Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005)
Author: Dr. Victoria Grace
Review of: Chris Fleming. René Girard. Violence and Mimesis. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004.
It is long overdue that the work of René Girard receives systematic attention within interdisciplinary cultural theory across the humanities and social sciences. Chris Fleming is to be congratulated for providing a remarkably scholarly, comprehensive yet concise, introduction to the key concepts and theories Girard has developed since he started publishing in the early 1960s. Girard, now retired, was most recently Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature and Civilisation at Stanford University in the United States. Educated in Paris, he moved to a series of posts in the USA where he has been based for the majority of his academic career. A literary scholar by background, Girard is one of the most remarkable interdisciplinary scholars of the twentieth century. Fleming suggests that no other theorist has commanded the engagement of such a diverse range of disciplinary scholarship, from literature to chemistry, from classical studies to biophysics, from systems thinking to theology. But the main focus of interest generated through a reading of Fleming’s book would have to be the salience of Girard’s work to cultural theory. This salience is, I would say, a potential, yet to be realised, and it would be difficult to imagine a more cogent overview and catalyst to such engagement than that provided by Fleming’s book.
Fleming begins with an outline of Girard’s key insight regarding the nature of mimetic desire. Girard is a bold theorist who truly has something new to say. He traces the emergence of cultural form and hominization to the pressure upon the species deriving from the structure of mimetic rivalry. As forms of mimesis and mimetic rivalry typical of primates increased in importance within the species homo, involving differentiation of brain function, a threshold was reached beyond which animal societies were no longer possible. Forms of containment of the escalation of mimetic rivalry to the point of death that are evident within animal societies no longer performed that containment, with the increase in the “simulative function”. The cultural, the human, emerges at the point when new social forms develop to contain violence. These new social forms (including language) are inaugurated through the “founding murder” at the heart of the nascent hominoid culture.
This theorisation is reliant on the phenomenon of doubles. Doubling occurs when the escalation of mimetic rivalry has the effect of the rivals becoming increasingly alike, indistinguishable as differentiation is decreased through a violent rivalry to death. Without some form of cultural mechanism to contain and divert this rivalry, and to restore the forms of differentiation upon which a society of beings relies, the species would not survive.
Fleming outlines the contours of the “surrogate victimage mechanism” which Girard argues played (and continues to play?) exactly this role. The evidence of the role of the collective violence to, and murder of a selected scapegoat in the foundation of culture is, as Girard details, to be found in myth, ritual and prohibition. How this singular form of violent murder resulting from this “sacrificial crisis” restores differentiation and calm is argued by Girard and examined critically by Fleming. Through Fleming’s book Girard’s argument regarding the emergence of the ”sacred” in conjunction with the veneration of the surrogate victim for the role played in creating the possibility of the social is explored, in particular through Girard’s Violence and the Sacred.1
One of the additional key themes of Girard’s work is his critical interrogation of the Judeo-Christian Bible and New Testament providing, he argues, evidence of the role of the Christ figure and the Gospels, in revealing the necessarily obscured surrogate victimage mechanism (see Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World and I See Satan Fall Like Lightening).2 Through Fleming’s analysis we understand how Girard postulates the dramatic cultural shift through religious discourse, from a masking of the surrogate victim in myth and ritual to a focus on the innocence of the victim. The tragedy of Christianity is not the persecution of Christ but the transformation of the passion into a scene of sacrificial crisis, through which the murdered victim is sacralised, and the means of overcoming mimetic desire remains obscured.
Fleming skilfully weaves these key themes through a parallel explication of Girardian critique of psychoanalysis, Girard’s engagement with the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss, the literature of Dostoevsky, Proust, and many others including the tragedies of Shakespeare. Fleming also highlights the work of those many authors who have taken up Girard’s theoretical project, including that of Eric Gans on the origins of language, and Philippe Sollers whose wonderful remark keeps recurring in my mind: “the unconscious is structured like a lynching”! Sollers’ reflection on the implications of Girard’s theses on violence and the sacred for semiotics is also quoted by Fleming (who in turn draws our attention to parallels in the work of Lacan and Kristeva):
[Girard’s] interpretation reveals the connections between murder and the sacred, the sacred being maintained at all costs by murder… It appears that every culture emerges through a tomb and that consequently every culture exposes and hides a cadaver. The series of evasions in relation to this question are successions of (neurotic) compromises regarding the signifier taken at the letter, which is the cadaver.3
Fleming’s reading of Girard is acutely attuned to the import and potential of Girard’s contribution. He demonstrates a keen awareness of the points where Girard’s work pushes against the boundaries of what is considered acceptable in epistemological terms within the contemporary cultural theory field, yet successfully draws our attention to precisely why it is that the existing critiques lack substance and are not persuasive in undermining Girard’s theses. Indeed Fleming outlines what such a critique would need to achieve, and notes that it has not yet been attempted. Fleming provides evidence in a footnote (the footnotes are well worth reading) of the way Girard has been criticised for valorising and promoting the very thing he exposes and upon which he turns his entire critical effort! This is a curious and irritating form of criticism that is only too familiar to another controversial author, Jean Baudrillard. Like Baudrillard’s work in some ways, Girard’s contribution has been marginalised because his theoretical engagement is considered to be tangential to postmodern orthodoxy within the humanities and critical social sciences. As Fleming writes:
For those familiar with the (interdisciplinary) terrain, it seems clear that Girard cuts an unusual figure in the contemporary humanities academy. His penchant for broad interdisciplinary systematisation, his preference for parsimonious explanations of socio-cultural phenomena, and his unabashed declarations on religion are all features that cause him to stand out somewhat in an academy which has, for a large part of the twentieth century at least, predominantly privileged the local, the partial, and the secular.4
Through Fleming’s work we are persuaded to metaphorically look where Girard’s finger is pointing without being solely preoccupied with wanting to bite off his hand. Fleming presents his own view on Girard’s defence of his epistemological discourse and critical approach to theory. Not be deluded into the belief that one can say the whole of what is does not mean critical cultural theory cannot have anything at all to say about broad systemic cultural processes. There’s no doubt about it, Girard’s work is compelling and well worth careful consideration and analysis.
Fleming, however, does not comment on Girard’s silences. For example, Girard is silent on the Muslim episteme in spite of the fact that it is rooted to a large extent in the Judeo-Christian tradition since Abraham. While Muslim religion is, like Christianity, in theory oriented towards non-sacrificial forms of establishing the social, its failure to do so in practice takes a different form from that of Christianity, and as such is worthy of, and important to, a Girardian analysis. Girard also offers no comment on, or analysis of, the fact that Buddhist epistemology entirely bypasses the sacrificial crisis and mimetic desire, and that Buddhist communities are known to have existed over two and a half thousand years without being traversed by violence.
It is strange, in my view, that Girard’s theorisations are not better known in the humanities and critical social sciences. I hope Fleming’s is the first of a number of book-length engagements with Girard’s work. Fleming’s book is the first to present an introductory interrogation of Girard’s work to an interdisciplinary cultural theory readership, and as such is timely. I believe this is an important book, superbly written by a scholar whose understanding of Girard’s theorisation is exceptional.
About the Author:
Dr. Victoria Grace is a Senior Research Fellow in Social Sciences, Canterbury University, New Zealand.
1 – René Girard. Violence and the Sacred (c.1972). Translated by P. Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
2 – See René Girard. I See Satan Fall Like Lightening (c.1999). Translated by J.G. Williams. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2001; and René Girard (with J-M Oughourlian and G. Lefort). Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (c.1978). Translated by S. Bann and M. Metteer. Stanford University Press, 1987.
3 – Phillipe Sollers. Is God Dead? “The Purloined Letter” of the Gospel. In: To Honor René Girard. Presented on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday by colleagues, students, friends. Saratoga 1986, 191-196.
4 -Chris Fleming. René Girard. Violence and Mimesis. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004:152.