At this year’s annual meeting, held during the first week in June in the unobtrusively spiritual setting of Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R) showed encouraging signs of self-renewal that should reassure René Girard and his friends and admirers that the organization will survive well into the future. There was a healthy mix of clergy, lay people, and academics in various fields. The long-time members were there in force, along with seemingly dozens of first-timers eager to learn about Girard’s thought, which has come to be called “mimetic theory.” No doubt in many of the papers “mimetic theory” was present more as a mantra than an operational principle, but it is hard to expect more of people who almost without exception came upon these ideas outside the classroom. Ideas that spread untaught demonstrate their vitality even when their application in new contexts is imperfect.
This was, I believe, the first meeting at which Girard himself, who turned 80 last year, did not address the plenary session. He spoke only at the memorial service (which I unfortunately missed) for Raymund Schwager, the Innsbruck Jesuit who was one of the pillars of the organization and who died suddenly and unexpectedly a few months after hosting the annual conference last year.
COV&R has been increasingly hospitable to Generative Anthropology. For the first time this year I was aware of a critical mass of persons interested in GA, and next year there may be a separate session devoted to it. It’s hard to imagine that I didn’t attend a meeting of this organization until 1995, and that as late as 1999, I was invited as an outsider to the board meeting to discuss cooperation between Anthropoetics and Contagion, the COV&R journal directed by Andrew McKenna–a cooperation that despite the editors’ friendly relations has never been implemented. At this point I have no desire to insist on the difference between my ideas and those of Girard, whose thought has long been my primary source of inspiration, and to whose spirit I have always tried to remain faithful. My interaction with René and Martha Girard at the conference was personal rather than intellectual, as befitting Martha’s fils adoptif.
I am happy that COV&R is doing so well; mimetic theory and GA would have trouble surviving in today’s academic world without the support of a parallel organization not itself predominantly academic. The sociology of knowledge in the university requires an affirmation of expertise by each discipline and subdiscipline. COV&R encourages individuals to integrate Girardian ideas into their own disciplines, be they academic or professional. COV&R is also one of very few venues where people can become familiar with Generative Anthropology in a context that provides the kind of interpersonal reinforcement without which ideas cannot enter and survive in the public domain.
The ideas expressed at COV&R are quite a bit outside the mainstream in today’s university. If it is relatively easy to forgo symbolic honors from the vantage point of a tenured position, a young academic interested in these ideas cannot afford to be without a job and can afford even less to jeopardize his or her tenure chances. This situation can provide a stimulating challenge, but it must be thought through in advance. An exclusive focus on subjects congenial to GA is not merely imprudent but inadvisable even from the standpoint of advancing originary thinking. Persons interested in GA should focus on learning a field in depth within which they can test and refine its ideas. If at first one passively applies imported ideas, one soon becomes able to make domain-specific formulations that can in turn be prudently generalized.
In the ideal scenario, the “strategy for success” rejoins that of intellectual honesty. The most obvious obstacle to this happy conjunction is the victimary politics that has for an entire generation dominated the academy and its selection processes. But despite a few horror stories, most academics are reasonably fair-minded. One can more easily disagree with their politics than their judgment of significance; one can with reasonable safety hold “controversial” opinions about the currently favored doxa provided that one demonstrate a thorough familiarity with it. One can’t expect to win arguments with supporters of the hegemonic viewpoint, but one can impress them with one’s erudition and intelligence.
Just because the academy today is full of demonizers is no reason for us to demonize the academy. We should celebrate its considerable tolerance rather than insist on comparing it with an idealized past openness that was largely an artifact of the old establishment’s ignorance of the very category of formal challenge. In my brief experience of it, I found the “anti-establishment” ALSC (Association of Literary Scholars and Critics) far more intellectually restrictive than the MLA (Modern Language Association), however PC-dominated; as I discovered, what the ALSC opposes in the MLA is not so much its victimary posturing as its openness to theoretical reflection of any kind (see Chronicle 188).
The Humanities and the less mathematically oriented social sciences remain strongly oriented toward the victimary, perhaps even more since 9/11 than before. But if we put aside our resentment at the canonization of such as Edward Said, contemporary victimary thinking focuses, however inadequately, on creating conditions for exchange between the “West” and the many countries and regions unwilling or unable to enter the global market on any but a combination of unfavorable terms on the one hand and compensatory charity on the other. These societies are inevitably more accessible through their esthetic culture than by any other means; this is the key intuition of those who study their cultural products. No doubt it is far easier to expatiate on how the problems of “post-colonial” nations are reflected in their plays and novels than to offer means to solve them, but the promotion of what these cultures allow us to share is an important symbolic step toward their inclusion in the world marketplace. I think that to the extent that originary thinking takes a position with respect to the field of post-colonial studies, it should not be to dismiss it, nor to deny the value of esthetic works as a means to mutual understanding, but to encourage a greater awareness of the increasing inadequacy of victimary thinking in a domain whose most critical sector has rejected esthetic mediation in favor of holy war.
Today, for the first time since 1789, the central principle of the Enlightenment, that we can reconstruct the originary scene as a model for human relations, is the object of an uncompromising radical challenge. The totalitarianisms of the twentieth century were children of the Enlightenment that spoke in the name of reason and “socialism”; ritual window-dressing aside, their fight with liberal democracy took place within the ideological confines of Western secularism. Now “Western” market society is faced with a threat, whose gravity we find as yet difficult to measure, from an adversary that puts its case in explicitly religious terms.
From the standpoint of market society, the great challenge of the 21st century will be to integrate into the market the peoples of the so-called “developing world.” The ancient civilizations of China and India and the related East-Asian societies seem to have little difficulty in principle in adapting to the market system; Japan and South Korea have already evolved into liberal democracies with living standards and lifestyles comparable to those of the West. Yet other parts of the world have been less successful, and a strain of radical Islam has arisen that explicitly rejects participation in the world market and its attendant culture. From the Western standpoint the challenge is to include the Islamic world in the market; but although a “progressive” element in Islam shares this perspective, the radicals reject Enlightenment values across the board.
Without discounting the tactical need for military action, the only plausible long-term strategy for dealing with this conflict is its indefinite deferral. The sacred and instrumental rationality will always remain in tension, if not necessary at war. The task of anthropological thought, and what I see as COV&R’s long-term mission, is to hold out the hope for an increasing rapprochement between the two perspectives that will permit the tension to be played out in non-violent ways. If religion preserves the centrality of the originary event in the life-world, the task of COV&R is to preserve the centrality of religion in the world of human science. René Girard’s great accomplishment has been to recover and advance Durkheim’s fundamental anthropological intuition, neglected by his own disciples, by defining far more concretely and “originarily” than the old master the central role of the sacred in human society.
Thinking about the sacred and practicing it will always be potentially conflictive modes of activity; the key is to contain the conflict within the peaceful sphere of human exchange. To this end it is necessary to hold open a space in our secular intellectual culture within which the idea of an anthropology of the sacred can become less scandalous while remaining eternally paradoxical. COV&R is one of a very few forums that serve this function, no doubt the only one guided by a theory powerful enough to pay it more than lip-service. It is good news for everyone that COV&R shows clear signs that it will flourish long into the future.