On May 12, 2023, René Girard was immortalized in a New York Times crossword puzzle as the theoretician of mimetic desire. Specifically, the clue to 28 across, Philosopher Girard who coined “mimetic desire” demanded the entry René.
This confirmed the accession of Girard’s most familiar concept to the rank of what we call after Richard Dawkins a meme, a term by which he designated a unit of culture, but which has come in the internet age to designate something rather more specific: a catchword or symbol that, like a successful advertising theme, tends to stick in the memory and is readily transmitted—memetically—from one person to another, usually by means of an electronic device. Which may be said to make of the René Girard/mimetic desire cluster the Ur-meme, given that desire is the uniquely human mode of mimesis, without which language and culture—or the originary hypothesis—would not exist.
In the same way, we might imagine a crossword in which “Jacques” would be the answer to “Philosopher Derrida, theoretician of deconstruction.” Deconstruction is a philosophical technique intended, in the spirit of cultural Marxism, to demystify the classical metaphysics that had presumably been designed to mask the exploitation exercised by privileged classes over the general population. Marx had reproached philosophers with having wanted to explain the world, claiming that it was necessary to change it; and a similar impatience with metaphysics/philosophy informed all post-Hegelian “Continental” thought from Kierkegaard to Husserl to Nietzsche and the Existentialists. Derrida’s term made a good meme because it gave a catchy name to what many post-war thinkers were already trying to do.
Yet Girard’s meme, less outwardly sexy than Derrida’s, has endured longer because it is ultimately more powerful, grounded in the same fundamental anthropology as GA. In a real sense mimetic desire is a pleonasm, a redundancy: human desire is mimetic by its very nature. But that is precisely the source of the meme’s power: it makes explicit a fundamental component of desire that we had always taken for granted without thinking about it; it emphasizes, in a word, the specificity of the human.
A common companion meme to mimetic desire is “mimetic violence.” Here again, specifically human violence is mimetic in a more profound sense than animal violence, to the point where the term violence as used by Girard is really only applicable to humans, most significantly in the title of his groundbreaking anthropological work, La violence et le sacré. Animals imitate each other’s actions, but humans imitate their intentions, which if left unchecked can lead to violence, either as the collective desecration of what had lain under a sacred interdiction, or as its sacrificial transcendence.
What then of GA? Lacking the visibility of Derrida’s meme in the world of philosophy or of Girard’s in the overall context of Judeo-Christian culture, GA operates in a more austere environment. Where the words “mimetic” and “deconstruction” make explicit phenomena of which we were already implicitly aware, the terminology of GA designates elements of anthropology that are normally hidden from view. In this respect, GA’s neologisms are the contrary of memes: they emphasize our insistence that they refer to ideas that we do not “know already.” Hence they are better understood as anti-memes.
Let us consider two examples of GA terminology: the victimary and the screenic.
The first term translates the French victimaire; it refers to the mode of judgment that sets above all else, including any objective notion of merit, the interests of ascriptive (objective, involuntary) categories of beings designated as victims. A victimary category is considered to be unjustly deprived of the privilege possessed by the complementary neutral category in a given domain, as defined for example by race (white vs black), sex (male vs female), caste (noble vs commoner), or ability of a given kind (high vs low).
What we today call wokeness is nothing more than the state of being awakened to the victimary. Whereas civil society tends to deny or at least minimize the victimary stigma, the woke pledge to remain permanently committed to abolishing and compensating it, actions defined as implementations of social justice.
As I pointed out in Chronicle 763, unlike traditional modalities of the Left, the victimary does not rely for its abolition on the resentment of the victims themselves. In this new mode of the epistemology of resentment, members of the non-victimary “majority” vicariously adopt the resentment of the victimary category, thereby signaling their virtue (the term virtue-signaling dates only from 2013), in implicit contrast with the unenlightened deplorables who shamelessly take their privilege for granted.
Screenic is a neologism I created for a book on film (see my “The Screenic,” in Mimetic Theory and Film. Ed. Paolo Bubbio and Chris Fleming. New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, 109-21). It designates a phenomenon particularly pertinent in our era of the ubiquitous cell phone that each member of a social group, say in a restaurant, commonly keeps at the ready and often consults, presumably without giving offense to the others. For this hand-held electronic screen is able to display any and all of the forms of human culture, whether a cinematic or textual narrative, a piece of information, an air of music, or an image. Screenicity as a cultural phenomenon may be said to have begun in 1895 with the Lumière brothers’ cinema. In later generations it came to include first the television screen and then that of the personal computer, attaining its current dominance with the cell phone, now often supplemented by a “smart watch” allowing a more intimate presentation of many of the same elements.
This once realized, we are invited to seek the specific characteristics of the screenic age. In what sense can the other notable features of our era be understood as dependent from a post-Mcluhanesque perspective on what is no longer a mere “medium,” but a device that empowers each individual to possess a personal microcosm of the scene of human culture? The universal dominance of this phenomenon in today’s world is made strikingly clear by the fact that cell phones have become widespread even in countries with few other elements of a modern industrial economy.
For example, can we not understand the quasi-delirious flight from reality to desire that we witness in the replacement of sex with “gender” to the detriment of parental control over even small children as reflecting the cultural individualism embodied in the screenic, as profusely illustrated by the materials on TikTok? The experience of possessing one’s own culturally mediated window on the world, to which and by means of which one can contribute one’s own tweets and posts and videos, is all too easily projected onto the child, whose immature desires are valorized and encouraged by teachers who have been trained to cultivate each pupil’s individual “learning experience” rather than, as in the past, enrich their minds with culturally validated content such as poems or multiplication tables.
An example of the cultural importance of the screenic is provided by the power possessed by social media and search engines such as Google to influence political attitudes. And we cannot avoid reflecting on the relevance of the vastly expanded affordances of the screenic age to the decay of traditional common-sense values and communal institutions, as well as to the increasing abandonment by public media of any pretense of political neutrality in supposedly objective news reporting.
In the screenic world, we are all composers as well as consumers of messages; even Big Brother invites our comments and “likes.” One need only scan a series of Twitter (now “X”) threads on politically sensitive topics to be confronted with a polarized set of prefabricated opinions, less cogently argued than emphatically if not obscenely affirmed.
The increasing frequency with which public speakers are shouted down rather than politely listened to reflects this individual usurpation of the scenic voice formerly authorized by the nature of a public event (see Chronicle 772). How dare we deny to each individual the right to express, or at the very least to maintain in “safety,” his/her own opinion? How dare to suggest that the screen/scene of each attendee is less worthy of consideration than that of the speaker?
In this manner, the transition from authorities to influencers, in “democratically” opening up the public mind to a variety of new—and largely victimary—ideas, has often led to exiling traditional values and even language from the sphere of public discourse.
Yet there is no doubt that the irreversible transformation wrought by the screenic is potentially more a blessing than a curse. Our understanding of originary anthropology provides us with tools that can aid us to integrate it into a renewed social order that preserves the functionality of what can still be called “civil society.” The anti-meme status of screenic provides an indication that, in contrast with mimetic desire, we cannot content ourselves with finding a new name for a phenomenon that we are still struggling to master. But recognizing the screenic phenomenon as a fundamental transformation of human culture is a necessary step toward regaining control of our social order.
To mention just one critical contribution of the screenic to the breakdown of traditional civil society, the existence of cell phones as facilitators of rapid intercommunication is often cited as an important element of the particular destructiveness of contemporary riots in the age of Antifa and what the French call black blocs, as recently exemplified by the devastation wrought in many French cities following the death of a teenager at the hand of a traffic policeman. The new intensity and organizational sophistication of these riots, like the American riots of 2020, make them qualitatively more dangerous and destructive than the “race riots” of the past, even compared to Los Angeles’ Rodney King riots of 1992, which inaugurated the era of cell-phone “witnessing” of what was in that case a clear act of police brutality.
The victimary basis of these riots is obvious: whether or not these involuntary killings are truly instances of racial privilege, they provide rallying points for those who are inclined to profit from the assertion of victimary status as justifying revenge on the society of the victimizers, as well as from the concurrent reluctance of the police and above all the courts to enforce the law with requisite severity. The current rise of conservatism in Western Europe reflects the public’s growing impatience with the public disorder resulting from the failure of many nations to integrate the recent generations of ethnic populations that, notably in France, are increasingly tempted to cultivate resentful memories of past colonial domination.
In refutation of the optimism of the 1991 “end of history,” the dissolution of the USSR has clearly not led to the gradual world-wide adoption of the Western liberal-democratic model. On the contrary, many nations such as Venezuela (Turkey? Mexico? Brazil?) that seemed to be approaching this model have devolved into démocratures, while the intensification of the victimary trend in the remaining democracies, which stems from the same root as all left-wing politics, demonstrates anything but a confirmation of the liberal-democratic system.
Given that the scene is the locus of human culture, it would not be unreasonable to consider the screenic as a, if not the, fundamental cultural element of this evolution in the modern era. Its contribution to the decline of what the French call the régalien, the role of the state in maintaining order, seems clear enough. Thus we must ask: can the state maintain its authority in the screenic era without becoming dictatorial? Is Orwell’s 1984, with Big Brother spying screenically on every household—an ideal toward which the Chinese government appears to be working—the sole alternative to the gradual breakdown of civil society that is occurring at street level in many cities across the US?
The most urgent task of liberal-democratic politics today is to find a path back from its current troubled state to a healthy pluralism open to political debate and compromise. In our search for new means to bolster our societies’ collective authority over the victimary individualism for which the screenic provides an important tool, we are once again reminded of the fundamental importance of the scene as the locus of human culture.