Friday, 11 March 2016


All societies, large and small, says Rene Girard, are built on mimetic desire. We all want the same things, because we have learned to want the same things from each other. Our shared desire is cohesive, drawing us together, but it is simultaneously destructive of the social order, because it is competitive. Our shared desires give us commonality with everyone else in the society but the finite supply of the objects of our desires mean that we must compete for them and in that competition some will be satisfied and some will not. The inequality of distribution gives rise to elites and the desires of those in the elites become increasingly normative for those outside the elites. That is to say, us plebs look at the beautiful people, see what they want and want it even more so. As time passes all societies become unstable as mimetic desire and the competition which emanates from it escalate. If this escalating competition was not controlled the society would eventually disintegrate.

Now it's pretty obvious that the most enlightened way of dealing with this instability would be to recognise that our desires are mimetic and therefore are not of eternal moment. We would recognise the silliness of us all playing this kindergarten game of desiring what the cool kids are currently playing with,and only what TKKACPW, and we would go on with a range of alternatives, peacefully, side by side. But of course we don't do this, because to admit the force of mimetic desire would mean we would need to abandon one of our most cherished illusions; namely that of our own freedom to choose. We would need to admit that rather than being a free agent following our own rational choices we are complex social creatures who learn pretty much everything; and that we learn what we desire as much the same way as we learn what language to speak.

There needs to be another mechanism by which the instability inherent in every society is dealt with, and Girard says there is just such a mechanism and it is used universally. That mechanism is scapegoating. When a society becomes unstable, as all societies must, an individual or a group is identified and the instability is attributed to that person or persons. The scapegoat, who is asked to bear the weight of the society's dysfunction, is selected because they  are different enough to be able to be are similar enough to the members of the society to be identified with but are different enough to be identifiable. People who are very poor or very rich; those whose bodies are in some way obviously different; those who hold varying beliefs or whose practices are not exactly those of the society; in fact anyone who can be singled out and can be in some way separated from the other members of the society without causing too much further instability will do. The scapegoat may be part of the society or may be outside it, but in either case the remedy is the same. The scapegoat is isolated and then got rid of, sometimes by banishing, but usually by death.
In getting rid of the scapegoat the supposed reasons for the instability of the society is dealt with.

And scapegoating works. United in their enmity of the scapegoat the society regains a measure of cohesiveness that can last for some time, or at least, until the mimetic desire which binds the society begins, as it must, to destroy it again.

Girard says that this process of scapegoating as a means of dealing with the destructive force of the very process which forms us lies behind all religious systems, and ultimately, all culture and literature. I am not sure he is completely right about the complete universality of the process, but it is pervasive and powerful, and in it Girard provides an explanation of the rise of religion, which is for me very convincing. He also gives a cogent argument for the distinctiveness and power of the Christian Gospel and the insights from Jewish thought and history out of which it arose. Be patient I'll try and explain all that later.

1 comment:

Bruce Hamill said...

Good summary Kelvin. I look forward to your future engagement with mimetic theory