Academic journal article Philosophy Today

After the Scapegoat: René Girard's Apocalyptic Vision and the Legacy of Mimetic Theory

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

After the Scapegoat: René Girard's Apocalyptic Vision and the Legacy of Mimetic Theory

Article excerpt

Violence can no longer be checked. From this point of view, we can say that the apocalypse has begun.

René Girard

In Battling to the End, René Girard takes a grim view of humanity's capacity to avert a world-ending apocalypse. He asserts that "violence is a terrible adversary, especially since it always wins."1 Girard's claim is not entirely new. In The Scapegoat, Girard points out risks that attend the end of sacrifice in the modern world. With the mechanism of substitutionary sacrifice exposed, humans lose their capacity to limit violence as they did in the past because they no longer can exchange unrestrained mutual slaughter for a focused attack on a scapegoat. As a consequence, humanity risks an escalating violent mimesis from which no escape is possible. Notwithstanding Girard's sobering assessment, The Scapegoat ends on a note of qualified hope. If we forgive one another, we still have time to avert cataclysmic violence. In Battling to the End, Girard breaks with his past. Confronting the utter "powerlessness of politics against the escalation of extremes," Girard doubts that humans can step back from the brink. Quoting Heraclitus, he names war as "father of all and king of all." Counterposing an eschatological vision to the "empire of violence," Girard's eyes focus on a Kingdom that is not of this world.2

So attenuated in Battling to the End are Girard's hopes for humanity that commentators assert Girard has abandoned positive mimesis altogether. Stephen Gardner, for example, claims that Girard disavows all mimetic bonds forged by a desire "for commonality, humanity, and communion."3 Driven by envy, jealousy, and resentment, desire is only violent and acquisitive. Robert Hamerton-Kelly states that Girard makes generative violence the single principle driving human existence. Writes Hamerton Kelly: "Violence is the action of mimetic desire and there is no other action or possible outcome when you combine mimesis and desire."4

Dissenting from Hamerton-Kelly and Gardner, in this essay I recall affirmations of positive mimetic desire in Girard's early work, and I attribute Girard's recent pessimism to the long-term consequences of Girard's abandonment of fundamental concepts that he took from phenomenology as a young scholar. In one of his early works, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Girard argues that affective memory and sensory experience are the "source of the true and the sacred" and the "salvation" of Marcel Proust.5 Understanding that mimetic desire runs through the body, Girard finds in sensory experience the mechanism of spiritual conversion. Moreover, Girard suggests that Proust's references to "habit, sensation, idea, or feelings" allude to an incipient phenomenology within the pages of In Search of Lost Time.6 Indeed, Girard asserts that "the most fruitful intuitions of phenomenological and structural analysis are already present in Proust."7 Nevertheless, as Girard breaks through to mimetic theory with Proust, he breaks away from "Merleau-Ponty and all the authors related to phenomenology" whose philosophies he previously has found "fascinating."8 Girard is increasingly inattentive to the role affective memory and sensory experience play in human life as he begins to exercise the distinctive scholarly voice with which he will articulate essential features of mimetic theory. In Violence and the Sacred and Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World as well as in more recent works, sensory experience and associated terminology figure not at all.9

When Girard dismisses sensory experience as a resource for human transformation, believing it to be an inconsequential remnant of his early explorations in phenomenology, he does so at great cost. In the absence of affective memory and sensory experience, humans are closed off from access to a positive mimetic desire that would express itself in mutuality and forgiveness. Like a deeply buried splinter, the deleterious consequences of Girard's move have festered largely unnoticed; in Battling to the End, they are palpably manifest. …

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