Things Hidden Since the Foundations of the World

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* Book: Things Hidden Since the Foundations of the World. By Rene Girard. Stanford University Press, 2002



1. From the Wikipedia:

"Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World contains a comprehensive overview of Girard's work up to that point, and a reflection on the Judaeo-Christian texts.[1] The book presents a dialogue between Girard and the psychiatrists Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort; the dialogue interrogates and develops Girard's central thesis.[2]

Girard's explicates three core mechanisms that govern widespread social interactions: mimesis, the process by which individuals copy one another in escalation, leading to conflict; scapegoating, a process by which collective guilt is transferred onto victims, then purged; and violence.

Mimetic theory posits that human behavior is based upon mimesis, and that imitation can engender pointless conflict. Girard notes the productive potential of competition: "It is because of this unprecedented capacity to promote competition within limits that always remain socially, if not individually, acceptable that we have all the amazing achievements of the modern world," but states that competition stifles progress once it becomes an end in itself: "rivals are more apt to forget about whatever objects are the cause of the rivalry and instead become more fascinated with one another."


2. Jonathan Bi:

"Girard’s apocalyptic warnings begin with a seemingly innocuous observation: a fundamental, if not the fundamental, characteristic of humanity is imitation. Imitation is any act conscious or unconscious, deliberate or unintentional that reproduces another’s behavior. We imitate the language and customs of our cultures, but more worryingly, we also imitate the desires of those around us. This mimetic nature of desire naturally propels groups of people to desire a select set of objects, and thus competition begins.

Initially, the attention and effort expended upon this competition would be quite reasonable as individuals are merely acting to procure the objects for themselves; success and failure is determined by the obtainment of the object. But eventually the objects take second place and it is the models whom they imitate, their competitors, that the individuals become fascinated with. They now want to best their models more than simply to procure the object. When the model takes priority over the object in competition, sober object-competition gives way to what Girard termed “mimetic rivalry”. The discrete representation of the following graph should not obscure the continuous nature of competition. In reality, competition can lie on a gradient between these two extremes.

The goal of object-competition, to acquire the object, is clear and success is more or less secure. The goal of mimetic rivalries, to best the rival, is ambiguous and success is unstable. There is no clear criteria for superiority over the rival and even if we are confident in our temporary victory, lasting dominance over a dynamic and adapting rival is unstable. This ambiguity and insecurity cause much more tension and suffering than object-competition does. When mimetic rivalries proliferate between members of a society and the tension within is too great, an arbitrary and innocent scapegoat is often blamed and expelled in an act of collective murder.

This transference of aggression would work so well in premodern societies that the murderers would often credit the drastic difference between the peace after the act of sacrifice and the chaos before to the divinity of the scapegoat and begin to form a religion around the now deified scapegoat. This, Girard argues, is the anthropological origins of myth. Within this myth, cultures would create two general sets of structures that guarded against another society-wide escalation of mimetic rivalries.

The first set were prohibitions which included hierarchies like the caste system, rules like the banning of mirrors, and social conventions like those regulating sexual behavior. Prohibitions prevented groups of people from imitating one another: an Indian Shudra could not imitate the lifestyle of a Brahmin anymore than a Medieval woman could copy the social functions of a man. This limitation on mimesis, although arbitrarily oppressive, restricted the formation of mimetic rivalries which would decrease the fuel for violent scapegoating.

The second set were rituals that sought to reproduce the original sacrifice in a controlled manner. A placeholder, such as a lamb, would represent the first victim and the catharsis from the act of murder amplified by its connection to the original would release whatever tension was built up from rivalry. Rituals prevent violence in society by acting as a release valve which diffuses mimetic rivalries before they escalate, channeling it in a direction that would lead to resolution.

Modernity, with its high esteem for rationality, is a force of demystification that has severely weakened the last causal arrow of myth-making. Prohibitions, labeled as oppressive and arbitrary, have been torn down by progressive movements. Rituals, especially sacrificial rituals, are even more foreign and unacceptable to our cultural psyche.

Girard sees modernity as veering towards apocalypse because we have unleashed mimesis and accelerated the formation of mimetic rivalries by tearing down prohibitions while throwing away the tool of ritual that could tame such forces. As a result of this built up in societal tension, we resort to scapegoating at a dizzying frequency and scale. Girard would point to the atrocities of scapegoating in the Communist and Fascist regimes of the twentieth century as evidence of our increased capacity and need for violence:

“Entire categories of humans are distinguished (the Jews, the aristocrats, the bourgeois, the unfaithful, the faithful…) and we are told that utopia depends on the necessary condition of the elimination of the guilty categories. As the power of the mechanism breaks down, sacrifices at a larger and larger scale must persist to achieve the same calming effect. Before we could bring peace by sacrificing a goat or a few men, but now we must kill an entire race, religion, class — the eradication needs to be total, hence the “omnipresent victim”.”



Jonathan Bi:

"Book 1 details Girard’s ambitious philosophy of history which argues that mimesis — the fundamental drive of man to imitate — is the main driver of history. On the social-historical scale, mimesis manifests itself as the “victimage mechanism” — the main engine of historical progress that has lead us from animal to man to hierarchical societies to liberal societies and eventually to our impending apocalypse.

Book 2 is an exegesis of the New Testament. Through the lens of mimesis, Girard presents a non-sacrificial reading of the Gospels, and argues that it alone is the legitimate and true religion because it alone reveals and does not participate in the satanic force of the aforementioned “victimage mechanism“.

Book 3 is an application of mimesis into our social and psychological spheres. It should be of special interest for anyone interested in understanding the mechanisms behind: competition, innovation, jealousy, love, depression, fulfillment, hypnosis, and violence.

Things Hidden is so fascinating because it is so reductive. Through the seemingly innocuous capacity of imitation, Girard provides answers to all the following questions in an often exaggerated but nonetheless revealing fashion:

“What are the foundations of religion?”

“What are the foundations of the state?”

“What are the foundations of language?”

“What is the connection between political authority and religion?“

“Why is there violence amongst those who are similar?”

“What makes humans different from animals?”

“Why are we both capable of so much violence and sustained periods of peace?”

“Why is history littered with examples of unjust scapegoating?“

“How can the value of equality harm us?“

“How can the value of individualism harm us?“

“What are some mistakes of the enlightenment?“

“Are we headed towards apocalypse?”

“What is special about Christianity?”

“Is the Christian God violent?”

“Is there a connection between love and truth?”

“Why is there mob mentality?”

“What are the foundations for prestige?”

“Why do we desire certain things and not others?”

“What are the conditions for sado-masochism?”

“What are the conditions for homosexuality?”

“What are the conditions for narcissism?”

“Why are we so obsessed with others?”

“Why are we often not fulfilled by the objects we desire so strongly?”



Arthur Juliani:

“When I shared my thoughts on the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, I expressed the hope that the book would present a sweeping and all-encompassing theory of human culture. Despite being compelling in its own right, it largely failed to live up to such an expectation. On the other hand, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World written in 1978 by Rene Girard (hereafter referred to as Things Hidden), more than delivers on the same promise. In this work, Girard, a philosopher and historian, presents a remarkably simple hypothesis which he claims can account for large swaths of findings in anthropology, theology, psychology, and literature. His theory proposes that imitation (referred to in the book as mimesis, a word with its own long history in philosophy) is the driving force behind the dynamics of all of human culture. The audacity of such a proposal alone had me hooked.

An expansion on that basic thesis goes something like this. Girard acknowledges that our capacity for imitation is not wholly unique, and rather is part of a continuity of abilities shared with other animals. Nonetheless, he suggests that we humans imitate to a degree at which something special begins to happen. Unlike other animals, our capacity for imitation is strong enough to enable rapid learning of skills and knowledge, which can be handed down across generations, thus making possible the development of lasting cultures. According to Girard, this capacity also leads inevitably to increased conflict and violence, which must be managed collectively. It is the dual implications of imitation through which Girard unlocks the genesis and development of our cultural institutions. For Girard, the first and primary cultural institution is that of religion, which he suggests exists to provide prohibitions on certain behaviors which would aggravate the human tendency toward violence, as well as to provide a mechanism by which the violent escalation caused by mimesis can be negated: the expulsion of a sacrificial victim in the form of the scapegoat.

Things Hidden as a book is the result of a series of conversations that Girard had with two psychoanalysts, Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort, over the course of a number of days. This produced a work which is surprisingly easy to read and even entertaining at points, due to its conversational nature. It also starkly contrasts with the works by many of Girard’s French contemporaries at the time, who can be poetic at best and impenetrable at worst. The two other voices serve as interviewers, acolytes, and occasionally critics, both asking questions and providing relevant commentary throughout the work. At certain points it even struck me that the two interviewers had fit themselves into the classic good-cop/bad-cop dynamic, where one would speak in praising terms of Girard’s theories, and the other would bring up relevant criticism in sequence. The effect produced by this choice of structure allowed me to appreciate many of the nuances of the argument that I would have easily missed if the work was simply presented from a univocal perspective. Girard’s disdain for the obfuscative writing of his contemporaries is also quite apparent, and his general desire for clarity and comprehension comes through both in his discussion of his theories and within the internal logic of the theories themselves.

As I mentioned above, the core of Girard’s thesis is that a whole host of complex human behavior and cultural institutions can be made sense of simply by thinking through the implications of what he calls the mimetic process. As someone with a background in psychology, what came to my mind at the mention of this mimetic process was the now-famous mirror neurons. This class of neurons were first discovered in monkeys, when experiments demonstrated that certain motor neurons in the monkey’s cortex would activate both when the animal performed a task and when the animal observed a human perform the task. These cells were given the name mirror neurons, as they seemed to be mirrorining what they observed. Importantly, it was shown that populations of neurons could activate both when they were directly involved in a task as well as when a task was being imagined or even observed. Since the initial discovery of motor neurons with this mirroring property, many other brain regions have been found which contain similar mirror neurons. One group which has gotten particular attention have been those involved in affective processing, which have been hypothesized to provide the basis for empathy.

We can interpret these neurons as providing the basis for Girard’s notion of mimetic desire. When we see someone perform an action, regardless of how inherently desirable that action might have been to us beforehand, a part of us now wants to carry out that action ourselves. It is easy to see how this kind of desire can enable the spread of useful cultural skills and knowledge. Violence and conflict first come into the picture when two individual’s desire to carry out the same action becomes incompatible. Imagine a scenario where a person sees his neighbor picking and eating an apple from the tree. The observer of this scenario might now want to pick and eat an apple from that tree themselves. But, let’s imagine that there is now only a single apple left. If two people both want to eat the last apple, a conflict arises. If one of these neighbors commits an act of violence in order to ensure that they have exclusive access to the apple, then a third party might witness the violence, and then seek to avenge the attacked individual. In this way the mimetic conflict becomes a kind of contagion which spreads throughout a community, and the original source of the conflict becomes long since forgotten. Indeed, history is filled with countless examples of such bloody rivalries between groups extending for generations and generations, with the original offense lost to time. In this way, what serves as the mechanism by which learning can take place also serves as the mechanism by which humans enter into such violent struggle. According to Girard these two phenomena are coextensive with one another.

All of what I have described above is largely described in the first of three sections of the Things Hidden. The second part focuses on a textual analysis of the Christian Bible, while the third presents a discussion of psychoanalytic theory in the context of mimesis. All three are quite striking, even if I found myself somewhat incredulous in the face of the increasingly sweeping theories presented. The central thesis of the second part of the book is that the Christian Gospels present a radically anti-sacrifice and anti-violence message, in more or less contrast to all religious systems beforehand which were explicitly based on the violent sacrifice. It seems that this special place Girard affords Christianity largely ignores the particulars of eastern religions such as Buddhism, which could just as well be presented as embodying a similar radical departure from the primitive role of the religion which Girard describes in the first section of the book. It is perhaps also the case that the specifically Catholic experience of living in France in the 20th century greatly colors his thinking here. I am also sure that contemporary scholarship would likely point out that there were many ancient cultures not based around ritual sacrifice, and thus don’t so easily fit the mould he describes here.

The third section serves as an extensive critique of Freudian concepts of Narcissism and the Oedipal complex. Here Girard applies his mimetic theory to deconstructing these concepts by showing that they can all be more simply and completely accounted for using his mimetic theory. Narcissism, for example, is presented not as an extreme love of oneself, but rather as a dynamic whereby one plays at loving oneself in order to provide a mimetic model for others to love one in return. He also includes a long discussion on why Marcel Proust has a more acute understanding of human psychology than Freud. My personal bias is to favor Proust as well, though for readers less interested in literature, this section could be a bit of a slog. This is especially true because by this point in the book, Girard’s approach is more than clear, and the application of mimesis to nearly any problem of human behavior begins to look a bit like a hammer in perpetual search for the nail. Still, it is impressive the extent to which Girard is able to fashion so many aspects of human psychology into just such nails.

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World was written over forty years ago by a man clearly steeped in philosophical and literary, rather than scientific, traditions. As such, it is difficult to take what is presented in the book as a scientific theory, especially in light of all we now know about human psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience that he didn’t. That being said, I found myself imagining how to bring Girard’s theories to bear on more modern phenomena than anything he could have known in the 1970s: the internet and social media. In his book, Girard speaks a lot about mimetic models, which provide the example by which mimetic desire can become attached. Social media does not simply present a handful of mimetic models to an individual, as one might have found at some earlier point in human culture, but instead provides a countless number of such models, all of whom are also reacting and desiring in ways which are the product of the desires and actions of others.

Girard’s theory of mimetic desire actually gives us a way to think about this process, not because it is complex, but rather because it is simple. The reason that a theory like that of mimetic desire can ostensibly account for the complex phenomena that it does is because it relies on the emergent properties of dynamical systems. While he does not use these terms, Girard presents a theory which relies on exactly the same kind of mechanism that govern Conway’s Game of Life, or any emergent system. A few simple rules describing atomic interactions over time produce complex emergent behavior and structure which could not have been predicted from the outset. Mimesis is in effect one such rule: humans will desire to do to do what they see others doing. Social media exists as this process playing itself out on a rapid time scale and with a large and highly connected number of individuals. One could even imagine a researcher running simulations of mimetic desire in such complex networks of individuals, and watching the results play out similarly to how they do in reality.”

More information

  • Excellent intro to Girard's work: Fleming, Chris (2004). René Girard: Violence and Mimesis. Cambridge: Polity Press