Saturday, November 7, 2015

RIP Rene Girard

Rene Girard, one of the leading cultural theorists of the twentieth century, has died. Rene's thought combined a profoundly skeptical, even cynical attitude toward most of human behavior with a deep Catholic faith. Some people see these as the two sides of a coin; to Girard, faith was necessary because humanity was so depraved, and Christianity must be true because it is the beautiful negation of human ugliness.

Brian McDonald offers a simple explanation of Girard's anthropology:
Picture two young children playing happily on their porch, a pile of toys beside them. The older child pulls a G.I. Joe from the pile and immediately, his younger brother cries out, “No, my toy!”, pushes him out of the way, and grabs it. The older child, who was not very interested in the toy when he picked it up, now conceives a passionate need for it and attempts to wrest it back. Soon a full fight ensues, with the toy forgotten and the two boys busy pummeling each other.

As the fight intensifies, the overweight child next door wanders into their yard and comes up to them, looking for someone to play with. At that point, one of the two rivals looks up and says, “Oh, there’s old fat butt!” “Yeah,” says his brother. “Big fat butt!” The two, having forgotten the toy, now forget their fight and run the child back home. Harmony has been restored between the two brothers, though the neighbor is now indoors crying.

It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that Girard builds his whole theory of human nature and human culture through a close analysis of the dynamics operating in this story. Most human desires are not “original” or spontaneous, he argues, but are created by imitating another whom he calls the “model.” When the model claims an object, that tells another that it is desirable—and that he must have it instead of him. Girard calls this “mimetic” (or imitative) desire. In the subsequent rivalry, the two parties will come to forget the object and will come to desire the conflict for itself. Harmony will only be restored if the conflicting parties can vent their anger on a common enemy or “scapegoat.”

With the lucidity characteristic of French thought before the “deconstructionist” writers, and a consistency reminiscent of Calvin, Girard shows, throughout the body of his work, how his theory of “mimetic” desire can illuminate and unify an extraordinarily disparate set of human phenomena. It can explain everything from sacrifice to conflict, from mythology to Christianity.

Mimetic desire accounts for the nature of human culture. Early human cultures, thinks Girard, must have been marked by violence as mimetic desire drew human beings into unceasing conflict. Ultimately, the object would disappear from view and be replaced by the conflict itself. Thus, most conflicts, either ancient or modern, are almost literally over “nothing,” with essentially identical rivals seeking only the prestige that comes from achieving victory over each other.

Primitive societies would have few mechanisms for containing the spreading contagion of mimetic violence, so Girard concludes that such societies would have inevitably decimated themselves had they not found a mechanism for containing the conflict.

This mechanism he locates in another fundamental human characteristic: our propensity for “scapegoating.” At some stage in a cycle of mimetic violence, the community spontaneously turns on one of its members as the one who is to blame for it all.
While mimetic violence divides each against each, scapegoating violence unites all against one. [Girard mainly has in mind animal sacrifice - jcb] Thus the destruction of the scapegoat produces a genuinely unifying experience, the peace and relief of which makes such a profound impact that, over time, the hated scapegoat is turned into a god, and the community tries to perpetuate the peace-bringing effect of this original lynching by commemorating it ritually and sacrificially. Ultimately this ritualized violence becomes the basis for religion, mythology, kingship, and the establishment of those differences in role and status that are so essential to bring about internal peace. (Differentiation cuts down on mimetic rivalry since only “equals” can compete for the same object.)
Girard's first and still most famous book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961), analyzed western literature from this perspective and found a common theme: the hero, after a career of mimetic desire, eventually realizes the falseness of that desire and turns away from it toward something deeper and more real. He said,
A great novel involves an experience that is spiritual; the novelist engages in reflection and comes to sense that his whole life has been based upon illusion. The character in a novel then experiences a conversion that involves a recognition that he is like those he despises. But this experience of the character is in reality a reflection of what has happened to the novelist. It is what makes him able to write the novel.
Girard's understanding of Christianity was, again, a sort of reversal of his emphasis on scapegoating. When an interviewer asked him to explain what he meant when he said that although the stories of Jesus appeared to be myths, they are not, he said this:
They appear to be myth because the death of Christ is presented as a sacrifice, and sacrifice of the scapegoat is the origin and theme of all mythology. But it is a sacrifice that refutes the whole principle of violence and sacrifice. God is revealed as the “arch-scapegoat,” the completely innocent one who dies in order to give life. And his way of giving life is to overthrow the religion of scapegoating and sacrifice—which is the essence of myth.
I find all of this interesting but not very convincing. Whenever anybody says that the real essence of X is Y -- e.g., the essence of paganism is scapegoating and sacrifice -- I always think, but what about everything else that does into making up paganism, from music and dance to taboos? The world as I understand it is just too complex for this sort of analysis to get us very far.

But anyway was Girard was an interesting thinker, always willing to discuss or debate his ideas with colleagues, students, or just about anyone else:
Girard took the criticism in stride: "Theories are expendable," he said in 1981. "They should be criticized. When people tell me my work is too systematic, I say, 'I make it as systematic as possible for you to be able to prove it wrong.'"

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