In a more or less egalitarian society, where people are loath to give credit to others’ ideas without the guarantee of “expertise,” originary thinking is vulnerable to the accusation of being purely speculative. The originary hypothesis is in principle empirical, but it is not one that any conceivable factual discovery could falsify. “Falsifiability” is the primary criterion of science, following Karl Popper’s point that a scientific hypothesis can never be confirmed by data, only falsified. It is important to note, however, that this is the case only for universal hypotheses such as “all swans are white.” Just the opposite is true for the “existential” hypothesis “some swans are white,” which no data can disprove but which a single observation can confirm. Perhaps we should begin to think of anthropological hypotheses as being of this type.

A pragmatic criterion of theoretical truth is the enhancement of the life-possibilities of its potential adherent. In the context of academic research, this would suggest that a theory is “true” to the extent that it facilitates further investigation by the reader. No doubt such a criterion makes little sense in the “hard” sciences or mathematics, where it is sufficient to rely on one’s intuition of “elegance” or “significance” to determine what problems need be solved while leaving the stricter notion of “truth” to more formally verifiable criteria. But in the anthropological domain, things are not so clear. The closer one gets to fundamental matters, the less it is possible to separate the process of modeling from the phenomena being modelled. Hence the empirical hypotheses of the social sciences are pragmatically useful precisely to the extent that they do not raise fundamental questions about the human. The science of economics, for example, is rigorous only to the extent that it can take the fundamental principles of the market for granted. Marx’s ingenious economic argument for the inevitability of socialism is a demonstration of the unsuitability of economic models for broad historical speculation.

Specialists in the social sciences tend to question the usefulness of any non-specialized starting-point for anthropological reflection. Any idea of general validity, so the argument goes, will emerge in the natural course of already-established research programs. Thomas Kuhn’s metamodel of scientific research as the elaboration of a series of “paradigms” both reflects and consecrates this tendency. New paradigms emerge, but they are created by specialists in the field to solve the same kinds of problems as the old paradigms. One field may be transformed by the adaptation of a paradigm from another field, but there is no room in the picture for nonspecialized reflection. This attitude makes perfect sense in the natural sciences, where the only valid sources of knowledge are those developed within the fields themselves. An amateur physicist can do valid work only if he possesses essentially the same technical knowledge as a professional; any insights into the composition of matter that we obtain through everyday experience are best kept to ourselves.

But this is not true of the fundamental anthropology that underlies the social sciences. On the contrary, these sciences’ inevitable specialization makes it imperative that some form of general reflection remain outside their purview. The nature of human action is distorted by any perspective that seeks to reduce it to a set of predictable models–within which the model-maker’s own activity both must and cannot escape accounting. Yet however necessary reflection on fundamental human questions may be, it is not a specialty capable of becoming a legitimate academic “field.” If what I have called “generative anthropology” is truly “a new way of thinking” irreducible to philosophy, academic anthropology, religion, or “critical theory” as practiced in Humanities departments, it must be able to show potential adepts a way in which it will improve their lives–in academic terms, the way it can enrich their research programs–without necessarily constituting a research program of its own.

Which returns me to the familiar notion of resentment. The originary hypothesis defines the human by its deferral through representation of mimetic desire; in other words, by its resentment. What guarantees the value of René Girard’s mimetic anthropology and its generative prolongation are the “triangular” phenomena of mimesis unrecognized in any systematic way by the social sciences or even the Humanities. It is worth asking the question why this is “necessarily” so.


I recently ran across a book that gave me some insight into this question. Michael Bernstein‘s Bitter Carnival: Ressentiment and the Abject Hero (Princeton, 1992) presents the Abject Hero as a transhistorical, one might even say anthropological figure, from Horace’s Satires through Diderot (Rameau’s Nephew) to Dostoevsky and Céline, with its prolongation in two postmodern murderers, the better known of whom is Charles Manson. I admire not only the subtle literary distinctions Bernstein surehandedly draws among these figures, but above all his ethically responsible disquiet at what he perceives as the current fascination with them, a fascination he is honest enough to recognize in himself as well while avoiding both defiant defense and simple-minded denial.

Bernstein borrows his primary anthropological model of the Saturnalian figure from Bakhtin’s “carnivalesque,” which is referred to throughout the book. Yet his one brief reference to Girard expresses sympathy for the mimetic view of the “carnivalesque” as against that of Bahktin:

René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred offers a view of the Saturnalia diametrically opposed to the one endorsed by Bakhtin, and although I am far from sharing all of Girard’s conclusions, his vision of the “mimetic violence” underlying the carnival’s rites and his description of the revelers’ Dionysus as a “god of homicidal fury” contains a salutary counterbalance to any populist and idealizing optimism (p. 36).

This sentence is all too typical. Girard’s ideas are interesting only as a “counterbalance” to those of an officially guaranteed theorist. His broader conclusions about carnival are dismissed without argument in a ritually apotropaic gesture (“I am far from sharing all of Girard’s conclusions”); Girard’s work on Dostoevsky, certainly relevant to Bernstein’s lengthy discussion of this author, is nowhere mentioned. I would venture to speculate that it is precisely because Girard draws “conclusions” from his conception of mimetic violence that his work is dealt with in this cavalier manner.

To take up the Abject Hero as a literary-critical topos is to insert the “dialogic” or “carnivalesque” figure within a ritual framework separated from everyday behavior. Roman Saturnalia and Christian Carnival provide moments of reversal within a context of order. For Girard’s “fundamental anthropology,” such festivals express the very essence of culture, the homeopathic discharge of violence. The lord or king that one mocks on the feast-day but must obey on all others is revealed as dependent for his authority on the paradoxical structure that the rite openly embodies. The sacrificial victim and the king are two variations on the same theme, as Frazer’s The Golden Bough already abundantly shows.

To claim that the authority-figure whose authority is (mock-) challenged in the carnivalesque context derives his authority from the originary form of that very context is to situate resentment and its deferral at the center of culture. This defeats the very purpose of Carnival, which is to isolate the homeopathic discharge of resentment in a specific time and place. Girard’s point is that this isolation is necessarily strategic rather than ontological; all our rites perform essentially the same function of “deferring” the mimetic violence that reveals itself in the Saturnalia. Bernstein could not openly contest this point; his work, triggered by the story of a 60s acquaintance who committed a murder (and escaped punishment through the charisma of his Abject Hero personality), is neither an antiquarian study of a family of rituals nor even a historical study of a certain type of personage. But, precisely, he does not contest the centrality of resentment to culture: he simply refuses to theorize it, presumably as one of Girard’s “conclusions” that he does not “share.”

This gesture of denial, unimportant as it may have been in the overall economy of the book’s composition, is an indispensable act of liberation. For however great the importance Bernstein attaches to the Abject Hero, however much he insinuates that this figure, in his very mimetic unoriginality, has become the ghost that haunts all of us, he never tells us this in the context of anything resembling a “falsifiable” anthropological theory. In order to attract our interest to his book, the author does not propose a “theory” at all, but a singular, “existential” figure. The Abject Hero is whatever we make of him; Bernstein merely proposes him to our attention and prompts us to seek within ourselves the causes of his fascination for us.

The modesty of this theoretical mode is akin to the “showing, not telling” style of successful literature. However we affect to have abandoned the values of traditional “mimetic” literature, music, and painting, in the critical realm, showing and not telling remains the norm because it is more esthetically pleasing, because, in a word, it offers us an figure that minimizes our resentment. The fact that, in the case at hand, the image is itself a figure of resentment is not taken specifically into account by the work’s theoretical apparatus; the Abject Hero is, presumably, one of many “interesting” figures. Thus the deferral of resentment through the choice of the figure and the resentment incarnated by the figure are never brought into relation. Surely on this subject, at least, the mimetic theory of desire cannot be dismissed as a theory of “content” irrelevant to the study of esthetic form. Yet Bernstein must dismiss it a priori, foreclose it, in order that his own work be realized at all.

The last thing I want to suggest is that this foreclosure is an idiosyncrasy of Bernstein, or that Bernstein is a particularly resentful or paranoid critic. On the contrary, if insanity is, as Foucault’s disciples still like to claim, merely deviation from the norm, then it is Girard who is paranoid in his insistence on mimetic violence as the central theme of culture. In contrast with Bernstein’s reader, the reader of La violence et le sacré is not asked to determine for himself the range of application of the model therein presented. Girard entitles his last chapter “l’unité de tous les rites”–the unity of all rites, all ritual, revealed by a single fundamental theory. In the nineteenth century, this is what the reader wanted; today, it is the last thing he (she?) wants. Does this make the theory less valid? Is anthropological truth subordinate to pragmatism? These are the questions my reading of Bernstein inspires, and that I will attempt to answer in the coming weeks.