International Christian University
This year brings another first for COV&R. We will be holding our annual meeting in Spain! Our 2017 conference bears the title “Identity and Rivalry.” As the webpage points out, Spain has been at the center of many historical struggles for identity, and Cervantes led the way in giving literary expression to the struggle. All of this makes it a highly appropriate venue.
I really hope that each member will make an effort to be there. I know I am always glad that I went—I experience so much in the company of each of you. The unplanned encounters are often as fruitful as the plenary sessions.
The organizers have been working very hard for all of us and have succeeded in getting a selection of both veteran and new voices to speak on mimetic theory. These include: Jean-Michel Oughourlian (University of Paris), Cesáreo Bandera (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Charles Powell (Elcano Royal Institute), Jon Juaristi (Alcalá de Henares University), Roland Hsu (Stanford University), and Carlos Mendoza-Álvarez (Iberoamerican University of Mexico).
As our letter to all of you stated, in order for the conference to be a full success, we really need each of you to submit a proposal. As always, all proposals that engage mimetic theory are welcome, even if they do not specifically address the conference theme. Here is the “Call for Papers” link.
I look forward to these conferences each year. I enjoy seeing old friends and meeting newcomers. I learn a great deal in the few days that we have together and the cultural ambience always adds something special. It will be my first trip to Spain, so personally I am very excited.
We also have much to discuss this year. We have consolidated our North American and European members list and, as explained in more detail by executive secretary Martha Reineke elsewhere in this issue, we now employ the Philosophy Documentation Center (PDC) to keep track of members and their dues. This is going to put us on a firmer financial ground. We are making some adjustments to the Bulletin as it goes online. We need your active input. So please, “Come to Madrid.”
Musings of the Executive Secretary
University of Northern Iowa
I am pleased to update our membership on the transition of our membership services from our treasurers to the Philosophy Documentation Center. As many of you know, PDC is a non-profit organization that provides membership services to a large number of scholarly organizations. In our first year working with PDC, we have been delighted with PDC’s efforts to support COV&R through providing enhanced communication processes for our members. We are benefiting from their long experience with working with academic groups similar to COV&R.
PDC has worked diligently to review our membership lists dating from 2011 to the present that include both active and inactive members. As a result of PDC’s efforts, our roster of active members has grown significantly. We have close to 300 active members now. In addition to enhancing our capacity to communicate with members, PDC will make membership renewals very easy: members will receive automatic renewal notices as the membership year concludes each December. PDC’s membership services staff are working with Michigan State University Press to insure that mailing lists used for sending COV&R members books in the mimetic theory series are up-to-date. We anticipate enhanced success with mailings to members at their current addresses.
PDC offers the academic organizations that use its services additional benefits that enhance the professionalism of our communications, support our scholarship, and strengthen the institutional memories of the participating organizations. For example, PDC has transferred to its site the archive of the Bulletin (volumes 19 to 47 so far, with the rest to come) and has acquired on behalf of COV&R an ISSN for the Bulletin. Please check out the listing here and the Table of Contents here.
Because of the ISSN documentation, every Bulletin will be visible to Google Scholar. This will make it possible for significant scholarly contributions to the Bulletin, such as the book reviews, to be accessed for research purposes not only by COV&R members but also by other scholars. Curtis Gruenler, editor of the Bulletin, and Maura Junius of the Raven Foundation have worked tirelessly with PDC this spring to facilitate enhanced access to the Bulletin.
An additional benefit of COV&R’s affiliation with PDC is a discounted subscription price for the Journal of Religion and Violence. Finally, in the next few months, we also will be working on implementing the COV&R board’s recommendation last July that the default subscription to Contagion be electronic access. I will have updates on these developments at the Business Meeting in Madrid and in subsequent Bulletins. And, if our annual meeting hosts are ever in need of conference registration services, PDC also contracts with participating organizations for these services.
In my first year as executive secretary, I have been most appreciative of assistance I have received from others in supporting enhanced communication among COV&R members. Nikolaus Wandinger facilitated collection of the archived Bulletins. I also want to thank Keith Ross and Dietmar Regensburger for their assistance in supporting the transfer of membership information to PDC. Suzanne Ross and Maura Junius of the Raven Foundation created an amazing postcard about COV&R that we distributed to prospective members at the AAR. Their expertise in communication resulted in a compelling invitation to AAR members to consider joining COV&R. With contributions from Carly Osborn, Grant Kaplan, and Kathy Frost, Suzanne and Maura also have lent their respective and much appreciated talents to enhancing the content and appearance of our website. Its updated look and newly dynamic aesthetic mirror (wink, wink) the energies of our COV&R membership. Finally, I want to give a special shout-out to Maura who has functioned as a key consultant for me as we have worked to bring all our COV&R communications decisively into the 21st century. But for the generous donation of her time and expertise these past several months, the progress we have made this year would not have been possible.
I look forward to seeing many of you in Madrid.
This issue begins my second year as editor of the Bulletin. Looking back on the past year, one area of concern is coverage of events and publications outside of the English-speaking world. With an editorial team located deep in the heart of the American Midwest, this is bound to be a weakness. We would like to expand that team to include a European member or two. It would be helpful to have a European editor who could report on European gatherings of interest to COV&R members and/or arrange for others to do so. Also helpful would be a book review editor for non-English language publications. If you would like to volunteer or recommend someone for such a role, please let me know.
As Martha Reineke, our executive secretary, explains elsewhere in this issue, we are still in a process of transition with the publication and online presence of the Bulletin. Most of the back issues are now available in searchable form on the site of the Philosophy Documentation Center (PDC), and the remainder will be soon. Though items in the Bulletin are meant to be briefer than those in Contagion (COV&R’s academic journal) and more tied to events like meetings and publications, there is great value in having them preserved online in a way that is discoverable by a search engine and citable by page reference. The recent issues published online in blog format will also be published on PDC in a format that gives them stable page numbers.
Our upcoming annual meeting in Madrid will include further conversation about how best to take advantage of the opportunities provided by digital publication, both for present communication and for creating a legacy of thought and conversation. We invite your feedback on how well the Bulletin is working and your ideas for how it might work better. Please contact me or any COV&R officer or board member. For more information on the annual meeting, see the letter from COV&R president Jeremiah Alberg in this issue. I look forward to seeing many of you there.
The main feature in this issue is a collection of pieces from a conference held on the first anniversary of René Girard’s death at the University of Saint Paul in Ottawa, Canada. Sandor Goodhart, one of Girard’s first graduate students and longest collaborators, offers thoughts on “the future of Girardian research” that can help us think more carefully about what we are doing and how to do it well together. Like a good rabbi, as always, Goodhart’s words invite conversation. The transcripts, abstracts, and comments provided by other participants offer a look at the legacy and promise of Girard’s work from a regional gathering at one particular time and place. Thanks to Vern Neufeld Redekop for soliciting these pieces. As COV&R works to maintain connections among a proliferating and decentralized network of scholars, I welcome similar contributions from other members. If you have posted materials to a website, I would be happy to pass on a link.
This issue also keeps up the steady pace of book reviews since Matthew Packer stepped in as book review editor. Yet we are also aware of the great volume of books deserving of a review here. If you know of books that should be reviewed by an expert on mimetic theory, or if you would like to contribute your expertise as a reviewer, please contact Matt. Book reviews are perhaps the Bulletin’s most enduring contribution to scholarship (along with the bibliography, also updated with a new installment in this issue) and an especially valuable part of the archived issues now available at PDC.
Technical note: if you are searching on the PDC site for the contents of past issues of the Bulletin while logged on to a college or university network, you may find that only results from some other publications carried by PDC appear because the search may have been limited to publications your library subscribes to. Should you find this to be the case, PDC has posted instructions here for getting around this limitation so you can access archived Bulletins.
Finally, as we start a second year of on-line publishing, I want to thank Maura Junius for all of her production and technical help and the Raven Foundation for making her help available.
Difficult Passages: Reading the Times,
Ideas, and Impact of René Girard
Excerpts from a Glasmacher Lecture, Saint Paul University, November 3, 2016, held in conjunction with a tribute to honor René Girard (see below).
Girard began his work in the 1950s when the intellectual scene in post-war France was dominated by existentialism, the key theme was “my autonomy and freedom” (prior to all other human responsibility), and the key figures were Sartre and Camus. Trained as an archivist and paleographer at the l’Ecole des Chartes, Girard moved after the war to Indiana University where he gained a Ph.D. in history but began write on literary theory.
He challenged romanticism head on, saying that desire is borrowed, that our desires originate neither in the exigencies of objects before us, nor in the inspirations of autonomous subjects we have assiduously constructed ourselves to be, but selon l’autre, in our appropriation of the desires of others, of those individuals we have designated as our models or mediators. The idea was viewed as rather scandalous. It flew in the face of everything romantic individualism had taught us to value. And Girard might well have made his career continuing to show how this appropriative gesture critically informed the work of other important writers.
But, iconoclast that he was in those early days, Girard was led to ask a different question: namely, how did we get into this mess? What if primitive culture existed to protect us against runaway mimetic desire, to manage it for us, and what if what sustained that ritual was the phenomenon of scapegoating? What if it was not desire that is the problem (which is, after all, universal and continuous in the fabric of social life) but the violence it produced when the sacred turned transgressive, when mediators and subjects clashed (and “double mediation” ensued), when differences broke down, and the assertion of difference or separation in the extreme (and in the face of its own inefficacy) issued in conflict? In this frame of mind he wrote Violence and the Sacred. It was during this time I met Girard, in 1968-69, my first year in graduate school at SUNY Buffalo, and my life has never been the same. The impact upon me personally of course has been nothing short of monumental.
The “Girardian system” evolved to have three components: the operation of mimetic desire, its management in archaic communities by means of the sacrificial crisis and the scapegoat mechanism, and their revelation in Jewish and Christian scriptural writings.
But Christianity is not the necessary or inevitable consequence of Girardian thinking. And it may not even be, after all is said and done, the most prominent one in a wider cultural perspective. Christianity is nevertheless the path Girard took personally. And it would probably be fair to say that historically among our contemporaries, to this point the largest body of readers of his work has come from within the Christian community. And apart from myself, there are comparatively few readers of Girard among Jews. However, one can sustain a Girardian reading of the sacrificial and the mimetic, I submit, and remain a Christian, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or a Jew.
In fact, another path may be the thought of Emmanuel Levinas. For Levinasians, the linking of Girard’s sacrificial analysis with Levinas’s ethical analysis gives the ethical a possible political extension, which it lacks otherwise: namely, an anti-sacrificial, anti-scapegoat politics. The question of justice, the question of the third (which becomes a question for Levinas beyond the face-to-face of the two), is then not only messianic, but anti-sacrificial, a matter of reading and a matter of teaching. The ethical potential includes the possibility of stopping, of inhibiting one’s propensity for violent reciprocity.
What is the future of Girardian research? Here are some issues offered in the form of postulates—topics for further discussion.
1. Girardian method is scientific, whether it is applied to anthropology, social science, literary study, philosophy, historical study, religious studies, or some other discipline within academia. It is not in itself a structure of faith or theology but one of knowledge, although it may very well shed light on texts studied by theologians or people of faith.
2. Girardian method is in my view not an advocacy of any kind, political or otherwise. It is not a species of social justice or of political conservatism (or for that matter political liberalism or leftism). It does not ask us to do something but to understand something.
3. The three branches—mimetic desire, sacrificial violence and the scapegoat mechanism, and scriptural revelation of the founding murder—are not of equal status. What is new in mimetic desire as a problem is a consequence of the failure of sacrificial differentiation to manage it in the modern world. And scripture reveals the sacrificial at the heart of cultural genesis, not the reverse.
4. Violence as I understand it from a Girardian perspective is not a “thing” or an “essence” of any kind but rather difference gone wrong. In religious language, it is about the idolatrous and the anti-idolatrous where idolatry is the confusion of the divine with the human, the substitution of what is not God for what is God.
5. Girardian thinking is not an essentialism of any kind. It is not about what is really good, what is really true, what is really beautiful, or what really is in any other form. It is not about representation or being at all but about strategies of doing and action. It is a kind of social phenomenology.
6. Finally, Girardian thinking may shed light upon some new understandings of hominization. With Eric Gans what remains constant is the possibility of stopping, of inhibiting one’s propensity for violent reciprocity. And with Father Raymund Schwager we could regard original sin as a process in which the potential for not sinning, for responding ethically toward the other individual, was inherent in the earliest sacrificial acts, a hopeful capability never fully actualized until the advent of modern religious orientations.
The future of Girardian research will depend, in short, upon our not conflating our own agendas (disciplinary or other) with the sacrificial or anti-sacrificial agendas in which the work under discussion is always already necessarily engaged but giving up those agendas when our reading and teaching is momentarily indistinguishable from violence. Misappropriations of the work of important intellectual figures are common. But it seems to me we best honor the work of our teachers and foremost thinkers by endeavoring to get it right for future generations for whom we, who have known the individual personally, remain the conduit. Perhaps it is only in such a way that we may distinguish critique, or critical appraisal, from crisis, in the ongoing criticism or assessment of our most penetrating intellectual models, and only in such a way that we open ourselves to whatever positive mimesis does in fact become available.
Paying Tribute to René Girard (One Year after His Death)
On November 4, 2016, Vern and Gloria Neufeld Redekop hosted a conference at the University of Saint Paul in Ottawa, Canada, that invited participants “to present their critical reflections on the impact that Girard has had on them and their respective fields.” It was preceded by a lecture on the previous evening by Prof. Sandor Goodhart (see above). Here is an abridged text of the remarks prepared by Rebecca Adams followed by short summaries and reflections provided by several others who spoke.
Rebecca Adams, independent scholar
The first time I ever heard of René Girard was in 1987 at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I was starting the second quarter of a Master’s program in English. It was the first week of Winter term and I had just been introduced to literary theory. Some other students and I were standing around outside the English Department office when through a doorway and down the hall came a robust-looking man with distinguished white hair. “That’s René Girard,” a friend discretely whispered to me as he passed by. “He’s really good, really interesting. He’s teaching a course here this semester, commuting down once a week by plane from Stanford. You should sit in on it.”
Without even knowing the subject matter of the course, I took my friend’s suggestion. I quickly found myself in the front row of a classroom, watching this interesting man animatedly jump, pace, and wave a copy of philosopher Jacques Derrida’s Dissemination, listening to his excited exposition of the parallels between his and Derrida’s thought. (I knew enough by then to know who Derrida was, without really knowing much about his work yet.) Girard quickly jumped into an explanation and critique of Derrida’s reading of Plato’s Phaedrus in the essay “Plato’s Pharmacy.” Girard told about the structural similarity and parallels between their two analyses: First, Derrida’s analysis of the pharmakon as “poison/gift” and Girard’s own concept of the scapegoat as both “good” and “bad” at the same time, undecidable; and second, the structure of deferral represented by Derrida’s “supplement” compared with Girard’s concept of “myth” as a structure of illogic which conceals (or defers) a hidden violence. Then he veered away from Derrida to further exploration of the close connection between the concepts of the pharmakon (drug) and the pharmakos (scapegoat), the latter a Greek word NOT mentioned in Plato’s original text (and so conspicuous by its absence). “At first when I read him I was sure we were onto exactly the same thing, we were going in the same direction,” gesticulated Professor Girard. “But then I saw he was going in another direction, seeing the same kind of structures that I did, but keeping his analysis entirely within language” (The best treatment of these parallels is Andrew McKenna’s Violence and Difference: Girard, Derrida and Deconstruction, which came out about five years later). This first course—I audited the entire ten-week period and attended Girard’s public guest lectures as well—forever imprinted the way that I read and experienced mimetic theory and the man who developed it.
Fast forward more than 20 years later. It was July 2010, and I was attending a session at the Annual Meeting of COV&R, as I had for years now, this time at the University of Notre Dame. Being back at Notre Dame, where in the early 1990s I had done my doctoral work in English and in 1993 edited a special issue of the Journal of Religion and Literature containing an interview with Rene Girard, was an experience both comfortably familiar and somewhat disorienting.
The speaker pointed out that unlike mainstream modern academic theology and much academic discourse in general, he had come to see Girard’s theoretical work as connected to an older tradition of study and scholarship, in which the teacher is not typically removed from an abstract theory or the theological point being espoused, but is embedded within it, presupposing the theorizing itself as a spiritual path. His thinking had been especially been changed and expanded when he saw the connection to this tradition through Girard’s statements about the fundamentally positive, good or creative nature of mimetic desire itself in the 1993 interview, statements Girard had up to that time not made anywhere else:
Mimetic desire is everything. It is murderous, it can be rivalrous, but it is also the basis of friendship, and heroism, and everything…. It is Openness, extreme openness, openness to the Other…. Mimetic desire is also the desire for God. (Religion and Literature 25.2 (summer 1993), pp. 24-25; reprinted in excerpt in The Girard Reader).
In the Q & A, I just had to say what was in my heart; it was beating hard like a bird wanting out at a window. “When I heard you say Girard could be put together with Hildegard and the mystics, I was shocked,” I said, “because I’ve always thought that! For more than fifteen years now I’ve thought that, I’ve seen that connection. But it felt like maybe I was crazy, because it seemed like I was the only one who could see it. So hearing you put René Girard and Hildegard of Bingen together today in the same sentence—well, I feel like I’ve just died and gone to heaven!”
This brings us to the present. Although I have not pursued it in detail, a few words about the connection of my account of mimetic desire and Christian mysticism can potentially provide a bridge between Girard and other thinkers for reconceiving the formation of desire in a theological context. Such an account is hinted at by James Hoff’s discussion of the nature of mimetic desire in the mystic Nicholas of Cusa (“The Visibility of the Invisible: From Nicholas of Cusa to Late Modernity and Beyond,” in Christian Mysticism and Incarnational Theology: Between Transcendence and Immanence, edited by Louise Nelstrop and Simon D. Podmore, Ashgate, 2013, pp. 57–60). According to Hoff, Cusa’s account of desire is like that of Jacques Lacan centuries later, in that it begins with a narcissistic recognition of our own image. For Cusa, our image of God begins as a mirror image of ourselves, and hence is narcissistic. However, Cusa says that God desires not just us but everyone, which in turn leads us out of ourselves to a recognition of a subjectivity beyond our own, to the subjectivity of God, and those who God recognizes. As Hoff states, “God ‘looks’ at me as if he was nothing but my mirror image, and this is attractive. But he is looking in the same unique manner at everyone else, and it is impossible to integrate this phenomenon in the framework of my narcissistic world.”
Thus desires arising out of the imitation of God, in Cusa, implicitly involve a recognition of the subjectivity of others, whereas in the kind of negative mimetic desire that Girard has focused on primarily, the subjectivity of the other is invisible—the focus is on the object that the other desires, with the other perceived as a mere obstacle to one’s desire; or their being is perceived, but perceived and coveted as an object, not as a subjectivity like one’s self. Hoff claims, however, that for Cusa even forms of narcissistic, negative mimesis ultimately result in a desire for greater subjectivity and a world beyond us. Huff’s exposition of Cusa shows how the type of outward-moving imitation that I have named “Loving” mimesis can naturally arise even out of the narcissistic desire of the infant in the mirror stage.
When we value the subjectivity of what is negative and do not scapegoat it—in this case narcissistic desire—we come to see how it becomes a path to loving desire (and God, if we are using theological terms). This fits in with Cusa, and the mystical tradition in general, which sees even the negative aspects of the world as signposts to God. And this is exactly how I discovered Loving mimesis: by further exploring my dissatisfactions with Girard’s current answers in the 1993 interview and in my subsequent work. I took Girard’s theory seriously when he says that there is a scapegoat in every text, and proceeded to look for the scapegoat or what was missing in his own text: human desire (and divine desire) as primarily Loving. In effect, I applied Girard’s theory to itself, transforming his theory to an even more powerful theory that goes beyond conflictual desire as primary. Rather than treating René Girard as a rival, I feel my analysis desires the subjectivity of his entire corpus and his life’s work in a profound way. Girard is a teacher who has challenged and fundamentally shaped me. The hope is that he will continue to inspire, shape and desire the subjectivity of many more generations.
Ian Dennis, University of Ottawa
At the event to commemorate René Girard, I reflected a little on my personal debt to Girard and his thought, describing how my 1992 encounter with Deceit, Desire and The Novel, quite late in both that book’s history and my own life, was nonetheless career-changing. Indeed, career-saving.
I then tried to articulate the crucial importance of Girardian mimetic theory for the field of Generative Anthropology, as well as distinguish the ways the two anthropologies initially diverged, and to a certain extent, have re-converged. I described the “return to Girard” that was a phase of the development of the originary hypothesis of Eric Gans, after sketching briefly the development of Generative Anthropology and its contributions—variously made in parallel, in concert, or in contrast with mimetic theory—to the larger field of literary and cultural studies in which I work and teach. And I concluded with a few observations on the student encounter with Girard’s thought, and some of the implications for a pedagogy that foregrounds it.
This was a valuable event, and one that both reminded me of the power of Girard’s thinking for many of us in our careers and provided stimulating examples of its continued relevance.
Susan Wright, Theology & Peace
As a participant in the tribute to René Girard, taking account of all those gathered to honor René, I was struck once again by the impact of René’s thought across a broad range of disciplines, from quantum physics to literature, from theology to neuroscience. Mimetic theory’s hermeneutical reach seems inexhaustible. I have no doubt we will continue to gather for many years ahead, not only to share our latest ideas involving mimetic theory, but to share stories about René and the extraordinary community of people that continue to gather around him. Many testimonies were shared that day relating the impact René has had on our intellectual lives, but also how, in the midst of a world prone to madness, René’s insights provide a renewed sense of hope and purpose.
I began my presentation, “Why Zombies?” by proposing that one more discipline be added to the list—Zombology—the study of zombies. For the last decade I have applied René’s theories to pop-culture mediums (comics, movies, TV). In 2010 AMC launched the TV adaptation of the comic book series The Walking Dead, in which the lead character, Rick Grimes, awakens from a coma to find the world in the grips of an apocalypse — a zombie apocalypse. Since then zombies have become an omnipresent pop-culture phenomenon with The Walking Dead topping the charts as America’s #1 show.
The fascination with apocalypse, so popular in movies and graphic novels, may be understood as a response to the loss of sacrificial mechanisms and a leveling of society that unleashes a mimetic contagion of all against all. But why zombies? Using mimetic theory, especially Paul Dumouchel’s Barren Sacrifice and Stefan Tomelleri’s Ressentiment, I examine the role of the zombie apocalypse in America’s collective imagination. Living in an age of widespread indifference, with no obligation to others, all others, whether proximate or far, become zombies. Indeed, we come to realize that in dehumanizing others this way, we are all zombies. This insight, however, may set the stage for a birth of compassion and new communities of inclusivity.
David Cayley, broadcaster and author
The general idea of my presentation was to introduce Ivan Illich to an audience in which I presumed there were many people who would not have been familiar with his work and then to compare his views with Girard’s. The main similarity that I wanted to point out lies in their both being “apocalyptic” thinkers, by which I meant thinkers who hold that the Incarnation not only invents history but introduces into it a logic of revelation. They treat this logic quite differently, however, with Girard insisting on the ambivalent character of modernity—things growing, as he says, better and worse at the same time—while Illich sees what he calls corruptio optima pessima, a corruption, or perversion, of the best which is the worst.
Wolfgang Palaver, who is an admirer of Illich, asked me once “to build a bridge” between Illich and Girard. I began to do this in a short piece for the forthcoming Girard Handbook that Wolfgang and James Alison have edited, and I hope to have something more ambitious done in time for COV&R 2018.
I recall Nov. 4, 2016 at Saint Paul’s gratefully because of the chance it provided to remember René and be with others that knew and loved him. Occasions need to be marked, and, for those who could not attend René’s funeral, and may even have been among people at the time of his death to whom it meant nothing at all, this was a welcome opportunity. I can remember thinking in 2006 when COV&R met at Saint Paul’s—its first time in Canada—that the tone of the gathering—its friendliness, really—reflected René’s character as well as his ideas, and I felt the same at the memorial—that the way in which we could be together owed something to the personality as well as the thought of René Girard.
(Note: David Cayley’s interviews with René Girard were rebroadcast last year in a five-part series beginning here. A dialogue between Girard, Walter Wink, and Duncan Morrow from the 2006 COV&R conference at St. Paul University in Ottawa is available on Youtube.)
Phil Rose, York University
The Ottawa memorial symposium for René Girard was a delightful event that permitted both reunion with old friends as well as the meeting of new ones. There I presented research that is soon to be published in the forthcoming Palgrave Handbook of Mimetic Theory and Religion, where I investigate from the perspective of mimetic theory the development of myth, ritual, and violence, first, briefly, in relation to the mimetic and oral cultural contexts, and then in connection with the emergence of chirographic information environments. I reinforced the conclusion that the invention of writing and reading, and their widespread adoption as cultural practices, are key components involved in what we think of as the civilizing process, through which we acquire the capabilities for the practice of non-violence and for resistance to the automatism of mimesis.
Sylvie Lemieux, Saint Paul University
Calls for new global governance have come from all corners of the world and from all fields of social science as an answer to today’s global challenges. The present “anarchy” has allowed human-made global conflicts to grow with little mitigation planning and an erosion of resilience. While the UN has instituted treaties, accords, and conventions to alleviate some of the social conflicts for over 70 years, the critics are numerous that more action is required now to reconcile conflicts and improve social justice.
Realism has a 70-year-old theory in International Relations that allows for national interests to trump those of global common goods. The reality of power, in all its forms, has been a successful construct for those working at maintaining the existing asymmetric system with its intrinsic flaws of domination and social injustice.
I explored the dynamics of international relations through the frameworks of realism and mimetism in order to offer reflections on potential paths to positive advancement towards new authentic relationships for global governance in the name of peace.
Bruce Ward, Thorneloe University at Laurentian
I argued that Girard’s concern with taking the apocalypse “out of fundamentalist hands” by developing a rational analysis of our “objectively apocalyptic situation” might well prove to be his most significant legacy to modern religious thought, placing him in the company of other important apocalyptic thinkers of our era, such as Thomas Merton and Ivan Illich. After explaining certain key features of Girard’s analysis in its relation both to mimetic theory and to Biblical revelation, I examined both the catastrophic and the hopeful dimensions of Girardian apocalypticism. I concluded by addressing the question of where the balance lies between the catastrophic and the hopeful, noting that Girard’s eschatological faith both sustains ultimate hope in the face of probable temporal catastrophe and restrains falsely comforting hopes for any particular temporal outcome.
For inquiries about writing a book review or submitting a book for review,
contact the book review editor, Matthew Packer.
Quite a Decent Book, But She Dismisses Girard…
Review by Scott Cowdell Charles Sturt University
Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015. Pages xix + 669.
My sister-priest, the Episcopalian speaker, writer, and much-in-demand preacher, Fleming Rutledge, here sums up a long life’s work of reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ cross. The book is a real door stopper but, while wide-ranging and comprehensive, it is also very engagingly written. It is a book that clergy and lay people will appreciate, while also giving academic theologians a lot of enjoyment and stimulation as well.
The book is not just about the meaning of Jesus’ death, but more specifically about the meaning of him being crucified. This is a particular sort of death with many resonances of torture and shame. For Rutledge, the nature and extent of Jesus’ suffering, apart from the bare fact of his death, is significant. She writes out of an abiding conviction that two themes underlie New Testament witness about the cross, while carefully tracing the rich variety of that witness and its development in later Church history. One major theme is that a price has to be paid for sin and human evil, and the other is that that evil has to be overcome.
Rutledge is well aware of how the first theme has been mishandled whenever a violently retributive God is seen as punishing Jesus in place of sinful humans. She is too theologically careful about the cross involving the whole Trinitarian life, and about the subtlety that a careful reading of Anselm and Calvin reveals, to perpetuate this canard. This same subtlety and sensitivity is familiar to Girardian theologians from the writings of Raymund Schwager on atonement. Nevertheless, Rutledge believes that the radicality of evil and the extent of the hurt that people experience means that wrong must not readily be set aside. There is no easy “forgive and forget” if the brutalities and injustices undergone by human beings are to be properly addressed and healed. The other theme is more familiar in Girardian theological circles, in the Christus Victor motif of evil confronted and overcome.
Rutledge’s approach is one that she calls ‘generous orthodoxy’. She follows the sense of scripture and tradition and not just the letter, convinced that Christian orthodoxy is generous, healing, life affirming, and in no way peevish, narrow, or meanly punitive. So the spiritual attractiveness and necessity of atonement theology is affirmed, even while penal substitutionary atonement is called into question. For Rutledge, an appropriate atonement theology brings a spiritual seriousness about honouring and healing affronted human dignity, which should not be undervalued.
Rutledge is wonderfully acerbic in her assessment of various mainstream Protestant self-delusions in America today, and her theological perspective is refreshingly no-nonsense. Her footnotes are a delight, revealing a lifetime of reading and reflection in biblical studies and mainstream theology, through to newspapers, magazines, the Western literary canon, and contemporary fiction. She offers what can be called biblical theology, where her sympathies lie with the literary approaches that have overtaken older-style historical criticism. So much in her approach is potentially compatible with Mimetic Theory, from her biblical hermeneutics to her sense of our entrapment in violent-tending dynamics beyond human control. However, the book reveals a major failing in its careless rejection of Girard.
Rutledge is dismissive in her comments about Girard and the mimetic theory, which she seems to see as a questionable theory of everything detached from scripture and from theological orthodoxy. Remarkably, she maintains this view while admitting that she has read some James Alison but not Girard himself. She has also read Anthony W. Bartlett, and I suspect that his book on the atonement called Cross Purposes has influenced her take on Girard. Bartlett’s unease with aspects of Christian orthodoxy may have contributed to Rutledge’s dismissal of Girard as similarly-minded. Were she to have read Raymund Schwager, however, a quite different picture of Girard’s compatibility with theological orthodoxy would have emerged—Bartlett and Schwager offering two poles of possible interpretation here. While she includes James Alison’s Knowing Jesus, The Joy of Being Wrong, and Raising Abel in her bibliography, nothing of Alison’s Bible- and Passion-centred case for human liberation from the false-sacred eternal return of rivalry and violence seems to have registered.
Perhaps Alison’s theological take on Girard, while determinedly orthodox, is too positive, too forgiving, too apparently light on the stern measures that Rutledge deems to be necessary in the face of human sin. For Alison, however, the supposed sternness of God is part of the problem, and actually reflective of the false sacred. Rutledge misses the critique of religion that Girard brings, and misses the false sacred roots of some sacrificial themes that are retained in Christianity. She sets the mix differently from Alison, and hence misses the spiritual force of a more relaxed, less uptight God that Alison presents. A telling sign of this is the unalloyed praise that Rutledge reserves for Miroslav Volf and his Christian nonviolence, though of course this commitment is erected on a foundation of God’s exclusive right to punish. Volf, too, is critical of Girard for failing to provide a God like this. Likewise, and despite much subtlety in her search for the underlying logic of such traditional formulations, Rutledge appears to be critical of Alison—and Girard—for the same perceived failing. So, sadly, she misses in the end a potential synergy with mimetic theory that so much in her approach ought to support.
Saving Economics from Economists
Review by Matthew Packer
Buena Vista University
Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Economy and the Future: A Crisis of Faith, translated from the French by M. B. DeBevoise (L’Avenir de l’économie: Sortir de l’économystification, Flammarion 2012). Studies in Violence, Mimesis, & Culture. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2014. Pages xx + 166.
Is it possible, asks philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy, to think intelligently about the economy today without being a professional economist? It’s not only possible, he insists, it’s an urgent necessity. Conventional economic theory has failed, as many in the wake of the global financial crisis have recognized. In particular, argues Dupuy, it has failed to fully reckon with the governing role that interdividual desires play in the economy, and as a consequence, global capitalism, whose leaders “no longer believe in the future” (xv), now threatens to take down politics and even civilization itself. If economic thinking remains the monopoly of economists, he continues in a characteristically provocative fashion, it will “go on being mired in feeble-mindedness” (xvii), endangering us all. (One of Dupuy’s charges: given the power and the prestige of economics, it is perhaps the discipline least capable of reforming itself.) Partly because misguided economic assumptions have taken over the way we think about the world, Dupuy writes, Economy and the Future presents a philosophical critique, a “metaphysical broadside” (xiii), against orthodox economic theory. The result is a lively, dense, and brilliant book—an important update in English on a topic Dupuy has explored for many years—one that readers of mimetic theory especially will find fascinating.
Dupuy has long been guided by the conviction that economics—or the absolute sovereign, “Economy,” as Hobbes had it—cannot be understood without reference to religion. In our time, Dupuy contends, Economy has usurped the power of religion and politics, and become both our religion and our politics. In his earlier study L’enfer des choses: René Girard et la logique de l’économie (1979), co-authored with Paul Dumouchel, Dupuy described economic activity as a continuation of the sacred, understood in Girardian terms. Like the sacred before it, Economy contains violence: it has blocked violence by using violent means. But with the power of the economic sacred also waning today—as we’re becoming aware that “bad and good violence are, in the last analysis, the same violence” (xiv)—many struggle to see what might replace it. And it’s this quandary that leads Dupuy to examine closely, in the second of four stages of his argument in Economy and the Future, the process of “self-transcendence.”
Contrary to the neoclassical economic idea that a purely internal state of “equilibrium” regulates markets, Dupuy contends, an economy functions by “projecting itself into a future that does not yet exist, but that it brings into existence by allowing itself to be pulled forward in time, as it were, until it reaches the very moment when the future it has imagined becomes real” (xiv-xv). In other words, the agents of an economy collectively coordinate their behavior by referring to the same future point of reference. It’s a type of bootstrapping paradox we see at work in a range of areas, including financial and political predictions, as well as religious prophecies. (And several of the book’s pleasures come from these and the many other mind puzzles with which Dupuy frequently illustrates his points.) But the economic self-transcendence in question here relies on “such evanescent notions as trust and confidence” (xv) in the open-endedness of the future, without which “capitalism could not function”—the problem today being that the “dominant strategies” of economic agents in neoclassical theory fail to account for the role of these virtues, certainly in a culture where Economy has become all. Because of the absence of these virtues, politics and economics are deprived of the usual power of self-transcendence and the resources vital for economic life to flourish.
As a consequence, Dupuy continues in part three, “The Economics of the End,” we see an extraordinary irrationality in the markets and a deep-seated sense of impending catastrophe. He suspects that here is the mainspring of the present crisis: “The mechanisms of self-transcendence are jammed, perhaps irreversibly, with the result that Economy is quickly losing its capacity to act as barrier against violence” (xv). Most infuriating about this predicament, maybe, is the persistent belief of the speculator (and Dupuy here mentions Madoff) that the greater the run, the safer the odds—when, in fact, as Benoit Mandelbroit discovered, speculative phenomena are governed by a fractal law: in the boom phase, the more optimistic investors are, the greater their reason for looking forward with still more optimisim. “Indeed, it is just when the bubble is about to burst that the euphoria reaches its highest point” (82). Sadly, we do not normally see a counterbalancing wisdom in response to this knowledge. But Dupuy advocates a kind of prudence he calls “enlightened doomsaying” (83)—not a fatalism, despite the sound of it; rather an anti-fatalism: “the greater one’s reasons for optimism, the more one owes it to oneself to fear catastrophe and to guard against it, for the end is undoubtedly near” (83).
Maybe the book’s most intriguing argument is in chapter four, where Dupuy urges a mode of economic thinking aligned with the Calvinist’s choice, in which we see “a curious affinity” (xvi) between the emergence of the capitalist spirit (associated with Max Weber) and the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. “Am I saved or am I damned?” asks the Calvinist. The good Calvinist logician answers and acts lazily either way (102): whether he is damned or blessed, working hard won’t make a difference. So goes the “dominant strategy” (93) of rational choice theory. What is irrational, though (in economics, as in religion), is that most Calvinists don’t act fatalistically, but instead appear to choose predestination and to choose to exhibit the signs of that predestination, paradoxical though it sounds. Dupuy uses Newcomb’s famous paradox to illustrate the same point, that prophecy, prediction, and faith—in economic, as in religous life—are crucial components appearing to act on the future: “once I act as I do, this action determines the predictor’s prediction” (109). Or, as Dupuy writes earlier, “the way the future is described and understood is part of what determines the future” (41).
In sum, in economics and in religion, the higher reason Dupuy hopes for inescapably involves faith, and it ultimately suggests a kind of maxim: “Act always in such a way that your action would remain causally possible in the event it were to be anticipated by a predictor whose omniscience is essential…” (111). In terms of avoiding catastrophe—and questions about economic apocalypse and climate change are central to the book—“it is not owing to a lack of knowledge that people do not act, but to the fact that knowledge is not transformed into [a motivating] belief” (128). This, according to the method of enlightened doomsaying, is the obstacle that must be overcome. Economy, in short, is a mind-bending book, another fine translation from M. B. DeBevoise, and an important contribution to the debate about mimesis in economics, and one sure to provoke discussion.
Revisiting Gender and Mimetic Theory
Review by Tadd Ruetenick
St. Ambrose University
Lucien Scubla, Giving Life, Giving Death: Psychoanalysis, Anthropology, Philosophy. Translated by from the French by M. B. DeBevoise (Donner la vie, donner la mort: Psychanalyse, anthropologie, philosophie, Éditions Le Bord de L’eau, 2014). Studies in Violence, Mimesis, & Culture. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2016. Pages xiv + 367.
Back-cover endorsements of Lucien Scubla’s Giving Life, Giving Death indicate that that the author has “polemical bravery” in giving “a challenge to both psychoanalysts and anthropologists.” The point of this, says Michel DeGuy, is to attack the “enemy” of “relativism.” Bravery and challenge are indeed part of Scubla’s work. I am not convinced, however, that seeing Scubla’s work as a valuable attack on relativism in the social sciences is the best conclusion we can make. I find his work to be valuable in other, more practical ways. For one, it takes Girardian mimetic theory into anthropological analysis of the relationship between the sexes and identifies sources of conflict that help us understand violence and patriarchy more generally. Relativism is not the ultimate evil—violence is.
Scubla’s challenge is that of inverting the traditional patriarchal assumptions of psychoanalysis and anthropology. Scubla neither promotes nor denounces patriarchy, but argues that, at least from an anthropological perspective, matriarchy is primary. Whereas most theorists begin with considering sexual practices, Scubla focus on procreation. Whereas many theorists focus on violent Oedipal desires of children toward parents, Scubla notes that parents in ancient cultures actually killed children. Most notably, whereas theorists might focus on male violence, Scubla considers the female ability to give life as the more primal fact.
Scubla presents his thesis by referring, in part, to the Marind-anim of Irian Jaya in New Guinea, a culture in which men respond to women’s ability to give life by taking upon themselves the prerogative to give them names as a form of symbolic capital (24). “In all societies,” Scubla concludes, there is “this indisputable truth: it is women who bring children into the world and thus assure, first and foremost, the survival of the group and the continuity of generations” (25). He extends this to, among other things, the linguistics of ancient Rome, where pater implies “not a genealogical bond, but a relationship of authority grounded in law” (55). On the other hand, mater refers to a specific, nurturing person. Thus pater is to be thought of as the secondary element in a non-symmetrical pairing.
Engaging mimetic theory, Scubla takes up the example of the Baule people of Africa, who respond to certain incestuous acts with a sacrificial ritual in which a young animal is split in half lengthwise, symbolizing a return of relations to their proper distance (65). To Scubla, this is more than a concern for incest, but is rather a way of “putting an end to conflict. In dividing the sacrificial victim into two distinct pieces, the ceremony separates rival groups…” (67). Taking this into a Western context, Scubla argues that, since “the Catholic priest is not primarily a preacher, but a sacrificer,” the Eucharist cannot (in the Catholic thinking) be associated with women, who “bear the mark of menstrual blood” (97). Rivalries are discouraged by setting up separate domains for men and women. The shedding of menstrual blood, a sign of fertility, is contrasted with the shedding of ritual blood. The implication here seems to be that Christ’s sacrifice is a mystical union of the domains: it is both involuntary, like menstruation, and voluntary, like violent sacrifice. The ritual of the Eucharist, understood as directed at participants who must be right with the God and the Church, is an example of the belief that “life kills if it is given badly, and death vivifies if it is given well” (149).
Men envy women’s ability to give birth, and respond with violence, which they take to be a male activity, particularly with regard to rituals. A complex mimetic rivalry is thus at work: men are in charge of killing to be like women, who are in charge of birthing. Women are naturally associated with providing life, as is signified in the involuntary bloodshed of menstruation, and men appropriate the cultural prerogative for the involuntary bloodshed of killing. In Girardian fashion, this often takes the form of ritual, “not only sacrifice and blood rituals, but indeed the majority of social institutions” (235). This kind of ritual “protects human beings from the violence that they carry inside of them by giving it a bone to gnaw on, as it were, and in this way holding it in check” (236).
Scubla’s work is useful in providing a new understanding of abortion, one in which it is considered as a double-reactive choice. It can be seen as an attempt by women to appropriate the violent reactions of men toward their capacity to give birth. The conclusion that can be reached, then, though it’s avoided by Scubla, is that women abort because they are mimicking men who kill because they are frustrated at their inability to give birth. Considered in such a way, abortion is the result of a compound of mimetic violence. Men envy women, women envy the envy of men, and the choice is made for a dismemberment (understood as either fetal flesh from body, or the fetal flesh itself). As Scubla says, contra Freud, it is men who have the minus sign, while women have the plus; the penis is a child substitute for the man and not the woman (281).
Scubla is a brilliant scholar, but difficult to classify. He continually one-ups all of the theorists he mentions, and DeGuy’s claim that the reader always “declares Scubla victorious” is not much of an overstatement. But on whose behalf is he fighting? Just when you think, for example, that he might be constructing an unorthodox defense of Catholicism, one that curiously defends natural law by appeals to matriarchy, Scubla digs at Girard, with whom he generally agrees, but nonetheless says “unreservedly appeals to the authority of Christianity, religion of the Son and of the union of brothers with one another” (271)—a union, implicitly, of scapegoating communion.
Another option is to consider that Scubla is coming from a perspective of pantheism or earth paganism:
Masculine religion sanctifies violence, sacrifice, the impure blood that irrigates our furrows: it is a religion of rites of initiation, in which men play at conceiving children by subjecting them to ordeals of blood and death; a religion of warrior gods. Feminine religion sanctifies life, glorifies milk rather than blood: it is a religion of fertility cults and earth mothers, a religion of breastfeeding goddesses. (285)
Whatever the motivation behind Scubla’s work, it is certainly formidable work, and definitely worth reading. I, for one, look for fruitful uses of it, and offer the following personal anecdote. Perhaps at around age eight, my favorite object was a hand-sized toy car from the cartoon Speed Racer. In the cartoon, this car was able to produce a jack that allowed it to jump over obstacles, blades that allowed it to mow through hindrances, and a shield that allowed it to be driven underwater. Although it is obviously plausible to interpret the car as a phallus, this is too easy, and Freud—or better, Julia Kristeva—might identify in my object-choice a longing for the nirvana of the womb, which protected me from the world. I would thus be the driver himself, both protected and in charge of my destiny at the steering wheel, from which various buttons allowed me to modify the world with a mere thumb movement. Scubla, however, might say I was not identifying with the driver, but with the car. It was not that I was trying to be contained, but that I wanted to be the container, with an imaginary driver as my child. I had control over the life and death of this child as I put it through imagined perils in the world around me.
It is this kind of imaginative ritual that, according to Scubla, constitutes the primary form of male reaction against maternal power. Initiations for manhood often take the form of boys being sequestered from women and men pretending the boys are killed by evil spirits, after which the men give them a new birth. The ritual, Scubla notes, seems to be accompanied by a winking acceptance by the women, as if they were permitting the men their necessary amusement. The picture here seems harmless enough, and serves to show that men and women have both essential differences and harmonious interactions. But Scubla also presents examples of initiation rituals that are disturbing in their level of tolerated violence. He refers to certain Quranic apprenticeship systems in which the pupil learns to recite the Quran by memory, and flawlessly, or else he is “subject to corporal punishment administered with unrelenting severity.” Despite this, the pupil—pathetically, in my view—“will continue to regard his teacher with respect and affection” (290). Here, Scubla ends with questions:
Does this mean that we are dealing here with a circular relation, which perpetuates itself indefinitely but which in principle one could get out from, or at least not enter into? Or would it be more accurate to say that a certain form of violence is the inevitable counterpart of any effective transmission of knowledge and technology—the price to be paid for any lasting appropriation of values and norms? In other words, must not the transmission and reproduction of culture necessarily include learning how to ritualize human violence, which is liable to have lethal consequences if it cannot be contained? (288-289).
This seems to me to be almost a justification of that which Scubla so skillfully identifies, namely a tradition of violence. He criticizes a pedagogy involving emphasis on the “personal interests of students and the spontaneity of their motivations” that involves “a crisis of values in both school and church, whose representatives no longer know to which transcendent order they ought to pledge their allegiance” (292). But does Scubla want European schools to be more like the Quranic system? If so, then we seem to be trading an acceptance of violence for an end to the crisis of relativism. Scubla’s book, so useful in understanding the notorious battle of the sexes, as well as the origins of violence and sacrifice among humans, is not, as I see it, an attack on relativism. It is, rather, a powerful challenge to conventional ways of thinking about violence and sacrifice. This challenge is not one that unsettles patriarchy through respect for natural law, but one that unsettles the unreflective thinking that leads to violence and sacrifice, that challenges even Scubla’s own suggestion that violence is inevitable in the transmission of culture.
Carly Osborne’s book, The Theory of René Girard: A Very Simple Introduction, a book of “philosophy with stick figures” reviewed in Bulletin number 49, is now available from Amazon, which saves a great deal on shipping costs for those outside Australia.
With Mimetic Theory is cropping up in coursework in a wide variety of disciplines, a list of syllabi contributed by member may be helpful in thinking about your presentation of mimetic theory and in contemplating which resources may serve your students well.
The Bulletin will continue to feature twice a year, a bibliography of published work pertaining to the work of René Girard and mimetic theory. If you would like to submit information about a work that has not yet appeared in any of these bibliographies, available online, follow the instructions at the top of the Bibliography page.
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