As I attempted to show in a recent article, René Girard is Durkheim’s true successor in the anthropology of the sacred. Durkheim was the first to understand the function of the sacred-bearing institution of religion in maintaining the social order; Girard provided a generative model of the sacred as the solution to the problem posed to humanity by mimetic desire. Sacred ritual, which for Durkheim merely reinforces the attachment of the individual to his society, is for Girard a reenactment of the proto-sacrificial mechanism that generates the sacred/profane dichotomy by discharging and expelling sacred violence and partitioning the profane world into differential roles. Improving on the daring but anachronistic example of Freud’s Totem and Taboo, Girard conceives a generative scene of the resolution of mimetic crisis through “emissary murder” as the minimal kernel of the human.
Although higher animals imitate one another’s appetitive actions, both positive and negative, in the search for food or in flight from predators, in designating a particular object, the mediating animal does not modify its intrinsic value; this designation neither arouses desire for a previously undesired object nor privileges its specific object over the general category of which it is a member. Consequently, it can modify the appetitive value of the object only in the long-term context of Baldwinian (behavior-driven) evolution. Human mimesis does not need to change the genetic code to influence behavior, or desire itself, because relationships between human beings are mediated by the scene of representation. The disciple does not imitate the master’s desire as one imitates a physical gesture; this desire functions to sacralize its object.
The fact that Girard has never considered himself a philosopher makes all the more significant his qualification of mimetic desire in his early (1961) work Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque as “metaphysical.” Aristotle’s term, taken near-literally, designates the sign in a human system of representation, which stands “beside” (meta) physical reality. Thus the metaphysical world is ultimately the world of human language, but alienated from its human origin and set in the heaven of the Ideas. Metaphysics grants reality to the symbolic world of ideas, concepts–ultimately, words–independently of the world they represent; it is a secondary matter whether this reality be explored in itself (idealism) or as a model of the represented world (rationalism). We remain within the domain of metaphysics so long as we ignore the filiation of the word/concept/idea/signified with the ostensive event from which it derives, just as, when we understand desire as a binary relation between subject and object, we ignore the ostensive event by which this object was designated to us. Ignorance of the ostensive origin of the “context-free” concepts of metaphysics is the cognitive analog of the romantic lie (mensonge romantique) of unmediated desire.
The scenic imagination of the Enlightenment constructs an anthropological genesis for the ancients’ timeless conceptions of the social order, but remains on the level of politics, the interaction of represented desires. The language by which we represent these desires does not appear to require a collective scene of origin; it is conceived either as emerging from the indexical signs of natural appetite (Condillac) or as the product of a unique faculty of free contemplation (Herder). The Romantics abandoned generative hypotheses for representations of the nature we all presumably share beneath the divisive mediations of bourgeois exchange, and which hold out the promise of the universal harmony that Romantic poets seek to incarnate in images. Romantic politics, exemplified in France by the most illustrious of these poets–both Hugo and Lamartine sat in the legislature of the July Monarchy and were active in the abortive Second Republic, the latter as its first provisional president–equated shared ideas and images with shared feelings, or, in political terms, with shared interests. In conceiving these representations as a source of harmony, the Romantic confuses their deferral of mimetic conflict with the final transcendence of mimetic desire.
The attack on metaphysics begins in earnest after 1848 with the fall of the French Second Republic, the last creation of the Enlightenment bourgeois-revolutionary ethos. On December 2, 1851, Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état dealt the death-blow to romantic politics and the human ontology that lay behind it. Here was a seemingly definitive demonstration that harmonious representations did not produce harmony among human beings, but merely deferred for a time their propensity for conflict. Marx, Nietzsche, and their successors see the pacific conceptual system of metaphysics as an ideology to unmask, or, more prudently, to deconstruct. Where the Enlightenment had thought it sufficed to eliminate the historical arbitrariness of the sacred for universal reason to take its place, Marx saw bourgeois universalism as a mask for exploitative production relations. Philosophy/metaphysics does no more than transmogrify the time- and class-bound reason of the current ruling class into universal truths; changing the world begins by demystifying these “truths.” Marx was nonetheless a believer in reason–the reason of history, which “scientific socialism” demonstrated to be that of the proletariat. Nietzsche replaces the triumph of historical reason with the triumph of the individual will over the imprisoning force of falsely universal truth. This paradoxical struggle of the Nietzschean self with its “own” representations has been the obsession of philosophy ever since, even of analytic philosophy, haunted by the same paradoxes in a drier, logical form.
The postwar, postmodern world marked by Hiroshima and the Holocaust inspired a new radicalization of the scenic imagination. A world where the deferral of violence would henceforth be “forever” the most crucial preoccupation saw every context-free Idea as potentially a mask of violence. The most common recourse was to confess this violence at the outset; this avowal of “white guilt” was the chief power-source of the post-war victimary revolution that ended colonialism and so many other formal inequalities. But victimary thinking, whatever its efficacy in the political sphere, is a flight from metaphysics rather than an overcoming of it. The unending task of this overcoming can be carried out only by moving “outside” metaphysics to imagine, on the scene of representation, the birth of the scene itself–by replacing originary philosophy with originary anthropology. This Girardian transformation, the expressed aim of Violence and the Sacred, is already implicit in the analysis of “triangular” desire in Mensonge. Although the prestige of each fictional mediator exists within a specific interpersonal relationship, Girard’s analysis makes clear that the mediator exercises his power on the communal scene of representation internalized by the disciple. The collective nature of mediation will later be made explicit, but the triangle of desire is already a minimal model of the community in which the reduction of the triangle to a simple subject-object relationship defines metaphysical desire. This model refutes the pessimistic claim that we are imprisoned within the metaphysical; mediation can be known and rejected, if only for a more distant, more explicitly communal mediation.
To seek to remedy this ignorance of the mediations that direct our desire is less a cognitive than an ethical act, designed to free our desire from the confines of a specific triangle to let it circulate within society as a whole. For Girard, our choice is between a worldly idol and the true sacred, whose truth is understandable in Durkheimian terms as correspondence to the most universal values of society/humanity. This choice cannot be made once and for all; it is an unending process. The same is true in the cognitive domain; as we elaborate models of the human world, we must continually reconnect them to their origin in the deferral of violence. Metaphysics is the instrument of our conquest of nature, but, in the human sphere, we must move toward its overcoming, as we seek to overcome the resentments of mimetic desire. The fact that we communicate in context-free declarative sentences does not absolve us from the task of hypothetically reconstructing the scenic context within which our shared concepts are generated.
Metaphysical desire, like metaphysical thought, assimilates culture to nature. We can only think, or desire, a “natural” object that we apprehend from without; but the source of both desire and thought lies in human representation, which can be understood only from within. The overcoming of metaphysical thought is originary thinking; the overcoming of metaphysical desire is love: this is the double transcendence of Girard’s Christian anthropology.