Mark Anspach

* Teaching on Monday 19th and Tuesday 20th.

Mark Anspach is an Imitatio Fellow and a research scholar at the Centre de Recherches en Epistémologie Appliquée, Ecole Polytechnique, Paris.

In addition to the works cited in the bibliography below, he is the author of Œdipe mimétique (L’Herne, 2010) and editor of the Cahier Girard (L’Herne, 2008) as well as of a collection of essays by René Girard, Oedipus Unbound: Selected Writings on Rivalry and Desire (Stanford, 2004) and a collection of essays on Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Dans l’œil du cyclone (Carnets Nord, 2009).

The European Summer School Mimetic Theory: My Focus

Mimetic theory allows us to rethink the most fundamental institutions of human culture, from religion, warfare, and the state – whose roots in sacred kingship are analyzed by Simon Simonse – to the economy, which will be my focus.

What is an economy?
This question is seldom posed. Economic exchange occupies such a central place in our world that we take its existence for granted. The desire to possess the latest consumer goods is the motor of contemporary capitalism. It seems natural to explain this desire by the intrinsic attractiveness of the coveted objects. But once elementary physical drives such as hunger have been satisfied, social considerations come to the fore. Mimetic theory teaches that, far from being intrinsic, an object’s value – its desirability in the eyes of a given individual – may well derive from its desirability to other individuals. What is primary in this perspective is not the relation between individual and object but the often-fraught relations among individuals.

Recurring cycles of vengeance
Whether in the modern market economy or in primitive gift exchange, I will suggest that different ways of organizing the circulation of objects reflect different approaches to managing the tension and conflict endemic to human interaction. For René Girard, such conflict springs from people’s efforts to obtain the very things that are desired by those they take as their models. Imitation of a model’s desire leads to rivalry for the same object, and rivalry, if left unchecked, can culminate in violence. Violence, in turn, is itself subject to imitation, spawning further violence in recurring cycles of vengeance that threaten to tear a society apart.

Positive reciprocity of gift exchange
Girard presents ritual sacrifice as a means of draining tensions before they get out of hand: all the violence latent in a community is channeled against a single victim. Sacrifice is supplemented by taboos that prevent violence from erupting inside the group. But what happens when violence breaks out between groups? In my own work, I have looked at the role played by sacrificial rituals in the peacemaking ceremonies that end vendettas. In these rituals, sacrifice does not simply bring reciprocal violence to a close; it also opens onto the positive reciprocity of gift exchange. Reciprocity is as inescapable as the mimetic impulse on which it is based. The trick is to find a peaceful outlet for it.

Conspicuous and competitive non-consumption
The type of reciprocal gift giving analyzed by Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss can be reinterpreted as a sacrificial channeling of rivalry into competitive generosity. The aggressive aspect of the gift comes to a head with the destruction of property in the potlatch, an emblematic example of what Thorstein Veblen dubbed “conspicuous consumption.” But in a society characterized by an overabundance of consumer goods, the most sophisticated twist on mimetic rivalry may lie in conspicuous non-consumption: this, Girard argues, is the logic behind the current epidemic of anorexia. In competitive under-eating, the imitation of models – fashion models – proves to be a more powerful impulse than hunger itself.

Anspach, Mark. “Violence Deceived: Changing Reciprocities from Vengeance to Gift Exchange,” in C. Gerschlager (ed.), Expanding the Economic Concept of Exchange. Boston: Kluwer, 2001, pp. 213-24.

-------------------. À charge de revanche. Les figures élémentaires de la réciprocité. Paris: Le Seuil, 2002 (Italian edition: A buon rendere. La reciprocità nella vendetta, nel dono e nel mercato. Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2007).

------------------. “Desired Possessions: Karl Polanyi, René Girard, and the Critique of the Market Economy,” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, vol. 11, spring 2004, pp. 181-88.

------------------. “Trying to Stop the Trojan War: Prophesying Violence, Seeing Peace,” Western Humanities Review, vol. 62, no. 3, 2008, pp. 86-97.

------------------. “L’anorexie et l’esprit du temps,” introduction to René Girard, Anorexie et désir mimétique. Paris: L’Herne, 2008 (Italian edition: Anoressia e desiderio mimetico. Torino: Lindau, 2009).

René Girard. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1977.

---------------. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Stanford, 1987.

---------------. “Eating Disorders and Mimetic Desire,” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, vol. 3, spring 1996, pp. 1-20.

Claude Lévi-Strauss. The Elementary Structures of Kinship, rev. ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.

Marcel Mauss. The Gift [1923-24]. New York: Norton, 1990.

Thorstein Veblen. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Macmillan, 1899.