I. INTRODUCING RENÉ GIRARD
Born in Avignon 87 years ago. His break with his family and religion.
As early as 1961 [in his Deceit, Desire, and the Novel], he developed his theory of human psychology on the basis of a reading of literature. He became interested in a pattern he first discovered in the French novelists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, mainly Stendhal, Flaubert, and Proust, and in a variety of other major novelists as well, especially Cervantes, Dostoevsky, James Joyce and also, and maybe first and foremost, in Shakespeare. This discovery has to do with the relationship between desire and rivalry.
In the world of literary criticism, today Girard may be unique. Most critics tend to turn literature in on itself in such a way that it seems to have little or no reference to reality. [The self-referentiality of literature]. Girard, on the other hand, considers literature at its best "great literature" to be a source of genuine knowledge: "In the great novels, he wrote, aesthetics is not a separate area it combines with ethics and metaphysics." [Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, pp. 145-6.]
The essential core of this knowledge has to do with the problem of desire.
Desire is fundamentally mimetic. Our desires tend not to be our own but those of the models we either consciously or else unwittingly admire and imitate. Girard terms such models mediators.
The basic pattern is in principle a triangle, the vertices of which are the self, the object, and the mediator. Desire is fundamentally "triangular".
Desire is not a single line of force running between the self and its object. Most disciplines in the human sciences put at the beginning the subject-object relationship, as if the object was always already fully constituted when the always already fully constituted subject approaches it. As far as beliefs and desires are concerned, the relation between subject and object is seen as a straight line. You can think of Economics, Rousseau's notion of "amour de soi", the Hegeliano-Marxist concept of need, the Freudian "object-related libido", analytic philosophy of action and many more, all partake of the same conception.
The triangularity of desire is a simple notion, but it has broad and complex implications. To begin with, it explains the obvious but otherwise perplexing fact that desire may not only cause rivalry my mediator automatically becomes my rival since we desire the same object -, but also depend on it to the point that without rivalry, desire itself threatens to languish.
However, Girard didn't stop there. In the early 70's [Violence and the Sacred, 1972] he became an anthropologist of sorts and put forward an ambitious anthropology of violence leading to a theory about the origin of human culture. Set within the tradition of Durkheim's sociology, this theory was in truth a theory of the origin of religion and its relationship with violence. This theory was hailed as a major and fundamental breakthrough in the human and social sciences.
However, Girard didn't stop there either. In 1978, he published a book whose title resounded like a provocation, although the title was "just" a quote [from Matthew]: Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. It appeared then that Girard was a Christian author. Then, all of a sudden, many of his former followers started saying, "I do not know this man. He must be a phony, an imposter."
There is a huge paradox here: the irony is that we owe Girard the first complete scientific deconstruction of religion. And it is nevertheless true that he is a Christian thinker. The solution to this paradox is of course that for Girard Christianity is not a religion or, if you prefer, it is the religion that ends all religions.2
II. MIMETIC DESIRE AND VIOLENCE
The triangularity of desire explains the obvious but otherwise perplexing fact that desire may not only cause rivalry, but also depend on it to the point that without rivalry, desire itself threatens to languish.
The desire of the mediator creates the value of the object in the first place and calls forth the subject's desire. But then the mediator stands between the subject and the object. The instigator of desire has become automatically the major obstacle to the fulfilment of desire. At this point the subject may wish to destroy the obstacle. But if he does so, he destroys the instigator of desire and therefore the value of the object. Desire needs a rival to survive, because the fulfilment of desire is its end ( = its termination). Rivalry is built into the structure of desire.
Illustration: The eager cuckold in Dostoyevsky's The Eternal Husband who depends on the proximity of his defunct wife's lovers to keep his own desire for women alive. How and why the model automatically becomes an obstacle, a rival. [See Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, p. 45-46.]
According to Girard, a text like this leaves no doubt about the priority of the Other in desire. The hero is always trying to convince us that his relationship to the object of desire is independent of the rival. Here we see clearly that the hero is deceiving us. The mediator is immobile and the hero turns around him like a planet around the sun. The hero can desire only through the mediation of his model. He drags the latter along to the house of the lady he has chosen, so that he might desire her and thus guarantee her erotic value.
The Nixon case: a tormented character like Pavel Pavlovitch, Dostoevsky's hero. As a football player in college, he was a clumsy lineman used as a live dummy by practicing teammates. Later, as Vice President, he was an errand boy to President Eisenhower. He spent eight years being ignored if not belittled by his superior. He always wanted tough guys around him. He courted Pat, his future wife, by driving her to dates with other beaux! [Source: New York Times obituary of Nixon].
Freud has used The Eternal Husband to elaborate his theory of latent homosexulaity. But, replies Girard, homosexuality, whether it is latent or not, does not explain the structure of desire. One must turn the explanation around. An attempt should be made to understand homosexuality from the standpoint of triangular desire. Proustian homosexuality, for instance, can be defined as a gradual transferring to the mediator of an erotic value which in "normal" Don Juanism remains attached to the object itself. This gradual transfer goes along with an increased preponderance of the mediator and a gradual obliteration of the object.
The object is required for imitation to generate conflict. But as the intensity of the rivalry grows, the importance of the object tends to dwindle.
Mimetic desire explains why we so often find an object banal until it is transfigured by the appreciation of another observer. Such is the case of Proust's Marcel, who is disappointed by the supposedly thrilling actress, Berma, until he hears her praised by M. de Norpois and a reviewer in Le Figaro after which he even believes that he was thrilled at the very performance that had left him cold.
[Mimetic desire has the capacity to change the past.]
2. Internal and External Mediation
There are two basic possibilities in mediation:
a) External mediation: that which does not lead to conflict, because the self and its model cannot be competitors, since their fields of action do not overlap.
In Don Quijote, the Don takes Amadis of Gaul as the perfect model of knighthood. He is obsessed with him. But, obviously, imitation here cannot become emulation. There can be no question of rivalry because Amadis is represented as a figure in a romance, in the golden age of knight-errantry. Amadis can only be imitated from afar. The subject's and the mediator's field do not intersect.
b) Internal mediation: that which leads almost inevitably to conflict, because the self and its model are both competitors within the same field of action.
Stendhal's essential point is that the world of the 19th century is one in which the blurring of social distinctions has rendered rivalrous mimesis virtually inevitable.
[Tocqueville in Democracy in America develops the same analysis under the notion of equality of conditions. In chapter 13 of volume II titled "Why the Americans are so restless in the midst of their prosperity", he writes:
"When all the privileges of birth and fortune are abolished, when all professions are accessible to all, and a man's own energies may place him at the top of any one of them, an easy and unbounded career seems open to his ambition and he will readily persuade himself that he is born to no common destinies. But this is an erroneous notion, which is corrected by daily experience. The same equality that allows every citizen to conceive these lofty hopes renders all the citizens less able to realize them; it circumscribes their powers on every side, while it gives freer scope to their desires. Not only are they themselves powerless, but they are met at every step by immense obstacles, which they did not at first perceive. They have swept away the privileges of some of their fellow creatures which stood in their way, but they have opened the door to universal competition; the barrier has changed its shape rather than its position."
[...] However democratic [...] the social state and the political constitution of a people may be, it is certain that every member of the community will always find out several points about him which overlook his own position; and we may foresee that his looks will be doggedly fixed in that direction. When inequality of conditions is the common law of society, the most marked inequalities do not strike the eye; when everything is nearly on the same level, the slightest are marked enough to hurt it. Hence the desire of equality always becomes more insatiable in proportion as equality is more complete."]
Since the fields of action overlap, the model, from just a guide to desire becomes automatically an obstacle to its fulfillment. Hence Girard's terms: rival-model and model-obstacle. The model-obstacle incites imitation and forbids it at the same time. Girard has borrowed American anthropologist Gregory Bateson's term double bind for this situation in which the mediator says simultaneously "Imitate me" and "Do not imitate me." For Bateson, it is this sort of conflicting and paradoxical imperative taught to a child that is the major cause of schizophrenia.
In external mediation, the budding rivalry between subject and mediator (disciple and master, son and father, etc.) is not acknowledged by either actor [Think of the not too infrequent case in which the disciple gets as brilliant as, then more brilliant than, the master]. Only the relationship of imitation is acknowledged. In the case of internal mediation, it is the reverse. When two equals are caught in a situation of intense rivalry, neither of them is prepared to admit that he or she is just mimicking the other person, following in the other's footsteps. [Think of an intellectual milieu: "Who are your models?", a famous writer was asked the other day. "Me? I have no model. I have always spoken in a voice that is mine and mine alone."]
For Girard, sooner or later, external mediation is bound to become internal. A case in point is Girard's deconstruction of Freud's Oedipus complex. Freud put at the core of this complex the "ambivalence" of the relationship to the father: the son admires his father the father is a model [Superego] but, simultaneously, the father is an obstacle. An obstacle to what? To the biological attraction that the son feels for the mother, seen as an object of desire. [Oedipus complex]. These two contradictory pillars of psychoanalysis are merely juxtaposed, as if there was no link between the two. Girard is too happy to show that at an earlier stage of his system, Freud was not far from saying the mimetic truth, but that he deliberately shied away from it.
In the chapter called "Identification" in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud writes, "A little boy will exhibit a special interest in his father; he would like to grow like and be like him, and take his place everywhere. We may say simply that he takes his father as his ideal. This behavior has nothing to do with a passive or feminine attitude towards his father (and towards males in general); it is on the contrary typically masculine. It fits in very well with the Oedipus complex, for which it helps to prepare the way."
Commenting on this passage Girard says, "What can this sentence mean, if not that identification directs desire toward those objects desired by the father?" [Violence and the Sacred, p. 170). The child undergoes mimetic influence from the father and thereby learns form him to desire the mother. Girard suggests that here "Freud saw the path of mimetic desire stretching out before him and deliberately turned aside." (p. 171).
For Girard, the child's own first inclination is basically toward external, non conflictual mediation. The son looks to his father first of all for a model from whom to learn about the possibilities of a full and happy life. There is an obvious discrepancy between the child's relative weakness and the parents' strength. But there is no reason why in a "normal" family this relationship of modeling and discipleship should have to become conflictual. The son's imitation of his father's love for his mother need not lead in the direction of specifically sexual rivalry. If the family becomes a world of internal rather than external mediation, it is far more likely that the cause of this will be found in the attitudes of the parents rather than in those of the young child. The Oedipus complex, on the contrary, shifts blame from the parents to the child.
From Girard's viewpoint, in the case of the father-son relationship, the Oedipus situation exists when external mediation progressively gives way to internal mediation. The father still stands above the son, the hierarchical relation is still acknowledged but the fact that they are rivals is present in the consciousness of both.
[Between a master and a servant, this transitional stage was dubbed "revolutionary" by Tocqueville, and this is what he wrote about it in chapter 5 of volume II of Democracy in America, titled "How Democracy affects the relations of masters and servants": "At that period a confused and imperfect phantom of equality haunts the minds of servants [...] they rebel in their hearts against a subordination to which they have subjected themselves and from which they derive actual profit. They consent to serve and they blush to obey; they like the advantages of service, but not the master. [...] A secret and internal warfare is going on there between powers ever rivals and suspicious of one another: the master is ill-natured and weak, the servant ill-natured and intractable."
Today shrinks will tell you that they don't see Oedipus complexes anymore. Fathers and sons have become brothers, the rivalry reaches its maximum, but since the hierarchical relation no longer is the case, the perverse and murky aspects of what constitutes an Oedipus complex (the guilty conscience, the suppressed murderous desire, etc.) have disappeared.
For Freud, the original murder was the murder of the father by the sons, eager to appropriate his sexual power. For Girard, the victim of the initial murder is just one inter pares one of the enemy brothers. To believe that it was the father who was killed is just another optical illusion due to the elevation of the victim to the rank of god or semi god.
3. Double mediation and the morphogenetic power of the mimetic hypothesis
If mimesis is universal, the triangle cannot be the originary figure. The mediator's desire must itself be an imitated desire. Whom does the mediator imitate? The simplest (and most complex!) case is when the mediator imitates the subject while the subject imitates the mediator. Such a situation occurs when the model imitates in the other the desire the other first found in him. This is all the more likely in a world in which there are few effective cultural barriers to rivalry and in which each denies that he models himself on anyone else.
Girard writes, "In the world of internal mediation, the contagion is so widespread that everyone can become his neighbor's mediator without ever understanding the role he is playing. This person who is a mediator without realizing it may himself be incapable of spontaneous desire. Thus he will be tempted to copy the copy of his own desire. What was for him in the beginning only a whim is now transformed into a violent passion. We all know that every desire redoubles when it is seen to be shared. Two identical but opposite triangles are thus superimposed on each other. Desire circulates between the two rivals more and more quickly, and with every cycle it increases in intensity." [Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, p. 99.]
A beautiful illustration is found in Stendhal's The Red and the Black, with its mimetic couple Valenod de Rênal. It is the time of the Restoration: never has the bourgeoisie been so envious of the privileges, in principle defunct, of the nobility; never has the aristocracy been as fascinated by the maneuvering of the bourgeoisie. De Rênal is the gentleman bourgeois and Valenod, his double: the bourgeois gentleman. They imitate each other reciprocally, each constituting a fascinating model for the other. At the opening of the novel de Rênal confides in his wife his suspicions concerning Valenod: he has designs on Julien Sorel, an insignificant young man whose only distinctive characteristic is the fascination he has for Napoléon, Valenod wants to have Julien as his children's tutor, de Rênal thinks. Later we see that Valenod does indeed pay a visit to Julien's father. Girard asks, has Stendhal confused the Valenod imagined by a suspicious de Rênal with the real Valenod, who couldn't care less about Julien? The novelist is more subtly diabolical: we learn from him that de Rênal went to Julien's before Valenod did.
The mechanism is therefore the following: A and B imitate each other reciprocally. A is anxious about B's desire, which alone can designate a target for his own desire. Some ephemeral and random sign makes him believe that B has designs on object O. Rushing to get there first, he thereby signals to his alter ego the stakes of the rivalry. When B in turn imitates A's desire, the starting illusion becomes reality. The first to imagine the other's desire thus seems not to have been imagining at all: he now has the proof! This is a particularly interesting case of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Any object could have emerged from the mechanism. It all depends on how one enters into it. Now, the starting point of the process of the emergence of the object possesses an apparently contradictory twofold property: it is nothing or almost nothing, a je-ne-sais-quoi, a caprice, a chance occurrence; and yet, it plays a crucial role, since everything takes place as if it were the thing that "determined" the object, the "objective" reality that is to emerge. There is a beginning, but that beginning is evanescent; there is determinism, but the determining factor is in the final instance ... beyond grasp.
Keynes's theory of financial speculation is the perfect illustration of double (or multiple) mediation.
Formalization: the parable of the two absent-minded professors: each follows in the other's footsteps but no one knows the way. A trajectory is thus generated.
Mathematical formalization: Polya's Urns.
4. Metaphysical Desire
Mimetic desire is only superficially a desire to have what the other has or wants. On a deeper level it is a desire to possess not the other's objects but his qualities to be what he is. Girard's term for this is "metaphysical desire". "Imitative desire, says Girard, is always a desire to be Another. There is only one metaphysical desire but the particular desires which instantiate this primordial desire are of infinite variety." [Deceit, p. 83]. The objects desired by the other seem attractive because one feels their possession might give him a greater degree of ontological sufficiency. Each person comes into the world with a sense of deficiency and dependency, if only because he enters it as an infant surrounded by godlike "others", the adults in his life, and he always longs to possess for himself a sufficiency similar to what he supposes they enjoy. Throughout his life he continually comes across new "others" who seem to have something of that sort of sufficiency and who arouse in him a desire to win it for himself.
This feeling may be aroused by almost any other person to some degree, but it is aroused all the more forcefully by those who seem indifferent to us. Now and then, we encounter figures who seem to be sublimely beyond the mimetic hell. Such figures can have a tremendous power of attraction. We want what they have because we feel that it makes them what they are.
Hence the appearance on the stage of metaphysical desire of the modern anti-hero. It is no longer the figure who experiences and realizes intense desires who seems to incarnate the modern ideal like the early romantic -, but rather his opposite one who seems to feel scarcely any desire at all and who rejects the quest either for goods or for status. Think of the universal indifference of Meursault the Stranger: he has only "natural" and spontaneous desires: limited, finite, without any future. Regarding higher objects of desire (his girl friend, his profession), his favorite motto is: "It makes no difference to me."
Consider the structure of an ad: a gaze, a model, and an object. The model is in a state of supreme, self-contained contentment, not looking at anything in particular after all, what in this world could attract the interest of a model of such perfect self-sufficiency? And, above all, he is indifferent to whether he is being seen or not, he does not even see that he is being seen. The message is both clear and self-contradictory (or paradoxical). Imitate me, says the model, and you will become autonomous i.e. you will escape the infernal realm of metaphysical desire. This message is conveyed by a first imitation, a first admiration: the one depicted by the ad. Therefore the message is: "Imitate the imitation, and you'll be autonomous."
5. Pseudo-narcissism and the converging dynamics of mimetic desire
Freud believed in the existence of narcissism as a deviation of sexual libido, a sort of damming up of libido within the ego so that it cannot flow outward toward objects. Freud thought narcissism was most often found in children and in women what he called the "eternal feminine type", and he believed that it added greatly to their power of appeal. But he offered no explanation for this power of narcissistic personalities or self-absorbed beings to attract normal, non-narcissistic individuals.
Girard's critique is filled with cruel irony: "At no point does Freud admit that he might be dealing not with an essence but with a strategy, by which he himself has been taken in." [Violence and the Sacred, p. 370]. The strategy Girard believes is at work in narcissism is essentially coquetry.
A quote from Girard's Things Hidden (pp. 370-371)
We are dealing here with a variant of double mediation: the coquette's desire for herself is mediated by those she attracts, while their desire for her is mediated by what they think is her purely independent self-desire.
Pseudo-narcissism: mimesis is thus capable of engendering (apparent) self-sufficiency. Under the sway of universal mimesis, it is in fact possible for a subject to have to look no further than itself for an object of its desire, but this can only be accomplished through imitation: the subject desires herself by imitating others who desire her. But this desire emanating from the others is also a form of imitated desire. It is because the others believe that the subject desires herself that, in imitating her desire, they desire her.
Notion of indirect self-reference: the operator of reflexivity is the other's gaze. Application to 1) Self-love: I can only love myself to the extent that the others love me; 2) Self-deceit: I need the others' negative collaboration to deceive myself → My reading of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.
The extreme cases of pseudo-narcissism and the transition to pseudo-masochism: in advanced stages of metaphysical desire, the highest power of attraction resides in the other's pure and simple apathy, lack of spirit and intelligence. A case in point is snobism according to Proust, revisited by Girard [Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, p. 283].
"The individual who is spiritually too limited to respond to our advances enjoys, in his relationships with everybody, an autonomy which inevitably appears divine to the victim of metaphysical desire. [...]
Swann is attracted sexually by qualities completely contrary to those which make him admire women in society or fictional creations in art and literature. He is drawn to vulgar people, who are incapable of appreciating his social position, his culture, and his refined distinction. He is fascinated by people who are insensitive to his very real superiority; thus in his amorous life he is doomed to mediocrity."
[See also Joseph Losey's The Servant]. The fundamental incapacity of sociology to give a convincing account of this kind of fascination, in which the model is sociologically and spiritually inferior to the subject.
A fundamental consequence: the impossibility of reciprocity. The Jean Cocteau joke: "Oh master, I admire your work so much." "Young man, you should know that I too admire ... my work so much." In amorous relationships, desire generates polarizing dynamics. If A desires B, and B knows or believes that this is the case, then B does not desire A. From A's perspective, it is as if B were self-sufficient, or desired him- or herself. Thus two polar patterns are possible, depending on which of the two agents occupies the focal position defined by the convergence of desires. The game of desire is thus a war in which the object is to make oneself the focal point where desires converge.
In the games of desire, victories are bound to become defeats.
As we pursue the objects and relationships that seem to promise the elusive metaphysical fullness, we inevitably experience disappointment after disappointment. The more successful we are, the more frequent and bitter the disappointments. In principle two possibilities then open up. One would be to give up the chase because we realize its hopelessness. The other is to redouble our efforts. As Girard puts it in Deceit, ..., p. 176: "The master has learned from his many different experiences that an object which can be possessed is valueless. So in the future he will be interested only in objects which are forbidden him by an implacable mediator. The master seeks an insurmountable obstacle and he almost always succeeds in finding one."
The double bind at this stage takes the form of two seemingly contradictory requirements.
a) I desire the Being of the mediator, but not of any mediator: he must be worthy of my taking him as Mediator, he must be strong and powerful ...
b) The best sign that this is indeed the case is his success, his victory i.e. my defeat.
Hence the tendency to seek out increasingly resistant obstacles in order to heighten the appearance of value in the mediator. As Girard puts it, "After changing its models into obstacles, mimetic desire [...] changes obstacles into models [...] Henceforth desire always hastens to wound itself on the sharpest of reefs and the most redoubtable of defenses. How can observers possibly not believe in the existence of something that they call masochism? But of course they are quite wrong to do so." [Things hidden, p. 327].
A typology of obstacles models (i.e. obstacles as models): they can be very abstract entities: a closed and exclusive relationship (Molière's or Mozart's Don Juan), a culture or a way of life (Proust's snobs), death, etc.
Let's return to the war of desire. The "object" of desire is to make oneself the focal point where desires converge. But at the same time, desire wants to rid itself of this object so that the Other may possess it. Desire does not do this out of generosity, nor through some kind of masochism. Rather desire gives up possession of its object in order to satisfy itself.
Everything happens as if the object of desire only had value if it were possessed by the Other. Thus the double bind under a different guise:
a) I want to possess the object of desire because it has value.
b) The object of desire only has value if I do not possess it.
The object of desire is such that I desire it if the Other desires or possesses it. If I obtain it, it goes up in smoke. For me to desire it and obtain it, it must exist, therefore the Other must have it. But in winning it, I lose it.
Application to terrorism. Rousseau in Manhattan:
It seems to me, in light of this profound but yet enigmatic distinction, that the 911 terrorists, were by no means moved by anything resembling amour de soi, or self-interest (interest in oneself), but by amour-propre, in the sense that they were more keen on overturning the obstacle that the towers of power represented for them, than on the actual possession of anything that could be labeled good.
III. Violence and the Sacred
1. The context of Girard's anthropology of violence and the sacred
1.1. The greatest disservice that could be done to Girard would be to claim that he invented his theory from scratch. Girard belongs to the great Franco-German-British tradition of religious anthropology that was brought to a premature halt in 1939 by decades of structuralism and post-structuralism: in particular, the French sociological school, with the works of Fustel de Coulanges, Durkheim, and Mauss; the British anthropological school, with Frazer, Robertson-Smith and the Belgo-British anthropologist Arthur Hocart; not to forget Nietzsche and Freud who gave these traditions a new momentum.
If Girard's theory is right, Girard himself invented nothing: those "Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World" have become an open secret. The fact that they have is itself a remarkable feature that needs to be accounted for.
Can a science of man exist if it abstains from posing the question of the origin of religion if it dismisses as poorly formulated the problem of what makes all non-modern societies refer the social bond to an entity radically exterior to the world of men: the sacred? Can a science of economy exist if it does not first ponder the major historical coincidence that characterizes the modern world, the simultaneous retreat of religion and apotheosis of market value? In posing these questions, Girard does no more than renew the great tradition of religious anthropology.
Before passing away, religious anthropology had reached the following basic conclusions (most of them were later reversed, or just forgotten, by the subsequent paradigms):
a) All non-modern social and cultural institutions are rooted in the sacred.
Durkheim's account had its own shortcomings and British anthropologist Evans-Pritchard cruelly brought them out. Durkheim's reputation suffered a lot as a consequence. This is indeed quite a crucial point in the intellectual history of French social thought. For Durkheim (as for Dumont and all holistic thinkers), the social whole is transcendent in relation to its individual constituents. The problem is that Durkheim accounted for this transcendence in two opposite ways. First, by the fact that we are the products of our cultures, institutions, languages, symbols, etc.: they make us, we don't make them. Second, by the fact that in a group "in effervescence" during a ritual or a festivity like carnival, for instance the individual disappears and fuses with the crowd. Religion emerges from the caldron of collective effervescence, a sort of social electricity generated by their collectivity. First the transcendence of the collective level is brought about by social order, then by social disorder and chaos.
Girard was able to unravel this paradox. The paradox, as he put it, is that a process of social totalization appears at times infinitely close to a process of social decomposition as if social order contained social disorder, in the two senses of the word "contain".
1.2. It is fashionable in the human sciences quarters these days to dismiss out of hand any theory that purports to explain everything, all the more so if it comes up with a simple explanation for the complexity of the world. Freudians and Marxists, for instance, lost a lot of ground partly because they've gone too far in their applications of their all-embracing theories. Every dream became something of a sexual nature, Every relationship among people was based on a materialistic dialectic. This is certainly a point that causes many to back away from Girard. We have had bad experiences with all-embracing theories. Marx himself was a reaction to Hegel's theory of subsuming everything under the umbrella of Geist, Spirit.
Yet this all-embracing aspect of Girard's thesis is a consequence of his offering his thesis as a generative hypothesis. He takes us all the way back to the point of hominization, to the real, live events that differentiated between animal hierarchies of difference based on physical dominance and human hierarchies of difference based on human cultures generated in the victimage mechanism. So, yes, it does suggest itself as a theory that is all-embracing, and many will, and do, reject it for precisely those reasons. After the bad taste of theories like Hegelianism, Marxism, and Freudianism, we shy away from all such theories. It is difficult to entertain a new one on the scene, but many people think that, for better or for worse, Girard's generative hypothesis does give us a thesis that is embracive of all that's human, at least at the point of our foundations. Either we reject it out of hand because people like Hegel and Freud failed, or we give this one a fair hearing, trying to understand the differences it might represent in terms of it being a hypothesis of generative anthropology.
1.3. How come Girard can build so grandiose a theory on the reading of texts? As I said, he has developed his theory of human psychology on the basis of a reading of literature. In the same way, he has developed his anthropological theory on the basis of a reading of world mythology and the Bible. Among anthropologists, Girard may be unique too. Most of them, starting with Lévi-Strauss, consider that myths are the manifestations of some properties of the human mind and have nothing to do with real events, although most of the time myths take the form of narratives.
1.4. Girard's theory is often rejected on the basis of a serious misapprehension. Girard is viewed as a Christian thinker which indeed he is and thence it is concluded that his obsession with the question of sacrifice merely reflects the quintessentially Christian theme of God's sacrificing Himself for mankind, of redemptive suffering and the gift of the self. Certain anthropologists go so far as to assert that the very category of sacrifice is but an illusion, bearing witness to the dominion that Christianity still exercises over a discipline that aims for scientific status. Where Girard is concerned, one could not be further from the truth, for he first proposed an interpretation of Christianity that was radically anti-sacrificial. It is true that he himself shied away from it at a later stage of his intellectual and spiritual development. We'll have to assess the relevance and the consequences of this turnabout.
2. Violence and the Sacred
2.1. A Summary
Let me first offer a very brief summary of Girard's account regarding the origin of the sacred, and by way of consequence, of human culture, in violence. In a second stage we'll take up the fundamental elements of this account each one in turn.
At the heart of the Girardian "hypothesis" is the proposition that the sacred is nothing other than the violence of men, expelled, exteriorized, hypostatized, reified. The god-making machine runs on imitation. At the paroxysm of the "sacrificial crisis," when a murderous frenzy has shattered the system of differences that makes up the social order and sparked a war of all against all, the contagious character of the violence produces a catastrophic convergence of every enmity upon an arbitrary member of the collectivity. Putting him to death is what abruptly restores peace. The result is religion in its three component parts. First, mythology: the interpretation of the founding event makes the victim out to be a supernatural being, capable at once of introducing disorder and of creating order. Next, ritual: always sacrificial at the outset, it begins by miming the violent decomposition of the group so that it may go on to stage the re-establishment of order through the killing of a substitute or surrogate victim. Lastly, the system of prohibitions and obligations, the finality of which is to prevent a new eruption of the conflicts that previously engulfed the community.
The sacred is fundamentally ambivalent: it uses violence to hold back violence. It contains violence, in both senses of the word. This is clear in the case of the sacrificial gesture that restores order: it is never other than one more murder, even if it is meant to be the last one; it is equally true of the system of prohibitions and obligations: the social structures which unify the community in normal times are the very same ones that tear it apart in times of crisis. When a prohibition is transgressed, the obligations of solidarity, leaping over the barriers of time and space (as in the mechanism of the vendetta), draw into an ever wider conflict people who were in no way concerned by the original confrontation.
These "Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World" are not unknown to us: they have become an open secret. All one need do is glance through a newspaper: the term "scapegoat" is served up at every opportunity. Just think about it: this expression declares the innocence of the victim, it reveals the mechanism of the exteriorization of violence. Girard believes that this knowledge working through us is of divine origin meaning that it derives from the one true God. The account of the death of Jesus on the cross is, as anthropology has accurately observed, similar to the stories one finds at the heart of so many religions. If one sticks to the facts, there is no important difference between Christianity and a primitive religion. But it is the interpretation that changes everything. Here, paradoxically, Girard must pay homage to Nietzsche. The evangelical account is the first not to be narrated by the persecutors, it sides with the victim whose perfect innocence it proclaims. Which is why Nietzsche felt justified in accusing Christianity of being a slave morality. Girard is a Christian author, but this reference to Nietzsche, the most anti-Christian of all philosophers, brings clearly out that there is no need to share Girard's religious beliefs to take his anthropology seriously.
According to Girard, this knowledge has clogged up the works of the machine for making the sacred, damaging it irreparably. As it sacralizes less and less well, it produces more and more violence, but a violence that has lost the power to impose order on itself. Such is the modern world, described as a "low-gear mimetic crisis," "without catastrophic escalation or resolution of any kind." The next question is of course, what gives modern societies the capacity, not only to resist, but also to feed on the growing indifferentiation of the world and the exacerbation of the resulting mimetic phenomena?
Violence exists in the animal kingdom. However animals have instinctual braking mechanisms that prevent their rivalries from destroying the group. The weaker animal surrenders and patterns of dominance are established; subordinate animals now imitate dominant ones without acquisitiveness. The human capacity for mimetic desire must be correlated with the growth of the brain. Humans have more "mimetic energy" than animals and press the rivalry to the point where the object they are vying for disappears and the rivalry becomes "metaphysical" and murderous.
The moment of hominization, which coincides with the birth of human culture, occurs with the disappearance of the contested objects in the midst of conflict and the spontaneous emergence of the surrogate victim. In Girard's terms, hominization occurs when acquisitive mimesis becomes conflictual mimesis. The struggle is no longer for any object but for pure prestige [or kudos, mana, baraka, depending on the cultural context]. Take kudos, as the ultimate [non-] object: those who possess kudos see their strength multiplied a hundredfold. Those deprived of kudos discover that they are hopelessly handicapped. Owning the kudos: man can enjoy this condition only fleetingly, and always at the expense of other men. To be a god is to possess kudos forever, to remain forever a master, unchallenged and unchallengeable. That is beyond the reach of mortal man.
2.3. Originary scene
[Things hidden ..., p. 26]: "If acquisitive mimesis divides by leading two or more individuals to converge on one and the same object with a view to appropriating it, conflictual mimesis will inevitably unify by leading two or more individuals to converge on one and the same adversary that all wish to strike down."
We may imagine the originary scene as follows. In the beginning the "primordial horde" falls prey to mimetic violence. This violence increases until it reaches a crisis point, at which the surrogate victim mechanism automatically "kicks in". This was the point of hominization. Mimesis broke out in a new form, acquisitive mimesis became conflictual mimesis, uniting rather than dividing the community, as all cooperated mimetically in the killing of the victim. Unanimous victimage played the same role in human community as the surrender of the weaker animals plays in the establishment of dominance patterns among the higher animals. It enables the group to find unity by dealing with mimetic acquisitiveness.
Gazing at the victim's corpse the mob's stupefaction turns to awe, as it realizes that it has just experienced its first moment of unanimity. This reconciliation must have come after a mimetic crisis so severe that the sudden resolution at the expense of a single victim seemed like a miracle.
[Things hidden ..., p. 28]: "The experience of a supremely evil and then beneficient being, whose appearance and disappearance are punctuated by collective murder, cannot fail to be literally gripping."
Thus occurs the first moment of méconnaissance [misunderstanding, misrecognition]. The mob misidentifies the cause of unanimity. It is in fact mimetic rivalry and the surrogate victim mechanism, but they think it is the victim. The victim, of course, is just a catalyst, it is the passive object of the mechanism, rather than the cause, first of the violence, and then of unanimity. The mob, however, makes the victim the cause of both, and by so doing obscures its own violence from itself and transfers it to the victim.
The first illusion is, therefore, the "illusion of the supremely active and all-powerful victim." It makes the victim a god, it places the victim above the group as the transcendent source of order and the source of disorder.
The cause of violence and the cause of peace are both transferred from the mob to the victim. This is the foundation "lie" of culture and the original act of collective bad faith or social self-deception.
The difference between the victim and the undifferentiated mob is the beginning of all differentiation. Structuralist topology demands two signs at the beginning, because signs only signify with reference to each other. The logic of the victim differentiates by means of the one who stands out from the many, the exception, the representative.
In conclusion, at the origin of all culture we find hermeneutics. What controls behavior is not really what happened but the (mis)interpretation of what happened. [Here Girard is fully indebted to Nietzsche].
Culture comprises the mis-interpretation of the killing of the surrogate victim that takes the form of prohibition, ritual, and myth the three dimensions of the sacred.
2.4. The Sacred
Broadly speaking, Girard's theory belongs in the Durkheimian tradition.
Many authors today see religion as a response to the experience of the a priori Sacred, understood as ontologically prior to the individual or society, and therefore see myth as the essence of religion. [See Lévi-Strauss]. Against this, Girard argues, like Durkheim, that the Sacred is one with human culture and society. The group generates the Sacred through the double transferrence [of violence and peace] onto the victim, and the Sacred in turn mandates prohibition, ritual, and myth. The crisis of violence is prior to the Sacred. This moves places ritual at the center.
For Girard, the Sacred is neither an invention of the superstitious mind to provide pre-scientific explanations (of natural phenomena); nor a mysterious presence apprehended in the religious attitude; nor, of course, a plot set up by a group of self-appointed high priests to secure their power [Voltaire]. The Sacred is a mendacious representation of human violence. The Sacred is violence misrepresented by the double transferrence.
The first two imperatives of the Sacred are curiously contradictory. Prohibition in essence means that one should not repeat any aspect of the original crisis. Ritual requires that one repeat the whole thing with great care. Prohibition prohibits mimicry, contact with former antagonists, acquisitive gestures toward the objects that caused rivalry, and anything that might reactivate the crisis. Ritual deliberately reactivates it, organizes orgies of transgression, and immolates new victims in ways that are thought to repeat the original action.
The Girardian explanation of this radical opposition between prohibition and ritual which has represented an enigma for anthropology, is straightforward. Prohibition corresponds to the mimetic rivalry element in the Sacred [One must not repeat it]. Ritual corresponds to the Surrogate victim element [One must repeat the mimetic crisis in order to reach once again its conclusion]. Prohibition focuses on the negative side of the process [the mimetic rivalry that caused a crisis] while ritual focuses on the positive side, the surrogate victim that reconciled the adversaries.
As regards myth, it is the story told from the view point of the perpretrators of the original collective murder.
If Girard is right, the first, primary form of ritual must be blood sacrifice, human sacrifice. The fundamental element in sacrifice is the deflection ruse by which we transfer violence from one target to another. The fundamental function of sacrifice is to repeat the first killing and so renew the ordering effect of unanimous violence.
As an illustration, take the kingship rituals studied by Hocart [the so-called scapegoat kings]. In the beginning the king was probably the victim whose period of preparation stretched until he had so much prestige that the community could no longer kill him. He was originally "a victim with a suspended sentence." The point is that the victim had to come from outside the group [to avoid the infinite cycle of retaliations see the Aztecs], but also be identified with it long enough to become representative. During this period the victim would be the living victim, and might garner so much prestige as to forestall actual sacrifice.
As Girard puts it, "the king is the victim with an extended sentence."
More generally, every king is the victim and the god an institution for the processing of violence from bad to good.
Take the contemporary leaders in our democratic societies. The leader's oscillation from god to victim in the public mind takes place suddenly, as many a politician in a sacrificial crisis can attest. The shift from adoration to execration is sudden and swift.
Kingship rituals often include the king's transgression of especially strong taboos: ritual chaos is then reduced to order by his enthronement.
One of the most nagging paradoxes of the Sacred is the elusive difference between sacrifice and crime. [Girard]: "In many rituals the sacrificial act assumes two opposing aspects, appearing at times as a sacred obligation to be neglected at grave peril [order], at other times as a sort of criminal activity entailing perils of equal gravity [disorder]."
"To account for this dual aspect of ritual sacrifice the legitimate and the illegitimate, the public and the all but covert [order and disorder] Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, in their "Essay on the Nature and Function of Sacrifice", adduce the sacred character of the victim. Because the victim is sacred, it is criminal to kill him but the victim is sacred only because he is to be killed [sacrificed]. Here is a circular line of reasoning..."
"If sacrifice resembles criminal violence, we may say that there is, inversely, hardly any form of violence that cannot be described in terms of sacrifice as Greek tragedy clearly reveals: ... sacrifice and murder would not lend themselves to this game of reciprocal substitution if they were not in some way related."
A tragic illustration: Kosovo, Spring 1999. A group of Serbian police officers rush into a Kosovar house. The family there a man, his wife and their 17-year-old son, are celebrating the Aid festival. In the Muslim world, the Aid festival commemorates the non-sacrifice of his son by Abraham. But mind! For the Muslims, this son is not Isaac, as the Jews and the Christians believe, it is Ishmael, the bastard that Abraham had from his servant Agar, whom God wanted Abraham to slay. A sheep is slain on that occasion in memory of the animal that the angel, at the last minute, substituted for the human victim. The Serbian policemen ask the family whether they performed the sacrificial act. No, they are told, we are too poor for that. Then the police officers grab the son and cut his throat before his parents' eyes, while saying, "he is fat enough for sacrifice".
Question: Had this atrocious gesture anything to do with religion or not? And, if yes, what religion? Islam, guilty of still practicing sacrifice? Or the religious intolerance of the Serbs, who were certainly Christian? Two opposite attitudes are common here. One consists in saying that religion is violence, or at least, it inevitably leads to acts of violence, because religion implies intolerance, bigotry, irrationality, and the like. The other attitude consists in taking the side of religion by saying, whenever a crime is committed in the name of religion, religion per se has nothing to do with it. Christianity is not guilty of the crimes committed by the Inquisition.3
Based on Girard's sacrificial theory, the answer should or might be: neither nor, or both. Religion contains violence in the two senses of the word: it has it within itself, and, simultaneously, it keeps it in check.
The Serbs' slaying of the young Kosovar was all the more obnoxious since it cynically aped religion. To be sure, it was by no means a religious act, but a sheer murder. However, it knew a lot about the religious, it knew enough at any rate to mould itself in its forms, as a sham. It knew that the sacrificial mechanism resides in the substitution of victims. Ishmael's (or, for that matter), Isaac's non-sacrifice obviously represents an exceptional moment in the history of sacrificial substitutions. It is the moment when animal sacrifice is substituted for human sacrifice. In donning the bloody robe of the sacrificer, the Serbian police officers staged a twofold regression. First, the regression from animal sacrifice to human sacrifice; second, the regression from sacrifice to crime. They acted like the demystifiers of religion, by bringing out the puzzling and troubling proximity between Violence and the Sacred.
A twofold mistake must be denounced at this stage. The first consists in not seeing that religious sacrifice is basically a murder, or is derived from a murder. Religious thought has always striven to conceal this kinship between sacrifice and murder. The second mistake boils down to posing the mere identity between sacrifice and murder, in the brutal manner of the Serbian police officers. This demystification is too harsh and too hasty because it ignores the difference between sacrifice and crime. It is in this difference that the source of civilization resides. The religious history of humankind is the endogenous evolution of sacrificial systems. Civilization leaps forward at each significant substitution of victims, when animals are substituted for humans, then plants, then puppets or shibboleths, then abstract entities (such as money: see Chapter I of Marx's Das Kapital on "Commodities" the very chapter that Louis Althusser prohibited his students from reading!). The history of civilization is one with the history of symbolization.
→ We shall say, the difference [between sacrifice and crime] is symbolic. [Two key words and notions: difference and the symbolic].
For Girard, myth represents the founding murder from the viewpoint of the murderers.
Claude Lévi-Strauss sees mythology as a representation of the birth and development of differential thought. He observes that a constant feature of myths is the passage from undifferentiation to differentiation through a "driving out". Girard concurs4 so far. But Lévi-Strauss interprets the "driving out" as the expression of the logic of elimination and exclusion by which the mind disencumbers a congested field of perception to make space for differential thought whereas Girard interprets the mythic structure as a misrepresentation of a real event: the founding mechanism.
An illustration: reading the Tikopia myth of foundation. Confrontation of Girard's and Lévi-Strauss's interpretations.
Points that the structuralist interpretation of myths leaves unexplained: why is the "driving out" so frequently represented by a violent expulsion? If the expulsion is for the purpose of disencumbering a mental field, the expelled must come from within that field. But then how come the victim in the myths comes both from within and without?
A full Girardian account of the structure of myth has the following features: the theme of indifferentiation (the Plague); accusations (incest, parricide); collective violence (expulsion of Oedipus); the founding or refounding of culture; the accusation against the mythic hero taken as an incontestable fact.
A structural feature of most myths: the origin presupposes itself. The hero is accused of stealing the social order, but it is his expulsion that brings about the social order. [This feature can be found in philosophical myths as well. A case in point is Rousseau's Social Contract.]
For Lévi-Strauss and most anthropologists, myths do not refer to any reality beyond the human mind and the prison of language. But the story told by a given myth is taken to be true within the myth. For Girard, myths refer to real events. But the story is partly false. It is very likely that a crippled foreigner who became the king of a Greek city was accused of killing his father and marrying his mother when a plague epidemic erupted; but the story lies when it claims that it was because Oedipus committed those crimes that the plague epidemic erupted. In other terms, the story lies because it does not say that Oedipus was scapegoated (i.e. that Oedipus was an innocent victim). The notion of scapegoat is not present in the story as a theme, although the scapegoating process or mechanism gives the story its stereotyped structure.
2.7. Prohibitions and Obligations
The subject matter here is the history of the emergence of the legal system.
The first emergence of law in culture takes the form of the prohibition on mimetic violence sanctioned by the vengeance of the god [e.g. Nemesis]. The idea of law contains the idea of the divine vengeance at its core. The mimetic nature of vengeance is obvious. Vengeance is reciprocal. It embodies reciprocity. Reciprocity, though, is normally understood either economically or legally, and it then has a positive value. Economically, it is a form of fair exchange for mutual benefit. By contrast, vengeance is a reciprocity of loss. It is the classic instance of the fallacy that two wrongs make a right. Vengeance, though, is the basis of a form of justice: retributive justice [Punishment is an instance]. Vengeance is mimetic violence transformed into retributive justice by the Sacred.
Illustration: vindicatory systems, or institutionalized vengeance. The cycles of vengeance among the Aré Aré, according to French anthropologist Daniel de Coppé [a disciple of Louis Dumont's].Vengeance is not taken on the one who commits the outrage, but rather on someone else. What is avoided thereby? A symmetry that could become an endless reciprocity. This makes perfect sense because it protects the group from falling into a spiral of vengeance.
Prohibitions exist to prevent mimetic rivalry. They generally pertain to objects that the community cannot divide peacefully food, weapons, the best places to live, and, of course, women and kids. The value of such objects is constituted not by scarcity alone but also by their prestige in the game of mimetic rivalry. The common sanction of all sacral prohibitions is fear of mimetic rivalry, under the guise of fear of the vengeance of the god.
The first prohibition is the one that is attached to the place of the victim/god. It produces a first differentiation, between the victim/god and the group, between the Sacred and the profane. This fundamental prohibition is the essence of the concept of law [meaning precinct = fence] and the concept of transcendence. The victim/god has been the catalyst of the conflictual mimesis that united the group: it becomes the sign of the prohibition on anything that can disrupt that unity. No member of the mob can reach out to possess the victim/god without causing the rivalry to start again. The victim/god is not to be approached, not to be touched, not to be possessed. It occupies a place beyond reach and a line of distinction is drawn between it and every other place.
Hence the laws in the ritual sense of the prescriptions guarding the sacred precinct: laws of priestly purity, protocols governing the offering of sacrifice. Contravention of the rules causes pollution and the polluting agent is not dirt [as Mary Douglas maintains in her Purity and Danger] but violence: the Sacred contains violence, in the two senses of the word.
Law is the order of "good violence". It conceals its origin in sacred violence. It is ritually controlled vengeance, and then becomes rationally controlled vengeance, with the emergence of the judiciary system.
The State has the monopoly of violence [Thomas Hobbes], and so there is no longer [in principle!] the threat of its spiraling out of control. The one who commits the crime is the one who pays for it, and the agency inflicting the punishment is the State, not a private citizen, not a relative of the deceased. The act of revenge is precisely targeted, and the avenger is impersonalized, thus making reciprocal violence impossible.
Such modern and apparently secular notions as the human subject, personal responsibility, rights of man, and the like can emerge. What is not usually seen or acknowledged is that these notions are intimately rooted in the religious and its transformations.
3. The Theory of Judeo-Christianity
In point of fact, we do know these "Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World": too many signs point to that fact without ambiguity. The question then arises: how did that knowledge become accessible to us? We already know Girard's answer and it is deemed unacceptable by most scholars: those things were revealed to us by the passion of the Christ. Girard claims that the Bible demythifies because it tells the story from the point of view of the victims. Hence the unprecedented and unparalleled progress of Western civilization away from ritual and myth.
Let me adduce a number of points that may be taken to support Girard's contention.
3.1. Scapegoats and sacrificial victims
Look at the newspapers, listen to the radio, watch the television. Each day, and more and more so it seems, we cry "scapegoat" to stigmatize all the phenomena of discrimination, political, ethnic, religious, social, racial, etc. that we observe about us. We are right. We easily see now that scapegoats multiply wherever human groups seek to lock themselves into a given identity, communal, local, national, ideological, racial, religious, and so on.
However, this modern usage of "scapegoat" is very different from, not to say antagonistic with its anthropological usage, where it refers to a type of ritual, such as the one described in the Leviticus. The expression " scapegoat " seems to designate three different things for us: (1) the victim of the ritual described in Leviticus, (2) all the victims of similar rituals that exist in archaic societies and that are called rituals of expulsion [Frazer] [in particular, the Athenian ritual of the pharmakos], and finally (3) all the phenomena of nonritualized collective transference that we observe or believe we observe around us. What are the relationships between those meanings? (1) and (2) refer to rituals, i.e. orderly, organized performances [i.e. representations] in a religious setting, where every line in the script must be complied with lest violence should erupt; (3), in contrast, refers to a spontaneous event, quite often violent by nature.
The arguments Girard makes in this respect are based on the popular insight that crops up in the modern sense of "scapegoat". He has attempted to develop the implications of this insight. It is richer in true knowledge than all the concepts anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists have invented. All discourses on exclusion, discrimination, racism, etc. will remain superficial as long as they don't address the religious foundations of the problems that besiege our society.
What Girard is trying to do is to take the modern notion and show how we can make it more scientific by showing anthropologically how it can explain the archaic rituals such as in Leviticus, at the same time that this anthropological insight can then be applied to modern instances. Our modern talk of scapegoating can then be shown to have its roots in the archaic rituals that lend it its popular name.
Consider then the modern usage and its pragmatic implications. Consider someone saying: "I was on the Titanic and I can assure you that no one survived!" That would be a weird thing to say. Not that we have a logical contradiction here. What we have is what philosophers call a pragmatic contradiction. We have a sentence whose conditions of utterance are incompatible with the contents of the proposition expressed by the sentence.
In a similar vein, consider the CEO of an important corporation who says to her staff: "From now on, I suggest that we choose Mr. Hewlett as our main scapegoat. Mr. Packard is no longer efficient in that role." That wouldn't do either. Why? Well, a group or society that scapegoats someone must not know that it is scapegoating him or her. To say that B is A's scapegoat is to say that B is an innocent victim of A. But for the scapegoating process to take place, A must not know that B is her innocent victim. A must believe that B is guilty, guilty of the misfortune that befell her. In other terms, the scapegoating process requires the méconnaissance of its actors.
A society like ours that sees scapegoats everywhere is indeed an unlikely society. It knows a lot about the scapegoating process, so much that one suspects that the process is not working anymore, or at least as efficiently as it used to be. Where does this knowledge come from? How come we acquired it in the first place? How did a society that did not have this kind of knowledge look like? The word "scapegoat" meant to designate a spontaneous, collective transference of guilt, could not exist in it. What did we find in lieu of the recognition and acknowledgement of such spontaneous process? We had ritual and myth. We had the sacred.
An illustration: one of Girard's major works is titled, in French and in English, not surprisingly, The Scapegoat. This book has been translated into more than thirty languages, including Japanese. In that latter language, it was impossible to find a phrase that would be the equivalent of the modern usage of "scapegoat" in our Western languages. The title the translator came up with means a kind of ritual that looks very much like the one described in the Leviticus. A radical mistranslation, of course, merely excused by the fact that there is no Japanese phrase to designate the spontaneous mechanism! One more evidence in favor of Girard: in a not (yet fully) chritianized society the notion of the spontaneous mechanism is not present.
3.2. Persecution texts
These texts are about the persecution of Jews or witches in medieval times [and even late into the Renaissance]. They are considered by historians to relate to historical events. They accuse their victims of incredible crimes, in the manner of a myth such as the Oedipus myth. However, although the texts accept those accusations as true [again, in the manner of a myth], we know the accusations to be false. How come? And by the same token we know the victims and their sufferings to be real. The epistemology here runs counter to the logic of the rotten apple: one rotten apple in a bag of apples is enough to rot the whole bunch of apples. Here, a trait that we know to be false and mendacious adds to our conviction that the text refers to real events. Why? Because we know too much about the mythopoietic power of collective victimage.
3.3. The concern for victims
It is very delicate to take up the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy as case study, without giving the impression that one takes sides. I would like to emphasize just one point, the fight for the status of victim.
New York Times, April 3, 2002: "Mr. Sharon noted today that he would need the cabinet's approval to expel Mr. Arafat. But the Israeli public overwhelmingly supports the move already ... Some politicians and analysts believe the step will become increasingly appealing to Israelis as frustration grows over the attention and even sympathy being directed toward Mr. Arafat. In their view, Mr. Sharon has accidentally cast Mr. Arafat in his preferred role, as a victim 'the ultimate underdog', as one senior official put it, personifying 'the Palestinian plight'.
(...) rather than making Mr. Arafat seem irrelevant, as Israel contends he is, the current policy has focused all eyes on him. 'We are the victims', a nother Israeli official said indignantly. 'We are the ones who are bleeding. Arafat is not the story. The story is what is happening to us."
Already in 1994, April 4, a Newsweek article was titled: "Fighting to be the victim. Mideast: Both sides see advantages in suffering". It spoke about "the frustration of many on the Israeli right: that Palestinians are profiting as victims of the Hebron massacre. It's a role that many Jewish settlers insist on for themselves. 'We must be the victims', insists Noam Arnon, spokesman for 415 Jews living among 110,000 Arabs in Hebron. 'We are the victims.' Nobody wants to be killed, maimed or persecuted, of course. But in the Mideast there's a perception that victims reap political rewards."
Question: where does this concern for the victims come from? It has not always been there. We moderns are obsessed by the question of victims. In moral and political philosophy, the proof of this proposition can be found in the o¤uvre of John Rawls, that frontal assault on utilitarian hegemony which can be interpreted as a powerful anti-sacrificial machine. In this conception of justice which Rawls dubs "justice as equity" the priority of priorities is the fate of the most disadvantaged. It is their liberty and their welfare that must be made as great as possible, even if that means refraining from improving the conditions of the much more numerous middle classes, even if that means accepting inequalities. The principles that express justice as equity can be boiled down to the following: any inequality that is not in the service of the worst-off is unjust, and this is true in three domains whose hierarchical ordering is absolute: first, basic rights and freedoms; next, chances and opportunities; and finally, access to economic and social resources and wealth. The worst-off, hence those who run the greatest risk of being sacrificial victims, are "sacred." The religious metaphor is obviously awkward, since what is meant here by "sacred" is not to be sacrificed.
As we saw, for Nietzsche, the origin of this modern concern for the victims is to be found in Christianity. As far as facts are concerned, there is no difference between primitive religions and Christianity. "God is dead we killed Him." Christ's death on the cross is just one more occurrence of the primordial event that is being recounted by zillions of myths throughout the planet. The difference lies in interpretation. For the first time in the history of humankind, the story is told from the victim's viewpoint, not the persecutors'. The story (the Gospel) sides with the victim and proclaims its innocence.
We are obsessed by the question of victims, but that does not make their fate any more enviable. Victims are so important to us that it is henceforth in the name of the victims that others made that we persecute them. A comic variant on this perverse turn-about is furnished by American-style "political correctness." The more signs of victim-status that you accumulate, the more assured you are of access to privileges. As the great British catholic writer G. K. Chesterton once wrote, "The modern world is full of Christian ideas ... gone berserk."
To quote a former student of Girard's, Eric Gans, now Professor of anthropology at U.C.L.A.: "Not long ago, I conceived the idea of a "post-millennial" era, defined by its abandonment of the victimary epistemology of the postmodern age. The defining issue seemed to be *the Israeli-Palestinian conflict*. The breakdown of the "peace process" and the renewed *Intifada* made it clear that the continued focus on the Palestinians as victims had become counterproductive for both sides; no real negotiations could take place when beneath all Palestinian demands was a sense of legitimized resentment on the model of the South African Blacks under apartheid. (This parallel was in fact raised at the recent Durban conference on racism.) It seemed to me that a new age had begun in which the relatively easy answers of the previous era would have to give way to market-like processes of negotiation.
If it was not clear to everyone from the suicide bombings in Israel that resentment could no longer be legitimized within the political process, the September 11 events made this point much more decisively. Palestinian terrorism may be linked to legitimate and, at least in principle, negotiable grievances; *bin Laden*'s cannot. Just as the *Holocaust* inaugurated the postmodern era by making victimary resentment the preeminent criterion of political change, September 11 ended it by demonstrating the horrors such resentment can produce. [...]
Does the end of victimary thinking mean that we should no longer seek justice? Of course not. But it does mean that justice cannot be sought simply by "taking the side of the victim." It suggests that the redistributive model of justice, conceived as exercising absolute authority over all objects in contention between the parties, must be replaced by a less absolute, negotiational conception, where the judge is first and foremost an arbitrator. Victimary justice puts everything up for grabs; the persecutor has no rights of ownership, for all his possessions are tainted by victimization. More modestly, post-millennial justice respects the *Lockean* notion of property as a buffer between persons; it begins with the situation as it exists, and declares possession illegitimate only when it can be shown unambiguously to be so. Needless to say, no mere redefinition of terms will solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; but only if both parties reject the victimary mindset, as seemed to be the case after *Oslo*, are win-win solutions conceivable."
Paul Nuechterlein, an influential clergyman who claims to be a disciple of Girard's: "With the Risen Christ's voice, we have the victim's voice reaching the point of never being able to completely be silenced again. That's the world we now live in, where the victim's voice has become so prominent that it is now used to justify persecution and vengeance. [...] There are many examples of how the Christian revelation has reshaped, transformed our use of language. Most prominent is that 'sacrifice' now means 'self-sacrifice'."
For the Muslim world, it is clear that the 9/11 terrorists committed or performed sacrifice, in giving their own lives. They were the victims, not the people present in the towers.
To wrap up this brief introduction to Girard's anthropology, it may be useful to emphasize one last time the four following points.
Firstly, the dominant paradigm in anthropology has it that myths do not refer to any reality beyond the human mind and the prison of language. For Girard, myths refer to real events. But the story is partly false. It is very likely that a crippled foreigner who became the king of a Greek city was accused of killing his father and marrying his mother when a plague epidemic erupted; but the story lies when it claims that it was because Oedipus committed those crimes that the plague epidemic erupted. In other terms, the story lies because it does not say that Oedipus was scapegoated which implies that Oedipus was innocent. He was innocent, not because he didn't have the intention to commit the crimes he was accused of, as implied by the story, but simply because he did not commit them. The notion of scapegoat is not present in the story as a theme, although the scapegoating process or mechanism gives the story its stereotyped structure.
Secondly, it is essential to understand the opacity (Girard uses the word "méconnaissance", which can be loosely translated as "misrecognition") that presides over the mechanisms of the sacred and constitutes their condition of possibility. The participants in the collective victimage "know not what they do" that may be the reason why they should be forgiven. They do not know their victim for what he is: a victim, the unlucky centre of an arbitrary process of convergence. This misrecognition is not accidental, since it is an essential part of the mechanism. It is necessary to its proper functioning. The convergence of all against one rests on the common conviction that this one, the victim, carries an ultimate responsibility in the ongoing violence. The peace that follows the victim's death confirms everyone in their previous belief
Thirdly, among the chief virtues of the Girardian account, especially in Occamian terms, that is, economy of premises and elegance of demonstrations, is the way it illuminates the contradiction that lies at the heart of religious systems, between the prohibitions of ordinary life and the acting out of their violation within the framework of ritual. In a rite of enthronement, marriage, passage, or the like, sacred boundaries are transgressed in the presence of the celebrants (incest, for example, or murder, or the eating of impure foods) and those transgressions, far from originating in accidents, weakness of the will or perversion of the perpetrators, are obligatory within the space and time of the ritual. Girard's account is that there are two opposite ways for religious systems to control violence. One is to proscribe the gestures and actions that generated the crisis. The other, on the contrary, is to re-enact those gestures in order, in a second moment, to stage once again the resolution of the crisis through the immolation of a surrogate victim.
Fourthly, as far as the theory of modernity is concerned, it is essential to understand the implications of the phrase, "Christianity is the religion of the end of religion." It means that Christian precepts slowly corrode sacrificial institutions and progressively give rise to a radically different type of society. The mechanism for manufacturing sacredness in the world has been irreparably disabled by the body of knowledge constituted by Christianity. Instead, it produces more and more violence a violence that is losing the ability to self-externalize and contain itself. Thus Jesus's enigmatic words suddenly take on unsuspected meaning: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34). The Christian revelation appears to be a snare, the knowledge it carries, a kind of trap, since it deprives humanity of the only means it had to keep its violence in check, namely the violence of the sacred. As Girard puts it,
"Every advance in knowledge of the victimage mechanism, everything that flushes violence out of its lair, doubtless represents, at least potentially, a formidable advance for men in an intellectual and ethical respect but, in the short run, it is all going to translate as well into an appalling resurgence of this same violence in history, in its most odious and most atrocious forms, because the sacrificial mechanisms become less and less effective and less and less capable of renewing themselves. [...] Humanity in its entirety already finds itself confronted with an ineluctable dilemma: men must reconcile themselves for evermore without sacrificial intermediaries, or they must resign themselves to the coming extinction of humanity."5
1 Reprinted in Situations I, op. cit. ("A Fundamental Idea in Husserl's Phrenomenology: Intentionality")
2 Girard's oeuvre is abundant. I will draw mainly on his first major works, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965); Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (1972; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977); The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (1982: Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986); and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (1978; Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987). Girard's latest book has just come out in English under the title Battling to the End (trans. Mary Baker, Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, 2010). It is a meditation on Clausewitz' classic On War.
3 Since French republicanism has been ever since the Revolution a form of religion of the State, one could also contend that when the Vichy regime collaborated with the Nazis and sent out 40,000 Jews to the Nazi gas chambers in Germany, it was not the French State, but a bunch of usurpers who did it [Mitterrand's position]. By constitution, in a similar vein to the Pope as far as the dogma is concerned, the French State is always right [Rousseau on the General will]. It cannot err.
4 A linguistic remark on the word "concurrence" in French and in English. In French it means competition, rivalry; in English, agreement, cooperation.
5 Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, op. cit., pp. 150 and 160.
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