I recently returned from Emory University in Atlanta, where I attended the annual meeting of the Girardian Colloquium on Violence and Religion. This year’s topic was “violence reduction in theory and practice.” The speaker’s list included a primatologist, an ethnologist, a participant in the South African peace process, and an autodidact writer on the Holocaust, none of whom referred to the mimetic theory of desire; clearly it was up to the audience rather than the speakers to do the theorizing. As compared with my only other COV&R meeting, in Chicago in 1995, the talks were wider-ranging and more thought-provoking, but they included fewer academic applications of Girardian theory.
The conference was very smoothly and professionally run by Theophus (Thee) Smith of Emory’s Religion Department with the able assistance of Maggie Kulyk, a graduate student in Religion, and several other devoted volunteers. Southern hospitality is a reality; when Atlantans tell you to have a nice day, they really seem to mean it.
On the personal level, it was a very positive experience; I felt fully welcomed into the Girardian fold. I look forward to working in COV&R with a couple of fellow old-time students of Girard: Sandy Goodhart, the new Executive Secretary, and Andrew McKenna, a member of the Editorial Board of Anthropoetics as well as the Editor of COV&R’s print journal Contagion. Possible projects include cooperation between Contagion and Anthropoetics, new website features, and more ambitious publishing possibilities.
My reportorial skills being limited, I will recount a single revelatory incident. My opening talk on the origin of language was followed by a presentation by Frans DeWaal, the director of Emory’s renowned Yerkes Primate Research Center. During the common question period, I observed several times that he attempted to stand as far away from me as possible. I took this expression of “territoriality” not as a personal affront but as a sign of the distance that a practicing scientist feels the need to establish between himself and an “armchair” student of culture like me.
This incident led me to reflect once more on the difference between the scientific and the “humanistic” or, as I prefer to call it, the generative approach to cultural matters. What attracted me to René Girard from the first, as a graduate student in 1960, is that his work is rigorously minimalistic, always directed toward the most parsimonious explanations of cultural phenomena. I was reminded of this the other day when reading a recent book, best left unnamed, on (purportedly) the origin of religion. This work makes a long detour through Freudian theory, discussing the evolution of “the child” through oral and anal stages to his fears of castration with the onset of the Oedipus complex. None of this discourse of desire, needless to say, is supported by one iota of proof beyond Freud’s own authority. What is truly egregious in Freudian (and Lacanian) discourse is its utter reliance on narrative plausibility. “The child” is made the protagonist of a series of adventures about which we can know nothing directly because he is not yet capable of telling us about them. Instead of presenting experimental data, psychoanalysis offers just-so stories that we must accept on the faith of an undemonstrable “clinical experience.” In Girard’s work, on the contrary, there is no appeal to any experience that is not immediately shared with the reader. Although a book like Violence and the Sacred contains no tables of data, it offers a clear thesis and a simple model that, one would think, could be easily tested in the laboratory.
One of the more popular sessions at Atlanta was one conducted by a trio of psychologists using mimetic theory in place of the usual Freudian dogma. As psychotherapist Rusty Palmer put it to me over lunch, patients don’t pick up readily on suggestions about their repressed conflicts with their father, but they react immediately to an observation like “that fellow at work really has a piece of you.” Mimetic theory suggests that one mediator is like another, that the one we really care about and prefer to “repress” is not the first but the latest. In this sense alone, the mimetic theory of desire is a “structuralism”: what matters most is not tracing desire to its source in some childhood experience but understanding the mechanism itself. Perhaps that fellow at work’s resemblance to my father makes it easier for him to “have a piece of me,” but the time it would take to explore the past in an effort to find out would be better spent on reflecting on the mimetic situation in which I presently find myself.
Adapted to the study of culture, this conclusion would imply, not that we should be concerned exclusively with the present, but that we should focus on the specific manifestations of mimetic desire that characterize the times and places that interest us. What is important about a given culture may be described according to Rusty’s criterion; our task is to discover what had “a piece of” the members of this culture, including those members–here I do not disagree with proponents of such things as “women’s history”–whose unpublicized resentments would surface only in future generations.
As we examine the literary works and other discourses of an era, mimetic theory makes us particularly sensitive to the presence of mediations that authors are at pains to deny. To give an obvious example that “literary history” is still far from having assimilated: if the nineteenth-century proponents of l’art pour l’art castigated the “bourgeois” for his vulgar desires, instead of taking them at their word as true aristocrats of the soul shocked by vulgarity, we will get much farther by understanding the hated bourgeois as “having a piece of” the artists of the period, none of whom could credibly claim to have remained uninfluenced by the values of the expanding marketplace.
“The lady doth protest too much” is not a new idea, but the generative theory of mimetic desire allows us to go beyond the mere imputation of denial. The resented mediations that generate such denials reflect the circulation of desire in the society. The need to differentiate ourselves from that which threatens us by its absorbing sameness reveals a culture’s historical specificity–how does poëte-vs-bourgeois compare with, for example, the poet/lover-vs-jealous lozengier in medieval love-lyric?–but at the same time its “universality,” by which we mean not that all literary works convey the same message, but that they progressively display new levels of anthropological revelation as their characters become less like gods and “more like us.” Whether or not, as I have suggested, this double progression of literary works toward specificity and generality reaches its historic high point in the postromantic era around the turn of the twentieth century is itself a question for Generative Anthropology, although not one I can deal with here.
The skeptic may reply that although Freudian discourse is an extreme mystification, Girardian discourse is only a sparer one. Why, in order to study cultural phenomena “objectively,” do we need a “theory” at all beyond the basic principles of scientific method? Hypotheses, in this view, should be local, formulated only after the study of a particular set of data. Whether we call it “mimetic theory,” “fundamental anthropology,” or “Generative Anthropology,” Girardian thinking asks us to accept an a priori understanding of human behavior rather than trust to empirical observation and its extensions in the cautious generalizations of the social sciences. As for explaining the seemingly unshakable popularity of Freud: if Freudianism and Girardianism are systems of faith, “religions” of a kind, then it is easy to see why those of a religious disposition would prefer the richer ritual and mythic atmosphere of the first over the relative austerity of the second. There are more Freudians than Girardians for the same reason that there are more Catholics than Unitarians: those whose temperament makes them suited to a minimal religion or a minimal hypothesis are even more suited to no religion and no hypothesis at all.
My answer is that, whatever the theory of temperaments predicts, at the end of the day the most productive theory will prevail. Scholarly projects are experiments whose payoff cannot be measured by their concordance with the personality types most prevalent in the academy. In the preceding Chronicle, I called GA the “little bang” theory. Now I shall try to show not only that our “little” hypothesis of origin derives from the Girardian model of human desire, but that it offers the minimal justification for the adoption of any a priori hypothesis concerning human desire.
Readers of the recent series of Chronicles on the origin of language will recall that as scientists come closer to understanding the brain functions that make human language possible, they are increasingly respectful of the fundamental difference between language and the ape-calls that earlier generations saw as the unproblematic predecessors of language. This difference appears mysterious, not because it is so large, but because it is so small. What indeed distinguishes a word, a linguistic sign, from a signal, prior to the existence of a system of signs?
My claim is that the “mystery” is not a feature of the reality of the origin of language but of the method used to describe it. If “scientific method” cannot accommodate the singularity of an originary moment, then rather than denying the necessity of such a moment, we must modify scientific method. The “little bang” of the originary hypothesis accomplishes this task in a minimal fashion.
The little bang is a way to conceive the origin of language as the passage from one kind of communication system to another. But communication through signs is a form of mimesis. To the skeptic who claims that we need only formulate our hypotheses on the basis of the data, without an a priori theory, we answer that in order to model the origin of language, we need to find the basis for this originary singularity within the repertory of human behavior, and that the mimetic theory of desire is the minimal structure of paradoxical behavior or “pragmatic paradox” that provides such a basis. To learn from imitating another what to appropriate from the world is “at the same time” to enter into conflict with him over the object of this appropriation. This conflict cannot in principle be contained through animal hierarchies because its intensity cannot be matched by the differential energy available to such hierarchies. (This would require, for example, that as mimetic tensions in the group increase, the differences in strength between alpha, beta, and other animals must increase at the same rate.) Thus when conflict becomes inevitable, it can be forestalled only by a new form of relation to the object that we call the sign. The singularity of the “little bang” and the mimetic model of desire have this in common: they refer to a structure that is necessarily inaccessible to empirical observation. It is this minimal structure, rather than the complex syntax of mature language, that provides the basis for Chomsky’s famous “refutation” of Skinner’s attempt at a behaviorist analysis of language. No “language module” is required for this purpose; what suffices is the communal accord concerning the central sacred object and the sign that is taken to represent it.
Thus the ultimate contribution of the Girardian thinking that inspires the Colloquium on Violence and Religion is the opportunity to understand the origin of the sign in terms exclusively of the paradox of mimesis, that is, without the intervention of “supernatural” forces. But the originary hypothesis explains at the same time why such forces are necessarily evoked. To understand the origin of the sign, we must understand the sacred quality of its referent. The sign is the name-of-God; the sacred, what is designated by the sign. Paradox is the minimal explanation, but there is no higher criterion by which to decide if paradox by itself is explanation enough, if our connection to the community through language can be understood otherwise than in terms of a subsisting mediating being. Whichever may be the case, an invisible barrier will always separate the purely empirical study of human behavior, including that of the brain, from the human essence revealed in the birth of language. If there is to exist a true science of the human or science humaine, it will be through the acceptance rather than the denial of the revelation that COV&R has chosen as its mission to preserve.