The Mimetic Theory of Rene Girard, Part 3/3

(This is a continuation of a series of posts comprised of Part I and Part II. Reading those posts first is a necessary backdrop to Part III given here. If you would like to read all three parts in a single post, click here.)

Girard’s anthropology implies that human subjectivity is essentially de-centered. The Mimetic Theory replaces the notion of the individual as the first principle of social analysis with the radical notion of interdividuality, which transcends the self/society dichotomy. Desires have their locus between mimetic partners; they are not placed precisely within one or the other.

Since desire is mutable and contagious rather than fixed or self-determined, there can appear within human society agencies that transcend particular agents, often appearing as occult phenomena (e.g. demonic possession, mesmerism) or psychological maladies (e.g. hysteria). (See Jean-Michel Oughourlian’s work, The Puppet of Desire, for a good study of such phenomena.) The contagious germ passed between mimetic subjects can also be called a “meme.”

Since institutions and social forms are largely the outgrowth of an order that has its foundation in mimetic dynamics, they represent the objectification of the interdividual situation, expressions of something like a mimetic field with gradations of attraction and repulsion. These “Powers” are not directed or controlled by any particular human agent, but are themselves quasi-agencies. Humans act out of their desires, but these desires are created, shaped and molded by the Powers that contain and confront them. Recognized human authority such as a ruler results from the Power and not the Power from the ruler.

The central Power, that which founds the existing social arrangements, is that of accusation itself. “Satan” means the accuser, the prosecutor. The foundation of order has throughout most of history been through scapegoating violence and the mimetically attractive power of accusation. One could say of accusation what Heraclitus said of war — that it is “the father and king of all, and has made some as gods and others as men, and has made some slaves and others free.” Jesus calls Satan “the ruler of this world” in John 12:31. Satan, although very much a reality, is not a person in the strict sense but what Robert Hammerton-Kelly called the “Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism,” a feature of all human societies.

The success of the sacrificial system rests on a general belief in the validity of the original accusation and justifying myth. Since the guilt of the original victim is a lie at heart, any narrative that unmasks the lie will weaken/destroy the Power and unmake the culture founded on it. Again, Girard distinguishes between (1) a narrative that masks and propagates the founding lie and (2) one that unmasks and deconstructs it. The former he calls myth and the latter gospel. Whereas myths are written from the perspective of the persecutors, gospel accounts privilege the innocent victim’s witness. A gospel gets its light from the “epistemological privilege of the victim” described earlier.

One of the species of innocence is structural innocence — the idea that even a forensically guilty person can be an “innocent” victim of scapegoating violence — especially if the purpose of the violence has more to do with maintaining social distinctions than with punishing crime. In this sense, a black man lynched in the Old South for horse thievery should be viewed in the light of “structural innocence,” independent of whether he stole the horse. Likewise, the victim of judgment is structurally innocent if the point of the accusation is to preserve an appearance of relative righteousness in the accuser at the expense of the accused. (Camus: “To justify himself, each relies on the other’s crimes.”)

The concern for the victim qua victim that has arisen in human culture makes sacrificial solutions to social disorder less and less efficacious, since vindication of the victim destroys the myth that justifies the violence. Each discovery that unveils a victimage mechanism utterly destroys/transforms the society founded on it — modernity exposes the victimization implicit in the hegemony of ecclesial power; postmodernity discloses the sacrificial nature of modernity’s foundational meta-narratives, etc.

The concern for victims of scapegoating violence has the perverse effect of increasing the threat and magnitude of further outbreaks of violence, since the sacrificial mechanisms that would otherwise keep them contained can’t survive being made transparent. The Greek word apocalypse (etymologically: “unveiling”) gestures both to this revealing and to the terminal violence that is produced by such revelation. Given our legitimate moral qualms over scapegoating mechanisms, and given the specter of apocalyptic violence made possible by the weakening or loss of those mechanisms, it seems more necessary than ever for our survival as a species to discover and model non-rivalrous, non-sacrificial ways of living. Auden: “We must love one another or die.”

Girard holds that human beings cannot escape their mimetic nature and that (romantic) attempts to outflank mimetic influences (e.g. Rousseau, Heidegger) are ultimately scandalous — we just end up playing the same mimetic games at a higher level. The cure for mimetically produced violence will be a mimetically transmitted desire for peace. The model/cure will have to be someone who has transcended the lure of scapegoating violence, but who?

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