Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A bit about Rene Girard's theory of mimetic desire: Part 2

In my previous post, I briefly introduced Rene Girard's theory of mimetic desire, and described the process of imitation taking place as each person seeks to fill what they lack within themselves by imitating another, or many others. That we all do this seems to be easily established. But what is the outcome of our human mimesis (imitation)? One of the primary, and most damaging, outcomes, says Girard, is violence. Here, again, I am taking quotes from Depoortere's book:

"In all the varieties of desire examined by us, we have encountered not only a subject and an object but a third presence as well: the rival... the rival desires the same object as the subject... the subject desires the object because the rival desires it."

Here we see the beginnings of Girard's take on violence. Because we all seek to imitate someone else, a person we take as a model, it is inevitable that conflict will arise. Why? Because now two people are seeking to possess the same object, and since all objects are finite, they cannot be possessed by everyone equally. Many times, the same object cannot be possessed by two people at all. This experience creates a conflict of desires. As Depoortere puts it: "... if I can get rid of the other [the rival], I shall be able to [acquire] the object that will provide with the fullness of being. But, of course, the other thinks the same of me..."

So, according to Girard, all forms of human violence can be traced back to this primordial conflict, which is something that evolved in humans beyond the level of mere instinct. Unlike most (if not all) animals, who fight over needs based in instinctual desires, we fight over any object (including other persons) that we think will give us a more fulfilling existence. Violence is, unfortunately, birthed from mimetic desire.

But there is more. Says Girard, at some point, two early ancestors of humanity fought, and one killed the other...

"There is some commotion. But no, [the victim] does not move anymore. He does nothing anymore... The other apes break off their fights and come to take a look. A circle is formed around the deceased. Silence... Time after time, the same happens. There is total disorder, a lot of aggression and violence; and suddenly... someone is killed. Violence stops, and everybody comes to take a look at the deceased... Suddenly, disorder disappears and an ordered structure comes into being: a circle around the deceased. Moreover, disorder and violence do not return immediately. The circle dissolves, and the apes take up again their daily routine. Rest has come back in the group."

Here is where Girard's theory, in my opinion, becomes very interesting. Essentially, as he describes it, what develops in the early stages of human evolution (pre-historical human society) is a response to violence that takes on the form of a victim. The killing of just one person halts, at least temporarily, the violence brought on by the mimetic conflict. And so, we have the birth of the "scapegoat."

What is the scapegoat? The scapegoat is the further development of the human need to escape the violence created by mimetic desire. The scapegoat is experienced as something that alleviates violence. So, it becomes possible for early humans to take the next "logical" step - if a scapegoat halts violence, then designating a scapegoat beforehand might actually prevent violence from occurring.

It is Girard's hypothesis that such an understanding of human development can explain nearly every aspect of human culture. Religious rituals, for example, are one of the oldest known human activities. What do all these early rituals involve? Some sort of sacrifice. Why? Because it was understood that sacrifice somehow halts violence (in this case, the violence of the gods, as experienced in natural suffering). This evolutionary response is so deeply ingrained in human beings that it affects us all, even without our realization.

Girard's theory has many profound potential applications, which I will not address here. But, in my third and final post, I will summarize Girard's connection of mimetic theory with Christ (for Girard is, in fact, a Christian). Christ, he states, is the reversal of violence. More to come...

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