Reading Rene Girard At The End Of The World
I have begun reading Things Hidden Since The Foundation Of The World, a book-length interview (conducted by two psychiatrists) with the late philospher René Girard. Here’s what Peter Thiel told an interviewer in 2014:
TIM: What is the book (or books) you’ve most often gifted to other people?
PETER: Books by René Girard, definitely — both because he’s the one writer who has influenced me the most and because many people haven’t heard of him.
Girard gives a sweeping view of the whole human experience on this planet — something captured in the title of his masterwork, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World — but it’s not just an academic philosophy. Once you learn about it, his view of imitation as the root of behavior is something you will see every day, not just in people around you but in yourself.
Here’s a link to a site that explains basic concepts in Girard’s thought. In this post, I’m going to talk about the things that stood out to me from the book’s first chapter, titled, “The Victimage Mechanism as the Basis of Religion.” This is a difficult book, and I’m not at all sure that I’ve gotten it right in what follows. If this blog has any Girardians reading it, I welcome your correction. Below, I offer not a linear discussion of Girard’s points, but rather a series of notes I made as I read through the first chapter.
Girard says, “There is nothing, or next to nothing, in human behaviour that is not learned, and all learning is based on imitation. If human beings suddenly ceased imitating, all forms of culture would vanish.” He calls this process mimesis. We are so individualistic as a culture, he says, that we downplay the “leading role” that mimesis plays in our society and culture. Girard is making an anthropological point here, saying that imitation is fundamental to our humanity.
What is mimesis, then? Girard says that Plato made a basic mistake, and that mistake has been repeated throughout the whole of Western thought. He characterized mimesis as representation — that is, simply copying what other people do. Girard believes there is another dimension to mimesis, what he calls “possessive mimesis,” or “acquisitive mimesis.” We not only want to do what others do, but we want to have what others have. This is the source of conflict within groups; Girard calls it “mimetic rivalry,” and he said in our distant past, we devised ways to deal with it to keep the group from tearing itself apart. This, for Girard (who was a believing Catholic Christian), is the origin of religion.
Primitive societies have a clearer understanding of the role mimesis plays in violence than we moderns do, for “any mimetic reproduction suggests violence or is seen as a possible cause of violence.” Some tribes have taboos against using mirrors or taking photographs, which are absurd, but Girard says that no matter how superstitious they may be, those taboos are based on a sound insight about human nature. Reading this, I thought about the silly intellectual fad among campus SJWs against “cultural appropriation,” e.g., an Ohio college cafeteria offending SJWs by serving “ethnic” food. Culture doesn’t develop without imitation at some level, but imitation also can serve as the source of violence. In this sense, the angry SJWs may be reacting out of primitivism, but that simply means it’s coming from an instinct deep inside human beings.
There are two ways societies regulate mimetic rivalry to keep the violence inherent to community in check. The first is through prohibitions, through Thou Shalt Nots. (Remember that in Philip Rieff’s theory of culture, prohibitions — he calls them
interdictions — are what define a culture by setting out its boundaries.) Says Girard, “Prohibitions are intended to keep distant or to remove anything that threatens the community.”
In light of that line, it’s interesting to consider Girard’s point that people today don’t understand mimetic rivalry, because we are so given over to seeing the world and society in terms of heroic individualism that we can’t perceive the dangers inherent in violating taboos. If we tear down anything that fences us in and serves as a rein on our individual conduct, we also, whether we realize it or not, dismantle the internal mechanism that keeps a check on violence. That is to say, if we come to valorize transgression, we are steadily disarming ourselves before the malign power of our own violence.
Prohibitions repress mimetic rivalry within a society for the sake of keeping the peace. In primitive cultures, the prohibitions are embedded within the symbolic system that is a particular religion. Religion comes from the Latin word religare, which means “to bind.” Religion binds the community together within a shared agreement on prohibitions — an agreement that also affirms that these prohibitions have their roots in the sacred, in the transcendent. After all, “culture” comes from “cult,” which derives from the Latin word for worship.
Again, Girard was a believing Catholic (though he didn’t return to his ancestral faith until adulthood), but he says as a philosopher that the basis for all religion is man’s attempt to deal with the problem of “acquisitive mimesis” — that is, of the fact that we want what others have — and the violence that it inevitably sparks. Religious ritual is a process by which the “conflictual disintegration” of the community is transformed into “social collaboration.”
[UPDATE: A reader corrects me: “I’ll offer just one small directive, if I may: mimetic theory posits not so much that ‘we want to have what others have’ as ‘we want to have what others want to have.’ To put it another way, what we desire is not the possessions of our models but their desires.]
We have to be careful not to try to rationalize this process too much, Girard warns. It is important to keep it shrouded in mystery. To speak of religion and religious institutions in terms of their function is too naive and reductionistic.
The second way societies deal with mimetic rivalry is through ritual. Girard observes that primitive religions usually conclude their rituals with a sacrifice. The sacrifice is enormously important, because it is the process through which the community’s members confront their own division, offload the aspects of themselves that cause the division onto the sacrificial victim, and then reaffirm themselves as united. The victim is sacrificed for the sake of the community. The victim is “the final act of violence, its last word.”
So, in Girard’s theory, societies first try to suppress mimetic rivalry through prohibition, and when those fail, they turn to ritual “to channel it in a direction that would lead to resolution, which means a reconciliation of the community at the expense of what one must suppose to be an arbitrary victim.” The victim is considered to be sacred because in the eyes of the community, it sacramentally bears the sins of the collective and the resolution of the conflicts that led to the moment of crisis.
Girard says that not every society has been able to hold itself together through a sacrificial ritual, and has therefore disintegrated under the forces of mimetic rivalry.
But the observation of religious systems forces us to conclude (1) that the mimetic crisis always occurs, (2) that the banding together or all against a single victim is the normal resolution at the level of culture, and (3) that it is furthermore the normative resolution, because all the rules of culture stem from it.
At this point in my reading, I found myself wondering what constitutes the mimetic crisis of our own society. That is, how would Girard’s theory explain the divisions that afflict us?
For one thing, both sides in the culture war are engaged in a mimetic rivalry to claim victim status. Girard has said elsewhere that there has never been a culture (that we’re aware of) in which being seen as a victim is a source of power. Who are the oppressed, and who are the oppressor? The competition for victim status is a big part of the mimetic rivalry at the heart of the culture war.
For another, it seems to me that the mimetic rivals are contending over the power to set the rules of society. To perhaps oversimplify, the conservative side of the culture war wishes to retain older boundaries, older forms, and older customs. The liberal side wishes to rewrite the rules entirely, for the sake of liberating the expressive individual from those traditional constraints.
As a conservative, I worry very much that the ongoing victory of liberal forces in the culture war are disintegrating society by destroying the authority of tradition and traditional social roles and institutions. For example, not content with having destroyed the institution of marriage, which played a vital historical role in binding men to the mothers of their children, liberalism is now undertaking to destroy the idea of male and female. That much is clear, at least to me.
But that’s too easy. As I have said over and over in this space, we would not have same-sex marriage had we not first had the Sexual Revolution. And the Sexual Revolution did not come from nowhere. It sprang from a culture that had long been fertilized by the idea that eros — that is, passionate desire — is at the heart of what it means to be human. The 1960s may have marked a decisive break in popular culture, but the tectonic plates had been moving beneath the surface for centuries. The point I wish to make here is that we cannot blame this entirely on the left. The disintegrative forces are also active on the right, especially in the economic sphere. The “creative destruction” of capitalism praised by Schumpeter is accepted without question by people on the right who would never countenance the same principle applied to sexuality. The two are of a piece in modernity.
The left, however, is force-marching our society towards mimetic conflict by tearing down the institutions and customs that have held society together, and by emphasizing identity politics, which sunder the bonds that hold the community together. The left is playing with fire. We are in a very fragile state now.
Moreover, our society is in an advanced state of disintegration for other reasons. The ideology of individualism across the board has served to fragment us. We have lost our cultural memory, and any sense that we are rooted in the past. Technology, especially information technology, plays a role in the cultural disintegration. Our institutions have lost and are continuing to lose legitimacy. Girard says that religion is “an immense effort to keep the peace,” which is why the decomposition of Christianity into Moralistic Therapeutic Deism — a pseudo-religion that neither binds the individual’s desire to something higher, nor binds the community together — puts us all at tremendous peril. Lacking a belief in anything higher than the Self — and let’s be honest, Christianity today is often little more than the sacred Self with a light coating of Jesus sauce — we lack a formal scapegoat mechanism that could restore peace and order to the community. In Girard’s thought, Christianity destroyed the efficacy of the scapegoat mechanism by revealing it for what it really is. Therefore, scapegoating can’t really work anymore, not at the societal level. Christianity replaced it.
But now that the West is losing Christianity, what do we do? Girard, in a different interview, said:
The Apocalypse is not some invention. If we are without sacrifices, either we’re going to love each other or we’re going to die. We have no more protection against our own violence. Therefore, we are confronted with a choice: either we’re going to follow the rules of the Kingdom of God or the situation is going to get infinitely worse
You know my answer to this crisis: the Benedict Option. What reading Girard makes me consider, though, is how the Ben Op is a refusal of the mimetic rivalry driving the two ignorant armies of the culture war. That is, the Ben Op recognizes that while one side may be closer to the truth than the other, neither one has within it the resources to bind the community — to God, or to each other — so that it can ride out the crisis upon us now, and the one to come.
My reading of Girard tells me that we are on the brink of an era of violence against which we have no protection. Girard says that on the road to violent conflict, the mimetic rivalry reaches a point at which both sides lose sight of the object of their competing desire, and instead desire nothing more than the defeat of the other. Seems to me that we’re almost there.
I will continue writing about the Things Hidden volume. This blog doesn’t even cover the first chapter! But it’s a lot to consider. Again, I remind you that I’m an absolute beginner at Girard, and welcome correction from those who know his work better.
UPDATE: From one of Girard’s translators:
I also wanted to mention that this corrective from a reader–“[UPDATE: A reader corrects me: “I’ll offer just one small directive, if I may: mimetic theory posits not so much that ‘we want to have what others have’ as ‘we want to have what others want to have.’ To put it another way, what we desire is not the possessions of our models but their desires.]–does not seem to me entirely justified.
You are quite right to say that mimetic theory posits that we want what others have, and I think Girard would have approved of your formulation. The final commandments prohibit us from desiring our neighbor’s possessions. That is a prohibition against mimetic desire, since what the neighbor possesses is more desirable than what we have ourselves.
The formulation “desire the other’s desire” sounds more like Hegel or Kojève and is not a formula that Girard himself used very often if at all, to my knowledge.
Girard would say not that we desire the other’s desire but that we imitate the other’s desire, and therefore we desire what he desires. The other may in turn imitate our desires. This dynamic of mutual imitation may lead to an intensifying competition, and this in turn to violence.