“I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 13:35)
Girard’s culminating work is separated into three books.
Book 1 details Girard’s ambitious philosophy of history which argues that mimesis — the fundamental drive of man to imitate — is the main driver of history. On the social-historical scale, mimesis manifests itself as the “victimage mechanism” — the main engine of historical progress that has lead us from animal to man to hierarchical societies to liberal societies and eventually to our impending apocalypse.
Book 2 is an exegesis of the New Testament. Through the lens of mimesis, Girard presents a non-sacrificial reading of the Gospels, and argues that it alone is the legitimate and true religion because it alone reveals and does not participate in the satanic force of the aforementioned “victimage mechanism“.
Book 3 is an application of mimesis into our social and psychological spheres. It should be of special interest for anyone interested in understanding the mechanisms behind: competition, innovation, jealousy, love, depression, fulfillment, hypnosis, and violence.
Things Hidden is so fascinating because it is so reductive. Through the seemingly innocuous capacity of imitation, Girard provides answers to all the following questions in an often exaggerated but nonetheless revealing fashion:
- “What are the foundations of religion?”
- “What are the foundations of the state?”
- “What are the foundations of language?”
- “What is the connection between political authority and religion?“
- “Why is there violence amongst those who are similar?”
- “What makes humans different from animals?”
- “Why are we both capable of so much violence and sustained periods of peace?”
- “Why is history littered with examples of unjust scapegoating?“
- “How can the value of equality harm us?“
- “How can the value of individualism harm us?“
- “What are some mistakes of the enlightenment?“
- “Are we headed towards apocalypse?”
- “What is special about Christianity?”
- “Is the Christian God violent?”
- “Is there a connection between love and truth?”
- “Why is there mob mentality?”
- “What are the foundations for prestige?”
- “Why do we desire certain things and not others?”
- “What are the conditions for sado-masochism?”
- “What are the conditions for homosexuality?”
- “What are the conditions for narcissism?”
- “Why are we so obsessed with others?”
- “Why are we often not fulfilled by the objects we desire so strongly?”
This book summary composes two parts. Part 1 is a brief overview of the core concepts in Book 1 & 3 as well as Girard’s philosophy of history. Part 2 is a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of Things Hidden best used as a companion when reading the actual text for the Girard-curious.
Part 1: Brief Summary
Girard’s apocalyptic warnings begin with a seemingly innocuous observation: a fundamental, if not the fundamental, characteristic of humanity is imitation. Imitation is any act conscious or unconscious, deliberate or unintentional that reproduces another’s behavior. We imitate the language and customs of our cultures, but more worryingly, we also imitate the desires of those around us. This mimetic nature of desire naturally propels groups of people to desire a select set of objects, and thus competition begins.
Initially, the attention and effort expended upon this competition would be quite reasonable as individuals are merely acting to procure the objects for themselves; success and failure is determined by the obtainment of the object. But eventually the objects take second place and it is the models whom they imitate, their competitors, that the individuals become fascinated with. They now want to best their models more than simply to procure the object. When the model takes priority over the object in competition, sober object-competition gives way to what Girard termed “mimetic rivalry”. The discrete representation of the following graph should not obscure the continuous nature of competition. In reality, competition can lie on a gradient between these two extremes.
The goal of object-competition, to acquire the object, is clear and success is more or less secure. The goal of mimetic rivalries, to best the rival, is ambiguous and success is unstable. There is no clear criteria for superiority over the rival and even if we are confident in our temporary victory, lasting dominance over a dynamic and adapting rival is unstable. This ambiguity and insecurity cause much more tension and suffering than object-competition does. When mimetic rivalries proliferate between members of a society and the tension within is too great, an arbitrary and innocent scapegoat is often blamed and expelled in an act of collective murder.
This transference of aggression would work so well in premodern societies that the murderers would often credit the drastic difference between the peace after the act of sacrifice and the chaos before to the divinity of the scapegoat and begin to form a religion around the now deified scapegoat. This, Girard argues, is the anthropological origins of myth. Within this myth, cultures would create two general sets of structures that guarded against another society-wide escalation of mimetic rivalries.
The first set were prohibitions which included hierarchies like the caste system, rules like the banning of mirrors, and social conventions like those regulating sexual behavior. Prohibitions prevented groups of people from imitating one another: an Indian Shudra could not imitate the lifestyle of a Brahmin anymore than a Medieval woman could copy the social functions of a man. This limitation on mimesis, although arbitrarily oppressive, restricted the formation of mimetic rivalries which would decrease the fuel for violent scapegoating.
The second set were rituals that sought to reproduce the original sacrifice in a controlled manner. A placeholder, such as a lamb, would represent the first victim and the catharsis from the act of murder amplified by its connection to the original would release whatever tension was built up from rivalry. Rituals prevent violence in society by acting as a release valve which diffuses mimetic rivalries before they escalate, channeling it in a direction that would lead to resolution.
Modernity, with its high esteem for rationality, is a force of demystification that has severely weakened the last causal arrow of myth-making. Prohibitions, labeled as oppressive and arbitrary, have been torn down by progressive movements. Rituals, especially sacrificial rituals, are even more foreign and unacceptable to our cultural psyche.
Girard sees modernity as veering towards apocalypse because we have unleashed mimesis and accelerated the formation of mimetic rivalries by tearing down prohibitions while throwing away the tool of ritual that could tame such forces. As a result of this built up in societal tension, we resort to scapegoating at a dizzying frequency and scale. Girard would point to the atrocities of scapegoating in the Communist and Fascist regimes of the twentieth century as evidence of our increased capacity and need for violence:
“Entire categories of humans are distinguished (the Jews, the aristocrats, the bourgeois, the unfaithful, the faithful…) and we are told that utopia depends on the necessary condition of the elimination of the guilty categories. As the power of the mechanism breaks down, sacrifices at a larger and larger scale must persist to achieve the same calming effect. Before we could bring peace by sacrificing a goat or a few men, but now we must kill an entire race, religion, class — the eradication needs to be total, hence the “omnipresent victim”.”
Part 2: Chapter-by-Chapter Breakdown
The Victimage Mechanism as the Basis of Religion
We must begin with anthropology. Only an investigation of the founding of religion will yield the secret of man.
People have tried to create an origin of culture before but it failed. The structuralism (idea that human behavior and culture could be captured by structural concepts) of ethnology (the cultural, social, anthropological comparison of different peoples and the relationships between them) rendered it immobile: looking for meaning in signs that were solely reflective (took on meaning only relatively to other reflective signs).
“Nothing has been more essential for ethnology than learning to apprehend meaning only where it resides and being able to demonstrate the inane character of certain traditional questions concerning man”
With the fall of religion, the question of man — his tendencies, his desires, his purpose — will be more acute in the future. To answer this question we must investigate the origin and genesis of signifying systems.
No single question has more of a future today than the question of man.
Acquisitive Mimesis and Mimetic Rivalry
In both culture and the science of man there is a swerve away from imitation, yet there is nothing in human behavior that is not imitative because all behavior is learned and all learning is imitation. If humans stopped imitating, culture would vanish and neurologists remind us frequently that the brain is an enormous imitating machine.
This wave of counter-imitation has roots in the 19th century movements of individualism and romanticism. In the scientific community, there is a fear that unduly emphasizing the gregarious aspects of humanity will make us appear too obedient to political and social imperatives of their community. By painting an imitative picture of man where his locus of control lies externally, intellectuals feared it would push us to be more susceptible to conformity or authoritarianism.
Girard critiques Plato’s take on imitation, saying that it is absent of any reference to the acquisitive/appropriative (taking) dimension of imitation which leads to conflict. The whole class of imitation can be split into non-acquisitive mimesis — acts such as learning from the actions of others which do not lead to conflict — and acquisitive mimesis — acts mostly centered around acquiring desires for scarce objects of value which leads to conflict.
Apes, like humans show imitative desires when seeing an other reach for an object, but then clearly try to repress that desire.
“A good part of what we call politeness consists in self-effacement before another in order to avoid mimetic rivalry… but that effacement becomes it’s own rivalry.” This is a very interesting take on norms that echoes Robin Hanson’s views: norms are ways for us to limit zero-sum competition. Mimesis is to object-based desire in psychology what intraspecies competition is to interspecies competition in evolution. Just like the redwood trees which grows (unnecessarily so) to the physical limit of water propulsion, human society is both propelled and limited by relative metrics of success through mimesis. This is a view that is echoed in Kant (unsocial sociability) as well as Rousseau (amore propre).
The Function of the Law: Prohibiting imitation
We want to find a common denominator for all primitive prohibitions and taboos. This seems quite challenging as there are some quite absurd primitive prohibitions such as: you can’t imitate the gesture or speech of another; you can’t have the same names; or an unduly fear of mirrors.
Primitive people, while not fully understanding the mechanism, knew the link between mimesis and violence. Whereas non-mimetic conflict is usually resolved with a victor and loser, it is the reciprocity of mimesis which is so dangerous. It snowballs into a “mimetic contagion”, ramping up in degree and severity in each act. In mimetic conflicts, each act of violence is amplified and mirrored.
The modern view of conflict (that conflict is over objects of intrinsic value) is the exceptional one as the power of our judicial system transcends all antagonists, making us focus on the one act of violence as opposed to the context. It is the absurdity and illogicality of primitive prohibitions which supports rather than rejects the link between mimesis and conflict by attempting to block paths towards mimesis before it can even manifest.
Girard also explains prohibitions against natural disasters as secret prohibitions against mimesis for it is in times of calamity where individual rivalries are most likely to escalate. Furthermore, the spread of a flood or disease is structurally similar to mimetic contagion.
We need to see what results can be obtained by looking at religion as purely a system to dissolve mimetic rivalry.
Throughout history many authors have flirted with mimesis. Plato was hostile towards art because of mimesis but he did not fully understand his fear. People reproached Shakespeare for building his conflicts out of trivial conflicts but they did not see his hidden genius of understanding mimesis.
Every functioning society needs to repress or deal with mimetic conflict. Primitive societies repress mimetic conflict by prohibiting everything that might provoke it but also by disguising (and thus repressing) it beneath major symbols of sacredity: contamination, pollution, flood.
Girard is arguing that primitive societies understood the connection but not the exact mechanism between mimesis and conflict which is why they set up prohibitions around mimesis. The lack of intentionality, that no one formally figured out the mechanisms yet the correct solutions were implemented anyway, is not an implausible thesis when you consider Dawkin’s evolutionary theory of meme propagation. Cultures could have created these prohibitions through more or less random processes, and the ones that did proliferated.
In modern day, we only focus on imitation’s appearance without revealing it’s appropriative (stealing) part. Instead of seeing imitation as a threat to social cohesion or as a danger to the community, we view it as a cause of conformity. We despise rather than fear it. We have excluded it from everything, including our aesthetics. Our social sciences barely accommodate it, our art and literature do as much as possible to resemble nothing and no-one mimetically. We have a strong desire to be an individual.
Perhaps this is the real reason the West “won”: individualism and romanticism implied a despising of conformity. The stated aim of both of these movements (beauty, fighting oppression, etc) was different from the actual reason why this idea rendered societies successful: it gave us a way to prevent mimetic actions thereby resolving one of the greatest sources of conflict.
Mimesis is the essential force of cultural integration, of human culture and learning, but it is also the force of destruction and dissolution.
All prohibitions are anti mimetic in character. Prohibited objects are 1. those that give rise to mimetic rivalry (the mate of an other) 2. behaviors characteristic of a mimetic contagion’s progressively violent phases (rape, murder,…) 3. ‘symptoms’ thought to be eventually contagious (twins, women during their menstrual period)
The Function of Ritual: Imperative Mimesis & Sacrifice and the Victimage Mechanism
One of the odd aspects of rituals is that they violate prohibitions and in some form reproduce the mimetic crisis (all the festivals where you are allowed to sleep with another’s mates etc.). Rituals consist in the paradox of transforming the conflictual disintegration of the community into social collaboration.
This is a central paradox: why do we have one social contract (prohibitions) against mimetic rivalries while another (rituals) simulating them, usually right before the appearance of mimetic conflict.
To resolve this paradox we must remember that at the end of each ritual there usually exists a sacrifice or a form of sacrifice (mutilation, exorcism…). This might seem quite unlikely but it exists in most primitive cultures. The disappearance of sacrifice in our cultural institutions is very intriguing, and is promised to be brought up another time.
This is the process of ritual: even if the sacrifice is performed by one person it is in the name of the many; a unity emerges from the moment when division is most intense. Suddenly the opposition of everyone against everyone is replaced by the opposition of all against one. The victim, usually chosen by arbitrary means, is held to be the sole reason for conflict. The return to a calmer state of affairs appears to confirm the responsibility to the victim and in many instances it will have thought to be sacred (due to the miraculous deliverance of peace).
The victim is first blamed in a state of chaos, but upon its destruction, brings unforeseen peace. This is the nature of what we call “sacred” and it is inseparable from violence. We then tend to deify our victims and reproduce its sacrifice in hopes that it would bring about peace again.
The paradox is resolved: prohibitions attempt to avert the crisis by prohibiting those behaviors that provoke it, and if the crisis recurs nonetheless, or threatens to do so, ritual then attempts to channel it in a direction that would lead to resolution.
If acquisitive mimesis spreads like wild fire, then conflictual mimesis redirects all of that on one single individual. The challenge is directing the forces of destructive mimesis and channeling them towards the sacrificial resolution.
The Theory of Religion
The nature of conflict is mimetic. “Nothing is more difficult than admitting the final nullity of human conflict”. This may be able to be accepted with the conflicts of others’ but not our own. “All modern ideologies are immense machines that justify and legitimate conflicts that in our time could put an end to humanity.” In other words, we fail to recognize that the ideologies which directs our attention, and thus incites conflict, is a rationalization against the other. We aren’t pursuing absolute justice of which the other is an inconvenient road-block.
The other is whom we need to gain victory over, we aren’t pursuing a noble ideal but rather whatever gives us advantage over the other.
“To understand human culture it is necessary to concede that only the damming of mimetic forces by means of prohibition and the diversion of these forces in the direction of ritual are capable of spreading and perpetuating the reconciliatory effect of the surrogate victim. Religion is nothing other than this immense effort to keep the peace.” Religious phenomena are essentially characterized by the double transference, “the aggressive transference followed by the reconciliatory transference.”
Humans are about to make religion into a scapegoat in and of itself while not realizing that the expulsion of religion is, in and of itself, a religious gesture: the scapegoating of mimetic conflict to an arbitrary victim.
For this ancient cycle of violence to be effective, the mechanisms must remain hidden.
“We have said that the ability of the victimage mechanism to produce the sacred depends entirely on the extent to which the mechanism is misinterpreted.” In a society where the mechanism of scapegoating is exposed it loses it’s efficacy, because we understand it to be a mechanical rather than divine mechanism. “In our society, such phenomena are always touched with a certain self-knowledge that checks their full expression and any re-creation of true religious systems….The production of the sacred is necessarily and inversely proportional to the understanding of the mechanisms that produce it.”
This is because “Any step toward a real solution changes the character of the problem [by changing the nature of the game being played]. This particularly serious in the case of the sacralizing mechanism, which operates with progressively less effectiveness to the extent that one is capable of seeing in scapegoat phenomena, not a meaningless ritual but a fundamental human propensity to escape the effects of violence at the expense of the victim.”
The experience of radical disorder falsely and arbitrarily attributed to the victim followed by a state of increasing peace lead people to think the victim is sacred. This is the beginning of religious transcendence. “The sacred is the sum of human assumptions resulting from collective transferences focused on a reconciliatory victim at the conclusion of mimetic crisis.” The power of the sacred is pragmatic, in that it details what must not be done (prohibitions) and what must be done to preserve tolerable human relations. Because the whole mechanism is hidden and seemingly divine, it creates a positive delusion to combat and resolve the very cause of conflict itself: mimetic rivalry. It is a positive delusion synonymous to a general telling his troops (but not in reality) that he burnt the ships. It creates an alternate reality where everyone’s motivations are directed toward goals we actually care about: victory in the case of the general, peace in the case of civilization.
This is not to say that there was a manipulative crafter of such myths but rather myth formed naturally and the societies which resolved the nature of human conflict well survived and proliferated. Evolution, especially culture evolution, in the long run gives the illusion of intelligent design.
But, Girard is not hopeful for a future without scapegoats and innocent victims, for he believes, the weaker the mechanism becomes, people will turn to violence at a greater and greater scale to produce the same effects; this is further exacerbated by the fact that we now have the technological means to do so. With the holocaust, an entire race had to have suffer to resolve the tensions within German society.
While the exposure of the scapegoat mechanism lessens both aggressive and reconciliatory mimesis, our benevolent transferences have become increasingly exposed and scorned upon while are malevolent transferences are seldom denounced. This is because malevolent transferences are protected by ideological aggression: anyone who attempts to expose the scapegoat mechanism is in danger of being labeled an ideological enemy. On the other hand, we have become too analytical to generate anything truly sacred, because we no longer assign full responsibility of lasting peace towards the victim. Another answer is that we have exposed the mechanism enough such that people no longer feel vindicated upon the destruction of the scapegoat, but we haven’t exposed it to the point where people don’t still instinctually transfer their troubles on to a scapegoat.
“The double transference on to the victim, first that of the mimetic crisis and then that of the victim, produces not only prohibitions and rituals, but also myths; myths, in turn, are equivalent to the development of founding ancestors and titular divinities, which also result from this transference.” The victim appears to be the only active principle of the whole process of crisis and resolution, rather than a fortuitous instrument of sudden reconciliation at the end of a crisis, because collective suggestion first isolates and accuses, then exalts the victim, until both processes occur simultaneously. In the end, this is why the inauguration or the renewing of a religious ordering is often attributed to the victim… the true ‘scapegoats’ are those whom men have never recognized as such, in whose guilt they have an unshaken belief.”
Development of Culture and Institutions
Variants in Ritual
Girard is questioned on how he explains variants in ritual. And how such broad variation wouldn’t immediately reject as unifying a theory as the one he is proposing.
The first contradiction is between whether an individual or group executes the sacrifice. Girard argues that it centers around whether the benevolent (all-to-one) or malevolent aspects (all-to-all) of the mechanism is emphasized. In the case of the former an individual performs the sacrifice, in the latter the entire group performs it.
Another contradiction is whether the selection mechanism of the victim is aleatory or specific. In like manner, Girard emphasizes that in the beginning the victim is just one amongst many (aleatory). It is only later that all the conflict is converged around him (specific). The ritual process changes depending on which part of the process is emphasized.
There can be a generalization made: Religious thought tends to exclude major elements of the object of it’s interpretation. Because of the double transferences, this opens up a practically limitless range of significations. This is the principal source of institutional variation.
Cultural and religious thought seeks the stability of differentiation. As a result, it will concentrate on one synchronous moment of the whole victimhood mechanism. Religion “proceeds with a series of successive cuts and dismemberments that have a strange resemblance to the sacrificial procedure itself.”
Sacred Kingship and Central Power
The mechanism is so complicated that no single ritual will be able to reproduce it in it’s totality. It is so polyvalent that it is therefore impossible to reproduce, rituals will always accentuate one synchronic moment at the expense of others.
All human institution is at first nothing but the will to reproduce the reconciliatory mechanism.
A good example of this is sacred kingship and central power. The trials of royal enthronement are those of sacrifices, some cultures have inaugurations accompanied by threats to the king followed by total submission and even ritualistic woundings from weaponry. “Monarchy is simply a sacrificial theatre or a sort of theatrical sacrifice.”
In all human institutions, it is necessary to reproduce a reconciliatory murder by means of new victims. Subsequent victims inherit some of the prestige but not as much as the original.
The difference between Kings and Scapegoats is the former is able to transform this veneration and prestige into real power, prolonging the time from identification to the time of sacrifice until the individual is so powerful that only a substitute can be sacrificed in its stead.
Q: Most of the times this isn’t how monachies are created however. Perhaps what he means is this is how the concept of monarchy is created?
Power is not simply a pure form of tyranny or a pure form of “the good” either. It is never limited to oppression. The powerful set up rules that permeate all aspects of life yet they remain independent of these rules.
The fact that power can be disguised in the trappings of religion overlooks the fact that “once power has genuinely been consolidated it is all the more likely to develop such disguises, given that religious forms are always already present and at the disposition of power.”
Girard explains that the symbolism between sovereignty and sacrifice exist everywhere, royalty is only one of the many manifestations of the victamage mechanism in which real social power happens to be on the side of the “victim”.
Q: In our modern day societies, this is far from the truth. Power rarely shows, at least in it’s reign, symbols of victimhood. It is only upon it’s destruction is it transmuted into a victim. You could argue that the victimage mechanism after which all institutions are modelled after is being adapted, but this mode of logic would make any hypothesis not falsifiable.
A: Girard is highlighting the fact (that would be paradoxical were it not so common place) that the ones in power are often transmuted into victims upon whom we cast blame. He wants to show the structural similarity between how we venerate and then demonize powerful individuals to the period of time where the crowd has a living victim-to-be. I have not fully mined the nuance out of this comparison however.
Let us look at the similarities between royalty and divinity: Royalty is when the time between selection and sacrifice has ballooned. Whereas divinity accentuates a victim that has already been sacrificed.
The concept of repetition comes into play here: because divinity is in the outside, when people reproduce the sacrificial ritual, the effects of the benevolent transference will be attributed to the original scapegoat. However, in monarchy, the origin is repeated in each reign and in each sacrifice that occurs, exactly as the first sacrifice has occurred. All of the attribution goes to the king himself, because he is present there is nothing else to venerate: “Royalty is mythology in action.”
Q: Do we still see a lot of sacrificial rituals to instill powerful people today?
A: Not really but that is just more proof that the mechanism is being exposed and that we believe less and less in the benevolent transference (of peace and divinity from sacrifice) but are no less inclined to enact the malevolent transference (of blaming our leaders).
Q: Which is the sacrifice that grants Royalty its sacredity? The sacrifice at initiation or the sacrifice at the end of their reign?
Monarchy and religion differ on the sole basis of their answer to the question: how should the violent resolution to the crisis be reproduced? In kingship, the dominant element is what happens before the sacrifice, in religion it is what comes after.
Gods are dead/absent kings as much as kings are living gods. There is a persistent preference to view the sacrificial and sacredness of monarchy and centralized power as a secondary idea, but this is where the power stems from. The power is secondary to the sacredity: it is by being the scapegoat (the sole bringer of good and evil), and thus the sacred, institutions obtain power.
The Polyvalence of Rituals and Specificity of Institutions
All human institutions evolved from the ritual. Yet different institutions emphasizes different parts of the ritual which results in the diversity today. This diversity is not treated well by current ethnologists who, so enamored with their surface-level classifications, reject evidence to maintain their own congruence.
Girard argues that we are dealing with the traces of the traces of the traces of the founding murder, partly due to researchers negating evidence. “The unwillingness to acknowledge the paradox of the sovereign victim tends to efface exactly what the victim represents, the truth of the founding violence.”
We should deal with them carefully instead of contributing to the effacement. “If one juxtaposes institutions that have not been completely deritualized and rituals that are not yet completely institutionalized, one discovers everywhere that the most humble position is linked to the most exalted one. One discovers a trace of subjection in domination and vice versa.”
The Domestication of Animals and Ritual Hunting
In order to prove that all cultural institutions is the product of a single, ubiquitous need to reproduce reconciliation by means of sacrifice, Girard provides two examples: domestication and hunting.
Domestication can’t be a result of economic activity for it would take the foresight to see generations down the line of the potential benefits, instead a more immediate urge was required: sacrifice. The victim needs to be similar yet differentiated enough to the community in order for the transferences to be effective so often animals are invited to live and play with the tribe (such as a tribal bear cub ritual) before being killed. “They take man, the sacrificial creature, and turn it into man, the economic creature”. Just as in kinghood, the delay between the selection and sacrifice becomes one of the differentiating factors between animals which were and weren’t domesticated.
Hunting is another example which Girard gives, citing our mostly vegetarian digestive track. Hunting was at first linked to sacrifice hence the ritual character of hunting and the sacred burial grounds for animal victims. While this is less convincing, Girard reassures us that it is the mark of modernity to constantly downplay the impact of religion in our cultural institutions.
This truly shows how unintentional human progress is. How evolution in the long run gives the illusion of design and deliberation.
Sexual Prohibitions and the Principle of Exchange
Girard continues to show how our fundamental cultural institutions come from the victimage mechanism.
There are both sexual prohibitions for women in the same tribe as well as the special produce a tribe produces. The paradox is that these prohibited goods are traded, raided, and exchanged with high frequency between tribes. “The prohibition falls not on rare, distant, or inaccessible objects, but on those that are nearest and most abundant, since the group has a sort of monopoly on their production.”
Structuralism is the study of underlying structures of social systems which de-emphasizes the function of institutions but rather their interactivity with other structures; it believes that superficial differences in culture reveal similar hidden mechanisms. Functionalism on the other hand focuses on the utility (often economic) of certain actions. Girard argues that both functionalism and structuralism are poor in resolving paradoxes like the one stated above for the both “mistake the stating of the problem for its resolution.”
Q: What is Girard’s critique here? That functionalism and structuralism merely describe phenomena with their own models without truly uncovering it’s underlying mechanisms?
The first part of the mimetic explanation of exchange highlights that these prohibitions are due to a fear of mimetic violence: “the most available and accessible objects are prohibited because they are most likely to provoke mimetic rivalries among members of the group. Sacred objects, totemic foods, female deities — these have certainly been the cause of real mimetic rivalries in the past, before they were made sacred.”
The second part of the mimetic explanation focuses on the desire to reproduce the original sacrifice. “Human behavior is determined not by what really happened but by the interpretation of what happened.” The double transference transforms the victim, who was most probably an insider, into a visitor from an unknown world. He is both exterior to yet the origin of the culture of the tribe. This leads members, in an attempt to reproduce the sacrificial mechanism, to look outside the group for sacrificial victims, giving birth to a new form of social interaction between tribes which resulted in trade.
Prohibitions banned close-proximity objects/people of value while the drive to reproduce the reconciliatory mechanism led individuals to interact and take from outsiders, this was the early foundations of trade.
The economic hypothesis of early trade breaks down when presented with the confusing anecdote of certain tribes exchanging their dead to be buried. There is no utility being exchanged here, the explanation must be one rooted from the victimage mechanism. In fact, in many primitive cultures, the fundamental modes of exchange are not only accompanied by sacrifice but retain aspects of ritual violence. Of course, the utility aspect of trade became emphasized once the mechanism of trade were establish.
Girard argues that there is little difference between institutions who establish agreement for the sake of hostility (timed raids to get ritual enemies for sacrificial purposes) and those that promote hostility for the sake of agreement (providing women and food to other tribes which cannot be kept in the group). “It is only by means of a posteriori rationalization that we manage to obscure the common origin of all institutions, which is the reproduction of generative violence.”
Death and Funeral Rites
Girard rejects the idea that the religious notion of death (of worship) is one that is contorted and repressed from the current notion. “There is little merit in the idea that intolerable truths are in themselves sufficient to explain the development of cultural patterns that masks these truths.”
The anthropologic reading of humanity would show that death has been viewed as sacred, something more beneficial than destructive, an object of worship rather than terror. This is because the first cadaver of the founding victim signified the return of peace for the entire community, the beginning of the very possibility of culture, the very possibility of life. Even today, Freud shows that “every death gives rise to a unifying phase of mourning, and every death, in society, becomes a major resource for life.” If there is any terror, it is a terror of social decay from mimetic violence rather than physical decay.
“What is essential is the cadaver as talisman, as the bearer of life and fertility; culture always develops as a tomb. The tomb is nothing but the first human monument to be raised over the surrogate victim, the first most elemental and fundamental matrix of meaning. There is no culture without a tomb and no tomb without a culture in the end the tomb is the first and only cultural symbol. The above-ground tomb does not have to be invented. It is the pile of stones in which the victim of unanimous stoning is buried. It is the first pyramid.” Culture is founded from the initial death.
Had my own intuitions and experiences not been captured and clarified so well by Girard’s theory in book 3, I would be extremely suspicious. I still am to a degree on his anthropological commentary. Not only does he make claims such that languages evolved from the cries during the first sacrifice, but he gives convincing anecdotes devoid of statistical basis — how relevant or proliferate they were. Furthermore if a phenomena fails to line up to his theory he dismisses it as being a trace of a trace of the original mechanism. Girard’s theory has incredible explanatory power but is not as all-encompassing as he claims.
Process of Hominization
Posing the Problem:
There are many peculiar problems/paradoxes during the transition of animal to man:
- Instead of being limited to instinctual patterns, we are capable of learning the most diverse lessons in culture.
- We are extremely violent creatures, waging war on neighbors just like us, non-differentiable by any external or instinctual signs. Furthermore, as we have developed weapons, we no longer have the same game-theoretical risks during the killing of our foes as one attacking with a body part (claws) does. How do we contain our violence and rage?
- Some see the key of human order in permanent sexuality but, at least in animals, it is during periods of sexual excitation where the rivalries are the strongest.
So how did the process of hominization occur?
Ethnology and Ethology:
First let’s take a detour in discussing animal and human society.
Ethology: Study of animal behavior especially as it occurs in a natural environment or the study of human ethos and its formation. Ethnology: the study of the characteristics of various peoples and the differences and relationships between them. Just as usual, Girard thinks they are both seeing only part of the picture.
The ability to imitate is present in many life forms but it becomes more and more pronounced in the higher mammals to a point where “the propensity to imitate and what we would call a quarrelsome, bickering mood are one and the same thing; it is a question of acquisitive mimesis.”
Prestige is just the mimetic content of the rivalry, “to the fact that the object cannot suffice to explain the intensity of the conflict. One can remove the object and the rivalry will still continue.” In animal societies, mimetic conflicts establishes semi-permanent dominance hierarchies. The individual that cedes first will usually cede again, the dominance can be challenged but there is a sense of stability.
Another way to put it is that the stabilization of dominance hierarchies checks dissension within the group, thus keeping mimesis from perpetuating itself indefinitely. Furthermore, every member of an animal society imitates the alpha in all actions except for acquisitive behaviors (taking things for oneself) this enables a degree of cohesion within the group. The same mechanisms has vestiges in human societies as well.
In human societies we have differentiations and subdivisions which are sometimes hierarchical in nature. The way we resolve mimetic conflict is not only through dominance hierarchies. In animal societies, there is no relationship outside the dominant-dominated one. In human societies this is not true as evidenced by the fact that our selection procedures are rituals with mechanisms stemming from but not directly resembling real, direct mimetic rivalry.
A distinction between primitive and modern society must be made. In the former, occupation and rank is usually determined by birth. The mechanisms preventing mimetic conflict are quite straightforward. Yet the latter, is more similar to animal societies in that our competitions are less restricted and therefor have more components of direct mimetic conflict. The reason our societies don’t collapse is due to the fact that our symbolic mechanisms and frameworks are so advanced and so far removed from the actual victimage process that it permits mimetic rivalries that are normally forbidden to man. You will see that we often enter rivalry for very symbolized objects from symbolic institutions. It is in fact this degree of high advancement in symbolism that our society is able to operate with relatively desymbolized and unrestrained competitive domains.
Q: what are some of these mechanisms? Indeed, instead of mates we also now complete for highly symbolic things such as admissions to an Ivy League. But wouldn’t the high level of symbolism make mimetic rivalries worse? Girard later states that without objective value we determine our desires based on mimesis.
A great criteria we can evaluate ideologies is how it resolves mimetic rivalries. Capitalism when done right seems to resolve it by directing it towards positive sum ecological challenges while communism directs it towards zero sum social challenges.
The Victimage Mechanism and Hominization
Let us now answer the question of how animal became Man.
There is a correlation between brain volume, advancement of a species and their ability to simulate/imitate. This increased ability to imitate is what drove ape into man and a possible explanation for how periodic sexuality turned permanent.
“Human desire consists of the transplanting of mimesis on to instinctual patterns and the over-activation, aggravation, and disorganization of the latter.”
Quite fascinating since a description of the prefrontal cortex which I very much enjoy is that it seems to be genetically programmed such that it is not stuck to genetic programming ie. It can learn and adapt in a way instincts can’t. Mimesis would explain this drive as well, how and why we can adapt in such a way. Human adaptability is actually it’s ability to not base it’s values and desires off of intrinsic value but that of others.
Human societies are not based on dominance patterns because our immense imitative drive would lead to madness or death. Simply put: there is an inflection point where our increased mimetic ability renders us so violent such that a dominance hierarchy cannot contain us; at such a point the increased mimetic drive leads to the entire victimage mechanism which generates culture.
“We can conceive of hominization as a series of steps that allow for the domestication of progressively increasing and intense mimetic effects, separated from one another by crises that would be catastrophic but also generative in that they would trigger the founding mechanism and at each step provide for more rigorous prohibitions within the group, and for a more effective ritualization… More and more elaborate institutions favors new [modes and abstractions of mimetics], which would bring about a new crisis which and thus continue on in a spiral movement to humanize the anthropoid.”
Q: Clearly there is a big selection force against mimesis, namely intra-group violence. What are the positives for an animal that is increasingly mimetic?
A: It could be argued that it enables the species to become more adaptable to new environments.
Proof of this comes from animal ritual where an animal intending to befriend will feign aggression to the target and turn the violence at a third object. The main difference between human and animals rites stem from the fact that the latter never involved a group of animals directed to a single target.
The Transcendental Signifier
Girard now attempts to prove that the victimage process created the first signs and thus the very atoms of human communication.
The notion where you must need a binary opposition of two initial signs that reference each other is unjustified. Instead, we can think of the first sign as the exception: what stands out from a confused mass of meaninglessness.
All human games fall under four categories: imitation, competition, vertigo (corresponds to the hallucinatory danger of the mimetic crisis), and chance (corresponds to the random selection of the surrogate victim). Animals play all of these games except for games of chance (representing their not yet formulated victimage mechanism). Thus, animal is man without a surrogate victim, and it is precisely this surrogate victim which is the first sign. It is essentially a classifier and boundary. Having seem alien in it’s ability to bring peace, it appears to be both self and other, good and evil, peaceable and violent, bringing death as well as guaranteeing life. It is a universal signifier which further ritual and cultural processes develop from. “The imperative of ritual is therefore never separate from the manipulation of signs and their constant multiplication [augmentation and differentiation], a process that generates new possibilities of cultural differentiation and enrichment.”
The Invisibility of the Founding Murder
The Radical Elimination
Girard wants to show that in spite of its apparent absence the founding murder permeates all myths.
He introduces two myths: 1. the Ojibwa myth of 5 gods excluding the sixth god from the group for taking off his eye patch and killing an indian with his gaze. 2. Tikopia myth of a trickster god who feigned injury in a race just to steal everything from the feast into the sky as the other gods chased him.
Levi-strauss’ structuralism, which necessarily sees things through the lens of spacing, explains that myths are progress from continuous to disjoint states through the radical elimination of some part of the system (the sixth god and the trickster god respectively). The critique however is that these gods were never part of the mythological domain because these were founding myths they were always seen as outsiders and thus their expulsion does not equate to more spacing.
Negative Connotation, Positive Connotation
There is a negative connotation towards the expelled victim who constitute a potential or current threat to the community as a whole (his problems are never personal problems e.g. Oedipus brought plagues). But there is also a positive connotation of this expulsion. This can only be the case if the perspective of the story is from the murderers themselves, from the community that gained peace from the expulsion.
Myth is told by the lynchers of their own lynching. Thus, accusations do not come off as such and are disguised as unquestionable claims of the victims guilt.
The evil eye is the mythic accusation par excellence. In many tribal society we see this cultural trait signifying malice and destruction, even in modern day societies the evil eye reminds us of spies during wartime or peeping toms during peace time. It enjoys this privilege because of the conflictual power of mimesis that comes into play, and that power, which requires the look or gaze to be exercised, is projected entirely on to the surrogate victim. The eye is such a contentious symbol because it is required to begin the mimetic process.
Physical Signs of the Surrogate Victim
Many well-known figures have some form of infirmity, be it a speaking disorder (Moses), or a limp, or an extra/deformed limb.
This is because that the selection of the victim is still not left purely to chance. There are other factors that can orient mimesis which are physical characteristics.
Children imitate the one who has physical infirmities and it is only from the reaction of the model (the one with the infirmities) is this imitation experienced as a form of mockery. Girard says that in order to understand myths we need only look at behavior of groups of children. “Their favorite target for persecution are same as adults but are simply more obvious: strangers, late comers, or, if necessary, a member of the group who has some infirmity or other distinctive physical sign that attracts the attention of the others.” The outcasts from the most diverse social groups share characteristics of those we find in mythology.
The only difference between mythology and other intelligible modes of persecution is our inability to decipher the mechanisms behind mythological elements. For example, the deification of the victim reveals a total inability to recognize the transference of peace to the domain of the victim.
Texts of Persecution
Persecution Demystified: The Achievement of the Modern and Western World
We are in a unique point in history for our society is one of the first to be able to decipher the mechanisms of collective violence and the arbitrariness and innocence of the surrogate victim. As a result, we produce texts of persecution rather than myth due to this new understanding since we can no longer fool ourselves of the divinity of the victim. We can see through the benevolent transference but still have yet to stop scapegoating. This is the process of demystification and reduction of the sacred: “A society that replaces myth by an awareness of persecution is a society in the process of desacralization.”
Even though the understanding of this mechanism varies between individuals and societies we must not think of it as a purely intellectual phenomena. The light shed on the victimage mechanism isn’t the privilege of some elite but rather a shared realization which permeates society.
For example, we see a transition in the medieval texts of persecution (e.g. anti-semitic, records of inquisition, witch trials…). These texts are in between traditional mythology and our current more radical demystifications. They are similar to the former in their distortion of the victim and similar to the latter in that the transfiguration of the victim (assigning it divinity and responsibility for newfound peace) is no where to be found. In texts of persecution the victim is not sacralized. Texts of persecution are myths without reconciliation and sacredity, they show an inability to produce true myths. The understanding and dissolution of this mechanism extends a long way back into history and it is not incompatible with violence. If anything, as the power of reconciliation of the surrogate victim diminishes, more violence is required for the same effect.
The process that leads to the discovery of the victimage crisis cannot be a smooth and peaceful one. Intellectually and ethically, our understanding about the paradoxical and violent cultural remedies for violence represents progress. Practically, as sacrificial mechanisms lose their efficacy people will try to increase the dosage for a similar effect. “The always arbitrary but culturally real difference between legitimate and illegitimate violence will weaken,” and with it lasting peace from sacrificial mechanisms. The mark of totalitarian regimes are founded on a kind of monstrous but ineffective rationalization of victimage mechanisms. Entire categories of humans are distinguished (the jews, the aristocrats, the bourgeois, the unfaithful, the faithful…) and we are told that utopia depends on the necessary condition of the elimination of the guilty categories.
Q: What does Girard mean here between legitimate and illegitimate violence? Isn’t all violence illegitimate in the Christian lens?
“In sum, the mechanism becomes recognizable only with the development of sufficient critical intelligence [that hinders] its functioning. The arbitrariness of the victim becomes apparent, and a reconciliatory unanimity is no longer possible. Myth and ritual can no longer grow and spread. One can find only intermediate, mixed phenomena that are increasingly transparent to criticism; these can be read as persecution. Spontaneous collective violence no longer possesses its founding capability…the only true scapegoats are those we cannot recognize as such.”
We are at an intermediary state which we begin to understand the mechanisms of the sacrificial process but not its implications and how important it is to resolving conflict. This is a dangerous state because ethically we reject the mechanism while finding no substitute for it’s original functionality.
But, Girard does not promote a regression toward more tribal societies. It is not even a possibility: from the moment when knowledge of the mechanism begins to spread, there is no turning back. The spread of knowledge is an antifragile process as most ways to prevent its dissemination will only speed up the process. Remember, the effectiveness of this mechanism is inversely proportional to a community’s aptitude for perceiving the functioning of the same mechanism.
The Double Semantic Sense of the Word “Scapegoat”
The etymology of the word scapegoat is worthy of examination because we can see how different cultures think about this phenomena.
It is rooted from words meaning “one who wards off illnesses” and “destined to Azazel” (azazel being a demon). In Leviticus, the ritual treatment of the goat is described as a vessel onto which one deposits their sins.
Only in societies with a long tradition of cultural deciphering do we get the double semantic meaning of both “ritual institution” and “unconscious, spontaneous psycho-sociological mechanism” for the word scapegoat. This is meaningful because this conjunction shows a relation between the forms of ritual (not only those that fall under scape-goat ritual) and the universal, unconscious, spontaneous human tendency to transfer anxiety and conflict on arbitrary victims that is too intimate and fundamental to escape a penetrating mind.
The Historical Emergence of the Victimage Mechanism
Our world is marked by the diminishing efficacy of sacrifice. He marks the world into three phases: when all the texts of persecution were written from the point of the persecutor, when we begin universally deciphering these texts (which we are in now), and when all religions, myths, and cultures are read as texts of persecution.
Because of this, we are undergoing unprecedented change more radical than humanity has ever been subject to before. Our sacrificial resources are becoming scarce and humanity is no longer capable of producing idols of violence around which it might achieve unanimity. We are therefore always and everywhere confronted with the conflicts of the doubles (because we can no longer resolve mimetic rivalries). People hope to convince themselves of their legitimacy and difference while desperately marketing their tiny cherished differences.
Q: but there must be other mechanisms of reconciliation other than violence, for example differentiation which resolves the mimetic conflict in the first place.
“Science has come to look more and more like a trap that modern humanity has unknowingly held for itself.” Not only does it provide weapons powerful enough to annihilate civilization, but it desacralizes and brings down the symbols and mechanisms which prevent such violence in the first place. The definite renunciation of violence will be our only hope.
What prompted this whole trend of desacralization? Only the completely revealed perspective of the surrogate victim. “The most improbable source of our demythologizing is religion itself… I propose that if today we are capable of breaking down and analyzing cultural mechanisms, it is because of the indirect and unperceived but formidably constraining influence of the Judeo-Christian scriptures.”
The Bible literally heralds the apocalypse (the etymology of the word points to “to reveal”) by exposing our mechanisms of preventing violence.
It’s quite revealing that Girard and Moore were all worried about nuclear annihilation — a concern that people who grew up in my generation were not troubled with at all. Becker, Moore, Girard are all pointing at the exact same problem at different angles: the mechanisms that we have lost in modernity held quite some utility.
Things Hidden Since the Foundations of the World
Similarities between the Biblical Myths and World Mythology
There is no doubt that the Bible, specifically the Old Testament, shares similar elements to that of regular mythology.
There exists three moments which can be identified throughout the stories of the Bible:
- Dissolution in conflict, removal of the differences and hierarchies which constitute the community in its wholeness.
- The all against one of collective violence.
- The development of interdictions and rituals.
These stories all abide by this structure: the tower of Babel, the ten plagues of Egypt and Moses’ expulsion, the Flood, as well as the stories of warring brothers: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his eleven brothers.
This is how the bible is similar to world mythology but the biblical treatment of these myths offers something which is distinctive.
The Distinctiveness of the Biblical Myths
The first movement is the brothers killing each other. The second is Cain’s expulsion: “You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer over the earth”. The third is the foundation of the Cainite community and God himself dictating prohibitions indicated by the mark of Cain: “‘Whosoever slayeth Cain vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.’ God himself intervenes, and in response to the founding murder he enunciates the law against murder.”
Many communities attribute their foundation to a murder, Rome for example was founded when Romulus kills Remus. Yet, while this killing may have been presented as regrettable it is nonetheless justified by the victim’s transgression.
On the other hand Cain as presented as a vulgar murderer. “There is moral judgement. The condemnation of the murder takes precedence over all other considerations. ‘Where is Abel, thy brother?’”
The biblical lesson is precisely that a culture born of violence must return to violence. The civilizations might flourish initially but the violence will be inadequately contained by the legal barriers deriving from the founding murder. “The borderline between legalized punishment, vengeance, and the blood feud is erased when Cain’s seven victims become for Lamech, seventy-seven.”
The dissolution of differences always proceeds the violence.
Q: what is meant by the term “Differences”? Is it symbolic difference, actual difference, perceived difference? What kind of difference does Girard attribute to preventing mimetic violence.
“The flood also results from an escalation that involves the monstrous dissolution of all differences: giants are born, the progeny of promiscuous union between the sons of the gods and the daughters of men. This is the crisis in which the whole of culture is submerged, and its destruction is not only a punishment from God; to almost the same extent it is the fatal conclusion of a process which brings back the violence from which it originally managed to get free, thanks to the temporary benefits of the founding murder … the violence both founds and differentiates.”
Sold in slavery out of jealousy by his brethren for being the father’s favorite son, Joseph is then put into prison after refusing to and then being falsely accused of sleeping with the master’s wife. He slowly rises up in the ranks due to his ability to read dreams and becomes a powerful political figure in charge of food under the Pharaoh. He meets his brothers who do not recognize him and test whether they have become better men; one volunteers to sacrifice himself for their youngest brother. Joseph forgives them and the family reunites.
Pre-biblical mythology would have justified the expulsion of Joseph based on his hubris which he did posses and corroborating the accusation (as so many myths do) of the Egyptian’s wife. Yet the story of Joseph highlights his innocence in both cases, it shows that the victim is falsely accused. Indeed he did possess hubris, but it was not hubris but rather innocence that was emphasized.
“Mythology tends to first justify the founding murder and then to eliminate the traces of this murder, convincing people that there is no such thing. These cultural forms have succeeded perfectly in convincing us that humanity is innocent of these murders. By contrast, in the Bible there is an inverse movement… as to contradict and demystify myths.”
Similarly in Exodus, it is the people who are expelled that formed the Jewish community. There are still mythical elements in the founding story but radical divergence as well.
The Bible’s originality is not as pronounced as Girard makes it seem. There must’ve been myths that highlighted the Goodness of the victim e.g. Prometheus.
The Law and the Prophets
There is an increasing subversion to the three pillars of primitive religion 1. mythology 2. sacrificial cult 3. the primitive conception of the law as a form of obsessive differentiation, a refusal of mixed states that looks upon undifferentiation with horror.
Regarding the last pillar, the Bible gets rid of superficial barriers and signs which promote differentiation and just distill it to this: “Legal prescriptions are of little consequence so long as you keep from fighting one another, so long as you do not become enemy twins. This is the new inspiration and it arrives at unambiguous formulations like: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
By shedding light onto the unanimous violence against the scapegoat, the three pillars of primitive religion: myth, sacrifice and prohibitions are subverted by the thought of the prophets. Yet this subversion is not total: myths are worked with a counter mechanism, but they continue in being. The sacrifices are criticized but they continue. The differentiations (circumcision) and laws are simplified and declared identical to love of thy neighbor, but they persist. Yahweh, despite his growing benevolence, is still presented as vengeful. It is only through the texts of the Gospels that we complete the subversion.
The Curses against the Pharisees
Jesus curses the Pharisees, an established Jewish order which makes laws and prosecutes individuals, but the curse is not localized and of universal significance.
“Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth… The blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah. Truly, I say to you all this will come upon this generation… I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”
Abel to Zechariah represents all of the scapegoats since time and all of the injustices. Jesus is warning to all people who hear his message but remain deaf and blind to the news being proclaimed. If you do not hear the profound message of the scapegoat mechanism and truly understand it blood will continue to be shed unjustly. More importantly, he is highlighting that we must not think we are innocent of the founding violence.
It is said that the Pharisees were the “sons” of those who carried out the killings. It is not a hereditary transmission of guilt but rather an intellectual one. The Pharisees condemn their “fathers” for killing the prophets. Yet this very act of condemnation is analogous to the act of murder for they both refuse to acknowledge their own violence and cast it off from themselves. “Paradoxically, it is in the very wish to cause a break that the continuity between fathers and sons is maintained.” The sons are still governed by the same mental structure of the founding mechanism by scapegoating and assigning blame to the “fathers”, they are saying “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.”
This aligns perfectly with the claims of Robert Moore: we fail to contain our own dragon energies and instead project that upon other people.
In the Gospels of John a triple correspondence is set up between Satan, the founding murder, and lie. To be a son of Satan is to inherit the lie which covers the innocence of the founding victim. You can only keep this lie alive by another new homicide to cover up the old one (when the benevolent transference begins wearing off).
“Satan is the name for the mimetic process seen as a whole; that is why he is the source not merely of rivalry and disorder but of all the forms of lying order inside which humanity lives. Human beings are sons of Satan because they are sons of this murder. Murder is therefore not an act whose consequences could be eliminated without being brought to light and genuinely rejected by men.” This is why Christ is against Satan, because he came to shine light on and expose the injustice of the founding mechanism.
Q: In book 1, the dissolution of the mechanism was seen as a bad thing and the mechanism was portrayed as something highly effective, the value judgement seems to be reversed in book 2.
A: To entertain its effectiveness is not the same as to proclaim its Goodness.
The Metaphor of the Tomb
Tombs exists to honour but also to hide the dead, to conceal the death and killing. “Men kill [for example Jesus was killed because he was exposing the mechanism] in order to lie to others and to themselves on the subject of violence and death. They must kill and continue to kill, strange as it may seem, in order not to know that they are killing.”
“People do not wish to know that the whole of human culture is based on the mythic process of conjuring away man’s violence by endlessly projecting it upon new victims. All cultures and all religions are built on this foundation, which they then conceal, just as the tomb is built around the dead body that it conceals. Murder calls for the tomb and the tomb is but the prolongation and perpetuation of murder.”
This metaphor applies to the individual as well. The individual has something hidden, “this is not merely the sin of modern religiosity or the complexes of psychoanalysis. It is invariable a corpse that as it rots spreads it uncleanness everywhere.”
Q: the description of corruption and propagation is so similar to the untamed Dragon energies in Facing the Dragon. I wonder how these concepts are further connected? How do we use mimesis to describe Moore’s ego?
A: In Book 3, Girard describes this false ideal of self-sufficiency, narcissism, as reliant upon other’s desire. Therefore the ego when untamed either craves the desire of others in an unhealthy way so that it can sustain it’s own desire, or it distorts the world and deludes itself into thinking that others desire it.
Luke compares Pharisees not only to tombs but underground tombs which are tombs that conceal the very fact that they are tombs. This is an apt metaphor for how culture develops on the basis of the founding murder. “This murder tends to efface itself behind the directly sacrificial rituals, but even these rituals risk being too revealing and so tend to be effaced behind post-ritual institutions such as judicial and political systems or the forms of culture.”
So we continuously have knowledge that is lost because it is being obfuscated on purpose. Jesus has come in order to place men in possession of this knowledge. The religion which comes from man is organized around violent disavowal of human violence. It is only the religion from God which exposes and points out this mechanism without bloodshed.
Jesus is presented to us as an innocent victim. The crowd which had just welcomed Jesus with such enthusiasm only a few days earlier now insists on his death. It follows the traditional arch of ritual sacrifice starting with this collective and aleatory murder.
But “for the gospel text to be mythic in our sense, it would have to take no account of the arbitrary and unjust character of the violence which is done to Jesus. In fact the opposite is the case: the Passion is presented as a blatant piece of injustice.” It places the blame on those responsible “Verily I say unto you, all these things shall come upon this generation.”
Yet this is not a primitive curse but one directed towards the mechanism itself. From this point onwards, the power of sacrifice will grow weaker and people will no longer be protected against mimetic conflict. “Everyone will now seek to cast upon his neighbor the responsibility or persecution and injustice, and, though the universality of persecution and injustice will become more and more apparent, everyone will be reluctant to admit that they are involved.”
Christ’s stoning marks the completion of the subversion which began in the old testament. The revelation of the founding mechanisms (by pointing to the innocence of the victim) immediately stirs up a collective will to silence the speaker. “The founding mechanisms is reproduced once again, and, by virtue of this, the speech it strove to stifle is confirmed as true.”
The Martyrdom of Stephen
Stephen, a prophet that was stoned, was murdered for no more than the repetition of the curses against the Pharisees. The words which directs to those who are really guilty are so intolerable that it is necessary to shut once and for all the mouth of the one who speaks them. But to suppress a message can make it spread more, “the martyrs multiply the revelation of the founding violence.”
His murder was done outside city bounds as not to contaminate people. It was done by stoning so that everyone can participate together and no one was soiled by direct contact with him.
The gospels make mythologizing impossible by revealing the founding mechanism. “That is why we have fewer and fewer myths all the time, in our universe dominated by the Gospels, and more and more texts bearing on persecution.”
The Scapegoat Text
There is another wave of scapegoating which is facilitated by restrictive interpretations: “first and foremost in the interpretations that try to limit its application to those for whom it is immediately destined” and to misunderstand Christ not as exposing the mechanism but rather the Jews. “It transforms the universal revelation of the founding murder into a polemical denunciation of the Jewish religion.”
They don’t recognize that they themselves are in the message that “this generation” means all of us.
“Now it is the Christians who say: If we had lived in the days of our Jewish fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of Jesus.” The Christians denouncing the Jews in order to try to gain proximity to Christ, distances themselves away from him. “They claim to be governed by the text that reveals the process of misunderstanding, and yet they repeat that misunderstanding. With their eyes fixed on the text, they do once again what the text condemns.”
Now, in our post-Christian world, instead of repudiating the scapegoat mechanism people began scapegoating the text itself, citing the times when it was used to justify violence. “There is one last trick, one last victim, and this is the text itself, which is chained to a fallacious reading and dragged before the tribunal of public opinion.”
Anthropological and ethnological research have been trying for centuries to demonstrate how Christianity is just one more mythical religion. Therefore, it might appear that Girard’s explicit discovery of the victimage mechanism would aid that classification. But the reason the Bible is from God, is that it contributes, not just one more analogy, but the source to decipher all the analogies to date, which had been hidden behind the myths and revealed in an explicit way in the account of the Passion.
In a stunning reversal it is the Bible — initially revered blindly but today rejected with contempt — that is the only means of furthering the anti-Christian endeavor of modern times to rid the world of violence. By highlighting the mechanisms behind violence.
Jesus says to laborers who killed the master’s son to gain possession of the vineyard: “But he looked at them and said, ‘What then is this that is written: The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.’”
All primitive human religions come from the parable of the murderous laborers in the vineyard — the murderous expulsion and subsequent deification of the victim. The stone is Jesus and by revealing himself he can no longer act as a foundation of a traditional religion, at least it will be the foundation of something radically different. “The rejected stone is the scapegoat, who is Christ. By submitting to violence, Christ reveals and uproots the structural matrix of all religion.”
The text alerts us of its own functions. It exposes the victimage process. The claims of Christianity that Christ has come to be author of a universal revelation is more securely founded than even it’s strongest supporters may imagine. “Instead of reading myths in the light of the Gospels, people have always read the Gospels in the light of myths.”
Non Sacrificial Reading of Scripture
Christ and Sacrifice & The Impossibility of the Sacrificial Reading
“The Gospels only speak of sacrifices in order to reject them and deny them any validity.” The misinterpretation of the Passion as sacrificial is both unfounded as well as necessary. Necessary “as the most revealing indication of mankind’s radical incapacity to understand its own violence, even when that violence is conveyed in the most explicit fashion.”
The sacrificial reading necessitates that God feels the need to revenge his honor which has been tainted by human sin through engaging in a pact of sacrificial violence with his son. This narrative of God sending Christ to die accounts for most of modernity’s criticisms.
The Gospels on the other hand paint a God that is against all forms of violence. “The Gospels deprive God of his most essential role in primitive religions — that of polarizing everything mankind does not succeed in mastering, particularly in relationships between individuals.”
This is the thesis of Jesus’ preaching that reconciliation with God can and only can take place with no sacrificial intermediary. His self-sacrifice and explicit innocence is a rejection of the victimage mechanism. Without sacrifice, God can truly reveal himself as he is for the first time in human history. Before he was obscured by the false deities and Gods set up through the victimage mechanism.
Modern atheism is incapable of bringing this mechanism to light for its empty skepticism about all religion constitutes a new method of keeping these mechanisms invisible which enables their perpetuation.
Everything rests on Girard’s ability to demonstrate the non-sacrificial reading he advocates for is superior to the sacrificial reading.
Apocalypse and Parable
Girard is questioned how we can not see a regression towards a violent deity in the theme of the Apocalypse.
“Violence is always laid at the door of humanity in the Gospels, and never blamed on God.” The apocalypse is brought on by human misconduct. “In the last days, we are told, ‘most men’s love will grow cold’. As a result, the combat between doubles will be in evidence everywhere. Meaningless conflict will be worldwide. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” It is only when one reads the apocalypse in the light of apocalyptic passages of the Old Testament do we attribute violence to God.
Even in texts where Jesus seemingly takes over Yahweh’s traditional destructive violence, he is merely reflecting back the violence of Man. In Luke and Mark, Jesus seems to suggest vengeance as the course of action for the owner of the vineyard who lost his son. But in Matthew, Jesus asks the crowd and it is the crowd’s reaction for violent resolution. The importance of the origin of this speech was overlooked by Mark and Luke or by their scribes and was not included.
In the parable of the talents, the servant content to bury his talent is punished not by the master but by his own conception of the Master “you are one who harvests where you did not sow”. The metaphorical nature of the parable, if left unrealized, obscures the fact that God is not one who seeks vengeance and violence is always rooted from human mechanisms. The master is only the reflection of the belief of the servant. Furthermore, to preach the truth, Jesus had to speak in the language of his audience which was mythical in nature which lends to an Old Testament reading of the New Testament God.
Powers and principalities
The Powers is mentioned a lot in the bible. It does not point towards a heavenly power but rather the powers that have governed humanity since the dawn of time. These powers are rooted in the founding murder. Satan is “a murderer from the beginning.”
The Gospels are telling us that Jesus must triumph against these powers, in other words he must desacralize them. It is precisely when these powers believe they have been victorious once again by attempting to reproduce the victimage mechanism that they have in fact been vanquished. There is an absolute victory in Jesus’ apparent defeat by exposing the pitiful secret of the powers.
“None of the rulers of this age understood for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory.” What they failed to appreciate was despite the immediate consensus of even the most devote disciples, there will be no mythological reproduction in the Gospels. Under the influence of the spirit, the disciples perpetuated the memory of the innocent Jesus who has suffered martyrdom. The death of Jesus fails to have the desired real world effects: “to sacrifice one single victim in order that the whole nation should not perish.”
The cross is a symbol of this revealing and triumph; a sacrificial reading would have a hard time explaining Dante’s depiction of Satan pinned on the cross.
This truth however misunderstood slowly made its way through culture and began corroding the foundations of the victimage mechanism. “The Christian and modern worlds produce no mythologies, no rituals, no prohibitions.”
This revelation also imbues society with agency for it shows that there are no sacred powers interfering as primitive religions once believed. “So now we are liberated. We know that we are by ourselves, with no father in the sky to punish us and interfere with our paltry business. So we must no longer look backward but forward; we must show what man is capable of.”
This also liberates us from the willingness to accept calamity and violence. Before, there was always a positive aspect of violence because it was divine. “As long as the violence seems to be divine in origin, it really holds no terrors for anybody, since it is either an aid to salvation, or it doesn’t exist at all.” What Jesus’ death shows is that primitive religions rely on a faux mechanism to justify and deify their unwarranted violence. “This positive aspect of violence is absent form the Gospels. If the threat continues to be truly frightening, this is because it brings with it no remedy: it offers no recourse of any sort; it has ceased to be divine.”
Christianity is surprisingly anti-religious. In Girard’s view, the only divine thing about it is that it exposed an age old mechanism of culture and it presented the sole model worthy of imitating: Christ. Perhaps this is why Christianity was the basis for the scientific revolution, beneath its superficial religious overtone, the pursuit of truth and the agency and responsibility put back in the hands of man is naturally conducive to science.
But this fruit of knowledge does not necessarily have the most positive affects on society. This dim, semi-conscious awareness that violence is not divine combined with a lack of full understanding of the mechanism, pushes human society to cleanse the violence with the only method it knows how: the half-functioning victimage mechanism. “Only through the mediation of the scapegoat mechanism can violence become its own remedy, and the victimage mechanism can only be triggered by the frenetic paroxysm of the ‘crisis’. This means that the violence, having lost its vitality and bite, will paradoxically be more terrible than before its decline. As the whole of humanity makes the vain effort to reinstate its reconciliatory and sacrificial virtues, this violence will without doubt tend to multiple its victims, just as happened in the time of the prophets.”
Girard’s view on the victimage mechanism is that it is an effective albeit deceitful way of resolving mimetic conflict. If he were forced to assign a value judgement he would label it “bad” but the process of revealing and replacing the mechanism is almost worse as it loses effectiveness but people do not stop replicating it.
The Preaching of The Kingdom
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well.”
The Kingdom of God is meant to manifest on this earth, it is the substitution of unconditional love and renunciation of violence for sacrifice, rituals, and prohibitions. “It is always a matter of bringing together the warring brothers, of putting an end to the mimetic crisis by a universal renunciation of violence.” Only the unilateral renunciation of violence can do so.
While modern interpreters do see the renunciation of violence in the Bible, they mistake the nature of violence as either a parasite that could be dealt effectively with prohibitions and laws or a fatal instinctual tendency that we will never overcome. “Violence is the enslavement of a pervasive lie; it imposes upon men a falsified vision not only of God but also of everything else.”
To escape from violence is to give up the idea of retribution. People think it sufficient to give up any violent initiative, but due to the mimetic and deceiving (which covers up the fact that it is mimetic) nature of violence we all perceive the first violence originating from the opponent, rendering all acts of violence as retributive not initiative. Only by renouncing any use of violence even for legitimate defense, can we arrive at the desired result. This decision must come from each individual separately. Before this happens no one can be said to truly have agency, there is never anything but mimetics and the ‘interdividual’. The only subject is the mimetic structure.
“And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”
Jesus appeared and spoke when he did because it represented a time of great turmoil. Christ did not speak until the hour of Christ when he spoke with a sense of urgency. Only when society is undifferentiated, when false differences between doubles are annulled, when it is on the verge of chaos, when the truth of violence has matured and is immediate, are people most receptive to the message against mimetic violence.” At this supreme moment, the risks have never been greater. But it has never been easier to change people’s allegiance and alter their behavior, since the vanity and stupidity of violence have never been more obvious.” It is only when people are face-to-face with symmetrical violence does it’s uselessness and stupidity become blatant.
Attempting to seize this moment, Jesus does not redifferentiate the community and embellish it with prohibitions as primitive religions would and instead attempts to reverse the universal negative reciprocity into a beneficent reciprocity in the love and light of the true God.
Kingdom and Apocalypse
In the Gospels, Matthew specifically, there is a clear divide between the preachings of the Kingdom of God followed by the preachings of the Apocalypse and the Passion. Modern interpretation, spearheaded by Nietszche, view humanity’s rejection of the Kingdom of God and subsequent divine apocalyptic threat as a form of resentment underlying everything Christian.
This is not the case as the transition from the Kingdom to Apocolypse is Jesus’ secondary plan to stop mimetic violence. “If men turn down the peace Jesus offers them — a peace which is not derived from violence and that, by virtue of this fact, passes human understanding, the effect of the gospel revelation will be made manifest through violence, through a sacrificial and cultural crisis” namely the crucifixion.
When people did not immediately accept Jesus’ guidance to renounce all violence, he resorts to his own sacrifice as a method to expose the victimage mechanism. “It is necessary to turn to the indirect way, the one that has to by-pass the consent of all mankind and instead pass through the crucifixion and the Apocalypse.”
It does not represent a failure on the part of Jesus for through the crucifixion he has shed light on the Kingdom of Satan. “Since from now on this violence has become its own enemy and will end by destroying itself.”
“The only difference [between the two paths] is that by remaining faithful to violence and taking its side, however little they may be aware of the fact, men have deferred the revelation once again and compelled it to take the terrible path of incalculable violence. It is upon men and men alone that responsibility falls for the tragic and catastrophic nature of the changes humanity is about to witness.”
The Non-sacrificial Death of Christ
The death of Jesus takes place for reasons that have nothing to do with sacrifice.
The decisions to adopt non-violence is not a conditional commitment. It is a promise to imitate no one but God who refrains from all forms of reprisal and makes the sun shine on the just and unjust alike.
To those who misunderstood Jesus’ message, he appears to be a destructive and subversive force attempting to upheave the roots of societal order by revealing the victimage mechanism. “The way in which he preaches can only make him appear to be totally lacking in respect for the holiest of institutions, guilty of hubris and blasphemy, since he dares to rival God himself in the perfection of the Love that the never ceases to make manifest. Certainly the preaching of the Kingdom of God reveals that there is an element of violence even in the most apparently holy of institutions, like the church hierarchy, the rites of the Temple, and even the family.”
Jesus is the scapegoat par excellence: he is the most arbitrary of victims because he is the least violent. At the same time he is the least arbitrary and the most meaning because he is the least violent. “Violence is unable to bear the presence of a being that owes it nothing — that pays it no homage and threatens its kingship in the only way possible.”
“To say that Jesus dies, not as a sacrifice, but in order that there may be no more sacrifices, is to recognize in him the Word of God ‘I wish for mercy and not sacrifices’.” Where violence remains master Jesus must die if he sticks with the Word of God. This is not meant to be read as a suicide either for the responsibility of Jesus’ death lies neither in a sacrificial pact between him and the Father nor in his own will but in the violence of man and Jesus’ reluctance to comply with violence.
Humanity is so bound in violence that anyone who is untainted by any violence is bound to become the victim. “We must see that there is no possible compromise between killing and being killed” in the Kingdom of Satan, because we are indebted to violence for the degree of peace that we enjoy. This peace is not only tainted but also fragile, and by participating in this peace we are the killers.
“If all men loved their enemies, there would be no more enemies.” But if only one being did so in a realm filled with violence than his “word of life will be changed into the word of death” as the victimage mechanism chooses him as the scapegoat. “There is no other cause for his death than the love of one’s neighbour lived to the very end, with an infinitely intelligent grasp of the constraints it imposes. ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’.”
Jesus does not kill himself or sacrifice himself all that he does is to obey the promptings of the love that he declares. “This is not because the Father demands this death, for strange sacrificial motives. Neither the son nor the Father should be questioned about the cause of this event, but all mankind, and mankind alone.” To interpret it as sacrifice absolves man the responsibility of murder. It sugarcoats the crucifixion as the result of a divine pact rather than the misguided deeds of man which we must introspect and correct. That is why people are constrained to invent an irrational requirement of sacrifice. In the common reading the Father is still a God of violence, despite what Jesus explicitly says.
“Men killed Jesus because they were not capable of becoming reconciled without killing. But by this stage, even the death of the just no longer had the power to reconcile them. Hence they are exposed to a limitless violence that they themselves have brought about and that has nothing to do with the anger or vengeance of an god.” The Apocalypse as well as Crucifixion are results from the actions of men. Christianity is a religion of supreme agency. Jesus says “You will be done and not mine.” This is not indicative of unquestioning obedience to sacrifice. Jesus has to die because to live would mean compromising with violence.
“Not to love one’s brother and to kill him are the same thing. Every negation of the other leads, as we have shown, toward expulsion and murder. The basis for all of this lies in the fundamental human situation of a mimetic rivalry that leads to a destructive escalation. That is the reason why killing and dying are simply one and the same thing. To kill is to die, to die is to kill — for both stay within the circle of evil reciprocity, in which reprisals inevitably take place. Not to love is to die, therefore since it is to kill. Cain — who is mentioned in the Epistle a few lines earlier — said : ‘Now that I have killed my brother, everyone can kill me.’ Everything that could be taken for a rupture in the text that we are following is in reality part and parcel of all the rest with in the terms of the gospel logic. There must be no hesitation about giving one’s own life in order not to kill, so as to break out, by this action, from the circle of murder and death. It is quite literally true, when we are concerned with the confrontation of doubles, that he who wishes to save his life will lose it; he will be obliged, in effect, to kill his brother, and that means dying in a state of fatal misunderstanding of the other and of himself. He who agrees to lose his life will keep it for eternal life, for he alone is not a killer, he alone knows the fullness of love.”
The Divinity of Christ
The first commandment is to love the Lord the second commandment is to love thy neighbor as thyself. Love is the way to counteract the Kingdom of Satan.
Our anthropological reading does not preclude religious aspects of the texts, in other words the Bible isn’t just an extremely insightful book and Jesus only a wise man. He is divine in that he is full man and full God. Here is why: Violence always perpetuates violence either by causing the mechanism to produce the sacred thereby deferring violence to a later state or by pushing destruction as far as it will go. “Either you are violently opposed to violence and inevitably play its game, or you are not opposed to it, and it shuts your mouth immediately.” The truth of violence can only be exposed when society is on the brink of chaos, when people are in the closest proximity with violence. The victim has to say enough for the violence to be incited against him right when he is being shut by violence. There must also be witnesses to recount the event altering its significance as little as possible.
Therefore the victim has to be someone who is capable of talking back to violence while remaining entirely untouched by it. It is impossible for such a being to arise in a world completely ruled by violence. “You cannot become aware of the truth unless you act in opposition to the laws of violence, and you cannot act in opposition to these laws unless you already grasp the truth.”
“To recognize Chirst as God is to recognize him as the only being capable of rising above the violence that had, up to that point, absolutely transcended mankind… A non-violent deity can only signal his existence to mankind by having himself driven out by violence — by demonstrating that he is not able to establish himself in the Kingdom of Violence.” The true significance of this demonstration is bound to remain ambiguous for a long time because it looks like total impotence to those who live under the regime of violence.
The Virgin Birth
Unlike traditional mythological births where “the births of the gods is always a kind of rape”, there exists no relationship of violence in the virgin birth.
“Right from the start the child Jesus is excluded and dismissed — he is a wanderer who does not even have a stone on which to lay his head.” The virgin birth signifies a being conceived without sin who is completely “alien to the world of violence within which humankind has been imprisoned ever since the foundation of the world.” That is why he was called the second or perfect Adam because they were both born in the same situation. He is also tempted with violence as Adam was but Jesus alone emerged victorious in the struggle that all others have been fated to lose.
“If Christ alone is innocent, then Adam is not the only one to be guilty. All men share in this archetypal state of blame, but only to the extent that the chance of becoming free has been offered to them and they have let it slip away. We can say that this sin is indeed original but only becomes actual when knowledge about violence is placed at humanity’s disposition.”
The Sacrificial Reading and Historical Christianity
Implications of the Sacrificial Reading
By assigning blame to the Jews, Christians reduce the responsibility and enables one to “particularize the Christian event, to diminish its universality, and to search for the guilty men who would absolve humankind of guilt — the roles the Jews fulfill.”
Both the sacrificial reading and the assignation of blame onto the Jews are defense mechanisms. The sacrificial reading removes agency from the human murderers and presents it as a gift from God. But when the sacrificial reading cannot be sustained due to Christ’s innocence, modern Christianity perverts the non-sacrificial reading and assigns guilt to the Jews alone. Both of these actions are to create this “other” responsible for Christ’s death so we can justify our “goodness”. The latter mechanism means that “the Christian sons have repeated, even aggravated, all the errors of their Judaic fathers…. ‘In passing judgement upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things’ (Romans 2, 1).”
On top of this, modern anti-Christianity also takes on the sacrificial reading in order to reject it’s validity: if Christianity shares the exact same sacrificial structure as that of other religions, it must not be divine. In effect, modernity is using Christianity as the scapegoat for what really is the sins of mankind.
The Epistle to the Hebrews
One text in the New testament offers a sacrificial reading of the Passion: The Epistle to the Hebrews. This is heavily influenced and read under the light of the old testament. It’s validity in the Bible has also been heavily disputed.
The author would, of course, acknowledge Christ’s innocence but his reading takes “little account of human responsibility for the death of Christ. The murderers are merely the instruments of divine will; it is hard to see how they could be found guilty.”
Yet what they fail to overlook is: “It is the murderers who carry on the sacrifices and holocausts that Yahweh no longer wishes to hear of. It is from their perspective that the Passion can still be seen as a sacrifice — not from that of the victim, who understands that God holds all sacrifices in abomination and that he is dying because he will have nothing whatsoever to do with them. Sacrifice and offering thou dost not desire … Holocaust and victim thou hast not required.”
The Epistle discharges human violence, restates God’s responsibility, but also leaves room for human responsibility. In this lens, it is similar to the sacrificial theology implied in the second Isaiah. Judaism and historical Christianity are fundamentally in agreement here. “Both fail to find a place for the revelation of human violence. They skirt this revelation without ever understanding that they are doubles of one of another — that the only thing separating them is what, at the same time, unites them.”
The Death of Christ and the End of the Sacred
Jesus utters “my god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” Religious Christians interpret it as nothing but decorative while atheists cling to it as the fact which gives the game away.
This phrase, the fact that Jesus reincarnated in three days rather than immediately, and his inability to produce the type of miracles to save himself from the cross emphasizes the non-sacrificial theme that “death no longer has anything at all to do with life.” The victimage mechanism which is tied to death is no longer able to produce the peace of life.
If Jesus’ death were sacrificial his divinity and resurrection would be a product of the Crucifixion. But this is not the case as Orthodox Christianity has made very clear. The latter is a consequence of the former. “Behaving in a truly divine manner, on an earth still in the clutches of violence, means not dominating humans, not overwhelming them with supernatural power” but rather by becoming a model exemplar. The primary concern is to bring the founding mechanism in the open.
Thus Jesus’ utterance of those words showed his humanity and relatability, he is not a sacrificial hero: “To take upon itself so radically the naturalistic character of the death, the gospel text must be founded upon the unshakable certainty of a form of transcendence that leaves this death completely behind.”
Sacrifice of the Other and Sacrifice of the Self
So many Christians remain attached to sacrificial terminology because they see no other signifiers which will help them affirm the transcendent and divine nature of the Gospel. Yet people who believe they can defend transcendence and the sacrificial reading are misguided because sacrifice implies a primitive religion purely explained by anthropology.
“The interaction between prohibition and ritual seems to lie at the root of the social attitudes that can be described as ethical.” Everything cultural is religious in origin. It derives from the primitive interactions of the victimage mechanism. Similarly, there has always been an ethical dimension to sacrifice in primitive religion: namely, the sacrificer’s renunciation of the object and it’s destruction for no utility.
Sacrificial morality reached its most refined expression in historical Christianity. Instead of sacrificing an object, Christ, or so mainstream readings explain, sacrifices himself — an infinitely more noble gesture. This, while appearing more ethical than the Father’s sacrifice of the Son, is still to be rejected. “Self-sacrifice can serve to camouflage the forms of slavery brought into being by mimetic desire. ‘Masochism’ can also find expression in self-sacrifice, even if a person has no knowledge of this, and no wish to reveal it. What might be concealed here is the desire to sacralize oneself and make oneself godlike.”
The Judgement of Solomon
The Judgement of Solomon is from the Old Testament depicting the story of two women both who had children fighting over the rightful possession of the last living child as one of their children has passed away. King Solomon proposes to split the child in half to give to each woman as a test. The liar agrees while the true mother says “Oh my lord, give her the living child, and by no means slay it.”
This is a classic example of mimetic rivalry, specifically the likeness of those in conflict. The women are nameless simply referred to as “one woman” and “the other woman”. They are saying precisely the same argument as well. The symmetry of the rivalry is obvious and it represents the very essence of human conflict.
The king differentiates the doubles. The liar only wants to possess what the other possesses, “she is ready to accept being deprived of the child as long as her opponent is deprived of it in the same way. Quite clearly, mimetic desire impels her to speak and act.” What really matters is her fascination with the hated model and rival.
Indeed the real mother is willing to part ways with the child and ‘sacrifice’ her relationship with it; we could even say she puts herself up for ‘sacrifice’ if the King believes she is lying. But to take a sacrificial reading of the real mother is less than ideal for sacrifice “transfers to the foreground what is of secondary importance: that is, the act of renunciation and the personal risk to which it exposes the real mother. The sacrificial definition relegates to the secondary level what is most important for the real mother — that her child should live.”
When one sacrifices something for another, we are inclined to focus on that which has been sacrificed, and in the case of self-sacrifice, deify the actor. This conceals the more important part of what is being sacrificed for. Sacrifice always emphasizes renunciation, death and split subjectivity — the values of the bad mother.
The good mother has absolutely no inclination to ‘sacrifice herself’ — such a motive of wanting to sacrifice can only be attributed to an unconscious affinity towards masochism and Godhood. But she is willing to die for her child to live. “Like Judah at the end of the Joseph story, the good harlot agrees to substitute herself for the sacrificial victim, not because she feels a morbid attraction to the role but because she has an answer to the tragic alternative: kill or be killed. The answer is: be killed, not as a result of masochism, or the ‘death-instinct’, but so that the child will live.”
To bring the analogy back to Christ: the sacrificial reading fails to appreciate the enormous threat that weighs upon Mankind and Jesus’ principled affinity towards love. It instead focuses on his death: more reminiscent of a mortal hero than a divine being.
But unlike this story, there is no Father on earth to put an end to the conflict of doubles and bring forth justice through intervention. “The human situation, at its most basic level, depends on there being no Fathers and all-wise kings to ensure the rule of justice for a humanity that continues in a state of eternal infancy. So the only way of doing the will of the Father, on earth as it is in heaven, is by behaving like the good harlot by taking the same risks as she did — which should be done not in a spirit of sacrificial gloom or morbid preoccupation with death but in a spirit of love for true life, so that life may triumph. The non-sacrificial reading I am advocating places the emphasis where it really belongs in the Gospels, on those passages that show us the death of Christ in terms of his absolute devotion to the disciples and to all mankind: ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’.”
Therefore, two errors of the sacrificial reading have been highlighted: 1. it takes away agency and responsibility from human agents and places it in God or an out group 2. it emphasizes the wrong aspects of heroic sacrifice rather than Jesus’ love for Mankind, only the latter of which should be imitated.
But we must not condemn the sacrificial reading lest we repeat the very error which sacrificial Christianity itself succumbed.
History and culture can be seen as increasingly less violent forms of the victimage mechanism. The arch of history is “the preliminary disintegration of a pre-existing system, a catastrophic crisis that ends happily when the victimage mechanism provides a mediation, and the subsequent establishment of a sacrificial system that became more and more humane.” We transitioned from human to animal sacrifice, then to the institution of Passover, finally the renunciation of all sacrifice carried out by the Gospels.
Q: How should we reconcile this with Girard’s claim that the arch of history is one of increasingly ineffective victimage mechanisms which demands increasingly perverse sacrifices?
A: Perhaps our institutions themselves have become more humane while our sacrificial methods have increased in capacity.
A new Sacrificial Reading: The Semiotic Analysis
A new Semiotic analysis of the Gospels wants to prove that the Gospels follow the traditional story arch of the hero who is first victim to the traitor, eventually getting his revenge while the traitor receives the appropriate punishment.
Yet, leading to the death of Christ “The ways in which individuals behave are never of more than secondary importance, since everything culminates in the unanimous movement that is being formed against Jesus… The essential point is that no one stands out until the end.” It may appear everyone is acting out of their own independence but that fails to see that everything eventually is directed through mimesis. In other words, everyone is a traitor.
The final climax of the proposed structure is not found, namely the punishment of the traitor. The difference in Peter and Judah doesn’t lie in their betrayal (because they both betrayed Jesus) but in that the former came back to Jesus. Judas is not condemned by anyone and commits suicide. The underlying idea here again is the agency of individuals and the lack of intervention from God: there is no hand of Justice punishing the evil.
Judah kills himself because he thought himself solely responsible for the murder of Jesus. Peter makes an opposite but equivalent mistake: he states that even if all other disciples betray Jesus he will not. Both mistakes are rooted from pride. “They refuse to recognize that they are all equal in relation to the murder of Jesus, and therefore that they all take part in it in a more or less equivalent way — however much external factors may appear to differ.”
There is no compromise between killing and being killed (love) and people who enjoy peace are indebted to violence.
The Sacrificial Reading and History
“Historical Christianity covers the texts with a veil of sacrifice. Or, to change the metaphor, it immolates them in the tomb of Western Culture.”
The text is aware of the sacrificial deferral — which is time that the true message takes to become revealed — its own dissemination is likely to generate. For the Gospel to have spread as fast and wide as it did, the sacrificial reading and it’s easy comprehensibly due to its structural similarities to primitive religions was a necessity.
“The role of historical (sacrificial-reading) Christianity becomes necessary within an eschatological process that is governed by the Gospels — a history directed towards revealing the universal truth of human violence. But the process requires an almost limitless patience: many centuries must elapse before the subversive and shattering truth contained in the Gospels can be understood world-wide.”
Christianity, like the teachings of Buddha which contained noble lies to certain individuals, had to sacrifice truth for dissemination.
Science and Apocalypse
Christianity and the Gospel could only serve as a foundation for a new culture if there was a distortion of the original message. “Like every history within the sacrificial system, the course of historical Christianity consist in a gradual loosening of legal constraints in proportion to the declining efficacy of ritual mechanisms.” Christianity has arrived at a similar impasse: the sacrificial reading and protective envelope is crumbling to dust.
We will now elaborate the convergences between scripture and history.
“Humans have always found peace in the shadow of their idols — that is to say, of human violence in a sacralized form.” This is even more true now as we now have peace due to the bomb. “In a world that is continually losing its sacred character, only the permanent threat of immediate and total destruction can prevent men from destroying one another. Once again, violence prevents violence from breaking out.”
We are experiencing a radical shift when it comes to every aspect regarding the victimage mechanism. As cultural and religious infrastructure begins to expose itself, divinity (the anthropological kind) will manifest itself where no one expected it to be: “in the statistics drawn up by scientists and in domain that have no connection whatsoever with the sacred.” Just as the only true victim is the one we still believe is guilty, divinity can only manifest in places where we don’t think is religious but still faithfully stick to.
We sacrifice so many resources for human weaponry. We torture our enemies. We start wars, spread propaganda, and erect scapegoats. “How can we have the extraordinary hypocrisy to pretend that we do not understand all those people who did such things long before us: those, for example, who made it their practice to throw a single child, or two at the most, into the furnace of a certain Moloch in order to ensure the safety of the others?” There is a similarity in the peace we experience today as the one we experienced before, namely, it is through violence.
What is new is that violence can no longer be relied upon to resolve the crisis. Due to the threat of nuclear weapons, the notion of national honor is disappearing from our lexicon, people look for more peaceful resolutions. But do not mistake this for the Kingdom of God for men act peacefully out of the fear of violence rather than the love of one another.
“In a world where violence has been truly revealed and the victimage mechanisms have ceased to function, humans are confronted with a dilemma that is extraordinarily simple: either they renounce violence, or the incalculable violence that they set off risks annihilating them all, ‘as in the days of Noah’.”
Our current situation and the evolution of the victimage mechanism is neither better or worse than any other time in history. It is a unique critical juncture we are faced with. “All the elements that I draw out in my analysis have something positive about them. The present situation does not at all imply that our predecessors were better or worse than we are. In effect, people’s basic make-up has not changed in the slightest, and that is precisely what makes our situation so dangerous.” This is also why, despite our superficial peace, the Kingdom of God has not arrived: we do not renounce violence and accept love but are afraid to act violently due to violence.
On a tangential note, the deserializations initiated by the Gospels was the cradle of science and technology: “Only after the gods were driven out was it possible to steel oneself to treat all of nature as objects obeying natural laws.”
The Logos of Heraclitus and the Logos of John
The Logos in Philosophy
Christ is referred to as the Word, that is to say the Logos. In Greek thought, the ‘Logos’ is “a term that designates the actual object philosophical discourse is aiming at, over and beyond language as such. If such a discourse would come to completion, it would be identical to the Logos — that is to say, to the divine, rational and logical principle according to which the world is organized.”
Throughout western thought, the two types of Logos has never been sufficiently distinguished: Christians consider the Greeks unconscious theologians, while non-Christians consider the Christian Logos as a clumsy attempt to imitate philosophy.
The Two Types of Logos in Heidegger
Heidegger discovered in the Old Testament, and even more wrongfully transposed to the New Testament, a form of divine authoritarianism that he thought characteristic of the Bible. In other words, the Christian Logos is between slave and master.
He believes that the Greek Logos “brings together entities that are opposites, and it does not do so without violence. Heidegger recognizes that the Greek Logos is inseparably linked with violence.” He is referring to the scapegoat and the way in which it engenders the sacred. “It is the violence of the sacred that inhibits the doubles from unleashing even greater violence.” The Greek Logos is the Logos of all cultures that are founded upon unanimous violence.
He wrongfully imbues the Christian Logos with violence as well and attempts to differentiate them with the types of violence: the Greek Logos entails violence committed by free men while the Christian Logos entails violence visited upon slaves. Yet, “the illusion that there is difference within the heart of violence is the key to the sacrificial way of thinking.” Heidegger fails to see that there can be no material difference between violence, for all violence ends up enslaving the ones who are under it’s influence.
What appears to be Yahweh’s violence in the Old Testament often reveals itself as the violent reciprocal action of doubles. Jesus is not conveying the rule of a Tyrant but he is the manifestation of God himself. The Word of the Son is the Word of the Father and not a mere messenger. “One can indeed argue that this amounts to a tyrannical command — more tyrannical than all the commands of the wicked Yahweh — since men have never yet managed to respond to it. But it would be wrong to see Jesus as the herald that Heidegger sees in him — as an occasional messenger, a mere transmission rod in an authoritarian bureaucratic machine.” Jesus follows his own message and does not force it upon anyone.
Defining the Johannine Logos in Terms of the Victim
We have rejected the common philosophical view about the different religions of the Father and Son. Yet, we should not be fearful that they will become doubles for “like violence, love abolishes all differences.”
“In him [the Logos] was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not … He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.”
“The Christian Logos is foreign to any kind of violence; it is therefore forever expelled, and absent Logos that never has had any direct, determining influence over human cultures,” cultures based on the Greek Logos of violence and expulsion. It is through it’s own expulsion does the Logos of love expose the Logos of violence; the role of expulsion is in the definition of the Christian Logos. “The Logos of love puts up no resistance; it always allows itself to be expelled by the Logos of violence. But its expulsion is revealed in a more and more obvious fashion, and by the same process the Logos of violence is revealed as what can only exist by expelling the true Logos and feeding upon it in one way or another.”
We, as Heidegger, have been led to believe that there is only one Logos, this is reflective of a deeper human condition to always fail to recognize the Logos of love. He concludes that everything is Greek and nothing is Christian, registering “a definitive expulsion that had already been expressed in the sacrificial definition of Christianity.”
“The error on which the whole of Western thought is founded points clearly to the truth unique in this world: measured against the Greek Logos to which it has been inappropriately assimilated, the Johannine Logos will never successfully compete with it, it must always have itself expelled from a world that cannot be its own… Always the same ‘error’ perpetuates itself — the ‘chosen people’ maintains its self-sufficiency, perceiving very accurately the faults of others (the faults that will make others, in turn, heir to the promise), but not noticing, in its pride, that it commits the self-same faults.”
The distinction between the Logos of love and violence is the only meaningful, fundamental distinction. Religion, philosophy, culture is in the business of multiplying distinctions to conceal this fundamental one. Girard is doing the exact opposite, pointing to the emptiness of all differences but the absolute one.
Q: It is clear what Girard means by the word “difference”. But are we to interpret every other time he mentions difference as only the true difference between violence and non-violence?
What does Girard think about having friends or building a society that is differentiated? Surely he sees utility even in this faux difference or Thiel wouldn’t have gave everyone else a distinct role.
In the Beginning
The first sentence in the Prologue to the Gospel of John begins “In the beginning was the word…” which mirrors the first sentence of Genesis and thus the Bible “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
The connection between the Gospel of John and Genesis is that it established the relationship between God and humanity in terms of expulsion. “The only difference is that in the story of Adam and Eve, God manipulates and expels mankind to secure the foundations of culture, whilst in the Prologue to John it is mankind who expels God.”
The Gospels of John reverses the direction of expulsion, nothing more is needed to shed light on all myths and the Old Testament itself. The God which expels and inflicts violence is replaced with the God who only suffers violence, the Logos that has always been expelled is rightfully deified.
Girard categorically opposes the sacrificial reading but he arrives at the same conclusion: “you rediscover divine transcendence in exactly the same form as all types of Christian orthodoxy have always recognized it: the Father can only be reached through the Son as mediator.” In other words, the Old Testament has to be read in light of the new for the true Logos of love to reveal itself and the falsehoods of the Logos of violence.
The power of demystification comes from reading everything with the scapegoat as an emphasis. This is a Christian reading. Therefore, paradoxically, “any form of radical demystification must take a Christian form.”
Love and Knowledge
“Love is the demystifying power because it gives the victims back their humanity.” The Christian notion of Agape is radically different than the more lustful, possessive Eros of the Greeks which Nietzsche rightfully critiques: “Love is the state in which man sees things most of all as they are not. The illusion-creating force is there at its height, likewise the sweetening and transforming force. One endures [(overlooks)] more when in love than one otherwise would, one tolerates everything.”
The Christian notion of Love is not a renunciation of any form of rationality or a surrender to the forces of ignorance. “Love is at one and the same time the divine being and the basis of any real knowledge. The New Testament contains what amounts to a genuine epistemology of love.” Light is both a symbol of goodness as well as a means to obtain information:
“He who loves his brother abides in the light, and in it there is no cause for stumbling. But he who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”
This love alone manages to escape the hateful illusions of the doubles and reveals the victimage mechanism. “Love is the only true revelatory power because it escapes from, and strictly limits, the spirit of revenge and recrimination that still characterizes the revelation in our own world.”
If you are in a state of hate, or Greek Eros for that matter, you go into a subject hoping to arrive at a certain conclusion. You lose your objectivity and rationality.
Christ brings with him the key to knowledge and even immediately after the resurrection multiple scenes are dominated by the outpouring of truth “by the power of interpretation that is bestowed on humankind by the Passion of Christ.”
Acquisitive Mimesis and Mimetic Desire
When we talk about desire we must not confuse human desire to be completely different nor distinct from animal desire.
In the process of hominization, our growing mimetic capabilities governed and distorted our raw, intrinsic desires. The point of human desire is reached when we developed 1. “the ability to look at the other person, the mimetic double, as an alter ego” that is to establish a self in the other 2. “the matching capacity to establish a double inside oneself, through processes like reflection and consciousness” that is an other in the self. The former is an arrow telling us what we want, the latter is an obstacle hindering and controlling our actions.
In religious societies, rigid frameworks (e.g. banning of mirrors, no sex before marriage) distributes the appetites and needs of individuals in divergent directions. In the modern world, desire is bubbling over without any barriers to contain it.
Mimetic Desire and the Modern World
Our world shows itself surprisingly capable of absorbing high doses of undifferentiation and redirecting mimetic energies that would have brought about destruction in old societies.
Q: Why is this the case? What aspects of modernity enable us to absorb undifferentiation and redirect mimetic energies? Girard mentioned that our frameworks are becoming more and more abstract although I do not understand how that helps absorb mimetic energies. No great answer here.
Not only has it absorbed them, but our world has drawn from them new strength to flourish. Our creativity and industriousness root from the liberation of mimetic desire.
But the liberation of desire did not bring about it the absolute triumph revolutionaries hoped for. “Either the liberated desire is channeled into competitive directions that, though enormously creative, are ultimately disappointing, or it simply ends up in sterile conflict and anarchic confusion.”
Q: Why? Is it because acts powered by mimetic desire cease to have a purposeful direction, the vector of progress becomes purely a function of the model obstacle? Maybe this is also why Thiel recommends not to iterate your way to startup success, because iteration necessarily implies following some form of gradient which more often than not is mimetic in disguise.
People erroneously believe that their discomfort and unease is a product of the still existing but much weakened prohibitions and even judicial systems that are placed upon desire. Once mimetic desire is liberated, that which it guarded against — the mimetic rival — takes the place of the prohibition that never works. “Men lose the kind of obstacle that is inert and passive, but at the same time beneficent and equal for all — the obstacle that for this reason could never really become humiliating or incapacitating. In place of this obstacle established by religious prohibition, they have to reckon increasingly with the kind of obstacle that is active, mobile, and fierce — the model metamorphosed into a rival, interested in personally crossing them and well equipped to do so.”
Thus, the more people liberate themselves from prohibitions, the more they will reinforce the competitive world stifling them. They continue to confuse the external obstacle presented by prohibition and the internal obstacle formed by the mimetic rival. At the moment when the last prohibitions are being destroyed, some intellectuals erroneously describe them as more crippling than ever, everywhere they see “power structures” unable to recognize the mimetic nature of these enforcers.
An example here would be gender equality which removes the prohibitions of women to work but introduces them to mimetic rivalries with men in the workplace, previously this was a baseless comparison.
We can no longer return to constraints. The breaking down of the victimage mechanism sets the world stage for the “omnipresent victim”. As the power of the mechanism breaks down, sacrifices at a larger and larger scale must persist to achieve the same calming effect. Before we could bring peace by sacrificing a goat or a few men, but now we must kill an entire race, religion, class — the eradication needs to be total, hence the “omnipresent victim”.
Q: What are the implications and characteristics of this omnipresent victim? Is omnipresent temporal (we always need a victim) or in scope (when we do need a victim it is a large population).
Intellectuals don’t recognize prohibitions as reasonable guards against the destructive forces of desire in fear of seeming reactionary. Pandering to the desire of appearing the most “radical thinker”, you can make the modern intellectual say almost anything you like.
The mimetic Crisis and the Dynamism of Desire
Desire can be defined as “a process of mimesis involving undifferentiation”, that is the burgeoning of mimetic conflict without the corresponding resolution.
The mimetic crisis and it’s escalation is one primarily mediated by desire. “Desire is the mimetic crisis in itself; it is the acute mimetic rivalry with the other that occurs in all the circumstances we call ‘private’, ranging from eroticism to professional or intellectual ambition. The crisis can be stabilized at different levels according to the individuals concerned, but it always lacks the resources for catharsis and expulsion.”
In our ritual-less world desire is endemic (consistent and omnipresent) instead of epidemic (with sudden bursts and resolution). The dynamism of desire takes a much more lengthened and slowed down form of a mimetic crisis. The curse of modernity is that we are faced with growing tension from more and more unrestrained mimetic forces and lessening effectiveness of our rituals to dissolve them.
Q: Some characteristics of our culture draws out and lengthens the mimetic process but it has lost it’s effectiveness to dissolve tension. What is the root of this?
Mimetic forces interferes with base-layer, intrinsic human desire in an aggravating manner. They not only govern our desires but also our interpretations of our desires, causing an unending escalation towards more pathological forms of desires.
The Mimesis of Apprenticeship and the Mimesis of Rivalry
The innate instinct for Man to imitate is the primary mimeticism. It is a drive which cannot fail to lead to conflict, yet it is indispensable for none will be able to learn and assimilate to culture without it. Everything in apprenticeship, education, and initiation rests on this capacity.
Undirected, the mimetic tendency will imitate all behavior without distinction. We cannot present an objective systematic criteria to differentiate non-acquisitive behavior (which is harmless or beneficial to imitate) and acquisitive behavior (the imitation of which leads to rivalry).
In archaic societies, the distribution of objects are pre-determined through prohibitions. “If it were possible some cultures would dispense with individual choice altogether and so entirely eliminate the possibility of mimetic rivalry.”
Yet in modern times, no more taboos forbid one person to take what is reserved for another. Take the master-apprentice relationship for example: within it lies a paradox. The master is glad to see others imitate him as a model, yet if the imitation is too perfect, the imitator threatens to surpass the master. The model will change his attitude and display jealousy, mistrust, and hostility while attempting to mask his real reasons at all costs (often to himself as well). It truly is paradoxical that one of the most flattering things is to have another imitate you, yet one of the most threatening is to have another surpass you. This is the mimetic double bind, a double imperative from imitatee to imitator: “taken as a model, imitate me; and as rival, do not imitate me.”
Gregory Bateson’s ‘Double Bind’
The idea of the double bind is borrowed from terminology used to describe schizophrenic patients. How they commonly had mothers who showed paradoxical intention of warmth and coldness. In like manner, the mimetic process is responsible for what most coin the psychosis of modernity.
Becker, Frankl, and Girard all point to a shared psychosis of modernity. Becker attributes it to the channels of heroicism being exhausted. Frankl identified it as a lack of meaning. Girard claims an inability to resolve mimetic tension as the culprit. What is underlying all of these observations is a state of disorder and undifferentiation. Becker’s disorder lies in the dimension of Good/bad. Frankl’s disorder lies in the dimension of Meaningful/Meaningless. Girard’s disorder lies in the dimension of self/other.
Information theory has two interesting contributions here. 1. It states that informational order comes into being on the basis of disorder, and is always capable of returning to disorder. 2. There are certain circular feedback systems either escalating a starting signal to infinity (entropy) or progressively tempering the signal each cycle to an equilibrium (negentropy).
Through this lens, the victimage process obtains order by expelling disordered elements (e.g. marked victim, or mentally disabled person) and is the cultural equivalent to negentropy.
From Object Rivalry to Metaphysical Desire
We begin with desiring an object also desired or possessed by the model. As the object acquires the status of being “disputed” it’s value increases: “the value of an object grows in proportion to the resistance met with in acquiring it.” The value of the model grows (if he possesses it) proportional to the value of the object. Desire in object, resistance by model, increase in object value, increase in model prestige, increased desire in object, ad infinitum — this is how prestige is formed, the very rivalry and desire of others creates it.
Prestige is made all the more effective because it conceals its mimetic character. We imbue upon the rivalry and the object meanings it does not posses, and in a mistaken manner, believe the force of our desire to be justified by the intrinsic value of the object.
Legal prohibitions are addressed to a group and does not suggest that we are inferior individuals. However, it is commonly not law which prohibits an object of desire but the rival who designates the object as desirable by desiring it himself. This non-legal prohibition has the greater capacity to wound because we interpret the resistance as coming from a hostile well-equipped rival directed at our specific selves.
If the agent fails to obtain the object, even if he believes he is wrongfully persecuted, “the subject will necessarily ask himself if the model has not got perfectly good reasons for denying him the object. An increasingly weighty part of himself will carry on imitating the model and, by virtue of this fact, will take the model’s side, secretly justifying the hostile treatment he believes he is undergoing at the hands of the model.” At this stage, the agent credits himself with a radical inadequacy, made ever more apparent by the model’s possession and his own lack of the desired object.
The model’s wholeness and the imitator’s nothingness is attributed to this desired object, and it transforms into something non-secular, the source of all the model’s goodness and self-sufficiency. At this point we must use “metaphysical desire” to describe this new dimension mimetic rivalry had imbued upon previous intrinsic appetite or need. It is “metaphysical” because the strength of the desire has no grounded reality, yet the rivalry makes it appear more real than any real object. The finitude of the object has been masked and covered with infinite and absoluteness of desire. Of course, there exists a continuity between reasonable appetite/need and unreal metaphysical desire.
The agents victory won’t change anything if it is after the gap has widened between what the possession can offer in satisfaction and the increasingly metaphysical aspirations brought about by the rivalry. If the gap is too wide, possession will only lead to rejection of both object and model with disdain. He condemns his current possessions and desires but never desire itself. Mocking the idols of yesteryear at the very moment a new idol comes from the horizon, desire seeks only to find a resistance that it is incapable of overcoming. “Victory only speeds up the subject’s degeneration. The pursuit of failure becomes ever more expert and knowledgeable without being able to recognize itself as the pursuit of failure… The subject will always manage to track down the obstacle that cannot be surmounted — which is perhaps nothing more than the world’s massive indifference to him, in the end — and he will destroy himself against it.”
Desire without Object
Doubles and Interdividuality
The difference between subject and model no longer exists after the mimetic rivalry has formed. If the model becomes more interested in the object due to the former’s imitations (which usually happens) then he falls prey to his own contagion; he imitates his own desire through the intermediary of the subject. At such a point it is no longer meaningful to think of them as two discrete individuals with differences being exchanged and diverted for they become functions of one another. The rivals become more identical both in the positive imitative phase as well as the negative imitation phase which involves violence and destruction. If the rivalry is violent, it will be purely a state of reciprocation with interest: “everything that one of the partners to violence experiences, thinks about, or carries into action … will sooner or later become observable in the other partner.” There is nothing that can be said about the one which we can’t about the other. This is the relationship of doubles.
We transition from the positive to the negative state because once the mimetic nature of the relationship becomes apparent (when participants are aware they are becoming functions of one another), they strive to eliminate this dependence. “Like contemporary philosophy, psychopathology bases its point of view in difference and cannot tolerate the identity of the doubles. Everything still rests on the principles inherited from Romantic individualism.” In other words, the reason the revelation of the symmetry causes an urge to differentiate is because we, educated to become independent individuals, cannot tolerate being merely a function of others. The reciprocal violence transforms every model into an anti-model, but of course, the reciprocity is still maintained because everyone attempts to break away in the same way. The symmetry is maintained even in the absence of the transcendent status of the model.
This has wide implications for trends and fashion in our daily lives regardless of industry: politics, technology, entertainment… Once fashion reveals itself as the driving factor, it becomes fashionable to break away and be opposed to fashions. But people all attempt to break away from a current trend in the same way, finding themselves at a singularity once again. Fashion escalates, because the threshold of imitation required to breakaway and deem a trend “uncool” is lowered, people switch trends faster. The revelation of the mechanism renders it less effective and thus more aggressive just like the victimage mechanism.
Q: What are the effects of romantic individualism on mimesis? Do humans have a natural urge to be individuals or natural disdain to being a function of an other?
A: On one hand it seems to be the prohibition supreme: no one wants to be a function of someone else. On the other hand it escalates the speed of mimesis and fashion since people are continually trying to break away.
The clinical phenomena of seeing doubles is not entirely attributable to hallucination. Doubles display the reciprocity of relationships with negative imitation (attempt to distance). Subjects cannot accept their similitude anymore than the patient an exact replica. Furthermore, the subjects aim for differentiation to no avail due to the similarity and simultaneity of their methods and this denied differentiation haunts them as much as the double haunts the patient. When mimetic rivalry has undifferentiated all relationships the difference rather than the double is the hallucination. “If the madman sees double, it is because he is too close to the truth.” Normal people can still function inside the myth of difference because they have not pushed the mimetic process far enough to make the reciprocity visible.
Q: Would the concept of the “interdividual”, that is accepting the descriptive view that our desires will always be a function of others’, help us find a balance between collectivist and individualistic ideologies while getting rid of the aversion to similitude that leads to violent negative imitation.
We might as well take metaphysical desire as the subject of relationships, for it more than any participant determines the progression. Desire seems to have its own end and agenda. It relies on differences (the possession of one and lack of another) to gain control until the participants are too entangled in the web to see the full picture. Desire is responsible for it’s own evolution: becoming a caricature of itself, meaning that it aggravates and emphasizes the most striking aspects, in each iteration. Desire gains knowledge of itself: the capabilities, preferences, and weaknesses of the host, using this truth, as the Devil does, in service of its own untruth (the fact that it is not warranted and points to nothing real). It becomes better and better at both individual and collective levels “to generate the double binds in which it gets caught, seeking always to entrap itself in the cul-de-sac that is its very raison d’etre.” Much like the Nietzschean will to power which strives on and aims at struggle and resistance, so too does metaphysical desire multiple itself at the sake of its hosts.
Symptoms of Alternation
In a world without prohibitions, and thus overrun by doubles, there are few neutral relationships. There are only the dominating and the dominated. Relationships can never achieve stability in a meritocratic society absent of birthright, caste systems, and explicit hierarchies. One rival is on top believing himself to be the center of a perceptual field, the one and only god which everything in the universe converges to, only to have his place surpassed, finding himself a trembling being at the foot of another temporary deity. Bystanders can’t see the oscillating prestige, “but it is real for the patient, who reads victory and defeat in signs that are more and more inaccessible to an outsider. “
This oscillation is not limited to one-on-one relationships, as long as the agent is subject to relative comparison this oscillation exists. It is especially true for people in circles where the competition is feverish and favors reciprocal observation where talk is always of others and one needs to constantly asses his own standing relatively to that of others. Specifically, “I refer to the various activities and vocations that depend most directly on the judgement of others in their most brutal and arbitrary, and least subtle, forms. I am thinking of those who are in direct contact with the crowd and live off its favors, like politicians, actors, playwrights, writers and so on.” Such a man knows that his fate oscillates between godhood and victimhood at the aleatory mercy of the crowd. Thus he is necessarily mad, “embodying the two opposing faces of the sacred, which are interiorized and lived through an alternating pattern.” He is both a god and a scapegoat.
The manic depressive, those whose future and reputation hangs upon signs like this, are obsessed with them. He “has a particularly acute awareness of the state of radical dependence that people occupy vis-a-vis one another, and the lack of certainty that results.” If anything the healthy individual is merely one with lesser abilities for sensing social dynamics. “The smallest sign of acceptance or rejection, of esteem or disdain, plunges him into dark despair of superhuman ecstasy.” He is either a God or the most worthless being because his conception of himself much like his desires are metaphysical — they take upon their own reality and is not tied to the real. “He is not completely unjustified, since the mimetic and contagious nature of these relationships, and their tendency to ‘snowball’, in either way are in no way products of the imagination. For him, moderation is no longer possible, and in effect it is becoming less and less possible in a society that becomes increasingly restructured and so is increasingly threatened by the uncontrollable oscillations of mimetism.”
This is happening on a mass scale, and not limited to the supreme competitor, as our societal standings are not determined absolutely in advance or through some arbitrary but stable metric. As a result, people are endlessly preoccupied with establishing themselves by imposing themselves on others. The reason we are able to unleash this mimetic desire without escalating into oblivion lies in our unprecedented capacity to promote competition within socially acceptable means. We have all of modernity’s inventions and genius to thank for this ability but we pay the price of a widespread neuroses, “which are always linked to the reinforcement of mimetic competition and the ‘metaphysical’ aspect of the related tensions.”
Q: Girard is still flirting with the answer. Why do we have an unprecedented capacity to promote competition within socially acceptable means? Is it because of this faux concept of “meritocracy” which enables people to rationalize away their relative mimetic rivalries into an absolute hierarchy? Is it because we have a stronger sense of morality or at least more all-encompassing ways to observe people?
The Disappearance of the Object and Psychotic Structure
Let’s trace the escalation of mimetic desire once more. Desire becomes detached from the object, bit by bit, and becomes increasingly attached to the model. This detachment aids desire’s tendency to evolve itself in an act of aggravation. Desire interferes the way instincts are ordered and directed, hailing the ascendancy of the model over the object until the state of psychosis when the object is no longer there at all and all that remains is the mimetic double bind.
“For behaving normally is not a matter of escaping from mimetic desire (no one can do that) but of not giving in to it to the extent of losing sight of the object entirely and only being concerned with the model. Being rational — functioning properly — is a matter of having objects and being busy with them; being mad is a matter of letting oneself be taken over completely by the mimetic models, and so fulfilling the calling of desire.” At the point of madness man is furthest away from animal, having his instincts overridden.
This is the key to how we should deal with mimesis on a personal level: assimilation over imitation. Always have values guide you and what you do never metaphysical desire.
Desire left untampered leads to madness and death, unless the victimage mechanism kicks in and brings back reason. The two states split by the sacrifice is crucial to understanding the volatility of society and individuals. The seemingly pre-sacrificial period is just as structured as the ordered post-sacrificial period. The more chaotic period is structured, paradoxically, on the absolute symmetry and undifferentiation of mimetic desire. The latter period on the other hand is structured on asymmetry and differentiation. In human systems, order comes out of disorder, but the latter is not simply a random, destructuring of the former.
In the undifferentiated stage, “the structure of psychosis is constituted, bit by bit, by the psychotic structure that ‘sees’ it as a possible outcome.” In English: “the structure of psychosis” is an individual or collective state of delirium where a mythic story is constructed by participants in relationships of doubles in order to latch onto the cultural order to explain himself; “the psychotic structure” is the state of pre-sacrifice, where relationship of doubles proliferates and mimesis accelerates. The original sentence means to say that, in a state of undifferentiation, many people go mad and hallucinate because they aim to explain and release the tension they feel through their relationship of doubles. Madness comes from the irreconcilable and metaphysical nature of tension felt in a state of undifferentiation and chaos.
Madness and reason, violence and peace, undifferentiation and asymmetry, chaos and culture, corresponding to the qualities pre and post sacrifice respectively. A cycle is formed where order descends into chaos through mimetic rivals and the lessening of prohibitions, and chaos goes back into order through the victimage mechanism. This happens on both an individual and collective level and it’s fluidity is able to explain cultural and psychological phenomena more rigid theories cannot.
Q: How does the victimage mechanism differentiate people?
A: The victimage mechanism releases tension and in that way relieves people from the grasp of metaphysical desire. In this rare moment of sobriety, many reflect on their past misdoings and set up laws and prohibitions which differentiate people. E.g. after WWII the victors and the losers were differentiated.
Hypnosis and Possession
Hypnosis and possession, like psychosis, is characterized by extreme metaphysical internal states with the lack of a corresponding object. They exist in post-sacrificial time when the god-like hypnotist is maximally different from the subject, whereas psychosis resides in pre-sacrificial time rooting from symmetry.
Hypnosis is characterized by the initial state of violent-less mimesis whereas possession is characterized by acquisitive mimesis. Both are caricatures (extreme manifestations) of interdividual mimetic processes, and thus have the ability to reveal essential aspects of the structure.
Hypnosis occurs when the model invites the subject to copy the model’s desire, a desire not directed at any object owned by the model (e.g. “go to sleep”). The interdividual mimetic desire: “desire according to the other’s desire”, as opposed to the Hegelian “desire for the other’s desire”, is exemplified by hypnosis. “The need for direction, the need for a leader, is desire according to the other’s desire — it is the subject’s capacity, even necessity, to enter into a state of hypnosis.” In many ways, this is exemplary of Becker’s transference object which dictates right from wrong.
Possession occurs when rivalry is introduced little by little between hypnotizer and hypnotized to the fact “the subject’s desire contradicts the desire expressed by the model — the permitted desire, or what I would call the model’s wish — and directs itself toward the model himself, toward what he ‘has’ and so on, as what he has acquires an ontological status, toward what he ‘is’, his ‘being’.” At this point we call someone “possessed”.
What is similar with both hypnosis and possession, is that they require a “contraction of the field of consciousness” such as asking the hypnotized to focus on a brilliant shiny object. The techniques of hypnosis try to reproduce the conditions of the subject’s fixation on the model, it is at this state of extreme attention of a singular object are we most susceptible to taking on the desires of others. Similarly, when you are in love, the whole world is greyed out the subject’s contracts the field of consciousness and concentrates the whole attention upon the object of desire. At this point we say someone is “possessed” by their love, and it is particularly at this point where dramatic theatre takes place and we are most susceptible to mimetic rivalries (part of the play where a rival enters). “Mimetic desire is the loss of relativity, the model as an absolute[, the axis mundi]. And of course, it is also the restriction of liberty.”
Mimesis and Sexuality
What is Known as “Masochism”
Masochism is not a direct preference for failure as the current understanding may suggest. Instead it is merely the product of blindly pursuing desire without questioning pushed to the logical extreme.
The subject knows through experience that disillusionment awaits him on the other side of any obstacle too easily overcome. It is said previously that desire aggravated its own symptoms by learning about itself: “desire has been asking questions about itself and coming up with answers.” It is asking itself precisely what is the cause of the disillusionment, and the only answer it refuses to accept is the mimetic one which highlights the empty nature of desire itself.
Yet desire must still deal with the fact that it previously left it’s host disillusioned upon satisfaction. Instead of extending the thesis to all desire, it instead extends it to all desires it has satisfied and to an extent: all easily satisfied desires.
An inversion happens as this logic is taken to it’s logical extreme: the only objects worthy of being desired are the ones that can never be possessed with the most invincible rivals guarding them. After seeing that the most enviable models turn into obstacles which granted desire the force to act against, it turns the most unconquerable obstacles into models. “It makes what was initially no more than the result of its past desires (struggle), the pre-condition of any future desire.”
Masochism is born: “henceforth desire always hastens to wound itself on the sharpest of reefs and the most redoubtable of defenses.” The pain and suffering cannot be interpreted as a pursuit of such, but must be read in terms of, and in contrast to, the absolute superiority of the model — if amount of struggle is correlated to power of obstacle, which correlates to desirability, than what a good object he must be guarding! Masochism is a pursuit of struggle against an all powerful obstacle: “I can enroll in his school and finally obtain from him the secret of the success that has always eluded me. This secret must be in the possession of the other, since he knows so well how to make me fail, how to reduce me to nothingness, how to bring out my own inadequacy when confronted with his unalterable being.”
Masochism is theatrical in that it is imitating an action that is more or less real: “it is the mimetic representation of the subject’s mimetic relationships with the most violent of models, that is to say, with the most insurmountable of obstacles.” In order for this to happen, the individual’s desire must have run rampant enough to overlook the object and focus on the resistance and the model. If the value of an object can be measured by level of resistance (and what higher level of resistance than violence), then desire will tend to set a higher and higher value on violence itself, making “of it the obligatory seasoning for all the pleasures that it can still have with the object, or even — at a still more advanced level — with the model itself which becomes the beloved persecutor.” At this point, desire attaches itself more and more to the violence which protects and surrounds the object.
Freud terms sexual masochism as secondary yet he is unable to point to the primary process which is in fact conflictual mimesis. Masochism or “secondary masochism is simply the theatrical representation of this phenomenon, which draws sexual pleasure in its wake.” Desire goes rampant and takes violence as a proxy for value of the hidden object until the object itself is forgotten.
Of course there is the other symmetrical end of the sadists who imitate and become the model. Both are two sides of the same coin: “to invite brutal treatment from a love partner who plays the role of the model, or conversely to treat the partner brutally — making him submit to the ill-usage one believes oneself to suffer at the model’s hands — is always to seek to become a god mimetically” by identifying with the superiority of the model through the violence imbued on you or by becoming the model directly.
“The process that makes desire more and more metaphysical and the process that makes it more and more ‘masochistic’ are one and the same, since the metaphysical element is already inseparable from [resistance using] violence.” Metaphysical in this context, means something “sacred” and we all know how sacredity is born from founding violence.
The important clarification is that in masochism, mimesis is the driving force of pleasure, sexual appetite is merely secondary. The utterance of ‘masochism’ in our daily language as if pain brings sexual pleasure were something obvious or the categorization of it as a distinct drive is a fetishization of violence as extreme as masochism itself.
Our instinctual sexual appetite can be affected and overpowered by mimesis. In certain scenarios this gives rise to at least some forms of homosexuality.
In mating there is a clear object (heterosexual partner) model (rival) relationship, “all sexual rivalry is thus structurally homosexual.”
“What we call homosexuality is, in this case, the total subordination of the sexual appetite [(or more like unintentional transference)] to the effects of a mimetic game that concentrates all the subject’s powers of attention or absorption upon the individual who is responsible for the double bind — the model as rival, the rival as model.” In other words, the desire is so intense that it is focused solely on the model such that the obsession translates to a tendency to see the rival as sexually appealing.
This strand of homosexuality is indeed tied with masochism. In monkeys, the loser in a courtship sometimes displays homosexual availability to the same-sex victor. In humans, there are reports of males falling in love with older males who won over their mates. “When I asked him about his reasons for this, he told me: ‘Take my word for it — homosexuality is wanting to be what the other is.’”
The envelope can be further pushed to obliterate the differences between homosexual and heterosexual eroticism. In the latter, the partners play the roles of model/rival as well as object for one another. “The metamorphosis of the heterosexual object into a rival brings about effects very similar to the metamorphosis of rival into object.”
Again, we reject in homosexuality any distinct essence (and thus any attempt to fetishize it) as we did with sado-masochism.
Q: How can the heterosexual object become an obstacle and model?
A: Mimesis leads us to confound resistance with intrinsic value. Once this connection is made we don’t need the mediator to explain binary heterosexual attraction. We naturally gravitate towards what we can’t have. Now, if the heterosexual interest is a narcissist we might imitate their desire for themselves.
Mimetic Latency and Rivalry
Mimetic desire always removes differences because it forces you to imitate a model and desire whatever he so desires, causing two to converge to one.
Freud, in his analysis for Dostoevsky generalizes that masochism, morbid jealousy, and latent homosexuality appear together, specifically: the subject experiences latent homosexuality expressed in excessive tenderness for the romantic rival whom he is morbidly jealous of but in a self-defeating, masochistic way.
What qualifies the jealousy as morbid is the element of repetition: ‘every time the subject falls in love, a third party also gets into the picture,” a rival who is more skilled and to whom the subject expresses uncanny tenderness. The rival often wins the girl causing the subject much pain hence the morbid aspect. Yet, in fact the subject’s account must not usually be believed, it is he who is the third party and the rivals desires which was primary, upon which he constricted his own desire.
The subject is masochistic because it seems that he is always entering romantic situations with the intention of failing. What he is in fact doing is confusing the desirability of a mate with the power of rival guarding her. He necessarily then, pursues the most improbable mates which are most conducive to his suffering.
Similarly, the third element of Freud’s observation — latent homosexuality — can be explained when “the rival diverts toward himself a good proportion of the attention that the subject, as a good heterosexual, ought to keep for the object.” Just like in hypnosis, the pre-conditions for this type of transference is an obsessional and intense contraction of the subjects sphere of consciousness on the desired object. Under this trance, the desire may polarize to the rival.
Let’s examine a case study in Dostoevsky’s Eternal Husband. Veltchaninov, a Casanovian character, is approached by Pavlovich, whose recently dead wife was once a lover of Veltchaninov. Pavlovich visits Veltchaninov at her funeral in the middle of the night. He shows uncanny attention and kisses him on the mouth. “The wife is dead and the lover remains. There is no longer any object, but the model and rival, Veltchaninov, still exerts an insuperable attraction.” Pavlovich chooses a second wife and pleads Veltchaninov to accompany him to his fiance’s house. Veltchaninov charms and seduces the entire family, Pavlovich attempts to appear seductive but no one takes him seriously; he is overrun with trembling anguish and desire.
The subject does not choose one model once and for all, nor does the model dictate one object once and for all. “For the designated object to retain the value that comes to it from the model, it is necessary for him to continue to value it by not ceasing to desire it.” Pavlovich, brings his rival to his fiancée not so that he may conquer her but so that he may desire her and affirm his decision.
Despite the homosexuality of kissing, which further affirms the mimetic reading, Pavlovich’s “dream is not to make love to Veltchaninov but to take spectacular revenge on him by snatching his fiancée away from the burning passion that will make her godlike because it comes from the god of love, and finally to become a god himself, as he possesses the godlike object.”
Veltchaninov does not act yet he is the cause of all the action in the book because he controls the main actor, Pavlovich’s, desires. Thus the stronger the subject fights for and believes he is fighting for his own desire, the more he has succumbed to be a mere agent of the desires of an external other. “Only the rival has authority in desire; only he can confer upon the subject the seal of infinitely desirable by desiring it himself. So the subject always makes this rival play an active part as an intermediary, literally that of mediator between himself and the object. The human subject does not really know what to desire, in the last resort. He is quite incapable on his own of fixing his desire on one object and, on his own, of desiring that object consistently and relentlessly.”
Q: Is there a fundamental tradeoff between alienation and control? That is to have close friendships and not be alienated, the proximity will inevitably cause us to converge and thus you lose some of your control?
A: I don’t see a easy way around this. I made a comment about how I felt like I had to have an academic authority to tell me it’s OK to enjoy music before I could. This can be resolved. But I do rely heavily on my close friends to have the courage to go on certain none traditional paths. Perhaps this is a crutch I will grow out of but I do not see how you can develop an intimate relationship with someone else without becoming mimetically similar.
Q: What type of people are susceptible to mimetic desire?
A: 1. biological disposition 2. lack of internal confidence or secure value system 3. usually people who have gone through great strife and conquered it early on. They usually need to transmute their pain and suffering which can only be done so with an absurd amount of meaning usually mediated by a cultural icon. This makes the individual susceptible to mimetic desire.
Under this analysis masochism, latent homosexuality, and morbid jealousy share an underlying structure. “Sexual rivalry is always a mask for a different rivalry” of mimetic nature.
The truly modern form of gullibility is the “illusion of transcending gullibility once and for all” with reductionism and science whose objective form masks it’s subjective categorizations. For example this idea of the phallic symbol and its proliferation: seeing it and explaining all phenomena with it, is gullible to the extreme but its scientific nature aims to show that it transcends gullibility. Similarly, homosexuality is labelled as a perversion and a distinct drive whereas it, or at least some forms of it, are explained by the mimetic drive. To postulate distinct drives is unproductive because it does not give us an underlying model of how things work. Unlike the mimetic hypothesis which explains that “homosexuality, in literary works, is often the eroticizing of mimetic rivalry. The desire bearing on the object of the rivalry — an object that need not even be sexual — is displaced toward the rival. Since the rival need not necessarily be of the same sex — the object itself being not necessarily sexual — this eroticizing of rivalry can also take the form of heterosexuality.”
Mimesis explains why culture is so valuable. Among the right group you can make most people desire most things with fervor. If you can control the models of society, that also trickles down.
The end of Platonism in Psychology
Psychology puts on false labels and creates unjustified classifications and splits to a continuous process. The process of mimesis where “desire becomes detached from the object and attaches itself to the model that is taken as an obstacle” is a single principle which we can derive all we term instincts, drives, fetishized sexuality, characters, symptoms…We humans look for difference, because thinking through such a complicated unifying process is too unobvious and demanding.
Q: This is quite ambitious even for Girard, to show that all human behavior stems from mimesis. Doesn’t he himself admit that mimesis grew during the process of hominization with instinct taking precedence?
“I distrust on principle any form of classification. For me, to isolate illnesses from one another is by definition, to extract them arbitrarily from the continuing process of which they are merely separate stages.” The process of mimesis underlies all forms of human behaviors. Where we see separate illnesses and heterogeneous collection of phenomena, underlying all of them is the mimetic process, directed towards its own truth. We overlook this because metaphysical desire is harder to identify in its later stages precisely because it needs to distort itself to avoid recognition. Madness, for example, involves only the model and caricatural imitation of the model. “It is simply megalomaniac identification, persecution, and so on.” Psychosis occurs when there is no longer “any possibility of making an objective discrimination between doubles.”
Q: Surely it is useful to classify illnesses even if they do all result from mimesis? We need to operate on a higher level of abstraction to deal with certain disease. To disdain the classification of diseases that all stem from the substance of mimesis is like disdaining the names we give chemical compounds because they are all constituted from atoms. There is practical utility in classification.
There is a stark parallel between the victimage mechanism and metaphysical desire, both need to be hidden to be effective, yet both reveal part of their mechanisms in each iteration, thus both become more and more distorted from the original form to escape recognition in an effort to perpetuate itself.
Psychology is a sacrificial institution, it is to metaphysical desire what the sacrificial-Church is to the victimage mechanism. It sets up these abnormal cases and distinct cuts as scapegoats and false essences in an attempt to hide the truth that our own desires are merely less extreme manifestations of the same thing. Just as all sacrificial institutions, psychopathology is facing a crisis, it is harder and harder to face up to the false essences what were called “characters” (discrete) are already deemed “symptoms” (continuous). For example: “the concept of a ‘madman’ has been giving away to notions like ‘psychosis’ which are no more precise but express modifications of the being rather than that being in itself.” Psychotic phenomena (illusions) are still kept separate from neurotic phenomena (mild depression, anxiety) but psychopathology is going to have to face the challenge soon of making them intelligible on a mutual basis.
In our society, the mimetic process does not unfold in the light of day, triggering whole community crises which resolve in the victimage mechanism. “On the contrary, it dominates relationships between individuals in a subterranean fashion, employing forms that possess sufficient permanence to appear to both partners in the guise of well-differentiated and individualized traits of what was first called ‘character’ and later was reinterpreted as ‘symptoms’.” This is what Girard meant by we traded the liberation of our desire for a shared cultural neuroses.
Freud’s Platonism and the Use of the Oedipal Archetype
Freud’s thoughts pillared upon the Oedipal complex and Narcissism while being an outdated and fruitless categorization, are productive when examined in the mimetic lens.
The oedipal complex was invented by Freud when he saw so many triangles form in cases of rivalry in mental patients and literature. He began to look for an archetypal triangle which possessed the stability, universality and the chronological precedence that will enable it to serve as a foundation. He landed upon and was content with the familial triangle without uncovering the imitative nature of all triangular rivalries.
The oedipal complex and mimesis are incompatible for two reasons: 1. the former states that the love for mother is an intrinsic not a learnt one 2. the father serves as a model for identification and apprenticeship but never one for desire; in other words, the child never inherits any desire from the father.
Indeed, in normal families the father only serves as a model for the boy for apprenticeship not for sexual desire. “The family, like all forms of social institutions — in principle, at any rate — furnishes the child with models and prohibitions that avert certain forms of rivalry and alleviate others” by preventing and encouraging different types of mimesis. This prepares the child for a world in which the rules of imitation and rivalry aren’t so clear cut. If a family becomes pathological however, and indeed it often does in our world, “relationships within the family then become similar to what they are outside the family; they become characterized either by total indifference or by the type of morbid attention that accompanies mimetic desire wherever it flourishes, with the family or outside it.”
Q: What is the alternative to morbid attention or indifference?
A: I do think Girard is accurate in saying that in our current society most of our relationships either fall into these two categories. The other I can think of is healthy love. But there also seems to be a healthy relationship governed by prohibitions and hierarchies that is absent in our society, perhaps the master-apprentice relationship.
How do you reproduce a Triangle?
Freudian schools of thought have no answer to the question of how the triangular family relationship is reproduced in one’s adult erotic rivalries. If all behavior stems from the pleasure principle than the pursuit of repeated suffering is an insoluble problem. Freud had to posit another drive “the death instinct”.
The fundamental mechanism which reproduces the oedipal complex is of course mimesis which “precedes representation and exists on the level of animal appetite. This origin does not, of course, prevent mimesis from eventually becoming extremely elaborate and including in its operation the most refined forms of representation.”
The true link between ones childhood relationships and later erotic pursuits “consists in imitating a pre-existing desire — in never desiring any woman except when she is designated by the desire of another. To desire through the mediation of a model is to desire through the mediation of a rival — and to put oneself in the power of that rival.”
This also eliminates the need for a death instinct, because in the absence of the victimage mechanism this drive cannot lead anywhere but to more and more destruction as well as death. The Oedipus complex must be formally rejected: “if the subject truly inherited his desire from his own past, he could not so readily adopt the desire of another model.”
People blame the modern family and patriarchy for perverse Oedipal adult eroticisms. Yet, it is not because they are repressive, but rather because they have been less restraining and limiting that they are the origins of these difficulties. Their decrease of repression (which indicates to the child what and what not to imitate) leads to a further undifferentiated world that is filled with unrestrained mimetic rivalries.
Mimesis and Representation
Missing from both Freud and Plato is that mimesis is itself a desire and therefore the real unconscious (we have a desire to imitate). “The subject indeed has his eyes fixed upon a model, but this model is not a triangle, a geometrical figure, a mother or a father… It is a desire that the imitator has no need to represent and is even capable of representing.” By representation, we mean explicit awareness. It is not that we have built in circuitry for the Oedipal complex, but it is one layer deeper: we have a layer to fix our attention on the formless desire of mimesis. It is not capable of representation because we never explicitly or consciously desire to imitate and the struggles that come with it. Instead, it always manifests as an apparent first-order (but actually second-order) desire for an object. We do not want the object but desire itself!
Desire seeks to perpetuate itself, this explains Nietzsche’s will to power nicely.
If we are exposed to mimetic rivalry and interpret its effects in a way that puts emphasis on the rival over oneself, that is more mental energy is put on the rival rather than what you hope to gain from the object, one is naturally susceptible for metaphysical desire to take reign. We will only be able to desire that which is guarded with in a context of morbid jealousy, masochism and latent homosexuality.
If someone fully gives up to mimetic desire, he will be incapable of desiring an object in the absence of a model and obstacle who also desires. In the mimetic rivalry, the subject has no wish to triumph over the rival which would render the object valueless. Nor does he wish the rival to triumph over him for that would enhance value in the object but render the subject unable to capture any of that created value. “Rivalry is intolerable, but the absence of rivalry is even more intolerable. It brings the subject up against nothingness.” The subject is brought against nothingness because he no longer knows how to desire without an obstacle.
This is when doubles truly form. When you cannot even desire without the other, you are quite indifferent about the object as long as it is desired by the other. It comes at no surprise then that Dostoevsky novels frequently contain male protagonists who brings women he loves with his rival in hopes that they will become a couple.
The problem of Freud is the problem of Plato: It is impossible to contain dynamic processes within a system of archetypes. He is forced to create more and more essences just as structuralists are forced to make more and more cuts which ultimately are unable to contain the complexity.
The Double Genesis of Oedipus
Freud identifies an ambivalence felt for the rival, “the contradictory feelings the model inspires when he becomes a rival.” The model/obstacle inspires both veneration and affection as well as hostility and aggression.
Pushed to its extreme one can feel both hatred and veneration, a phenomena that Freud struggles and fails to capture by even further categorization. Only through the mimetic process can we see why hostility and affection not only can but must increase proportionately to one another in the mimetic process.
In his later years, Freud himself seemed unsatisfied by the rigidity and fixity of his own theories. Thus, he posits the fundamental bisexuality of human beings, attempting to smooth out, in a continuous manner, the attenuated division between hetero and homosexuality. Of course, this is unsatisfactory in its own way when examined with the mimetic process.
Narcissism: Freud’s Desire
Freud draws a binary distinction between the mature object-desire that only exists in men who are ‘truly men’, the ones who have renounced part of their libido/ego and narcissism, and the narcissistic desire, the tendency to desire oneself as an object and focus attention unduly on oneself often exemplified by beautiful female coquets. He sees these as the two poles of desire that we are innately born with: the former is the Oedipal desire for the mother and the latter is the infantile, grandiose desire for oneself.
Interestingly, as a point of incongruency, Freud identifies but can not explain why the object-desire tends to irrationally desire the self-centered narcissist rather than pursue its own interest and look for an object that is equally self-sacrificing. This is most apparent in sex but appeals to all forms of relationships. “For it seems very evident that another person’s narcissism has a great attraction for those who have renounced part of their own narcissism and are on the search of object-love. The charm of a child lies to a great extent in his narcissism, his self-contentment and inaccessibility.”
This false dichotomy overlooks the fact that the object and narcissistic desire is not inversely proportional nor separate essences.
The coquet who never fails to attract the object-desire of males can credit her success no less to her indifference than her beauty. This façade of self-sufficiency and impregnable libidinal position is a strategy rather than an essence. She understands that in order to be desired, one must convince others that one desires oneself.
Narcissistic desire is not inversely proportional to object-desire because it is similarly outward facing, in that it needs others to maintain its own illusion. The locus of her desire still resides externally, she can only desire herself by imitating the desire of others. “She needs masculine desires, directed at her, to feed her coquetry and enable her to play her role as a coquette. She has no more self-sufficiency than the man who desires her, but the success of her strategy allows her to keep up the appearance of it, since it offers her a form of desire she can copy… it nourishes her self-sufficiency, which would fall to pieces if she were wholly deprived of admiration. To sum up: in just the same way as the admirer caught in the trap of coquetry imitates the desire that he really believes to be narcissistic, so the flame of coquetry can only burn on the combustible material provided by the desires of others.”
They are also not different essences either for in the initial state all desires seek to be narcissistic desires. Narcissism is the only metaphysical desire that does not experience a self-insufficiency in the face of the obstacle for it outsources this feeling to the subjects of the inbound object-desires and becomes the impenetrable obstacle. This describes how the two poles result from similar essences: “In a world that is utterly devoid of objective criteria, desires are devoted entirely to mimetism; everyone has to try to convert to his own benefit mimetism that is still seeking a point to fix on which it will always find by reference to other desires. So each person must feign the most impressive narcissism, must advertise as subtly as he can the desire that he experiences for himself, so that he can compel others to imitate this appetizing desire.”
This is the second reason, after the collapse of prohibition, of why mimetic desire runs rampant in our society. After our primary needs (food, sex, shelter…) have been satisfied, true value becomes hard to discern. This is exacerbated by the fact our value system is becoming more and more abstract and further away from base layer goods in themselves.
Thus object-desire is just unsuccessful narcissistic desire. It should come as no surprise that object-desire should direct to narcissists since it copies the desires of a strong libido that desires itself. The narcissist is the object par excellence of desire because it is a model, obstacle, and object. The object-desire is impoverished from the outset but it cherishes the richness the narcissist seems to keep for itself and is capable of protecting. “It dreams of the riches of narcissism — indeed, desire never dreams of anything else.”
The narcissistic desire is just a successful object-desire: it still requires others to reaffirm its desire in its host; self sufficiency is an illusion. Object-desire is just an unsuccessful narcissistic desire: it wants to love itself and be self-sustaining but it failed so it instead imitates an object who can. “What polarizes these two types of desire and fixes upon one particular double can only be the result of clever maneuvering and does not imply any essential difference.” In our world, books upon books have tried to teach us how to win in this maneuvering, indicating the crazy scale of mimetic rivalry rampant in our times.
The idea that we grow out of our narcissism or that we renounce it is a lie, a type of Nietzschean resentment — the defensive strategy of losers. “The coquette has exactly the same desire as he does — turned in a slightly different direction, perhaps, but that does not change anything essential… The definition of narcissism and the definition of object-directed desire always imply one another reciprocally: narcissism is what object-directed desire really desires, and object-directed desire is what narcissism does not desire — by virtue of the fact that it is not desired, feels itself to be impoverished in relation to the colossal richness of narcissism.”
Thus desire conforms to capitalistic principles: “if he already possesses more of it, he will manage to get still more, since every desire converges upon him. Less strong manas are attracted by his and come to increase its bulk, while they themselves get thinner and thinner… Desire always pursues desire, just as money pursues money.”
As a leader, not only are you a Beckerian transference object but also everyone’s mimetic rival. Your reign and godhood can switch to being a victim at any moment because the amount of attention put on you through veneration and disdain.
However, just like all models of mimetic desire, narcissism also inspires resentment. Once object-desire realizes it is the victim of an illusion, it must convince itself that the other’s self-sufficiency has no right to exist by disenchanting and demystifying him. This advanced form of mimetic desire insistent on pursuing demystification ensures that the illusions of the past are destroyed without providing new illusions, providing everyone an equal share in the universal deprivation (not unlike the equality in misery in uniformly oppressive political movements).
The true incongruency which Freud noted is how, rooting from the Oedipal desire, object-desire can direct us to the least maternal being possible: a woman with intact narcissism. This is resolved once we consider that desire “invariably goes off in search of a mirage that will increase its lack rather than remedy it. Desire will little by little make any form of satisfaction or even communication with the loved person quite impossible — desire proceeds in the direction of dissociation, decomposition and death.”
The Metaphors of Desire
Freud conceives of the target of object-desire, the narcissist, in contradictory ways. On one hand, the object is portrayed as lacking self-awareness: the metaphors through which Freud describes the object tend to infantilize and bestialize the object, associating with it a violence that causes expulsion. But on the other, it represents a form of self-sufficiency that is fully realized by its more radiant awareness.
Proust, unlike Freud, does not fall prey to this paradox for he recognizes the illusive nature of self-sufficiency of the narcissist.
In one of his novels, Proust, paints the picture of a group of young, selective, beautiful women who incarnate both absolute and diminished awareness. Diminished, as they are described using animal imagery. Absolute, in the sense that there seems to be a metaphysical barrier between the group and the crowd: “between the desirable and the person who desires there is no possibility of communication… the crowd does not exclude the little band the little band excludes the crowd. The whole description aims to establish a mirage of extraordinary self-sufficiency.” The power of this group is further mediated and symbolized by their laughter of out-group members, a form of expulsion. Furthermore, religious imagery is brought into the foreground as the narrator describes the richness of the group. Self-sufficiency is a modern vestige of the sacred — all man is dependent, only God can be self-sufficient.
But “Proust goes further than Freud in his analysis of desire. He never makes the mistake of supposing that, besides object-directed desire — which causes an impoverishment of the libido — there exists a narcissistic desire that is directed toward the same and not toward absolute otherness, aiming at what most resembles the narcissistic subject himself. Proust knows very well that there is no desire except desire for absolute difference and that the subject always lack this difference absolutely… The chief point is that desire never aims at anything but difference and that difference always fascinates it, in whatever form, even in what remains wedded to the past or what has progressed much further in the disintegration of all differences that mimesis brings about.”
Q: Why is desire always external and directed at absolute difference?
A: Girard is talking about metaphysical desire here and not healthy object based desire. Desire is directed externally because 1. we become disillusioned at whatever we obtain, therefore we conclude what can bring us happiness must lie in what we do not have. 2. desire throws itself against the sharpest reef and that is the most different.
Girard explains why we have the “grass is greener” symptom.
“What impoverishes the ego is the very desire to be that ego — the desire for the kind of narcissism that is never ours but can be seen radiating from the other to whom we enslave ourselves. We need such things as the present-day fetishism of difference (which has replaced the failed ego fetishism) in order to feed the engine of undifferentiation and the decreasing sense of concrete difference.” If we follow our metaphysical desires and deify others we begin chasing an unobtainable ideal.
Q: What is the nature of this present-day fetishism of difference?
A: Desire is unwilling to accept that there is no more difference, no fence over which the grass is greener because of how undifferentiated current society is. Thus it finds the smallest and most insignificant forms of difference imaginable and fetishizes it, distorting it until it seems to be the most drastic form of difference so our desire can stay alive. We are unsatisfied with our current state, desire claims to know how to bring us satisfaction, but we can only indulge ourselves in its rhetoric if we see a difference to struggle towards.
Early Proust, as seen through his work Jean Santeuil, shares the naïve Freudian understanding of narcissistic desire. Jean exhibits the most aristocratic of social circles and exemplifies the “artistic temperament” which is unequivocally intertwined with a narcissistic ego. The metaphysically enclosed individual is “the true origin of any kind of spiritual and poetic richness: it transfigures everything by communicating a fleeting beauty that derives only from itself and belongs to itself alone … Here we have the Romantic and Symbolist aesthetic at its most banal, celebrating the ego’s superiority over the world and making that ego the origin and foundation of all poetry; the poet indulges in a kind of noble and generous error when he commits himself to beings and things that are outside of him.”
Freud falls for this trap of essence unable to recognize that it is a strategy from mimetic desire which presents a façade of inexhaustible richness as an invitation for others to make it the object of their desire to fund its original project.
Proust’s understanding of the vanity of mimetic desire and the narcissistic personality matures in his later works as seen through the protagonist of A La Recherche. The best comparison is a scene that plays out in both works: the theatre. Jean is the one in the prestigious booth examining his counterparts as if a God examining ants. The more realistic narrator of A la Recherche is looking into the booth and also cowers in front of the “almost unearthly spectacle of the box full of aristocrats.” Yet, the latter piece recognizes that this divine phenomena only exists in the mirage of desire, that is, only in the object-desiring person’s imagination and not the narcissist’s reality. In fact, the narrator loses interest in any prestigious, and just a minute before, divine-seeming social circle he is invited to.
Sacrifice and Psychotherapy
Desire has no reality in itself, unless seen from the perspective of the one who desires. It is not hard to understand this in an abstract and intellectual manner especially when applied to other people.
The intellectual process and any experience of a purely philosophical nature can barely secure any victory for the individual over mimetic desire and its delusions. “Intellection can achieve only displacement and substitution” morphing the way we desire into an unintelligible form but never expelling it completely. True progress away from mimetic desire “can usually be linked to the trials that desire obliges us to suffer, but however harsh these trials may be,” there is no guarantee that one will experience the “fall” necessary to rid us of our delusions.
This fall is analogous to religious conversion or primitive initiation and involves “collapsing, or at the very least shaking to their foundations, all the things that are based upon our interdividual oppositions — consequently, everything that we can call our “ego”, our “personality”, our “temperament”, and so on.” Primitive religious institutions have initiations designed to break out mimetic desire with its perpetual states of crisis, “a question of escaping from the violence of doubles and the exasperating illusion of subjective difference” not unlike how oriental religion’s raison d’etre is to help practitioners break through the cycle of life and death, although their renunciation is more complete and total.
Such a fall obliterates any form of metaphysical desire by showing its emptiness. It is a humbling and secularizing experience which obliterates pillars of meaning that are based off of mimetic desire and in the process enables the fallen to find true object value. The ego is the method through which mimesis acts upon us. Every religion and philosophy is in some convoluted arch or another pointing out that I should begin killing my ego.
There is a contemporary hostility to this idea of conversion. “What rouses the modern conscience against any form of initiation or conversion is a refusal to allow any distinctions — they are now considered hypocritical, in the gospel sense — between legitimate and illegitimate violence.” Violence needs to be taken liberally here in terms of all forms of suffering, expulsion, mental strife is looked down upon, even ones that may be conducive to growth. This refusal is reasonable and commendable but is a form of sacrifice none the less. It washes contemporaries’ hands clean of the blood which our civilizations were built upon. “Now the sacrifice will be kept going in the very gestures that claim to abolish it, in the people’s burning indignation about everything that still expels, oppresses and persecutes.”
Our culture is one that judges against judging, we are intolerant to anything that is slightly exclusive, we are hostile at anything that gives the semblance of hostility. Frankl noticed how Americans are so afraid of totalitarianism that they refrain from giving suggestions. This is a form of sacrifice because it cleanses us of any responsibility or connection to our forefathers.
“Frequently this conclusion implies a spirit of hatred and violence that is itself an aberration. The proof of this lies in the fact that the Judaeo-Christian text is misunderstood; people try to erase it completely from our memories and take pleasure in the idea that by now the process is more or less complete.” The expulsion is a form of sacrifice because it is throwing the baby out with the bath water, a nuance-less expulsion of an entire segment of thought with the intentions of providing a certain mental tranquility and identity of justice to the groups doing the expulsion.
The Judeo-Christian God is distinctly separate from the old gods but they do form a continuum: even old sacrificial religions were bent on preserving peace.
Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Structural Psychoanalysis:
The problem with structuralism is that it can never fully resolve the difference and separation in the layer of symbols and representation existing in the psyche and the undifferentiated symmetries of the actual interdividual psyche itself. It is confused by the clean and disjoint structures that arise from a continuous function.
A great example of how they refuse to peak behind seemingly disjoint process is Freud’s interpretation of the Fort/Da (Gone/There) game in which a child manipulates the disappearance and appearance of an object until finally throwing it away. His reading is that the child reproduces the arrival and departure of the mother and eventually expels the object in revenge of her absence. The repetitive ritual game is designed to guarantee mastery over an unpleasant experience.
Yet, contrary to Freud, the expulsion is not primary but secondary, the broader primary mechanism at play is the mimetic one. The kid is producing the expulsion that is inherent in all victimage processes. Either the child imitates this symbolic expulsion from adults or the natural spirit of violence suggests to him how to combat the state of powerlessness when no real revenge on the offender can be committed, namely to scapegoat and sacrifice.
Post-Freud, there are two paths: to maintain the structure of difference which is only possible on the level of language or to focus on acquisitive mimesis “that is to say, in discovering the conflictual nature of imitation.” This path, which many pursue but just end up creating their own structures when they are about to discover the mechanism, would destroy all the Freudian myths of Oedipus and Narcissus when taken to it’s logical conclusion.
Q: Why is imitation conflictual in nature? Indeed it leads to conflict but is there any reason why the act of imitation is conflictual in and of itself?
A: Perhaps only a subset of imitation is conflictual, namely the acquisitive kind when you imitate a desire for a scarace object. Violence seems to suggest the victimage mechanism when the agent is in a state of powerlessness. And the victimage mechanism, at a group level is imitative: it imitates and confirms the choice of scapegoat.
The Death Instinct and Modern Culture
Desire is totally divorced from pleasure. “In a certain sense, desire has pleasure in tow.” It is important to keep in mind that Girard is commenting on metaphysical desire rather than its more sober object counterpart.
Freud necessarily has to postulate a death instinct as a least-worse explanation which he himself admits to. It is indeed a compulsion to repeat acts which are directed towards death and annihilation but is in no way a separate instinct.
This is how the death instinct comes to be: “The subject who is not able to decide for himself on the object that he should desire relies upon the desire of another person. And he automatically transforms the model desire into a desire that opposes and frustrates his own. Because he does not understand the automatic character of the rivalry, the imitator soon converts the very fact of being opposed, frustrated and rejected into the major stimulant of his desire. In one way or another, he proceeds to inject more and more violence into his desire. To identify this tendency is to recognize that, in the last resort, desire tends towards death, both the death of the model and obstacle (murder) and the death of the subject himself (self-destruction and suicide). This dynamic of mimetic desire does not operate only in those who are ‘sick’, in those who push the mimetic process too far to be able to function normally; it is also, as Freud acknowledged, a feature of the people we call ‘normal’.”
“Giving yourself over to the mimetic obstacle is like wandering among the tombs. It is committing yourself to death.”
The death instinct and the pleasure principle are two sides of the same coin. “The seductive effect that intact narcissism has on the unfortunate object-directed desire can be interpreted just as well through the death instinct as through the pleasure principle. It is certainly a surplus of life or pleasure that makes the pretty coquette glitter in the eyes of Freud and awaken his desire. But she always brings him just the opposite.” The coin is of course mimetic desire. “Mimetic desire thinks that it always chooses the most life-affirming path, whereas in actuality it turns increasingly toward the obstacle — toward sterility and death. Only what seems implacably indifferent or hostile, only the doors that fail to open when we knock, can awaken this desire. That is why mimetic desire knocks in the places where there is no one to open and tends to mistake the thickest of walls for doors.”
Modernity is particularly troubled by mimetic desire and its tendency towards death. Every part of our culture converges to death including the types of thought (Freud’s death instinct) that draw attention to this convergence. The nuclear rivalry is a great example of this phenomena.
Not only are our cultural institutions which control mimetic desire torn down under the name of oppression, but the post-modernist cultural discourse obliterates objective value and opens the field for mimetic desire to run rampant.
“All member of the post-modern family file in behind the hearse that leads the way to the places described by the prophet Jeremiah, the desert generated by idolatrous desire.”
Skandalon, usually translated as scandal, obstacle, stumbling block, is never a material object in the Gospels but always another human. “Scandal invariably involves an obsessional obstacle, raised up by mimetic desire with all its empty ambitions and ridiculous antagonisms. It is not an obstacle that just happens to be there and merely has to be got out of the way; it is the model exerting its special form of temptation, causing attraction to the extent that it is an obstacle and forming an obstacle to the extent that it can attract. The skandalon is the obstacle/model of mimetic rivalry; it is the model in so far as he works counter to the undertakings of the disciple and so becomes an inexhaustible source of morbid fascination… The scandalous would not be scandalous if it did not form an irresistible and impossible example, offering itself for imitation, as both model and anti-model at the same time.” The skandalon binds and blinds. It is no better for the person provoking the scandal for difference will begin to vanish as the scandal itself, the symbolic dimension of the mimetic rivalry, becomes primary.
Jesus warns Peter of his unavoidable descent into scandal and betrayal precisely because he claims his own immunity. Because “to imagine oneself immune to scandal is to claim the self-sufficiency of the god of violence and so to expose oneself to imminent disaster.”
Reminds me of Moore’s warning about how close evil really is and how the battle never is over.
Our society commonly mistakes laws as the obstacles rather than an attempt to eliminate the true obstacles of mimetic rivalries and foresee the circumstances of human violence. This is an extremely important thread: without proper laws, “it is fathers and sons, neighbors and friends, who become obstacles for one another.” People still blame the oppressive institutional laws whose effectiveness are on the wane. It is precisely the fact that our worlds have less and less fixed and institutionalized barriers that we no longer differentiate ourselves and allow mimetic contagion to run rampant. We are met with more barriers the fewer laws and restrictions there are. Our insistence on blaming any existing social structure is a form of scapegoating which will further expel any existing structure which can only make the root problem of mimetic rivalries worse. “Scandal always arrives through humans, and it always affects other humans: this circular process is that of doubles and of all the expressions of mimetic desire that we have been discussing over the past few days.”
“The indignation caused by scandal is invariably a feverish desire to differentiate between the guilty and the innocent, to allot responsibilities, to unmask the guilty secret without fear or favor and to distribute punishment.” Scandal always calls for demystification, but demystification universalizes and propagates it because 1. the more passionate and emotional the scandal, the more the difference between those on opposite sides tends to be abolished 2. the scandal really is violence, the demystification and release of this violent knowledge perpetuates violence 3. the act of demystification is one of expulsion, to exclude yourself from the guilty. This is the victimage mechanism and usually harbors more violence.
More often than not, demystification is hypocritical: one denounces and expels another in hopes that it will spare oneself. “Judge not, that ye be not judged” and “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” all condemn how the “critic fails to see that his own act of condemnation reproduces the structural features of the act deserving condemnation, in a form that is emphasized by the very inability of the perspicacious critique to see its own failings… There is no place from which the truth can speak, except the one from which Christ himself speaks — that of the perfectly innocent and non-violent victim, which he alone can occupy.” Violence should be interpreted broadly here to include many and most forms of expulsion.
To resolve this, the Gospels do not claim we can be rid of imitation nor would that be a desirable state. Instead, they recommend imitating the sole model who never runs the danger of being transformed into a fascinating rival.
“On one side are the prisoners of violent imitation, which always leads to a dead end, and on the other are the adherents of non-violent imitation, will meet with no obstacle. As we have seen, the victims of mimetic desire knock at all the doors that are firmly closed and search only where nothing is to be found. On one side is the bet that is always lost, since it seeks being where only death resides, and on the other is the road to the Kingdom, which may seem arid but in reality is the only fruitful one. In all truth, it is an easy one, since the very real barriers that await us are nothing compared with the obstacles raised up by metaphysical desire: Ask and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds and to him who knocks it will be opened.”
We are slowly revealing the true reading of the Gospel texts. But this text (Things Hidden) is not qualitatively different from it’s forefathers. It is in the same historical successions of all it has critiqued for “we treat them in the same polemical spirit and with the same unceremonious lack of fairness as they treated their predecessors. Like them, we are motivated by the worldly ambition to refute and replace the dominant modes of thought.” The only difference is that we are at a more advanced mode of thought.
Q: But how else are you supposed to progress understanding? Don’t you necessarily have to expel old ways of thinking? This question can be expanded to the entire political sphere? How can you found culture without violence?
Philosophical thought is not scientific: it does not allow hypothesis, no one asks “does it work”. It instead derives it’s truth value from certain methodologies. “Our hypothesis had this scientific status because it is not directly accessible to empirical or phenomenological intuition.” A discipline can only be genuinely scientific by having sufficient detachment from data. This distance paves the way for the only verification science concerns herself with: engineering confrontations to see if the hypothesis holds up. We need to pay for every insight with some form of blindness; trading the descriptiveness of the close up trees for a view of the forest.
The philosophical tradition is too reliant on methodologies instead of using a hypothetical approach. These methodologies nurture illusions in that they create false differences and are susceptible to system building that is coherent but detached from reality. They are also too close to the data to separate the forest from the trees. Philosophy has used up its resources.
Q: “The crisis of philosophy is the crisis of all forms of cultural difference” what is meant by this? What is this crisis? Is it the crisis of decreasing differentiation?
We live in an era populated by myths of demystification, deifying any and all efforts to kill deities. In other words, our expulsion of sacrifice is total but not complete: we look everywhere to expel any creed that expels, we are intolerant to any who shows intolerance, and we judge all who judge. We see the speck on our neighbors eyes without realizing the hypocrisy of our own actions. We have not reached nor know how to pragmatically reach the one position where truth can be announced: the position of the innocent and non-violent Christ.
This cultural backdrop occurs because of the wave of demystification that the Gospel text slowly but surely heralds. It’s descendent schools of thought have done their negative work, analyzing and dismembering the sacrificial forms that were in existence but humanity has been no more willing to give up sacrifice. They have no choice but to go for one another from now on.
“It is the same with the private discourses of delirium and psychosis as it is with the discourses of politics and sociology; meaning is deconstructed, but this process is inseparable from the one of putting on show certain kinds of victim in a way that is still effectively unilateral and revengeful. The notion that the victimage process is a universal one remains hidden from view. What marks our various forms of discourse — even those that appear the most playful and benevolent, or those that like to think of themselves as hardly significant at all — is their radically polemical character. The victims are always there, and everyone is always sharpening his weapon for use against his neighbor in a desperate attempt to win himself somewhere — even if only in an indefinite, Utopian future — a plot of innocence that he can inhabit on his own, or in the company of a regenerate human race. The paradox is strange but quite logical sacrifice is the stake in the struggle between doubles, with everyone accusing everyone else of giving in to it, everyone trying to settle his own account with sacrifice by a final sacrifice that would expel evil for good.”
This radical demystification but remaining reliance on myth is made all the more worse by a huge wave of skepticism. We are told that there is no language worthy of our adherence than the scientific one. It denies any place of thinking on the human scale. We are witnessing the death of all cultures and it comes at an unfortunate and dangerous time: “Condemning humanity to nonsense and nothingness at the very moment when they have achieved the means of annihilating everything in a blink of the eye, entrusting the future of the human habitat to individuals who now have nothing to guide them but their desires and their ‘death instincts’ — all of this is not a reassuring prospect, and it speaks volumes about the incapacity of modern science and ideology to master the forces that they have placed in our hands.”
Q: Why does Girard announce the death of all cultures?
A: 1. meaninglessness from demystification with no alternative. We don’t yet know how to build a culture not off a founding expulsion. 2. The disintegration of difference as cultures participate in vicitimage mechanisms copying each others strategies. 3. Demystification threatens to collapse all our social institutions that are founded off of violence.
“Present-day thought is the worst form of castration, since it is the castration of the signified. People are always on the look-out to catch their neighbors red-handed in believing something or other.” We are killing any meaning because most meaning and signs are built off some form of expulsion and thus are targets for demystification. The ideology we subscribe to spreads the most deadening boredom even in the most novel situations.
How can we progress forward?
It is impossible for us to turn to the catastrophic ideologies of the twentieth century or the great thinkers of the nineteenth century nor even more traditional forms of Christianity to guide us. It is important for us to rediscover something in which we can believe. But we cannot cheat and pull a wool over our eyes ignoring the cruelties of existence. We must work within the constraints of our time. One such constraint is that any belief must be without any form of ethnocentrism or perhaps even anthropocentrism.
The project of this book is to push the modern iconoclasm of twentieth and nineteenth century thought to it’s inevitable conclusion: “we have come out not simply with a particular mode of the victimage principle, but with a recognition of the principle in itself — as the only truly central and universal principle.”
The path forward is not clear, how to build an ideology or culture not founded upon expulsion or violence when the victimage mechanism is almost apparent in culture is an unanswered challenge. “We must place our bets either on the total disappearance of the human race or on our arriving at forms of freedom and awareness that we can hardly imagine, swaddled as we are in myths that now have become, paradoxically, myths of demystification. We think we can bring these myths to a positive conclusion through our own means, but they are actually leading us straight to deconstruction, now that there are no more others to demystify.” We cannot simply follow the steps of our forefathers and continue in deconstruction and demystification.
Before, every great crisis has been about driving violence out of the community but it always did this at the expense of the victims. Today, it is still a matter of rejecting violence and reconciling people, but there is no other and no outside.
Our current scenario does not deserve excessive praise nor condemnation. It is extraordinary that we live in the most tolerant age, a height of good fortune. The non-sacrificial reading of Christianity paves the way forward. “They make us see that the present crisis is not an absurd dead-end… We have carved out such a strange destiny for ourselves so that we can bring to light both what has always determined human culture and what is now the only path open to us — one that reconciles without excluding anyone and no longer has any dealings with violence… the crisis of the present day does not become in any way les threatening. But it does take on some hope for the future — which means a genuinely human significance, A new kind of humanity is in the process of gestation.”
Above all, there are no more formulas or recipes to be followed. What we observe as sound and fury signifying nothing in our cultural and political discourses does not lack significance. The peace that we seek can only arise on the other side of this mimetic passion for justice and judgement. It “still possesses us but we are less and less likely to confuse with the totality of being.” Truth (of the victimage mechanism and its universality) is not a mere empty word, “I hold that everything capable of diverting us from madness and death, from now on, is inextricably linked with this truth.”
Maybe that’s the secret: Subversion. In the bible, it did say no one can occupy the position of Christ. So maybe we have to use our methods while being aware of their nature while putting up a public façade.
“Present-day thought is leading us in the direction of the valley of death, and it is cataloguing the dry bones one by one. All of us are in this valley but it is up to us to resuscitate meaning by relating all the texts to one another without exception, rather than stopping at just a few of them. All issues of ‘psychological health’ seem to me to take second place to a much greater issue — that of meaning which is being lost or threatened on all sides but simply awaits the breath of the Spirit to be reborn.”