Letter from the President: Looking Forward to Our Virtual Meeting, Martha Reineke

Musings from the Executive Secretary: A Year of Adaptation, Niki Wandinger

Editor’s Column: Writing, Listening, Reading, Curtis Gruenler

Forthcoming Events

COV&R Annual Meeting

COV&R Sessions at the American Academy of Religion, Grant Kaplan

Letter from Washington, D.C.: Fair Sentencing vs. Scapegoating, Preston Shipp

Book Reviews

Anthony Bartlett, Theology Beyond Metaphysics: Transformative Semiotics of René Girard, reviewed by Jeremiah Alberg

Duane Armitage, Philosophy’s Violent Sacred: Heidegger and Nietzsche through Mimetic Theory, reviewed by Paul Lynch

Carly Osborn, Tragic Novels, René Girard, and the American Dream: Sacrifice in Suburbia, reviewed by Martha Reineke

Luke Burgis, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life, reviewed by Curtis Gruenler

Per Bjørnar Grande, Desire: Flaubert, Proust, Fitzgerald, Miller, Lana Del Ray, reviewed by Elijah Null

Letter from the President

Looking Forward to Our Virtual Meeting

Martha Reineke
University of Northern Iowa

2021 has been a year of “firsts” for me: I recently enjoyed my first restaurant meal in a year, stayed at a hotel for the first time in fourteen months, and traveled on public transportation after a break of sixteen months. In July, all of us will experience another “first:” A virtual annual meeting of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion. With access to the award-winning platform Socio, augmented with technical support from Purdue University, we can expect a robust and reliable environment for conversations with each other. As Executive Secretary Niki Wandinger states so thoughtfully in his contribution to the Bulletin, for our individual and collective wellbeing, the COV&R community needs to embrace this opportunity. 

If you have not made plans to join us, please register now. Sessions will be in three time zones to accommodate members residing in the Americas, Europe, and along the Pacific Rim, and access to all programming for a year after the conference will be available. Our hosts at Purdue, Sandy Goodhart and Tom Ryba, have received and accepted dozens of proposals from the COV&R membership for papers on the conference theme and other areas of interest to COV&R members. We will have a rich slate of concurrent sessions from which to select—and many more to watch after the conference. I look forward to seeing each of you on my monitor during the conference. 

More information about the conference is being added regularly to COV&R’s page and to the Purdue conference website. I’d like to take this opportunity to highlight plenaries of particular note: 

A special research plenary will feature the work of the “Loving Mimesis Discursive Dialogue Group,” a group comprised of COV&R members. I would love to see the institutionalizing of a “research group plenary” at each annual meeting, and I see this one as a model in a number of ways for us. Such plenaries would enable us to hear about cutting edge inquiry before it has reached the publication stage and could inspire the formation of additional research groups (several already exist). Zoom has accustomed us to a digital interface that can bring scholars together from around the world. We will hear during this plenary from Julia Robinson Moore (US), Rebecca Adams (US), Vern Neufeld Redekop (Canada) and Felicity McCallum (Australia). The title of their presentation—“From Colonizing Mimesis to Loving and Creative Mimesis: A Contextualized Dialogue on Transformation”—well captures the focus of their shared inquiry. Julia tells me that the group was forged from conversations begun when COV&R met at Regis University and continued at the Collaborators’ Conference (Theology and Peace). Every few weeks its members come together for rich conversation on mimetic theory, racism, gender inequalities and, especially, colonialism. Critical reflections on colonialism are what Julia calls “unfinished pathways” in Girard’s work. The research group wants to follow the “breadcrumbs” in order to open up new frontiers in mimetic theory.

As Julia has described conversations of the group’s participants to me, she holds up a “beautiful mutuality” in which they share with each other their racial experiences. According to Julia, this has entailed Vern sharing with great transparency his awareness of navigating the world as a white male. Felicity brings indigenous experiences and activism to the conversation which enables others to see the effects of colonization. Julia shares the effects and legacy of racism in the US. Rebecca shares her own racialized and gendered awareness and work on generative, creative mimesis while Vern brings conflict resolution and peacebuilding expertise to their discussions. As they have worked together, they have been able to acknowledge with insights from mimetic theory the intricacies of dehumanization and legacies of colonization which have created so much pain for people of color and members of indigenous communities. But the group also is finding in that theory opportunities for healing; together, they are working on deconstructing negative paradigms so that they can value and cherish each other’s subjectivity.  They want to call out what is wrong but also work on righting those wrongs. Together they are moving from raising up the voices of the scapegoated to exploring how creative, loving mimesis opens pathways for healing. In their presentation, members of the group will model their dialogue and invite persons attending the plenary into their dialogue and research questions. The efforts of this research group are of utmost timeliness for sharing with us, given our current moment in COV&R history, and their plenary promises to be a particularly important contribution to the conference program. 

Conference hosts are known to draw on local talent when planning COV&R plenaries. From the talent pool at Purdue, Sandy and Tom have attracted scholars who will contribute significantly to our conversations together. Notably, policies at Purdue preclude members of the Purdue faculty from receiving honorariums for university-sponsored events. Thanks to the efforts of our hosts Sandy and Tom, we are accessing Purdue’s brain trust at no expense to COV&R. I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity we have been given to listen to and converse with members of the Purdue faculty. 

Purdue University, as many of you may know, is noted for its engineering programs. Ranked 4th in engineering among US universities, Purdue has a stellar reputation as a national leader in all fields of engineering, including nuclear engineering. We are most fortunate that Lefteri H. Tsoukalas, professor of engineering and founding director of the AI Systems Lab (AISL) at Purdue University will be offering a plenary on “Mimetic Theory and AI.” Professor Tsoukalas has over 250 research publications on intelligent systems and control methodologies, more than three decades of experience in these fields, and is the principal author of the book Fuzzy and Neural Approaches in Engineering. The abstract of his paper suggests a fascinating comparative inquiry into mimesis and AI, as Tsoukalas argues that technology, a product of human culture, is largely driven by imitation and may also enable conflict-management. 

The conference hosts also have invited participation by two professors who are leading figures working at the interface of technology and the humanities. Sorin Adam Matei, Professor of Communication (Brian Lamb School of Communication) and Associate Dean of Research in the College of Liberal Arts, will be speaking on “Taming the Desire of Sentient Machines with the Golden Rule.” Arkady Plotnitsky is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of English at Purdue University with specializations in the history of mathematics and science. He will be speaking on “Desiring Machines: The Virtual in Gilles Deleuze and René Girard.” These speakers’ engagement with mimetic theory on our behalf and their willingness to draw on their own AI expertise in conversation with us promise plenaries of strong interest to COV&R that will inspire reflection during the sessions and long afterwards. 

Musings from the Executive Secretary

A Year of Adaptation

Nikolaus Wandinger
University of Innsbruck

About a year ago, I was writing in this place how important I considered it to meet in person at COV&R conferences and that we could not do without physical presence at conferences for a longer period of time. And I was hoping to be able to have a conference in physical presence at Purdue this year. Here we are, and while the pandemic seems to be abating in North America and Europe—not at all in some other parts of the world, and as a consequence, we cannot know how stable the improvement for Europe and North America will be—we will have this year’s conference hosted by Purdue University online. What do I make of that now?

To put it in the simplest and briefest way: Even if my contention of last year is true—and I think it is—we certainly cannot do with no conference at all for a longer period of time! Postponing last year’s conference was a wise thing to do, knowing what we did know then. We couldn’t know that the pandemic would control our everyday lives—professionally and personally—for such a long time. Postponing the conference once was giving it a break; postponing it again would mean breaking off a cherished tradition and institution.

Therefore, I wholeheartedly embrace our having this year’s conference online—and in a way, there is something fitting to it as well. Virtual reality is not the same as artificial intelligence. Yet both are technologies invented by human persons that will dramatically change the way we perceive ourselves as human persons. How do we function, who or what are we? Are human persons the only persons there are—for a moment suspending the notion of God being personal—or could there be artificial persons? And what consequences would that have for the way we communicate? How important is our being physical bodies for our being persons?

We realized in the past year that changes to our way of communication can be forced upon us quite easily. Our idea probably is that when we create artificially intelligent beings, we will adapt their capacity to communicate to ours as much as possible, and constructors are certainly trying to do so. However, a reverse reaction seems to be unavoidable: we will adapt our ways of communicating to the capacities artificial intelligence will allow us, as we have adapted it to the possibilities the online platforms permitted us this year. And I have to admit: it actually worked pretty well, much better than I had anticipated.

So, it seems, what could be said in the field of genetics, must be said in the field of robotics as well: “The third Copernican revolution has already fully taken hold of mankind. The human person was transformed into a subject who, as subject, developed the natural sciences for the mastery of the world; this subject has now itself become the malleable object of the various technologies” (D. B. Linke, “Die dritte kopernikanische Wende. Transplantationsmedizin und personale Identität,“ in Ethica 1 (1993) 53–64, here 63, as quoted by Raymund Schwager, Banished from Eden: Original Sin and Evolutionary Theory in the Drama of Salvation in the translation of J. G. Williams, Leominster: Gracewing, 2006, 73).

I am very much looking forward to being virtually at Purdue, listening to the interesting presentations at the plenaries and discovering intriguing contributions in the concurrent sessions, and while doing that being part of an experiment myself, as to how this way of doing a COV&R conference will change my way of communicating—will change myself to a certain degree.

And I hope in 2022 we can still reflect on that by again meeting not just face to face (as online permits) but human person to human person—and I am pretty sure that no artificial person will yet participate.

  Editor’s Column

Writing, Listening, and Reading

Curtis Gruenler
Hope College

Writing: Thanks to Preston Shipp, author of this issue’s “Letter from…Washington, DC.” We welcome guest essayists for future issues. If you have an idea for something you would like to write, or a someone from whom we might solicit a brief article, please get in touch with one of the editors or a COV&R officer.

Listening: I am sure there is much more happening on digital media with mimetic theory than I know about. Here are a few:

While I still prefer to read than listen most of the time, digital media can be especially effective for exposing new audiences to mimetic theory. If you know of resources that would be worth mentioning in future Bulletins, including your own projects, please send me a note so I can include them in future issues.

Reading: We are planning another installment of the mimetic theory bibliography for the August issue, but meanwhile here are some recent and upcoming publications and two calls for papers:

Reading together: Several people have expressed interest in a reading group on Giuseppe Fornari’s ambitious, ground-breaking, interdisciplinary, two-volume work, Dionysus, Christ, and the Death of God, which current COV&R members should have received earlier this year. (If you did not, please contact Bill Johnsen.) I am finding it lucid and compelling page by page but need to talk it through with others to put the pieces together and fully grasp his central, new understanding of mediation. We are thinking of a monthly, virtual meeting, with timing and reading assignments to be arranged once we know who is interested. If you would like to participate, please email me.. If you are looking for a quick way to get an idea of what Fornari’s work is about, here is a tip from Bill: start with the eight-page preface to volume 2. Those with access to academic libraries may be able to find an electronic edition through JSTOR.

Forthcoming Events

JULY 7-10, 2021

For the latest information about plenary speakers and the Raymund Schwager Memorial Essay Contest, see the annual meeting page on the COV&R website. For registration and further details about the conference, see the conference website hosted by Purdue University. 








COV&R Sessions at the American Academy of Religion

Grant Kaplan
St. Louis University

Session times and venues will be announced in the online program for the AAR annual meeting in early August. Full information and registration are available here. There will be a special registration that includes only the virtual component of the meeting.

Session 1: Friendship, the Social, and the Violent Sacred

Presider: Brian Robinette (Boston College)

  1. Chris Haw (University of Scranton), “The Capitol Riot as a Case in Mimetic Magnetism and the Challenge of Agnostic Love”
  2. John Soboslai (Montclair State University), “The Martyr as Friend: Inverting the Scapegoat’s Sacrifice”
  3. Russell Johnson (University of Chicago), “Like and Unlike: Mimesis, Social Identity Theory, and the Barriers to Online Dialogue”

Session 2: Theological Explorations of Mimetic Theory
(Business meeting to follow the conclusion of this session)

Presider: Grant Kaplan (Saint Louis University)

  1. Joseph Rivera (Dublin City University), “Eucharist as Contemplative Action: A Girardian Perspective”
  2. Jaisy Joseph (University of Seattle), “Racism, Casteism and Mimetic Ecclesiology”

Respondent: Chelsea King (Sacred Heart University)

Session 3: Academic Rivalry in the Modern Age: Thinking with Girard and Beyond
(Co-Sponsored Session with Nineteenth-Century Theology)

Convener: Zachary Purvis

  1. Grant Kaplan (Saint Louis University), “Brothers or Enemies? Revisiting Academic Rivalry in the Möhler/Baur Debate”
  2. Bryan Wagoner (Davis and Elkins College), “Franz Overbeck and Carl Albert Bernouilli Through the Lens of Girardian Mimetic Rivalry”

Respondent: Johannes Zachhuber (University of Oxford)

Letter from Washington, D.C.

Fair Sentencing vs. Scapegoating

Preston Shipp [[email protected]]
Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth

My name is Preston Shipp, and I serve as a lawyer for a non-profit organization called the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which focuses on abolishing life without the possibility of parole as a sentencing option for children. The United States is the only known country in the world in which a child—a person too young to vote, marry, sign a contract, buy alcohol or tobacco, or serve on a jury or in the military—may nevertheless be condemned to die in prison without any hope for release. In my role as Senior Policy Counsel, I lead legislative campaigns across the country to pass laws prohibiting this barbaric practice.

I am grateful to report that this spring, Maryland became the 25th state to abolish death-by-incarceration sentences for children. One would hope that such a measure, based as it is on the beliefs that all children deserve our concern and compassion and that no child is beyond the hope of redemption, would be universally supported and without controversy. Alas, this is almost never the case. Some of the things that were said during the debate in the Maryland legislation reminded me of the insidious nature of the tendency to project our fears, hatred, and violence onto a scapegoat, even a traumatized child.

First of all, the lawmakers who spoke in opposition to the bill were all white. Nationally, however, Black kids are ten times more likely to be sentenced to life without parole than white kids. The shameful legacy of slavery and Jim Crow lives on in the ways in which we hold children accountable when they cause harm. We reserve our harshest punishments almost exclusively for Black children, but these white lawmakers showed no interest in addressing this gross racial injustice.

In opposing the bill, they essentially made no policy objections. Their sole tactic was fear-mongering; they demonized children who commit violent crimes. They knew the evidence simply is not in their favor. The 24 other states that have already passed laws abolishing life without parole for kids are having great success. The rate of former juvenile lifers committing a new offense after being granted a second chance is almost zero. Abolishing life without parole for kids is a reasonable, measured reform that is working well all over the country. So all these white lawmakers could do is sensationalize the crimes in a poor attempt to show that imposing extreme adult sentences against children, sentences overwhelmingly imposed against Black kids, is necessary. I was reminded that the scapegoat mechanism is seldom if ever a matter of reason, but a subconscious defense mechanism. It operates as a kind of pressure valve. By locating evil on an “other,” we absolve ourselves of any feelings of guilt or responsibility, and we feel at peace. But it is a false peace.

One white lawmaker, burning with self-righteousness, yelled on the Senate floor that the children who commit violent crimes are “inherently evil” and “godless.” If you take nothing else away from this submission, please understand this. That is a God-damned lie. I have the honor of knowing many people who received these sentences when they were children. It is my privilege to work with them. And I am both very proud and very humbled to call them my friends.

They are not evil. They are some of the best people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. They love well and are kind and considerate of others and have accepted me—even knowing that I used to make a living as a prosecutor, arguing that people need to be locked up. Yet I have never once felt judged by them. Unlike the lawmakers who would keep them caged until they died, they are full of mercy and grace and eager to see the best in people. They are raising loving families and investing in meaningful work and serving others. They are good.

And they are certainly not godless. They are people of deep faith. For many of them, their faith sustained them when they were told as 15-, 16-, or 17-year-olds that they would spend the next 15 or 20 or 25 years in prison, or even that they would never again experience freedom in this life. They are not godless. They are beautiful bearers of the divine image who witness to the power of divine love with their own strength and resilience and refusal to be defined by their worst moment. And for anyone to so flippantly disparage these dear friends of mine, to project onto them their own lack of mercy and their own desire for vengeance, to reduce them to a despised scapegoat, makes me question whether those lawmakers have so divorced themselves from the love of God that they have forfeited their ability to recognize goodness and godliness when they sees it.

For me, godless is a person who is unwilling to show mercy. Godless is a person refusing to recognize redemption and hope as our best values and guiding lights. Godless is a person who would clumsily hijack language of faith in service of his own vengeful, grandstanding political agenda, and stupidly fail to discern that the foundation of this faith is a God of limitless forgiveness who calls us to imitate that same compassion.

At the end of the day, compassion won in Maryland, as it has in states as diverse as Oregon and West Virginia, Nevada and Virginia, Arkansas and Connecticut, and I am so happy for that. But the debate surrounding the bill was for me an infuriating reminder that there are among us, people who market themselves as “Christians,” who are so full of hatred and fear that they quickly, publicly, proudly deny the image of God in their fellow human beings, even children. The scapegoat mechanism leads them to disregard the crystal-clear teachings of Jesus to show mercy and compassion, to treat people who are incarcerated as we would treat him, and to show special regard for children. Lord, have mercy.

Book Reviews

For inquiries about writing a book review or submitting a book for review,
contact the book review editor, Matthew Packer.

Theology Beyond Metaphysics

Jeremiah Alberg
International Christian University

Anthony Bartlett, Theology Beyond Metaphysics: Transformative Semiotics of René Girard. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2020. Pages xxv + 185.

In this, one of his latest works, Anthony Bartlett propounds a semiotics of the Gospel that is capable of transforming human relations and, therefore, human reality. It represents his own development from explaining a kind of grammar (in Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement) to a fruitful engagement of mimetic theory with semiotics. For people, like myself, convinced of the importance of the thought of C. S. Peirce in particular and semiotics in general, this book is an important moment.

In addition to a foreword by the Australian Girardian Scott Cowdell, the book is composed of an introduction that gives a very fine bird’s eye view of the overall journey the book enjoins the reader to undertake, followed by 10 chapters that take up and move forward Bartlett’s argument that Girard’s biblical semiotics release a transforming power into the world that enables human beings to practice “a new and vital possibility of human relation here and now on earth” (xxii).

Bartlett begins the journey by helping the reader to become aware of the mystery of language. The acquisition of our “mother tongue” lies beyond memory, beyond experience. We can watch a child develop linguistically and indirectly realize what we ourselves went through, but we literally have no words for our own experience of acquiring words. Since the acquisition of language is “child’s play” and we effortlessly use language every day, we are often not aware of what a mysterious reality it is. The “linguistic turn” in philosophy and theory in general in the twentieth century has made many academics more sensitive to the linguistically mediated nature of human reality, and this serves as a helpful backdrop for Bartlett’s forays into this mystery whether they be informal (chapter 1) or more academic (chapter 2).

One of the most compelling aspects of this book, implicitly present in other works by Bartlett, is his argued conviction that the Bible “intervenes in the root of a structure of signs and meaning itself, diverting the river of human semiosis from its original spring, or in fact providing a new one. … The Bible builds on the fluidity of human meaning, arriving finally at a form that is genuinely radical and new” (25).

Bartlett provides a semiotic reading of mimetic theory in chapter 3, “Murderous Semiotics.” He goes through different stages and texts in Girard’s development, especially Girard’s response to structuralism in Violence and the Sacred and his remarks on the transcendental signifier in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Bartlett rightly emphasizes that Girard’s claim of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures as the source of truth is a claim that has to do, first and foremost, not with God or truth directly but with “signs, with words, with writing” (48).

Bartlett connects this very broad historical movement uncovered by Girard with a narrower movement of thought represented in the person of Jacques Derrida. He sees in both a movement away from metaphysics, by which I take Bartlett to mean “ontotheological metaphysics” (a point I will return to below). Bartlett is sensitive to the comet’s tail of theological implications that follows in the wake of Derrida’s deconstruction. For Bartlett the “crux” of the encounter between Girard and Derrida is “a crossroads between original victim (pharmakos) and a system of semiotic effacement (of writing, i.e., the pharmakon)” (67). Girard makes the claim for a real center; Derrida shows how it gets constantly erased.

Beginning with chapter 6 and extending through chapter 8, Bartlett follows John Deely’s Four Ages of Understanding: The First Postmodern Survey of Philosophy from Ancient Times to the Twenty-First Century to give a historical survey of the emergence of semiotics. Bartlett makes a jump from St. Thomas to Martin Heidegger using the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, as a way of thinking being as a kind of nothingness, in order “to investigate ontology in terms of originary violence, rather than the pure abstractions of metaphysics” (88). The point of this particular move is to “allow an essential language of nonviolence progressively to infiltrate and change the signifier ‘god’ together with all its metaphysical baggage. This then becomes the role of Christian theology—to shape in discourse the transformative nonviolence of Jesus, his Father/Mother and the Spirit that comes from them” (92). Theology now uses semiotics as its “first philosophy” since it allows the emergence of being as love, ensuring that theology functions as a transformative message.

The very short version of what Bartlett derives from Deely’s huge study of the history of western philosophy is that being is being-as-relation, related through signs, rather than being-as-substance. “The essential point is what signs in nature (tracks in the snow) and signs in the mind (concepts) have in common is the ontological feature and character of relation” (109).

He then uses Umberto Eco to develop the idea of a “transformative semiotics” (129). With the conclusion being: “What is being argued is that a divine relation has effected an intervention at the most original level of code-making” (129, italics in the original). This changing of the dynamic of human codes is God’s way of saving us.

Bartlett’s penultimate move is to appropriate Jean-Luc Marion’s thought on the idol and the icon. The idol traps the gaze because the gaze desires to satisfy itself in the idol. The icon, by contrast, renders the invisible, that which “cannot be grasped, controlled, or possessed in the gaze,” visible (137). As Bartlett sees it, Marion’s description “joins with the core vector of this book to tell us that the icon offers itself as a new primary scene, propagating its own meaning in every direction through the world” (138).

Bartlett ends with a reading of the Gospel of John as an instance of the transformative semiosis he has been outlining. As Bartlett states: “Because human meaning is constructed originally out of violence, its inversion and subversion in the nonviolence of the cross constructs at once a new fundamental relation and, therewith, a completely new possible universe” (162).

I end with the few reservations or questions that I have. First of all, I sometimes feel that Bartlett, in his embrace of semiotics (of which I wholly approve), pushes to the extreme a rejection of metaphysics in general as well as the early fusion of Greek and Christian thought. I think it would be more in accord with Bartlett’s vision to hold that Christ brings all things to the Father, including metaphysics. Yes, metaphysics is rooted in violence along with everything else that stands in need of redemption. Further, but along the same lines, I sometimes felt that Bartlett’s “missionary zeal,” as S. Cowdell characterizes it in his gracious “Foreword,” runs the risk of going too far in one direction (substance metaphysics, out; relational metaphysics, in), in such a way as to leave itself open to a mimetic counter-reaction down the road. The task Bartlett outlines here is too important to let itself fall into philosophical tit-for-tat. I hope that the review has made clear that I do not see these minor blemishes as taking away from the epoch-making task it calls us to.

Revisiting Postmodernism

Paul Lynch
Saint Louis University

Duane Armitage. Philosophy’s Violent Sacred: Heidegger and Nietzsche through Mimetic Theory. Studies in Violence, Mimesis & Culture. Michigan State University Press, 2021. Pages 141. 

Duane Armitage’s Philosophy’s Violent Sacred: Heidegger and Nietzsche through Mimetic Theory offers a rigorous and long overdue study of mimetic theory and postmodernism. Though the term may seem somewhat shopworn, “postmodernism” continues to shape thought in the American academy, especially in the humanities, where Girard’s work has had its biggest impact. Girard’s antipathy toward postmodernism was well known. But because that antipathy seemed at times as much a matter of personal disposition as intellectual position, it is crucial to understand the bases of his objections in greater detail. Providing that understanding is Duane Armitage’s central project. 

Armitage defines postmodernism as “a critique, to some degree or another, of reason, rationality, and ultimately, intelligibility and truth” (xii). Put simply, postmodernism questions the certainty and security of all these ideas, a skepticism that puts it on a direct collision course with mimetic theory. Where postmodernism trusts in interpretation, mimetic theory would observe facts; where postmodernism is skeptical of timeless truth and grand metanarratives, Girard insists that mimetic theory reveals the most central of truths and tells the grandest of metanarratives. In addition to this basic intellectual disagreement, Girard took religion seriously far earlier than many of his postmodern colleagues. Moreover, his treatment of the scriptures as anthropologically revelatory texts seems scandalous to the modern academy. Finally, while mimetic theory can stand independent of any faith commitment, Girard’s deep engagement with Christian thought makes his ideas unpalatable to contemporary tastes. 

Armitage’s basic aim is to explain Girard’s untimeliness from a philosophical perspective. In his pursuit of this question, he also takes on postmodernism’s axiomatic assumption that essentialist beliefs are most prone to devolve into violent fundamentalist attitudes (religious or otherwise). Armitage’s counterargument is that violence is occasioned not by metaphysics, but by mimesis. Ultimately, the book’s most sustained argument is that Platonic metaphysics “remains the only ontology possible given the axioms and conclusions of mimetic theory” (xvi). Insofar as postmodernism rejects this ontology, Armitage argues, it cannot finally withdraw from the violent sacred. 

Armitage pursues this argument through a close examination of Nietzsche and Heidegger, whom he identifies as the central influences and enduring avatars of postmodernism or Continental philosophy, as it is sometimes called. For Armitage, the central divergence between mimetic theory and postmodernism can be located in Nietzsche and Heidegger’s rejection of Platonic metaphysics. The mistake of these thinkers, along with the postmoderns who followed them, is two-fold. There is first the mis-identification of metaphysics itself as the source of violence, and then the related failure to recognize postmodernism’s indebtedness to the very Christian tradition it critiques (x). As Armitage notes, Girard believed that Christianity provides postmodernism with its ethics of concern for victims, even as this concern is allowed to succumb to the very sort of debilitating rivalry that mimetic theory witnesses at the heart of human relations. 

Philosophy’s Violent Sacred makes its case through four chapters, which include an introduction to Girard’s thought, examinations of Nietzsche and Heidegger, and a closing critique of postmodernism in general. Armitage makes clear from the outset that his aim is not simply a “destruction” of Nietzsche and Heidegger, but rather a “deconstruction” though which he hopes to salvage some of their insights. In this, he imitates Girard, who was careful to acknowledge his own indebtedness to Nietzsche and Heidegger. Armitage presumes no prior expertise in any of the book’s central figures, including Girard; his opening chapter therefore presents his mimetic theory for the uninitiated. Far from being a simple recapitulation, however, the first chapter lays the groundwork for the book’s main argument that mimetic theory is most naturally compatible with Platonic metaphysics. Essentially, Armitage argues that Girard’s idea of the imitatio Christi implies and mirrors Plato’s supersensible world of eternal forms; each, according to Armitage, lies beyond rivalry. Just as Christ imitates the eternal, unchanging Father, one may also imitate the eternal, unchanging virtues imagined by Plato. By contrast, postmodernism, insofar as it rejects Plato’s “split world” ontology, cannot itself posit anything eternal and unchanging and therefore cannot escape rivalry. By this argument, Armitage concludes that, whatever Girard’s other reservations about Plato’s ideas, mimetic theory better aligns with Platonism rather than postmodernism.

Armitage develops this argument in the next two chapters on Nietzsche and Heidegger, respectively. The Nietzsche chapter begins with a review of Girard’s basic divergence from Nietzsche, whom Girard counterintuitively thought to be the most important philosopher and theologian of the last hundred years. Girard acknowledged that Nietzsche “understands quite clearly the essence of Christianity better than anyone before.” The problem, writes Armitage, is that “Nietzsche simply despised it” (15). What Nietzsche despised in particular is Christianity’s concerns for victims, a concern he thought born of a life-hating attitude distorted by resentment. More importantly for Armitage’s argument, Nietzsche’s own project of overcoming revenge is fatally undermined by its rejection of metaphysics, without which one has “no transcendent world of patterns to imitate” (36). As a result, Nietzschean mimesis, which becomes merely an imitation of the self, can never really escape violence. 

From Nietzsche, Armitage turns his attention to Heidegger in the book’s third chapter. The richness of this chapter, which includes important detours through Luther and Holderin, is hard to capture in a short review. But briefly, Armitage begins by observing the ways in which Heidegger’s thought both forwards and is framed by polemos, or conflict. For Armitage, the centrality of this conflict mirrors the role of the violent sacred—the need, that is, for a prior expulsion to sustain culture or thought. As in the Nietzsche chapter, Armitage notes the ways in which Girard learns from Heidegger. For Girard, Heidegger was the first philosopher to notice the fundamental distinction between the Greek Logos of Heraclitus and the Hebraic Logos of John. This distinction confirms the trajectory of Girard’s thinking, which sees expulsion of the Logos already hinted at in the prologue to John’s gospel. Like Nietzsche, then, Heidegger gets at the crux of the matter; the only problem is that he opts for the wrong Logos to further his philosophic project. 

But even as the later, more “poetic” Heidegger seems less interested in conflict as such, his critique of ontotheology still rejects the split world ontology and Platonic metaphysics that might authorize any assertion of essential or eternal goodness. Here, Armitage turns toward his argument with Martin Luther’s voluntarism and the idea that God’s will is always free beyond any essentializing limitations. This move affords Armitage the opportunity to insist that God’s goodness can be known by analogy: “creaturely goodness participates in the goodness of God, as its cause. So although we cannot know what it means for God to be ‘good,’ we can know that he is good, by analogy” (81). This reasoning also stands against Heidegger’s critique of ontotheology’s supposed essentialism; even if we cannot know everything, we can still make some secure claims about God. The security of those claims is the most reliable way to ensure that our understanding of God does not slip back into the mythic sacred. Contra the anti-essentialist critique of ontotheology, this act of claiming need not be an act of violence. 

As Armitage notes, Heidegger’s thinking has underwritten the project of philosophers and theologians like John Caputo, Richard Kearney, Catherine Keller, and Gianni Vattimo, all of whom hesitate to make any strong claims about God. Instead, these thinkers emphasize what they see as God’s weakness—that is, God’s refusal of self-assertion and the violence such would entail. These kinds of postmodern arguments are Armitage’s ultimate target, which he turns to most directly in the book’s fourth and final chapter. Here, Armitage presses his case against what he sees as postmodernism’s central contradictions—namely, its rejection of absolutes and absolute concern for victims. This is a case Girard himself made, and it remains a powerful one. Like Girard, Armitage argues that postmodernism has put itself in an untenable position: though it accepts Christianity’s concern for victims, it has divorced itself from any relation to reason or the truth. Beyond postmodernism’s hypocrisy in denying its own debt to Christianity, Armitage suggests that postmodernism is exposed to the intrusion of Marxist violence, which itself is driven by its own hyper-realized concern for victims. 

I am not sure, however, that Levinas or Kearney or some of the other thinkers Armitage names are infected by Marxism or violence, and I would have welcomed a more explicit connection of the dots at this point in the argument. Surely Armitage is right to suggest that mimetic theory and postmodern theology will be difficult to reconcile. But I do not think the idea of God’s weakness can be so quickly cast out. For Armitage, the image of weakness simply cannot be squared with Platonic metaphysics as the guarantor of virtue. To reject the split-world ontology is to sever ourselves from a realm of ideals, ideals that are less inclined to invite rivalrous mimesis. Armitage writes, “the supersensible Platonic realm” is necessary “lest human beings fall into mimesis of merely the physical world” (92). By contrast, the desire for “goodness, truth, and justice” direct toward the essential and eternal and away from “physical and finite” (92). By this chain of reasoning, Armitage maps Platonism onto both Christianity and mimetic theory. He adds, “it is only belief in immaterial truth that can properly reorient desire from the finite to the infinite” (93). 

I have two reservations about this argument. My first concerns Armitage’s suggestion that it is belief in immaterial truth that reorients desire. That is not Girard’s argument, at least as I understand it. We do not desire to be merciful or kind because we believe in eternal ideas about mercy or kindness; we desire them because our models teach us to desire them. Armitage suggests that the immateriality of virtues somehow makes them less susceptible to rivalrous desire. This seems plausible: there is no scarcity of mercy or justice that might lead to rivalry. But the problem is that we do not believe our way to virtue. We imitate our way there. 

Lest I appear to be overemphasizing a minor matter of wording, I would note my second and related reservation, which is that Armitage’s argument seems to lose sight of the Incarnation. Whether or not the virtues somehow reside in a supersensible realm, safe from rivalrous desire, the Christian learns to inhabit those virtues by imitating another who inhabits them first. The Christian does not imitate abstract qualities, but rather a particular person who lived in a particular time and place. That is the imitatio Christi. The Incarnation would therefore seem to complicate any attempt to reconcile mimetic theory and Platonic metaphysics. No doubt, Girard’s worldview and temperament put him at odds with postmodern theology and philosophy; Girard himself makes that clear in his dialogues with Gianni Vattimo. But those dialogues also make clear Girard’s sympathy for many of Vattimo’s positions, including his emphasis on the kenosis, the self-exposure of God to vulnerability, suffering, and even weakness. Elsewhere in the book, Armitage is careful to note where and what Girard learns from those with whom he disagrees. I would have welcomed that same care being applied to Vattimo. 

Nevertheless, I hope it is clear that these reservations in no way diminish my deep admiration for Duane Armitage’s important book, which I found rigorous, demanding, and rewarding. I learned a great deal from this book, and I am certain that I will return to it. Philosophy’s Violent Sacred will become a landmark study for scholars who wish to read mimetic theory with and against postmodernism, posthumanism, and the philosophies and theologies that follow. 

American Anti-Sacrificial Tragedy?

Martha Reineke
University of Northern Iowa

Carly Osborn, Tragic Novels, René Girard, and the American Dream: Sacrifice in Suburbia. Violence, Desire, and the Sacred Series. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. Pages: 208.

I began reading Carly Osborn’s monograph intrigued by her proposed argument and curious to learn about a perspective on the United States offered by someone living on the other side of the world. Osborn is determined to interrogate a particular moment in the saga of the American Dream—post-war, twentieth-century suburbia—from the perspective of René Girard’s mimetic theory. She contends that three novels set in this time period—The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides (1993), The Ice Storm by Rick Moody (1994), and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1961)—are modern tragedies. Following Girard, Osborn defines tragedy as a narrative that “repeats the shapes and schemes of myth and ritual, performing sacrificial catharsis” (155). Yet, in all three novels, Osborn writes, “The tragic sacrifice in the novels is subverted and complicated by various textual means, producing ‘anti-tragic’ texts that present the characteristic features of tragedy but problematize the cathartic effects ascribed to it by Girard” (3). Reading the book again to write this review, I find Osborn’s reading of an anti-sacrificial dimension in three 20th-century novels somewhat eclipsed by sacrificial trends that have re-emerged in recent events of the 21st, yet perhaps for that reason all the more important.

Recognizing that the modern novel holds in tension both the persecutor’s and victim’s perspective on scapegoating, Osborn finds in Thomas Cousineau’s comments on fiction and sacrifice an orienting point for her own study. Cousineau accepts the self-consciousness of the reader of the modern novel and argues that “‘we must distinguish the scapegoat in the text from the scapegoat of the text’” (13). When we do so, Cousineau claims, we are able to determine the guilt and innocence both of the scapegoat and of narrators and onlookers to sacrifice. Sympathetic to this move, Osborn goes further in her own analysis to show how the self-conscious awareness a reader brings to a novel enables them to draw out features of ritual and myth identified by Girard, such as contagion, monstrosity, and decay, and to make these features explicit subjects of the text, rather than only structural elements of the scapegoating mechanism.

According to Osborn, the key benefit of such a move is that it opens up for feminist consciousness the tragic tropes in the novels she reads. In two of the novels, women must die in order to preserve cultural norms and values. But these novels also problematize those deaths, which enables Osborn to examine whether they also provide spaces for cultivating resistance to violence. For example, Osborn finds that the narrator of The Virgin Suicides is aware that the Lisbon sisters are placed in the role of scapegoats; however, because they remain “Other,” the larger system of sacrifice in which they are caught is not broken open. Even so, to the extent that the novel demonstrates self-conscious awareness of sacrifice, it moves into the realm of anti-tragedy. 

In The Ice Storm, contagion and destruction increase resulting in “an excess of tragic signifiers” (22). In this way, The Ice Storm is beset by a kind of tragic overreach that also invites critical distance. As a consequence, Moody’s novel both challenges the sacrificial imperative and dismantles it when no promised restoration of peace in a tragic catharsis occurs. 

With Revolutionary Road, the subversive potential of the suburban novel is realized. As a kind of “performance” of a novel, the narrative of Revolutionary Road stands apart from myth and “invites readers to share the interiority of those who have rejected” (23) sacrificial catharsis. Collectively, the three novels imagine the American Dream as tragic, caught in moments of sacrificial crisis, even as they also undermine the readers’ belief in the guilt of the scapegoat and its powers. 

Osborn frames her discussion in light of Girard’s observation that, as she puts it, “modern democracy promotes competitive individualism, while simultaneously thwarting individual progress by instituting a permanent mass of rivals” (21). As these rivalries are manifest in the three novels, the American Dream is shown to be a catalyst for mimetic crisis. This observation results in the most intriguing feature of Osborn’s book: reflections on Jim Cullen’s The American Dream and Andrew Delbanco’s The Real American Dream. According to Osborn, these scholars describe in macrocosm an American Dream which, at the microcosmic level, is visible in the novels she examines (25). In doing so, Cullen and Delbanco strike Osborn as savvy interpreters of that Dream as tragedy. After all, scholars of ancient tragedy regularly insist that the narratives are not “timeless” stage-pieces divorced from history. To the contrary, they are, as Hugh Grady argues when describing ancient tragedy, “‘aesthetic incarnations of moments of history.’” Or, as Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood suggests, the narratives of Greek tragedy are “‘produced and understood through the deployment of perceptual filters shaped by the cultural assumptions of fifth-century Athens’” (25). 

As fifth-century Athens goes, so goes twentieth-century America. Overlaying the filter of twentieth-century suburban life with the filter of mimetic theory and viewing the three novels in the wake of that deployment, Osborn identifies “keeping up with the Joneses” as a primary tragic mechanism driving the American Dream. Fueled by high levels of internal mediation supported by the cultural ideal of “equality,” the American Dream is manifest in acquisitive rivalries that portend mimetic crises. Citing Girard’s commentary on de Tocqueville in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Osborn points out that reductions in the class stratification enable greater investments in the dream of upward social mobility through which anyone can believe themselves capable of coming into full possession of the objects of their acquisitive desire (26-28). As products of this cultural milieu, the twentieth-century novels Osborn examines are subsequently shown in the book to be, of necessity, deeply invested in the Dream. 

How essential is the American Dream to how sacrifice became endemic to the nation? For Osborn, Cullen’s and Delbanco’s scholarship confirm its necessity. Cullen’s study of the Puritans traces the American cultural DNA to a founding generation whose mania for self-improvement, overseen by God, is matched in intensity by the Puritans’ violent attacks on marginal members of their community (36). Delbanco traces the pattern forward as a new civic religion comes into existence and reaches full form in the tragedy of the American Civil War. During the war, in a classic ritual of cleansing, the nation “expelled the taint of slavery, symbolized in the quasi-divine figure of Abraham Lincoln” (39). Indeed, as Osborn highlights Delbanco’s claims, she shows that he sees Lincoln as the “high priest of cathartic ritual” who also became a martyr around whose body the locus of the American Dream was definitively transferred from the private and religious (hospitals and churches) to the state (40). The Prosperity Gospel is a key outcome of this transition when, in the post-Civil War era and subsequently in the twentieth century, the acquisition of wealth becomes the primary sign of and means to salvation. In the novels Osborn examines, individuals who conform in ways described by Delbanco establish preconditions for crisis. Frantic in their quest to consume and increasingly undifferentiated from each other in pursuit of happiness, they become fodder for tragedy. But, as already noted, Osborn also is at pains to prove in her book that anti-tragic motifs in the novels point to alternatives to sacrifice. 

I first read Carly Osborn’s book shortly after it was published. Rereading it now, I am taken aback by how my reaction to it has changed in the wake of fifteen months of a pandemic as well as by the events of January 6, 2021. That the twentieth-century novels about which Osborn writes are “aesthetic incarnations of moments of history’” I do not deny. But that they also feature anti-tragic motifs capable of undermining readers’ belief in the guilt of the scapegoat and its cathartic powers in a way that might actually galvanize transformation within that same culture in the twenty-first century seems more doubtful than I thought possible a year ago. The sacrificial DNA that Cullen and Delbanco detect in the American Dream seems even stronger than it was in the twentieth-century suburbia on which Osborn focuses.  Indeed, it was seen in more robust form on January 6 than at any time since the Civil War. Christian nationalism was on prominent display that day. Crosses adorned clothing, posters, and flags. Signs proclaimed “Jesus Saves,” “God, Guns, and Trump,” and “Faith, Family, Freedom.” Men who breached the Senate Chamber offered prayers thanking God for “allowing the USA to be reborn.” Fifty-two percent of Americans, predominantly in the Midwest and South, identify with Christian nationalism, and its influence is gaining. Scholars of American religion see a trend persisting and even growing in influence that Delbanco thought ended with the Civil War: the alignment of sacrificial religion with the state. This religion is not deployed in civic form, as Delbanco has described; rather, as before the Civil War and now clearly visible again in the insurrection, this religion appears with a full complement of Christian symbolism and ritual. And it is summoned, as it was in Lincoln’s day, to justify white supremacy as a divine mandate. 

The virulent intersections of race, class, and gender in Christian nationalism, on full display January 6, emphasize the need for analyses of race, class, and gender that Osborn leaves to other scholars of the American Dream (2). What is in the American DNA, thanks to the construct of that Dream, melds in fiercely sacrificial form all three. A key example that calls for analyses informed by mimetic theory is the effort in multiple states to ban the teaching of “critical race theory.” Is that move an effort to hide from view the persistence of a sacrificial DNA at the heart of the American Dream? Scholars who study the legacy of white supremacy after Federal troops left the South in 1877 track a trajectory of violence through lynchings (to which sexual depravity and gendered dynamics of race are central), the Black Codes that replaced slavery with forced labor and expanded under Jim Crow, and the criminal justice system of the twentieth century which disproportionately incarcerates poor people of color and reserves death row almost exclusively for people of color (see resources from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice). When public school teachers label that trajectory “systemic racism,” the outcry against them, exemplified by legislation promoted by critics of critical race theory, aims to silence teachers by making them fear for their livelihoods if they discuss race in the classroom. Mimetic theory can and should be brought to bear on that threat, illuminating its depths. When teachers’ voices are sacrificed, the American Dream as a sacrificial construct also is rendered invisible, leaving it to range functionally intact and unchecked across America.  

Even though Osborn’s analysis needs to be supplemented by analyses that hold together multiple currents of sacrifice, gender-sensitive analyses are ever more critical to understanding how these currents run through the American Dream. The past year has exacted a particularly high cost from women. The man who killed Asian women working at massage parlors in Atlanta, blaming them for his “sex addiction,” combined the toxic features of evangelical Christianity with anti-Asia bigotry. He had learned in church that women are responsible for his lust, and his hostility to Asians had been stoked by a COVID-exacerbated white supremacist ideology. The differential impact of COVID on women has, by every economic marker available, set women’s advancement in the workplace back by at least a decade and left thousands of children, who depend primarily on mothers for care and economic support, falling behind their peers in education as well as in their mental and physical health. The breakdown of the childcare system during COVID has strengthened sacrificial currents of life everywhere, including the suburbs. 

Focusing on “the suburban tragic” in three 20th-century American novels, Osborn demonstrates that “keeping up with the Joneses” is a catalyst for catastrophe. Arguing further that these novels’ self-conscious engagement with tragic tropes works to anti-tragic effect, Osborne raises disturbing questions about the numbing conformity of suburbia even as she places female scapegoats at the heart of the suburbs’ sacrificial ethos. That they also play a role in the potential subversion of that ethos seems a less compelling claim today than it did even a year ago when I first read Osborn’s book. Perhaps because of that gap between hope and reality, Osborn’s bold and provocative reading, exposing troubling paradoxes in the American Dream, actually has become an even more urgent read in 2021. 

An excellent book provokes reflection from its readers that takes them from its pages into their own lives and times, there to reconsider their circumstances, and not just for a moment. Having elicited my sustained engagement with its claims, with admiration and appreciation, I conclude: Tragic Novels, René Girard, and the American Dream is an excellent book.  


Curtis Gruenler
Hope College

Luke Burgis, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2021. Pages: 275.

I’ve been waiting for a book like this. I’ll use it in a first-year seminar next fall and a senior seminar in the spring, two courses where I discuss mimetic theory with students who have various academic interests. It’s perfect for first-years facing the relational dynamics of college and for seniors making life choices and heading into the world of work. Burgis has written the most practical book on mimetic theory yet.

Not that Wanting is intended as a college textbook. It promises to bring a solid treatment of mimetic theory to many new audiences. St. Martin’s has announced a major, mainstream marketing campaign and an initial run of 100,000 copies. Burgis has been active on social media, promoting the book while experimenting with how to bend systems usually dominated by digital contagions toward more creative cycles of desire. The name of his Substack newsletter, Anti-Mimetic, is also a key term in the book. His website includes a taste of Liana Finck’s illustrations, which add whimsy and intrigue throughout. (I haven’t had a chance yet to participate in the conversations he has hosted on the by-invitation, audio-only app Clubhouse.)

While Burgis comes mostly from the world of business, he shows himself to be well versed in Girard’s work and its academic reception. After a B.S. from the Stern School of Business at NYU, he helped found and lead four companies. He then earned a Bachelor of Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and is currently Entrepreneur-in-Residence and Director of Programs at the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at Catholic University of America. His fund of examples draws on contemporary fascinations—Silicon Valley start-ups, Italian sports car makers, Michelin-starred chefs—and mines them for their cautionary and instructive value. The book has plenty of tips for how mimetic theory applies to management, but its main interest, as the subtitle says, is “everyday life”: pragmatic approaches to working with the insights of mimetic theory for the sake of personal fulfillment and better organizations.

After a prologue about how his first exposure to mimetic theory helped him navigate a crisis in his business career, Burgis divides his book into two halves: four chapters on “the power of mimetic desire” followed by four on “the transformation of desire.” Interspersed throughout are fifteen inset “tactics,” from “Name your models” to “Live as if you had responsibility for what other people want.” Three appendices give: a glossary, with concise and accessible definitions of standard terms in mimetic theory as well as a few Burgis invents for the book; a reading list of ten books, mostly by Girard himself; and a list of “motivational themes” to accompany one of the book’s most promising tactics, identifying “thick” desires by focusing on “stories of deeply fulfilling action.”

When I explain mimetic theory, I usually say it comprises three main ideas. Burgis saves the second and third of these, the scapegoat mechanism and the revelatory importance of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, for his fourth chapter. Chapters 1-3 expansively probe mimetic desire and rivalry. Many cite simple examples of mimetic desire from advertising, but Burgis shows the genius of Edward Bernays, whom the New York Times called “the father of public relations” when he died in 1995 at the age of 103, for cleverly manipulating desire by setting up models of it. Apple founder Steve Jobs is exhibit A in chapter 2, on external mediation and internal mediation, which Burgis labels Celebristan and Freshmenistan. Given that our media climate has accelerated the movement of modern culture toward Freshmenistan, his emphasis on the ways it distorts our sense of reality is welcome.

Chapter 3 folds a treatment of mimetic rivalry into a contrast between negative and positive cycles of desire, what Burgis calls cycle 1 and cycle 2. While cycle 1 leads to rivalry and conflict in the ways Girard has made familiar, cycle 2 turns mimetic desire toward uniting people in “shared desire for some common good.” Either case involves a feedback loop which Burgis, borrowing from business guru Jim Collins, calls the “flywheel effect.” His example of cycle 2, the marketing of Giro bicycle helmets, also happens to involve financial success. Yet the tactics offered for positive flywheels, involving a clear articulation of interlinked means and ends that lead up a hierarchy of values, do indeed promise to employ mimetic principles toward desire for a common good. Burgis also calls cycle 2 creative, which implies the greater intentionality it requires as well as its potential and, perhaps, instability—what my colleague Dennis Feaster and I have tried to label with the contrast between “violence loop” and “conversion spiral.”

In keeping with its entrepreneurial milieu, Wanting takes a strong view of individual agency. Its treatment of scapegoating leaves much unsaid about how deeply mimetic violence has shaped the cultural institutions that shape individuals, though all this is waiting for readers who tackle the reading list at the end. Burgis’s use of the term “anti-mimetic” might even suggest that he thinks it somehow possible to avoid or transcend mimetic desire, but this is not what he means. What is anti-mimetic, as his glossary defines it, is anything that “counteracts the negative forces of mimetic desire.” His approach is built on the Girardian bedrock of renouncing appropriative, conflictual mimesis. The book is asking what we might build on that foundation.

Part 2, then, plays with ways mimetic desire can contribute to positive individual agency. I say “plays” because Burgis, wisely, does not pretend to be systematic. He relies, first, on inspiring examples. Second, he moves beyond discrete tactics to what he calls skills and what I would call habits, in a sense that could connect with traditional virtue ethics. Chapter 6, on the power of empathy to disrupt negative cycles of mimesis, develops a contrast between thin and thick desires that I find particularly resonant.

Burgis’s last major example, Maria Montessori (with a nod to COV&R board member Suzanne Ross’s work on the Montessori method and mimetic theory), anchors an insightful chapter on leadership. This fits part 2’s increasing attention to practices and relationships that open up alternatives to negative mimesis in the context of systems that reinforce it. He adds further distinctions that help name the positive: between immanent and transcendent desires, between desires and values, between mimetic values and objective values, between calculating thought and meditative thought (which is less mimetic). All of this moves toward a hopeful conclusion that suggests connections between Burgis’s array of ideas and more explicitly theological considerations of positive mimesis: “I believe that the only desires thick enough to satisfy us involve making ourselves a gift to others in some way” (218).

Wanting repeatedly compares mimetic desire to gravity. Some are barely able “to resist the downward pull. Others experience that same gravity and find ways to go to the moon” (xvii). The metaphor has limits if the power of flight is the same one that pulls us down, but Burgis has assembled an engaging, usable toolkit for gravity-powered ascent—anti-gravity machines. And while, true to the spirit of mimetic theory, the book speaks in human terms, its success would also be, as I think the author would hope, part of the transformative, uplifting movement of the Breath of God in our time.

Timely Meditations on Desire

Elijah Null
University of Denver

Per Bjørnar Grande, Desire: Flaubert, Proust, Fitzgerald, Miller, Lana Del Rey. Breakthroughs in Mimetic Theory. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2020. Pages 264.

Desire can be investigated both as a synchronic and a diachronic phenomenon. Girard’s readings in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel tended toward synchronic snapshots of triangular desire, in keeping with the structuralism that was ascendant at the time. Per Bjørnar Grande emphasizes the diachronic aspect in his study, examining how the stages of desire are portrayed in literary works. The novel, he suggests, is particularly suited to this sort of exploration, since it can depict how desire unfolds over time. He explains in his introduction that he is interested in how the concept of mimetic desire, contrary to the understandings of desire of Hegel, Nietzsche, and Freud, reveals that “desire can take any form” (vii). Grande focuses on the self-destructive tendency of desire, taking as a touchstone for his thinking Flaubert’s famous statement that his novel was about nothing. The desire he finds in these literary works “has no substance at all and leads to a nothingness that resembles death” (14). While he finds a definite pattern in these various literary representations of desire, he also shows how each depiction of desire has its own phenomenological particularities, determined by the socio-cultural context and concrete aspects of the narrative. His selection of texts allows him to analyze diverse experiences of desire in their cultural milieus while simultaneously describingthe underlying aspects that unify these expressions of desire.

Grande’s first two chapters deal with canonical texts for mimetic theory, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Though these texts have received treatment by Girard and others, Grande’s extended close readings of these novels add new dimensions to our understanding of them. The first chapter focuses on the stages of desire that eventually lead to Emma Bovary’s ruin. Grande makes a number of interesting observations while tracing this development. I was particularly struck, for example, by his suggestion that we should understand Emma’s husband, Charles, as “depicted through the eyes of romantic desire” (38). He is the only central character in the novel, Grande argues, who is content with his life and not entangled in metaphysical desire. Through the distortion of Emma’s desire, though, this otherwise positive quality appears to be a “deadly sin” (39). Grande suggests that Charles’s resistance to mimetic rivalry makes him into something of an unlikely and unrecognized hero, albeit a tragic one. The romanticism of Emma, on the other hand, creates in her an increasingly morbid obsession with “obstacles that are both illusory and unnecessary when viewed from outside the torments of desire” (58).

The chapter on Proustian desire explores the notion that if we are to fully understand how desire works in the lives of individuals and societies, we must analyze it temporally. Desire, Grande argues, puts pressure on the old hierarchies of Combray and slowly transforms it into the modern world, represented by Swann and the salons in Paris. The modernizing world that Proust portrays is one of increasingly individualized desires, characterized by a private symbolism. Grande dedicates much of the chapter to reflecting on Girard’s notion that Proust’s great novel captures the structure of Christian conversion. Affective memory, the recapturing of memories undistorted by mimetic desire, is akin to dying to oneself in a Christian sense. This retrospective examination, which involves openness to one’s biographical past, reveals to the novelist the true structure of desire—specifically, that his secular gods were illusions. Proust’s “religion,” however, is ultimately based on art. This leads him in Grande’s estimation to an undue veneration of the figure of the artist in Time Regained, which could be seen as a new form of snobbery.

The next three chapters focus on desire and the American Dream in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman, and the songs of Lana Del Rey. The East Coast during the Roaring Twenties, an environment of “restlessness and rootlessness,” was a place where the dynamics of desire were laid bare with a particular clarity (129). The elites in The Great Gatsby have thrown off all prohibitions to desire. Gatsby considers himself, in Fitzgerald’s language, a “Son of God,” which he believes exempts him from normal moral conventions (quoted in Grande, 153). The novel shows, in Grande’s reading, how this antinomian notion of freedom leads to destruction. Gatsby’s grandiose understanding of himself leads him to believe he can control time, which is why he devotes all his efforts and resources to an impossibility: repeating his first encounter with Daisy Buchanan, which occurred five years earlier. Not only Gatsby, but all the elites in the decadent world of the novel have given free rein to their desire, and sacrificial victims, most memorably Myrtle, abound. Ultimately, Grande concludes, the novel can be understood as an exploration of the devastating effects of idolatry. Gatsby’s desire to stop time and repeat the past, Grande argues, is a distortion of the Christian longing for heaven. Grande identifies this as a sort of modern Gnosticism, one that rejects the limitations of matter and common morality in favor of esoteric “higher” pursuits. The gnostic god of this world is the billboard of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, who “sees everything and cannot be fooled but does not care” (173).

The American Dream inspires a different sort of distorted desire in the subject of the next chapter, The Death of Salesman. For Willy Loman, the American Dream consists not of an honest life rooted in hard work, but of fame rooted in natural charisma. Willy teaches his son Biff that moral norms do not apply to him because he is handsome and athletically gifted. Willy’s desire for fame gradually loosens his grip on reality and destroys his relationships. Willy and his son are gifted to work with their hands, but the problem is that Willy is a snob—only success as a salesman counts, from his perspective. Grande puts the play into conversation with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Both works recognize the need for regeneration and rootedness, which is what Willy’s brief desire to buy some seeds and grow something represents. However, unlike Eliot, Willy lives in a world completely cut off from “a cultural heritage, myths, or religion” (193). Willy’s misplaced desires have cut him off from resorting to these things as sources of renewal, which is the deepest source of the tragedy in the play.

Finally, Grande turns to Lana Del Rey’s music, which he finds to be a valuable resource for understanding the contemporary experience of desire in the Western world. Del Rey’s American Dream is not unlike that of Willy Loman—fame, fortune, and charisma—though Del Rey places a special emphasis on following the desires of one’s heart, especially with regards to erotic relationships. Grande highlights in this chapter an element present throughout his study: the repetitive, but ultimately vain effort to possess a disappearing object. This tendency becomes pronounced, Grande posits, when one divinizes the beloved. In the music of Del Rey, eros replaces agape, the desire to find something lasting flounders, and cynicism and violence ensue. The repetitive nature of this desire devolves into scandal, an obsession with the obstacles to love. Del Rey perceptively explores the impossibility of finding acceptance—which Grande theorizes through Hegel’s master-slave dialectic—in a world where all boundaries and prohibitions, of both the transcendent and immanent variety, have melted into air. Grande ends the chapter by noting the absence of a third party—that is to say, a mediator—in most of Del Rey’s music. The occlusion of the meditator is characteristic of any mythical account of love.

Grande is working out through these examples how, while desire may be metaphysically one (in a typical Girardian formulation: all desire is desire for being), it is phenomenologically many. The experience of desire looks different depending on one’s class, geographical and historical location, and the other particulars that characterize any given situation. Emma Bovary’s experience, that is, is not identical to that of Lana Del Rey. These factors which shape the individual’s experience of desire merit attention. However, close analysis of these experiences can also help us to see what we might call the deeper metaphysical constants of desire. Grande’s slim volume is more generative than comprehensive. Its broad sweep suggests future lines of inquiry into the phenomenology of mimetic desire, making it a fitting addition to MSU’s “Breakthroughs in Mimetic Theory” series.

Bulletin 68 – May 2021
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One thought on “Bulletin 68 – May 2021

  • May 31, 2021 at 1:52 am

    Great to retrace our steps with COV; thanks for the very informative bulletin.

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