Mythos & Logos (2): Mimetic Desire, Violence, and the Scapegoat

The first part of this study can be found here.

To gain entrance into the myths, it will be necessary to offer up before the gates a number of our usual theoretical appurtenances. The same theories in which the myths appear as mere fantasy will be ill-suited to reveal the truth that they contain. But we must refrain from projecting contemporary concepts and paradigmata onto ancient people. Today we assume a conception of the world that is constituted by categorical divisions between society and nature, mind and world, psyche and cosmos, etc. with such naturalness that only rarely do we question whether our paradigms are not the same thing as facts. Science itself is often billed as a steady and progressive march of discovery. The domains that our sciences have so neatly parsed and which we imagine to exist in independence and in isolation from one another and to offer themselves conveniently for our research were experienced in an entirely different way before modern times. For the ancients, these seemingly separate spheres of life were part of a homogeneous unity. 

Perhaps an example will serve to make this clearer. René Girard describes the manner in which the to our eyes grotesque connection can be drawn between the arrival of a figure like Oedipus in Thebes and the sudden outbreak of violence, plagues, and famines in the city. The relation must indeed appear improbable because it appears to relate the moral failure of Oedipus with collective strife of both social and natural kind. But Girard shows that the connection will at once appear eminently rational if we are able to supplement what is explicit in such stories with what is merely assumed or overlooked. To achieve this insight, it will be necessary briefly to review Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, its immediate corollary of mimetic violence, and the theory of the scapegoat as the panacea for societies on the verge of self-destruction. Girard’s thought is infinitely richer and more subtle than this brief survey can represent, and the interested reader is encouraged to engage with Girard’s work directly.

As a groundwork for understanding the crux of Girard’s work, it is necessary first to come to terms with his theory of mimetic desire. In brief, this is the theory that desire is not a function of value or of scarcity, but of imitation. Our tacit assumptions remain to this day largely shaped by the beliefs of such Liberal and laissez-faire philosophers as John Locke and Adam Smith. As a result, most of us, if pressed, would likely affirm value to be a function a combination of time and intensity of labour with scarcity of the resource on which that labour is exerted. Value, in turn, serves to attract our desire. But Girard shows that, despite constituting a plausible theory, this conception of desire fails to sustain itself with a solid evidential foundation. It succumbs to the characteristic source of error for so many conclusions of the Liberal philosophers: namely, it assumes as its point of departure a concept of human nature that has very little to do with human nature as such. In this case, as in so many others, the Liberal theory of desire and value entirely neglects the fact that “the individual” is an abstraction from concrete reality, in which our social relations are also constitutive of us as individuals and not mere accidents. We know this because we use language. Thus, pace Locke and Smith, value is not merely a function of labour and scarcity. Instead, as Girard argues, we confer value on things according to whether our peers and role-models place value on those things. Desire, therefore, is not something that we calculate, but something we learn, and we learn it by imitating others. Thus, desire is mimetic. 

Advertisers know this, and it is only theoreticians who imagine otherwise. For instance, it is comparatively useless for marketing purposes for a brand to emphasis how many hours of labour go into creating and refining their product, etc. Instead, they must simulate the appearance of desire for that product in other people with whom the consumer feels some affinity and thus will view as peers or models. All liquor advertisements confirm this theory to the letter. The history of the diamond industry provides an exemplary demonstration of mimetic desire in action. In order to create a demand for diamonds amongst consumers, it was not sufficient merely to feign the scarcity of this comparatively common gem. Instead it was necessary to create the illusion that other women desired diamond rings from their fiancés. The artifice was quickly imitated by reality following the operation of mimetic desire as Girard described it. 

An immediate conclusion can be inferred from the theory of mimetic desire, and Girard shows that it is a theory that is born out by the wealth of anthropological evidence. Namely, if we learn desire by imitating other people, success in the first thing will place us in competition with the second. Thus, rivalry follows as a matter of course from mimetic desire because imitation leads to the convergence of many people around a single object of desire. Consequently, the theory of mimetic desire has as its immediate corollary the theory of mimetic violence. Phrased in a more accurate and more figurative way: mimetic desire tends to generate friction. A single spark from the latter will at once set off a concatenation of violence and retaliation that threatens to consume the entire society in a conflagration of mimetic violence. Social harmony is extremely precarious. Its stability is an illusion and the reality is that few things are more volatile than the passions of a group. 

One remedy against the constant threat of mimetic holocaust has been the establishment of social hierarchy. Such ramparts of propriety function like firewalls. Thus, the spread of mimetic violence may be staunched by the barrier of various forms of stratification. But firewalls often prove ineffective in practice and it is the same with the subject of this comparison. In fact, stratification is merely a specific form of social differentiation. Differentiation itself is the polar antithesis to violence. Put another way, violence consists in precisely the eradication of difference. Violence against another is to transgress the integrity of his person, and the archetypal event of murder is similarly a quintessential transgression of this sort. Penetrating to the essential core of violence as such reveals its strange and inverted identity with sex and just as the erradication of difference in general bears an important affinity with love. Suffice it here to note this connection, to establish that it is not a proper identity, and then to move on to explore the theme at hand because a great deal more could be written on this topic than can be contained within the scope of the present study. 

Clearly, differentiation and social hierarchy alone are insufficient to staunch the spread of mimetic violence. As long as mimetic desire constitutes an essential element of the human psyche, the cause of such an outbreak is continually present. The best that such measures can offer is a temporary reprieve. They must be thought of as palliatives and not as salvation. The quest for more effective palliatives to remedy this constant threat has led all societies around the globe to converge on a single one. Indeed, it might be hypothesized that any society that did not discover this remedy did not manage to survive the outbreak of violence and therefore left posterity no evidence of its existence. The Sphinx posed a riddle at the gates of evolution and any culture that failed to provide the single answer was devoured. The commonality of a single answer across such a diversity of cultures is difficult to discern because of the myriad ways in which setting and circumstance inflect its essential form. The genius of Girard was to articulate the theory that can now allow us to recognize it in any of its instances. This is infinitely easier than attempting to arrive at the principle by way of its instances, since it is only in light of the principle that we are able to recognize the instances for what they are. When I mentioned the one remedy above, I was, of course, referring to the scapegoat mechanism. 

To understand the efficacy of the scapegoat mechanism, we must first picture a society in the throes of mimetic violence, in which all differences have been transgressed and all hierarchy abolished. Ordinarily, a man may have a handful of enemies, but social differentiation, stratification, and hierarchy ensure that his desires will not converge on the same object as everyone else and as a result, he need not consider every other person as a potential rival. But whenever the pot of mimetic desire boils over into mimetic violence, the integrity of these differences are at once put to the test, and invariably they will be found wanting. This coincides with the eruption of mimetic violence, or a war of all against all. The only way for a society to arrest this tendency to self-annihilation is to polarize all of the violence upon a single victim. This polarization has the effect of transmuting total animosity into unanimity. The scapegoat provides the only escape, and his blood purifies the society of all of its bad blood. Girard pursues these notions of “blood” and “purity” in extensive depth to reveal how all of the rituals, taboos, and proscriptions that appear as mere superstition before our eyes actually stem from this inexorable logic of the ineluctability of mimetic violence and its only known remedy. 

Of course, it is not feasible to enumerate all of Girard’s arguments and evidence on this occasion. Suffice it to analyse one particularly egregious example of such apparent superstition to expose this underlying logic. Let us consider the pervasive notion of sacrifice to the gods to appease them so that they will bestow their blessings in the form of crop-yield and fertility. First, we must take care not to be led astray by false conceptions we might entertain of gods. It can often be shown that a god of one day was a mortal of the day before. As a result, it might be imagined that folk religions are sacrificing to memories of a distant ancestor. This would represent a genetic fallacy, however, unless the ancestor is understood to be the image or symbol of a cosmological power, in which case, the significance would deserve our attention and not the medium by which it is signified. The happy isolationism of the god of the Deists is entirely foreign to all traditional thought. To the unprejudiced eye looking on the natural world, nothing could be less obvious than that the conviction that it operates according to a plan of abstract mathematical laws universal over space and laid down on the first day of Creation. Rather, nature appears everywhere alive and striving to realize itself. No sooner has the blossom emerged than it begins to decay. The crests of order rise and fall again into the sea of chaos. These terms are already shadowy abstractions. Instead, we can see in the world the same mix of predictability and apparent capriciousness that characterizes the average person. 

Indeed, nothing could be more straightforward than to suppose that the world and the human beings that indwell it are homogeneous in a basic sense, and therefore to conceptualize natural processes by analogy with human ones should strike us as a very natural approach. When it fails to do this, it is because we no longer derive our theories from real life, pace modern scientific types who profess to be “evidence-based.” Returning then to the scene of a society on the brink of mimetic holocaust: it is, first, no wonder that crops would cease to produce if everyone is at each other’s throats. Moreover, it is understood that our understanding selects for and conditions which phenomena we regard as evidence—“all observation is theory-laden.” Thus, to a people caught up in a frenzy of mimetic violence, those natural events which “fit their mood,” so to speak, will be granted salience while those which do not will simply be passed over. The one in anguish will notice the fact of the storm and not its end, as it were. Each perspective is both true and false so it is impertinent to evaluate perceptions of this sort according to whether we agree with them. The ability of a society to set up a lightning rod of sorts that can channel all of the divine wroth to a single point will divert this destruction from swallowing up the society itself. If we can draw together all of these ideas in a sort of synoptic vision, then it will strike us with great force that the scapegoat accomplishes just this. By placing all of the blame onto a single being, all of the people could become unanimous. As a result, they can begin again to cooperate in the sowing and in the harvest and so on. Their perceptual bias shifts towards optimistic portents (again this is not a question of correctness but of facts about the nature of perception). The rainbow receives salience and not the tempest. The sacrifice was accepted and the gods are pleased. 

Girard argues that, though such sacrifices may assume an infinite variety of outer forms, they all represent ritualistic elaborations of the original human scapegoat, who was the victim of collective murder. The only criteria for selecting a suitable victim of sacrifice were that (1) he be capable of magnetizing all violence to himself and (2) that he be incapable of retaliation. The first was the necessary condition to achieve the condition of unanimity, which, albeit temporary, represents the restoration of social harmony following an outbreak of mimetic violence. The second was necessary because retaliation is precisely the way by which one act of violence compounds and propagates itself so that a single insult can threaten to engulf the entire community in bloodshed. The scapegoat’s lack of ability to retaliate was necessary to ensure that his own death would indeed mark the end of that particular cycle. If the scapegoat was capable of retaliation—for instance, if his close relatives or clan members failed to participate in the spirit of unanimity behind his death—then the cycle of violence would only immediately be reignited. 

It is my hope that this section has successfully outlined some of the essential elements of the scapegoat mechanism as articulated by René Girard. In the next section, I will attempt to show how Girard, like Barfield, Steiner, and others, saw the Crucifixion of Christ as the final and universal sacrifice, after which further scapegoating must be seen as retrogressive. Thus, while scapegoat was a palliative for mimetic violence, Christ was the ultimate scapegoat and his sacrifice, therefore, was our salvation and deliverance from the sins of our fathers, which otherwise we only perpetuate. In respect to Girard’s theories, Christ was everywhere at once the limiting case and the reconciliation of all opposites. The violence is extreme, the innocence of the victim is absolute, and his divine forgiveness washes away all threat of retaliation. “So the last shall be first, and the first last…I am the Alpha and the Omega.” Developing this thesis will be my task in the next and final section of this study. 

Before I conclude the present one, however, I am moved to offer a brief comment about the current Corona-pandemic that has defined the last months and shows little sign of relenting its influence any time soon. In the light of the scapegoat theory, it is not difficult to discern the way in which people are unconsciously seeking a token cause upon which they can pin all culpability for the current crisis. This is an unconscious hope to achieve a spirit of unanimity through the polarization of all animosity toward a single object. Whether this be “wet-markets in China,” “the Trump administration’s lack of preparation,” “the COVID-19 itself,” “the installation of 5G cell towers that disrupt normal physiology,” “globalization,” or anything else: these are all scapegoats. They are ways to affix all blame to a single cause as a pretext to avoid assuming responsibility ourselves. Globalization is not a fact outside of “people,” which is us. 5G towers do not erect themselves. Instead, they are a response to our own demands and desires. COVID-19 is not itself anything close to a sufficient condition for a pandemic—let alone the “pandemic phenomenon”—that we are currently experiencing. If I was so certain the Trump administration was inadequately prepared for an imminent pandemic, I would have taken it upon myself to undertake everything in my power to ensure that the preparation was attempted by other means. And so on. The point is not to pass the Crown of Thorns onto someone else. Girard is adamant that the only true salvation means accepting that Christ was the last scapegoat. By extension, the only deliverance from mimetic violence is in imitatio Christi. In the most fundamental way, we must cease to imitate the desires of our friends, because then we quickly turn them into rivals and they become our enemies. Instead, we must aspire to the model that Christ set for us. A wise person once observed, “Christ died for his friends.” I, thinking myself wise, responded, “He also died for his enemies.” “No,” she said, “Christ had no enemies.”


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