The Uncategorizable René Girard

As I mentioned in my previous post, my current interest—perhaps single-minded obsession—is in my fairly recent discovery of the mimetic theory of René Girard. I just attempted and discarded perhaps dozens of ways to qualify and categorize that name, René Girard1. Trained as a medieval historian in his native France, he first developed an intuition about human beings as imitators par excellence as he taught French literature in the United States. This single insight took him through the disciplines and analysis of literary criticism, anthropology, mythology, religion, politics, Shakespeare, the Bible, Christianity, evolution, and above all else the insight that our imitative constitution as human beings is the source of our violence.2

And so those who would try to say “French literary theorist René Girard,” are trying to reduce him to the earliest part of his career, before his dogged curiosity took him into many other fields. He would not stay contained, which is fitting, since his theory helps to explain how violence is contained in culture, until it isn’t. But with his later reflections on the violent sources of all cultures, Girard became too universalizing and much too religious to be taken seriously under the fashions of the irreducibility of different cultures and the expulsion of religion from all serious thought, respectively.

If you are beginning to assume that I am religious, well, yes, the archives of this blog can attest to that fact, often in cringeworthy ways that have tempted me to purge said archives on many occasions. My identity has always been wrapped up in grappling with Jesus and Christianity and my upbringing in a Mennonite community. I rightly pass for a Christian in many ways. Hell, I have even begun to preach in a church of late, much to my surprise. But my single driving passion, the things that have kept me interested in Jesus and more lately in Girard—who helped me to understand Jesus in ways no theologian ever had before—is learning to build communities that are not predicated on us and them, on the good inside, and the bad outside. And this is why I don’t expel “Christian” from my identity, even as I mourn and reject so much of what Christians have done, and are doing.

Because it’s easy to reduce the world to heroes, and villains. My side, and outside. But it’s not just easy, it’s inevitable. We have never not done this. And that boundary is straining, buckling, everywhere dissolving. Those on the outside are on the inside now. Disorder is everywhere. And that makes it easy for everyone to pick a villain, a contaminant that we will heroically drive out of the community to make it safe. If only there were no Muslims or gays. If only there were no Republicans, or no Democrats, to use the polarized parlance of my USAmerican neighbours.

It’s always harder to see our own expulsion stories, but here in Canada we have them, too. If only those uppity Natives would shut up, stay on their reserves, and be grateful, say some. If only white people would stop being white people, and maybe just somehow magically disappear from this land their ancestors colonized, then we would have peace, say others. And there are more global stories and more local stories and the stories we tell are always about how to return to some mythical peace, before whatever disturbances are wracking us came to intrude upon us, contaminate us. If only they would just behave or vanish or go back to where they came from or obey us, then we would be ok.

And while these stories are structurally the same, you will note that some are backed by concrete and powerful forces, while others are more of a cry in the wilderness from the oppressed. Some stories call for a return to a more stable status quo, while others call for revolution. But the history of revolution does not bode well for ways of being together founded in justice. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Goodbye Czar, hello Gulag.

It’s fitting that I began writing this on Good Friday, the day that Christians remember that Jesus became the paradigmatic expelled one, pushed literally to the margins, on a hill outside the city, and executed after a show trial by a coalition of everyone who desperately wanted to return to a form of peace that they blamed him for disturbing. Because we always believe two myths: that there was once a past that was better than this, stable and ordered, and that we can return to that serenity by what Girard calls scapegoating, which is to say that we always find someone to blame who is not really to blame. In the archaic past this person would be murdered by the community as their sacred duty.

Today, we have more subtle means. From the Indian reservation system in Canada to the for-profit mass incarceration of African Americans, we are always sacrificing others to maintain a cultural order. We sacrifice an unpopular politician in a democracy, but only symbolically by voting them out of office. (It is exceedingly rare to vote for someone, we are almost always voting against someone.)

This was an attempt to introduce Girard and the arc of his thinking as it developed over a long career. There’s so much more that I could talk about, but I wanted to keep this largely non-technical and general, to provide the outlines of his thought and the way it developed over the course of a long and exceptionally productive career. I have so much more to say about all of this, especially the way the theory itself is wonderfully economical in its basic concepts while having an enormous breadth of explanatory power for social phenomenon. I echo James Alison in saying that reading Girard is to find yourself read by him.

  1. I named him “French thinker” in my last post. 
  2. This list could well be longer. Ethnology, sociology, linguistics, ethology, theology, the Vedic tradition, and eating disorders are a few more that I can draw to mind without consulting some indices. 

A Return, and a Beginning

When I was an undergrad and both this blog and I were quite a bit younger, one of my professors asked me if I wasn’t nervous about putting myself out there in such a vulnerable way for the whole world to see. The world seemed younger then, not just me or this blog.

I answered with all the naïveté of a young person, declaiming that I wanted to live authentically and let the chips fall as they may. My professor just shrugged his shoulders, in the way that can infuriate the young who vow that they will always be authentic, always be genuine, unlike you old people who are afraid to be real. I understand the old people now. I’ve seen the mobs.

So perhaps this is why I haven’t written on here in a long time. I’ve become an inveterate journaler, and while that audience is always harsh and often unforgiving, the effects are contained. Nobody is going to come at me for a half-formed thought or an inconsiderate comment that reveals the fact that I am a work in progress. There’s a freedom in that, but also stagnation. Nobody truly writes only for themselves, not really. We want to convince others to see the world as we do. We want to convert them, however brutish our culture makes that seem.

And my thoughts, such as they are, tend towards the largest, most macro levels; towards the biggest questions about humanity and god and culture and religion and violence and especially how on earth we’re all supposed to learn to live with each other before we annihilate each other. The old adage about not talking about religion or politics at the dinner table is wisely extended to the internet by people wanting to avoid controversy. But it appears that my days of such wisdom are behind me, however much anxiety the mere possibility of conflict brings me. And I guess that it’s no surprise that my aversion to strife has propelled me into exploring its causes.

My most recent and important teacher in this journey is the recently deceased French thinker René Girard. His mimetic theory explains the shape and texture of humanity to me in all of its beauty and ugliness in a way that is both powerful and, to use and old-fashioned concept, true. It does not paint a picture of us as we wish we were, but as we are. It is wholly unfashionable and out of step with its time, as all great theories have always been, which makes it all the more fitting that Girard’s friend and colleague, Michel Serres, named Girard the “Charles Darwin of the human sciences” upon his induction into the 50 immortals of L’academie francaise in 2005.

And now I’m tempted to keep writing about Girard and what I’ve learned from him, so that will hopefully goad me into writing more than this anxiously self-indulgent writing about writing.

Thus Ends the Streak

If you’ve been reading here regularly, I’ve been writing a post per day since July 18th of this year, save my company meetup in October. This represents streaks of 86 and 50 days, good for 136 posts in 144 days.

But I’m giving up on posting every day, now. The point was never to post every day; the point was to write regularly, because I can’t be a writer unless I write. The streak is over for two reasons.

Firstly, it just started to feel too pressure-filled. I wasn’t enjoying it. If something is going to fill your time, you should enjoy it some of the time.

Secondly, the requirement to post every day had moved me towards link-blogging rather than, well, writing. I don’t have enough psychic space every day to write an essay, but that’s still what interests me.

I’m going to keep writing, but probably less frequently, and maybe not always here, either. Thanks for joining me in this experiment.

The Wolf at the Door

Climate change is an emergency, but it’s a slow one. The amount of carbon we’ve released—and continue to release—into the atmosphere is wreaking untold changes on our planet. And yet years of prophesied doom has given the warnings a bit of a boy-who-cried wolf aspect. We’re supposed to be in danger, but things seem pretty normal, right?

And then I saw the unprecedented smog in Beijing, and I felt that the sci-fi dystopias of the distant future had suddenly arrived now. From the BBC:

Schools in Beijing are closed and outdoor construction halted after the Chinese capital was issued with its first ever pollution “red alert”.

At 07:00 local time on Tuesday, the air pollution monitor operated by the US Embassy in Beijing reported that the intensity of the poisonous, tiny particles of PM 2.5 was at 291.

The World Health Organization considers 25 micrograms per cubic metre to be a safe level.

The photos could be in Blade Runner. The wolf isn’t at the door, it’s in the house, and we’re hoping it will go away if we keep our eyes screwed tight.

All About ISIS

I’m pretty hesitant to link to anything about ISIS-related, since anything that perpetuates fear plays right into their hands, and into the hands of those who would exploit that fear to get us to agree to all kinds of curtailments of our rights and freedoms in the name of safety.

But, one antidote to fear is knoledge, and I found Vox’s 18 Things about ISIS you need to know quite helpful in that regard. They’re weak, and they’re losing ground.