rene girard - mimesis

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Ren Girard on Mimesis, Scapegoats, and EthicsGeorge L. Frear, Jr. The contemporary French theorist Ren Girard makes extraordinary claims for his theory, at least in today's academic climate. He asserts that he has uncovered the foundation of all religion and all culture. His theorizing, he says, has "affinities with the genealogical and deconstructive practices of our time," but unlike others he does not end with "epistemological nihilism."1 Instead, he offers what he holds to be a science of humanity that can answer the question of the origin of religion and thereby of culture. He notes that he is greeted with great skepticism and yet also with indulgence. In amusement and perhaps exasperation he asks, "If the thesis I defend is worthless, what can be the value of the books devoted entirely to defending it?"2 The position I will develop is that his theory is far from worthless, but that it does not disclose the foundations of religion and culture as

Ren Girard, Foreword to The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred by James G. Williams (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991), viii. 2 Ren Girard, Le bouc missaire (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1982), 137. The translation is mine, for the particular passage is omitted in the English version, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccer (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986). The question I quoted would fall between the first and second paragraphs on p. 95. Translations seem sometimes to be problems in the case of Girard. James G. Williams in "The Innocent Victim: Ren Girard on Violence, Sacrifice, and the Sacred," Religious Studies Review 14 (October 1988): 320, states that consideration of Girard in North America has been hampered by the translation of Violence and the Sacred. Therefore, in all cases but one I will cite both the French original and the English translation of Girard's major works on religion. In addition to Le bouc missaire or The Scapegoat, there are three major works. La violence et le sacr (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1972); English translation, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977). Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, in collaboration with Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987). (Since Girard, who is himself fluent in English, made revisions in the text for the translation, I will in this case cite only the English version.) La route antique des hommes pavers (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1985); English translation, Job: The Victim of His People, trans. Yvonne Freccer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987).


The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics

he claims. Rather it elucidates in a telling way certain highly significant distortions that have occurred and still occur in religion and culture. His books are of great value for illuminating these distortions. They are a help for ethical reflection. Girard has stated that his underlying theory and his various concrete analyses go together and that we cannot have one without the other.3 If however we take the position that I do, that his theory discloses part of the total picture but not all of it, then it is quite natural to be critical of his full claim and yet to acknowledge many helpful insights. The development of my position falls into three parts: first, a presentation of Girard's basic theory; second, a criticism of that theory; third, a consideration of how what emerges from this criticism shows Girard's helpful insights in social ethics. I. Girard's Theory of Religion and Culture My first task then is to present Girard's fundamental social theory. A brief presentation of course cannot reproduce all the nuances of his various books,4 but fortunately the basic ideas are simple. I will present

In "Discussion" following the paper of Jonathan Z. Smith, "The Domestication of Sacrifice," in Violent Origins: Walter Burkert, Ren Girard, and Jonathan Z. Smith on Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation, ed. Robert G. Hammerton-Kelly (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987), 220. 4 While Girard gives numerous brief summary statements, he has nowhere, so far as I know, given a comprehensive outline of his thought. In the secondary literature an excellent and up-to-date presentation can be found in Robert G. Hammerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence: Paul's Hermeneutic of the Cross (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 13-39. Another fine up-to-date summary is given by James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, 614. These two books along with Raymond Schwager's earlier summary and appreciation of Girard's thought, Must There Be Scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible, trans. Maria L. Assad (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1987) show that one can be a "Girardian" and a member of the guild of biblical scholars. Unfortunately, HamertonKelly's and Williams's works became available to me only as I was revising this article. They are complementary in that Williams's work surveys the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels while Hamerton-Kelly expounds the apostle Paul. Both works are full of illuminating insights. Detailed criticism will probably come from other biblical scholars. I will mention only one point. Both authors accept without reservation and frequently allude to Girard's negative sacrificial view of "the Sacred" (Hamerton-Kelly, 94, 107, 110, 112, 129, 135; Williams, 52,102,146,187, 208, 243, 252) also called "sacred violence" (Hamerton-Kelly, 4, 6, 7, 9, 13, 40, 63, 88, 120, 140, 161, etc.; Williams, 81, 147, 148, 149, 150) or the "primitive Sacred" (Hamerton-Kelly, 16, 25, 63, 88, 98,137,139). I find this puzzling in biblical scholars who are affirmative about the Bible. Williams writes quite positively about the call of Isaiah, 143-44, with no mention of the cry of the Seraphim, "Holy, Holy, Holy" (Isa. 6:3). Hamerton-Kelly expounds Paul; he offers little criticism of the apostle. Yet somehow he passes over in silence Paul's belief in the "Holy Spirit" (Rom. 5:5; 9:1; 14:17; 15:13. 1 Cor. 6:19; 12:3. 2 Cor. 13:13, etc.) and in the holy people or "saints" (Rom. 1:7;


Ren Girard on Mimesis, Scapegoats, and Ethics


them in a fourfold sequence: first, mimetic desire and violence; second, scapegoating; third, the appearance of religious awe or the sacred; fourth, the Bible and Christian revelation. To some degree, the sequence follows the chronological development of Girard's thought, for his first works were literary criticism devoted to mimesis, which he found represented in the works of such novelists as Stendhal, Cervantes, Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoyevsky. Later he presented his theory about the origin of religion. His Christian thought came after that.5 A. Mimetic or Triangular Desire and Violence An illustration of the first parts of Girard's thought could well be children on a playground. Girard himself suggests the illustration of children. He speaks of the "acquisitive imitation" that arises if one puts "a certain number of identical toys in a room with the same number of children."6 The children's basic needs presumably are satisfied. Girard acknowledges almost in passing that there are basic needs,7 a point to which I will return. But the children on the playground are moved by more than basic needs. Once these needs are met and even before then, they are stirred by desire for a fullness of being that another seems to have. They desire what the other child desires; one child becomes a mediator of desires to another, whence Girard's name of mimetic desire. Mimetic desire can also be called triangular desire because instead of the straight line of a subject that desires an object there is a triangle of subject, mediator, and object.

8:27; 12:13; 15:25,26; 16:2. I Cor. 1:2; 6:1,2; 16:1,15. 2 Cor. 1:1; 8:4; 9:1,12; 13:12, etc.). He does refer to Paul's statement that the Law is "holy" (Rom. 7:12). See 107,141,147, 158. There is, however, a negative cast to the statement that the Law in the Judaism Paul knew was "sacred," 150. Unless the authors can make a distinction between "holy" and "sacred," which would seem to me arbitrary, they have followed Girard in ignoring the many positive references to the sacred in the Bible. 5 The early work of literarary criticism is Ren Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, trans. Yvonne Freccer (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966). The fundamental theory of religion is found in La violence et le sacr. The chief exposition of his Christian thought is found in the other three works listed in note 2 above. His most recent publications return to literary theory and are devoted to Shakespeare, but they reflect all the developments in Girard's thought. Ren Girard, Collective Violence and Sacrifice in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (Bennington, VT: Bennington College, 1990). Ren Girard, Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). 6 Girard, Things Hidden, 9. 7 Girard, La violence et le sacr, 204; Violence and the Sacred, 146.


The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics

It is easy to imagine that the competition in the playground heats up. Mimetic desire leads to rivalry. The mediator is not only a model but an obstacle, a model-obstacle. The mediator becomes an obstacle as well as a model because one child cannot have what the mediator has. The mediator prevents the satisfaction of the desires he or she arouses. The children come to be filled with envy, with ressentiment in the Nietzchean sense. If things become really wild, the normal distinctions between the children tend to vanish. Each becomes the double of the other. Rivalries intensify and become paroxysms. We probably leave the playground here, but Girard is thinking chiefly of early human societies, and he goes on to hold that halluci