The Mimetic Theory of Rene Girard, Part 2/3

(This is a continuation of a summary description of Mimetic Theory that I began in Part I. Make sure you read that first. If you would like to read all three parts in a single post, click here.)

It is clear that mimetic rivalry is an incubator and accelerator of human violence. Mimetic forces left unchecked by external societal checks would result in contagious spasms of violence. Remember that the strong mimetic tendency in humanity is biological and preconscious rather than a product of human deliberation. Therefore the origin of any general disorder caused by the propagation of mimetic rivalry would be generally mysterious, while its effects are obvious and dangerous. The societal checks that we take for granted (police forces, manners, etc.) have a history and every history must have a prehistory. Given the tendency of mimetic rivalry to generate, sustain and even amplify violence, the question arises as to how human culture during this prehistory was able to survive the Hobbesian “war of all against all” that springs from natural mimetic escalation in the first place.

Just as the crisis begins with mimetic contagion, so too must it end mimetically. The new contagion is catalyzed not by an acquisitive gesture, but by an accusatory one. Someone is blamed arbitrarily for the violence — the scapegoat. Questions of who or why matter less than that the accusation is imitated. As an accusation is transmitted by mimetic contagion across the social field, there is a natural tendency for it to converge on a single victim. (This can be demonstrated in computer models with a collection of mimetic agents biased to imitate the most duplicated meme.) The violence of “all against all” is replaced by the more economical violence of “all against one” (or in Virgil’s formulation, unum pro multis, “one on behalf of many”). The social vectors all become aligned, commonly focused on a single victim, who is eliminated. Unanimous violence “cures” the crisis not because of the violence as such, but on account of the unanimity born of accusatory violence.

The peace that results from scapegoating violence will occur at blinding speed since, unlike the antagonistic tugs on the mimetic object, the accusation encounters no resistance (other than the increasingly outnumbered and feeble objections of the single victim). The social solidarity survives the death of the victim, and the experience of mass antagonism giving way so suddenly to an apparent peace has a powerful effect on everyone involved. The accusation has been pragmatically justified by its predicted effect — the pollution having been purged, the society is now restored to health. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

The victim is chosen by arbitrary markers. The victim must have been peculiar in order to be singled out and must lack defenders in order for the mob verdict to be unanimous. The scapegoat, being the first to stand out from the crowd, is the first “individual” both psychologically and socially. The scapegoat is also the only one in the culture who grasps the lie at the heart of the founding accusation — the only one who knows the “truth” of the culture — making him/her doubly threatening. Andrew McKenna has coined the term “the epistemological privilege of the victim” to name this phenomenon.

According to Girard, the seeds of primitive religion are here, in the seemingly miraculous effects that attend the death of the victim of unanimous violence. Far from being the projected fantasies of savage minds, the peace achieved is very real indeed, as was the danger of unchecked mass violence that preceded it. Because the danger was so precarious and because the deliverance so sudden, the corpse left behind becomes an object of intense fascination to those simultaneously threatened and saved by it. (This accounts for the two conditions of the holy in Rudolph Otto’s famous formulation of sacred ambivalence: mysterium tremendum et fascinans) Since the mimetic forces are invisible, diffuse and so far-reaching in generating social madness, and since the sudden curative effect of the scapegoating murder provides a post hoc justification (in the minds of the accusers) for the accusation, the murdered victim is credited with occult powers. The post mortem divinization of the victim by the society is the natural culmination of the story. .

Girard theorizes that scapegoating effects are at the origin of all human cultural forms by marking the emergence of the category of The Sacred. The unity that follows the collective murder obviously is of life or death importance to the community founded by it. Maintenance of this unity and the prevention of the mimetic forces that continually threaten to undermine it *is* culture, at least in its archaic form. There are three signature components of sacred cultural order: ritual, prohibition and myth.

Since scapegoating murder cured the original disease, ritual repetition of this generative event will be used either to reactively cure further outbreaks of mimetic violence or prophylactically prevent them. This gives rise to sacrificial ritual. (Girard is the first to adequately explain the widespread existence of sacrificial rites in human cultures.) Girard also believes that the institution of sacred kingship arises out of the deferral of these rites: the king is a sacrificial victim with a suspended sentence — kept alive and treated as divine as long as order prevails.

Since mimetic desire gives rise to violence, prohibitions, taboos and enforced distinctions arise (through a kind of natural selection perhaps) that act as firewalls against the spread of mimetic rivalry. For instance, the incest taboo prevents destructive rivalries over the closest available sexual partners from developing within families. Girard points out that it is similarity, rather than difference, that encourages one human to imitate another. (This accounts for the primitive fear of twins in many early cultures.) Sacred distinctions such as caste systems help prevent mimetic amplification of the use of royal power for instance. Loss or weakening of such taboos/distinctions (what Girard calls the crisis of distinctions) can lead to new spasms of mimetic violence. One such distinction is king/subject. The singularity of the victim and the singularity of the monarch may not be a coincidence — Girard theorizes that the origin of the king is as “a victim with a suspended sentence.” The hypothesis is that the scapegoat is able, prior to his murder, to leverage his sacred status before dying, to agree to use his “powers” for the community in exchange for his life and confirmation of his sacred role.

Myths are narratives that makes sense of the founding event and the subsequent rituals that recreate the founding scene. Myths serve to overcome the arbitrary nature of the choice of victim, replacing it with a veneer of necessity and justification. Girard believes that traces of the original violence can be discerned at the heart of mythic narratives. Girard also believes that mythic stories, when viewed though the light of mimetic theory, reveal, across cultures, the originary act of scapegoating violence. The success of the sacrificial system rests on a general belief in the validity of the original accusation and justifying myth.


End of Part II — continue to Part III. If you would like to read all three parts in a single post, click here.

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