Letter from the President, Looking Back and Looking Forward, Martha Reineke

Musings from the Executive Secretary: A Few Thoughts on Being a Colloquium, Niki Wandinger

Editor’s Column: New Mediations, Curtis Gruenler

Forthcoming Events

Violence & Desire in Film

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

COV&R Annual Meeting

Conference Report: COV&R 2021 and Artificial Intelligence, Scott Cowdell

Book Reviews

Stefano Tomelleri, Ressentiment: Reflections on Mimetic Desire and Society, reviewed by Andrew Bartlett

Peter John Barber, Jesus and Myth: The Gospel Account’s Two Patterns, reviewed by Ann W. Astell

Letter from the President

Looking Back and Looking Forward

Martha Reineke
University of Northern Iowa

As I reflect back on last month’s annual meeting, I am delighted to report that everyone who participated embraced our first venture into virtual programming with zest, creativity, and thoughtfulness. On behalf of the Board, I want to thank Sandor Goodhart and Thomas Ryba for serving as conference hosts and congratulate them on a very successful conference. The topic of artificial intelligence is an important one, and the high quality of the presentations throughout the conference confirms that mimetic theorists and practitioners are engaging seriously with it. 

I also want to thank our outgoing Board members, Kathy Frost and Suzanne Ross, for their service. Kathy’s perspective, drawing on her work in the field of psychology, has been a valued one, both on the board and in her regular contributions to conference programming. Although Suzanne has completed her service to the board, her unwavering support of COV&R, which began with the Raven Foundation’s promotion of our work, will continue as CEO of unRival, one of our key sponsors. Because unRival’s mission aligns more closely with COV&R than does Raven’s, Suzanne will now support COV&R through this new organization. We look forward to continuing our relationship with unRival in the years to come.

The Board is delighted to welcome two new members: Matthew Packer, an independent scholar, is joining us from New Zealand. He is familiar to our membership as the Book Editor for the Bulletin. And we also welcome Tania Checchi from the Colegio de Saberes in Mexico City. Like Matt, Tania draws extensively on mimetic theory in her scholarship and regularly offers presentations at our annual meetings. All of us will benefit from the insights and new ideas Matt and Tania will bring to their service on the Board. 

As we look to the future, there are going to be two mid-year opportunities for us to engage in conversation with each other. As reported elsewhere in this Bulletin, COV&R will sponsor three in-person sessions at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in San Antonio in November. Our sessions in conjunction with the AAR meeting are a great way to share our scholarship with each other; even more significant, they constitute a key opportunity to introduce other AAR members to mimetic theory. 

Sometime this fall, members also will be invited to participate in listening sessions to discuss a motion from Board member Grant Kaplan that COV&R adopt a Policy on Diversity and Inclusion. These sessions will be offered on Zoom in our primary time zones (Americas, Europe, and Pacific). The Board feels it is important for our membership to engage in careful and caring reflection on how COV&R can become more welcoming and its membership more reflective of the diversity we see in the academic and other communities from which we come. Voices from which we have not heard in proportion to their presence in those communities are critical to sustaining and developing mimetic theory. The board encourages you to join us in this inquiry. In anticipation of this discussion, I offer some initial reflections. 

When I became a member of COV&R many years ago, women constituted a small percentage of our members. And that has not changed: Today, 12 % of our members are women. By contrast, in the humanities disciplines, from which a majority of us come, both in North America and in Europe (areas for which I could find statistics), percentages of women in the disciplines range from 30% in philosophy, to 40-47% in Religion (depending on the sub-discipline), to 51% in English Language and Literature. Among the STEM disciplines, which employ fewer women than the social sciences and humanities, engineering employs the fewest women: 28% (an average across all academic ranks). Yet, that is double their representation in COV&R. In the US, the only area for which I could find statistics, BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) faculty constitute about 12% of the professoriate. If COV&R numbers were similarly representative, 40 of our members would identify as BIPOC. Even absent a formal census, we fall far short of that number. How do we account for these statistics? Given the extraordinary analytical power of mimetic theory across the breadth of human experience, I find it wholly improbable that these numbers tell us that mimetic theory is of no value or interest to these underrepresented groups. Other reasons must account for the lack of diversity in COV&R. 

Seeking answers, I have been asking myself these questions:

  • In what ways is COV&R already diverse and inclusive?
  • In what ways could it be more diverse and inclusive? 
  • What strategies and commitments will help it become more diverse and inclusive? 
  • What are the opportunities and barriers to creating a more welcoming organization?

These questions invite nuanced reflection. Diversity in an organization entails much more than an expanded “body count” of persons presenting work at COV&R meetings, publishing in Contagion, etc. More challenging questions that I have been considering include: Are we incorporating in our programming the expertise of individuals who come from diverse communities and cultures with distinct historical and contemporary experiences to contribute? Are points of view originating from current and former marginalized persons and cultures welcomed in our conversations? Are we engaging in critical examination of those margins, especially in light of the illumination offered by a resource all of us share: mimetic theory? What precisely are “margins” and “centers,” and how are they formed and transformed? What actions and initiatives within COV&R would create opportunities for change? 

My thoughts on this important topic just scratch the surface. I hope all of you will jot down some thoughts of your own and attend the planned Zoom sessions prepared to listen to each other, share your thoughts and concerns, and advise the Board on this important topic. The Board plans to gather in January to discuss the proposed Policy on Diversity and Inclusion along with other unfinished business from our July Board meeting. We hope to bring forward to the membership a refined proposal when we meet in person next summer.  

Please make plans now to attend our annual meeting in Bogotá, Colombia. Our host, Roberto Solarte and his team are planning a wonderful conference. Please see the initial description of the conference elsewhere in the Bulletin. This will be our first opportunity to meet in South America and to apply mimetic theory to issues emerging from this context of inquiry. Moreover, Bogotá is a travel destination that comes highly recommended by my travel agent. I plan to come early to visit Cartagena and stay late to get to know Bogotá better. Cartagena is on the Caribbean coast, and its Old Town, with churches, monasteries, plazas, palaces, and residences unchanged from the colonial era, is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Bogotá also has an historic downtown, La Candelaria, with museums and 300-year old religious buildings and old houses. And Cerro de Monserrate stands out on the landscape of Bogotá. Instead of visiting Starbucks (or your equivalent haunt) this year, brew your own and save your pennies. You’ll be able to drink Colombian coffee in Bogotá next summer! 

Musings from the Executive Secretary

A Few Thoughts on Being a Colloquium

Nikolaus Wandinger
University of Innsbruck


I am afraid that my musings this time are really quite erratic, as I am sitting here and try to put into words some sentiments and thoughts that I have about different topics related to the Colloquium. Still, I’d like to air my thoughts exactly as related to that keyword “Colloquium,” which is in the very name of COV&R.

  • Colloquium means speaking with one another. For all the great papers and impressive technology that enabled us to hear them all over the world at the July conference, we could not really speak with each other. We could listen to the papers and the responses given to questions asked via chat – or by a respondent – but no col-loqui was possible.
  • But we could chat. Isn’t that the same? I am doubtful about that. In plain English – as far as I as a non-native speaker can tell – chatting is a type of speaking to each other that is different from engaging in a colloquy. And – no offense – in some sessions where the chat was already running with ideas, associations, suggestions while the presentation was still going on, I was wondering whether we were actually listening to the presenter or already following our own train of thoughts – or even engaging in a mimetic game of showing off who has the most intriguing associations on the presentation. I don’t think chats are colloquies in the sense of a Colloquium. 
  • And we had Informal Networking Rooms: There, we could chat as well and could have conducted colloquies but mostly the time differences and the tight schedule of the conference prevented me from meeting people there. So, I must say: I am really looking forward to our next meeting in Bogotá in physical presence that will allow us to act according to what we are: a Colloquium.

Robert DoranAnother aspect of being a colloquium is that we enter into dialog with thinkers who are willing to engage with Mimetic Theory, even if they are not fully “converted disciples.” I want to take the opportunity to remember one such person here who passed away in January of this year. I am talking of Robert Michael Doran. He was a Jesuit theologian and expert on the work of fellow Jesuit and theologian Bernard Lonergan but he was very much engaged in dialog with Girard and his mimetic theory, as several publications and his attendance of quite a few COV&R conferences attest to. I think he exemplified what col-loqui in the best sense can mean, and I will miss him at future conferences. May he rest in peace.


Editor’s Column

New Mediations

Curtis Gruenler
Hope College

Thanks to all of the organizers of this summer’s annual meeting for conducting our experiment with online conferencing. I felt it was a great success. Recordings of the sessions are now available on the Socio platform that was used during the conference itself. Those who registered for the conference can access the recordings using the same login (and registrants should have received a recent message from Robert Elliott at Purdue to that effect). If you need help, email [email protected]. Next summer, COV&R will be able to make the recordings freely available on its own YouTube channel. Meanwhile, thanks to Scott Cowdell for letting us publish the text of his concluding address on the conference theme, which you will find below. Look for something related to the plenary by the Research Group on Loving Mimesis in our next issue.

Of course I look forward to a fully embodied meeting next year in Bogotá, but I also see this summer’s meeting as a promising indicator of new directions. At the same time that we continue our old ways of communicating, we also need to take advantage of new possibilities. I want to weave this issue’s news around the theme of new ways to mediate interaction among those interested in mimetic theory. 

Mimetic theory begins with an understanding of how all that makes us human, not just desire, is mediated by the models we imitate. New media make these models present to us in new ways. This not only opens up new channels of communication, but invites reflection on how these channels affect the quality of the mediation they make possible. A traditional academic conference is itself a kind of medium, an assemblage of several formats for conducting intellectual work together. It opens up the richest possibilities of friendship in learning, but it can also amplify the posturing and intellectual rivalry that academia is prone to. What happens to these possibilities in an online conference? My favorite part of online conferencing so far is the accessibility and playfulness of the chat function in Zoom, but, as Niki Wandinger points out above, the chat can also become an arena for a more vain and exclusive sort of gamesmanship. Every medium is double-edged, but perhaps their proliferation invites reflection about what tendencies each one is prone to. What works best on a podcast or in a book? How can mimetic theory help us think about the ways we use them?

Video: In addition to COV&R’s own YouTube channel, here are several channels and videos with great mimetic theory content:

  • Most appropriate to the topic of this column, the Lumen Christi Institute has made available a panel discussion on “René Girard, Conversion, and the Present Media Moment” with Grant Kaplan (Saint Louis University), Carly Osborn (University of Divinity), Fr. Steve Grunow (Word on Fire Catholic Ministries), moderated by Cynthia Haven, streamed live on May 27, 2021.
  • The YouTube channel of Pensamiento Crítico y Subjetividad includes the presentations from “Coloquio Internacional sobre Mentira Romántica y Verdad Novelesca de Rene Girard,” which took place June 18 at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia, our host for next year’s annual meeting.
  • Les Choses Cachées, a Youtube channel archive of Girard’s conferences, radio appearances, and other audio and video in French.

Audio: The world of podcasts and other audio on the internet is bewildering but a great opportunity for the kind of soulful attention that Walter Ong, SJ, argued that orality can be conducive to. Here are some I’ve come across (in addition to those I listed in my previous column):

  • Luke Burgis has been appearing on a wide variety of podcasts in conjunction with the release of his book Wanting. His two-hour session on BanklessHQ, a podcast for those interested in cryptocurrency, gives a glimpse into how he is helping new audiences take an interest in Girard’s work. Besides this one, Luke says his other favorite episodes (so far) have been on The Minimalists, Infinite Loops, Hidden Forces, and The Gabby Reece Show. You can find these by googling his name with the name of the podcast. A search for his name on Spotify (under the results for “episodes”) or your favorite source of podcasts will take you to a long list.
  • The classic interview series with René Girard by David Cayley from the CBC radio program Ideas is available on a Spotify “podcast” (actually an audio collection) called “Things I’m listening to” by John Borthwick. It is also on YouTube, starting with part 1 of 5. Expertly packaged with Cayley’s own commentary and some interview segments with Paul Dumouchel, this is an outstanding introduction to mimetic theory.

Education: The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed those of us who teach in traditional institutions to experiment with new modes and media at the same time that new educational ventures are proliferating. I would be interested in reflections from members on our current educational moment. I’m reminded of Robert Hamerton-Kelly’s assertion that Girard’s theory, like Darwin’s, would need to find at least its initial support outside mainstream academia. Here are a couple of new things that have come to my attention:

  • Scott Grunow posted to the Wall on Socio during our summer conference, “Could COVR and its members think of creating a resources folder of materials they have used to teach Girard especially to undergraduates?” The member pages section of our website has a link to “Curricula” that contains syllabi from a variety of courses that include mimetic theory to a greater or lesser degree, though it hasn’t been updated in a few years. More helpful might be accounts from members about how they teach mimetic theory in their courses and what materials they use. If anyone would like to contribute, please get in touch and we can consider what sort of format might work best. Meanwhile, the best thing I know of along these lines is an article by Matthew Packer, our book review editor, “Without Rival: Mimetic Theory in a First-Year Seminar.”
  • Geoff Shullenberger offered a course on Girard this summer through (and there is another course in progress on Ivan Illich). The founder of IndieThinkers, Justin Murphy, preceded Geoff’s course with a fascinating blog post on possibilities for mimetic theory in the digital sphere, “Exponential Satanism: Girard and Digital Technology”. 

Books: Our next installment of the mimetic theory bibliography is now planned for the November issue. Here is some book news: 

  • Michigan State University Press has announced Violence, the Sacred, and Things Hidden: Discussion with René Girard at Esprit (1973), translated by Andrew J. McKenna, in the series Breakthroughs in Mimetic Theory, scheduled for November 2021. MSUP is offering a discount on all books in both series through the end of August.
  • Tania Checchi’s Spanish translation of Girard’s Cosas ocultas desde la fundación del mundo has appeared in Spain with Sígueme Ediciones and will be distributed in many countries in Latin America.
  • Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard has been published in Russian. 
  • Johnathan Bi sets out the ambition of Completing Girard by linking his work to contemplative Buddhism. His work is notable not just because of its aim, but also because he has made his work-in-progress available on the web. I have only read the foreword to his unfinished manuscript, in which he explains this choice of how to publish, but his overview essay, “Mimesis without Rivalry,” is provocative and promising.
  • The 2021 volume of COV&R’s journal, Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, is available. For instructions on how to access it, see its page on our website.
  • COV&R member Julie Shinnick would like to invite others to join her for a read-aloud group over Zoom on Marc Heim’s book Saved from Sacrifice. A live read book group is a group where the book is actually read out loud during the meetings, by participants (who volunteer to read) taking turns reading paragraph by paragraph (or page by page or whatever feels right) from the book being studied. The group stops for discussion or questions when anyone wants to stop. It is a slow process, but that is part of the idea, to help the participants slow down and experience the book together in “live” time. The beauty of a live read group is that you don’t have to read ahead, so there is no homework, and the process provides a framework for slowing down and thinking deeply about the text. People can drop in and drop out easily, since anyone can read ahead or read and catch up on pages they might have had to miss. Everyone is free to read ahead if they wish. Regular email reports of pages where each session started and ended, as well as brief summaries could be made available. If anyone is interested, please contact Julie Shinnick. It would only need a small number of people, who would decide together on a day, time, and frequency—every week? every other week? every month?

As always, please send me your news, reflections, and ideas for articles.

Forthcoming Events

Violence & Desire in Film
November 6, 2021

The Dutch Girard Society will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a program of film clips and discussion featuring Arnon Grunberg on Saturday afternoon, Nov. 6, at the Theater De Balie, a famous Amsterdam venue. Held in Dutch, the event will also be streamed live on the internet for donors. A recording with English subtitles will be made available to supporters subsequently. 

Grunberg, a prominent Dutch novelist known also for his columns on the front page of De Volksrant, one of the largest newspapers in Holland, calls René Girard one of his favorite thinkers. He will be interviewed by former COV&R board member Joachim Duyndam, professor of philosophy at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht. The aim in discussing the film clips, says Duyndam, is not just to illustrate mimetic theory, but to explore what the films say about violence and desire.

Selected by Grunberg from a list proposed by the organizers, the films to be featured include some surprising and controversial choices:

  • “Apocalypse Now,” directed by Francis Ford Coppola
  • “The Lord of the Rings,” directed by Peter Jackson
  • “La Fille sur le Pont” (“Girl on the Bridge”), directed by Patrice Leconte
  • “Toto le Héros” (“Toto the Hero”), directed by Jaco Van Dormael
  • “Basic Instinct,” directed by Paul Verhoeven
  • “The Birds,” directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The format of using film clips follows a popular, long-running show on Dutch television.

In order to receive funding necessary to put the program on, the organizers started a campaign on the crowdfunding site Voordekunst. The target sum, meant for the basic costs, was reached by August 16, which is also the day the campaign ends. For further costs, and for realizing a publication in the near future, donations are still welcome. All donors of a minimum of 10 Euros will receive access to the live stream and to the recording with English subtitles. In addition, there are further rewards available for larger contributions:

  • €40 or more: a signed copy of Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard
  • €50 or more: admission to the live event at the Theater De Balie
  • €75 or more: your name or organization mentioned on the live stream
  • €100 or more: the Dutch Girard Society’s forthcoming new edition of an introductory book on mimetic theory
  • €250 or more: a meet-and-greet with Arnon Grunberg

To see further details and to donate, see the society’s website.

The Dutch Girard Society, one of the oldest and most active groups of those interested in mimetic theory, switched during the COVID-19 pandemic to meeting online and more frequently, at least once a month. Meeting online has allowed it to expand its participation and choice of speakers. 

Planning for “Violence & Desire in Film” began in 2019 and was delayed by the pandemic. The organizers hope for a stimulating discussion with Grunberg that will bring out new perspectives on violence from the films and engage new audiences with mimetic theory.

COV&R Sessions at the American Academy of Religion
San Antonio, Texas, Nov. 20-23, 2021

Grant Kaplan, Convener
St. Louis University

San Antonio

Full information and registration are available here. There will be a special registration that includes only the virtual component of the meeting.

Session 1 (P 20–134): Theological Explorations of Mimetic Theory

Saturday November 20, 9:00–11:00am 

(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 2 (P21–242): Friendship, the Social, & the Violent Sacred

Sunday November 21, 12:30–2:30pm

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 3 (A22–222): Academic Rivalry in the Modern Age: Thinking with Girard and Beyond

Monday November 22, 12:30–2:30pm
(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)

COV&R Annual Meeting

Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Bogotá, Colombia
June 28-July 2, 2022

Emerging Crisis:
New Humanities and the Mimetic Theory


Topic and Call for Papers: Since 2019 the world has been looking at an outburst of social unrest. People have taken to the streets to demand economic and social change. Unfortunately, one of the most common characteristics of these worldwide protests has been the tough response from the police. The rush of these new social movements is expressed in new demands with strong marches in the streets and its roots are founded in the crisis within democratic systems, flowing from a global economic model that only cares about producing a wealthier and powerful minority above any other real necessity. This is leading to enormous environmental damage and new exclusions, particularly of young people and those who are forced to migrate. 

In addition, we have been confronted with the enormous global health challenge produced by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a worldwide crisis. The pandemic has exposed the profound inequality within countries, revealing serious patterns of individualism and selfishness. The same is true concerning the inequality in the vaccination process at the global level, as well as between regions of particular countries. Added to the difficulties of global vaccination, the ineptness calls for solidarity and reveals this rapacious human calamity. 

We need better understandings of these situations, as well as solutions that could reduce exclusions. Mimetic theory plays an important role here. However, we believe that this crisis invites us to renew the inter- and trans-disciplinary horizon with which René Girard always worked. For this reason, we want to invite you to renew our dialogues with the new perspectives of the humanities.  

The crisis that the pandemic has left and the emergence of new social movements with their demands for social, political, and economic changes challenge us to keep seeking better understandings of these situations, as well as solutions that could reduce exclusions.  

Since this is the first meeting of COV&R organized in Latin America, we want to dialogue with the philosophies and theologies of liberation, as well as with decolonial positions. We believe that mimetic theory invites us to study and propose different approaches that help a non-violent way out of the crisis and, therefore, to build peace. 

This is the reason why we have invited people from different fields of knowledge to participate in this meeting, always with reference to mimetic theory as proposed by René Girard, and with the aim of having serious conversations seeking better understandings and solutions to the current crisis. 

Finally, we invite papers that probe these and related problematics from a wide variety of disciplines. We require only some serious engagement with Girard’s theory. You can send your abstract to [email protected] until March 30, 2022.

Plenary Speakers: The main Colombian speaker will be the academic Vera Grabe. She has a Ph.D. in peace studies and was former leader of the M-19 warfare (dissolved in the 90’s). She has worked several years in peacebuilding. 

Another leading speaker is James Krapfl with whom we would like to discuss the relations between mimetic theory and the new ways of approaching historiography, particularly, those of Foucauldians, like Oscar Saldarriaga, a Colombian historian.

With James Alison, Carlos Mendoza, Petra Steinmair-Pösel and Carlos Angarita—and all the theologians interested in our invitation—we are going to realize, in a deeper way, how the theological perspectives are possible through Girardian theory.

João Cezar de Castro Rocha will join us to explore the ways in which mimetic theory influences literacy studies and arts in a dialogue with Jeffrey Cedeño, a professor from Venezuela. 

Stéphane Vinolo and Tania Checchi will help us to explore new philosophical horizons in relation to mimetic theory. 

Host and Site: Pontificia Universidad Javeriana is a Jesuit university which is distinguished as one of the best in Colombia and Latin America. Lodging options will include nearby hotels. Moreover, we would be able to visit part of the Jesuit social work in the reduction of poverty and violence and the construction of a better society.

Bogotá is a city with many places of interest such as the gold museum and the colonial zone. Colombia, the place of the magic realism— as the Nobel prize winner, Gabriel Garcia Márquez would say—is a country with beautiful places like Cartagena, the coffee zone, magical little towns, and Leticia in the middle of the Amazonian jungle. It is one of the world’s best repositories of surviving fauna and flora which can be visited in a several ways. One of the outstanding activities available is bird watching, as Colombia is considered a world leader in this field.

Conference Report

COV&R 2021 and Artificial Intelligence

Scott Cowdell
Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia

Editor’s note: This is the text of the final plenary address from COV&R’s 2021 annual meeting, for which the focal theme was “Desiring Machines: Robots, Mimesis, and Violence in the Age of AI.”

Thank you for joining me on a brisk Sunday morning in wintry Canberra, the capital of Australia. I thank Sandy and Tom for the honour of delivering this final wrap-up plenary lecture for our conference on AI and mimetic theory. Being down-under and hence 14 hours ahead of the conference timetable, most plenary sessions, which I’ll be summarising and reflecting on, were well past my bedtime—I didn’t even manage to stay up last might to watch my fellow Australian Ash Barty win the Women’s Singles Final at Wimbledon! So, I thank the plenary speakers for advanced copy of their lectures, along with those COV&R members whose presentation titles seemed suggestive.

I’m going to weave a tapestry out of the plenary and other relevant material, beginning with an Introduction, then covering two major issues that I see emerging—the first about autonomy, fascination and revulsion related to strong AI, and the second about what’s missing and what’s possible from strong—that is, humanlike—AI. I’ll finish that second discussion by addressing the brilliant but demanding contribution of Jean-Pierre Dupuy, which provides a crucial meta-critical perspective. My lecture will conclude, as requested by the organisers, with some suggestions about future research in mimetic theory in light of what’s emerged during our conference. 


Reading my way into the history and practice of AI as preparation for this task, I started paying attention to articles in the press. In June, The New York Times reported that a military drone in the Middle East may have independently initiated a lethal attack on enemy combatants. If autonomous vehicles still have a long way to go in learning to understand and safely negotiate a world of fixed and moving objects, imagine the challenges for an autonomous weapons system.

Last week, two stories in The Guardian caught my eye. One was about Cambridge-1, a supercomputer resembling the rows of white refrigerators you’d see in an appliance warehouse. Using machine learning to build on the capacity of a well-trained expert system, this AI will trawl huge medical databases to identify new insights into the nature of diseases and come up with hopefully breakthrough treatments. One writer on AI suggests that the expert systems known as medical assistants might provide the only real hope for impoverished people in the developing world to access a proper diagnosis, given limited hands-on medical resources.

The other Guardian story was about “AI-DA,” an artificially intelligent robot “artist” of strikingly human appearance, able to hold a much better conversation than SIRI, and responsible for a remarkable series of so-called self-portraits, which have critics buzzing. Indeed, AI-DA has had a first exhibition in London. The pictures are eerie, distinctive, striking, but also deeply unsettling for many. They’re self-portraits by a non-self—and good ones, too.

Lefteri Tsoukalas, in his plenary lecture “Mimetic Theory and AI,” sees AI serving as a force multiplier for social media algorithms that fuel rivalry, boost proxy wars, and give underdogs access to weapons of mass destruction. Yet he also speaks of a “new soteriology” as positive patterns and communal trends are encouraged in society, serving the global commons by providing a new platform for non-violent togetherness.

Fr. Johann Rossouw offered a plenary lecture about “Scapegoating, Mimesis and the Human Future: Thinking with Girard and Stiegler on The Automation of Desire.” He follows that “Heideggerian technophile,” Bernard Stiegler, in regarding AI as a direct extension of earlier technologies since the printing press that enhance the power of human memory, carrying performativity beyond consciousness. But with Girard in mind he laments an “automated herd effect” along with a “total and immediate industrial mediation” that leads to “algorithmic governmentality,” in a world of increasing undifferentiation. All of which contributes to violence.

In a parallel session talk entitled “Mimetic Acceleration and Capitalist Hyperintelligence,” Geoff Shullenberger assesses the seemingly invincible acceleration of capitalism in mimetically similar terms, regarding “techno-capitalism itself as an alien hyperintelligence that has obsolesced individual human agency and thinks without us.”

Fr. Rossouw has less faith than Stiegler in the capacity of an Enlightenment-style education to stop us unquestioningly buying-in to these accelerating trends, turning instead to the liturgical and contemplative habitus of Christianity to provide a counterweight.

Having now set the scene with some thoughts about the issues we face, I now consider the first of two broad areas where attention has focussed during our conference.

Autonomy, Fascination and Revulsion

In Pablo Bandera we have a serious Girardian scholar who also happens to represent an AI insider’s properly withering view of populist misconceptions and hysterics. Still, he inquires after the rise of such disquiet over the last decade. In his plenary lecture, “Intelligent Robots: The Model/Rival of the Unhuman,” Bandera identifies the apparent autonomy of artificially intelligent robots as the cause of rivalrous feelings towards them, based on metaphysical desire for the being of a model.

In particular, he thinks it’s the indifference and impassibility of these machines that gives rise to a sense of scandal, as their desirable autonomy manifests itself by indifference towards us. This is the same pair of reactions that Girard identifies in Dostoyevsky’s underground man, at once fascinated and embittered with the handsome officer who’d carelessly slighted him.

Bandera acknowledges that this threatened exposure of our own ontological lack can come from people as well as machines. And here I’ll take a few steps where Bandera doesn’t tread. I couldn’t help thinking, for instance, of a particular political constituency in America resentful of claims for equality on the part of black and brown people regarding the right to protest and to vote—or, if that sounds partisan, let me balance the score by pointing to an opposing constituency and a widespread resentment towards claims for autonomy and human rights on behalf of the unborn.

Paul Dumouchel advances his important work on AI, robots and mimetic desire with a plenary lecture entitled, “Desiring Machines: Machines That Are Desired and Machines that Desire” (available in the 2021 volume of Contagion). Like Bandera he explores the attractiveness of AI robots, also mentioning Dostoyevsky’s underground man. He discusses what Gunter Anders called “Promethean shame”: a sense of inferiority that humans feel when confronted with their many limitations. And one of these limitations, for Dumouchel, is our mimetic dependency on others. This makes the transhuman and the non-human desirable because they point beyond that mimetic dependency.

Dumouchel mentions a further dimension: a fascination for mechanism, referencing Girard’s account of the scapegoat mechanism as source of sacred transcendence. So, mechanism is perceived as the path to transcend our despised human limitations.

But why the accompanying revulsion? Here Wolfgang Palaver helps us in his plenary lecture, “The Desire to Be Like God: Addressing Temptations Coming Along With AI,” which is helpfully read alongside the chapter on mimesis in his now-standard work René Girard’s Mimetic Theory.

Palaver intriguingly invokes Sartrean bad faith, which we recognise for instance in the inauthenticity of waiters and others who put on superior airs. But we know that they’re not classier than us. In Girardian terms, they betray our metaphysical desire. Likewise, for Palaver, artificially intelligent robots ultimately prove a disappointment. They’re not as human and intelligent as they’re made out to be, and so they offend us as frauds and pretenders—we’re scandalized because their promised ontological sufficiency proves insufficient.

A related point emerged yesterday in Rebecca Gibson’s presentation on her book Desire in the Age of Robots and AI, discussing Blade Runner 2049. In one scene from the movie, Deckerd rejects a flawed copy of his lost love, the android Rachael, insisting that “her eyes were green.” Gibson concludes that “mimetic desire rejects faulty simulacra,” suggestive of Palaver’s insight.

Like Fr. Rossouw in his lecture, Palaver knows we have to resist the mimetic siren song of what he regards as a gnostic religion, which disdains humanity’s defining bodily finitude. So, for instance, Palaver is wary of hyper-disciplined human communities that so appealed to Jeremy Bentham. A parallel session talk by Teresa Pitts makes a valuable contribution in this connection, reflecting on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a cautionary tale about the mimetic disorders of idolatry, isolation, and obsession.

I wasn’t able to obtain an advance copy of the lecture by Sorin Matei, an AI specialist and high-level consultant to government on military matters, though he kindly provided some earlier published work on robotic warfare which, I was assured, would inform his lecture. His point of departure in what I read is a discussion of HAL 9000, the rogue computer in Stanley’s Kubrick’s 1968 science-fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Creepy HAL decides that the best way to help his human crew fulfil their mission to Jupiter is to kill them and carry on without them rather than let them abort the trip. For Matei, this is a sign not so much of evil intent on HAL’s part as of too much individuation. He proposes teaching AIs the Golden Rule and instilling respect by making a group of AIs mutually accountable for decisions—perhaps specifying threshold conditions requiring human intervention—to forestall such individuation.

An alternative solution would be to try and build some mimetic element into AIs as a prophylactic against machine obsessiveness, and more generally because mimesis might well provide the only path to a genuine, humanlike, strong AI. This leads into my next section, to be called…

What’s Missing? What’s Possible?

I begin with Arkady Plotnitsky and his plenary lecture, “The Destinies of Desire and Versions of the Virtual: Structures, Machines, and Desiring Machines.” Plotnitsky is a confessed non-Girardian, preferring the alternative account of desire from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari that isn’t based on lack, and which serves as a productive cultural driver—a mechanism that, incidentally, may have provided the title of our conference, based on Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of “desiring machines.”

For Plotnitsky, high-probability predictions that strong AI is just around the corner are unlikely to be right. Machines capable of reckoning are far from authentic human judgment, and machinic functioning is a long way from human experience. He writes, “It is the problem of explaining our experience—sensorial, bodily, mental, and emotional, including any stream of thoughts, all defined in terms of so-called qualia, qualitative phenomenal properties.” Further, Plotnitsky suggests that judgment and experience were configured through a long and very likely unrepeatable evolutionary process, which would be impossible to catch up let alone improve upon.

I would like to respond to this last point about evolution and unrepeatability before proceeding. Evolution need not be seen as an entirely random walk that would necessarily turn out different results wherever it took place, unlikely to produce anything like us even if replayed under near-identical conditions. There is, however, a strong evidence-based case for convergent evolution that Simon Conway Morris makes against the powerful anti-teleological evolutionary orthodoxy represented by Stephen Jay Gould, to which Plotnitsky seems committed. 

Anyway, Plotnitsky illustrates his case for the uniqueness of human minds with examples of poetic creativity. Curtis Gruenler, in his parallel session talk on “Artificial Intelligence and Literary Intelligence,” takes up this point of literature as part of how we develop a mode of contemplative attention bringing us into right relationship with the world and objects. This includes the clarifying, converting insight that James Alison calls “the intelligence of the victim.” But Gruenler argues that we’re a long way from that. He invokes Charles Sanders Peirce and his breakthrough account of semiotics, which is helping Girardian thinkers like Anthony Bartlett to explore how Girard holds hermeneutics and realism together. Such realism genuinely mediated by signs constitutes the sophisticated epistemological world we inhabit, which for Gruenler is simply not what machines can attain to (at least not in the foreseeable future, following Brian Cantwell Smith).

Eric Gans’ plenary lecture, entitled “Biological, Anthropological, and Algorithmic Mimesis,” makes an important contribution about what’s missing and what’s possible with AI. Gans is what you might call a heterodox Girardian, long championing an alternative account of mimetic theory called generative anthropology. He proposes that primal violence is deferred rather than cathartically discharged at the origin of culture.

Here he argues that what’s missing from AI’s algorithmic simulations is a sense of a scene, of “framing”—of the humanistic, soulful extra beyond what animals achieve. This comes through inhabiting a linguistic community that helps provide what Gans calls an “originary phenomenology.” His practical suggestion is to try programming instincts, to see if mimetic rivalry or sign usage evolves in a group of AIs thus equipped. One could cheekily add that such an experiment, seeking to recreate the originary scene, might settle once and for all whether Gans or Girard is right.

This is an irreducibly social process, however, as Grant Poettker argues in his parallel session talk, “Nature and Artifice: Pressing (the) Disanalogies between Human Action and Robot Activity.” Programming is seen as very different from how mimesis shapes the mind, and it hasn’t provided the essential cognitive element that a victim represents. Indeed, as Dominic Pigneri opines in his parallel session talk, “Girard Does Not Compute: A Girardian Criticism of AI,” AIs do not have a substructure capable of non-rational thought—the sole type of substructure upon which mimetic desire could conceivably be built.

My discussion of what’s missing and what’s possible must include an important parallel session talk from our COV&R President, Martha Reineke—what in the game of cricket we’d call a fine captain’s knock. In her paper “Robot Love:  AI and the Future of Human Intimacy,” Reineke makes a plea for embodiment as the missing link in this discussion, especially the importance of touch in conveying human meaning. Notably, she also mentions the mirror neuron system—nowadays surely indispensable for any Girardian theory of mind.

Reineke discusses “phenomenology of touch.” “Reciprocity in sensation means that touch must be tactful,” she argues. “It is an interplay of double sensation fed through a multisensory system blended seamlessly with culture. Touching and being touched are not a simple firing of neurons or electrical charges.” So, in addition to the famed Turing Test, to see if an AI can pass for a human, Reineke commends a “touch test.”

She analyses the 2015 film Ex Machina, with its strong AI robot called Ava, who builds her humanity mimetically from the corporate shark who created her and by consuming everything on the internet. But Ava also craves fuller embodiment and the entrée that would provide her to the bustling human sociality of a city. I think Reineke sees Ava as having achieved humanity but if so, Ava does so as a murdering psychopath—in my view, thanks to a whole world of rivalry and scandal modelled for her mimetically on the internet.

Reineke is confident that the male titans of AI are unlikely to appreciate her concerns about the necessity of embodiment and touch. She’ll be pleased, then, that a female titan of AI, the English computer science professor Melanie Mitchell, in Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans (London: Pelican, 2019), is tending towards Reineke’s view. And I quote:

A seemingly inescapable conclusion for me is that we may…need embodiment, and that the only way to build computers that can interpret scenes like we do is to allow them to get exposed to all the years of (structured, temporally coherent) experience we have, ability to interact with the world, and some magical active learning/inference architecture that I can barely even imagine when I think backwards about what it should be capable of (pp. 348-349).… [O]nly the right kind of machine—one that is embodied and active in the world—would have human-level intelligence in its reach.… I am finding the embodiment argument increasingly compelling (p. 349).

Let me now offer a little speculation, prompted by Reineke’s insight. In early 1950s England, Alan Turing, a key founder of computer science and AI, was convicted of gross indecency for a then-illegal homosexual act and sentenced to chemical castration, soon thereafter tragically taking his own life. Had Turing lived, the world and not just AI might just have turned out very differently—a scenario explored in Jeanette Winterson’s 2019 novel, Frankissstein. My speculation has to do with the touch test recommended by Reineke. Turing, the thoroughgoing cyberneticist, who was content to work with a disembodied—indeed, subjectless—simulation of mind, was ultimately unable to live in a marred body, deprived of physical desire and of touch.

This mention of Alan Turing, and questions he raises for us about what AI researchers think they’re doing, provides a segue to the important plenary lecture by Jean-Pierre Dupuy, called “The Philosophical Foundations of Mimetic Theory and Cognitive Science (including Artificial Intelligence).” I read this lecture alongside his history of ideas of the AI movement, On the Origins of Cognitive Science: The Mechanization of the Mind. Dupuy brings significant meta-critical insight about what’s missing and what’s possible with AI, and with that an important corrective.

His corrective is that, from Turing’s cybernetic thinking to newer AI vistas involving neural nets and machine learning, we’re dealing with the automation of a simulation of mind and not with actual mind—or, alternatively, with mechanically simulating an existing simulation of what the brain’s like. By extension, we must take into account that what many take AI and related robotics to be doing—making human machines—is not what they’re actually doing.

An important touchstone for Dupuy’s argument is the seventeenth-century Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico and his Scienza Nuova, pioneering our modern sense that constructions of the human mind provide an indispensable access point to objective reality. Specifically, Vico’s idea is that the mind only truly knows what it can make a copy of. And so, science studies mental—often mathematical—models of reality first and foremost, rather than reality direct and unmediated. For Dupuy in his lecture, “It is the copy that science admires and is fascinated with—the copy, that is, its own creation. A model is so much purer, so much more readily mastered than the world of phenomena, that there is a risk that it may become the exclusive object of the scientist’s attention.”

Enter Alan Turing the cyberneticist, who thought that the mind was a machine, a computer. He then set about realizing that simulation with a further simulation—an actual computer. It’s an important point of Dupuy’s that the model, the copy, came first for Turing, which was then further simulated by building actual machines. They were copies of a copy, then, rather than copies of the mind itself.

If I understand Dupuy correctly, he’s saying that Turing was also somewhat influenced by the mathematician Kurt Gödel, whose two incompleteness theorems of 1931 showed that no mathematical representation could be logically complete. Received more widely, this mathematical insight helped to put the kibosh on any prospect of fully representing a complex reality, which I guess strengthened the view that simulations of complex reality are the best we can hope for.

The Turing Test wasn’t about whether an actual mind was present, then, but only a sufficiently convincing simulation of one. Dupuy incisively dismisses the American philosopher John Searle’s thought experiment conceived as a challenge to Turing’s alternative. Searle’s so-called Chinese Room scenario concludes that there’s no actual intelligence at work in his Chinese Room, when blindly passing coded transcriptions of mechanical translations into and out of the room is all that’s happening. Dupuy points out, however, that Turing is actually assuming no more than this, making no claim for any actual intelligence, mind or subject being present. For Turing, there was no ghost in the machine.

Then comes a profound insight from Dupuy, linking Turing’s attitude to wider currents in contemporary thought. Dupuy refers to the subjectless agency associated with structural anthropology, blind economic forces, Marxist philosophy of history, and particularly deconstruction, where all we’re ever dealing with is the multiplication and spillage of signs. Dupuy explores this deconstruction of subjectivity at the intersection of social science and cognitive science in his book, in mental and social mechanisms alike. As Jacques Derrida once insisted, against Searle, the only way to fool a Chinese person that you can speak Chinese is by speaking to them in Chinese—here reducing the mental to an epiphenomenon of the social. Dupuy writes in his aforementioned book that,

In both cases the deconstruction of the subject proceeds from a recognition that a complex network of interactions among simple entities—formal neurons in the individual quasisubject, schematic individuals in the case of the collective subject—is capable of exhibiting remarkable properties. For cognitive scientists who carry on the cybernetic tradition, it is neither more nor less justified to attribute a mental state such as an intention, to a human being than to a group of human beings (p. 160).

Yet in his lecture Dupuy raises doubts, insisting with Vico that realism about the world and our mental constructions of that world cannot be separated. He likens this to the behavior of self-organizing physical systems, where the dynamics of a system converge on a stable state called an attractor, while at the same time the presence of that attractor guides the system dynamics that give rise to it.

Dupuy ends his lecture with two stories, one from holocaust survivor and psychoanalyst Victor Frankl and the other from classical literature. In the first case, a patient baulks at the idea proposed in therapy of an exact copy of his late and much-lamented wife being restored to him, whereupon his great burden of grief begins to lift. In the latter, a wife is dissatisfied when Zeus takes the exact form of her husband for a night of lovemaking. In both cases, the real wife or husband is so woven in with their spouse’s experience and sense of their partner, and I daresay the whole narrative of their life together, that no substitute could be tolerated—there just is something extra that can’t be simulated, that can’t be reduced to a list of characteristics which, when copied, faithfully constitutes the beloved.

As Dupuy concludes, “I greatly fear that the spontaneous ontology of those who wish to be the makers or recreators of the world knows nothing of the beings who inhabit it but lists of characteristics.” Here we see an echo of Wolfgang Palaver’s suggestion, that we’re dissatisfied and even scandalized with humanlike AIs because they prove to be inadequate models of the human. For Dupuy, there’s a surplus of content when we confront the real thing. This is because the cybernetic mindset relies on a primary simulation that’s flawed, let alone attempting further simulation by trying to realize that simulation in a machine.

Conclusion: For Future Research

A few issues for future research have occurred to me in response to the conference material.

One is making sure that we relate to real AI and not the AI of populist misconception. There’s often a disjunct between what practitioners in the field see as the realistic prospects of AI and the fevered speculations of journalists, the imaginative flights of sci-fi writers and filmmakers, and the anxious reactions of those who fear a changing workplace, or a changing world. This disjunction carries over to how different scholarly fields approach the phenomenon of AI.

Curtis Gruenler, in a post on our online social wall, observed from his conversations during the conference that humanities scholars are thinking about the replication of humanness while scientists are thinking about AI’s contribution to relations between humans. Here contributions like those of Pablo Bandera and Jean-Pierre Dupuy are particularly helpful, bringing a meta-critical alertness to our discussions. Future research planning needs to keep this issue in mind.

Having said that, the very fact of all this imaginative projection, anxiety and something like méconnaissance ought to be of interest to mimetic theorists. The worlds of literature and film provide ample material for reflection, as we’ve seen in a number of papers and plenaries. There’s also the recursive nature of science fiction, to which Rebecca Gibson referred in her presentation yesterday: that sci-fi provides models for actual research, and of course vice versa. One AI writer admits that Star Trek and its seemingly all-knowing computer on the bridge of the USS Enterprise—which was able to be accessed and to respond via ordinary speech—provided a model for his generation of AI researchers. So, the obvious fascination with AI and humanlike robots is a popular culture trope that bears further investigation in light of mimetic theory—along with Zombies, and UFOs!

Accordingly, I’d be particularly interested in what mimetic theorists make of the so-called “uncanny valley.” This is a fixed range of human-likeness and can be represented on a graph. It’s introduced for us by Wolfgang Palaver, discussing how encountering an AI can make us uneasy—at least in the identifiable zone of the “uncanny valley.” Is an AI that falls into this range too simple to be genuinely humanlike, like AI-DA? Perhaps it’s not simple enough—simple like the conversationally limited but still much-desired sex-bot, for instance? Or is Jean-Michel Oughourlian right, in The Mimetic Brain (p. 27), that we’re creeped out simply because our mirror neuron system can read humanlike robots only intermittently? I’d certainly like to know.

A concern that’s been brewing for me about the widespread fascination with AI centres on Girard’s insights into ontological sickness—specifically, the pseudo-masochism that drives those in its thrall to abase themselves before a model deemed to possess the fulness of being. This leads us to seek the stone we’re unable to lift, and to mistake walls for doors, as Girard puts it—to seek, and dash ourselves against, the obstacle. There’s a related fascination with the inorganic, the lifeless, and the ugly that Girard discerns here, not least in modern art. I wonder if this mimetic soul sickness toward healthy humanity provides a further dimension of today’s fascination with AI.  

Perhaps the most searching question about AI and mimetic theory that’s arisen during our conference is that of whether AIs and especially in robotic form need to be made mimetic. Though of course, being mimetic entails the risk of violence as an entity learns—as we’ve all had to learn—to negotiate the mimetic minefield. This is, after all, the only known path to maturity and wisdom. The role of the self in a theory of mind arises here. And for Girardians the self is a work in progress, as we attach, detach and reattach to a succession of mimetic models and rivals across a lifetime, ideally becoming generally freer and less mimetically febrile.

The nature of this self, and of the mind that accompanies it, recalls that of the relation between mind and brain, which must now take into account the mirror neuron system discovered in the mid-1990s. Indeed, the idea that our sense of self is integrally, neurologically interwoven with other humans is something that mimetic theory can contribute to thinking about AI. 

Likewise, Jean-Michel Oughourlian proposes that our brains have three registers, the third of which is mimetic and provides a coordinating function. His book The Mimetic Brain, developing his earlier work on virtual selves created by hypnosis, certainly requires further engagement in mimetic theory. And why not consider how this suggestion might apply to the creation of artificial intelligences?

I was not able to engage with important sessions in our conference devoted to racial and indigenous issues, but it does occur to me that strong AIs and androids would likely become ready scapegoats in ways that recall widespread scapegoating of the human other in its many forms. During the Industrial Revolution, Luddites and other machine breakers turned their anger at social and economic displacement onto the machines. One might imagine a lot of human togetherness, even across existing troubled racial divides, being facilitated by the scapegoating of AIs and AI robots. The UK version of the TV series Real Humans offers a fine example of this. Lifelike Synths are being destroyed in the streets by angry mobs, despite their capacity for love and loyalty shown to be capable of overcoming even stubborn resistance—to the point that one of the Synth leaders sacrifices “herself” in a plainly Christlike offering.

Speaking of Christ, you’ll surely excuse a Christian theologian for saying something about God, Christ, and AI before winding up. Anthony Bartlett, in his conference paper “‘Forgiving Victim’ as Artificial Intelligence,” reflects that humanity released from the false sacred and attaining the intelligence of the victim demonstrates its own version of artificial intelligence. Beyond ‘natural’ attitudes that go with inhabiting a culture structured by sacrifice, a disruptive breakthrough beyond such structuring is testified to in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, and seen by Girard as setting many hares running in history. “Christ the singularity” is a theme that I would like to see further explored in Christian theology by its Girardian practitioners.

We’ve also seen issues of ethics, culpability and responsibility arise in our sessions, with a view to ensuring that AIs can productively and safely coexist with humans. Should strong AIs ever become a reality, questions of their ethical status would inevitably arise as an extension of existing human rights considerations. Adam the AI robot was destroyed with impunity in Ian McEwan’s novel Machines Like Us, while Klara the artificial friend, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Klara and the Sun, was afforded moderate consideration by being allowed to “fade out” in a junkyard. Some Girardian speculation might be devoted to these issues.

I guarantee that if humanlike robots with strong AI ever start turning up in Anglican churches, we’ll soon be debating whether they can be baptized, or ordained as priests—though perhaps only as deacons. In case those theological debates ever arise, I’m grateful for all your contributions that have helped me be ready for them.

Book Reviews

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

Ressentiment: Reflections on Mimetic Desire and Society

Andrew Bartlett
Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Surrey, BC, Canada

Stefano Tomelleri, Ressentiment: Reflections on Mimetic Desire and Society
Breakthroughs in Mimetic Theory. Michigan State University Press, 2015.
Pages: 201.

It might seem strange to describe a study of ressentiment as delightful, but the attribution feels appropriate here: the persuasiveness of the quietly insightful argument of Stefano Tomelleri’s volume in the Breakthroughs series is a delight. We may come away oddly convinced that ressentiment is not all that bad—or at least, no worse than we are. The book’s thesis (reduced) is that mimetic theory offers better ways and means to inhabit without disaster the shaky environments of ressentiment than do the attacks on it of Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Scheler. For them, ressentiment is a despicable condition inferior others have; for mimetic theory, ressentiment is an ambivalent condition that all without exception must learn to live with. Mimetic theory can even make our thinking and experience of ressentiment “new,” if we are ready for that (xli; 58-60; 68; 128-30). The rhetorical surface of the book is impeccably well-mannered; Tomelleri’s dexterity permits a description of ressentiment that itself seems only minimally contaminated by it. For example, his rejections of Nietzsche and Scheler include neither huffing and puffing nor swinging of wannabe-knockout punches. They get a lot right, although Rene Girard (in Tomelleri’s view) gets right what they got wrong. 

Perhaps surprisingly, given that ressentiment is nothing if not negative, Tomelleri’s book may be a must-read especially for those Girardians engaged in conversations about “positive” mimesis. Slowly take in, for example, the following sentence that relaxes into advice-giving, but which, late in the book, makes total sense to this reviewer, still awaiting his first jab of a saint-making anti-resentment vaccine: “Living in a new space of critical action in the age of ressentiment means learning to live within one’s limits, with one’s own fragility, and with the insurmountable fact that one is part of interactive relationships, as well as of larger constraining games of mimetic reflection” (129). Out of context, such a sentence might well ring trite. But in the context of Tomelleri’s whole poetic text, the “fragility” and “fact” and insurmountability of the fact prove sharply delineated. He reminds us how difficult it is fully to own our “own fragility” without collapsing into victim-playing. He reminds us how difficult it is to accept “limits” when they include the infuriating fact we cannot control the outcomes even of gestures of self-denial: we must “acknowledge violence as a constantly possible outcome that is intrinsic to human relations” (66) [emphasis added]; “… a loving gesture may not always be taken as such… The other might in fact interpret our renouncement of rivalry as a ruse” (81; see also 68-69; 74-75; 144-145). And our containment by “larger constraining games of mimetic reflection” (129) rules out easy political solutions. The only cure for resentment is recognizing it has no cure; we might as well hope for a world without sin as strive for one without resentment. Tomelleri’s account is faithful to the harsh demands mimetic theory makes on us as thinking, feeling creatures. It is no surprise that two forewords, one by Girard (vii-xiv) and the other by Paul Dumouchel, offer endorsements (xv-xxvi). 

The first part of the book, in three chapters, studies Nietzsche’s account of ressentiment in The Genealogy of Morals (chapter 1, “The Revolt of the Slaves at the Master’s Banquet”); Scheler’s Ressentiment (chapter 2, “Bourgeois Philanthropy”), then Nietzsche and Scheler together (chapter 3, “The Surprise Box of Ressentiment”). Tomelleri finds that Nietzsche comes to “extreme conclusions” (xxxv) and begs to differ from “the judgment that secularization, with all the principles and rights that have led to modernity, is to be condemned morally because it justifies our resentment” (xxxv). Nietzsche condemns ressentiment “because it is closely connected to a certain prototype of mediocre individuals that the figure of Christ has ennobled by giving them the same dignity as other humans” (12-13). Following Gilles Deleuze, Tomelleri’s analysis scrutinizes “the distinction between ‘active forces’ and ‘reactive forces’ that Heidegger had already emphasized” (14), also operative in The Genealogy of Morals. Guiding us to notice a doubleness in the notion of “force,” Tomelleri finds in Nietzsche a “vicious circle… a double knot between being full of ressentiment and the will to power: full of ressentiment because one is not capable of affirming oneself, yet incapable of affirming oneself because one is full of ressentiment” (18; cf. the “bitter tautology,” 48). Nietzsche essentializes ressentiment by ascribing it to a pre-set category of mediocre individuals, rather than recognizing in it the results of interactive dynamics to which all humans succumb. Scheler makes a similar error: “the error that ressentiment involves only a particular category of people: bourgeois philanthropists” (xxxvii). For Scheler, the origin of ressentiment lies not in a supposedly despicable Christianity but in “the way of Comparing oneself and others” (25); it is “an emotional state that is typical of the average bourgeois who cannot help comparing himself with others in a continuous ‘competitive frenzy’ and is also doomed to come off worse in this comparison” (25). Despite these differences, Nietzsche and Scheler see things similarly: once pervasive and dominant, ressentiment changes the entire social order for the worse (36; 48); it drains the vitality from people (45). However, for Tomelleri, both Nietzsche and Scheler go wrong by making the “theoretical assumption…there is a coincidence between weak individuals and individuals full of ressentiment, as if weakness were an essential quality of a certain type of individuals and emotions” (39; see also 41, 46-48). The notion of “noble human beings who…experience the value of their own person prior to any comparison with the other” (26) is, from a mimetic perspective, dangerously misleading. We may likewise suspect the sociobiological mystifications that come from defining ressentiment as “a ‘force’ that is similar to an instinct or energetic drives toward historical and social change” (38).

In the second part, Tomelleri presents “an attempt to create guidelines for a relational and social model of ressentiment” (xxxvii). The guidelines appear in his selective summary of mimetic theory given in chapter 4, “The Last of the Scapegoats,” and chapter 5, “The Mimetic Nature of Our Ressentiment.” He insists on the irreducibly relational: “The main focus of a relational theory of ressentiment is to stress the intimately social and public warp and weft of our emotions and how closely they are tied up with the institutional order” (153). The book consistently invests in mimetic theory’s contention that Christian revelation has had a gigantic impact: “The end of the pagan sacred gradually leads to the erosion of the social order, abandoning men to the disturbing awareness of being solely responsible for their social action” (60). The decline of the violent sacred frees us; but being freed into responsibility for our violence is to be released into a realm rife with the temptations of ressentiment, of blaming other everyday ordinary humans (rather than the deified creations of violent unanimity) for our pains, failures, frustrations, miseries and bouts of madness.

How then should we define ressentiment? It is not an essence, but rather “a shifting position that anyone can occupy” (128). Tomelleri often points to the “ambivalence” of the passion, indicating his reliance on Paul Dumouchel’s analysis of modernity and theory of the emotions. Tomelleri rejects the hubris of modernity: he positions individualism, worship of competition, and faith in social engineering as idols of yesteryear we should abandon: “principles conceived in another time, within an ideology of progress whose Promethean promises of control of nature and of time have long concealed the daily truth of reciprocal interdependence” (140). We start to feel the edge of his reflections when we grasp that his references to “reciprocal interdependence,” mutual dependency, and the like have nothing to do with commands to behold in sentimental awe our ecological connectedness, commands repeated by the prophets of secular utopianism. Rather, by relentlessly emphasizing mimetic dependency, Tomelleri is rooting all his reflections in the principle Jean-Pierre Dupuy has claimed is more fundamental to mimetic theory than the triangularity of desire: he is invoking the tangled hierarchies and generative paradoxes of double mediation. Ressentiment takes off under double mediation: when you resent the other who appears to resent you, thereby making the appearance become reality (the one resented resents in return), the situation, as we say, escalates. Ressentiment is unavoidable, but we should stop chasing the delusion that we might discover the one big cause of it: “Rising to Girard’s epistemological challenge means giving up searching for the origins of violence in a single cause separated from human interactions” (65). We will never find the blameworthy beginning and bash its head in. It will never be the case that we might, for example, globally contract to pursue external mediation alone and after some decades wipe away all social misery. 

The third and final part of the book—the chapters “Toward a Sociology of Ressentiment” and “From Victim-Playing to the Ethics of Ressentiment” (125-48)—are the freshest, with the most surprises. Here, Tomelleri pursues “the hypothesis that the current feeling of endemic crisis is due to the ineffectiveness of modern instruments of self-regulation of ressentiment” (xliii). If we wish to make early diagnoses of ressentiment and seek new ways of experiencing and conversing about it, it is mimetic theory that offers the best “instruments of self-regulation”—better than those of Nietzsche, Scheler, individualist psychology, or brain biology holding hands with evolutionary psychology. Tomelleri’s analysis of what he calls victim-playing is masterful. He endorses the discourse of human rights and democracy and celebrates its commitment to “emancipation of victims from inequality, exclusion and persecution” (99; see also xlii, 43, 88). However, as a “strategy” of “exploiting the position of the victim to gain social advantages” (99), the ressentiment of victim-playing harms more than it helps. Again here, no one formula can save us from our perplexities and the risk of failure: “The problem created by victim-playing is that of knowing how to distinguish, on a case-to-case basis, victim-playing from real victims” (99) [emphasis added]. Tomelleri rehabilitates human fragility without coddling or sentimentalizing (44, 84). Even when we try our hardest not to do the resentful thing, to transcend it, we remain vulnerable to the interdependent violence it allows. The facts are hard to take. For example, some readers may find too radical his suggestion that we must accept being deprived of the protection of our good intentions: “It is necessary to ‘mean well,’ but it is not sufficient. We must also accept that actions will be measured by the other on the basis of their effects, not only on the basis of their intentions” (144-45). Tomelleri converses with Jean Amery’s work in At the Mind’s Limit: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities, in fascinating reflections on forgiveness (133-38). A too-easy will to forgive might violate “the duty not to forget the harm that people can do to one another” (133). He takes up the way Amery gives a positive value to the much-despised passion: “Amery raises the notion of ressentiment to the level of a moral instance that is necessary in order not to forget the crime committed: feeling ressentiment takes the form of a painful moral awareness of the impossibility of canceling the evil that has been done” (133-34). 

By now you know that I recommend strongly this delightfully kind, wise, searching book.  It ends with a penetrating interpretation of the story of Jonah. I will let Tomelleri and his theoretical guide (ventriloquized) have almost the last word: “if this dependence on others is denied, it can be transformed into ressentiment. Denying the reality of mimetism, Girard would say, is one of the main causes of ressentiment. The story of Jonah suggests that one way of overcoming our ressentiment is to admit all this” (161-62). To learn what it would mean to admit all this – to let the demons in (admit one: ressentiment), and to let the demons go (“I admit my ressentiment!”) – Stefano Tomelleri’s book is the best place to begin.

Jesus and Myth: The Gospel Account’s Two Patterns

Ann W. Astell
University of Notre Dame

Peter John Barber. Jesus and Myth: The Gospel Account’s Two Patterns/i>. Pickwick Publications, 2021. Pages 342.

Peter Barber’s new book, a revision of his doctoral dissertation, provides a welcome demonstration of the importance of René Girard’s mimetic theory for biblical study. Barber takes up anew the question that Girard, in a famous 1996 essay, posed to himself: “Are the Gospels Mythical?” Girard focuses in that First Things essay on the accounts of the Passion of Christ, which (he argues) both reveal and subvert the scapegoat mechanism at the base of mythic narratives. Barber extends and complicates Girard’s argument by offering a systematic study of mythic and anti-mythic motifs in the sequential episodes of the entire Gospel According to Mark, interpreted verse by verse.

Setting aside for theological reasons the miracle stories “demythologized” by Rudolf Bultmann, Barber concerns himself instead with “the similarity of the Gospels to myth, in the sense of the combat myth (hero pattern), found globally in many versions and variants from most ancient times” (4). For his analysis of the episodes of the combat myth, classically epitomized in the combats between Marduk and Tiamat and of Zeus against Typhon, Barber draws inspiration from the structuralist / archetypal narratologies of Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism (1957) and Neil Forsyth (The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth, 1989).

Barber sets Frye’s six “phases or episodes” (14) of the myth in conversation with Forsyth’s twelve combat-myth motifs and maps them against the six principal social “models” (that is, features) of first-century Mediterranean myth-culture identified by Bruce J. Malina in his influential New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (3rd ed., 2001). Barber sets Malina, in turn, in useful conversation with Girard. As Barber demonstrates, Girard and Malina share many insights. Whereas Girard sees the Gospels as anti-mythic, however, Malina sees them purely as “cultural stories,” products of “myth-culture,” and therefore “fitting within the category of myth” (13). 

Barber’s originality in combining these various theoretical materials entails obvious methodological challenges. Since Frye, Forsyth, Malina, and Girard use different theoretical terms and divisions, Barber must translate their nomenclatures to some extent into his own. For ease of recall, Barber uses an alliterative list to designate six mythic episodes: sameness (corresponding to Girard’s desirous doubles and Malina’s “dyadism”), scandal (a.k.a. Girard’s “model-obstacle”; Malina’s “envy”), snare of striving (Girard’s mimetic “snowballing”; Malina’s “agonism”), scapegoat (Girard’s “all against one”; Malina’s “an other’s expense”), satiation (Girard’s “collective devouring”; Malina’s “sharing of limited goods”), and segregation (Girard’s “artificial hierarchy”; Malina’s “social classification”). These mythic episodes are countered one by one, in Barber’s analysis, by the six anti-mythic episodes of the Gospel, named alliteratively again by Barber: distinction, diffusion, deference, deliverance, dispersion, and deification. To assist the reader in following this complicated schematization, Barber provides numerous tables and diagrams.

For the purposes of comparison and contrast, Barber must also divide the Gospel According to Mark into twelve units roughly corresponding to Forsyth’s twelve combat-myth motifs (two for each of the six narrative episodes). Barber justifies this pattern of division on textual elements that encapsulate each narrative unit. He emphasizes that Fathers of the Church—among them, Justin Martyr—admitted a superficial resemblance between the Gospels and mythological literature, and he cites the Bible’s own emphatic disavowal of that perceived resemblance: “We did not follow cleverly devised myths” (2 Peter 1:16).  Like Girard, Barber sees a divine purpose in Scripture’s inversion and subversion of myth, even though there is (as Barber admits) no evidence that the evangelists consciously set out to subvert any particular myth, in whole or part.

Adapting Girard’s notion of a double logic—Heraclitean and Johannine—at work in the world, Barber looks for and discovers a “chiastic bi-pattern” (45) in the Gospel’s narrative, which regularly references the mythic cultural structures at play in Jesus’s opponents by Jesus’s own inversion and subversion of them. In discussing the fifth episode of Mark’s Gospel (Mk 14:53–15:41), for example, Barber explains that the passage reflects “the myth-culture’s sating of itself on the body and blood of its victim(s),” but also Christ’s “dispersing and displaying” of his “glorious gift of deliverance ‘for many’” (229).   

Moved by the force of his own argument, Barber reaches the conclusion that “the Gospels are not mythological, and . . .  Jesus Himself is not mythological” (264). But Barber goes on to claim that, apart from Jesus, “everyone else . . . is mythological in the account” (265), because blinded by sin and bound by a sacrificial, rivalrous culture to various forms of idolatry.

While this conclusion is rhetorically powerful, it fails to do justice (as Barber himself hesitantly admits) to the revelation given to the people of Israel through the Law and the prophets—a revelation setting their Scriptures apart from “pagan myths” (265). It fails to acknowledge those like John the Baptist who recognize Christ in faith, whether immediately or belatedly, brightly or dimly. It ignores those who petition Christ in faith for miracles for the outcasts, the lepers, and the blind. Are such persons “mythological”?

Would it not be more accurate—and more in keeping with Barber’s own, deeper idea of the chiastic—to attribute to fickle, fallen humanity, because created “in the image, according to the likeness” of God (Genesis 1:26), a consciousness in which the mythic understanding of things, however dominant, remains graciously crossed at some level and disturbed by an anti-mythic remembrance? A consciousness capable of a sudden, anti-mythic illumination, like that given to Saul on the road to Damascus? The father, petitioning for a miracle for his son, cries out, “‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” (Mark 9:24). Girard’s understanding of méconnaissance implies such a dynamic interaction of belief with unbelief, and vice versa, of unbelief with belief, of myth with anti-myth, of anti-myth with myth.

Peter Barber is a man of faith. His book is an ambitious, impressive effort to show the limitations of Malina’s cultural criticism of the Bible—limitations that a Girardian approach (advocated by Barber) clearly avoids. Barber’s book raises, however, a number of theological questions that its methodology—narratological and social-scientific—cannot adequately answer. What does it mean to say, for example, that “the Gospels are not mythological,” but that, apart from Jesus, they are populated with (and written by?) “mythological” persons? What does it mean to be “apart” from Jesus? How do these narratological observations relate to questions of biblical authorship, divine revelation, and the inspired nature of the Scriptures? Among the book’s many accomplishments is the raising afresh of such questions.

In our introduction to Sacrifice, Scripture, and Substitution, Sandor Goodhart and I call biblical scholars to give better heed to Girard’s mimetic theory and scriptural exegesis. Barber’s book not only answers to that call; it also issues an eloquent call of its own.  

Bulletin 69 – August 2021