René Girard’s mimetic theory began with an understanding about desire and blossomed into a grand theory of human relations. Based on the insights of great novelists and dramatists – Cervantes, Shakespeare, Stendhal, Proust, and Dostoevsky – Girard realized that human desire is not a linear process, as often thought, whereby a person autonomously desires an inherently desirable object (Meredith desires McDreamy). Rather, we desire according to the desire of the other (many women are attracted to McDreamy, suggesting to Meredith that he is irresistible). We rely on mediators or models to help us understand who and what to desire. The problem, however, is that imitative desire leads to conflicts because a model can quickly become a rival who competes with us for the same object.
Mimetic desire leads to escalation as our shared desire reinforces and enflames our belief in the value of the object. This escalation contains the potential for a war of all against all. According to Girard, the primary means for avoiding total escalation came through what he calls the scapegoat mechanism, in which conflict is resolved by uniting against an arbitrary other who is excluded and blamed for all the chaos. With the guilty party gone, the conflict ends and peace and social order return to the community. Achieving social order in this way is only possible, however, if the excluding parties unanimously believe that the person or group expelled is truly guilty or dangerous.
Girard’s examination of different “myths of origin” revealed that scapegoats, regardless of their actual crime, have carried the weight of all of the community’s transgressions. Read inside out, these stories reveal much about primitive society’s attempt to curtail violence and restore order in a fragile world with no civil structures. All of human culture, according to Girard, is built upon the edifice of scapegoating and ritual repetition. This reading of culture, inspired by an insight into of the innocence of the victim made available in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, has made possible an increased awareness of this mechanism and its aftereffects, so as to interrupt these processes and achieve a different kind of peace.
In summary, we can say that mimetic theory consists of three interconnected movements: mimetic desire, the scapegoating mechanism, and revelation. It will be helpful to revisit these movements in more detail, beginning with desire.
Mimetic desire operates as a subconscious imitation of another’s desire. The same unconscious pull explains both friendship and rivalry. For example, let’s say that I am a graduate student in the field of psychology, and I am desperate to work with the highly esteemed professor in our department, Dr. Jones. Dr. Jones seems to have it all – respect, a thriving research lab, and many collaborations with the world-renowned psychologist, Dr. Smart. For a good year, I work hard to be just like Dr. Jones – I copy her research methods, attend similar conferences, and work at a pace that mirrors Dr. Jones’. As time goes on, my research practice takes off, and soon it is I and not Dr. Jones who is being asked to headline conferences with Dr. Smart. It’s not long before Dr. Jones, who had taken pride in my successes, comes to think of me as a rival for opportunities to work with Dr. Smart. Dr. Jones may even accuse me of a new desire – that of wanting to destroy her career and she may soon act to undermine my career rather than encourage it. Collaboration has turned to rivalry and friendship into enmity.
René Girard called this a “mimetic rivalry” to highlight the movement from a model-subject to a model-obstacle relationship. This shift occurs when desires converge on an object that cannot be shared (such as a job, a first place prize, or a lover) or that the rivals are unwilling to share (such as fame or working with Dr. Smart). It’s important to note that the two rivals are now models for one another, enflaming each other’s desire to work with Dr. Smart by desiring to possess it exclusively. Each is now a model-obstacle for the other, something both would vehemently deny. Each will claim that their desire is autonomous and the other has betrayed their friendship out of plain wickedness. Girard has pointed out that the problem is not that desires are mimetic, but that in clinging to the mirage of our own originality we become prone to blaming others rather than recognize our complicity in mimetic rivalries.
Understanding desire and conflict in this manner highlights the interdependent nature of human motivation and informs fields such as literature, psychology, sociology, economics, political science, psychotherapy, communication studies, conflict management, and more. Mimetic theory calls into question well-known principles such as realistic conflict theory, rational actor theory in economics, and many theories in psychology which presuppose that behavior depends on an autonomous, rational individual. Recent publications engaging with mimetic desire include Mimesis and Science: Empirical Research on Imitation and the Mimetic Theory of Culture and Religion, edited by Scott R. Garrels; Beneath the Veil of the Strange Verses: Reading Scandalous Texts by Jeremiah Alberg; The Phantom of the Ego: Modernism and the Mimetic Unconscious by Nidesh Lawtoo; Mimetic Politics: Dyadic patterns in Global Politics by Roberto Farneti and Intimate Domain: Desire, Trauma and Mimetic Theory by Martha J. Reineke.
The Scapegoat Mechanism
The second movement in mimetic theory is that of the scapegoat mechanism. As rivals become more and more fascinated with each other, friends and colleagues may be mimetically drawn into the conflict as rival coalitions form. What began as a personal battle may escalate into a Hobbesian battle of all against all, threatening the cohesion and peace of an entire community. One way of solving this problem is to find someone to blame for the conflict that all the rival coalitions can unite against. This unfortunate person may or may not be guilty. All that’s required for the scapegoating solution to work is that his guilt is universally agreed upon and that when he is punished or expelled from the community, he will not be able to retaliate. The proof of his guilt is found in the peace that now returns to the community, obtained by virtue of the unanimity against him.
Mimetic theory allows us to see that the peace thus produced is violent, comes at the expense of a victim, and is built upon lies about the guilt of the victim and the innocence of the community. This mechanism functioned at the origins of the human species, when this peace appeared as if by magic and was attributed to a visitation from an ambiguous god who came first as the terrible cause of the conflict but then was revealed to be its cure. Prohibitions emerged to forbid the imitative behaviors which lead to conflict, rituals developed that consist of a well-controlled mime of the redemptive violence against a victim (originally human, later animal and so on), and myths were born as the stories that tell of how we became a people as the result of a visitation from the gods. This method of controlling violence with violence can be found in the rites and myths spread all over our planet and gave rise to human culture.
Scapegoating also operates in individuals at the level of identity. We all construct identities over against someone or something else. I’m a woman, not a man. I’m a liberal not a conservative. I’m an atheist not a believer. And most problematically, I’m good not bad. When we need some other person or group to be bad so we can maintain our sense of ourselves as good by comparison, we have engaged in scapegoating. We are using others to solidify our identity the same way a community uses a scapegoat to solve its internal conflict.
Though the study of scapegoating fell out of favor in the social sciences following some post-WWII acclaim, mimetic theory revives this concept and situates it as an anthropological evolution of the human need to contain conflict. Because Girard’s theory follows desire in non-human species through hominization and beyond, it provides reasons for the prevalence of scapegoating and why it has existed throughout time. The fact that scapegoating contains conflict and gives order to new cultural foundations is informing evolutionary theorists, historians, sociologists, political scientists, and associated academics working in areas of peace studies and conflict resolution. The theory also offers explanations for organizational consultants who aid in cases of school, college, and workplace bullying. Recent publications include The Barren Sacrifice: An Essay on Political Violence by Paul Dumouchel; How We Became Human: Mimetic Theory and the Science of Evolutionary Origins edited by Pierpaolo Antonello and Paul Gifford; and Vengeance in Reverse: The Tangled Loops of Violence, Myth and Madness by Mark R. Anspach.
When a community in the throes of conflict obtains peace through the violent expulsion of a scapegoat, they cannot perceive that it is their own unanimous violence which produced the peace. This blindness on the part of the participants with respect to what they are really doing – killing an innocent victim – is the one essential element required for the scapegoating mechanism to work. Girard points out that to have a scapegoat is not to know you have one. In other words, participants in the scapegoating mechanism hold an authentic belief in the guilt of the victim, a guilt seemingly demonstrated by the restoration of peace.
Girard thinks that the power of Christianity lies in “unveiling” the scapegoat mechanism. Here unveiling is, quite literally, pulling back the curtain to see that, behind all the smoke and sounds is just a small man, pulling the levers. The gospels have the same structure as myths, but an entirely different perspective—a key issue for Girard. In myths we are given a scapegoat whose death promises both to heal fractured communities and to appease the gods. Yet in the gospel story we gradually learn that God is the victim, and that the victim’s blood only appeased humans, not God. Having a real event told in this particular way intends to foster conversion. Though we think of the gospels as telling a story about God, Girard follows Simone Weil in showing that the gospels are as much about us (humans) as about God. And the true power of the story, or the conversion, lies in the permanent alteration in the way we read not only the gospel story, but everything else. Instead of reading through a sacrificial lens, we read through a forgiving lens, realizing that we, both on an individual and on a social level, have been involved in a multi-generational process of victimizing and expelling others. And that God has nothing to do with this violence.
Mimetic theory begins with the human shape of desire and does not leave the human even when it engages with theology. The turn to theology in its third movement is not an escape from the terrestrial realm. All of its “theological” insights can be seen working themselves out on the anthropological level. Girard thought humans had been so deeply habituated into patterns of escalating violence, and the scapegoat mechanism to be so perfectly self-justifying, that he concluded it necessary for there to be some real, supernatural interruption to achieve human redemption.
Many theologians and religious educators draw upon the insights of mimetic theory as a way of understanding God as the victim, the fundamental human tendency toward scapegoating, and what all of this means in the pursuit of cultural order, justice, and reconciliation. Mimetic theory is having a profound impact in biblical hermeneutics, soteriology, atonement theology, Christology and studies in Judaism, Islam and Hinduism. Recent publications include by René Girard, Unlikely Apologist: Mimetic Theory and Fundamental Theology by Grant Kaplan; The Head Beneath the Altar: Hindu Mythology and the Critique of Sacrifice by Brian Collins; and Flesh Becomes Word: a Lexicography of the Scapegoat or, the History of an Idea by David Dawson. Engagement by Christian theologians has been going on for many years. Notable contributions include Saved From Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross by Mark Heim; The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes by James Alison; and Must There Be Scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible by Raymund Schwager, S.J.
For a more complete introduction to Girard’s work see René Girard’s Mimetic Theory by Wolfgang Palaver; Discovering Girard by Michael Kirwan; and The Girard Reader by René Girard, James G. Williams editor.
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