GAlist subscribers who may recall my promise / threat to return once again to the Princess Di matter in the wake of the UCLA Daily Bruin‘s coverage of the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion’s recent mini-colloquium on the subject should not let today’s title lead them to think I have forgotten them. On the contrary, the whole business is best understood as a lesson in the mediation of desire.
The terms “internal” and “external” mediation go back to René Girard’s original exposition of the theory of mimetic desire in his 1961 classic Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Deceit, Desire, and the Novel). Desire once defined as a triangular relation between subject, object, and a mediator who directs the subject’s desire to the object, Girard’s primary classification depends on whether the mediator is external or internal to the world of the desiring subject. External mediation by God, gods, demi-gods, heroes is conscious and socially reinforced. Internal mediation, whether by one’s “peer group” or individuals felt to possess a secret charisma, is a less transparent matter. The closer the mediator to the self, the less one is willing or able to admit his influence. Girard demonstrates the historical internalization of novelistic mediation in a series of novels from Don Quixote to Dostoevsky’s Possessed and Brothers Karamazov.
The relevance of Girard’s dichotomy to my analysis of celebrity should be evident. This analysis included a major and a minor element. The first was that we are attached to the celebrity not because we enjoy filling our empty lives with the excitement he/she generates, but because we use the celebrity as a weapon in our relations with our neighbors. In Girard’s terms, the celebrity is an external mediator who protects us against the pain of internal mediation, another name for which is resentment.
But the celebrity is not an unproblematic external mediator on the model of a god or even a culture hero. One becomes a celebrity when one’s fame comes to outweigh the reasons for it, when one is “famous for being famous.” The celebrity does not inhabit the same world as the worshiper, not by a long shot. But s/he has, as Di was adored for having, the “common touch.” In other words, the anonymous celebrity-worshiper can “identify” with the celebrity because he is able to understand the latter’s good fortune, whether or not due to inborn talent, as attributable to chance of birth or circumstance. “There,” he says, “but for the grace of God go I.”
The originary hypothesis is at bottom no more than a mechanism for generating external from internal mediation. The mimetic tension among the participants who surround the central object is projected onto the object itself as something or “someone” external to the community. But what is lacking in Girard’s model is the dependency of the scene, and therefore of external mediation, on the discovery/invention of the sign. Why indeed must the origin of the sacred also be the origin of language? Because the mimetic rivalry among the potential appropriators of the object, of whom only one could be successful, gives way to the sign’s imitation of the object of desire in which all can share.
The object is thus an external mediator not in degree but in kind. The external/internal opposition originates as that between the external signified and the internal (fellow) emitter of the sign. Here the sacralization of the object is understandable as an “exteriorization” or projection of the desires of the participants. The object’s power to defer violence is due to its presence at the focal point of the group’s desire rather than to any intrinsic quality. But in the absence of the sign, this “focal point” itself would not maintain itself invulnerable to the appetites of the group, as is the case in the prehuman world of appetite. In order to concentrate our attention on the sacred center of the scene, aggression is not sufficient; it is the deferral of aggression through the sign that alone makes the scene possible.
This is of profound consequence for the opposition between external and internal mediation in everyday life. This opposition is at first glance quantitative; one can imagine all degrees of “externality” and “internality.” But this analysis is superficial: in fact, externality and internality of mediation are defined in mutual opposition. Culture is nothing but the social function that supplies to the members of society its panoply of external mediators. We generate these mediators in order to defer the danger of internal mediation, that is, of resentment.
In his analysis of the novel, Girard describes the use of externally mediating literary characters, who in relation to us inhabit the transcendental world of the sign, to model the internal mediation we encounter in the “real world.” Since in the world we experience nothing but internal mediation, the novel is the literary form of “worldliness.” But we also produce in the world models of extraworldly transcendence. External mediation can be figured in the “worldly” novel because the transcendental realm is available to any user of the sign. Within what Girard calls internal mediation we should therefore distinguish between the internal mediation of our desire by the desire of our fellows that is the “unconscious” component of resentment and the overt idolatry of our fellow as mediator.
The phenomenon of celebrity suggests that the proliferation of the former, resentful mediation in modern market society generates the institution of the latter, which we might call internal-external mediation. As our democratic world includes an ever larger proportion of our fellow humans, we tend to choose our “heroes” as well from within our world. The “prehumiliation” of such heroes reveals the ultimate source of the “heroic,” that is, of the sacred, in human desire. Prehumiliation serves to remind us that without our mutual internal mediation, an external mediator would never have been needed. The suffering inflicted on the ritual victim operates on the basis of unquestioned exteriority; on the contrary, prehumiliation uncovers the roots of the sacred in the internal relations of the community.
Hence Diana’s “common touch” is of the very essence of celebrity. The celebrity’s “commonness” with us is revelatory and at the same time mystifying; it is, in a word, a form of deferral. “We” prefer to accept the homeopathic “prehumiliation” of our external mediator rather than reject external mediation altogether. Which leads me to my promised thoughts on our Diana colloquium and on the UCLA Daily Bruin’s coverage of the event.
It offends people to talk about their internal mediation–their resentment. The humiliation of fawning over a celebrity is nothing in comparison to that of envying your neighbor. For the celebrity will never throw your humiliation back at you as your neighbor will. Internal mediators are partners in language; external mediators are not: they are the sacred “objects” language designates. Neighbors cannot be external mediators because they can participate with you in dialogue.
To speak of internal mediation is to expose to the world the secret constitution of the sacred center through mimetic desire. This is “shameful” not merely for me but for the human in general. By “shamelessly” revealing the dependency of my own desire on my neighbor’s, I help reveal as well the dependency of all our religious beliefs–of the sacred itself–on the mimetic desire that alone made them possible.
Hence it was not surprising that the Bruin’s coverage of the Diana discussion emphasized external mediation by the celebrity rather than the internally mediated relationship among non-celebrities that provides its nourishment. Here is, verbatim, the description of (most of) my remarks from the Daily Bruin:
Having any connection with a celebrity helps us to tolerate any inferiorities we have. It makes us want celebrities to be shown as human, just like us. It makes up for the suprality [sic] of the person. A celebrity has to be vulnerable to a type of degeneration.
I indeed spoke of our desire that celebrities be seen as “human, just like me,” but my main point is misleadingly summed up here as “tolerat[ing] any inferiorities we have.” The articulation of these “internal” inferiorities with the externally situated celebrity is never made nor, I fear, understood. The point of my demonstration was that celebrity performs the cultural function of deferring resentment, that our connection with the celebrity does not simply make us feel better about our “inferiorities” but is part of a triangle of desire that includes the neighbor toward whom I experience these “inferiorities.” The Bruin reporter understands why we need to find the celebrity’s vulnerable points, but fails to see why we need celebrities in the first place.
The point of external mediation is to defer the pain of internal mediation. We should not therefore be surprised when this deferral functions even within discussions designed to elucidate the operations of desire. To discuss what celebrities mean to us is no mere frivolity, but an indirect way of discussing the real needs of society in its present state. To discuss, on the other hand, the operation of celebrity itself can only be helpful in a context of mutual respect so serene that celebrity, in that context at least, no longer performs a useful function. Such was perhaps once the case in the university, but it is clearly no longer so today.
The idea that academic life can stand above the conflicts of popular culture is no longer tenable. Thus it is not without significance that the title and central theme of the Bruin article was “Role of Women Excluded in UC Discussion on Princess’ Death”: what above all exercised Ms Michelle Navarro, the author of the article, was that all three speakers on the panel were (White) males, and of my remarks, the one that provoked the quoted exclamation “This is outrageous” was my daring to suggest that “women are not exempt from resentment.”
So it looks as though I shouldn’t have been so dismissive of Princess Di. Now that the university has been transformed from the ivory tower of reason to the battleground of victimary resentments, we will need all the celebrities we can get.