Musings from the Executive Secretary

Inclusive but Not Diverse Enough

Nikolaus Wandinger
University of Innsbruck

The heading could be a one-phrase summary of the online discussion on inclusion and diversity of COV&R that took place on Nov. 9. But let me give you a more elaborate summary for which I rely—besides my memory—on the exact notes that Erik Buys took at the meeting. Many thinks to him for that!

First there was a surprise: The online meeting was timed to European conveniences but among the 12 participants were one from the U.S. and one from Australia. We were all white people, and we were five women and seven men. The facilitators, Petra Steinmair-Pösel, and myself, had prepared the meeting by choosing some from the questions that were given us as possible questions for the discussion, so as to focus the meeting. Two questions concentrated on the current situation: 

1) Given our varied understandings, is COV&R diverse and inclusive? What feelings come up as you think about your response? and 

2) How can our shared knowledge of mimetic theory be a resource in our effort to make COV&R more diverse and inclusive? 

Two aimed at the future: 

3) What would you like COV&R to look like on your understanding of diversity and inclusion in 5-10 years? What feelings come up as you think about your response? 

4) What strategies and commitments could help COV&R become more diverse and inclusive?

In between questions 2) and 3) we discussed the amendment to the by-laws that Grant Kaplan had proposed at last year’s meeting, and a preamble to it, which Petra and I had suggested.

I don’t think it would make sense to report here in detail on what was said to each question. Erik’s notes have gone to COV&R president Martha Reineke and will be considered in January’s online board meeting. But I want to select some experiences from that meeting, which of, course, is then a subjective selection.

One experience was that some have actually explained that they felt welcome and felt that they were well included in COV&R despite not being what the majority in COV&R is. So, there was something positive. Many felt that COV&R in fact was open and welcoming; and yet, despite that, it is not as diverse as it could be. However, here too, some diversity was given, especially the diversity in the academic fields that COV&R represents and also diversity between academia and non-academia, although the latter was a much smaller group than the former. The same applies to Catholics and Protestants, and we realized the almost complete absence of other religions, with very few, however, notable exceptions. The ratio of men and women is also quite uneven. In all these cases, however, we thought, the challenge is not to reduce the majority group but to try to enlarge the minority group. Attention was also drawn to the fact that the location of conferences and the availability of online events has consequences for possible diversity; the choice of main speakers should be more sensitive to issues of inclusion and diversity. 

Several speakers also voiced a certain unease about installing strict policy-measures for inclusion and diversity, as these might themselves reflect momentary biases. Instead, focusing on openness, rather than on diversity and inclusion, and aiming at a diversity of themes by which to show how attractive mimetic theory and COV&R are for different people, seemed a better way. In all attempts to make us more open we should not overstretch what we can accomplish. For example, placing too many burdens on future conference organizers might make it hard to find someone willing to organize. But expecting them to be sensitive and open to a diversity of speakers is certainly needed.

COV&R operates in a certain social environment, which is partly academic, partly in peace work, pastoral work, or educational work. In a way, it is to be expected that we are about as inclusive and diverse (or not) as these social groups are. The question is, can we be somewhat more diverse without falling into some ideological trap. Mimetic theory speaks of the intelligence of the victim, so one might be tempted to think that COV&R, as the colloquium of people working with that theory, should be able to take that view. However, the ways of exclusion are subtle and thinking that one is immune to them, certainly is a fallacy. In a time in which the status of victimhood has become a coveted commodity itself, it is even more difficult to distinguish real exclusion from purported exclusion. 

For me, there is no easy result or our discussion, only so much: we should be more sensitive to matters of subtle exclusion and be more open; but we also should be careful to not just ride a tide that is quite woke right now. 

Editor’s Column


Curtis Gruenler
Hope College

Our season of reflection on the make-up of COV&R, as discussed above by our executive secretary, has reinforced in my mind the need to find new, low-cost ways for people to participate. COV&R is no one’s primary professional organization, even if it may be the favorite one for most of us. Academics must still participate in the guilds that are central to our disciplines, as must clergy and practitioners in other fields. And active participation in our different fields is crucial to the mission we share of advancing work on mimetic theory. But this means that participation in COV&R must happen on top of other professional organizations. This has always limited involvement in COV&R, and perhaps does so even more in a time when resources of time and money are stretched ever thinner. Those with surplus resources, and more freedom to make their own professional choices, will inevitably be those who have benefited from accumulations of various kinds of privilege.

The costliest thing most of us do in order to participate in professional organizations is travel to meetings. Of course, as COV&R members have discussed, meeting in person also does the most to build the kind of relationship that our shared work depends on, for reasons that mimetic theory helps us understand. We’re not ready to stop doing it. But it seems to me that participation in COV&R is most likely to grow if there are new ways to interact with each other that are less costly, in addition to international and even regional meetings. At the listening sessions I attended, I heard interest in online conference attendance and other ideas for remote interaction. The COV&R board will take up such issues as it expands its own interaction by holding an online meeting this January, in between its usual meetings at summer conferences. I want to invite members to contribute ideas for new forms of participation. In particular, if you have ideas for which the Bulletin or website could be a launching point, please email me.

For my friend and pastor Gordon Wiersma, the work of René Girard and James Alison has been the gateway to developing resources that make Christian liturgy more inclusive. On his new website, he makes available a full set of prayers for the 3-year cycle of Bible readings used by many mainline Protestant churches as well as a video demonstration of telling the Christian story to young children using simple props. This project, which he had been developing while leading worship over the past several years, took on new urgency with the demonstrations after the death of George Floyd in 2021. As Gordon puts it, “Girardian theology has everything to do with responding to concerns for racial and social justice, but it needs to be fleshed out.” 

As usual, here are some less interactive ways to connect.

Violence, the Sacred, and Things Hidden: A Discussion with René Girard at Esprit (1973), translated by Andrew J. McKenna, with a foreword by Andrea Wilmes, the new volume in the series Breakthroughs in Mimetic Theory from Michigan State University Press, is now available. COV&R members should receive copies soon. Also in the same series, The Time Has Grown Short: René Girard, or the Last Law by Benoît Chantre, translated by Trevor Cribben Merrill, has been announced for May, 2022. Due out later next year in MSUP’s series Studies in Violence, Mimesis & Culture are Toward an Islamic Theology of Nonviolence: In Dialogue with René Girard by Adnane Mokrani and How to Think about Catastrophe by Jean-Pierre Dupuy.

Wolfgang Palaver’s article, “Gandhi’s Militant Nonviolence in the Light of Girard’s Mimetic Anthropology,” has been published in Religions 12, no. 11 (2021): 988.

COV&R members who are familiar with mimetic theory’s connections to Dramatic Theology are encouraged to take a look at the call for papers for a special issue of Religions on Dramatic Theology. Contributions are welcome. The deadline for submissions is 5 September 2022.

“The Ugly Truth behind Scapegoating,” a new video collaboration between Luke Burgis and Big Think, introduces the basic concepts of mimetic theory. Two others apply mimetic theory to social media addiction and how to know what you really want.

Revista Interdisciplinar De Teoría Mimética: Xiphias Gladius has published its theme issue on Positive Mimesis: Education and Mimetic Theory. The journal has also extended until February 28, 2022, the deadline to submit original article for its next issue on Mimesis, Contagion, and Violence in Digital Social Networks and Education.

Finally, with the new movie based on Nella Larsen’s novel Passing on Netflix receiving some acclaim, Martha Reineke reminds us of her article about the novel from the 1998 volume of Contagion, Mimetic Violence and Nella Larsen’s Passing: Toward a Critical Consciousness of Racism.”

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

Forthcoming Events

COV&R Annual Meeting

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

Emerging Crisis:
New Humanities and the Mimetic Theory


Call for papers 

The Critical Thinking and Subjectivity Research Group of the Philosophy School of the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana invites proposals until March 26, 2022. The approximate length of papers to be delivered will be 9000 words (approx. 30 min.). Proposals should include contact information, a title and a 300-word abstract. All submissions should include a statement at the end of the proposal listing technology needs. Proposals must be submitted in English.

Proposals should be emailed to the organizers.

Possible fields for paper proposals: 

We have focused our call for papers on the CRISIS. The crisis refers, on the one hand, to the new social movements, and to the excessive response of the public forces across almost all the planet. On the other hand, the pandemic caused by Covid-19, with an enormous death toll and serious economic effects, exposes the unjust distribution of wealth and opportunities in the world.

But new perspectives in the humanities have emerged in a context where the academy is under pressure to prioritize knowledge of the future and entrepreneurship, against the knowledge of the past and of what is not useful. This is an old crisis. But the situation of the last 50 years has produced movements in the humanities that only emerge in conflict against another form of the same humanities, fragmenting knowledge into rival ways of approaching the academic enterprise.

Our focus is on mimetic theory, its discussions in the different perspectives with which it is approached and what is assumed in the face of the different problems that are worked on. All papers that want to show their developments of and new discussions on mimetic theory are welcome.

In addition, working from mimetic theory and in dialogue with the new humanities, we would like to invite your proposals on:

  • Ways to understand the new social movements
  • Experiences of social mobilization that can be reflected from mimetic theory
  • Alternatives to reduce the violence of state security forces
  • Approaches to understand the crisis caused by the covid-19 pandemic at local, national, regional and global levels
  • Responses to the effects that the pandemic has produced accompanied by the reflection unleashed by mimetic theory
  • Regional perspectives to approach mimetic theory, such as readings from the Global South, the heritage and developments of liberation philosophy and theology, and everything derived from the decolonial turn that affects issues related to ethnicity, power, gender, knowledge, and pedagogies

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


The organizing committee also welcomes proposal for practitioner-focused, interactive workshops that relate to the work of Girard or the conference theme. Such sessions could take different forms (e.g., workshop-style, forum, discussion group, panel) and may cover areas of interest for a significant group. Please provide a description and rationale for an inter-active workshop on a particular topic to be facilitated for approximately 45 or 90 minutes by appropriately qualified persons. Working groups can be proposed in Spanish.

For more information about the conference, see the conference website.

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.

The Mimetic Turn:
Final International Conference on Homo Mimeticus

KU Leuven, Belgium
April 20-22, 2022

The ERC-funded project Homo Mimeticus: Theory and Criticism (HOM) hosted by the Institute of Philosophy and the Faculty of Arts at KU Leuven, Belgium, is pleased to announce its final international conference on April 20-22, 2022 (online; in-person option to be determined). Furthering a re-turn of attention to mimesis HOM has been promoting over the past 5 years, this transdisciplinary conference is titled, The Mimetic Turn. Its general goal is to continue mapping the protean manifestations of mimesis (imitation, but also identification, contagion, performativity, simulation, mirror neurons, et al.) from a Janus-faced perspective that looks back to this concept’s genealogy to better look ahead to the challenges of the present and future. HOM’s overarching hypothesis is that from the linguistic turn to the ethical turn, the affective turn to the new materialist turn, the neuro turn to the posthuman turn to the environmental turn, there is a growing re-turn of attention to the ancient yet always new realization that humans are an all-too-mimetic species—or homo mimeticus.

Keynote speakers will include Rosi Braidotti, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, and Vittorio Gallese.

We invite papers that explore the protean manifestations of homo mimeticus from perspectives as diverse as continental philosophy, literary theory, critical theory, feminism and LGBTQ studies, critical race theory, performance studies, film and media studies, political theory, animal studies, environmental studies, experimental aesthetics, among other areas of inquiry at the crossroads between mimetic theory and interdisciplinary humanities.

Areas of investigation include but are not limited to:

  • Genealogies of mimetic precursors (Plato to Aristotle, Montaigne to Nietzsche, Girard to Lacoue-Labarthe, Irigaray to Bhabha…)
  • Mimesis and subject formation (imitation, identification, emulation, performativity…)
  • The psychic life of mimesis (phantom egos, the mimetic unconscious, making madness…)
  • Life imitating Art more than art imitating life in the 21 C.
  • Mimetic “others” (mimetic racism and sexism, LGBTQ studies, decoloniality…)
  • The pathologies of mimesis (hypnosis, somnambulism, mass behavior, online vitriol…)
  • The patho-logies of mimesis (mimetic pathos, mimesis as pharmakon, pharmakos…)
  • The affects of mimesis (sympathy, empathy, contagion, panic, sharing…)
  • Beyond realism: from modernism to science-fiction (doubles, cyborgs, avatars…)
  • The mimetic brain (mirror neurons, brain plasticity, embodied simulation…)
  • Film as (hyper)mimetic medium (hypnosis, identification, experimental aesthetics…)
  • Hypermimesis in new media (social media, going viral, selfies, conspiracy theories…)
  • Beyond human mimesis (vibrant matter, planetary processes, entangled mimesis…)
  • Aesthetics and the mimetic senses (embodied simulation, synesthesia, mirror neurons…)
  • Viral mimetic patho(-)logies (viral/affective contagion, violence/care, mass/pluralism…)

Please submit a 250-words abstract and a short bio by January 15, 2022. Should you have any questions contact Nidesh Lawtoo.

Due to the uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic we opted for online format (physical presence option to be determined).

For more information about the HOM Project and the concepts internal to the mimetic turn (e.g., mimetic pathos, hypermimesis, mimetic patho(-)logies, et al.), visit the website.

Conference Reports

Reflections on the 2021 Conference
and the Future of COV&R from
the Point of View of Loving Mimesis

Rebecca Adams, Felicity McCallum,
Julia Robinson Moore, and Vern Neufeld Redekop

Editor’s note: The previous Bulletin featured Scott Cowdell’s reflection on the plenary sessions from our July annual meeting that dealt with the conference theme, “Robots, Mimesis, and Violence in the Age of AI.” This article builds on the plenary panel presented by its authors about their work as “A Research Group on Loving Mimesis.” As you will see, it also addresses the topics that have been the focus of COV&R’s listening sessions this fall, as discussed elsewhere in this issue. The Bulletin would like to invite responses for possible publication next year. The deadline for the next issue is Feb. 1. Also, note that recordings of this session and all the sessions from the annual meeting, both plenary and concurrent, are available on the Socio platform, which carried the meeting, to those who registered for it until next July. After that time, COV&R will be able to make these recordings available on its own channel.

Greetings on behalf of the Loving Mimesis Generative Dialogue Group (LMGDG), which presented a four-part panel at the 2021 Online Conference. As those who attended know, our new working group consists of Felicity McCallum, an Australian Indigenous woman who is a doctoral student of theology at Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia; Julia Robinson Moore, an African-American Associate Professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Vern Neufeld Redekop, Emeritus Professor of Conflict Studies at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada; and Rebecca Adams, an Independent Scholar in English and Theology in Central Pennsylvania, who brings a feminist/womanist sensibility.* We meet monthly on Zoom (despite our different time zones) and have developed a strong sense of community and interpersonal trust as well as an intellectual camaraderie. We tend to develop our thought—and have even written this article—collaboratively, in a process that Felicity refers to as “yarning,” an Indigenous word for a leisurely process of weaving together ideas with no agenda, with each contributor being equally valued. Our remarks here will touch on some of our panel themes at the conference and give a window into how some of our recent conversations have implications for the work and identity of COV&R. 

In the LMGDG our shared commitment is first to engaging mimetic theory from the point of view of marginalized and/or historically persecuted peoples, naming what Rebecca calls “mimetic colonization” and its effects using mimetic theory as a powerful tool to analyze and describe the experiences of groups of people who have experienced colonization, violence, and scapegoating; and secondly, to using the resources of mimetic theory to practically develop and actively promote a positive worldview built upon the reality of “loving” or “creative” mimesis, a Girardian concept developed by Rebecca Adams in 1995 at the annual COV&R meeting and then published in more detail in “Loving Mimesis and Girard’s ‘Scapegoat of the Text’: A Creative Reassessment of Mimetic Desire” (in Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking, ed. Willard M. Swartley, 2000, 277-307). This concept enables mimetic theory to be used as a source for racial healing by offering a blueprint for constructive mimesis.

In our conversations and our scholarly work, we commit to using mimetic theory not just to understand, but also actually to help those who have experienced colonization, violence, and scapegoating. Violence is not about abstractions; it happens to real people. For instance, Felicity used her panel discussion at the 2021 Conference to talk about the urgent problems of domestic violence against women and incarceration facing Indigenous populations in Australia. She said in one of our later conversations about her dissertation: “I could not do this work [I do] without Girard’s analysis [of scapegoating]. I was raised in a community of people where my ancestors were buried in sand up to their necks and kicked in the head until they died.” If her words make us feel sick, they should. Sometimes Felicity says she feels overwhelmed with emotion at the circumstances she works with and talks about with regard to Indigenous people; they are so desperate and so immediate. We might therefore ask how we could be more supportive to COV&R members who actually come from marginalized communities. Julia also points out that for many people, racism is a lived experience (and not merely a theoretical one)—illustrated in her recent article in Contagion (vol. 28, 2021) about how black people, especially black men, were scapegoated in the southern United States through the horrors of lynching.  Mimetic theory has provided an invaluable resource for her examination of racist dynamics and racist violence not only in the past, but also in her current vocation as a teaching elder and ordained minister in the Presbyterian church (PCUSA).  

As both Julia and Felicity affirm, René Girard’s analysis of violence is certainly a powerful tool for disenfranchised people of any type. But we all agree in the LMGDG that for mimetic theory to grow into its full potential, we must move beyond the temptation to simply come up with more examples of scapegoating and then analyze that scapegoating. For mimetic theory to really speak to healing those who have been scapegoated, we must also affirm the reality, even the primacy, of a constructive, positive alternative to violence, something which Rebecca’s theoretical work on “Loving Mimesis” develops. We can use all the existing resources and potentials within mimetic theory to better articulate and promote the nuts and bolts of constructive alternatives, something Vern has been doing for many years now in the field of Conflict Studies. Besides providing a detailed mimetic model describing the dynamics of violent and loving mimesis in From Violence to Blessing, Vern’s Girardian work suggests and models some possible ways for understanding the way forward, particularly in his recent groundbreaking books edited with Tom Ryba with chapters by well-known Girardian scholars: Rene Girard and Creative Mimesis and René Girard and Creative Reconciliation (2014), both of which were based on the 2006 COV&R conference. Rebecca notes that, as Girard so well articulates, violence is indeed a powerful reality and driver of history, but so are love and creativity. In fact, Girard stresses (consistent with the tradition of Catholic theology) that evil is always derivative of the good and is built on a vast illusion. We would do well to be mindful of this when studying and developing mimetic theory, which tends to stress the negative type of mimetic desire that can lead to mimetic violent rivalries and scapegoating. Yet, as Girard asserts, not all mimetic desire leads to scapegoating—it is also “the desire for God” and the opening out to the other. 

In fact Girard’s repeated statement that “mimetic desire is inherently good”** is a game-changer for understanding the implications of his theory as a whole, challenging us to think through these profound words not as an afterthought but as a central idea of Girard’s theory. Rebecca’s work has been based on unpacking these implications, and the LMGDG always grounds discussions of colonization, violence, and scapegoating in the hopeful reality of creative or loving mimesis. As Felicity said in one of our recent Zoom dialogue conversations, the temptation to “apocalyptic defeatism doesn’t help real victims. They would not have survived their centuries of persecution, enslavement, and sometimes death if they didn’t have a connection to a worldview of hope and love.” And Rebecca pointed out in this same conversation that for all his reputation as a theorist of violence, Girard really does have the potential seeds of a theory of positive, creative, or loving imitation that can be developed further by others as a basis of hope and societal change. 

Those involved in mimetic theory also need to do more sustained reflection on and critique of Girard’s thoughts about what has been called the “victimology” of our times. The possibility of scapegoating exists, of course, even in the process of identification of oppression and defense of genuine victims, yet the paradox of what Girard calls “the revelation of the victim” is that we cannot stop doing either of these things. So we must be discerning. (Although we cannot address these issues thoroughly here, an entire conference could be devoted to discussion of Girard’s chapter “On the Modern Concern for Victims” in I See Satan Falling Like Lightning and its real-world implications, something that would be very timely.) Yes, there may be mimetic competition among groups for who is the greatest victim. Although Girard has a point with this, targets of injustice, oppression or scapegoating still need and deserve help, and those who have experienced violence should speak up in their own defense and be heard.

It seems likely that Girard himself would support both of these suggestions. In fact, Julia recounts in her Contagion article how excited Girard was when she spoke to him in 2008 at the Riverside COV&R conference about wanting to apply mimetic theory to racial issues. He gave full approval and said he had always hoped this would be done. At the same time, he wrote about how victim awareness can get caught up in competitive mimesis among victim candidates, which can lead to what has sometimes been named “call out culture” in which there are competitions for who is most justified to “call out” others. (Of course, mimetic cancelling behaviors and fundamentalistic thinking are phenomena we find on both the right and the left.) In setting forth his critique he could have offered robust acknowledgement of the social ills to which women’s and civil rights movements attest (and to which many have given their lives to challenge) and offered a criticism of shortcomings/risks he sees in them. These are the kinds of questions and issues we need seriously to raise in mimetic theory circles, taking the points of view of marginalized groups into account.

The LMGDG invites others to join in doing analytic and practical work on both the nature of loving mimesis and examining modern forms of colonization and scapegoating in accordance with the aims of COV&R to “explore, critique and develop” mimetic theory. Taking into account the experiences of colonized or marginalized people has implications for the mission and future of COV&R. We can begin to ask ourselves the following types of questions as scholars/practitioners: Whom do we choose as models? How do we apply mimetic theory to our real-world communities? What happens when people who come from historically marginalized groups speak from their point of view within the mimetic theory community and begin to do scholarship in collaboration with others in that community? How can we include more of those voices? What would the format and content of plenary talks look like, for instance, at COV&R conferences if there were a greater showcasing of the mimetic theory work of women and people of color? We might also spend more time in the COV&R community on questions about some of the big theoretical issues of mimetic theory: For instance, how is the concept of forgiveness problematized or deepened when we attend to the voices of women and people of color as they describe how violence and scapegoating have impacted their lives? We can ask what it means to forgive, and what the steps of real reconciliation look like—a topic about which Vern has a great deal of practical experience in working with First Nations People in Canada, the Muslim community, and many other groups around the globe. And let’s be sure we identify and name the many examples of creative and loving mimesis around us, for they are there. 

Girard consistently had a very open, flexible view of his own theoretical project and its explanatory power—he was a model of openness to new insights and questions. This is one of the greatest strengths of his methodology. So we could ask: how might mimetic theory as a whole be better promoted publically as a tool by COV&R to help unpack and respond to the experiences of marginalized people? How does their experience speak to “exploring, critiquing, and developing” mimetic theory in new directions? As some practitioners have stressed in the past in COV&R, there can be a mutually beneficial ongoing dialogue between some types of nonviolent activism and theory. 

We can also do some self-examination, using a strengths-based approach to COV&R as an organization. This includes acknowledging the long-time commitment to interreligious dialogue and the diversity that has existed within COV&R, with many bridges (unusual in an academic group) that have been built between people of different backgrounds: European/American/Canadian members initially and now others from around the world; Catholic/Protestant/Jewish members, also engaging some Muslim voices; people across the secular/religious divide; those interested in science to spirituality; both academics and practitioners, and those of different ideological and political persuasions. Girard has brought all these people together into profound dialogue. This is a true rarity. More disappointingly, though, as Martha Reineke wrote in the August Bulletin, women currently comprise only 12% of COV&R’s membership. And very few people of color are represented (though Julia mentions in her Contagion article the ones who have been members and contributed important scholarship historically.) Again on the positive side, many people, including women, have said that COV&R was one of the most welcoming and even family-like of all academic organizations of which they had been a part. So we can ask: What positive resources do dominant cultures have to sensitively self-critique and correct themselves with regard to those who have been marginalized? COV&R has, for instance, had generally good habits of reflexive self-awareness (what we might call a mimetic consciousness) about possible scapegoating behaviors in its conference discussions. So how can we continue to be hospitable to everyone through a process of creative/loving mimesis, affirmation, and listening, while also acknowledging that some groups, as Felicity and Julia have noted, have systematically experienced scapegoating or exclusion in our world and still do? It’s worth noting that COV&R could actually become a model for other organizations to become more self-reflective about issues of diversity and inclusion. And we can acknowledge the difficult fact that some people may have left COV&R or had a negative impression of it in the past because their perspectives have been marginalized within the group, while also stressing the organization’s strengths and future possibilities to do better. 

Girard ultimately takes Jesus as the model of positive and constructive imitation, and as Vern explicated in his 2021 conference panel talk, Jesus taught, lived, and died (and Christians believe was resurrected) from within a context of the colonizing Roman Empire in 1st century Judea. Jesus stood with the marginalized and scapegoated of his day, and in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, proclaimed and modeled a new, better nonviolent way of being human in community. He consistently challenged those in positions of political and religious power—those with the most power to scapegoat—yet he did so without rivalry. As we look to him as an exemplar of loving or creative mimesis, Rebecca has reminded us in her COV&R talk that this moves beyond traditional “external mediation” toward the practice of what Girard calls in his late work “innermost” or “intimate” mediation,*** something similar to her general model of loving mimesis which can be expanded upon and used by all, whether they consider themselves Christian or not. And we as scholars and individuals can practice what Rebecca calls mimetic hospitality, where we lovingly desire the subjectivity of Self and Other simultaneously, in order to really hear the experiences and pain of people who have actually suffered, whoever they may be. 

Girard’s theory can powerfully describe both the worst of human nature but also its best possibilities. It potentially offers a vision of a world that gets past the insidious interplay of scapegoating and persecution, by telling the truth in love. We hope a glimpse into our generative conversations about both mimetic colonization and loving mimesis can spark and inform new types of mimetic scholarship, as well as further discussion about diversity and inclusion issues in COV&R itself.  

*Felicity is Celtic-Indigenous Australian. She is an Awabakaleen, an Elder of the Awaba which is also known as Lake Macquarie, Newcastle and Hunter regions of New South Wales, and lives on the land of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples in what is also called The Australian Capital Territory. Julia speaks from the ancestral lands of the Catawba, Cheraw, Sugeree, and Waxhaw peoples in North Carolina, USA; Vern speaks from the ancestral lands of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg people in Ottawa, Canada; and Rebecca speaks from the ancestral lands of the Susquehannok people in Central PA, USA. 

**See Girard, René. “The Goodness of Mimetic Desire,” excerpt of an interview with Rebecca Adams, in The Girard Reader, edited by James G. Williams, 1996, 62-65. “Mimetic desire is inherently good”: see I See Satan Falling Like Lightning, 15. 

***“Innermost mediation” and “intimate mediation” are mentioned in Battling to the End (2010).

COV&R Sessions at the American Academy of Religion

Brian D. Robinette
Boston College

This year’s American Academy of Religion meeting was the second of the Covid-19 era. While last year’s meeting was unprecedented for being conducted virtually, the conference this year in San Antonio, Texas was only a little less unusual for being both in-person (roughly 4,000 attending) and online (roughly 2,000). Those attending in-person will have noticed a difference in feel, as the compression and buzz of a typical year’s conference gathering (usually around 9,500) ran at a gentler pace. But if the lines for mid-afternoon coffee were shorter, and the broader social interaction generally relaxed, it will be good to experience the AAR at its usual, if sometimes exhausting, clip next year, God willing.  

Despite the unusual circumstances, the COV&R sessions this year were all on site, well attended, and consistently high in quality. Each of the three sessions reflected a rich mixture of regular and new attendees, with one session being co-sponsored. 

The first session on Saturday morning (November 20) had as its theme “Friendship, the Social, and the Violent Sacred.” Jaisy Joseph (Seattle University) initiated the session with her paper, “Racism, Casteism, and Mimetic Ecclesiology.” She was followed by John Soboslai (Montclair State University), whose pre-recorded paper was entitled, “The Martyr as Friend: Inverting the Scapegoat’s Sacrifice.” Chelsea King of Sacred Heart University, and former Schwager Award winner, served as a respondent. The session was presided by Grant Kaplan (Saint Louis University), who facilitated the business meeting after a spirited discussion of the papers. 

The main topic of the business meeting concerned ideas for formulating next year’s call for papers. Several ideas were suggested and discussed, including that of victimhood’s ambiguous power in an age of intense polarization. The possibility of a panel focusing on a recent publication of interest to COV&R attendees was also discussed. 

The second session on Sunday afternoon (November 21) continued the theme of the first. Presided and moderated by Brian Robinette (Boston College), the two papers focused on matters related to contemporary U.S. politics and social media. The first paper by Chris Haw (University of Scranton) was entitled, “The Capital Riot as a Case in Mimetic Magnetism and the Challenge of Agonistic Love” (see also the review elsewhere in this issue of Chris’s new book, Monotheism, Intolerance, and the Path to Pluralistic Politics). Following it was a paper by Russell Johnson (University of Chicago) entitled, “Like and Unlike: Mimesis, Social Identity Theory, and the Barriers to Online Dialogue.” 

The third and final session on Monday afternoon (November 22) had as its theme, “Academic Rivalry in the Modern Age: Thinking with Girard and Beyond.” Co-sponsored by the Nineteenth Century Theology Unit, and moderated by Hans Schwartz (Regensburg University), the session began with a paper by Grant Kaplan, entitled, “Brothers or Enemies? Revisiting Academic Rivalry in the Möhler/Bauer Debate.” Bryan Wagoner (Davis & Elkins College) followed with his paper, “Franz Overbeck and Carl Albert Bernoulli through the Lens of Girardian Mimetic Rivalry.” Johannes Zachhuber (University of Oxford) offered a pre-recorded response and later joined the Q&A through video feed. 

Next year’s AAR will meet in Denver, Colorado. The call for papers will go out through the AAR website, the COV&R website, and related Twitter and Facebook feeds. 

Book Reviews

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

Monotheism, Intolerance, and the Path to Pluralistic Politics

Andrew McKenna
Loyola University Chicago

Chris Haw, Monotheism, Intolerance, and the Path to Pluralistic Politics
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021
Pages xiii + 272

This is a book like no other about religion and politics, whose fraught relationship is causing so much trouble all around the world, East and West. Three names preside over this discussion: René Girard’s mimetic theory, as it ultimately evolves into biblical anthropology; the foundational research of the eminent Egyptologist Jan Assmann on ancient Near East religion and Israel’s critical and self-critical differences within it; and Chantal Mouffe’s internal critique of the hegemonic proclivities of modern liberal democracy. Christopher Haw enables us to rethink what we understand by covenant, idolatry, myth, consensus politics, and much more besides.  As a result, our commonplace notions of Israel’s “monotheistic revolution,” are on reset. For all its relatively small-type font and somewhat skimpy index, this is a big book for the capacious breadth of its research—its bibliography fills 17 pages—and for the rigorous coherence of its argumentation. 

In the chapter devoted to Girard’s sociology of sacrifice, Haw rightly remarks that his treatment of monotheism is “undeveloped and a hasty conclusion for the unconvinced” (80). Throughout Girard’s writings, in fact we have sweeping references to “archaic religion,” sometimes referred to as “le religieux,” that call for more specificity. Availing himself of Assmann’s monumental research, Haw fills out our knowledge of Israel’s cultural environment. He clarifies this picture in terms of Assmann’s distinction between two forms of religion: primary and secondary, that only roughly correspond to what Girard distinguishes as archaic and biblical.  Primary religions are locative, place-based, tribal, polytheistic, ethnocentric; their rituals, taboos, and beliefs are all compact with social life, such that they do not know that they are religions; it is not conceptually available: “The gods are as real as the political body with which they are associated” (109). In the axial age of the ancient world, with the emergence of literacy and the development of agrarian empires, polytheism is succeeded by monotheistic variations, by assorted forms of a “One God theology” (117) whose uppermost deity, Baal, Marduk, Horus, etc., is “the sum of the reality of the other deities” (118).

A properly political concept coincided with the annexations and consolidations of imperial sovereignties of larger states. In Egypt, Babylonia, and Assyria, we find a cosmically inflected nationalism imbued with notions of divine monarchy. Israel can be located within and then increasingly without and over against these imperial governing structures. Out of Israel’s experience of emancipation, it engages in a kind of “theoclasm” (123), its God being incommensurate with the cosmos and political authority; this divinity is totally and Absolutely Other than the others in ancient pantheons. This experience generates a “monotheism of truth” (123), whereby the other gods do not compete with Yahweh because they do not exist: “The divine is emancipated from its symbiotic attachment to the cosmos, society, and fate, and turns to face the world as a sovereign power” (124). Israel spells out its identity in terms of fidelity/adultery or loyalty/treason with respect to commandments of a unique Lawgiver. Whence Israel’s fierce iconoclasm, its anti-idolatry: its utterly transcendent god is not available to representation. For Assmann this is Judaism’s critical and emancipatory thrust, for it liberates humanity from “its embeddedness in the world and its political, natural, and cultural powers” (151-52). In its desacralization of nature, it sets history on a path to secularism, to what Marcel Gauchet has labeled the “disenchantment of the world,” favoring the emergence of Christianity as “the religion of the exit from religion.”

The defeat of Israel’s monarchial aspirations and the consequent experience of exile give rise to the prophetic tradition of self-blame, to a self-critique of disloyalty. With an ethical vision confidently rooted in hieratic, absolute transcendence, Haw writes, “No other society took the literature of dissent and placed so much of it into a sacred text, which in turn provided the blueprint for religious and social life” (167). This dovetails with Jonathan Sacks’ close reading of Genesis (Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence), which argues that Israel is the only culture in its socio-political environment to generate a relentless literature of self-criticism. This critical attention is enacted not merely for the sake of cultic integrity. Israel’s unique identity is forged around the central and abiding role it assigns to justice, which is defined by an emphatic, ardent concern for the unprotected: widows, orphans, the poor, aliens. It is this concern for victims that Girard has made the cornerstone of his anthropology. In the light of the “theologized justice” (167) of their ritual, psalmic, and especially prophetic tradition, “only in the context of a religion in which God appears as both lawgiver and judge does the thought first become thinkable that man’s judgment and God’s can diverge significantly” (167). All human institutions, all certitudes, are subordinated to the valences of the Law.

The experience of defeat and exile of this eventually stateless people occasioned “the replacement of human kingship with a scriptural and interpretive tradition” that Haw, citing Voegelin here, handily describes as its “portable fatherland in the Torah” (170). It is here that we find the origins of manifold biblical hermeneutics, a life based on canonical scriptures and their ongoing clarification—and here too, I submit, we find the origin of literary criticism, which, as of the Renaissance, focused on masterpieces for what became the secular canon of culturally authoritative texts, which at their best, according to Girard, collaborate with biblical revelation, alerting us to what we don’t know about ourselves.

Haw’s recourse to Assmann directs us to something else that is afoot in Israel’s experience of trauma: questioning its identity and its destiny in terms of forgetfulness/idolatry vs. remembering/fidelity, a properly historical consciousness emerges that the West has made its own—for good and for ill, the latter especially for non-Western populations. But the ill we assign today is weighed in the scale of biblical ethics. Memory is endowed not only with a moral component but with a cognitive aspiration that we are still struggling with. As Haw states it, “This maturation of monotheism understands existence as marked by a perpetually unresolved tension, an incompatibility that never achieves final release” (182).

We still live within that tension. In Israel this takes the form of apocalyptic literature that it has bequeathed to Christian scriptures, prophesying the sense of an end time, a kingdom yet to come, of a last judgment which to date remains suspended, deferred, but ever imminent. What he calls “messianic patience” (152) in this state of suspension is urged upon the faithful, but no less so an ethical and moral vigilance, whose exercise is summarized in the apocalyptic parable of the sheep and the goats (Mt 25.31-46): “This parable prophesies that no one within history understands or can lay final claim to their relationship to the victim, who thereby haunts us, world without end. True revelation unveils our opacity” (244). Self-congratulatory complacency is inapposite to a self-consciously historical culture, which requires a sense of the contingency and fallibility of our institutions and our participation within or against them; and per Mouffe, it requires relinquishing claims of liberal democracy to an absolute monopoly on social foundations. Haw states that for Israel, “everyone is responsible for remembering and keeping the oath of the people” (176), which is as true today as it was then, as it alerts us to the ethical imperative of memory, of historical truth, and above all of self-implication for the suffering of the world. As Israel ponders its historical experience, memory is not congruent with resentful nostalgia; its epistemics focus as sharply on betrayals as on travails.

As a captive people, Israel goes deeper into its concern for victims; exercising its superb moral imagination, it extends it chosen-ness to the lot of the Suffering Servant in Second Isaiah, and in pointed detail. In a stunning role reversal, a leadership role and moral exemplarity is assigned to the lowest of the low, one “despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and accustomed to grief.” Drawing on various commentators, Haw summarizes: “a once enthroned Yahweh now turns homeless and sub-sovereign…True kingly power is invested not in any exalted royalty but instead in the humbled, beaten, and despised” (175). The later Jewish sect centered on Christ crucified affirms and clarifies what is suggested in Isaiah, and as already explicit in “the Mosaic distinction between divinities who oversee empires and one who suffers under them” (186). “The true judge,” he writes, “renders a verdict not from on high but from below. As the Son of Man” (215).

Irony is the master trope in biblical revelation. Haw relays Mark Smith’s astute reading of the passion in Mark’s gospel as parody of the Roman, Caesarian triumph rituals of his day: the gathering of the Praetorian guard, the purple robe, the crown, the crowd’s acclamation, with a slave carrying the sacrificial ax along with the bull or slaves to be sacrificed in place of Caesar. All this leading to the Capitolium, the “head hill,” which in Mark is “the place of the skull.” Linking Mount Sinai to Golgotha, Haw describes Christ’s death as “anti-sacrifice that dissolves all forms of belonging from which conflicts stem” (193). This is not merely a moral denunciation but “an ontological claim on the nature of politics, desire, and human organization” (219). 

This is, more concretely, a properly anthropological claim about social foundations, about the pathology of identity and belonging as fashioned over against those whom it excludes, its scapegoats.  It is about crowd dynamics: “We naturally worship falsely: the entire political realm knows not what it does” (218).  In Girard’s telling, these dying words issued from the cross apply to virtually every human institution, religious, economic, juridical, political, broadly sociological, and pedagogical, which unthinkingly seek their conservation by various forms of othering, even by sacrificing some of their members. Haw mentions the pedophile cover-ups, where respectability, reputation, overshadow truth, suffering. It is a scandal that exhibits the originary sin of every corporatocracy, their properly sacrificial politics in obeisance to the Caiphas principle unveiled in John 11:50. I underlined “unthinkingly” because we are dealing with structural dynamics of mimesis, not conscious decisions; mimetic modeling and crowd behavior precede and override decisions we proudly claim as our own. That goes for every nationalism and indeed every -ism, including a militant ethno-biblicism, which has aught to do with rabbi Paul’s panoramic conception of “a new creation…the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).

Here I would venture a side bar, as I extrapolate from Haw’s probing analyses. Leviticus displays a “ring composition,” wherein the whole is implied in each of its parts, as we find in many psalms, in the creation narrative. This work is already attuned to Girard’s sociological insights with its ritual prescriptions of guilt and sin offerings for those who “sin unintentionally.”  It’s a good bet that this idea covers the vast majority of our offenses, our trespasses, as they issue from mimetic interaction, whence the inherent need for unceasing repentance in human affairs, for Atonement. This is Israel’s most important feast because it understands something about us interdividuals that we are least disposed to acknowledge, namely a self-implication in practices we deplore, owing, as Haw writes, “to a blindness in our desires and perceptions anterior to our cognition” (228). The prayer that Jesus prescribes to his followers further underlines the interactional dimension of offense, interlacing God’s clemency with the forgiveness we exercise towards others. Haw does not bring up this linkage, but it is one of the rewards of his perspicuous analyses that such interconnections and the overall integrity between first and second testaments come to light, along with Girard’s anthropological asseverations about biblical revelation. 

In his biblical commentary, Haw provides the useful expression “mythospeculation” (201), which does not refer to humanists’ inchoate reflections on storytelling, but rather to the way in which social organization and human interaction are deeply probed by certain biblical narratives. Not all these stories pass the value test of pluralism (e.g., the massacres, the ritualized stoning) cherished by modern liberal democracies, but there is plenty of evidence that these Enlightenment values themselves have been fashioned over time in Christianity’s paradoxical “exit from religion.” Haw brings up the writings of Rodney Stark in this matter, but Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism provides more ample and detailed verification. Haw’s recourse to Mouffe’s internal critique of liberal democracy provides a course correction for “inescapable” political engagement. 

Writing out his own exit from radical politics and poetry in “A Season in Hell,” Rimbaud opined that “the vision of justice is the privilege of God alone.”  This does not imply that we cease to work for it, but that, broadcasting unique claims to its possession, we not kill for it. Ezra Pound famously claimed that “poetry is news that stays news.” This goes double for our entwined testaments that have at once founded Western culture and unceasingly urge critical attention to its depredations, especially since our technology and market-driven commerce has saturated the globe with energies and rivalries that threaten human survival. 

Visitors to the U.N. are greeted at the entrance by stone tablets engraved with the prophetic vision of a world where “swords are beat into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks.” Haw deftly summarizes Girard’s mimetic hypothesis of human cultural origins as “a unifying kind of imitation, where a group coheres through sharing conflict against a scapegoat, all against one” (46). Haw’s astute research and lucid reasoning address a reality wherein there is no rational, responsible choice, for “the nations” as for each and every one, between the mimetic propulsions of hubris and biblically inspired humility and sharing otherwise, which is to say, following Haw, Other wise.

Desire and Imitation in International Politics

Matthew Packer
Wellington, New Zealand

Jodok Troy, Desire and Imitation in International Politics, Studies in Violence, Mimesis & Culture, Michigan State University Press, 2021, Pages xxii + 137

Even as the pandemic has left many people distanced from each other, political scientist Jodok Troy reminds us in this important new work that we still live in “a world that increasingly grows together” (xiii) and that sameness, not difference, turns out to be the root of so many social and political problems. For readers of mimetic theory, this idea will resonate, as will many of Troy’s thoughtful Girardian insights. The work calls to mind other recent incisive studies like Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s Economy and the Future, Paul Dumouchel’s The Barren Sacrifice, and Roberto Farneti’s Mimetic Politics. But Troy’s book also makes important contributions to the growing field of mimetic political and economic science, particularly in its careful framing of international political issues in mimetic terms. At around 69 pages of discussion it is a relatively short study, but it includes a further 60 pages of rich annotated reference material. It is a wise and necessary book and a helpful guide to the field. 

Troy attempts to bring together the realism of Hans J. Morgenthau with Girard’s mimetic theory “to see what a marriage of convenience could look like and what they could achieve together in better understanding international politics” (xv). Troy is wary, for a start, of modern-day political science and International Relations in their quest to solve political problems as if they were all accessible to rationalist frameworks and solutions. “Were it not for ignorance and emotions,” as Morgenthau argues, “reason would solve international conflicts as easily and as rationally as it has solved so many problems in the field of natural sciences.” As Troy quotes Marysia Zalewski, we have “all these theories yet the bodies keep piling up” (xiv).

Mimetic theory changes the game because “the imitation of desire of others is the cause of many of international politics’ most persistent problems” (xiv). Conspicuously, Troy notes, the research today on revolutions and identity politics reinforces the claims of mimetic theory. Examples like continuing nationalism, political religion, intra group violence, longing for nuclear weapons, diplomatic aspirations of non-state actors, and other societal changes, similarly, are all “outcomes beyond actors’ will only to survive” (xiv). Mimetic theory has seen some uptake by International Relations but still struggles to find resonance, which shouldn’t surprise us: mimetic theory challenges core assumptions such as the autonomy of the individual and a clear-cut distinction between the religious and the secular realm. Mimetic theory has also met with resistance—some say an allergy—because Girard’s ideas constitute in large measure a Christian anthropology. 

Nonetheless, as Troy writes, the situation for International Relations is untenable because as a field it “does not merely need more and better facts. In today’s world the social sciences, and International Relations in particular, probably have as many facts and data available as ever before.”  What’s needed is critical engagement with theory, questioning existing structures and orders, and moving “beyond a mere problem-solving approach of research puzzles in International Relations” (2). Allies in Troy’s effort here are the realists who are keen “not to mistake increases in methodological precision for increases in genuine understanding” (2).

One of the various ways Troy makes in-roads for his case is by emphasizing the difference between needs (e.g. for survival) and desires (e.g. for recognition). If politics, as commonly assumed, were only really about the negotiation of the shortage of goods and about institutions and individual choice, “there would be no need for political science, and politics would be much more peaceful.” Consequently, it is the explanation of violence, Troy notes, that makes mimetic theory alluring for International Relations. In cases of civil war, particularly, like that of the Rwandan genocide, mimetic theory’s relevance is obvious. In this context Girard’s account of the scapegoat mechanism becomes especially compelling, as does his late-career argument about the world today being in a “state of constant competition, due to mimetic rivalry on a planetary scale” (13). From here, Troy links to Morgenthau’s observation that the state indeed operates in a religious sense, at least that “it has become a ‘mortal God’” that “actually delimits the manifestations of the individual desire for power” (16). 

Another approach Troy takes in establishing a realist mimetic perspective on International Relations is by looking at the importance of reconciliation efforts in international politics—especially their relative success. Political, social science has had to be especially liberal (i.e. generous) to accept reconciliation as a political concept because it is essentially a theological concept—requiring a sense of moral obligation and forgiveness—and even a sacrament in Catholic terms. After surveying famous examples like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the post-genocide efforts in Rwanda, Troy notes the urgent, widespread need for reconciliation efforts—given the fractious nature of regional and intranational politics today—as well as the undeniable conclusion reached in adopting these measures: that we are all interdependent because interdividual. The moral obligations and relentless negotiations about these obligations during the Covid-19 pandemic are surely among the latest examples.

Perhaps the most engaging section of Troy’s book is a personal example of an inspiring model in politics: the case of Swedish diplomat and former-U.N. secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961)—an example, as Tory writes, of how “diplomatic theory and practice can be informed and enriched by experimenting with spirituality” (42). This is a chapter in many ways at the heart of Troy’s work, containing numerous insights into the ways that the religious intersects and overlaps with politics. Troy notes that shortly before his death, Hammarskjöld had started translating Martin Buber’s I and Thou and had agreed with his mentor Buber “that a separation of politics and spirit was a sin against the spirit as well as a sin against politics” (16). Hammarskjöld was also well aware of the classical mystical dictum, which can already be found in Thomas à Kempis’s Imitatio Christi: “‘If you rely on yourself alone, nothing is accomplished; but if you rely on God, heaven’s grace redeems you’” (44). Accordingly, his sense of vocation and political service overlapped. He regarded the United Nations as a kind of mission, a new element in international affairs, and not surprisingly also thought of the secretary-general as a secular pope. Necessarily, the U.N. stands outside all confessions, but “it is nonetheless an instrument of faith” (56). Religion, in sum, is not merely a parallel perspective but “cannot be distinguished from the political sphere. Eric Voegelin acknowledged this by recognizing if the political community loses its summum bonum—an orientation toward the transcendental instead of a summum malum—only passionate fear for a violent death will control human action and ends in aggressive overcoming of the Other” (52).

In reaching his conclusions, Troy surveys the manifold political conditions that mimetic theory increasingly helps us understand. As globalization has meant increasing sameness, for example, we have seen the counter-intuitive movements of nationalists and separatists. As a globalized McWorld has increased, so has a globalized Jihad. In recognizing the prevalence of violence not only between states but primarily within them, and that the political has no fixed interest and derives from individuals, Troy concludes that there is no difference between domestic and international politics. Mimetism is a condition that needs to be recognized as affecting us all, in many different contexts. Politics in realist terms is therefore “not only about the last questions of how a perfect society would or should look like. Rather, it is about the day-to-day practice of living a good life despite all compromises one might have to make” (67). In mimetic terms, “simply being aware of what others desire is where it all starts” (68). This means not only being aware of what celebrities desire but what our neighbors desire. “The less distance there is, the more complicated it gets to find a distinction. International politics, after all, affects our daily life because it is about our daily life around the world” (68).

A Hermeneutics of Violence: A Four-Dimensional Conception

Guy Lancaster
Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock

Mark M. Ayyash, A Hermeneutics of Violence: A Four-Dimensional Conception
University of Toronto Press, 2019, Pages: 279

Those who study violence regularly struggle with definitions. For example, American civil rights organizations in the early twentieth century often debated what actually constituted a lynching—how many perpetrators were required, what motivations would warrant labeling a murder a lynching, etc. Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide in 1944, and debates about that term and the exact nature of genocide have persisted ever since, especially with attempts to apply it to present-day events. The outcome of court cases can often hinge upon what exactly distinguishes a murder from a case of manslaughter. And these gradations of nuance only multiply as we consider examples of structural or symbolic violence.

These debates occur in large part because our definition of violence itself proves eternally slippery. As sociologist Mark M. Ayyash writes in the introduction to A Hermeneutics of Violence, “The multifaceted use of this concept within the social sciences makes it virtually impossible to establish a definition that can hold its ground by the end of the inquiry. …If there is one constant feature of violence, it is that violence is ever shifting and moving, and in order to understand this flux of violence, then the inquiry itself must accordingly shift and move” (5). His effort, therefore, consists of putting an interdisciplinary range of theories in conversation with one another, in the context of one another, in order to elicit new understandings of violence without attempting to reconcile these perspectives into his own novel theory, one that could not but fail to grasp the evasiveness of the subject.

The four dimensions Ayyash surveys are instrumental, linguistic, mimetic, and transcendental violence. From the start, he critiques the instrumentalist perspective of a range of thinkers, most notably Hannah Arendt, for both subordinating “violence to something greater that explains it… or some conception of the political,” which has the effect of “directing the analytical gaze away from violence,” and succumbing to “an unstable and untenable analytical distinction between so-called productive and destructive violence” (20). Such a view fails to apprehend how “violence appears in various and diverse forms within and through everyday social relations” beyond state politics (35). Ayyash’s next section draws extensively upon the work of anthropologist Veena Das to illustrate how the lines dividing the violence of the founding of the state and the maintenance of law become blurred not only during moments of crisis, but throughout everyday life. This violence remains unspeakable, allowing “dominant social and political forces [to] make use of the symbolic source material of violence in order to saturate the vacuum created by silence with their self-interested talking points” (80). 

In his third section, Ayyah draws upon the likes of Hans-Georg Gadamer and, of course, René Girard to explicate the mimetic dimension of violence, drawing home the point that acts of violence do not represent the breakdown of a dialogue between parties but, instead, “the emergence of a specific form of dialogue under the subject matter of violence: a violent dialogue that creates a violent communion between participants” (94). That is to say, violence produces “certain important transformations of the protagonists’ positions on the subject matter over which they fight—transformations that are then carried into and indeed can come to constitute the very interaction and relationship between the protagonists” (108). Ayyash goes beyond Girard to examine how the two parties in a conflict can come to constitute more than enemy siblings—indeed, they can become “irrevocably co-constitutive of one another” (127), with antagonist persons or cultures engaging in a fusion that must remain hidden to themselves in order to allow the violence to continue, as with such longstanding conflicts as Israel-Palestine, or even such paradigms as the ostensible division between civilization and barbarism so often advanced by Western thinkers. 

Next, Ayyash attempts to grapple with transcendental violence, or violence “the thing itself,” pursued into “the very dimension where it cannot ever be directly seen but is observable through its effects” (169). It is this dimension of violence that has challenged the best efforts of peacekeepers across the globe and through time for reasons spelled out thusly:

Through violence, not only are instrumental goals achieved, but postures are made and remade, communicated and formative of a communion between the sides as enemy-siblings. To change the postures of this violent communication, no political process that simply proclaims to counter violence can succeed—what is needed first and foremost is a deeper understanding of these postures, of the violence they continuously (re)create and that constantly (re)creates them. (177)

To illustrate this truth, Ayyash offers a final chapter that applies his four-dimensional conception to the case of Israel and Palestine through a dialogical analysis of the works of Israeli historian Benny Morris and Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said, especially in how they represent the identities of victim and persecutor. As Ayyash demonstrates, Morris adheres to the official Israeli narrative of settlement so as to maintain the identity of Israel as the only “righteous victim” in the conflict: “The expelled Palestinian, even though a victim, must therefore be continuously expelled so as to ensure the existence of the righteous victim” (200). And thus does Israeli Jewish identity become co-constitutive with Palestinian identity. For Said, not only can victim and persecutor trade places through history, but the written text itself “can also be turned into a persecutor, even when it is avowedly written to account for the victim, or written for the sake of the victim, or even written by the victim. The worlds of victim and persecutor are not far apart but are indeed interwoven” (209). 

A back-cover blurb by the French sociologist Michel Wieviorka praises Ayyash for “organizing dialogues between different theories of violence, rather than proposing his own.” There is much to be said for this. The field of genocide studies, for example, has been rather flush with competing definitions of genocide amid pretty widespread dissatisfaction with the one in actual legal force—the definition contained within the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention. But sometimes, new ground can be broken simply by competently putting different definitions or theories in dialogue with one another, especially as they pertain to a subject like violence, which has been the object of voluminous meditation across a range of academic disciplines. 

However, there are also pitfalls to such an approach. Guiding the reader through such diverse works in order to showcase how they can inform one another requires a narrative skill that centers the possibility of the reader’s unfamiliarity with at least some of the material under analysis; one must therefore illuminate for the novice while not being so tedious as to lose the expert. This skill is necessary when drawing upon primary sources in the construction of one’s theoretical perspective, as with, for example, Girard’s employment of Greek mythology and philosophy in Violence and the Sacred. But this skill is all the more urgent when it comes to putting theories themselves in conversation with one another, for the greater abstraction of theoretical writing raises the challenge of making one’s own work narratively compelling. Putting theories in conversation without grounding them in some manner risks producing such sentences as: “…Gadamer does not believe that to counter Hegel’s projection of thought toward absolute knowledge, one needs to return to a pre-given, fixed universality or essence (à la Husserl and Dilthey), nor can we use as our ground Yorck’s attempt to affirm Hegel’s correlation between life and self-consciousness while avoiding Hegel’s metaphysicizing of life (since Yorck’s attempt was never completed)” (98). Ayyash emphasizes the fact that his dialogic analysis draws from a range of disciplines—anthropology, sociology, philosophy, etc.—but he does very little to make this text welcoming to readers from within those disciplines, readers who may possess a more focused intellectual background. 

The historian studying lynching or the sociologist researching gang violence may well conclude, from such passages, that this book is not for them, which would be a genuine shame, for there is much to recommend A Hermeneutics of Violence. The strongest parts of his volume are his examination of the shortcomings inherent to the instrumentalist idea of violence and his expansion of Girard’s mimetic theory using the works of Paul Gilroy and Michael Taussig, among others. In particular, one must praise Ayyash for drawing together a wide range of material, especially those sources not typically consulted by students of violence, such as the works of Jacques Derrida and Martin Heidegger, which he employs to provide some valuable insight into the transcendental dimension of violence. There is a wealth of intellectual stimulation here despite Ayyash’s occasional narrative opacity and encumbering of references. A Hermeneutics of Violence can serve as a model for moving beyond disciplinary structures and into a greater engagement with the reality of violence, even if that reality itself proves perpetually evasive.

Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey

Wolfgang Palaver
University of Innsbruck

David Cayley, Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey
Ivan Illich: 21st-century perspectives
University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2021
Pages: 560

David Cayley conducted two long interviews for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation with Ivan Illich (1926–2002), a Catholic priest, social critic, and historian. Both these interviews were also published as books. The first came out in 1992 with the title In Conversation, the second in 2005 as The Rivers North of the Future (reviewed in the May, 2007, Bulletin) that Cayley rightly calls Illich’s testament. Over those many years Cayley and Illich became friends, and it is due to this friendship that the Canadian journalist and writer has now published a comprehensive book about Illich’s intellectual journey. This book not only covers the development of Illich’s work and thinking but also shows which thinkers and theories influenced him, and helps us understand some of his asides by connecting them to authors and works that point in a similar direction. All the major stages and topics are very well presented and explained in this volume. This book will be a must for all who want to understand Illich more closely.

Let me refer to some of the most important insights of Illich. First, I mention his critique of institutions that so easily become counterproductive if their limits are not carefully observed. The most outstanding example in this regard can be found in his famous book Deschooling Society (1971) that questions compulsory education. Are schools really contributing to learning and the development of one’s personality or are they primarily entry tickets into a world of social privileges? Illich frequently illustrates how institutions that are an offspring of good intentions easily cause counterproductive consequences. Cayley warns his readers, however, not to see in Illich someone who rejects institutions per se but makes them aware how often they fail to achieve their promises. This critique of institutions led Illich to a deeper understanding of modernity that he sees as the perversion of the Christian revelation. He recognized that institutional developments inside the Catholic Church turned into the modern state: “When Gregory VII proclaimed that he alone was ‘permitted to make new laws according to the needs of the times’ and Boniface VIII followed by claiming that law originates ‘in the bosom of the Pope,’ they made themselves the source of a new idea of sovereignty” (380). Illich’s most famous Latin formula corruptio optimi quae est pessima [the corruption of the best is the worst] summarizes his recognition of how good intentions can turn out badly. Illich’s most famous biblical example in this regard is the New Testament parable of the Samaritan which shows how ethnic boundaries are overcome by a compassion that no longer limits its outreach according to traditional religious, cultural or ethnic boundaries. In this regard this parable represents the best of the Christian revelation. But it becomes the worst if it turns into a rule that dissolves all home-worlds and undermines local capabilities to help those who are in need. Illich referred also to this parable to explain that its spirit of love cannot be institutionalized without perverting it. The Samaritan acts out of a freedom of love that would be lost if it becomes an institutional obligation. “Freedom institutionalized is something quite different from a resumption of the culturally shaped obligations that the Samaritan has transcended. The Gospel brought under the power of the world is not like anything that has existed before. Corruptio optimi pessima” (358).

In view of today’s main challenges Illich’s critical philosophy of technology is most important. For this he turns to the medieval ages and especially to Hugh of St. Victor—one of his favorite authors—to illuminate the difference between an age of tools and our age of systems. Modernity lost the distance that is necessary to see technologies as means toward ends. Without distance humans become slaves of their own products and are no longer able to set limits to technologies. Illich’s turn to Hugh of St. Victor does not mean that he thinks that we can return to the past. His looking back tries to discover roads not taken in order to respond to the challenges of today. His philosophy of technology recommends a Christian askesis that he defines as “the acquisition of the habits that foster contemplation” or “conversion to God’s human face” (418). Such an askesis could provide an attitude that helps to set limits and knows what is enough.

Readers of this Bulletin are probably not so much interested in the work of Illich as such but how it relates to Girard’s mimetic theory. Cayley is able to show us connections between these two thinkers because he not only interviewed Illich several times but also broadcasted an excellent five-hour interview series with René Girard. Unfortunately, there are only a very few explicit references to Girard in this book on Illich. He sees in Girard a companion of Illich in their recognition that today Christianity is criticized with the help of Christian insights. They also share an interest in the apocalyptic stage of our times and in their interpretation of the Antichrist.

There is, however, a close affinity with mimetic theory in Illich’s work that is not explicitly mentioned. Illich frequently addressed scarcity as the modern predicament, the “anchoring myth of modernity” (18). Contrary to Marx, Illich views the modern creation of scarcity as the source of alienation and also as the root of our economic and ecological problems. Cayley summarizes the modern myth of scarcity in the following way: “Scarcity, as a postulate, produces plenty by assuming its opposite. Behind our backs, so to speak, it turns the base metal of envy, desire, and mutual indifference into the gold of abundance and social peace” (186). These promises do not become true. The release of envy does not create harmony but incites competition and resentment. It is not by chance that Illich comes so close to Girard in this regard. He was influenced by L’enfer des choses, the book by Paul Dumouchel and Jean-Pierre Dupuy—an early collaborator of Illich—that applied Girard’s mimetic theory to the field of critical economics already in 1979. Illich refers in Shadow Work (1980) as well as in Gender (1982) to the book of Dumouchel and Dupuy. Both these books document Illich’s wish to write a history of scarcity. Unfortunately, he could not finish this project. One of the reasons for this was the harsh criticism that his book Gender received from feminists. Cayley’s book tries to convince his readers that Illich’s reflections were misunderstood. Cayley claims that by writing his book he discovered Illich as a “philosopher of complementarity” (450). Complementarity is also at the center of Illich’s view of gender because he realized that “vernacular cultures”—a term frequently used by Illich—saw women and men complementing each other to contain envy, competition, and resentment. This is in tension, of course, with the modern emphasis on the equality between women and men. Illich, however, is not against equality as such but distinguishes between different types of it depending on their destructiveness:

“Illich speaks loudly against equality as sameness. But he also speaks loudly for equality in its sense of equity, arguing that most women suffer irremediable disadvantages in a realm of universal circulation and competition. The two points are connected. Illich claims that idealizing equality may allow some women to rise to new heights of wealth and influence but that it will hurt many more – by lowering the status of every form of sustenance that occurs outside the cash nexus in which equality finds its measure, by fostering an illusory sense of opportunity, and by inviting those who fail to seize these imaginary opportunities to blame themselves. His analysis of feminism, in this respect, took the same form as his analysis of every other modern institution that he explored—it incites envy and delivers frustration. Only by reversing economic growth, unbuilding the global megalith, and restoring the human scale will the majority of women regain their dignity, he says, because only then will the contribution of those who have been shunted aside in the rat race begin to matter. This is the sole sense in which Illich speaks against equality: equality-as-justice, he says, cannot be achieved without a firm rejection of equality-as-sameness.” (239-240)

Illich’s book was rejected in the early 1980s. I am not sure if Cayley will succeed in his attempt to rehabilitate Illich’s reflections on gender because the problem is difficult to solve. The traditional submission of women went along with the vernacular complementarity. How can we preserve the advantages of complementarity without a hierarchical relation between men and women? The whole problem finds an interesting parallel in Gandhi’s dealing with the Indian caste system. This parallel is not by chance because as Cayley rightly claims there are “many affinities” between Gandhi and Illich (87). Gandhi recognized in the traditional Vedic division of society into four classes (varnas) a bulwark against the dangers of envious comparisons. He wanted to avoid “all unworthy competition” and did not identify the varnas with the caste system because he strongly insisted on the equality of all human beings: “Assumption of superiority by any person over any other is a sin against God and man. Thus caste, in so far as it connotes distinctions in status, is an evil.” There remains an ongoing discussion about Gandhi’s attempt to support the traditional varnas without hierarchical caste relations. Illich’s view of gender faces a similar dilemma. It is definitely important to understand the value of vernacular attempts to contain envious competition. Our modern world will definitely benefit from investigating these traditional means against destructive envy. These means, however, are no longer able to solve our own struggles with competition. We have to deal with it in a world of equality that requires new ways to respond to the challenges of mimetic desire.

There is one topic in Illich’s work that I find disturbing and that became even more so during the pandemic if we see how the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben—the editor of Illich’s works in Italian—and David Cayley himself reflected on the Covid-19 crisis. Illich was very critical of the modern emphasis on life. The title of the respective chapter in Cayley’s book, “To Hell with Life,” quotes a provocative thesis by Illich who criticized a modern idolatry of life. Illich was certainly right that “those who hope to gain immortality as cyborgs or who have had themselves cryogenically preserved in anticipation of later medical resurrection” are fetishizing life (327). But can Illich’s “theology of death” provide a proper orientation? I strongly doubt it. I see two nearly incompatible claims in Illich’s approach to life and death. On the one hand he seems so occupied with death as the giver of “meaning to life” that he sounds like a representative of the sacred of early religions before the biblical religions emphasized the holiness of life (314-315). On the other hand, he represents a very modern accent on freedom by claiming that it is of utmost importance that people have “the possibility of actively dying their own death” (319). The second claim is expressed in a letter to Benedictine nuns in which he deals with excesses of life-prolongation that put many people in a state of “undead” (324). Again, Illich highlights with his intervention the counterproductivity of good intentions. He comes, however, close to endorsing euthanasia (but without using this term) in his claim that death has to be a “personal act” (322). Illich frequently questions the modern demand to control every aspect of life and there are very good reasons for doing that. To insist, however, that dying must be an active personal act comes very close to keeping death—one of the “existential uncontrollabilities of life” (Hartmut Rosa)—under control. Cayley’s comment helps to put this letter in perspective because Illich does not come up with it as a general rule for responding to this modern challenge but expresses mainly his spirit of friendship that he prefers to modern technological care.

Cayley claims that “Illich’s theology of death was entirely orthodox and deeply rooted in biblical and patristic sources” (319). Illich is close to a theology of death that we can find in religious traditions still today. But is he really representing a biblical perspective? Is not the Hebrew Bible a manifestation of a “God of the living” as Jesus himself maintained (Mt 22:32)? The writer Eli Wiesel summarizes in his book Open Heart the Jewish perspective in the following way: “We sanctify life, not death. […] Of course, we must accept the idea—the reality—that every man is mortal. But Jewish law teaches us that death is not meant to guide us; it is life that will show us the way.” Reflecting on the Akeda he criticized a sacrificial type of Christianity that sees in the threatened Isaac a prefiguration of Jesus’ crucifixion and concluded that “for the Jew, all truth must spring from life, never from death” (Messengers of God 1977, 90). Girard justly opposed Wiesel for this portrayal of Christianity because his Christian understanding of sacrifice does not deviate from the Jewish emphasis on the holiness of life. Girard calls death in Violence and the Sacred “the worst form of violence” (32). In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World he deconstructs the worship of death that characterizes so many (early) religions by showing how the scapegoat mechanism turns the death of the victim into a spring of life. The violent sacred causes people to view death “as if it were productive of life”, a view that Girard recognizes as idolatry: “death is once again covertly deified” (82). It is along this line of thinking that Girard prefers the Judgement of Solomon in the Hebrew Bible to Sophocles’ Antigone. Whereas Antigone dies for her dead brother the good harlot risks her life for the living child. “The Gospels clearly define what makes the tragic text somewhat inferior to the biblical texts when they say: Leave the dead to bury their dead.” (Things, 245; quoting Mt 8:22). Cayley refers to this provocative saying of Jesus but does not relate it to Illich’s reflections on death (36). Illich’s theology of death misses the crucial difference between the tragic and the biblical text. This becomes especially visible in  Agamben’s application of Illich’s view of death, which resulted in a harsh critique of the Catholic Church and Pope Francis for agreeing to measures taken against the spread of Covid-19. Agamben refers to Illich in his claim that “from Antigone to today” it had never happened before that “cadavers should be burned without a funeral […] solely in the name of a risk”. Today we know that so far the virus has killed more than five million people. Even when Agamben wrote this text in April 2020, Italy had already been severely hit by the pandemic. From the perspective of the holiness of life it makes sense to protect living people from being infected by the virus. It remains a sacrificial attitude to prefer funeral rites to the health and safety of living people. I think that we have to move beyond Illich’s theology of death by aiming for a theology of life that does not neglect the reality of death but believes in the God of life who will finally destroy death, who is “the last enemy” (1 Cor 15:26). Illich rejected views that see death as an enemy. This is again an attitude that is closer to tragic thinking than to the biblical spirit. His theology of death was more concerned with the ars moriendi—the art of dying—than with resurrection. Dietrich Bonhoeffer—Cayley mentions many affinities between the Protestant theologian and Illich—was very clear about the difference between the art of dying and faith in the resurrection: “We’re more concerned to get over the act of dying than to overcome death. Socrates mastered the art of dying; Christ overcame death as ‘the last enemy’ (I Cor. 15.26). There is a real difference between the two things; the one is within the scope of human possibilities, the other means resurrection. It’s not from ars moriendi, the art of dying, but from the resurrection of Christ, that a new and purifying wind can blow through our present world” (Letters and Papers from Prison). I am not sure how Illich would have responded to this insight of Bonhoeffer’s. It could be that he would have agreed because his work is not a systematic theology but the result of his many engagements with challenges our modern world has faced. He responded to a world that is out of balance in a necessarily unbalanced way. David Cayley frequently stresses in his book that Illich was “a proscriptive rather than a prescriptive thinker”. This is an important qualification that should never get out of sight if one reads Illich’s work. His emphasis on the counterproductivity of good intentions remains a valid warning for our times. It would, however, be very dangerous to turn these warnings into prescriptions. Agamben’s essays on the pandemic succumb to this mistake and hurt the legacy of Illich. David Cayley partly fell into the same trap in his blogs on the Covid-19 crisis. His book about Illich, however, will remain a highly valuable guide to this important work.

Bibliography of Literature on the Mimetic Theory vol. XXXXIX*

Dietmar Regensburger


Bulletin 70 – December 2021
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