Background

WHAT IS MIMETIC THEORY?
Background for the European Summer School 2010

Simon Simonse


Mimesis

The recognition of ‘imitation’ as the fundamental dynamic of human communication is the point of departure of mimetic theory. While the capacity to imitate allows us to acquire the complex technical and mental skills typical for our species, it is also at the roots of the human propensity to conflict. Imitation determines what we want, from our noblest ambitions to our intimate desires.  The imitation of the admired model cannot but imply a desire to become like the example, and, eventually, to be what he is and to obtain what he has including the admiration. The imitated model cannot but resist being made redundant and thus turns into an obstacle and an object of hatred especially for his more passionate followers. Much human conflict is caused or nourished by this simple imitative dynamic.
Mimetic theory breaks with the assumption of the autonomy of the individual subject, one of the core assumptions of modern thinking, and of the practices to transform the society and the individual that are inspired by it, including the  current plethora of methodologies to discover one’s unique true self.


René Girard

René Girard (1923) is the thinker whose name will forever be connected to this important discovery which is gradually gained acceptance in academic circles. Girard is French and connects with the French academic tradition. Since the late 40s he has worked in the United States. While most of his books have been written in French, his books have been widely translated. Almost all are available in English, most of them are available in Dutch translation.  
Attributing his radical inspiration to the knowledge of the human condition that is contained in the classical novel and to his reading of the gospel, Girard has over the past 40 years systematically explored the implications for the human sciences of the recognition of ‘mimesis’ as a motivating force in human behaviour.


The romantic illusion

In his first book Mensonge romantique at vérité romanesqu (1961). René Girard analyses the novel as the literary form in which the search for individual truth is put to the test through the wanderings of its hero. He shows how the classic novels expose the futility of the search for a true self and reveals the mimetic nature of the hero’s quest.


The scapegoat mechanism

From his work on the novel, Girard goes on to explore his fundamental intuition to other fields, beginning with anthropology (in: La violence et le sacré, 1972). If human beings fundamentally tend to conflict, how come that they manage to live together in more or less ordered societies and have not perished in the violence that their conflicts trigger?  He shows that the answers proposed by contemporary cultural anthropology do not satisfy. The functional and structural approaches en vogue assume order as a given, they are unable to explain it.
Departing from his mimetic theorem, Girard’s argues that people can only overcome conflict by uniting against an excluded third party, an enemy or an individual scapegoat, upon which the violence that divides the group is projected and acted out. The collective drive against the scapegoat results in the restoration of group unity and the victim of the violence is retrospectively venerated as a bringer of peace. The fact that the new unity is based on violence makes it a risky method to rely on for future threats to group unity. It is better to transform it in a way that does not threaten social order. ‘Sacrifice’ is the institution that responds to this need. It channels and controls the mimetic energies unleashed by the ‘scapegoat mechanism’ and is the core of religion. By ennobling, mitigating and mystifying the violence, it is the source of civilisation. To be effective the true nature of its operation needs to remain hidden. The violence of sacrifice is the ‘Things hidden from the Foundation of the World’, the title of Girard’s third book (1978).  Girard succeeds in giving an uninvolved and satisfactory explanation of sacrifice, religion, and social order as outcomes of a self-regulatory process that can be fully explained as by the play of the conflictual energies unleashed by mimesis.


The Judaeo-Christian scriptures and the end of sacrificial peace

According to Girard the Judeo-Christian scriptures play a historic role in revealing the role of sacrificial violence as the source of social order and culture. The connecting theme of the Bible books is their concern for the victim. Unlike other religions that according to Girard take the viewpoint of the sacrificers and the persecuting crowd, the Bible takes the viewpoint of the victim. The crucifixion of Christ is the culmination of this historically new awareness. By taking the side of the victim, the practice of sacrifice and the religious complex surrounding it is undermined. From the angle of mimetic theory, the Bible is profoundly anti-religious. The Abrahamitic faiths are to a greater or lesser extent  not like sacrificial religions as the  Enlightenment thinkers have wanted to argue. Rather they are vehicles of a revelation about human nature that is more profound than the 18th century Enlightenment..
For theologians, believers, as well as for agnostics Girard’s vision opens a refreshing new window through which the Biblical text can be re-read.


The unity of the human sciences
Mimetic theory is now applied in a large number of disciplines: political science, psychology, the study of animal behaviour, education, literary studies, religious studies, etc. Recent research in neurology has revealed the fundamentally mimetic structure of the human brain. A new horizon for interdisciplinary research and for a unified study of human behaviour is opening up. The Dutch Girard Society aims to promote and facilitate this interdisciplinary debate first of all in the Dutch/Flemish language area, in collaboration with other groups and organisations, including university faculties. Secondly the Dutch Girard Society wants to be instrumental in creating a European Platform for the dissemination and development of mimetic theory. In this context it will organise a first European Summer School in July 2010.


Torit, 25 February 2010