Congratulations to COV&R board member Marinela Blaj on the defense of her doctoral thesis, “Punic Carthage: Mimetic Conflicts and Scapegoating Mechanisms,” at Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iaşi, the oldest higher education institution in Romania. She writes in the English summary available online, “My hypothesis is that the history of Carthage can confirm the evolution of the mimetic mechanisms and of violence management at an imperial scale and over long periods of time.” Because Carthage was so thoroughly destroyed at the end of the Punic wars, sources of its history come from the perspective of its Greek and Roman rivals. Thus her thesis, besides giving the first full account of mimetic theory in Romanian, pioneers a model (with infographics) of applying Girard’s work to historiography. Her work suggests how mimetic theory could reshape the study of history in response to the assertion by Mark Sandle and William Van Arragon, in Re-Forming History, that “the real meaning of history is found with the losers, not the winners” (reviewed here).
Teaching during the coronavirus pandemic has been different in ways both predictable and surprising, as I’m sure other members who teach will agree. Most of my classes met in the classroom, and I did not expect how much of an obstacle masks would be to my own sense of connection with students. While they all said they were more engaged in the classroom than online, I appreciated being able to see their faces when we met by videoconference. Could this have something to do with the mirror neuron system? In the classroom, they see me moving around at the front of the class, but I only see them sitting in chairs. Online, my brain resonates with their expressions—while they of course are easily distracted by each other, not to mention whatever else is going on in their rooms and on their screens.
The pandemic conditions perhaps forced me to work harder to build coherence in my larger courses, rather than letting it emerge from conversation. I’ve taken to introducing mimetic theory at the beginning of most courses through short readings and videos (the introduction from Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire and Girard’s “The Myth of Oedipus, the Truth of Joseph” are my current favorites). This semester, for whatever reason, they took to it better than ever in my interdisciplinary humanities course “From Virgil to Dante” and my survey of British Literature from Beowulf to Equiano. Several students were able to use it to write final essays tying together many texts. Not all of these canonical texts are full of mimetic insights in the way that, say, Chaucer and Shakespeare are. Beowulf is more of a text in travail, as Girard says of parts of the Bible. But mimetic theory also empowers us to read for the relational dynamics in any work, something that seems not to come naturally. Students respond first to character and theme, but, as Aristotle pointed out in his Poetics, plot is the most important element of drama, and I would extend this to all of literature in the sense that plot puts characters and ideas in relationship. And mimetic theory especially highlights victimage, and thus integrates with identity-oriented approaches that students are attuned to, from race and postcolonial studies to feminism and queer theory to disability studies and even ecocriticism.
For Advent I am enjoying a reread of Michel Serres’s Angels: A Modern Myth, which begins with a figure of Gabriel as a dying homeless man, no doubt reflecting what Serres learned from his great friend Girard. I have found this volume the gentlest introduction to the polymathic thought of Serres, whose death on June 1, 2019, we neglected to note here. He is an essential guide to rethinking the theory and practice of the academic disciplines with mimetic theory as central. I am looking forward to reading last spring’s Michel Serres: Figures of Thought by Christopher Watkin, whose website offers a gateway to this challenging thinker.
Cambridge University Press has announced a new book by Wolfgang Palaver, Transforming the Sacred into Saintliness: Reflecting on Violence and Religion with René Girard, due out at the turn of the year in its series Elements in Violence and Religion. Anthony Bartlett’s new Theology Beyond Metaphysics: Transformative Semiotics of René Girard is just out from Cascade Books.
Michigan State University Press has scheduled two titles for the spring in the series Violence, Mimesis & Culture: Desire and Imitation in International Politics by Jodok Troy and Philosophy’s Violent Sacred: Heidegger and Nietzsche through Mimetic Theory by Duane Armitage. Members should also receive the two volumes of Giuseppe Fornari’s Dionysus, Christ, and the Death of God through the generous support of Imitatio for this series.
“Positive Mimesis: Education and Mimetic Theory” will be the focus of a special issue of Xiphias Gladius, the journal of the Spanish mimetic theory group. Here is the call for papers. The deadline for submissions is February 15, 2021.
James Alison’s essay “The Dangerousness of the Good,” on what he calls “the mimetics of shame,” felt urgent in one way when it was published on his website just before the U.S. presidential election, but it seems just as important in understanding our predicament now.
It’s always encouraging to see applications of mimetic theory in the mainstream press, and this astute reflection on social media by Thomas Chatterton Williams even quotes the explanation of scapegoating from the COV&R website.
COV&R ANNUAL MEETING
Update on 2021 COV&R Annual Meeting at Purdue
There will be a COV&R Conference in July hosted by Sandor Goodhart and Thomas Ryba! We are exploring hybrid formats at Purdue and online-only formats. A final decision on whether to go all online for the conference will be made around the beginning of February once further clarity about the US vaccination calendar is offered after January 20 by the Biden administration. With the developing sophistication of online conferencing over the past year, we anticipate opportunities for robust engagement and discussion.
Here are some of the ideas we are exploring. If we go to an all-online conference format, plenaries will be pre-recorded to be watched at times convenient to the participants. Each plenary speaker will also participate in a separate live discussion featuring the speaker, a respondent, and audience discussion. What typically are offered as concurrent sessions will likely be offered as non-current sessions spread over more days in order to maximize attendance and discussion (i.e., Zoom “Hollywood Squares”). Each session will be offered at times inclusive of two of our three time zones (Americas, Europe, Asia/Pacific) with equitable distribution so that participants in each time zone will have a comparable number of opportunities to participate “live” at optimal conference-attending hours. Recordings will enable participants to view sessions they were unable to attend live. Also being explored are creative ideas for engaging each other informally absent in-person social activities.
Sandy or Tom welcome suggestions from you about features of online conferencing they could incorporate into their plans based on your own positive experiences. In short, one way or another, the COV&R 2021 conference will take place amid the pandemic and explore, in context of the announced theme, the questions that continue to be of interest to all of us—perhaps now more than ever.
COV&R Sessions at the American Academy of Religion
St. Louis University
Instead of descending on Boston, the 2020 meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature met virtually this year. For COV&R, this meant that our two co-sponsored sessions, along with our annual business meeting, took place over Zoom. In all, five papers were given; all were well received and surprisingly well attended.
The 2020 panels were organized around two themes: 1) “Beyond Scapegoats: Marginalized Voices in Conversation with René Girard,” and 2) “Mimetic Theory and Christian Spirituality.” Some of the presenters were familiar voices like Martha Reineke, who talked about purity and mimetic theory, and James Alison, who presented the range of Girard’s comments on homosexuality.
Chelsea King (former Schwager Award winner), a freshly-minted Ph.D. in systematic theology, who is now a lecturer in Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, spoke on mimetic theory and feminism. Julia Robinson Moore, meanwhile, spoke on the historical record of lynching in Little Rock, Arkansas, an important site of America’s struggle to extend rights to African-Americans.
A newcomer to COV&R circles, Aline Lewis, gave a presentation on mimetic themes in the autobiography of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus.
Attendance at both sessions was strong, given the circumstances, with a peak of 20 attendees for the Wednesday session and 30 for the Thursday session. Grant Kaplan moderated the Thursday panel while Brian Robinette of Boston College moderated the Wednesday panel. Both panels concluded with a robust Q&A, a hallmark of our colloquium. The Thursday session was recorded and COV&R members will be notified when it comes available.
In the business meeting we discussed an open call for papers on themes related to the pandemic, to friendship—especially in light of the most recent papal encyclical that speaks of social friendship—, and to the Eucharist and the theme of contemplation. We also talked about the possibility of having a panel on one of the many books that are in the pipeline in the Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture Series through Michigan State University Press, as well as other recent books on mimetic theory.
The annual meeting of the AAR is normally a time of great joy for me, and this year especially I had been looking forward to returning to my old stomping ground of Boston. At the 2017 meeting in Boston, I fondly recall going to lunch after one of the panels with Andrew and Stephen McKenna, Suzanne and Keith Ross, Randy Rosenberg, and Brian Robinette. We ate and drank and laughed a lot. I hope that I will be able to do the same with as many of you as possible in 2021, perhaps along the River Walk in San Antonio, where next year’s meeting will take place November 20-23. The call for papers will go out most likely at the end of January.