Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

An Introduction to Mimetic Theory

Mimetic theory, founded by the philosopher and anthropologist René Girard, offers an explanation of how human violence has its origin in mimetic (imitated) desire and rivalry. It offers a stark new light on human society, on our literature and our myths. It has initiated a new hermeneutic of Scripture the impact of which is only just beginning to be felt. I would argue that it is the most important idea of our generation.

Human beings behave mimetically; we imitate one another’s desires. Where that desire cannot be universally satisfied, this leads to rivalry and conflict. Violence, too, is imitated and spreads mimetically. And so a vicious spiral of rivalry and violence and vengeance begins. In imitating our models/rivals we become more and more alike until we become undifferentiated, enacting each other’s violence mimetically.

A society in the grip of such a mimetic spiral is on the brink of its own destruction. And yet some societies manage to survive. How? According to Girard’s study of archaic societies, those which survive find ways of protecting themselves from their own internal violence. Structures of taboo keep potential rivals apart, if the taboo is strong enough to inhibit mimetic desire or at least to keep it latent.

If taboo fails, a society in a mimetic crisis has a safety valve. Someone is singled out, usually a stranger or someone who slightly more different than everyone else, because that is easier. A suggestion that this individual is responsible for the threat to society gains credence, and soon consensus, for the suggestion spreads by mimesis. The individual has become the society’s scapegoat. All the violence in the society, which had been threatening its own existence, now becomes aligned against this individual, who is excluded from the society, usually by being killed. In the society this produces unity, peace, a recovery of order. The change seems almost miraculous, a blessing from the gods.

But, because violence is dangerously contagious, the scapegoat mechanism can only prevent the mimesis of violence by concealing it, so it adopts a mythological disguise. The society literally does not know and cannot know what it is doing when it blames the scapegoat for its own ills. So, monstrous taboo-breaking crimes, and disasters such as the arrival of plague, are attributed to the scapegoat, whose killing is then viewed as a magical cure for the ensuing ills. But there is another face to the myth; as the death of the scapegoat results in a miraculous recovery of social order and thus prosperity, the victim becomes imbued with divine qualities, bringing both curse and blessing. This even gives rise to myths of dying and rising gods, for the victim who exercises such power after being killed cannot really be dead. Sacrifice, usually with animals, is instituted as a ritual re-enactment of this death, for it is discovered that a small dose of ritually contained violence is normally enough to defuse a society’s internal violence and save it from its own destruction. But again, the society does not and cannot know that this is how sacrifice works. The original murder is forgotten and the reasons for sacrifice explained in terms of myth: the gods need to be fed or propitiated. Any actual advertence to the founding murder would risk its imitation. Religion thus appears as both a product of human violence and its concealing veil. As Girard puts it, “violence is the heart and secret soul of the sacred”.

So far this is just simple but brilliant anthropology. Girard, however, observed that the Bible was the only ancient text he had read that didn’t try to disguise its violence behind a veil of myth; in the book of Joshua, for example, it’s all there in plain view. The mimetic mechanisms of violence are not disguised. The progression from scapegoat to sacrificial religion in so many places is plain to see. At the same time the text seemed to be struggling with a different, non-violent understanding of God. It never quite managed to disguise the innocence of the victims.

Above all, in Jesus Girard saw one whose teaching continually sought to expose and undermine human violence, and who himself entered into and endured all that it could inflict, voluntarily becoming the scapegoat, the substitute victim of our heart of darkness. It was this realisation that led to Girard’s commitment to Christian faith.

In the resurrection of Jesus God vindicated the victim, and revealed that the violence that killed him was not of God. It was the religious people who put Jesus to death, who thought that their violence was enacting how God wanted human society to be. Jesus was put to death as a transgressor. But the resurrection reveals what God is really like, and this turns out to be wholly different from the imagination conditioned by the “god” of sacrificial religion and substitute violence. Jesus, returning from the dead to the people who betrayed him and ran away, does not enact vengeance, but forgiveness. This revelation is of a new way of living, free from sacrifice; the life that God lives is opened up for all to enter into, if we will but repent of our own violence. We can be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2), we can receive the new imagination of God which is at the same time the new imagination of what it is to be human. As Girard says, “A good theory about humanity must be based on a good theory about God” (Battling to the End, p xv).

Further reading:

G Bailie, Violence Unveiled, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1995

P Dumouchel (Ed) Violence and Truth – on the work of René Girard, The Athlone Press, 1988

R Girard & B Chantre (M Baker, translator), Battling to the End, Michigan State University Press, 2010.

R Girard (Y Freccero, translator), Desire, Deceit and the Novel, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965

R Girard (JG Williams, translator), I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Orbis Books, 2001

R Girard (Y Freccero, translator), The Scapegoat, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986

R Girard (S Bann & M Metteer, translators), Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, Stanford University Press, 1987

R Girard (P Gregory, translator), Violence and the Sacred, Continuum, 1988 (first published in English by The Johns Hopkins University Press 1977)

RG Hamerton-Kelly (Ed), Violent Origins, Stanford University Press, 1987

M Kirwan, Discovering Girard, Darton, Longman & Todd, 2004

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