lds-herm blog

Discussion of hermeneutics, esp. as it pertains to LDS scripture

An attempt at a Girardian introduction

Posted by cherylem on July 15, 2007

I’m not going to write a history of Girard, or a summary of his works or works about him, as there are plenty of Internet links regarding the work of Rene Girard. Perhaps a good place to start is here; you should click on the biographical sketch by James Williams first, I think.

For Joe and others, this is interesting, from that sketch:

It was during his tenure as chairman of Romance Languages that he facilitated a symposium at Johns Hopkins which was to be important for the emergence of critical theory in America. With Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato he organized an international conference in October of 1966, “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man.” Participants included Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Lucien Goldman, Jean Hyppolite, Jacques Lacan, Georges Poulet, Tsvetan Todorov, Jean-Pierre Vernant, and others. It was at this symposium that Derrida gave his widely read and cited paper, “La structure, le signe et le jeu dans le discours des sciences humaines” (Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences). This paper confirmed for Girard that Derrida was a critic to be reckoned with, and he found Derrida’s subsequent essay “La pharmacie de Platon” (Plato’s pharmacy) to be particularly significant. Girard would develop the pharmakos or scapegoat aspect of Derrida’s analysis of writing/poison, placing it within history and actual social existence rather than restricting it to language and intertextuality like Derrida.

This paragraph (though you should read the entire article by James Williams before proceeding here) also gives us a doorway to go through to the introduction of the thought of Rene Girard, and specifically the book we are reading: The Scapegoat.

Probably it is important to remember the use of the scapegoat during the day of atonement in Leviticus, here in the NIV and here in King James. It is also a good instruction to read the various things from dictionary.com, here; be sure to read to the bottom of the page, including Easton’s Bible Dictionary.

While our discussions will range far from this Leviticus text (though never too far), remembering it will give us a common foundation.

I think that we will begin to understand Girard as we read him, and I want to share only a few ideas here. As Robert noted, The Scapegoat does not get into mimetic theory much, and only in the last chapters, yet mimetic theory is critical to Girardian thinking, and is assumed by him throughout the book. That is, The Scapegoat seems to me to be in the middle of the Girardian conversation. While it is accessible (I don’t want to discourage anyone!), there seems to be an assumption in our text, from the first chapter, that we are picking up a conversation left off very recently, and the assumption is we have been part of that earlier conversation.

As my good friend and LDS writer Mack Stirling (who also serves on the Board of Dialogue) wrote in “Violent Religion: Rene Girard’s Theory of Culture” (The Destructive Power of Religion, Vol. 2, Ed. Ellens, 2004, Praeger), “Girard postulates that human culture, including archaic religion, originated in communal or collective violence.”

We need to understand this: that Girard’s theory is anthropological, and that it deals with the beginning of human culture. Interestingly, our Biblical texts have something to say about this. In Genesis 4 and Moses 5 we read of Cain and Abel, including the idea that the first city was founded by Cain (the first murderer) and named after his son Enoch, and his descendents 1) fathered those that dwelt in tents (were not roamers) and raised cattle (v. 20) 2) fathered those that created music (v. 21), 3) forged tools out of brass and iron (v. 22).

Returning to Stirling, we read on page 12:

Fundamental to the thought of Girard is his concept of mimetic desire. Indeed, his theory is sometimes called the mimetic theory.

Girard proposes that all humans learn their desires from other people in the culture around them by imitation or copying. Furthermore, this imitated desire is accompanied by an acquisitive drive to possess what the other has. The imitated (learned) desire coupled with the acquisitive drive is what Girard terms mimetic desire. . . .

In other words, human beings learn and “construct our very identities” (p. 16) through mimetic desire, but mimetic desire also leads to inevitable conflict of the most violent, murderous sort as human beings all strive toward what all desire, whatever the original object was. Eventually, the original object (a toy, a woman, a kingship) drops out of the equation, and mimetic desire is directed with all its energy toward one’s mimetic rival, or group of rivals. The resulting violence is like a plague, a sickness, infecting everyone until the group turned violent mob finds a scapegoat and murders him or her. Catharsis results, in the ensuing peace the scapegoat is divinized, and (anciently) the ritual is enacted over and over in religious sacred rites, until such a time as the plague again overtakes the crowd and a new scapegoat must be found.

Today the rituals may not be so evident, but the same culture generating mechanism (the scapegoat) continues to drive human society. This will happen over and over again until the plague of mimetic violence (the mimetic crisis) is so overwhelming all will be consumed by the fire of contagion, unless we can perceive the lesson of the cross: the victim is innocent, and the way out of the mimetic crisis is to choose God himself as our model.

That is, the gospel actually destabilizes human culture by showing that what humans thought was divine was actually murderous violence; new stability has to be found through the gospels, or the destabilization of culture will continue and continue and continue, until the world is plunged into chaos. But those who follow “good mimesis” will find themselves in the City of God (Stirling, p. 49).

The paper I wrote on this in 2001, “Judaism, Christianity and Girard: the Violent Messiahs,” published in the same book as Mack’s paper, used Girardian theory to analyze the text of Numbers 25 and the priesthood of Phinehas. Without going into all that now, I want to offer a quote I used in that paper, from THE JEWISH MESSIAHS: FROM THE GALILEE TO CROWN HEIGHTS, by H. Lenowitz, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 5:

The Jewish community and the larger society are partners in the ritual dance of destruction; they come together to destroy the messiah, then move apart to resume their old positions in the status quo. In the context of ritual, the messiah does not actually ignite the flames of the apocalypse; rather, his immolation sheds light on what a society must do in order to go on.”

This concept is enlightening not because Lenowitz was writing about Girardian theory (he wasn’t) but because he understood on a basic level the repeated nature of seeking the scapegoat (substitute this word for messiah), and how this orders society. Also, while Lenowitz put this in terms of Judaism/greater society, any other opposing groups will do, especially if one group is a minority, or different, or can be used as a source of blame.

Rene Girard is Roman Catholic, but when he started his career he was basically nothing religiously. He was converted intellectually and spiritually through his intellectual work, and I believe he has something really important to say. I also think it is rewarding to read all our LDS religious texts, and our history, with this understanding of mimetic desire and scapegoating in mind.

Last, I suggest that one does not need to be a Girard “convert” to engage his ideas, nor does one have to agree with him in every respect. The organization The Colloquium on Violence and Religion holds to this idea, again, as stated by Williams:

The object of COV&R, as stated on behalf of those present at the founding conference at Stanford University, is “to explore, criticize, and develop the mimetic model of the relationship between violence and religion in the genesis and maintenance of culture.” This statement presupposes Girard’s work as the center and starting point, but the organization includes many people who do not share his religious views or differ with him on certain points of the mimetic theory.

I hope this small introduction is helpful or at least continues your interest. Now, on to The Scapegoat.

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17 Responses to “An attempt at a Girardian introduction”

  1. cherylem said

    I have also been thinking of the word “priest,” whose etymology, I think, goes back to the violent sacred. It was the priest who cut, who killed, who violently expelled. The ancient priest mediated for his people (gave them peace) before the god(s) via violent acts. Thus the word itself becomes a burden in our quest to understand the nature of God’s priesthood, and the message of the gospels.

  2. cherylem said

    I changed the Leviticus reference to NIV (and KJ) instead of NRSV – the NRSV used Azazel for scapegoat and was thus not immediately clear.

  3. joespencer said

    Thank you very much, Cheryl. Is there a good place to take up his understanding of mimesis in detail? I can’t tell whether it is naive or profound, though I’m sure it is the latter and I’m simply misunderstanding it.

  4. cherylem said

    I really think Mack’s article does a great job of explaining the mimetic model. Additionally, the first chapter of the Girard Reader, “Mimesis and Violence: Perspectives in Cultural Criticism,” is a good place to take up Girard’s thoughts on mimesis, and there are other chapters in the Reader that tackle this as well.

    Your comment is interesting – naive or profound. It does seem naive at first. Especially whenever I try to explain it, I think.

    You can do some searching re Rene Girard and the mimetic model. (The link I gave (was going to give) is an awkward English translation from French . . . sorry.)

    For those that are interested, I could ask Mack if I could send snail mail copies of his chapter. I don’t think he has an electronic copy any more.

  5. cherylem said

    Joe,
    here is an interview with Girard regarding his mimetic model:

    http://www.uibk.ac.at/theol/cover/girard_le_monde_interview.html

  6. Robert C. said

    I also noticed a series of pages here discussing Girardian mimesis, though I’ not sure how good they are (though they seem to me to make more sense reading them with a French accent in mind!..). The tapes I’m listening have given what seems to me a pretty good explanation of mimetic desire and rivalry. Something clicked for me in that explanation, though I’m not sure I can pinpoint what it is that clicked. Somehow I went from being rather skeptical of that concept to quite skeptical believing. I think there’s an important connection to Lacan and Freud in terms of how one develops from infancy, learning from others, and encountering different kinds of conflict in early stages of development.

    Thanks, Cheryl, for a very informative and helpful post. (Hope you don’t mind I put your quotes in block quotes above for easier reading; the dotted outlines are simply the default formatting for the blog….)

  7. Cherylem said

    Robert . . . so you are now more skeptical?

  8. Robert C. said

    [Not sure what’s going on with the formatting of this blog, but it’s all messed up today in my browser—hopefully it will fix itself soon….]

    Cheryl, thanks for pointing out my typo in my comment above, I fixed it: I’m more believing now, not more skeptical!

    The idea that our desires our mediated by others’ desires rings true for me, though I’m not quite sure how this matches up with Girard’s notion of mimetic desire—it seems closely related to me. Of course anyone in marketing believes in this notion of society-mediated desire. I think this is very common among children—the familiar scenario (esp. to me as a new parent of a toddler…) where no one’s paying attention to a toy, and then one kid picks it up (usually the most independent kid who cares the least about the other kids’ interests) and starts playing with it, largely because no one is playing with it, but then suddenly the other kids see the toy with new eyes and desperately (in the sense of tantrums…) want to play with it. Notice in this case that the common/mimetic desire leads immediately to a rivalry/conflict.

    At a slightly more mature level, I think we see this very commonly in Junior High and Middle School children when everyone becomes so peer conscious. Where the desirability of a cute boy or hot girl is largely dependent on how popular or desirable the community, or those most influential in the community, think the boy or girl is. This is, I think, a very powerful and convincing form of mimesis, and it affects us in very subtle, but also very real, ways.

    And I think this kind of rivalry is esp. common (and perhaps even less noticeable for that reason) in Western capitalist society. Men are obsessed with competitive sports, and women are obsessed with looking better and better and skinnier and skinnier, and everyone wants to be above average (at least as Garrison Keillor might describe it). I recently saw the Walt Disney movie “Sky High” which has an interesting character, Layla, in it who refuses to take part in the competitive nature of the school (where superheroes go to school, and are classified according to their super powers). Again, I think the resonance of this character (at least I thought she resonated…) attests to the notion of mimetic rivalry as a cultural truth. On the other hand, I guess making this link with capitalist competition doesn’t really lend direct support to this being an attribute of earlier, less capitalist cultures, but it has helped me think about mimetic desire and rivalry with more appreciation.

    (Or, Cheryl, am I misguided in this way of thinking about mimetic desire and rivalry?)

  9. cherylem said

    Robert,
    Your comments are excellent.

  10. joespencer said

    You might all be interested in the post I just put on the feast blog about rivalry in teaching. I don’t know that it delves too seriously into anything Girardian, but it does seem connected.

  11. Robert C. said

    My belief in mimesis is also aided by the fact that my son is at a very mimetic stage of development: when I sat on a rock at our ward barbecue last Sunday, my two-year-old son found a rock and sat down just like his daddy, and when I moved to go sit on the grass, he sat moved to go sit on the grass just like me, and when I go to work on my laptop, of course he wants to come play with my laptop (with an ensuing rivalry that mommy usually mediates by telling me to get off the computer and play with our son!).

  12. Cherylem said

    Did anyone hear/see Mack Stirling’s presentation at Sunstone on Girard?

  13. joespencer said

    I didn’t, but you might be interested to know, Cheryl, that MSH (the Mormon Scholars in the Humanities) has considered Girard as a keynote speaker for their 2009 conference.

  14. Cherylem said

    Thanks Joe – very interesting indeed.

  15. J. Madson said

    Cherylem, I was at the presentation as the moderator whatever they call us and it was excellent.

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