René Girard’s name may not be as instantly recognisable as some of his contemporaries in the sphere of philosophy and the humanities, but his work has left an indelible imprint on how we perceive human nature and the complexities of our interactions. Girard’s intellectual voyage included literary criticism, psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, biblical hermeneutics, and theology, among others. Despite his diversified interests, Girard’s philosophical anthropology – the fundamental issue of what it means to be human – is the centre of his thought.
- Mimetic Desire Is Central to Girard's Theory
- External Mediation: The Function of Models
- Metaphysical Desire: The Wish to Be Someone Else
- The Oedipus Complex: A Reconsideration
- The Scapegoat Mechanism as a Remedy for Mimetic Rivalry
- The Origins of Culture: Shifting Blame as a Founding Mechanism
- Religion: The Dedication of Victims
- Ritual and Myth: The Story of Blaming Others
Mimetic Desire Is Central to Girard’s Theory
At the centre of Girard’s theory is the notion of “mimetic desire.” Mimetic desire, in its simplest form, pertains to the human propensity for imitation. Humans, according to Girard, are inherently imitative organisms, continually observing and imitating the desires and actions of others. This innate capacity to imitate extends not only to actions but also to desires.
However, mimetic desire has implications that extend beyond mere imitation. When people imitate each other’s desires, they inevitably wind up desiring identical judeces. As multiple individuals contend for the same objects of desire, this convergence of desires frequently results in rivalry and conflict.
Girard makes an important distinction between “imitation” and “mimesis.” Mimesis, in Girard’s framework, has a more negative connotation, denoting rivalry resulting from shared desires, whereas imitation typically refers to the positive act of copying another person’s behaviour. This distinction is essential for comprehending the dynamics of mimicry desire.
External Mediation: The Function of Models
External mediation is essential to Girard’s theory. In this context, “mediation” refers to the process by which one individual’s desires influence and shape those of another. The individual whose objectives are imitated essentially becomes a “mediator” or “model.” This phenomenon is particularly evident in marketing and advertising, where personalities frequently serve as mediators of consumer desires, according to Girard. The public imitates these celebrities not due to the inherent qualities of the products they endorse, but because the celebrities themselves desire them.
Girard’s literary analyses, such as his analysis of Don Quixote, emphasise external mediation in the literary domain. Don Quixote, for instance, does not become a rogue knight exclusively out of his own volition but rather to imitate the fictitious character Amadis de Gaula. Importantly, rivalry is avoided by external mediation because the mediator and the person being mediated exist on separate dimensions. They desire different things; their desires diverge.
Internal Mediation: The Seeds of Rivalry
Internal mediation, in contrast, presents a more complex scenario. In this situation, the mediator and the person being mediated become so intertwined that their desires converge. However, this convergence fosters competition because both parties now desire the same things. This increased competition is a result of the similarity between the two parties, as rivals frequently resemble one another.
Consider a PhD candidate who desires to imitate and imitates his supervisor’s work and life. As their ambitions align, rivalry emerges, particularly if both pursue scholarly recognition. This antagonism, entrenched in internal mediation, frequently results in tragic outcomes and is a central theme in contemporary novels, reflecting Girard’s belief in its relevance to human nature.
Metaphysical Desire: The Wish to Be Someone Else
As mimetic desire intensifies, it can give rise to the extraordinary condition known as “metaphysical desire.” In this state, a person desires not only the object they are impersonating, but also the mediator they are imitating. Girard refers to this desire to assume the identity of another as “metaphysical desire.”
Metaphysical desire has far-reaching consequences, as it can lead to obsession and resentment towards the mediator. As one cannot fully assume the identity of another person, the mediator becomes an insurmountable barrier to the fulfilment of their metaphysical desire. This desire for self-transformation frequently generates destructive results and resentment.
The Oedipus Complex: A Reconsideration
Girard’s work also explores psychology, especially in relation to Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex. Girard recognises the concept but reinterprets it through the lens of mimetic desire. Girard contends that the imitation of desires within the family system as well as innate sexual desires are both contributing factors to the Oedipus complex.
In this revised view, the infant identifies with and imitates their parents’ desires, including any latent sexual desires. As a consequence, the infant inadvertently imitates the sexual attraction towards their mother or father. This internal mediation, characterised by imitation and antagonism with the parent, leads to the Oedipus complex.
The Scapegoat Mechanism as a Remedy for Mimetic Rivalry
If unchecked, mimicry can escalate to the point where it threatens the very existence of communities. Girard presents an important question: how can communities surmount their internal conflict? His response can be found in the “scapegoat mechanism.”
When mimetic rivalries reach a critical point, tensions escalate and the risk of violence increases. At this juncture, a peculiar psychosocial phenomenon occurs: communal violence, which had previously been directed inward, is redirected towards a single individual – the scapegoat. The community unifies in projecting all of its violence onto the scapegoat, resulting in an abrupt shift from internal conflict to external aggression.
Girard’s term “scapegoating” originates from ancient religious rituals in which communal transgressions were symbolically transmitted onto a sacrificial victim, typically a male goat. The selected victim, also known as a “scapegoat,” was used to restore communal harmony and mend broken relationships.
Importantly, this scapegoating process must remain unconscious for it to be effective. The victim is never portrayed as a defenceless scapegoat, but as a transgressor who deserves punishment. This collective self-deception leads the community to believe that eliminating the victim will bringe harmony.
The Origins of Culture: Shifting Blame as a Founding Mechanism
Girard extends the influence of the scapegoat mechanism all the way down to the foundations of culture and civilization. He argues that culture did not emerge through rational social covenants, as the philosophers of the Enlightenment believed. In contrast, Girard argues that culture arose from the repeated use of the scapegoat mechanism.
Early human societies, according to Girard, frequently resorted to scapegoating to quell escalating mimetic rivalries. These societies accomplished temporary calm and stability by projecting communal violence onto a designated victim. This pattern, which Girard suggests existed among early humans, paved the way for the development of culture.
Girard even revisits Sigmund Freud’s “Totem and Taboo,” proposing that culture’s origins do in fact originate from a founding homicide – though not necessarily of a father figure, but of a scapegoat. This reinterpretation asserts that culture evolved through the repeated use of the scapegoat mechanism, fostering harmony and the growth of fundamental cultural institutions.
Religion: The Dedication of Victims
Religion, according to Girard, plays a significant role in sanctifying the victims of the scapegoat mechanism. As the death of the scapegoat produces an unanticipated communal calm, the victim is instantaneously sanctified. In accordance with Émile Durkheim’s sociological viewpoint, Girard views religion as a means of social integration.
In this framework, the victim is considered a monstrous transgressor deserving punishment while still alive. The victim endures a transformation, however, upon their death and the ensuing restoration of communal harmony; they become sacred. This duality of sanctity and monstrosity is indicative of the ambivalence frequently present in early religious beliefs and exemplified by numerous primitive deities.
Ritual and Myth: The Story of Blaming Others
Girard argues that rituals are the earliest cultural and religious institutions. Frequently, the original scapegoating homicide is reenacted during these rituals. Girard identifies sacrifice as one of the most prevalent rituals observed by anthropologists. In sacrificial rituals, the murder of a victim commemorates the original occurrence that restored communal harmony.
Girard proposes that early societies might have employed human victims in their rituals. Over time, animals were substituted for humans in sacrificial rituals. This transition may have been motivated by the need to continue reenacting the original crime with surrogate victims, leading to the domestication of animals and the evolution of hunting.
According to Girard, myths are the narrative equivalents of rituals. They capture the scapegoating themes prevalent in rituals, albeit from the scapegoaters’ perspective. In myths, the scapegoat is typically depicted as a transgressor who committed a grievous transgression, which justifies their punishment and expulsion. Intentionally omitting the victim’s perspective ensures that the scapegoating mechanism remains psychologically effective.
Girard frequently uses the myth of Oedipus as an illustration. In this story, Oedipus is depicted as a murderer and corrupt figure who deserves exile. However, Girard interprets the myth as a chronicle written by a community that chose a scapegoat, accused them of offences, and then attained harmony by expelling them. The myth conceals the victim’s perspective and reinforces the self-deception of the community.
The mimetic theory of René Girard provides a comprehensive examination of human desire, conflict, and culture. The concept of mimetic desire, which explains how imitation can lead to antagonism and conflict, is central to his theory. Girard’s insights into external and internal mediation shed light on the dynamics of individual desire and rivalry.
Moreover, Girard’s reinterpretation of the Oedipus complex offers a novel perspective on the psychological foundations of human relationships within families. His conception of metaphysical desire explores the profound yearning to become another person, with potentially destructive results.
The scapegoat mechanism, a cornerstone of Girard’s theory, provides a novel solution to the problem of communal conflict by demonstrating how societies have historically redirected internal tensions by scapegoating individuals. Whether conscious or unconscious, this mechanism has played a significant role in the evolution of culture and religion.
The work of Girard exemplifies the intricate interplay between human desire, imitation, conflict, and the pursuit of communal harmony. His insights continue to influence diverse disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, ethnography, and literary criticism, providing a multifaceted lens through which to comprehend the complexities of human nature and society.