Reflecting on Girard
I've been noodling on René Girard's memetic theory of desire for a little while now, and the more I think about it, the more it seems to explain. Here it is, in a hopelessly tiny nutshell.
We are, writes Girard, imitative creatures in terms of our desires. We often don't know what we want, so we look to others for cues. Our desires then tend to be triangular: there is the individual, the other person, and the object of their mutual desire. All of advertising basically works like this. We want a thing because we see a desirable person, a person we wish to imitate, desiring that same thing.
The first lesson here is that we ought to be careful who we imitate, but that's not where I'm going in this reflection. Where I'm going is the end result of shared desires, which is, inevitably, conflict.
Girard suggests that too many people wanting the same things leads inexorably to conflict. Humans, he notes, will eventually kill their rivals in ways usually not seen in the animal world. Tussles within animal groups become violent, but rarely to the point of death. Once a victor emerges, the social order is set, and the rival either occupies a submissive position in the hierarchy or leaves the group entirely. Humans, on the other hand, will eliminate the rival completely. When this tendency is coupled with the equally human urge for revenge - the result is transgenerational violence, each group seeking retribution from the other in turn. For Girard, this is the ultimate doom of humanity and an insurmountable barrier to any sort of actual society. We'd just end up killing each other off completely. Yet we have societies. How? It turns out that there's an escape valve for releasing the energy of conflict. Girard identifies this as the scapegoat mechanism.
The scapegoat mechanism emerges when a society reaches a period of crisis that threatens to tear it to pieces, largely rooted in the triangular desires mentioned above. A person (or group) will be identified as the cause of the crisis. This person or group will almost certainly be different from the majority. In the case of an individual, it's usually someone who looks different, perhaps by way of a disability. The group will be someone at the margins. In either case, a contagion takes hold until widespread agreement that this person/group is The Cause of All The Trouble. What happens next? The rapid agreement suddenly diffuses - or rather redirects - the energy towards a common target. All of a sudden, there's an ersatz peace as everyone stops fighting each other and looks instead to this person/group.
What comes next is inevitable: the person - and we'll stick with an individual - is killed or driven out of society. Everyone feels better, and the crisis appears to be over. In fact, the relief at deliverance from the crisis may translate into gratitude towards the victim. When the crisis returns, as it always will, memories of the initial sacrifice return and the scene is replayed. Over time, the sacrifice becomes ritualized and set into the stone of mythology, where the victim's death becomes a divine gift. All myth, for Girard, reduces to this cycle of imitative violence and the victim whose sacrifice restores the order of the cosmos.
Examine the myth closely, and the sacrifice of the victim is the correct, required action. Girard uses the example of Oedipus - his punishment and exile are, in fact, the proper responses to the incest and murder he unwittingly committed. His blindness, a kind of self-exile, removed the plague and restored order to Thebes. The sacrifice of the victim was not only right; it was just.
This, for Girard, is where Christianity parts ways with myth, for at no point in the scriptures are the victims anything other than innocent. As a counterpoint to Oedipus, Girard points to the story of Joseph in Egypt. Out of jealous desire, his brothers plot to kill him. Again and again, he is unjustifiably made a victim, and at a moment when his brothers are delivered into his hands, he shows mercy. Leaping from there to the Gospel, we see in Jesus Christ a victim of absolute, unquestioned innocence. We even hear from the High Priest in John 11:50 that it is better for one man to die than for the whole nation to perish. For Girard, the Bible throughout - and the Gospels in particular - detonates myth's entire structure and the received cycles of violence with their self-justified scapegoating of others. Nowhere in myth is there a small group of followers proclaiming the innocence of the sacrificial victim afterward. Nowhere in myth is the notion of an innocent victim at all.
I recently finished Girard's
I See Satan Fall Like Lightning
, which goes into a fair bit of detail and can also seriously use some better cover art. There's also a podcast featuring a series of seminars led by Girard himself that I'm working through. The sound quality on them is a little uneven, though. Bishop Robert Barron discusses Girard here, too, and about a billion times better than I ever could. It's all been a bit mind-blowing, as if a puzzle piece I hadn't known was missing suddenly dropped into place.
I wonder what he would have made of the social media landscape. In one podcast, he obliquely touched on the difference between the distant past and the present in terms of isolation. Archaic societies were more isolated than the present, and perhaps this made a difference in the way ideas spread. The urge to form "societies" seems to be built-in since we can easily opt in to our own respective worldview bubbles. The scapegoat mechanism certainly seems to be alive and well in any event.