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I stand in pause where I should first begin

September 12, 2012

You will say that my theory has philosophical implications and it is susceptible to a philosophical challenge. No doubt. The very idea of distortion, of representations that are false and of representations that are true implies that perceptions is implicitly trustworthy as soon as you can disentangle it from the most proximate effects of its origins in victimage, and these effects are always social and religious. Discrimination in English means religious, ethnic, and social discrimination on the one hand and, on the other, the most fundamental operation of the human mind, the one that does indeed prove enormously reliable insofar as it can be kept separate from the other kind. This must be the reason why the first science to achieve spectacular results was astronomy. Today the human power to discriminate can finally turn back against itself and reveal its own origins in victimage.

The epistemological assumptions behind all this are vulgarly commonsensical and I welcome them as such because they are the assumptions common to all the durable achievements of Western thought. No beginning science, in particular, has ever been able to dispense with them. These epistemological assumptions can be challenged in the abstract, but so can the general consensus in favor of real persecution behind the text of medieval anti-Semitism. Who would fail to see the ridicule of such a challenge?

–Rene Girard, To Double Business Bound

I’ve always known that the work of Rene Girard would interest me (“mimetic” and “violence” are two of my favorite words, and he’s Catholic(ish) too!), but never gotten around to reading it. Now I’ve begun doing so, with To Double Business Bound: Essays on Literature, Mimesis and Anthropology, which eventually rehearses most of his “hypothesis” as the essays conduct arguments about and with various literary and theoretical texts. First impressions: Girard does a good job of showing what’s wrong with so much of the postmodern approach to these questions; he falls off the other side of this cliff, however, being too scientistic and anti-mystical; he also fails, I suspect, to fully overcome Freud (one of his stated goals), mainly because I just don’t buy his devaluation of conflict with the father-figure as a phenomenon of primordial importance (he refuses, in these essays at least, to talk about family dynamics at all, saying we should leave children to their toys, and that violence only enters when familial distinctions blur and vanish).

But his main ideas definitely matter, a lot. I’ll have to think more about them to figure out where I stand, but they’ll definite affect my approach one way or another.

For those interested but completely unfamiliar with Girard’s theory, here’s the summary Wikipedia gives, with comments on my part for the purpose of clarification:

  1. mimetic desire: all of our desires are borrowed from other people: e.g. Raskolnikov only wants to be the Great Man because he wants to be like Napoleon
  2. mimetic rivalry: all conflict originates in mimetic desire: e.g. but because Napoleon has already become the Great Man, Raskolnikov now sees Napoleon as a rival; what matters isn’t what is desired, but only that someone else desires it; when the illusion that the object can differ is not present, everyone is rival with everyone else, and this is the mythic plague
  3. the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry: i.e. during a plague everyone’s mimetic gaze fixates on an random victim, who is said to have brought the plague and thus expelled, at which point he is perceived as beneficent for taking away the plague, and deified; thus all primitive gods, e.g. Apollo, are said to bring both poison and cure
  4. the Bible reveals the three previous ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism: i.e. the atonement-focused understanding of the Crucifixion is wrong, instead Christ’s death allowed us to recognize the evil consequences of mimetic desire; and it turns out that ancient myths are basically successful versions of the ways medieval Christians, for example, justified their pogroms against the Jews
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