Thérèse Onderdenwijngaard

* Teaching on Monday 12th

INTERVIEW

General coordinator of the European Summer School 2010 is Thérèse Onderdenwijngaard (VU University Amsterdam). Since 2004 she has been secretary of the Dutch Girard Society, and in 2007 she was the main organizer of the COV&R Conference in The Netherlands 'Vulnerability and Tolerance'. In 2007 she joined the COV&R Board and in 2008 the Imitatio Education Committee). Her background is anthropology, with a specialization on Sri Lanka.

ThO: The Summer School for me is a dream come true. Really. The idea came up in 2007, when I was coordinating the organization of the COV&R Conference. The relative small number of students among the participants was a matter of concern I could not at that moment address. And then something else occurred. A week before the conference we received an email from René Girard in which he announced that he and his wife Martha were not able to attend the conference. At that moment I very strongly felt that it is on the shoulders of his students to pass on Girard’s legacy. To be honest, I think, a Summer School Mimetic Theory is a very deep wish, a deep longing on my part.

Jealous of literary scholars
-How did you become acquainted with mimetic theory? ThO: My encounter with Girard’s work has not been a matter of an immediate flash of insight or something like that. On the contrary for a long time I have been very reluctant to really go into the stuff. –Why? I think there was more than one reason. I started reading The Scapegoat in the Dutch translation, while on holiday in France. A friend of mine upon hearing about my research on disappearances in Sri Lanka referred to this book. I remember reading the first chapter and being overwhelmed by its allusion to the crisis. It was all too familiar for me - the social crisis and the political violence in Sri Lanka. A university teacher and human rights activist, reasoning in a very uncommon style for academics, used the same wording to describe the collapse of Tamil society. I could not continue. And then, my problem was that I did not have texts. I am speaking about the time I was searching for a theoretical frame for my study on disappearances in Sri Lanka. I struggled with the methodological and epistemological issue of having to get at empirical data – stories, documents – about something that was meant not to leave any traces behind. That is: it was meant to exist and to not exist at the same time. To make a long story short, I was jealous of literary scholars, because they had their texts, their novels and tragedies. At that time I thought Girard would not be able to help me out.

Breakdown of signification
-When did it change? It was only in the mid nineties, when I joined the Girard Study Circle at the VU University in Amsterdam that I began to see how different scholars apply Girard’s thinking. The Girard Society is an interesting group of people. In our meetings there are always disagreements, also with Girard’s texts, and, yet, for thirty years the group has been meeting five times a year, maybe because, as has been suggested by some, its members have an existential interest in mimetic theory.
My hang-up with discussions in the group during those days was that most attention was given to the scapegoat mechanism. I was more interested in the moment of breakdown of signification. So, I presented a paper in 1998 entitled "Terror in Sri Lanka: the breakdown of signification". It was a very superficial application of parts of Violence and the Sacred, just touching the work of Girard. It was like sticking my toe into the cold water.

Transformational experience
-After High School you started your studies in Anthropology? No, I did my Master in Cultural Psychology at the University of Nijmegen. After I finished High School and before I started my studies I spent a year in Sri Lanka on a youth exchange programme. During that year I experienced what culture does, so to say. It was a transformational experience. –How do you mean? Well, from that moment on I have been aware that our behaviour is deeply and unconsciously framed by culture. I remember one day I was walking on a road in Sri Lanka, dressed in the local cloth. And I had this physical experience of culture – I am sure I used the word culture – creeping into my body from the ground on which I was walking. Of course I was learning the culture consciously – the language and eating habits and so forth -, but this walking this feeling who I was, this was a physical experience - all based on imitation of course.
In a way, without referring to imitation, this is what Cultural Psychology, as it was taught in Nijmegen at that time, was projecting. So the step to mimetic interdividuality was not a big one for me.
- How did you get involved in the first European Summer School Mimetic Theory? I feel privileged to have the opportunity to organize this Summer School. When Imitatio was launched in autumn 2007 and the Education Committee was set up in 2008 I was invited to become a member. Meanwhile Robert Hamerton-Kelly visited Amsterdam in December 2008 and met long time members of the Dutch Girard Society. Two months later I shared my ‘Summer School dream’ during a workshop in Sao Paulo, and in July Lindy Fishburne asked me to go ahead and do it.

Counteracting the felt lack of reflection
- How did you get involved in the first European Summer School Mimetic Theory? I feel privileged to have the opportunity to organize this Summer School. When Imitatio was launched in autumn 2007 and the Education Committee was set up in 2008 I was invited to become a member. Meanwhile Robert Hamerton-Kelly visited Amsterdam in December 2008 and met long time members of the Dutch Girard Society. Two months later I shared my ‘Summer School dream’ during a workshop in Sao Paulo, and in July Lindy Fishburne asked me to go ahead and do it.

ISVW: Centre for reflection on life and societal issues
Together with Michael Elias I choose a very special location for this first Summer School: the International School for Philosophy. This institution was founded a hundred years ago as a centre for reflection on life and societal issues. Interestingly, the initiative for this School was prompted by a felt lack of a general reflective academic approach at the universities. Hence, an interdisciplinary and holistic approach was propagated. By the way, it is funny… Not much has changed, it seems, in our longing for truth and in our complaint about the limited success to have this longing satisfied at universities.
In its rich history the School has hosted renowned scholars like Martin Heidegger, Albert Schweitzer, Paul Tillich, Rabindranath Tagore, Martin Buber, Charlotte Bühler, Jean Piaget, Carl Jung and recently Peter Sloterdijk. I think a Summer School Mimetic Theory neatly fits into this history."

JC