The Scapegoat: Introducing Mimetic Theory (Part Two of Three)

When René Girard understood that a copied desire for the same object could cause conflict between two people, he began to wonder why we have not all destroyed each other. This led him to his second of three discoveries that get grouped together under the rubric of mimetic theory, the first being borrowed or mimetic desire, covered in the previous post

As covered in that post, the destructive possibilities of shared desire were quite clear in the archetypal example of the love triangle. Two men first copy each other’s desire for the woman, but then increasingly imitate each other’s rivalry and, ultimately, violence towards the other. But these men do not exist in a vacuum. Will their violent rivalry not also be transmitted contagiously to those around them, causing the whole group to fall into a state that Hobbes called the war of all against all as the community takes sides in the conflict?

To answer these questions, Girard again turned to fields that he was a novice in: anthropology and mythology. He detected a common thread, often disguised and hidden, in the constellation of myth, ritual, and taboo that we so often name as religion. What Girard discovered at the heart of all human culture is that we fight bad violence with supposedly good violence by sacrificing a scapegoat.

Let us imagine an early human community in strife for some reason or another. Perhaps there is a conflict between two males over access to a mate, a kind of love triangle as we already looked at. The entire tribe gets drawn into the conflict, forgetting whatever was even being fought over as everyone imitates everyone else’s rivalrous violence in an escalating fashion. Anyone who has experienced a mob phenomenon will know that this would feel as though something has possessed you. 

In the midst of the “possession” caused by escalating rivalry, the crowd, about to tear each other apart, turns on one of their own. In a way that nobody else will afterwards be able to explain, the rage of all against all transforms into all against one. The singled-out one is quickly seen to be the one responsible for all of this strife. The crowd, who were formerly imitating each other’s rivalrous violence, now imitate each other in their expulsion of the contaminating influence who brought this strife into their midst. Expulsion here is a euphemism for collective murder. The community atones for their crisis by uniting in blaming the surrogate victim for all of their troubles.

And it works. The group has no idea what has happened, carried along unconsciously by the intensity of the experience of being caught up in one another’s rage, and then in the unified peace that descends when all come into accord to murder the surrogate victim. The victim is seen as a demon, an outside force that came to disrupt their unity, but also as a god, come to teach them about how to resolve a crisis. This is why the gods demand sacrifice: because we do, unwittingly.

This evil/good polarity in the now-divinized victim explains not only all of the contradictory and even unsavoury aspects of so many of the mythological gods of various cultures throughout the world, but also the origins of the myths, rituals, and taboos that found human culture itself. Because the peace brought about by the sacrifice of the surrogate victim is based on a lie, mimetic rivalry will once again slowly creep into the group, growing into the crisis that will now be seen as a sacrificial crisis, as some more senior member of the community recalls how to resolve it: find out who’s to blame. Who’s the one in our midst that we must be rid of in order to restore peace?

The key thing to understand is that, from the perspective of the community in sacrificial crisis, the scapegoat is really guilty. They’ve learned is that a crisis like this arises because somebody stirred it up, and it will be resolved once that person is identified and expelled. And it succeeds, every time, so long as the truth of the essentially arbitrary nature of the victim’s selection remains hidden. It helps that they’re dead. Girard calls this state of veiled ignorance méconnaisance, loosely translated as misunderstanding or misrecognition. We never make victims, our actions are always just and true in rooting out the sources of evil among us.

Ritual names the infinitely variable generative process by which the early community imitates the founding murder of the surrogate victim. The group is unsure exactly why the murder worked last time, so they elevate small, needless details to the level of necessity, turning an accidental discovery into a ritual repetition that is itself the foundation of all cultural learning. Taboo, or prohibition, begins to name objects and practices particularly susceptible to mimetic rivalry, likely beginning with the incest taboo. If a sister is a viable mate, then brothers are far more prone to rivalry than if she is forbidden. Taboos also provide a convenient source of identifiers for future sacrificial victims, such as Oedipus, supposedly guilty of not only incest, but also of parricide. 

Most myths such as Oedipus Rex only need scant interrogation to see that they are tales of scapegoating. Oedipus is “fated” from the beginning to commit the crimes he is later accused of. He comes to Thebes as an outsider, with a limp, two classic stereotypes of scapegoats. He initially saves the city from a crisis, but later a plague—a classic mythical motif of a mimetic crisis—descends on the city and Oedipus’ crimes of parricide and incest are revealed. Oedipus, upon discovering his crimes, blinds himself and order is restored to Thebes. But myths are told by the survivors who come up with all kinds of fantastical explanations for the crimes of their victims, who must really be guilty for the victimage mechanism to work. And so the victims in myth will always agree with his or her tormentor, sometimes to the point of inflicting the violence on themselves in agreement with the crowd who accuses them. Myths lie. They are the primitive version of history as written by the winners. It’s hard for victims to raise their voice when they’re dead.

This theory of the collective founding murder of the surrogate victim is deeply unfashionable to many. It is too big, too ambitious, it explains too much, is too obsessed with violence. You can’t just explain all religion and culture in all of its multitude of forms without falling prey to ethnocentrism, can you? And yet, is there not something that unites us as human beings in all of our variability and multiplicity?

Girard himself would grow increasingly bold and unfashionable in lockstep. Violence and the Sacred made him an academic star, particularly in his native France. But Girard would turn next to the question of what relationship his victimage hypothesis had to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and his discoveries surprised everyone, including himself. Next time, we will explore the third of the three pillars of mimetic theory: the unique perspective of Christianity on victims.

Borrowed Desire: Introducing Mimetic Theory (Part One of Three)

My previous post introduced René Girard’s thinking in very broad terms. I have a lot of things I want to talk about in light of his thought, but I also want to get the basics right. Because discovering Girard’s thought has been like a key that unlocks forgotten doors, or perhaps an ultraviolet light at a crime scene, revealing things that were there all along, yet hidden.

Girard’s thought is typically described as evolving through his first three major works, beginning with Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. Girard was trained as a historian, but as a Frenchman teaching in the USA, he was assigned to teach French literature. Immersed in great works of literature and untrained in the literary studies orthodoxy that each work should be considered only for its individual aesthetic genius, Girard began to notice a common theme running through all of these great works. At the heart of the all of the conflicts that drove the plots of these novels, there was a recognition that our desires are not really our own.

Girard describes human desire as imitative, but preferred to use the Greek word mimesis, largely because we tend to use imitation as a conscious process of simple mimicry. But for Girard, mimesis is a much more fundamental, unconscious mechanism. Humans are the creatures whose desire is always reaching for objects that are suggested to them by the models around them. We do not know what we want fundamentally within ourselves. We come to learn what we want by borrowing the desires of the models of desire around us.

Put two small children in a room with ten identical toys, and before long, there will only be one toy. One child looks at one of the toys, and the second child copies the first child’s perceived desire for the toy. To use Girard’s language, the first child has served as a model of desire for the object of the toy. The second child is the subject who imitates the desire of the model’s desire for the toy. Girard also names this triangular desire, because the model, object, and subject form a dynamic triangular relationship with each other. And dynamic it is: soon enough, the model (the first child) will desire the toy all the more, now seeing how the subject (the second child) also serves as a model of desire in the other direction. They each come to desire the toy all the more as they see it being modelled as desirable by the other. And since the object can only be possessed by one, they will almost inevitably come into conflict with each over it.

Perhaps the picture of triangular desire makes you think about the love triangle, a story that has been repeated millions of times but always amounts to the same thing. A man notices a woman, but is unsure of her allure. He tests out her desirability on his friend, telling the friend how wonderful she is. And the friend agrees, seeing upon it being pointed out that yes, she is indeed the loveliest of all women, a passion welling up within him for this woman he had not noticed until his good friend brought her to his attention. And the desirability of the woman becomes intensified as the two men become rivals for her affection, each mirroring first the other’s desire for her, then turning to rivalry and escalating to an almost certain violence as only one can possess her. The object of their shared desire fades into the background or disappears altogether. All they can see is their rival, who is their double, their twin in desire, but now in rivalry and enmity. This story seldom has a happy ending.

This object can be anything from property to status to honour to the affection of another. Even when the object is a concrete material thing, there is always something metaphysical to it, something beyond the object itself that promises a fullness, a more-ness, a plenitude of being. And this is because the model of our desire appears to us as someone who has comparatively more, or at least comparatively less of the lack that we feel in ourselves. Girard dubs this metaphysical desire: we ultimately do not so much desire the object of our model’s desire as much as we desire the model’s very being, which seems so much more than our own. We want what the other wants because they seem so much more than us.

The implications of these dynamics are endless. Fashion, taste, social media, political elections. “Where should we go for dinner?” usually answered with, “I don’t know, where do you want to go?” Ultimately what Girard saw in the great novels was always a conversion in the protagonist that he believed must mirror a prior conversion in the author’s own life: that our desires are not our own, and that we can find a kind of freedom from the rivalries that drive and define us once we recognize this. I never wanted her in the first place, I only wanted to be like you.

And this is opposed to the modern notion of desire as something that originates purely within ourselves. The French title of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque) is more aptly translated as Romantic Lies and Novelistic Truths. For Girard, the romantic lie is that our desires are our own, but we can undergo a conversion like that a character in a novel who recognizes that their conflicts are all bound up in the way we want what somebody else wants because they want it: the novelistic truth.

This deep insight set the groundwork for the next two phases of Girard’s insight, which would be released first in Violence and the Sacred, and then in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Girard’s restless intellect drew him outside of literary theory, a discipline he was already entering as an outsider. But he did so to follow this single insight, that our desires are copied from each other, and this is the foundation of all human culture. It is the basis of language, and of all of the collective learning that marks out homo sapiens as unique, and especially uniquely violent. That is where we will turn next.

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.