Rene Girard in a nutshell.

by metacognizant

Yesterday I had the privilege of talking to a college professor I had who referred me to reading works by Rene Girard. It was the first time I’d talked to him since I’d begun reading anything from Girard, and so it was fun to catch up. I realized that I’d never told my wife Girard’s thesis or anything, and so I told it to her in a nutshell. I know I’ve mentioned Girard in passing in a blog entry before, but I know I’ve also never blogged about his ideas at length. So, here’s Girard in a nutshell (if that’s even possible):

Girard started out as a literary critic. He worked with some of the best authors and works known–Shakespeare, Proust, etc.. He realized through his studies that all the authors he worked with had a common implicit underlying understanding of  humanity throughout their works, and he saw that it tapped in to the human condition in ways that other works did not–which is probably one reason why they became so legendary. Their implicit view of humanity is roughly as follows: imitation is not merely behavioral for humans–it is foundational. Girard took this view up, formalized it, and decided to give it a different name so as to show how different imitation truly is than we perceive it. He referred to imitation as mimesis–which is Greek for imitation, as the Greeks seemed to have somewhat understood this before Plato–and the whole of his theory came to be referred to as mimetic theory.

In this theory, we don’t merely choose to imitate behaviors. We may certainly do that, but mimetism is much more fundamental than that. As humans, all of our culture, behaviors, and, especially, desires, are given to us by some other human. The first choice–whatever that may truly have been–was entirely arbitrary; but once that first choice was made, everything since then has been in imitation of that. We do what we do because someone else did it. We like what we like because someone else likes it. This leads to mimetic rivalry, however. If a certain toy is liked by a child because another child has it, that first child will try and take that toy from the one who has it. Because what we like is driven by the desires of another, conflict will necessarily occur.

This conflict can lead to violence. Violence is originally seen as justified on the part of the offender–“he tried to take from me what is rightfully mine.” From there, violence is seen as justified on behalf of the victim–“he hit me when I had given him no injury.” Again, then, violence is seen as justified on behalf of the original offender–“he retaliated when he had no right to; after all, my actions were simply a defense of what is mine.” This leads to an escalation. Eventually, violence is done for the sake of violence. People choose sides. It becomes us versus them. Violence reaches a point where the original offense might not even be remembered. Girard refers to this as the mimetic crisis, and it has the capability to dissolve societies. But, just as mimesis was the cause of this problem, so it is the solution. Eventually, an arbitrary individual–taking part in this crisis just as much as any other person–is arbitrarily singled out by another individual or group as the cause of this crisis. This arbitrarily selected individual is truly and wholly seen as responsible for this crisis. Through mimesis, all in this mimetic crisis become unified against this arbitrary victim as responsible for the current situation. Eventually, this unification leads to expulsion: the once arbitrary victim is now murdered as the cause of this crisis. Now, there is peace. There is a calm over the cadaver. Once this victim is expelled, the crisis dissolves. This person–truly responsible for the crisis in the eyes of the mob–now is held as having power over chaos and peace. This person becomes sacred to society.

These are the roots of religion. Prohibitions are put in place to prevent whatever behavior(s) were seen to have caused this mimetic crisis–this is the cause of some of the more bizarre prohibitions in some societies, such as the prohibition mirrors or of raising twins. Prohibitions, though, are not bulletproof. Rituals are also set up to enable a reenactment of the behaviors that led to the crisis, the crisis itself, and the expulsion of the victim: sacrifice. These two seemingly opposite features of religion act to control the one thing that may dissolve society–a mimetic crisis–and they are centered around the sacred individual, placating this person with their sacrifice so that he might not bring upon them the same chaos that he once did.

This continued for the larger portion of human history. However, today, persecution has been demystified. We are able to take the side of the person who is truly a victim. We stand up for the rights of a person being lead to exclusion from society. What changed? Why do we or even can we now do this? Girard’s answer is that it is the presence of the Gospel texts. Jesus Christ was an innocent man who our society victimized and scapegoated, as has happened numerous times before. The difference with Jesus, though, is that not only does he declare his innocence before he’s put to death, but he actually rises from the dead and thus is able to make his innocence known. I won’t get in to too much detail with Girard and Christianity, but that is actually one of his main focal points (one of his books is dedicated entirely to the issue). The victimage–or scapegoat–mechanism only works due to a lack of understanding of it. Once we realize that the victim is both innocent and nonsacred, any consolation we have as a society breaks down. The Gospel narratives have thus begun demystifying human civilization by their very content, and we live in the benefit of that.

However, mimetic rivalry has not disappeared. The victimage mechanism may no longer work, but that doesn’t mean the process that leads to it has stopped. It has been truncated, for sure, by the lack of its logical finishing point, and because of that mimetic rivalry works itself out in differing ways than it used to. The things that we desire now are no longer necessarily objects themselves, but abstract notions such as prestige and influential ones such as power that comes with these objects, or, more accurately, the sum of a variety of objects. Girard turns to psychology with his insights, and with two psychotherapists (in dialogue with him in his Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World) leads to real breakthroughs in the discipline of psychology. Further work has been done in this area by professional psychotherapists.

Now, that’s my attempt to summarize Girard in a nutshell. That is almost a contradiction in terms. Girard is very hard to read and especially hard to convey his thoughts in any less words than he does. Further, anyone who’s read Girard knows that I can’t accurately summarize his texts without letting my own thoughts influence how I represent those texts. Nevertheless, I’ve attempted to give my summary of him, mostly drawn from Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. His theories have been substantially confirmed by recent neuroscience and its discovery of mirror neurons, and so I think he’d be a good read for anyone.