability of a society to set up a lightning rod of sorts that can channel all of the divine wroth to a single point will divert this destructive impulse from swallowing up the society itself.

If we can draw together all of these ideas in a sort of synoptic vision, then it will strike us with great force that the scapegoat mechanism accomplishes just this. By placing all of the blame onto a single being, all of the people could become unanimous. As a result, they can begin again to cooperate in the sowing, in the hunt, and in the harvest and so on. Their perceptual bias shifts towards optimistic portents (again this is not a question of correctness but of facts about the nature of perception; modern science is just as one-sided). The rainbow receives salience and not the tempest. The sacrifice was accepted and the gods are pleased.

Girard argues that, though such sacrifices may assume an infinite variety of outer forms, they all represent ritualistic elaborations of the original human scapegoat, who was the victim of collective murder. The only criteria for selecting a suitable victim of sacrifice were that (a) he be capable of magnetizing all violence to himself and (b) that he be incapable of retaliation. The first was the necessary condition to achieve the condition of unanimity, which, albeit temporary, represents the restoration of social harmony following an outbreak of mimetic violence. The second was necessary because retaliation is precisely the way by which one act of violence compounds and propagates itself so that a single insult can threaten to engulf the entire community in bloodshed. The scapegoat’s lack of ability to retaliate was necessary to ensure that his own death would indeed mark the end of that particular cycle. If the scapegoat was capable of retaliation—for instance, if his close relatives or clan members failed to participate in the spirit of unanimity behind his death—then the cycle of violence would only immediately be reignited.

It is my hope that this section has successfully outlined some of the essential elements of the scapegoat mechanism as articulated by René Girard. In the next section, I will attempt to show how Girard, like Barfield, Steiner, and others, saw the Crucifixion of Christ as the final and universal sacrifice, after which further scapegoating must be seen as retrogressive. Thus, while the scapegoat mechanism was a palliative for mimetic violence, Christ was the ultimate scapegoat and his sacrifice, therefore, was our salvation and deliverance from the sins of our fathers, which otherwise we only propagate down the generations. In respect to Girard’s theories, Christ was everywhere at once the limiting case and the reconciliation of all opposites. The violence is extreme, the innocence of the victim is absolute, and his divine forgiveness washes away all threat of retaliation. “So the last shall be first, and the first last…I am the Alpha and the Omega.”



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