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From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: Cynthia L. Haven talks about René Girard; Hamline frankly defies the AAUP
The French thinker René Girard, who spent most of his academic life in the United States, would have been a hundred at the end of this year. Although his doctoral training was in history, his idiosyncratic brand of philosophical anthropology has been especially influential in literature, theology, and the interpretive social sciences. In his first book,
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The French thinker René Girard, who spent most of his academic life in the United States, would have been a hundred at the end of this year. Although his doctoral training was in history, his idiosyncratic brand of philosophical anthropology has been especially influential in literature, theology, and the interpretive social sciences. In his first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (published in French in 1961 and English in 1966), Girard introduced his idea of “mimetic desire,” which discovers in desire an irreducibly social process. In a love triangle, for instance, desire involves not just competition between rivals for a shared object but imitation by rivals of one another’s desire. I want what you want; my wanting what you want makes you want it even more.
The destructive power of envy and escalating rivalries was central to all of Girard’s work, which proposed a grand theory of the origins of religion and society. It goes something like this: The default condition of human beings is one of perpetually intensifying competition; violence and retribution are always threatening to spiral out of control. To arrest this process, rivals make peace with one another by banding together against a scapegoat, whom they kill, exile, or otherwise eliminate, thereby temporarily restoring order. “By a scapegoat effect,” Girard writes in a 1979 essay called “Mimesis and Violence,” “I mean that strange process through which two or more people are reconciled at the expense of a third party who appears guilty or responsible for whatever ails, disturbs, or frightens the scapegoaters.” For Girard, primitive sacrifice as well as archaic myth (like the Oedipus story) ritualize this primordial event and maintain, falsely, the guilt of the sacrificed. “Never,” Girard writes in one of his essays on Oedipus, “do myths cast doubt on the guilt of their victims.”
For Girard, who died in 2015, that changes with Christianity. The truth that Christianity reveals in the Passion is the innocence of the scapegoat.
Penguin Classics has recently brought out a new volume of Girard’s “essential writings,” All Desire is a Desire for Being, edited by Girard’s friend and biographer Cynthia L. Haven. (Haven also translated some of the essays.) We spoke by email over the month of September about Girard’s Christianity, the question of Eurocentrism, and how scapegoating works today. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I want to ask about Girard as a Christian, versus Girard as a “Darwinist” (as he sometimes calls himself). From one point of view, Girard’s Christianity can appear reconcilable with the scientific rationalism that he often claims: The Christian story is a rational demystification of those “myths” that do not understand that their scapegoats are innocent. What role do faith and supernatural revelation play in Christianity as Girard understands it?
René Girard said that humans are so much under the sway of the scapegoat mechanism that we cannot recognize it without outside help. No one can see their own scapegoating while they’re doing it. They blame the other, the one who “made them do it.” That’s why a supernatural revelation is needed.
The Bible shows us what we ordinarily cannot see, our history from the point of the view of the victim. Think of Job, think of the Psalmists, think of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah or the patriarch Joseph in Genesis. Think of Christ.
The hypothesis that scapegoat dynamics are anthropologically primordial is, while unprovable, deeply compelling. Likewise, Girard’s reading of the Christian, or Judeo-Christian, tradition as exposing the myth of the scapegoat by revealing the scapegoat’s innocence is a wonderful gloss on Christian morality and ethics. Here’s what I don’t understand: Why can’t that Christian tradition just be one way, a very influential one to be sure, by which human societies discover the truth of the scapegoat’s innocence? Does Girard think that the entire pre- and non-Christian world — in Asia, in Africa, Islam in its enormous number of variations, etc. etc. — failed, ever, anywhere, to develop a non-“mythical” morality? That seems to me to be what follows logically from the insistence on revelation.
Such a non-“mythical” reality would depend on the recognition of the scapegoat qua scapegoat, and the ability of a society and its leaders to confess, with remorse, their own culpability in the scapegoat process. We are all scapegoaters, after all.
In the archaic world of heroes and warriors and vengeful gods — can you find any examples of what you suggest? Mostly what you find is: Your enemy is your enemy and must be defeated. You still find that in politics and corporate hierarchies today. It’s mankind’s default mode.
That said, René did see partial recognition of the scapegoat mechanism in other places, such as Greek tragedy and Brahmanic texts on sacrifice, but the full revelation comes out of the Biblical texts, where it’s paired with an ethic of forgiveness.
He pointed out that the story of the patriarch Joseph — with that stunning reconciliation scene in the pharaoh’s palace — is the first real story of forgiveness in all human history. Forgiveness, that is, as a true revolution of the human spirit, and not just forgetting a quarrel or overlooking a grievance.
I couldn’t prove René wrong. I could find examples of, say, benevolence and debt forgiveness in the Eastern traditions. But when Joseph breaks into loud sobbing and embraces the brothers who tried to kill him? Certainly nothing like that.
You’re welcome to find examples. I couldn’t.
How does Girard account for the fact that so many centuries of Christian history saw not rational skepticism toward scapegoating but arguably the intensification of scapegoating dynamics — in medieval antisemitic blood libel as well in the institutions of the Iberian Inquisition and in witch trials and executions for heresy and blasphemy across both the Catholic and Protestant worlds, right up to the brink of the Enlightenment?
Mankind knows the truth — and doesn’t want it. Declaring unconditional peace with one’s neighbor turns out not to be so popular. René told me we should not expect too much from people. It is enough if they are half good. We shouldn’t expect miracles.
But are you so sure scapegoating wasn’t even more “intense” in pre-Christian Europe? The Vikings practiced human sacrifice, after all. In fact, René argued that our modern concern for victims is rooted in the legacy of Biblical religion. Even Nietzsche recognized that. It is historically unprecedented.
Christian societies were among the earliest to outlaw slavery and ban infanticide. Hospitals already existed, but they built many more and opened them to the poor. Christian concern for victims steadily undermined pagan practices.
So much so, that René frequently pointed out that when we criticize the moral failures of the church or medieval Christianity, we are doing it precisely with standards that derive from Christian morality.
I’m not sure the Enlightenment had much to do with helping scapegoats, in any case. Look what followed in its wake: the Reign of Terror, the guillotine, Robespierre — scapegoating par excellence. The greatest genocides in history happened in the last century — the Holodomor, the Holocaust, the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides. Mankind is not so kind.
In a New York Review of Books review of your biography of Girard, Robert Pogue Harrison writes that “the contemporary world is becoming more and more recognizably ‘Girardian’ in its behavior” — he cites, among other things, “the explosion of social media.” One certainly knows what he means, and the resurgence of interest in Girard surely has something to do with the ostracization and bullying dynamics that social media sites like Twitter have laid bare (on Twitter, you can see tenured academics gleefully discuss who will become that day’s “main character” — in other words, that day’s target for gleeful mob action). But as ugly as such behavior can be, and as discrediting to the academics and other intellectuals who participate in it, social-media scapegoating is of course a far cry from, say, the real violence of the French Terror you just mentioned — an especially extreme instance of the scapegoat mechanism on overdrive. Besides social media, Harrison names “the increasing virulence of reciprocal violence.” How does Girard, or how do Girardians, understand the relationship between physical violence and murder to other less blatant scapegoating actions?
It’s the same mechanism in all cases. Insult escalates to violence through tit-for-tat mimetic imitation. Think of Laurel and Hardy in their 1929 Big Business, where the rebuff of a door-to-door salesman leads to the destruction of a car, a house, and several trees. Is today’s political world so very different? That’s comedy, but in real life the results are not funny.
Mob killings are viewed with horror today, but the same dynamic still plays out in virtual space. Online culture mobs inflict a form of social death. It’s bloodless and not illegal. People can feel virtuous and innocent while participating in the ugliness.
The difference seems important to me!
It’s important to all of us. But the beginnings are small and often unobserved.
The last sentence of René’s book, The Scapegoat, is an urgent call for reconciliation: “The time has come for us to forgive one another. If we wait any longer there will not be time enough.”
Maybe what I’m driving at is — does Girard have a theory of historical change after the initial moment of Christian revelation? He says in various places that our awareness of, our self-consciousness about, scapegoating dynamics is increasing. That doesn’t make them go away though: They’re cunning.
They are indeed cunning. We still scapegoat, but now we do it in the name of the victims.
That said, it’s much harder than it once was to drum up a crowd against a single target, except perhaps on Twitter, where the stakes are usually pretty low. We have more sympathy than we once did for victims. We also have more laws to protect them.
Put bluntly, the old scapegoating system for creating social order is kaput. Disabling the scapegoating mechanism didn’t stop our scapegoating, however, it just took away our means of bringing peace: the successful sacrifice of a scapegoat.
“Scapegoating in the name of the victim” sounds like it could come out of Nietzsche. Girard has many fascinating things to say about Nietzsche, of whom he’s sharply critical but also by whom he’s been influenced.
All the great anthropology books of the era tried to show that Judaism and Christianity are the same as any other sacrificial religion. Nietzsche knew better. He also saw that the martyrdom of Dionysus and Christ were similar, but there was an important difference: Only Christianity saw this martyrdom as the vindication of the victim and the indictment of the crowd. At a time when scholars were emphasizing the similarities between Christianity and its pagan predecessors, Girard pointed out that only Nietzsche noticed the uniqueness of Christianity and its alliance with the victim, the weak, the slave — which was diametrically opposed to the religion of the Romans. That’s why Girard could claim that Nietzsche is the greatest theologian of the 19th century.
Girard also describes his own project as a “reversal of Nietzsche”: He and Nietzsche came to similar insights about the unique character of Christianity, but they assigned it opposite values. Girard attributes Nietzsche’s madness to his rejection of Christianity, his quixotic desire to return to Dionysus. At the end of his life, Nietzsche oscillated between identifying himself with Dionysus and with Christ — madness was overtaking him. He signed numerous letters as “The Crucified,” and wrote “I am the Christ, Christ in person, Christ crucified.”
Girard had a huge influence on literary studies — his Deceit, Desire and the Novel and his book on Shakespeare, from which you’ve included two terrific essays, especially — and he has had a major impact in theology as well. How have his ideas been taken up in sociology? After all his core concepts relate closely to sociological concerns like the social contagiousness of violence and how interpersonal and intergroup rivalries are negotiated and resolved.
René’s concepts have made inroads in many disciplines besides literary theory and theology. Michel Serres called him the “Darwin of the human sciences,” after all. Mimetic theory has generated interest among anthropologists and economists, too.
The affinities with sociology are obvious, as you note. Some scholars are taking the lead: Imitation, Contagion, Suggestion: On Mimesis and Society, edited by Christian Borch, a Danish sociologist at the University of Copenhagen, is Girardian all the way. He’s also the author of the award-winning The Politics of Crowds: An Alternative History of Sociology with Cambridge University Press a decade ago. Pierpaolo Antonello at Cambridge has edited a volume, with Paul Gifford, titled, How We Became Human: Mimetic Theory and the Science of Evolutionary Origins.
Incidentally, one of René’s closest associates, Jean-Michel Oughourlian, is an eminent neuropsychiatrist, bringing René’s work into the medical sciences as well. Vittorio Gallese, one of the discoverers of mirror neurons, has also taken an interest in René’s work, as have other researchers, some of whom are included in Scott Garrels’ Mimesis and Science: Empirical Research on Imitation and the Mimetic Theory of Culture and Religion.
How do you see Girard’s influence playing out over the next 10, 20 years? Both in academia but also in the more general culture?
I hope, and expect, that René’s concepts will become part of our public conversation, beyond the world of academics and specialists — just as Marx and Freud and Nietzsche are discussed. Many people cite these thinkers without having read them. They are part of our common intellectual heritage.
It’s already beginning to happen with Girard. He’s entered the mainstream with late-night discussions in campus dorms and mentions on the HBO show The White Lotus. He was both the clue and answer in a recent New York Times crossword puzzle. I also foresee René having a bigger role in academia, although academia has been resistant to his oeuvre in the past. Watching his influence grow and spread is one of the gratifying rewards of his centenary.
Robert Pogue Harrison — you mentioned him earlier — predicted it with characteristic punch: “Girard is one of the Titans of 20th-century thought, and I believe that the 21st century will vindicate the cogency of his theories in a clamorous way.”
The clamor has begun.
Hamline’s president versus the AAUP
Last week the former chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom, Henry Reichman, wrote a letter to the editor of The Chronicle disputing a claim of Hamline University’s regarding the AAUP’s determination that Hamline’s failure to retain an adjunct instructor who had shown a medieval devotional image of Muhammad involved violations of academic freedom. As I have discussed previously, Hamline’s leadership purports to think that the draft report of the AAUP’s findings did not find that Hamline had violated academic freedom. (The draft report was sent to the university for comment, which the final report takes into account.) Hamline’s theory seems to be that, if a reversal occurred between the draft report and the final report, then the final report’s verdict must be motivated by politics rather than evidence. Reichman, who was the report’s principal author, disputes this. In fact, he writes, “the full draft report was more than clear in detailing a series of violations of academic freedom, as is the final published version.” (I have repeatedly asked Hamline officials to explain their thinking to me, but to no avail.)
In any event, the Hamline administration’s attitude toward the final report’s findings has been one of frank defiance. In comments she made during a free-speech symposium at Hamline on September 20, Fayneese Miller, the university’s president, directly addressed the controversy and sketched a theory of what she seems to consider the AAUP’s superannuated ideas about academic freedom. She said:
No academic freedom got violated here at Hamline University. Absolutely none. None. Can’t say that enough. What did get viewed is that there’s the fact that there’s a disconnect between academic freedom, academic responsibility, and who’s sitting in our classrooms. So if parents are going to have a role, and I think they should, then we need to acknowledge that when they come to us, and not try to deny people of their history. So we need to make sure there’s room in our classrooms for all people’s perspectives to be included, so they’re not excluded in the classroom. And we can do that by how we teach the material, not that we exclude the material.
So I just want to put that out there, that we’re living in interesting times, and we need to recognize that this world is not the same as it was in 1915 [the year of the AAUP’s “Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom], 1940 [the year of the AAUP’s “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom”], or 2007, when AAUP revised their articles of freedom of speech. So if we’re going to recognize that, then we need to figure out how in Minnesota specifically, since we have the largest congregation of Muslims outside Muslim countries, how do we recognize and respect the upbringing, the religious upbringing of everyone in our environment. ... I just wanted to put that out there, because, I just wanted to make it clear no one’s academic freedom got violated here at Hamline University, because we believe in academic freedom.
Meanwhile, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities chapter of the AAUP has released a statement criticizing Hamline’s denial that any violation of academic freedom took place: “Unfortunately, Hamline administrators have failed to learn from their mishandling of this case; rather than recommit to the principle of academic freedom, they have affirmed their disregard for it.” Fayneese Miller has said that she will retire in June of 2024; it will be interesting to see whether Hamline rethinks its attitude toward academic freedom then.
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