Conflict is one of the most pervasive features of human
existence. Violence--intimate, civil, global--shapes our lives,
raising profound questions about human nature. Extensive resources of the
humanities, social and natural sciences, are devoted to analyzing violence and
to discovering preventive measures. Throughout my professional life, my
research and teaching has focused specifically on intersections between religion
and violence. I have regularly found that mimetic theory
is a vital resource for understanding violence and its links with religion.
Moreover, mimetic theory offers insights that can lead to the non-violent
resolution of conflict.
Sketch of Mimetic Theory:
“Mimesis” is a Greek word meaning “to imitate.” This imitation can be
of words, actions, or behaviors of another individual or group. For
René Girard, imitation is associated with desire, the
desire to be
another. Humans are subject to this form of desire because we desire
the fullness of being. We desire being because we feel insufficient,
inadequate, and impoverished (materially, spiritually, psychologically).
Specifically, because we lack being and others seem to possess being
(i.e., they appear to be self-sufficient, adequate or superior to their
peers, and either literally or metaphorically wealthy) we look to others
to inform ourselves of what we should desire in order to acquire being.
We do this because the other already seems superior to us in their
being: whatever they desire (and apparently have a track record of
acquiring) should enable us, if we access it, to also access being. As
a consequence, looking
to another to inform us of what we should desire in order to be, we find
our attention drawn not toward the object that the other recommends but
toward the other who we perceive is capable of conferring an even
greater plenitude of being. But the closer we come to acquisition of
the object of the model's desire and, through that acquisition, to the
model, the greater is our rejection or refusal by the model. Finally,
the model becomes a monstrous double by whom we are repulsed and from
whom we seek distance. This mimetic conflict ends in a sacrifice that
we experience as conferring the plenitude of being it previously has
describes this conflict as a kind of contagion and notes that it
can involve more than two individuals, increasing so as to place an
entire society at risk. When mimetic conflict reaches a crisis point, a
scapegoat mechanism is triggered. One person is singled out as
the cause of this great disorder in being and is expelled or killed by
the group. This person is the scapegoat. Peace is restored because
people believe that with the sacrifice of the scapegoat, a fullness of
being (and its attendant feelings of peace and harmony) has been
achieved. Unfortunately, because humans continue to lack being and
because mimetic desire is endemic to the human condition, the cycle of
desire regularly begins again.
Girard and his importance:
An historian by training, Girard won international recognition initially
as a literary theorist rather than as an historian when he developed a
theory of mimetic desire and applied it to literature, particularly in
Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. Girard consolidated his scholarly
reputation with an anthropology of religion set forth in Violence and
the Sacred and Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World.
Girard argues that mimetic processes he previously explored in
literature are at the root of all violence. Cultures respond to
violence and put an end to it through the sacrifice of a scapegoat
(e.g., the persecution of Jews during the Inquisition, the witch hunts
of early modern Europe). Establishing that society and religion are
built on a mechanism of scapegoating and that collective rituals of
sacrificial violence are recorded in cultural myths, Girard offers
scholars a theory about the most basic roots of human behavior.
Girard’s mimetic theory, albeit controversial in its broad scope, has
garnered increasing interest and recognition by scholars, confirming his
standing as one of the most important thinkers of our time. Girard is a
member of the prestigious Académie française in recognition of
his outstanding contributions to philosophical anthropology, joining
previous members that have included Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur,
Alexandre Dumas, and Voltaire. The growing secondary literature on
Girard spans the disciplines and includes theorists and empirical
researchers. Seven journals have devoted special issues to Girard’s
work; he has been the subject of four festschrifts; and his books
have been translated into fifteen languages.
Key organizations that support education and research on Mimetic Theory:
Three international organizations promote research on Girard's mimetic theory.
In addition, the Raven Foundation is an important resource
for educating young people about mimetic theory.
Please click on the title in the right column to access the website of each
Colloquium on Violence and Religion
is an international association of scholars founded in
1990. It is dedicated to the exploration, criticism, and development of
René Girard’s mimetic model of the relationship between violence and
religion in the genesis and maintenance of culture.
In promoting research in mimetic
theory, COV&R welcomes scholars from diverse fields and
theoretical orientations who are interested in the foundational role of
imitation in individual human lives and cultures. In addition to
gathering at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, the
Colloquium meets each summer, alternating between North American and
European venues. COV&R’s publications include the website, a book
series, Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, published by
Michigan State University Press, the journal Contagion and a
biannual newsletter (Bulletin of the Colloquium on Violence
and Religion). The coordinator of COV&R at the AAR is Professor
Martha Reineke, University of Northern Iowa (firstname.lastname@example.org).
COV&R membership information:
Association Recherches Mimétiques
is focused on support for and dissemination of Girard's
mimetic Theory. It is a French-language resource:
L'Association a pour objet de structurer la recherche
liée, d'une manière ou d'une autre, à la théorie mimétique issue des
travaux de René Girard - membre de l'Académie française - et d'organiser
sa diffusion en langue française. The Association website is primarily
in the French language.
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