Our French Partner, the Association Recherches Mimétiques
University of Northern Iowa
In the previous issue of the Bulletin, I started what I hope is a series of interview reports highlighting the work of partner organizations to COV&R. My interview in this issue is with Benoît Chantre from the Association Recherches Mimétiques (ARM) in Paris. I am so appreciative to have had this opportunity to reflect with Benoît about his perceptions of COV&R and to learn more from him about the history and current work of ARM.
ARM was created in December 2005, under the honorary presidency of René Girard, on the occasion of his entry into the French Academy. ARM’s initial goals focused on disseminating and developing mimetic theory as well as collecting Girard’s intellectual archives. These efforts were intended to foreshadow a research foundation and a possible Centre for Mimetic Studies in France. ARM eventually partnered with a non-governmental organization, the Comité Catholique contre la Faim et pour le Développement, which supports scholarships for foreign researchers. The first fellows were Mark Anspach (2005) and Trevor Cribben Merrill (2007). In recent years, major funding for ARM has been provided by Imitatio, which is part of the Thiel Foundation.
In discussing ARM’s partnership with COV&R, Benoît pointed to active COV&R members who serve on ARM’s Honour Committee: James Alison, Sandor Goodhart, William Johnsen, Andrew McKenna, and Wolfgang Palaver. ARM also has organized conferences, lectures, and research seminars in Paris (e.g., “Girard-Levinas,” “Girard-Derrida,” “The Franco-German Relationship,” “Mimetic Theory and Theology,” and “René Girard, a Shakespeare Reader”). These have included COV&R members and have been held under the auspicious of French institutions such as the Ecole Normale Supérieure, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Collège des Bernardins, and the Institut Catholique de Paris.
When I asked Benoît to sketch some future directions for ARM, he stated that the success of the book he co-wrote with Girard, Achever Clausewitz (Battling to the End), relaunched research on mimetic theory in France. From 2008 to 2013, ARM worked to collect Girard’s intellectual archives, which were donated to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The 120 conferences, seminars, and lectures organized by ARM since 2005 have been filmed and posted on the ARM website (www.rene-girard.fr), enhancing the visibility of mimetic theory in France and beyond. These will also soon join the René Girard Fund, constituting an essential working tool for the researchers. In support of building this media library in mimetic theory, ARM just signed a new five-year partnership with the Bibiothèque Nationale de France, under which they will hold a major international symposium every year. Benoît hopes that COV&R will be associated with one of these events.
When I asked, in good mimetic fashion, how COV&R is perceived as a partner organization to ARM, Benoît noted that COV&R was the first Girardian institution. As such, ARM has always presented itself as a kind of extension of this international association in France. That’s why ARM encourages its members every year to go to COV&R in order to share their research. Benoît indicates that he would like to strengthen the ties between the two organizations in future years, especially when the COV&R annual meeting is held in Europe. Such reciprocity in efforts will strengthen both organizations by bringing scholars and practitioners together in conversation.
Benoît’s final comments in the interview demonstrate his deep appreciation for COV&R. He said that COV&R has, in his opinion, perpetuated the value and strength of Girardian thought: a thought that is both interdisciplinary and not strictly academic. In this focus, COV&R replicates the exceptional career of René Girard. Yes, Girard’s entry into the French Academy in 2005 crowned a major and internationally renowned career as a scholar. But Girard always sought to address as many people as possible, by associating himself with a wide variety of personalities. It is this freedom and great generosity that COV&R embodies and perpetuates, Benoît said.
My interview with Benoît confirms how very fortunate COV&R is to have affiliations with a number of organizations focused on mimetic theory. These organizations, spanning the globe, hold promise for future relationships that will strengthen all of us and make mimetic theory ever more visible as a vital resource for inquiry and action. ARM is doing wonderful work in this respect. Its prolific media output of lectures and seminars is supporting an ever-growing digital library that not only introduces individuals to Girard but also enhances the work of those already engaged in mimetic theory. Pointing out to me that ARM’s network of communication reaches 3000 people, Benoît stated that it is obvious that ARM should become ever more closely linked with COV&R, especially given the capacity of digital communications to facilitate connections among individuals in each organization. I am looking forward to future conversations with Benoît, on behalf of COV&R, aimed at promoting these connections.
Musings from the Executive Secretary
Signs of the Mimetic Times
Niki Wandinger University of Innsbruck
As I missed the opportunity to place some thoughts in the November Bulletin, I shouldn’t repeat that mistake and not do so again. Alas, it is too late now to reminisce on the COV&R conference we had last summer in Innsbruck, as the upcoming conference at Purdue is taking shape and we are preparing for it.
For someone working with mimetic theory, it is always a nice surprise when this theory or Girard or even both come up in discourse or reading where you wouldn’t have expected it. I was quite happily surprised therefore, when this happened to me twice, while reading the German weekly “Die Zeit.” And it had the positive effect that I have something to relate to you here in this column (I do apologize to those who read “Die Zeit” anyway, but I suppose that there are enough people in COV&R who do not do so and who might be interested in the following).
In the issue of “Die Zeit” of November, 14, 2019, Adam Soboczynski reviews the German version of a new book first published in English by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, The Light that Failed: Why the West is Losing the Fight for Democracy. In it the Bulgarian political scientist and the American lawyer analyze the divide that has gone up between liberal democracies of the West and “illiberal democracies” of the former East bloc. And they find, as one of the defining markers, that we are faced with a crisis of imitation. Imitators reject the imitated and postulate themselves as the new model. Imitation also has effects on the imitated. Soboczynski’s review was electrifying; it did not mention Girard or mimetic theory at all but I could not believe that this would be the case with Krastev’s and Holmes’s book as well. And I was not disappointed. The two authors give credit to Girard in their introduction of the book when they write: “Girard’s insight into the persistent tendency of imitation to breed resentment…is…highly pertinent to understanding why a contagious uprising against liberal democracy began in the post-communist world. By drawing attention to the inherently conflictual nature of imitation, he helps us to see democratization after communism in an entirely new light. His theory suggests that the problems we face today arise less from a natural relapse into bad habits of the past than from a backlash against a perceived Imitation Imperative promulgated after the fall of the Berlin Wall. While Fukuyama was confident that the Age of Imitation would be endlessly boring, Girard was more prescient, foretelling its potential for incubating the kind of existential shame that can fuel explosive upheaval” (p. 13).
The authors then decipher the crises as at least partly one of mimetic obstacles and ensuing rivalries. “Russia’s interference in the American Presidential elections in 2016…was understood by its organizers and perpetrators as an attempt to duplicate what the Kremlin considered the West’s unwarranted incursions into Russia’s own political life. The explicit purpose was less to elect a Kremlin-friendly candidate than to teach Americans what foreign interference in a country’s politics looks and feels like.… Instead of pretending to imitate America’s domestic political system, Putin and his entourage prefer to imitate the way America illicitly interferes in the domestic politics of other countries” (p. 15-16).
What amazed me most but was also plausible to me was their contention that this works the other way round, as well. Western populists and demagogues also react to the perceived disadvantages of rivalrous imitation: “Because Russians and Central Europeans reject imitation as bad for the imitators and good only for the imitated, it is at first puzzling that some Americans would reject imitation as bad for the imitated and good only for the imitators. Indeed, Trump’s resentment against a world full of countries that seek to emulate America seems anomalous until we realize that, for his American supporters, imitators are threats because they are trying to replace the model they imitate” (p. 16). I must admit that I haven’t yet finished this interesting book, but I will certainly move on through this intriguing application of mimetic theory.
The other mentioning of mimetic theory I ran across was in the most recent issue of “Die Zeit” of February 6, 2020. Here a new play by Austrian playwright and Literature Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek is reviewed, its title Schwarzwasser (Black Water). Reviewer Joachim Riedl argues that in her play Jelinek projects the archaic mechanisms that Girard analyzed into a bleak and hopeless future –which brings me to the up-coming conference at Purdue: AI is supposed to structure and at least co-determine our future. The question whether this will herald something really new (for better or worse) or just perpetuate the known mimetic conflicts on a higher technological level is a challenging one, especially in a field where the border between science and fiction is not always easy to make out. Yet, the conference will be the more exciting, I am sure, and I am looking forward to returning to the place where I attended my first COV&R conference in 2002.
First of all, please note the expanded program of travel grants to COV&R’s annual meeting for graduate students and practitioners and the March deadlines for proposals to present at both the annual meeting in July (required for those who apply for a travel grant) and our sessions at the American Academy of Religion in November. See “Forthcoming Events” below.
Longtime COV&R member Vern Neufeld Redekop writes this about Kyle Edward Haden’s recently published Embodied Idolatry: A Critique of Christian Nationalism: “Haden has an uncanny ability to make significant theories understandable and practical; hence Bourdieu’s concepts of field and habitus are used to show how American nationalism is woven into the consciousness of Christians for whom American = Christian and American = white. Girard’s mimetic theory along with needs/emotional theory is used to show how an emotionally charged and savvy leader can inspire a mimetic emotional contagion to draw crowds into his agenda. The exclusionary nationalist idolatry of a significant segment of US Christianity is contrasted with a sensitive reading of Jesus’s teachings on inclusion, hospitality, justice, and a particularly cogent openness to the other.”
If you would be interested in reviewing a book or film, please let us know your areas of expertise and interest.
COV&R Annual Meeting 2020: Desiring Machines: Robots, Mimesis, and Violence in the Age of AI
Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, July 8-11
Organizers Sandor Goodhart and Thomas Ryba are excited to announce the call for papers for the COV&R 2020 conference at Purdue. They have invited a number of speakers from both inside COV&R and outside of COV&R to address the conference theme and invite you to do the same. However, as has been customary at COV&R conferences, they also invite you to deliver papers in the Concurrent Sessions that are off-topic. Abstracts (of at least 150 words) should be sent to Sandor Goodhartby March 15.
Registration is open on the conference website, which includes information about accommodations and transportation.
Travel Grants Available for the Annual Meeting
Last summer’s COV&R business meeting in Innsbruck approved changes in the travel grant program that supports attendance at the COV&R annual meeting. The travel budget has doubled from previous years. A generous $3000 grant from Imitatio is being matched by funds from COV&R. Also, the maximum grant available to applicants has doubled. Grants will be offered at $500 to each recipient for whom the price of flying is largely covered by this amount. Grants of $1000 will be offered to recipients whose airfare is $1000+ (e.g., travel entails crossing an ocean or one or more continents).
The remainder of the travel grant policy is as follows:
Recipients are grad students or practitioners of mimetic theory (e.g., NGO/non-profit staff, journalists, government employees). Preference is given to graduate students but practitioners of mimetic theory are also encouraged to apply.
Recipients have an accepted proposal and offer a presentation at the conference. Applicants should apply while their proposal is still pending acceptance. Final confirmation of the grant will be offered after the executive secretary has confirmed the proposal’s acceptance with the conference organizer.
Grants are awarded at the conference.
Attendees are eligible for a travel grant one time only.
Grants are given on a first come, first served basis.
The registration fee will be waived for travel grant recipients.
COV&R at the American Academy of Religion
Boston, Massachusetts, Nov. 21-24, 2020
The COV&R section of the American Association of Religion invites proposals for two session at the AAR’s annual meeting. Proposals are due on March 2. Submissions for either session must go through the “PAPERS” system of the American Academy of Religion (papers.aarweb.org). For queries, contact Grant Kaplan.
René Girard and Christian Spirituality. With particular interest in how Girard’s seminal insights may be integrated into Christian spiritual practice, we invite proposals that explore ways Christian spirituality can be illumined or informed by Girard’s understanding of mimetic desire. We also invite proposals that consider how mimetic theory itself might be enhanced or critically developed in light of Christian spiritual practices/traditions. Proposals engaging one of the following sub-themes are encouraged:
Prayer and contemplation
Major spiritual figures, texts, traditions
Discernment of desire
Academic Rivalry in the Modern Age: Thinking with Girard and Beyond. For a joint session with the Nineteenth Century Theology Unit, we invite proposals that explore academic rivalries in the nineteenth century. Almost no leading figure in the period was free from the entanglements of academic rivalry. Various social and political factors, e.g. war, territorial realignment, nationalism, the proliferation of learned journals, the restructuring of universities, and more, created a rich soil for rivalries to grow. The mimetic theory of René Girard offers an interesting interpretive lens for understanding rivalry. Girard not only identifies rivalry, but attempts to explain its roots through his mimetic theory: rivalry stems as much for similarity as from difference; if unchecked, it will escalate and often end in bloodshed. Proposals might: (1) Revisit famous academic disputes by attending to similarity and mirroring between disputants; (2) Analyze failed mentor-student relationships through a mimetic lens; (3) Excavate forgotten rivalries; or (4) Assess Girard’s theological readings of rivalries in his final book, Battling to the End (2009), among others.
Nashville, Tennessee, June 8 – 11
A collaboration between The Raven Foundation and Theology & Peace, the conference combines keynotes, panels, breakout sessions, and networking opportunities to empower you with actionable tools and resources to apply mimetic theory and nonviolent Christianity and help make positive changes in your community and strengthen your faith. Speakers will include:
Kevin Miller, director of the films “Hellbound?” and “J.E.S.U.S.A”
David Dark author of Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious
Editor’s Note: Our previous issue included a brief report on a panel sponsored by COV&R at the 2019 meeting of the American Association of Religion featuring contributors to the new volume Mimesis and Sacrifice: Applying Girard’s Mimetic Theory across the Disciplines. The editor of that volume, Marcia Pally, who also organized the session, was unable to attend but has contributed the following overview, which also includes some updates on recent scholarship. See also the review of the volume itself by Sandor Goodhart elsewhere in this issue.
This piece, drawn from my introduction to Mimesis and Sacrifice,[i] looks at research in evolutionary biology and developmental psychology to illuminate three facets of Rene Girard’s thought. First, his mimetic theory of competitive aggression and of sacrifice as societal steam valve. Second, Girard’s interest in the lesson, learned from the cross, of giving for the sake of others. Third, Girard’s description of the “archaic” as already preferring societal harmony over violence. After all, the aim of scapegoating sacrifice was to stanch societal violence by sacrificing the few for peace among the many. Had archaic groups no desire to stop aggression, they could have let mayhem reign. Moreover, we cannot assume a harmony preference is “natural.” Put 250 chimps in a plane for eight hours and you have a massacre, [ii] not complaints about the choice of movies.
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In short, mimetic theory hangs on the idea that preferences against violence and for more harmonious living were already in the human repertoire during the archaic, having developed some time before agriculture and sedentarism. Evolutionary biology and developmental psychology lend support to this idea.
To begin, research in support of a pre-archaic preference for harmony and societal cooperativity does not suggest pacific pre-agrarian societies. (Cooperativity entails “behaviors that are associated with a disadvantage or cost for the actor and a benefit for the recipient.”[iii]) Rather, evolutionary pressures pre-agriculture yielded aggressive behaviors where advantageous—from one-on-one intimidation to episodic intra-group killing and inter-group raiding. Yet they also yielded substantial cooperativity and egalitarianism, including communal property and child-rearing and robust fairness/sharing norms. Though H. sapiens developed the capacity for aggression—Kissel and Kim date capacity to 200,000 to 300,000 B.C.E.[iv]—overall cooperativity (with episodic aggressions) was the modus vivendi through 200,000 years of “modern” H. sapien hunter gathering. “[T]he key novelties in human evolution were…” Michael Tomasello writes, “adaptations for an especially cooperative, indeed hypercooperative, way of life.”[v]
With the advent of agriculture/sedentarism (roughly 8,500 B.C.E.), certain severe aggressions became newly systemic, a significant uptick especially intra-group. Severe aggressions include endemic (not episodic) raiding and warfare, the enslavement of captive populations, and the subjection of domestic populations to severe injury, maiming, torture, capital punishment, imprisonment, continual resource deprivation (impoverishment), enslavement, and killing. Research intended to document hunter gatherer aggression shows nothing like this record. Lee Clare et al. note, “There is presently no conclusive evidence for inter-group fighting in the early Pre-Pottery Neolithic” (10,000 to 8,800 B.C.E.) and they caution against projecting aggression from later periods onto earlier ones.[vi] Kissel and Kim agree with Keeley[vii] and Fry, Schober, and Bjorkqvist[viii] that periods of the Holocene show “virtually no signs of violent conflict.” [ix]
The increase in systemic, severe aggression is understood, from a biological perspective, as a response to changes in the competitive regime—the local ecology and risk/reward calculations. Sedentarism /agriculture newly allowed for (i) regular surpluses, nearby and ever-present for plunder, (ii) resource monopolizability by those successful in plundering, and (iii) sociopolitical hierarchies, distinguishing those who had little and from those who not only had more but who could pay others to guard their caches and plunder further. This is a shift in both ecology and risk/rewards calculations, as it was now more often worth the risk of raiding intra- and inter-group. “Hunters and gatherers,” Peter Kappeler writes, “forage cooperatively, share what they hunt/collect, and consume it on the spot. Agriculturalists don’t rely on cooperation; they produce surplus stock for themselves, which can be taken by force.”[x]
In Girardian terms, this might be called the “Cain” view. When Girard wrote that competitive aggression was as old as Cain, a time when agriculture and herding were in place (Genesis 4:3-4 NIV), he did not say that it was as old as Adam, metaphorically the earliest H. sapien and hunter gatherer. An “Adam” view, by contrast, either (i) would hold that H. sapiens consistently practiced severe, systemic intragroup aggression for 200,000 or more years, back to “Adam,” for which we lack evidence, or (ii) would posit increasing aggression levels among hunter gatherers absent changes in competitive regime to account for the increase. But this flouts both science and Girard. Changes in behavior need to be accounted for.
One implication of the “Cain” view is that it allows us to uncouple mimesis from aggression and look at its positive role in human development. Hunter gatherers were mimetic; what role did positive mimesis play over millennia of H. sapien development? Another implication may be that mimesis alone does not prod competitive aggression but rather mimesis under certain conditions such as the “new” inequality, hierarchy, and abandonment of hunter gatherer fairness/sharing norms. A third implication may be that the 200,000-year experience of substantial cooperativity remains with us as a positive “crystallization”[xi] in Girard’s terms, much as sacrificial violence was crystallized and (subconsciously) incorporated into later ritual and culture. Such cooperativity may be a resource from which to build less aggressive societies today—at least more than if humanity had never lived in more cooperative ways. It may give us receptors, so to speak, for the donative lesson of the cross. It is interesting that eighteen-month-olds readily reach out to assist stranger adults[xii] and children as young as three will disobey instructions likely to lead to harming others.[xiii]
Positive mimesis begins with the long period of playful mimicry of gestures and facial expression between relatively unformed infants and their (kin and non-kin) caretakers. This back-and-forth yields what Sarah Hrdy calls “emotional modernity”: the capacity to “read” and coordinate with (i) the attention of others (ii) the intention of others and (iii) the emotions of others in order to sustain relationships, learn about the world, and generalize relating even to strangers.[xiv] Michael Tomasello’s work on cognitive development adds that joint attention and intention form the basis for role reversal and recursive thinking (I know that she wants me to know that she knows…), allowing for complex, collaborative group endeavors.
In short, positive mimesis bridges otherness. It is the basis for bonding, empathy, and learning. It emerges from and reinforces our “sensibility of cooperativity,” as Joel Hodge put it,[xv] the benefits of which included improved collaboration in food gathering, group protection, and other joint projects as well as more equitable resource distribution yielding greater longevity for more people and thus longer time to reproduce. We are, Donald Pfaff writes, “wired for goodwill”[xvi] with, Frans de Waal notes, “a long history of mutualistic cooperation.”[xvii]
One alternative to the agrarian/sedentarism proposal is Wrangham’s “self-domestication” hypothesis.[xviii] He proposes that it was precisely cooperativity norms—so important that violators had less reproductive success and bred out—that ironically yielded hierarchy and the systemic policing of the in-group by force. As checking a cooperativity violator was of prime importance, any person or gang able to stop the violator—most effectively by killing him—would emerge as the strongman able to rule the group by threat of similar violence. Yet this leaves questions open: what changes in competitive regime made cooperativity violations meriting killing seem reasonable risks in societies where people had long been acculturated to “evolutionarily advantageous” hyper-cooperativity?[xix] Assuming episodic violations, severe norm violators were bred out, which argues, on Wrangham’s calculus, for a decrease in societal aggression. What factors made robust egalitarian cultures, which had sustained hunter gatherers for millennia, suddenly collapse before an ambitious gang?
While Girardian theory is most concerned with intra-group mimesis and aggression, I’ll make a few remarks about aggression inter-group. Is intra-group preference, “parochial altruism,”[xx] a sufficient condition for inter-group aggression? We might begin with the benefits of cooperativity among strangers. In a simple example, if persons from separate hunter gatherer bands battle each other to be the only ones to hunt a certain animal, the winner may end with more food. But many will be downed in the fight, the capacity to overpower the animal will be diminished, and chances increase of becoming the animal’s meal rather than making it one’s own. Cooperation may be the better strategy as more people live (and may later reproduce) and chances of succeeding in the hunt rise. Similarly, if one group raids the food cache of another, chances of retaliation are not trivial. Yet, Wrangham notes, “proactive aggression is successful when it involved attacking at low risk of being hurt.”[xxi] Cooperation or non-engagement may be the more productive strategy.
Low-risk raiding opportunities to be sure presented themselves pre-agriculture. But as the amount of stored goods was negligible, one cannot assume the risk-benefit analysis favored raiding consistently enough for raids to become a systemic practice. In their rigorous literature overview Kissel and Kim write, despite evidence “that our earliest ancestors participated in analogous [to other species] forms of intergroup aggression (particularly among males), it is still difficult to make inferences about frequencies and thus the potential for coalitionary violence to have been a major driver of evolutionary change.”[xxii]
They conclude that inter-group aggression was insufficiently frequent to drive genetic change but that developments in cognition and societal organization afforded hunter gatherers the socio-cultural capacity for complex activities that could be used for pro-social or aggressive projects.[xxiii] What these developments did not afford were frequent, low-risk opportunities for the practice of inter-group aggression. Kissel and Kim note, “Evidence from Nataruk, Jebel Sahaba, and other cemetery burials demonstrate violence, and perhaps collective violence. However, anthropologists need to be clear that this represents only a tiny portion of the human evolutionary record.”[xxiv] David Barash similarly notes that war is not genetically hard-wired but rather “historically recent,” “erratic in worldwide distribution” and “a capacity.”[xxv] Capacities are “derivative traits that are unlikely to have been directly selected for but have developed through cultural processes… And capacities are neither universal nor mandatory.”
The research above suggests several reflection points. (i) It supports Girard’s description of systemic, severe aggression in the “archaic” period of post-agriculture/sedentarism—the “Cain” view. (ii) It supports a significant role for positive mimesis in the development of human cognitive, emotional, and social capacities. (iii) It suggests that mimesis alone may be insufficient for the systemic practice of severe aggression. Such aggression may require specific conditions in competitive regime, such as the monopolizability of resources and substantial inequality—a finding with possible implications for public policy today. Finally, I’d like to note that eighteen-month-olds readily reach out to assist strangers[xxvi] and across cultures, races, genders, and religions, children and adults are more generous in experimental trials than would be predicted by self-benefit maximization theories[xxvii]—perhaps a bequest of our crystallized cooperativity.
[i] Pally, M. (ed.). 2019. Mimesis and Sacrifice: Applying Girard’s Mimetic Theory Across the Disciplines. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
[ii] Sarah Hrdy, in Wrangham, R. 2019. The Goodness Paradox. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 28.
[iii] Kappeler, P. 2019a. “A Comparative Evolutionary Perspective on Sacrifice and Cooperation.” In Mimesis and Sacrifice: Applying Girard’s Mimetic Theory Across the Disciplines, edited by M. Pally, 37-50. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
[iv] Kissel, M. and N. C. Kim. 2019. “The emergence of human warfare: Current perspectives.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 168(S67):141–63, 157.
[v] Tomasello, M. 2019. Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Kindle Locations 5521-5522.
[vi] Clare, L, et al. 2019. “Ritual practices and conflict mitigation at Early Neolithic Körtik Tepe and Göbekli Tepe, Upper Mesopotamia: a mimetic theoretical approach.” In Violence and the Sacred in the Ancient Near East: Girardian Conversations at Çatalhöyük, edited by I. Hodder, 96-128. New York: Cambridge University Press, 101.
[vii] Keeley, L. 2014. “War before civilization–15 years on.” In The evolution of violence, edited by T. Shackelford and R. Hansen, 23–31. New York: Springer, 30.
[viii] Fry, D., G. Schober, and K. Bjorkqvist. 2010. “Nonkilling as an evolutionary adaptation.” In Nonkilling Societies, edited by J. E. Pim, 101-128. Honolulu, HI: Center for Global Nonkilling.
[x] Kappeler, P. 2019b. August 14. Personal communication.
[xi] Girard, R. 1987. Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World: Research Undertaken in Collaboration with J.-M. Oughourlian and G. Lefort, trans. S. Bann and M. Metteer, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
[xii] Warneken, F. 2018. “How children solve the two challenges of cooperation.” Annual Review of Psychology 69: 205–29.
[xiii] DeScioli, P. and R. Kurzban. 2009. “Mysteries of morality.” Cognition 112:281–99.
[xiv] Hrdy, S. 2009, Mothers and Others: Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 204-206, 282.
[xv] Hodge, J. 2019, Feb. 19. Personal communication.
[xvi] Pfaff, D. 2014. The Altruistic Brain: How We Are Naturally Good. New York: Oxford University Press, 5.
[xvii] de Waal, F. 2014. September, “One for All,” Scientific American 311: 68-71, 71.
[xxvi] Warneken, Felix. 2018. “How children solve the two challenges of cooperation.” Annual Review of Psychology 69:205–29.
[xxvii] Gintis, H., C. van Schaik, and C. Boehm. 2015. “Zoon Politikon: The evolutionary origins of human political systems.” Current Anthropology 56: 327–53.
For inquiries about writing a book review or submitting a book for review,
contact the book review editor, Matthew Packer.
Watching the Detectives
Scott Cowdell, David García-Ramos Gallego, Curtis Gruenler, and Matthew Packer, with a response by Pablo Bandera
Pablo Bandera, Reflection in the Waves: The Interdividual Observer in a Quantum Mechanical World. Breakthroughs in Mimetic Theory. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2019. Pages xv + 225.
Editor’s Note: So keen was the reader response to Reflection in the Waves, Pablo Bandera’s 2019 treatise on quantum mechanics in mimetic theoretical terms, that we decided to share the review work among several observers—an array of perspectives seemed appropriate. The resultant article, below, developed out of an exchange between Scott Cowdell, David García-Ramos Gallego, Curtis Gruenler, and Matthew Packer, with the book’s author kindly agreeing to respond to questions. Most of the contributors’ backgrounds here are in philosophy, literature, and theology, with the exception of Scott Cowdell, who also holds a degree in physics and mathematics.
Matthew Packer: Reflection is striking in many ways. It’s remarkable for its careful anticipation of the minefield surrounding quantum physics. The sure-footedness and clarity of exposition that Bandera brings to his argument are also admirable. And the prospect of the two, mimetic and quantum fields then converging as the story unfolds makes for a suspenseful read, like a detective’s hunt. As the argument proceeds to some powerful theological conclusions, Bandera’s insights along the way are often striking. For example, on mimetic theory’s pertinence to this inquiry, “the central point is not that one observer imitates another observer, but that the process of human observation, like that of desire, is a collective and mimetic phenomenon.” Another time, the transcendence of intersubjectivity “reveals itself in our relationships to each other through mimetic desire. It reveals itself in our relationship to the physical world through quantum mechanics. In either case it exists only because of the presence of mimetic human observers.” As well as ultimately offering a new perspective on quantum mechanics, Bandera’s application of mimetic theory in turn provides fresh insights into mimetic theory itself.
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Scott Cowdell: Overall the book succeeds in making its case for quantum mechanics (QM) and mimetic theory as joint witnesses to a more integral metaphysics, epistemology and philosophical anthropology. Steering a path between the dogmatism of Cartesian modernity and the relativism of post-modern developments, Bandera offers a mediated critical realism that recognizes the interpenetration of objectivity and subjectivity found both in QM, as observation helps constitute objective reality (think Schrodinger’s cat), and in mimetic theory, as the being of models generates desires that light up the world of objects and hence create ‘objective value’.
The book’s ambition is to reveal the reality of the world we inhabit, which is tied to the way we inhabit that world, and to do so in a way that is not only philosophical but theological. Bandera links the imaginative breakthrough that this requires with the altered perception that resurrection belief entailed, with the inner-Trinitarian relationality of God, and with the Thomistic sense of God as necessarily underpinning right human perception. In all of this Bandera seeks to avoid new-agey trends in the popular presentation of QM (here I think of books like The Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu Li Masters).
But I would like to see the nature of Bandera’s philosophical claims more clearly set out—how heuristic are his comparisons between QM and MT, and how formal? I wonder if the early work of Varela and Dupuy (more recently, for example, Weigand) on what we might call a cybernetic understanding of mimetic theory might provide a useful parallel, to help build the case or clarify its nature. I have not studied this body of work, hence the question. Regarding the philosophical holism of the proposal, linking reality with mind and mind with mimesis, Bandera’s undertaking might benefit from comparison with the recent work of Anthony Bartlett on Girard and semiology, drawing on the alternative early-modernity of the late-scholastic Poinsot (a contemporary of Locke) and the more recent semiology of C. S. Pierce which conjoin what Descartes and Kant have sundered. I would like to see Bandera’s theological claims more clearly set out, too, as I’m not sure I got the full intended picture. For instance, on the epistemological parallel with the resurrection, I was wondering about any role for James Alison’s “Easter Eyes” proposal.
Curtis Gruenler: One of my Christmas gifts was the new book Einstein's Unfinished Revolution: The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum by the physicist Lee Smolin, which I decided would help me prepare to respond to Bandera’s book. I'm struck by the parallels between the two. Both are lucid and compelling in their explanations of quantum theory and the philosophical problems it raises as well as in their proposals for new avenues of thinking about them. Both begin with the “measurement problem” and the controversies between the dominant “Copenhagen school” interpretation associated with Danish physicist Niels Bohr and others, like Einstein, who have insisted that quantum mechanics is fundamentally incomplete. Smolin analyzes this as the start of a continuing debate between anti-realists, like Bohr, who take the measurement problem and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as indicating a limit to our knowledge of the world, cutting us off from knowledge of ultimate reality, and realists like Einstein and himself (and Bandera). Smolin explains several versions of realism that have been proposed, particularly his own, which he describes as a version of relationalism—broadly speaking, the idea that what is basic to reality is not individual things but relations. Yet Smolin’s relational realism seems based on the possibility of what Bandera would see as a direct, objective relation between observer and reality. Smolin calls his proposal “a causal theory of views” in which what’s important is the “view” that each piece of reality has of the rest, but this sense of a “view” does not account for anything distinctive about the kind of view human observers have. Bandera’s point of intervention in the debates around quantum mechanics, however, is to start with how human observers are distinctive and how the relation between the human observer and quantum reality is itself embedded in relations between humans and, ultimately, between humans and God. This seems to me like a necessary context for a relational view of physics like Smolin’s. Their shared focus on relations seems like a confirming resonance even if it’s not clear exactly how either would provide support for the other.
Bandera’s approach to the distinctiveness of human observers is to ask, “What if observing subjects are related to each other in the same sort of imitative way as desiring subjects?” (75). As he implies, this move fits within wider efforts to extend mimetic theory beyond the understanding of desire (and hence rivalry and violence) to other distinctively human realities like cognition, language, and cooperation and, indeed, makes an important contribution to them, as in Chapter 4 on the sociology of scientific knowledge. With regard to quantum mechanics, this move relocates the probabilistic distribution of the wave function from physical reality to the interdividual, collective nature of human observers. I wonder, though, if this explanation of the measurement problem could yield the precise mathematical form of the wave function. If not, does this detract from its value? Or would it just mean that it needs to be complemented by a causal explanation of the physical reality being observed, such as Smolin’s?
Nonetheless, Bandera’s book is persuasive in its goal of showing how human objectivity, our capacity to know the truth of reality outside ourselves, and to know that we know, is a product of our distinctive collective subjectivity, which mimetic theory goes a great distance toward explaining (even as it also explains how it so often gets caught up in lies and illusions and inadequate scientific paradigms). Bandera leans toward a version of mimetic theory that locates the beginning of objectivity with the “fall” into collective victimization. I would incline rather toward a version that locates this threshold in a longer, evolutionary growth of human cognition (as developed, for instance, by Michael Tomasello). I like Bandera’s appeal to Aquinas on the Aristotelian idea of the potential knowability of the created world, though I would suggest that this could be strengthened by the more neo-Platonic side of Aquinas that has been developed under the term “participation,” which would help support a claim that Pablo seems in fact to make: that our participation in a collective objectivity is ultimately a participation in the divine. And this would also fit his conclusion about the relationship between science and religion: that successful science depends on imitating the divine model as known in Christ.
David García-Ramos Gallego: When I read Pablo’s book on the way to the 2019 annual meeting in Innsbruck, the first three chapters were enough to make me modify the title and part of my own conference paper. The book made me think of Dupuy on the omnipresence of mimetic theory:
Le article me tombe des mains lorsque je découvre le passage suivant: «il y a des lois fundamentales des systèmes complexes, qui s’évanuissent dès lors que l’on se fixe sur leurs constituants individuels – exactement de la même manière que la psychologie d’une foule en train de lyncher un innocent s’évanouit lorsque l’on interviewe les participants individuels». Mon Dieu, aurais-tu donc placé le mécanisme sacrificiel jusqu’au plus intime des constituants ultimes de la matière?. (JP Dupuy, «René en Amerique», in René Girard, L’Herne, 2008: p. 54)
At the meeting in Denver in 2018, Pablo had approached me after my presentation on the theory of truth in Girard and Lévinas, and mentioned his book to me for the first time. I thought that a book by an engineer, of which I had read only a text on the resurrected body of Christ, mimetic theory and quantum mechanics, should have nothing to do with my mimetic comments on Levinas’s Ethique comme philosophie premiere. But a year later, on the train from Munich to Innsbruck, as I raised my eyes from the book of Paul to look at the Alps, the Tyrol into which I was plunging, I remembered Kant. If we owe our modern, scientific view of the world to anyone, it’s the Prussian philosopher. Every time I contemplate mountains and get carried away by the sublime, I remember Kant’s Critique of Judgment:
The astonishmentbordering on terror, the horror and the awesome shudder, which grip the spectator in viewing mountain ranges towering to the heavens, deep ravines and the raging torrents in them, deeply shadowed wastelands inducing melancholy reflection, etc., is, in view of the safety in which he knows himself to be, not actual fear, but only an attempt to involve ourselves in it by means of the imagination, in order to feel the power of that very faculty, to combine the movement of the mind thereby aroused with its calmness, and so to be superior to nature within us, and thus also that outside us, insofar as it can have an influence on our feeling of well-being. (Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgement §29)
But in the case of Pablo’s book and my own presentation, that terror, that amazement, came rather from the infinitely small, and from the hidden: the behavior of quantum particles and that of human beings. What is at stake in Pablo’s book is something familiar to Kant and Girard: the question of truth as a possibility of knowledge. The reference to Aquinas is necessary: does the thing fit in with what is said about the thing? What Pablo reveals to us in his book is something that Girard had already elucidated in Violence and the Sacred. The thing itself can be known, but it is not necessary to eliminate the subject in order to do so, or to alienate it completely, so that we have to eliminate the thing in order to save it. In fact, in some way, the thing itself, the object of knowledge, its truth—which is ours—arises from our cognitive action. The tools we have are poor, it is true. They are human, too human for some, the same ones that would like to be angels. Girard writes:
This scientific angelism springs from a deep-rooted reluctance, philosophical and even religious in origin, to admit that truth can coexist with the arbitrary and perhaps even derive from it. Certainly such an idea runs counter to our habitual modes of thought. And the proposition that true thought and so-called mythic thought are one and the same seems nothing short of scandalous. Perhaps it is because there are so few certain truths in the domain of culture that we are so eager to have the origins clear, easily understood, and accessible to reason. (V&S, p. 233).
In my case, the truth I was concerned with was that of Catalan nationalism. That Pablo had something to say about it, that a voice “unknown to the real” attracted me from its pages, is something that those of us who have read Girard for decades shouldn’t find surprising. The mountains of the Alps, which I saw through the eyes of Kant, my model, were proof of this. We perceive reality through the eyes of others, undoubtedly.
As with Girard, Pablo’s book has raised some questions for me that coincide with those raised by Scott and Curtis: the relationship between philosophy and faith, science and faith; the role of revelation in knowledge; truth as an extra-philosophical category; the possibility that there is no room for knowledge other than sacrificial knowledge, with no option for an other-than-man’s wisdom. Grace, what role would it play in all this? And I refer to grace as a generator of knowledge, or of wisdom. Glory, Balthasar’s theological concept, as a manifestation of the true essence of God, and the need for at least two to contemplate it, is at the base of the community as a community of knowledge, of wisdom.
Pablo Bandera: David asks a series of questions, each of which could launch into a much deeper discussion. But I’ll focus briefly on two of them that I think connect to some of the other points: the question of whether there is room for a non-sacrificial logic, and what role grace might play. These are essentially the questions I try to address in Chapter 7 of Reflection, “The Imitation of Truth.” This is the chapter that would probably be considered the most theological, drawing the epistemological connection to the resurrection that Scott noted. But it is not intended to be a work of theology per se. I simply ask the same question as David and then follow the logic of triangular observation to see where it leads. It leads from the horizontal transcendence of objective scientific reality to the vertical transcendence of divine truth, via the resurrected body of Christ. Curtis is very right when he says that this relationship between the human and the divine provides “a necessary context for a relational view like Smolin’s.” Without this context, or point of reference, any relational model of reality is doomed to suffer from the sort of paradox described by Thomas Nagel (who also talked about views, in particular the “view from nowhere”).
I appreciate Curtis’s comment about the concept of “participation” in relation to Aquinas. It fits well into the conversation about the divine model, and especially the relationship of the human observer to the creative intellect. But I would modify his subsequent comment that “our participation in a collective objectivity is ultimately a participation in the divine.” Quantum mechanics is actually the result of the difference (what I call the gap) between these two things—the horizontal transcendence of collective mimesis that we call objective reality and the vertical transcendence of divine truth. It’s true that our relationship to the divine (which is always there to some degree) guarantees some connection to the truth of what we’re observing. But our mimetic relation to our human models (which is also always there to some degree, by virtue of our fallen humanity) guarantees a minimum degree of “uncertainty.” What Chapter 7 shows is that this gap can only be closed if our human model is our divine model, and the only example we have of that is Christ. For anyone who doesn’t buy into this last statement, it just means that there in fact is no hope of closing the gap, and the world is doomed to perpetual uncertainty, which is what most modern scientists think anyway.
I’ll finish by acknowledging the relevance of semiological relationships that Scott mentions. I'm no expert on Poinsot or Pierce, but it’s clear that the way we understand our world through the signs and symbols that we define (and the world as itself a sign of human and divine creativity) is very relevant to triangular observation. I’m thinking as well of Niels Bohr's definition of an experiment as a method of communication between observers, via the language of classical physics. What I discuss in terms of the triangular relationship between observers can certainly be put in terms of the signs used to communicate between those observers.
Thank you all for your insights.
Sacrifice and Hominization Reconsidered
Sandor Goodhart Purdue University
Marcia Pally, editor, Mimesis and Sacrifice: Applying Girard’s Mimetic Theory Across the Disciplines. Violence, Desire, and the Sacred. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020). Pages viii + 250.
This is the ninth volume in the series Violence, Desire, and the Sacred edited by Scott Cowdell, Chris Fleming, and Joel Hodge for Bloomsbury, and it is a worthy successor to the eight previous volumes. The series is dedicated to exploring René Girard’s revolutionary work in all three of the arenas in which he worked: literary studies, cultural anthropology, and religious studies. In this book, Pally assembles some fourteen essays on sacrifice as applied in numerous disciplines including some not customarily addressed—in the military and in the sociology of business—as well as some addressed in the past only peripherally—gender studies and politics. To these she adds an astute introduction and a provocative set of concluding thoughts. With the exception of the names of Wolfgang Palaver and John Millbank, those of the authors gathered in this volume will generally not be familiar to individuals who have long worked with Girard’s ideas.
And in my view, that is all to the good. Growing out of a conference, “Sacrifice: Biological and Theological Investigations for Economic and Military/Political Praxis,” that took place in the Theology Department of Humboldt University, Berlin, in June 2016, the book opens the door to new and fruitful explorations by researchers who, while recognizing the enormous explanatory power of Girard’s body of work, engage it within the fields in which they labor on a regular basis. The book, moreover, is exceedingly “user friendly” since, in addition to the extensive bibliography following each of the fourteen essays (including her own), Pally has added a deft substantive account of what follows. As such, her book is a fine addition to the growing canon of critical writing on an individual thinker whose work is destined undoubtedly to be aligned with that of Kant, Hegel, Durkheim, and Freud in prominence and depth of insight.
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But one would be bereft to think of this book as only another collection about Girard—however adroit it is (and it is superb). For the volume really is two books. It is Pally’s gathering of essays reading Girard’s work within multifarious contexts. But it is also surprisingly Pally’s own book, the presentation of an argument she herself is making regarding Girard’s thesis that develops a genuinely new and fruitful thesis regarding one aspect of Girard’s work that has been less extensively researched (except by Robert Hamerton-Kelly) and that concerns hominization.
In a 29-page introduction (most essays in the book are less than half that length), Pally, who works in theology, introduces Girard’s work, introduces the topic of the volume and some of the controversies arising in the individual essays, and introduces each of the essay writers and their diverse disciplines and interests. But she also offers a substantively new thesis regarding mimetic theory, one that deserves its own more extensive commentary, and so we will return to it after surveying the fourteen essays she has gathered. (Editor’s note: See also Pally’s article elsewhere in this issue.)
Peter Kappeler is an evolutionary biologist who identifies three meanings of sacrifice across the spectrum: (1) murderous ceremonies (“during which one or several victims were killed” ), practices commonly identified with ancient Greece and Rome, the Aztecs, or among the Maya for which there are “no parallels in the animal kingdom” (38); (2) extreme self-sacrifice, “voluntarily giving up one’s life for the benefit of others,” practices “epitomized” (38) among Japanese Kamikaze pilots as well as observed among ants, bees, wasps, and termites; and (3) a less extreme self-sacrifice defined as “cooperation” (39) where there more is at risk for the actor than the recipient. Focusing upon the third, he concludes that whereas “all types of cooperative behavior in nonhuman primates are mainly limited to kin and reciprocating partners are virtually never extended to unfamiliar individuals” (45), “humans are willing to sacrifice themselves despite and because of their biological legacy, and the lethal forms of sacrifice and self-sacrifice mentioned at the outset appear to be the extreme outcomes of human cultural evolution” (46). In her prefatory “note,” Pally wonders whether Kappeler’s work raises the prospect of a “long, cooperative period ... prior to the [Girardian] archaic,” an “earlier epoch which also informs human nature” (37).
Wolfgang Palaver compares René Girard’s thinking to that of Simone Weil and Mahatma Gandhi. He describes Girard’s movement from an early insistence on the radical difference between archaic murderous sacrifice and Jesus’s death on the cross (which Girard refused to call sacrificial), to a later position distinguishing between “scapegoating religions and Christian self-giving religion” (54), a position, Palaver says, that is based upon an “ontology of peace” (53). He compares Girard’s mimetic perspective to Weil’s advice “not ‘to copy the enemy’ in order to avoid the escalation of violence” (55) and her advice regarding the “need to detach from the attraction of violence” (55). Affirming Weil’s profound influence on Girard, he turns to Gandhi. If Girard expands a Western view to include Eastern approaches, Gandhi in Palaver’s view expands Eastern religious thinking to include Western. Like Girard, Gandhi “understood,” Palaver writes, “why violence cannot resolve human conflicts and how violence through mimesis easily escalates by turning adversaries into enemy twins” (58).
Hassan Rachik challenges the universality of Girard’s understanding of sacrifice (derived as it is from the famous discussion of Hubert and Mauss) by introducing Islamic sacrifice, which suggests, in his view, that sacrifice “falls into many types” (65). “Some resemble the Hubert and Mauss pattern” while “other forms of sacrifice do not…as they privilege the sociopolitical over the sacred” (65). Having surveyed practices in the High Atlas Mountains and other areas of Morocco, Rachik concludes “sacrifice has been adapted to a wide range of situations.” “Its nature…is…malleable, negotiable, and manipulable. A theory of sacrifice should take into account this diversity” (74).
Like Rachik, Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard would “expand our conversation about sacrifice” (78) by relating it in Judaism to sanctification and holiness. Invoking the work of Emmanuel Levinas to affirm that “nothing is greater than to approach one’s neighbor,” Rabbi Blanchard affirms that the sacrificial system in Judaism “is meant to maintain and enhance the covenant between God and the Israelite people and among persons” (78). “The Israelite covenant depends on sustaining a relationship” (78), he writes, the kinds of “interlocking relationships” explored, for example, he points out, by Girardian theologian James Alison, in his work (79). By “treating others to welcome and hospitality,” Rabbi Blanchard concludes, we also welcome in the divine” (89).
Unlike those preceding it, David Pan’s essay does not invoke Girard except obliquely—for example, in a reference to Paulo Diego Bubbio, whose writings on sacrifice engage Girard’s. Focusing rather upon Moshe Halbertal’s claim that “Self-transcendence is at the core of the human capacity for moral life” (92), Pan’s interest is in asking whether within the Kantian conception of moral philosophy, sacrifice (understood as “a purpose that goes beyond the self” ) comes first or the individual self. “The decisive quality of the sacrifice for ethical life,” he writes, “means that rational beings can demonstrate their freedom only to the extent that they can subordinate themselves to a purpose that goes beyond the self” (101).
Marcia Pally’s own essay elaborates an idea she raised in connection with Kappeler’s: “Tanachic covenant” (115). Is human nature “competitive or covenantal with foundational affinities for reciprocity and giving” (114)? Rather than a transitional moment between archaic sacrifice and New Testament revelation of “non-violent imitation,” the “First Testament,” Pally asserts, “understands humanity as being in an ongoing education towards nonviolence,” an education that involves “twined covenantal relations with God and among persons” (104). The moment of hominization itself, in her view, may already be bound up with an “ontology of peace” that all religions seek in Girard’s understanding, but one that resonates with the covenantal premise articulated in her view by the Hebrew prophets and throughout Tanach.
Anna Mercedes argues that feminist theology initially finds relief in Girard’s theories. “Christ is the counterexample” of sacrifice, “the evidence of a world gone wrong” (119). But historically, Christians have often “simply perpetuated the sacrificial mechanism” (119), ironically “missing the radicality of Christ as the ‘perfectly innocent and nonviolent victim’” (120) in whom Girard sees an invitation past violence and sacrifice. But for Mercedes, something is also missing: namely, a concrete non-violent practice. And as such, she offers one: “restorative sacrifice” (124), “sacred gift” (124), “self for other” (124). “Cannot the logic of love,” she asks, “also invoke human cultural response and account as it continues its revelation?” (125). Her reformulation of the autonomous self echoes Levinas, for whom “love thy neighbor as thyself” from Leviticus 19:18 becomes “love thy neighbor is thyself.”
Francisco Canzani reads Girard’s theory of sacrifice in context of the goals of liberation theology in Latin America. We live, in the modern world, “in an economic and political system that favors a mimetic circle in which the rich become increasingly rich and the educated become increasingly cultured” (140). The “commitment of Christians” (140) must be, he says, “to leave and dismantle mimetic violence through resurrection” (141), which means in effect “bringing love to its extreme—following the sacrificed and resurrected Christ—for the sake of the poor and the abused” (139).
Ulrike Brunotte's essay opens the second section of Pally's book, which is devoted to constructions of masculinity. Brunotte is interested in the way the Girardian principle of surrogate victimage operates in Germany after World War One. “National socialist ideology made use of a repertoire of sacrifice and heroism models” (151), she writes. Devastating losses were transformed into two cults: one of masculinity and one of death. “The idealistic trope of youths throwing themselves into battle to sacrifice for their country yielded the discursive trope of the Männerbund or ‘male band’” (150). And “in place of pars pro toto…living soldiers and indeed all citizens were understood as attaining authentic life only through the sacrificial fellowship of the front, where all enter the ‘sacred’ sphere of death” (156).
Even more than David Pan’s essay on Kant and sacrifice (which makes scant mention of Girard), Rolf von Uslar's essay focuses exclusively upon the military and sacrifice, nodding obliquely to Girard perhaps in mentioning the topic of Girard’s book on Clausewitz. Von Uslar’s concern is that “post-heroic societies” (162) have lost their connection to sacrifice. “There used to be and there still is a need for self-sacrifice in order to successfully accomplish…military operations”; “there is an urgent necessity for…sacrifice in the military itself”; and “sacrifice can help [us] to understand military service as ‘katechonian,’” by which he means the ability to restrain or thwart violence (162). Von Usler ends with the last words of the leader of the failed attempt against Hitler: “A man’s moral worth is established only at the point where he is ready to give his life in defense of his convictions” (171).
John Milbank’s broad-ranging essay opens the final section of Pally’s book, promising “an expanded understanding of sacrifice” (175). Milbank argues the “primordial subordination” (187) of sacrifice to gift, “the offering of life itself in emergencies or to divine powers” (187). Such offerings “are made in trust of divine return” and “express a trust in God’s original generosity and unlimited capacity to renew this” (188). Thus Milbank rejects ritual sacrifice as a mutated defense of a “scapegoatng mechanism” (181) against “an original contagion of violence” to be a “Hobbesian or Girardian fantasy” (181) and endorses the idea that human sacrifice “seems to be something commanded by later sacral kings in archaic empires” (182).
Philip Roscoe invokes Girard to think about sacrifice in contemporary business. An ethos of sacrifice permeates the business world in the age of globalization. Before new technology, bureaucratic management has given way to a full range of self-sacrificial styles. Girard’s writings can help explain this circumstance. We got here because culture is religious and the religious is organized around the sacrificial mechanism. The New Testament, for Girard, on the other hand, proposes a remedy: “nonviolent imitation” (198). But “a new economic covenant still seems far away,” Roscoe writes, and in the meanwhile “the unity we face is one of endless, self-sacrificial striving, precarious labor, and uncertainty” (200). For the moment, stories as Richard Kearney describes them might offer a solution. “As we squabble over what to do with the Other (the refugee, the ocean, the iceberg, the rough-sleeper), new stories can help us undo the boundaries that inculcate such otherness in the first place” (200). But we continue to “hope for a move to non-sacrificial imitation—‘mimesis’ in Girard’s terms—in the economy” (191).
Adrian Pabst offers a criticism of René Girard in the context of his critique of Western liberal market democracy, an economy in which people have become commodities, and which endorses in the words of Pope Francis a “globalization of indifference,” a “culture of waste” serving “idolatrous sacrifice” (205). Mimetic desire as a natural quality of human beings for Pabst is in fact the product a fantasy of scarcity. “[H]uman beings are not by nature more mimetically competitive than cooperative,” he writes, “precisely because they seek mutual recognition of their talents and roles in society more than they desire competition or conflict” (206). And in the coming age of robotics, that recognition from real others may be in even shorter supply.
Ilia Delio’s contribution to this volume is more of a meditation than an essay. She distinguishes initially two kinds of suffering: the consequence of vulnerability, ex carentia (from loss or lack), and the consequence of being in a relationship with another, ex abundantia (from abundance). She identifies Girardian mimetic theory with ex carentia in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus is the “innocent victim who assumes suffering and becomes the symbol of all those who suffer ex carentia” (217). In her essay, she says, she intends to “build on Girard’s insight that humanity may escape the violence we cause each other by embracing the extraordinary love shown on the cross” (217). And that insight leads her to contrast Girard’s work with that of Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. While “Girard’s mimetic theory can help explain the crisis of violence in contemporary culture,” she writes, “Teilhard’s insights on creative evolution allows a wider framework for understanding sacrifice and suffering in an unfinished universe” (217).
In the final pages of the volume (before information about contributors and the index), Pally offers her concluding thoughts. But since those thoughts continue the thesis she presents in her introduction (and at which she hints obliquely in passing in the editorial notes she attaches to each essay), it behooves us to consider that idea in a more unitary manner on its own merit.
Her thesis, put quite bluntly, is that Girard’s idea that the sacrificial scapegoat mechanism may be the defining feature of hominization, the technology by which hominid communities radically distinguish themselves from among other primate populations, may be somewhat inaccurate historically, a simplification of a more complex transition that contains a missing middle step between the two: namely, the existence of hunter/gatherer communities. The sacrificial mechanism may apply, she surmises, once hunter/gatherer populations become agrarian, place-bound, property-centered, governed by symbolic formations other than those defined by kinship systems. But prior to that moment, hunter/gatherer communities may be described more fully in accord with ideas of Johann Huizinga or Roger Callois as forms of playfulness or playacting, their distinctive features closer to shared mimetic cooperation rather than rivalrous mimetic competition. Pally is careful not to essentialize the thesis, to argue for homo ludens à la Huizinga rather than homonecans à la Walter Burkert, but rather pursues a more fruitful path that allows “hundreds of thousands” of years of evolution-tested behavior and all sorts of observable continuities—with primate communities (whose young undoubtedly play) at one end, and more recent hominid communities (where scapegoating undoubtedly occurred) at the other.
It’s a bold thesis and one that will require considerably more research before being generally accepted within the Girardian community. It will be necessary for example to articulate more fully the diachrony of her claims, the evolutionary extensive palimpsest that she understands at the root of social communities more than any new synchronic neo-mythic “human nature.” But its opening articulation in this book—even if only in the introduction and concluding sections—merits already in my view serious attention among Girardians.
Matt Packer Buena Vista University
Roberto Farneti, Mimetic Politics: Dyadic Patterns in Global Politics. Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2015. Pages xvi + 177.
In this urgent, insightful study, Roberto Farneti argues that political scientists would find a mimetic perspective enormously beneficial for thinking about the most pressing political problems of our time. Just as theoreticians, like Jean-Pierre Dupuy, have pointed out the gulf of misunderstanding that separates orthodox economic theory from the transformative principles of mimetic theory, so does Farneti contend that traditional political theory is hampered by age-old assumptions and that its merger with mimetic anthropology might lead to a new field “more sensitive and perceptive to current challenges” (1).
Readers familiar more with Girard’s work than with political studies will recognize parts of the book’s argument, but the volume will still be helpful for them for its exposé of blind spots in political science and its survey of scholars using a mimetic lens to explore international relations. For newcomers to Girard and those more familiar with political studies, Farneti provides in a few sections fresh outlines of the basic ideas of Girard’s theory. One benefit of the book’s composition—made up of four previously published, independent chapters (on the “New Wars,” global political fault lines, conflict resolution, and political theology), here with an original introduction and conclusion—is that some of these articles can be read on their own as separate forays into political problems.
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Chapter One, “A (Mimetic) Paradigm for our Post-Sacrificial Times,” is nonetheless helpful in understanding the book’s overall argument, for it spells out the fundamental problem in classical political theory—in the social sciences, more generally—of working primarily from the “individuationist model…according to which all facts of politics are brought about by the agency of either individual or aggregated individual actors” (5). Following his survey of scholars that includes Mark Juergensmeyer, John Keane, Barbara Fuchs, Paul Dumouchel, and Dupuy, who all explore mimesis in various ways, Farneti concludes that we need to think of political processes in terms not of individuals or even groups but of dyads: mimetic theory focuses “on the coupling of political actors and on their mimetic interactions…[since] each member of these dyadic compounds engages in dynamics of reciprocal imitation” (28).
In his chapter on the “New Wars” (NWs), Farneti argues that despite the twenty-first-century’s emphasis on nonpolarity in international relations, we still ought to think in terms of bipolar relations, and that mimetic theory helps amend the logic of NWs “by replacing ‘asymmetrization’ with mimetic reciprocity” (30). From here, Farneti develops the argument that ever since the “first new war,” between the Israelis and Palestinians, political tensions in the Middle East have radiated out globally; in other words, the Israeli-Palestinian schism has arisen from “a deep-seated East/West fault line, a deep cleavage that is being displaced from its original setting between Asia and Europe and has exploded now in major ‘global political line-ups’” (31). In this chapter and its sequel, about “cleavage lines” in global politics, Farneti emphasizes the waning of sacrificial barriers in the age of globalization and the way that identities have become “mobile and ubiquitous.” We can see, he suggests, as a result of so many worldwide trends, alignments, and escalations, just how immanent mimetic relations are. In one of the book’s key portraits, Farneti offers a genealogy of the left/right dyad, which was once about class but is now about identity, and “deeply mimetic in nature.” He makes the claim that its resilience seems to depend on the fact that left and right can be empty vessels capable of being filled with any content—evidenced at times in current U.S. politics.
There is much else to commend in Mimetic Politics, including the chapter on the advantages of mimetic theory for conflict solutions, but one of the best sections in the rest of the work is the epilogue’s “Genealogy of ‘Planetary Reciprocity,” where Farneti offers a compelling example of the sort of mimetic history-telling that Girard advocated in Battling to the End. Here, Farneti recalls the rivalry between West and East, between Spain and Islam in the sixteenth century, and then the dyads of Spain-Portugal and particularly England-Spain, out of which mimetic rivalry helped spur into creation global empires. In all this, engaging Barbara Fuchs, Farneti points to the problem with traditional history-telling, in which “we still assign disproportionate value to originals” and fail to acknowledge “the mimetic mirroring occurring between different polities [which] has the [dangerous] effect of biasing our perceptions and obscuring the dyadic dynamics that compound historical processes” (133).
Overarching the book’s various topics, though, is Farneti’s argument against Girard concerning the latter’s anthropological reading of apocalypse. Having traced Girard’s understanding of history’s “escalations to the extreme” right to the end of Mimetic Politics, Farneti himself contemplates the prospect of “battling to the end.” But in hoping to avoid “an apocalyptic climax in which mimesis, and humanity, consume themselves to the end,” he places greater emphasis on the power of reflection and “our ability to think ‘recursively’ about things and about ourselves” (137)—more emphasis than did Girard, who insisted “we have to work amidst...an unfettered mimetism” (Battling 25). Farneti, in other words, places greater emphasis on reason alone, in contrast to Girard’s emphasis on Christ alone. Farneti seeks to “amend the mimetic perspective put forth by Girard by proposing a nonapocalyptic solution to the escalation of mimetic violence” (103), and he does this in part by adopting a neo-Hobbesian perspective, which he claims would help us understand the return of the sacred in current politics and “work as antidote against contemporary resurgences of both the sacred and sacrifice” (xv).
It’s a conclusion apparently contingent upon the author’s interest in preserving as first principle the notion of human responsibility and freedom—in contrast to the Girardian subject, as he sees it: an “unfortunate carrier of secondhand desires...hardly responsible for actions...always dependent on the desires of others” (118). But just how deeply ingrained and how ubiquitous is mimesis? One of Farneti’s gems, in fact, suggests a profitable line of inquiry more in tune with Girard than Farneti lets on: if we are to reexamine in mimetic terms, as Farneti proposes, the supposed selfishness of the primary actor, the autonomous subject in political theory, we have to concede that “this kind of subjectivity...is actually, on closer scrutiny, selfless, for its ‘self’ is constituted by the acts and attitudes of the rival”—or constituted, we might add, even by a more positive, non-rivalrous model. Suffice it to say here that the possibilities opening out from “dyadic” insights like this one are many, and the potential of the field Farneti looks to in Mimetic Politics is promising. It’s a richly observant book, sure to promote discussion and further research.
Conspirationists and Their Doubles
Paul Dumouchel Ritsumeikan University
Emma A. Jane & Chris Fleming, Modern Conspiracy: The Importance of Being Paranoid. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. Pages 172.
Modern Conspiracy is a pleasure to read. Witty, funny, engaging, mainly it is substantial food for thoughts, a serious reflection on a topic whose importance for current affairs has steadily been growing. Whether they concern the president of the United States, his political opponents, a New York pizza restaurant, a Saudi Prince, Russian secret services, mass shootings, vaccination, Black Lives Matter, global warming, or Brexit, denunciations of conspiracies abound and nobody feels quite safe in claiming just how many real conspiracies there are out there. Since 2014 when this book was published, accusations of conspiracies have not only grown in numbers and in their relevance to major political issues; they have also become a lot more divisive. This is not surprising since accusing a foreign power of meddling in national elections or far right groups of surreptitiously influencing voters in an important referendum is likely to provoke stronger reactions than the fantastic revelation that alien space lizards disguised as secret service agents have infiltrated the seat of power. In consequence of the multiplication of conspiracy theories and of theories about conspiracies this book has become all the more relevant.
Central to the authors’ thesis is the idea that conspiracy theories cannot be analyzed alone without taking into account their critics, those who see it as their duty to denounce the inanity of such theories and the irrationality of those who propose them. This form of adversarial reading of conspiracy theories is precisely what this book does not want to do. Not that Jane and Fleming’s aim is to defend weird theories about alien abduction or plots to brainwash the populace by adding fluoride to drinking water. Rather, their claim is that conspiracy theorists and their debunkers, conspirationists and anti-conspirationists that is, function more or less like “enemy brothers” or “doubles.” Therefore, they should not be analyzed severally, but as one phenomenon. They should be viewed together, they argue, as symptoms of a central problem in the epistemological legacy of the Enlightenment.
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Conspiracy theories and theorists make a claim to truth. They argue that through patient and careful analyses of information they have uncovered a well-hidden and important truth that is unknown to most, either because conspirators dissimulate it—dissimulation is of the essence for a conspiracy—or because people in general are “sheeple”: like sheep they are happy to follow the trend and believe what they are told. That is, conspiracy theorists present themselves as independent minds who dare to think by themselves, rather than blindly follow common opinions. They pretend to embody the two fundamental virtues of the Enlightenment, thinking autonomously and critically. To the opposite, their debunkers claim that conspiracy theorists are irrational. That they fail to think critically and to evaluate properly the weight of the evidence they review. That they are paranoid, convinced that nothing is as it seems to be and that evil lurks behind what appears most normal and usual. In the same breath, these anti-conspirationists claim for themselves the ability to think rationally, critically and autonomously. Furthermore, they view the success of conspiracy theories as a grave danger that threatens the legacy of the Enlightenment. One of the interesting dimensions of this dynamic, as our authors indicate, is that efforts to disprove and refute conspiracy theories usually end up reinforcing them. These efforts tend to be seen as a clear indication that there is a conspiracy to hide the truth. As conspirationists say, what would be the point trying so hard to disprove their claim if there were not “something about it.”
Contemporary approaches to epistemology, as Jane and Fleming remark, “remain anchored in the intellectual ideals of the Enlightenment. These demand first-hand inquiry, independent thinking and scepticism about information passed down by authorities and experts” (55). Both authors of conspiracy theories and their debunkers seek to embody these ideals and pretend that they do. However, we live in a world where the vast majority of knowledge can only be assessed and accessed in mediated form relying on the authority of various specialists, individuals or institutions. In our everyday life things are generally not what they seem. Think of processed food, one of the authors’ favorite examples—the best, the only way to find out what an item contains, unless you are ready to engage in years of specialized research, is to read the list of ingredients on the label. Why should you trust it? It is through others that we learn most of what we learn and know. In such circumstances, there is very little room for first-hand inquiry, and some trust in experts and authorities is inevitable. The discrepancy between these epistemological ideals and the world in which we live is one of the causes of the proliferation of conspiracy theories and of the failures of the rationalist attempts to refute them. These are enemy doubles engaged in a futile conflict focused on a conception of autonomous rationality that is now obsolete.
Authors of conspiracy theories and their debunkers talk beyond each other. Each writes to prove his point; not to be heard by the other, but to reassure believers. To bring together those who already know that conspirationists are irrational, paranoid idiots incapable of sound reasoning, or to convoke those who are convinced that scientists lie to us, that figures of authority hide their real design and goals. In both cases, the objective is not to talk to the other, either because the other is deemed incapable of listening to reason, or because we know that the other is lying, thus that there is no point talking to him or her. This inability, and unwillingness, to speak to the other is inseparable from an epistemic attitude which may be characterized as “totalizing.” Conspiracy theories tend to involve multiple conspiracies, ever grander accusations leading to an all-encompassing expression of evil, while debunkers tend to see adepts of conspiracy theories as completely incapable of reason and their theories as a danger that threatens to destroy democracy, our civilization even.
As Girard writes concerning the text of persecution of Guillaume de Machaut—which is a clear example of conspiracy theory—rational analysis functions otherwise. “Out-and-out skepticism does not take into account the real nature of the text. There is a particular relationship between the likely and unlikely characteristics of this text. In the beginning the reader cannot of course distinguish between true and false. He sees only themes that are incredible as well as others that are quite credible. He can believe in the increasing number of deaths; it could be an epidemic. But the massive scale of poisonings described by Guillaume is scarcely credible. There were no substances in the fourteenth century capable of producing such harmful effects. The author’s hatred for the supposedly guilty people is explicit and makes his thesis extremely suspect” (The Scapegoat, 5-6; also in The Girard Reader, 101-102). The reader’s ability to come to a decision in this case, concerning accusations of a Jewish conspiracy to poison local wells, rests in part on indirect knowledge, for example concerning which type of poisonous substances that existed in the late Middle Ages, in part on autonomous reflection. The author’s hatred of the Jews makes his claims questionable and suggests that his accusations are self-serving. Texts of persecution are not perfectly irrational, simply locally irrational. That is why they can and they should be criticized, but why also, though it may be difficult, it is possible to talk to those who propose them. Real life conspiracy, as Jane and Fleming remind us, “has a number of distinguishing characteristics which often, if not always, set it apart from the overblown and implausible conspiracy theory. These include the qualities of chaos, emergence, and banality—as well as a tendency for plots to fail sooner rather than later. Humans, it seems, are better at finding things out than at covering things up for any length of time” (31).
Modern Conspiracy is essential reading at a time when politics seems reduced to an exchange of reciprocal accusations of conspiracies that, we are told, endanger the survival of democracy or the life of the country.
Gotta Serve Somebody
Elijah Null University of Denver
Jessica Hooten Wilson, Giving the Devil His Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Cascade Books, 2017. Pages 158.
Jessica Hooten Wilson draws on Girard’s literary criticism and I See Satan Fall Like Lightning to argue that, for Dostoevsky and O’Connor, “placing the self in the role of God” is actually to imitate Satan, and “thus, the authority of the autonomous self is actually demonic authority” (86). The delusion of the autonomous self is revealed as characters perpetrate or are complicit in acts of demonic violence. Dostoevsky’s and O’Connor’s “incarnational realist” aesthetic intentionally scandalizes readers, Wilson concludes, in order to undermine the myth of the autonomous self and make us see the “either/or” choice: serve either demonic violence or Christ.
Ivan Karamazov renounces God, Wilson explains in her second chapter, “Using Suffering to Protest God’s Authority,” because God allows children to suffer. In O’Connor’s preface to A Memoir of Mary Ann (1961), where the sole direct reference to Dostoevsky in her published work is found, she explains what happens when, as in the case of Ivan, tenderness becomes a substitute for faith: “Long since cut off from the person of Christ, [such tenderness] is wrapped in theory. When tenderness,” O’Connor continues, “is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber” (24). Wilson works out the implications of O’Connor’s reading of Ivan, drawing parallels between Ivan and Rayber, a central character in The Violent Bear It Away. Wilson argues that renunciation of God on the basis of inexplicable suffering is a misunderstanding of Christ, the incarnate one who suffers with us. Ivan shows this misunderstanding when, in Wilson’s reading, he portrays his Christ in “The Grand Inquisitor” as “arriv[ing] from nowhere … incorporeal and unreal” (41). The renunciations of Ivan and Rayber, Wilson concludes, are at bottom a form of pride. In seeking to “correct” the work of Christ, they actually bring about the kingdom of violence (43).
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In the next chapter, “The Death of God and the Kingdom of Violence” Wilson explores the connection between patricide and deicide, unraveling how the pursuit of autonomy requires the “disposal of those who begot us,” on both a spiritual and material level (51). This chapter covers Brothers Karamazov, as well as several works by O’Connor, but her analysis of O’Connor’s short story “A View of the Woods” is a particularly fine Girardian reading. A grandfather teaches his young granddaughter to imitate him by being completely autonomous. Already physiologically similar, by the end of the story they have become mimetic doubles. When her grandfather impedes her autonomy, the young girl viciously attacks him. He responds with “greater violence,” and at the end of the story he is left looking upon, in O’Connor’s words, “his conquered image” (69). In both O’Connor and Dostoevsky, Wilson concludes, parents and children clash because they “serve to remind each other that no one is absolutely autonomous” (69). Wilson ends this chapter with a reading of O’Connor’s Wise Blood (1952) as an early critique of neo-paganism, self-worshipping American “Christianity,” and “death of God” theology, concluding that setting up the self as god, as she argues further in her next chapter, actually opens oneself up to the demonic.
The penultimate chapter, “The Demonic Authority of the Autonomous Self,” is, by Wilson’s own admission, the most controversial (22). Here she argues the thesis quoted in the first paragraph of this review, contending that, according to Dostoevsky and O’Connor, absolute autonomy does not exist, but is rather only a “false freedom, wherein one succumbs to demonic desires” (80). Ultimately, then, “autonomy” is a self-deceit, a chosen “blindness” that can be disrupted by an encounter with the “unavoidable real—death for instance” (89). Despite the fact that O’Connor believes that the devil is an actual personage while Dostoevsky is more ambivalent about that question, both Dostoevsky’s and O’Connor’s characters ultimately deal with the same satanic lie, encapsulated perfectly in the demonic lavender-suited stranger’s challenge to Tarwater in the Violent Bear it Away: “It ain’t Jesus or the devil. It’s Jesus or you.” Wilson notes in her introduction that this “statement is, of course, like everything the devil says, both true and false” (22). The central argument of this culminating chapter is that both Dostoevsky and O’Connor believe—and seek to help their readers see—that choosing oneself over God is identical to submitting oneself to demonic authority and the violence that it entails.
Even though they both “give the devil his due,” neither Dostoevsky nor O’Connor gives him the last word (132). Although the “autonomous” self unknowingly imitates Satan, and thus Satan can become one’s father in the sense of “model,” he never becomes anyone’s true father (83). Instead, “divine patronage persists,” and “intimations of [God’s] grace” and the “indestructible” imago Dei ultimately shine through (83-84). Neither author, that is to say, is Manichean in their concept of the devil. Rather, they see demons as “non-entities …feeding off willing hosts” and the devil himself as ultimately, as O’Connor puts it in one of her letters, “accomplishing ends other than his own” (116, 105).
The concluding chapter, “Imitating the Son and the Kingdom of Love” reflects on the imitation of Christ, the only alternative to demonic authority, and draws conclusions about Dostoevsky’s and O’Connor’s aesthetic approach. Significantly, Wilson draws on Why Do The Heathen Rage?, O’Connor’s unpublished third novel (called by Bill Sessions “her most Dostoevskian work”), as an example of O’Connor’s “ability to portray positive mimesis” tending towards redemption (125-26). Unfortunately, since the novel is unfinished, so is the redemption of the main character, Walter. Wilson also reflects on Alyosha, noting particularly his concrete (as opposed to Ivan’s abstract) love of children as another example of positive mimesis of Christ.
Wilson ends by offering her understanding of how the aesthetic of O’Connor and Dostoevsky works on their readers: “Their stories become vehicles of transformation because of their scandal. Readers should find the violence of Dostoevsky’s and O’Connor’s fiction discomfiting because, through them, the authors show that violence is the unacknowledged choice of their culture” (132). Wilson applies Girard’s insights about Dostoevsky to O’Connor, deepening our understanding of Dostoevsky and working out in detail what many of O’Connor’s readers already suspect, that she belongs among the ranks of those authors who portray the true nature of desire and its connections to rivalry and idolatry. Further, Wilson’s book suggests one way that Dostoevsky and O’Connor are perhaps more modern (and more scandalous) than other authors in the mimetic theory “canon”: They unflinchingly articulate a critique that strikes at the core of modernity, namely, that, in Wilson’s words, the “death of God is a false victory for the autonomous self because this autonomy is actually slavery to demonic contagion” (21).
Wilson’s study is an earnest, accessible, and interesting application of mimetic theory to Dostoevsky and O’Connor. Longtime readers of Girard won’t find Wilson discussing the “insider baseball” nuances of mimetic theory here, but that is not her purpose. They will find, however, an important contribution to the growing body of work on O’Connor and mimetic theory that is both rigorous and thought-provoking.
Mystical Theology and Social Ethics in Three Lives
Jeremiah Alberg International Christian University, Tokyo
Petra Steinmair-Pösel, Im Gravitationsfeld von Mystik und Politik: Christliche Sozialethik im Gespräch mit Maria Skobtsova, Dorothee Sölle und Chiara Lubich. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2019. Pages 454.
The Second Vatican Council in its pastoral constitution, Gaudium et Spes, proclaimed that “the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.” It is no secret that in our day these signs are both more accessible and less intelligible than ever. The increase in information seems to exist in inverse proportion to our ability to use it in a discerning manner. We have everything at our fingertips and yet stand somewhat helplessly by as the world seems to spin out of control towards a troubling destiny. To whom or to what do we turn, not as helpless victims looking for a deus ex machina, but as responsible adults with limited time and resources to get help in sorting out the conflicting tendencies present in our world and forge a way ahead in communion with others? In this groundbreaking work, her Habilitationsschrift, Steinmair-Pösel makes the compelling case that we are to turn to a kind of knowing rooted in mystical experience for guidance in not only constructing a social ethics for the twenty-first century, but also for finding the resources to actualize it. With a steady gaze at the nearly overwhelming challenges we face, she proposes a creative way forward that balances the demand for new responses with a cognizance of the resources our traditions bequeath us.
She specifies this proposal by orchestrating an encounter with and between three very different women who, nonetheless, each lived a life grounded in profound and sustained contact with the Christian God as well as nurturing a vital concern for social questions. The first is the Russian-born, Eastern Orthodox Maria Skobtsova. Twice married, a poet, eventually a nun, she lived more than twenty years in Paris (1923-45). She was arrested by the Gestapo for helping Jews procure baptismal certificates and died on Holy Saturday 1945 in the gas chambers of Ravensbrück concentration camp. Her life in Paris was marked by helping the poor and theological reflection.
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The second woman, the German Dorothee Sölle (1929-2003), was a Protestant proponent of liberation theology, a poet, and an activist. From the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties she spent one semester each year at Union Theological in New York. Her theology is very much marked by her awareness of doing theology in the shadow of the Holocaust. Her time in America made her more aware of the feminist dimensions of her thought. At times she was criticized for being too political, at other times for being too pious, but these were the poles of tension in which she carried out her theology.
Finally, we have the Italian, Roman Catholic Chiara Lubich (1920-2008), best known as the foundress of the Focolare movement. Beginning in 1939 she had profound mystical experiences that led her to commit herself to celibacy and to open herself to community with other women, with men, with married couples. Eventually she founded a movement whose raison d’être is unity, and this unity extends to all, embracing those who have different faiths or no faith at all.
In order to contextualize the encounter with these three women, Steinmair-Pösel begins with her own prophetic vision of the challenges presented by the signs of the times (chapter 1). The drive towards ever greater expansion that lies at the heart of the capitalistic economy has been revealed to be possible only at the cost of destroying the natural world upon which not just the economy but our very lives depend. It does not seem to be an exaggeration to write that the very foundations of human existence are being threatened in ways that risk being irreversible. Certain changes to the environment which point toward catastrophic consequences are becoming more and more visible. This is not a matter of religious faith but scientific fact. But it is also not simply a matter of fate, it concerns questions of justice. The damage that results from the way the more developed countries live falls disproportionately on the people of less developed areas. While it is always difficult to specify “the” most pressing problem in the world, this certainly presents itself as a worthy candidate.
The second challenge that Steinmair-Pösel delineates comes out of her long engagement with the thought of the French cultural critic René Girard. She convincingly argues that we must learn to develop solidarity with each other that does not depend on having a common external enemy. We are all too familiar with and far too proficient at forming solidarity by having some scapegoat or common object of hatred. But the effectiveness of this form of solidarity wears ever thinner, confronting us more and more urgently with the task of building community on the more solid foundation of love and respect, mercy, and forgiveness. Easily said, but this book points toward the resources to make this possible.
Finally, Steinmair-Pösel sees interreligious dialogue as the third key challenge in today’s polarized world. That religion is not going away and that it can contribute to the world’s violence is incontrovertible in today’s post-9/11 world. Thus, interreligious dialogue becomes not just one dialogue among many, but demands a special, sustained attention if we hope for a more just, more peaceful world.
The German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, has challenged religious thinkers to shed light on the basic Christian political and social concepts that the secular society has adopted as a way of revealing their as yet untapped potential. Humanism as a leading global culture relies on Christian as well as secular arguments. Steinmair-Pösel answers this challenge by bringing out how the Christian mystical tradition can contribute to the development of an ecumenical Christian social ethics. Habermas issued this challenge precisely because he saw that secular society does not have sufficient resources to ground the kind of changes we so desperately need. Steinmair-Pösel’s response is one that, I believe, can even appeal to those who take a more secular approach to social ethics, because it grounds itself in the human reality of mystical experience. One does not need to belong to the Christian tradition to appreciate the teachings of its mystics, just as one does not need to be a Buddhist to profit from the teachings of the masters.
As a further step, one whose articulation must be precise (chapter 2), Steinmair-Pösel explains the relation between the mystical and the political without either making them contradictory or identical. While the latter may seem to present less of a temptation than the former, a naive conception that does not acknowledge the tensions that exist between these two “existentials” of human life can create as many problems as any conception that simply asserts a split between the mystical and political, between the “other” worldly and the challenges we face every day. In order to give the proper depth and density to the relationship between mysticism and the political life, Steinmaier-Pösel uses Henri Bergson’s systematic placement of the mystical in the transformation of a “closed society” to an “open society.” The mystical is what transforms a religion from a static religion that would be appropriate to a closed society to a dynamic religion which can undergird an open society.
There follows a chapter on the life and teaching of the three mystics (chapter 3). Steinmaier-Pösel show herself to be an expert guide in picking out the relevant aspects from the varied and rich experiences and writings of Skobtsova, Sölle, and Lubich. While there remains an element of openness in her choice (it was not inevitable that it be these three and just these three women), the constellation with which we are presented is meaningful in at least three ways. First, the different traditions, both religious and cultural, that each woman represents ensure that we are not being parochial. Second, the fact that all belong to the Christian tradition helps us to develop a Christian social ethics while the three, especially Sölle and Lubich provide concrete resources for including other religious traditions. Third, the common feature uniting the three is that each woman managed to integrate into her personal life both mystical prayer and radical social commitment, and this makes these three especially apposite. In addition, the work itself indicates other resources. The lives and writings of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are often invoked. So also are Thomas Merton’s. Finally, the frequent references to Dorothy Day indicate an openness to other figures being added to this particular canon.
The chapter on the life and teaching of the three mystics naturally leads to the chapter on learning from them (chapter 4). One way of bringing the riches of mystical experience together is to think of the fruits that flow from a deeper unity with the trinitarian God. This union is never simply a unity of the soul with God, although that always remains one essential component. In addition to the personal unity with God there is a deepened awareness of one’s unity with all of creation, especially with other humans and especially with those humans who are in some way on the margins. The unity progresses and deepens in a process, sometimes painful, of the emptying out of the self. This emptying of the self allows the mystic to be filled with reality as it is and this allows her to speak of it truthfully. Speaking the truth means being critical because the world is, in truth, not all it has been called to be. Nor is the Church. Finally, this process is marked by an expansion of the imagination. Mystics see clearly possibilities that the rest of us only barely glimpse. This imagination allows for new forms of community to be born and flourish. The author is able to open up potentialities of the life and writings of these three women because of her own profound spiritual intelligence. We readers are graced to have such a guide.
Steinmair-Pösel ends the work by returning to the signs of the times that began the book and showing how a Christian social ethics, fed by the substance of mystical prayer, can respond to the great challenges of our day by helping us to simplify our lives, to live in solidarity without an external enemy and to engage in more meaningful interreligious dialogue (Chapter 5).
I have followed Steinmair-Pösel in presenting her work in a linear fashion in order to introduce its contents in an orderly fashion to the reader. As one can see the line formed by the text becomes a circle in which we return to where we began—the signs of the times. While the return is not simply a return—we are the richer for the journey—it also points to the fact that the first and last chapters are in a dialectical relationship with the chapters in between. As I mentioned at the start, the question of how to read the signs of the times is itself one of the most pressing signs of our times. Steinmair-Pösel provides us a valuable hermeneutic for this reading because she is already reading them through the eyes of the mystics.
This work is exemplary in yet another way: it shows how theology can be done when it goes beyond the intra-disciplinary boundaries that theologians have often set for themselves. I cannot think of any work in the past thirty years that has so seamlessly joined sharp ethical analysis with support from mystical theology. It is a work that our world dearly needs in that our efforts at living ethical lives seem to bear so little fruit and our mysticism so often seems to devolve into the emptiness of self-medication without any social consequences. Steinmair-Pösel gives back life to both. Thus, this book is recommended to all scholars engaged in work on Christian social ethics to make them more aware of and sensitive to the contribution that mystical theology can make to their work. It is also an important resource for people of prayer who are looking for models to show them how to make their prayer more effective in the world. Mere technical improvements are not going to fundamentally alter our relationship with God’s creation. Steinmair-Pösel points us towards a renewed practice of prayer and a renewed engagement with politics. For this we all should be grateful.