"René Girard’s Legacy" by Mark Anspach by Mark Anspach
—René Girard (photo credit: Elizabeth Bailie)
Sometimes the greatest ideas appear to be simple ones. The famed critic and cultural theorist René Girard, who passed away at his Stanford home on November 4, 2015, gave the world a set of deceptively simple ideas that have changed the way we think about desire, violence, religion, and human nature itself.
What do people really want? Why do they fight? What is religion all about? And how did human culture get started in the first place? Girard tackled such bedrock questions head-on, offering boldly original answers expressed in admirably clear language. The last of the Grand Theorists, he was a sophisticated Continental thinker who always kept his feet planted firmly on the ground. His ideas are never purely theoretical. They help make sense of everyday life.
Take the familiar plight of a teenage girl who falls for her best friend's boyfriend. She doesn't mean to hurt her friend, but there's just something about this boy that draws her to him irresistibly. Can she help it if he happens to be so much more desirable than all the other boys?
Situations of that type crop up again and again. They are a staple of classic literature as well as high school melodrama. Are they produced by bad luck or fate? Girard suggests that something else is involved: what he calls mimetic desire.
A mimetic desire is a desire imitated from a person who serves as a model. If two girls are best friends, they probably imitate each other's taste in clothes and music. Why wouldn't they end up sharing the same taste in boys? Alas, some things are more easily shared than others. Singing along to the same pop song makes for harmony, but not lusting after the same guy.
What do people want? The great secret is that, at the deepest level, none of us truly knows what to want. Human nature is not fixed. Our desires are open-ended and malleable. That is why we so often resort to following the lead of those around us. More than any other animal, humans learn through imitation. Girard shows what happens when imitation extends to the realm of desire.
Mimetic desire leads pell-mell to rivalry. “Two desires converging on the same object are bound to clash,” Girard writes. Here the seemingly simple idea of an imitated desire produces an unexpected result. Rather than bringing people together, convergence gives rise to hostility. Conflict is less a result of differences than of a fateful lack of difference. Why do people fight? Because, Girard says, we are so much alike.
René Girard's vision is at once optimistic and tragic. Optimistic, in that violence is not chalked up to innate aggressive or antisocial impulses. Humans aren't violent by nature. Our nature is social. We rely on others to show us how to live. Yet the same social impulses put us on a collision course when each wants what the other wants. The tragedy is that, even without deliberate evil on anyone's part, our social nature constantly pits us against each other.
The earliest human groups could not have survived without some means of keeping rivalry in check. Before any authorities existed to maintain order, how was violence controlled? Girard sought an answer to this riddle in Greek tragedy and the myths and rituals of pre-state societies. For a scholar who had built his reputation on a study of desire in the European novel, it was an audacious move. It soon led him to a revolutionary hypothesis: human culture began with religion, and religion arose from our species' need to master its own violence.
The key to Girard's anthropological theory is what he calls the scapegoat mechanism. Just as desires tend to converge on the same object, violence tends to converge on the same victim. The violence of all against all gives way to the violence of all against one. When the crowd vents its violence on a common scapegoat, unity is restored. Sacrificial rites the world over are rooted in this mechanism.
One big idea is enough to insure any thinker's place in history. With mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism, René Girard had come up with two. Then he went for three by proposing a radical new interpretation of the Bible.
The Hebrew scriptures and the Gospels break with previous religions, he argued, by progressively demystifying and rejecting the scapegoat mechanism. Joseph triumphs over attempts to persecute or slander him. Job refuses to accept blame for his own suffering. Jesus stops the stoning of a woman accused of adultery. His crucifixion stands as the ultimate symbol of the murder of innocent victims.
Girard's Biblical turn won him new followers while alienating some old ones. In the peculiar intellectual climate of our time, it would have been safer to proclaim the virtues of paganism. The reflexive defense of the Other, a uniquely Western phenomenon, is itself a product of the resistance to scapegoating that Girard sees as distinguishing our culture. Not that scapegoating has gone away–it just takes on new forms.
Though his books sometimes hit bestseller lists in France, Girard has always exercised his influence from the margins. He was never a fashionable thinker, but he lived long enough to see his ideas come into their own. Archeologists have been finding ever earlier evidence for the role of religion and sacrifice in prehistory. Developmental psychologists have been proving the importance of imitation in newborn infants. Economists are studying the way technology multiplies the effects of imitation on financial markets. Writers for the Harvard Business Review have even called this the Age of Imitation.
René Girard was always ahead of his time. The world has just started catching up to him.
René Girard and Mimetic Theory
René Girard (photo credit: Elizabeth Bailie)
René Girard (1923-2015) is recognized worldwide for his theory of human behavior and human culture. In 2005 he was inducted into the Académie française, and in 2008 he received the Modern Language Association's award for Lifetime Scholarly Achievement. He was Professor Emeritus at Stanford University.
Back more than 50 years ago, René Girard started teaching French literature because he needed a job. He hadn't even read many of the books he was assigned to teach. Then, as he studied the classic novels of Stendhal and Proust with a fresh mind, staying one step ahead of his students, he was struck by a series of similarities from novel to novel. Unbound by any narrow research agenda, Girard discovered a simple but powerful pattern that had eluded sophisticated critics before him: imitation is the fundamental mechanism of human behavior.
Stories thrive on conflict between characters. By reading the great writers against the grain of conventional wisdom, Girard realized that people don't fight over their differences. They fight because they are the same, and they want the same things. Not because they need the same things (food, sex, scarce material goods), but because they want what will earn others' envy. Humans, with a planning intelligence that sets them apart from all other animals, are free to choose. With freedom comes risk and uncertainty: humans don't know in advance what to choose, so they look to others for cues. People can desire anything, as long as other people seem to desire it, too: that is the meaning of Girard's concept of "mimetic desire." Since people tend toward the same objects of desire, jealousy and rivalry are inevitable sources of social tension -- and perfect themes for the great novelists.
Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.
— René Girard
After his successful writings on modern literature, curious to find out how well his "mimetic theory" of imitative behavior might explain the human past, Girard studied anthropology and myths from around the world. He was struck by another series of similarities: myth after myth told a story of collective violence. Only one man can be king, the most enviable individual, but everyone can share in the persecution of a victim. Societies unify themselves by focusing their imitative desires on the destruction of a scapegoat. Girard hypothesized that the violent persecution of scapegoats is at the origin of the ubiquitous human institution of ritual sacrifice, the foundation of archaic religions.
Girard then turned to the relationship between rituals of sacrifice and the many acts of violence recorded in the founding documents of the religions of the modern West (including the secular religion known as the Enlightenment): the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Gospels. Girard interpreted the Bible as a gradual revelation of the injustice of human violence. The culmination, Jesus's crucifixion, is unprecedented not because it pays a debt humans owe to God, but because it reveals the truth of all sacrifice: the victim of a mob is always innocent, and collective violence is unjust.
An outsider in every field, René Girard has changed scholars' thinking in literature, anthropology, and religion. But you don't have to be a scholar or an insider of mimetic theory to understand it. Imitation is constant, scapegoating is an ever-present temptation, and violence is wrong. These simple insights have unlocked the meaning of modern novels, ancient myths, religious traditions, and the behavior of each and every one of us in our daily lives.
Today a global community of scholars is building on Girard's work to better understand our world. Imitatio is a non-profit program devoted to aiding in this ongoing development and critique of René Girard's mimetic theory. Here at the Imitatio web site, you can read Girard's writings, peruse scholars' work, learn about upcoming events and watch video from past events. Sign up for our email newsletter to stay current with news, events, publications, and discussions in mimetic theory from São Paulo to Paris, Tokyo to San Francisco.