This month I attended for the third time the annual meeting of The Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R), an organization, founded in 1991, dedicated to the advancement of the “mimetic theory” of René Girard. They say the third time is the charm, or as the French put it, la troisième fois c’est la bonne. This was certainly my experience.
I had previously attended in 1995, just after the founding of Anthropoetics, and again in 1999 (see Chronicle 170, June 12, 1999), where the general focus was on “violence” rather than on Girard’s anthropology, which most speakers either ignored or reduced to a form of victimary thinking. The group’s demography was becoming less academic and, seemingly, less intellectually productive. This made me wonder about its future.
I am happy to say that the meeting just concluded at Purdue University both confirmed COV&R’s staying power and cemented my own ties to the organization, which generously made me an honorary lifetime member of its governing board–an honor shared only by COV&R’s American and European founders Jim Williams and Raymund Schwager and by Girard himself. For all concerned, this was a triumph of love over resentment, both in my own integration into the organization, and, in parallel, in the rapprochement between the fundamental ideas of “mimetic theory” and those of GA.
The subject of the conference, masterfully organized by Sandy Goodhart, a long-time Girardian who directs the Jewish Studies Center at Purdue, was “Judaism, Christianity, and the Ancient World.” A number of eminent biblical scholars were present, whose talks I was forced to miss because UCLA was still holding classes. The subject-matter, being both religious and scholarly, generated great intellectual as well as spiritual energy.
Girard’s central objection to GA was summed up in a point he raised at my talk: that language is not primary because the first uniquely human act is an act of interdiction rather than representation. As I pointed out in reply, the fundamental premise of GA is that representation is interdiction. The fact that we have evolved a complex vocal apparatus adapted for speech means that language must have begun long before this apparatus had reached its mature state. The absence of the apparatus in the early stages of this evolution, lasting perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, makes it plausible that throughout this time language was confined to the ritual context. The sacralizing, interdicting gesture of ritual is the originary gesture of language, and the two no doubt remained inseparable for most of human history.
It seemed to me as I spoke that the COV&R membership could see, in most cases for the first time, that there was no fundamental difference between our positions. What subsists is the difference between a minimalist anthropology and one whose privileged commemoration of the Christian revelation must be understood as an ethical choice of faith over minimal reason as the necessary basis for the human community.
But where, Girard might have asked, is the scapegoat in all this? Scapegoating provides the plausible link between mimetic crisis and human sacrifice that founds Girardian anthropology, which rejects the deferral or différance associated with the sign as presupposing a “social contract.” No such contract is required to sanction collective violence against a central figure, which we can observe already in animal societies. But where animals attack strangers, whether or not of the same species, the Girardian scapegoat is a member of the community, chosen arbitrarily rather than instinctively. Collective violence against the scapegoat is presumably carried out without deferral and consequently without formal representation; the collective dynamism is self-reinforcing. Once we see the others piling on, we pile on too, just as each fly in a swarm imitates the movement of the leaderless group.
But, as this last example shows, “arbitrary” collective aggression is not in itself a sign of the human. Instinct-driven creatures too respond in chaotic ways to small variations in their environment. What minimally defines the human is collective participation in an event that can subsequently be commemorated, that is, represented. What distinguishes the scapegoat as victim of human violence from the prehuman object of collective aggression is its representation by a sign, shared by all members of the community, that can be recalled in commemoration of the scapegoating event. Just “piling on” creates no interdiction and no sacred.
Defining the human by the sacred interdiction of violence contrasts with the metaphysical angelism that constructs “reason” independently of humanity and its evolutionary origin, while pinpointing the fideistic supplément of religion. The “rational” mind emerges, if at all, only from the mind of God; the human mind, on the contrary, must be conceived as emerging from a prehuman state. Human self-understanding is predicated on a model of scenic origin in a historically specific event. To posit this originary scene as an abstract necessity gives us a minimal generative anthropology; to flesh out its specificity as a revelation, historical in the broadest sense of the term, is the founding gesture of religion. The goal of originary thinking (which may be distinguished from generative anthropology as the dynamic act is distinguished from its static product) is to make vanishingly small the difference between religious specificity and anthropological abstraction by elucidating the religious revelation’s anthropological content. Girard’s conception of Christianity as revealing “things hidden since the foundation of the world” is a decisive step in this direction, one that I see my own work as filling out rather than contradicting.
Why should the world be concerned with our conversation? To what extent is the mimetic model that COV&R is devoted to preserving a means for understanding and for usefully modifying human reality? In my talk, I developed briefly the notion, familiar to readers of these Chronicles, that human society is from the beginning a “market” that originates not in a horizontal exchange of goods but in an exchange of signs designating the sacred–that which is absolutely outside the world of the marketplace. It is sacred exchange that permits the existence of secular exchange, where the symbols that emerged to designate the sacred can be reduced to electronic markers of quantity. This origin remains relevant to every market transaction, and not merely in the broad sense that rather emptily attributes all market activity to the operations of mimetic desire. To recognize this origin is to understand that modern consumer society, where articles of consumption are deliberately packed with symbolic value, is both the Satanic manipulation of desire denounced by religious reactionaries and secular progressives and at the same time a resurgence of originary sacred exchange as the crucial element of the rational exchange system.
The confusion on this subject is no mere conceptual error. Modern society, driven by the compensatory symmetries of desire, seeks to realize on earth the perfect reciprocity of the transcendental Kingdom of God; yet every success in this realization is at the same time a Satanic temptation to forsake its heavenly model. Nor is the understanding of this paradox sufficient to resolve it. The sacred model remains absolutely different from its attempted realization, and in a yet more radical sense than the circle we can never draw on the blackboard. The world operates within mimetic desire and the sacred outside it; in emulating the latter, the former leads us not out of the hell of desire but farther into it.
The crucial nature of this debate has been burned into our minds by the violent events that continue to mark, most cruelly last September 11, the conflict between the market system and the terror its evolution seems inexorably to generate. However optimistic we may be concerning this system’s power over the natural world, it becomes increasingly difficult to conceive how it will withstand the resentment it generates in the human world. If the worldly “implementation” of the Christian Kingdom of God is ambiguously a scandal to Christians, it is unambiguous anathema to those whose religion denounces not merely the scandal of substituting the real for the transcendent but the ethic of reciprocity itself, insofar as it is emancipated from a specific historical revelation and its Law.
Although Islam rejected the Christian Trinity for the sake of Hebrew monotheism, it has not reaped the dubious benefits that the market system has conferred on the Jews. The “democratic” nature of its monotheism, its catholicity in submission to God’s word have proven rather an obstacle than an aid to the formation of political democracy and its associated economy–a world-historical demonstration if there ever was one that the source of all values exchanged on the market is a particular relationship to the sacred. The Jews’ status as the first nation and self-declared “chosen people” guarantees this particularity independently of any specific market context, provoking in response history’s most durable and context-free resentment.
The great question of the twenty-first century is whether the market system can reach beyond its remarkable success in recycling the resentments of its active participants to those who see themselves not strategically but radically outside the system, despite the fact that there is no place “outside” to be. The radicals’ “irrational” denial that they are indeed within the market system leads quite logically to suicide bombing, since the only way to demonstrate the non-recuperation of one’s act of destruction as a value in the market is to destroy oneself at the same time. The radical rejection of a world that knows nothing but exchange requires the refusal of the exchange-value generated by one’s rejection–a conclusion few Western romantics have been prepared to draw. These voluntary martyrs bear witness not to the power of faith, as did the early Christian martyrs who were persecuted for this faith, but to the transcendent power of resentment over a worldly social order whose dependence on the sacred and its violent foundation is thereby affirmed.
It is by no means clear which side will win out in this struggle between the secularized sacred of the West and the anti-secular sacred of the “Orient.” What I do think is clear is that originary analysis alone explains the anthropology of this conflict, from which derives its otherwise mysterious psychology. The survival of Western civilization may not hinge on its espousal of generative anthropology, but the path of lucid reflection on the dangers it faces leads inexorably to originary thinking, by whatever name it may come to be called.