Nuechterlein on “Girardian Anthropology in a Nutshell”

First Posted: October 24, 2000
Last revised: January 22, 2019
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Girardian Anthropology in a Nutshell

René Girard (1923-2015) was a literary critic by profession — more precisely, a professor of French Language and Literature, primarily at Johns Hopkins and Stanford University. He stumbled into the most profound of anthropologies through what is most profoundly human: texts. His central thesis began to brew out of a dissatisfaction with the modern approach to texts, namely, a relativistic one that places the truth of all texts on a par with one another. Girard did not want to accept such relativism even when it comes to fiction. He wanted to show that works of great literature manifest an understanding of human nature that is more true than in lesser works.

“An understanding of human nature.” Isn’t this the essence of anthropology? I propose that this is how a literary critic could find himself increasingly involved in spinning out an anthropology. Girard’s first major work launched his anthropological project by studying great works of fiction — by Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoevsky — and developing a measure by which these authors displayed a truer understanding of human behavior. Published in 1961 (in French), Deceit, Desire, and the Novel introduced the core Girardian idea: that the most insightful authors see human desire as manifesting a triangular structure due to its “mimetic,” i.e., imitative, nature. The “romantic,” or lesser, fictional understanding of desire sees human desire as linear, as simply a matter of a desiring person and his or her desire for the object. Girard’s proposition that desire is mimetic adds a whole other dimension: (1) the other person who models desire for (2) the object to (3) the desiring person.

This is akin to the Newtonian revolution in physics which transformed our understanding of the forces governing the movement of physical objects into a relational understanding. Gravity does not reside in any one object by itself; it resides in the relationship between objects. Similarly, desire is the force that governs the movements of living beings and should not be perceived as simply residing in those individual beings (which is the “romantic” notion); desire resides in the relationship between desiring creatures. You and I ‘catch’ our desires from each other. Desires are contagious, as modern advertising understands all too well. And so do the best authors of literature — Dostoevsky and Shakespeare being at the head of the class in Girard’s eyes. (Girard wrote a monograph on each of the latter: Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky and A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare.)

Understanding human desire as mimetic leads to a deeper understanding of human conflict, suffering, and violence. Since we catch our desires from each other, we are bound to desire the same objects, bringing us into conflict over those objects unless there is a process of deferral in place, i.e., that one of the two people in the situation of contagious desire lets the other have it. Perceived equality among the contenders for the objects of desire actually tends to have a negative effect on this process since we are less inclined to defer to someone we see as our equal. It is the situation of “sibling rivalry,” the realm of envy and soap opera intrigue. But if we perceive someone as being of higher station, or as outside our more immediate sphere of relations, we are more inclined to defer, to let that person acquire the object. Perceived inequality (through the lens of culture, the generation of which is the next key Girardian insight) helps to keep the peace — though it may well be at the cost of unjustly perceiving inequality among those who should actually be equals. So the triangular structure of desire leads to human suffering in this way: when we perceive ourselves as equals — which, as children of God, we generally should — we also have a tendency to fall into envy and conflict over our mutually desired objects. When we perceive inequality among ourselves, most often unjustly, we gain order and a relative amount of peace at the expense of the oppression of one group over another that has described our human history.

In his first book, Girard also introduced the notion of “metaphysical desire,” the pinnacle in human suffering. This is desire whose focus increasingly shifts from the physical objects to the rivalrous relationship between the model and his and her subject. The model becomes obstacle and rival. Or the rivalries so define a person’s life that he or she becomes overly fixed on one object, i.e., addicted. What we need to understand here, especially in the latter instance, is that the object of desire is not the cause of the sickness. It’s merely the occasion. The root problem is that relationships are stuck in rivalry. Girard suggested in his later works that this is what Jesus meant with the crucial New Testament term skandalon, the “stumbling block.” (See Girard on skandalon.)

Permit me a brief digression, with my own observation. Buddhism is correct in also seeing human desire at the heart of lives of suffering. But isn’t the Buddhist insight into desire of the linear variety, seeing it as merely a matter of each person and his or her objects of desire? It thus sees desire itself as flawed, and the only cure to be the denial or sacrifice of desire. According to Buddhist philosophy, we must learn to put behind us the world of human desiring.

Girard’s analysis of desire, on the other hand, does not make desire itself the problem. Because human desire is mimetic, necessarily taking a model, the problem and cure lies with the modeling relationship. Presumably, if we had the right model for our desire, we could potentially be redeemed from suffering. But the problem, ever since the first man and woman, is that we have chosen to follow desires of our fellow creatures rather than of the one in whose image we are made, our Creator. Modeling God’s desire for creation is the only desire that can save us from lives of suffering. Choosing our fellow creatures as models leads to our perpetual fall from paradise. (For more on reading the ‘fall’ in Genesis in light of the tendency of mimetic desire to fall into rivalry, see Jean-Michel Oughourlian‘s The Genesis of Desire.)

Now consider the Trinitarian faith in God’s offer of salvation. It took the Son to come into human form (the Incarnation) in order to model for us doing the Father’s desire, a desire which is agape love for the world that went to such lengths as sending the Son to save it. Perichoresis, the divine Trinitarian dance, is the Holy Spirit inviting and drawing persons into this divine desire of agape love between the Parent and the Child, communicated to each person of faith who follows Jesus the Messiah as his or her model of desire.

But the nature of that salvation encompasses more than each person’s fall into distorted desire. Our modeling of one another’s desire is only the beginning of the fall. Our uniquely human solution to the ensuing conflict completes the fall. The second key Girardian insight involves the generation of human culture — a cultural anthropological hypothesis that includes the mechanism of generating culture.  For the insight into desire, the comparison was Newtonian physics: the move to a relational understanding. For Girard’s insight into cultural anthropology, the parallel is often made with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin took biology beyond a mode of cataloging species to one of theorizing about how the myriad of species are generated. Similarly, Girard takes cultural anthropology beyond a mode of cataloging features to an hypothesis of the mechanism which generates cultures — initially called the “victimage mechanism” and later the “scapegoating mechanism.” (For more on the relation between Girard’s anthropology and Darwin’s biology, see Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture.)

After writing Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, and coming to see the devolving tendencies of Homo sapiens toward a spiraling into rivalry, conflict and violence, the crucial question became: how did we survive as a species? What mechanism solved the problem of self-annihilation in intra-species violence? What ‘selected’ us for survival? In a word, our solution could be described as sacrifice. We must be clear from the outset that the use of the word sacrifice in today’s language has been drastically reshaped by the cross: sacrifice is short-hand for self-sacrifice. Let’s be clear that the original thrust of sacrifice was to offer someone or something else in substitution for offering one’s self, or the whole community. The logic of sacrifice, in terms of the Girardian analysis, involves the attempt to ward off wider outbreaks of profane violence with smaller doses of sacred violence. But sacrifice never totally frees us from violence. In ancient Greece, the sacrifice of a sorcerer (a “witch hunt”) was akin to pharmakon (the root for our word “pharmacy”), namely, the poison that can also be our medicine if taken in just the right dosage.

Buddhism is again instructive in this regard. I admit to intentionality in using the word “sacrifice” above when describing the Buddhist answer to the suffering caused by desire: we sacrifice our desire itself. And this Buddhist solution was the religious alternative to the original form of sacrifice, namely, ritual blood sacrifice. In short, Buddhism, from my point of view, substitutes an inner form of sacrifice for the earlier outward forms. But we must ask whether this is truly an improvement if we see it as nevertheless making a sacrifice of our being human by sacrificing an essential aspect of who we are as desiring creatures. Doesn’t a complete denial of desire do violence to who we are as human beings?

Understanding sacrifice takes us back in anthropological time to our human beginnings. Why is it that, if we go back far enough, all ancient human cultures practiced some form of ritual blood sacrifice, generally, even human sacrifice? Girard has dared to take us back to these beginnings and to offer us an answer, daring, as we’ve said, to offer his anthropological hypothesis as “generative.” In other words, he proposes to show us how human culture is itself generated, going back to the point of hominization, the point at which our proto-human ancestors became human.

Admittedly, this is a very daring thing to do. It bears similar risks as the Darwinian hypothesis concerning biological evolution, with respect to the fact that most of the direct data has long since passed out of existence. The surviving archeological data is sketchy. So where does one begin? Again, with human texts, learning to decode the sacrificial logic that lies at the center of all human culture, a logic reflected in the deep structure of our texts. (If this sounds a bit like Lévi-Strauss‘ structuralism, the reader will soon see the difference: whereas Lévi-Strauss’ deep structure reflected in texts is traced to origins in language itself, Girard will trace it to real live events of hominization, both prior to and leading to the generation of language. The advantage of Girard’s approach, from a generative point of view, is that Lévi-Strauss’ point of origin, language, is something that is already uniquely human. Our proto-human ancestors did not yet have language. The question of hominization involves how those creatures became human, with language. One cannot give an answer to that question by postulating the sudden appearance of ‘deep linguistic structures’ in creatures not yet human.)

Specifically, Girard began with texts of mythology, and especially with those works of great literature that dealt with mythology, and at least partially began to decode the myths. In Violence and the Sacred, published in 1972, he began with Sophocles‘ play about Oedipus and Euripides‘ play about Dionysus, The Bacchae. Sophocles came especially close to seeing what we need to see about ourselves anthropologically: the innocence of the one we make into our scapegoat. The drama of Oedipus revolves around whether the king is actually guilty of his crimes that purportedly lie behind the Theban plague. In the end, even a great playwright like Sophocles bends to the anthropological pressure and finds Oedipus guilty. The scapegoat punishes himself and is expelled.

What is it that Sophocles comes so close to decoding in the myth of Oedipus? That myths themselves are told from the perspective of the perpetrators of unanimous violence against a scapegoated victim and thus require the guilt of that victim. What deep anthropological origins does that, in turn, decode? That human community itself — human culture, if you will — is founded in just such acts of unanimous violence against scapegoated victims.

This is where we go all the way back to human origins, what Girard calls the “originary scene.” We must have in mind not only our first human ancestors but also our proto-human ones who had yet to cross the threshold into what is uniquely human. We also must find a link with our animal ancestors (which is something Lévi-Strauss fails to do), something we have in common with them that eventually helped to carry us across the threshold.

The link which Girard proposes to us is that of mimetic desire. Animals also imitate one another and so come into conflict with each other over the objects of desire. But animals also have a seemingly natural mechanism of deferral which helps to contain the violence from continually escalating. That mechanism is usually referred to as dominance-hierarchies. In social groups of the higher mammals, animals (males in patriarchal groups, and females in matriarchal groups) will periodically fight with one another but rarely to the death. They will fight until one of them establishes dominance, a point of inequality, and then a strict hierarchy is observed in the pack until another upstart comes along to challenge it. In the normal, everyday functioning of the group, then, the objects of desire are taken in the pattern of deferral established by the dominance-hierarchy.

The situation Girard envisions for our proto-human ancestors is one of escalating conflict and violence. We often use the word “ape” to talk about our imitative behavior; but Aristotle was correct in making the observation that human beings are even more highly imitative. We are the most imitative of all (Poetics 4.2). Thus, one effect of the proto-humans’ larger brains and greater intelligence was to increase the mimeticism. But another effect was to begin to whittle away at the effectiveness of the dominance-hierarchy mechanism to keep the peace. Learning to use a rock or a large stick could make a smaller animal more equal with larger ones. And the fights for dominance could tend to become more vicious and more often fatal. Without this natural mechanism to contain the violence, our proto-human ancestors might have died out from Thomas Hobbes‘ hypothesized war of all-against-all.

Or another ‘natural’ mechanism would have to move into the place of the defunct dominance-hierarchies. This new mechanism is, in fact, what would begin to define us as human, as being set apart from other animals by virtue of our culture, the thing that would hold us together in relative peace within our communities. And Girard’s hypothesis is that the mechanism which moved into place was a “victimage mechanism,” or “scapegoating mechanism.” Not only the brilliance but also the elegance of Girard’s theory is that he puts mimeticism once again at the center of things. For our proto-human ancestors, before there was human language, there was the imitation of acquisitive gestures. Gestures of grabbing after the objects of desire prompted continual cycles of escalating violence, an apocalyptic violence of all-against-all, threatening to extinguish the group. But it is another imitated gesture that suddenly turns the whole thing around: the imitation of an accusatory gesture. The effect of everyone imitating the same acquisitive gesture brings an avalanche of violence in everyone grabbing for the same object. But the effect of everyone imitating the same accusatory gesture has the opposite results: a lightning quick peace at the expense of the one accused. (Note: the genesis of the “accusatory gesture” likely began as simply as one conflict within the group becoming more fascinating, with the imitation then of moving against the weaker one. The psychology of blame and accusation builds around this.) This “unanimity-minus-one” brings a great solidarity on the part of the majority against the minority, or the one. The accused is thus promptly killed, or expelled, which amounts to being killed since proto-humans were not likely to survive on their own.

But a hierarchy of deferral of some fashion is still needed if the next acquisitive gesture isn’t to promptly start the whole mess all over again. What is that hierarchy based upon in the case of these proto-humans now becoming uniquely human? Deity and the birth of religion. The victim who was killed or expelled was unfairly blamed for more than his or her fair share of the chaos. In other words, he or she seemingly was in possession of superhuman powers to create chaos. But, as the newly unified group stands around the corpse of their victim, there is the naive perception that this one was also responsible for more than his or her fair share of the peace. It is such a magical peace, that there is literally a religious awe around this corpse. The naive interpretation of the whole event is that they were somehow visited by a god, whose superhuman powers first sowed chaos and then brought about a magical peace.

Girard proposes that this “originary scene” occurred thousands, perhaps millions, of times over many millennia as it gradually gave rise to all that is human culture. And religion is at the heart of it (another difference from other anthropological theories which often place religion much later in our evolution). Our many false gods have arisen out of our primitive experiences of our scapegoated victims who visited us with first chaos and then order, an order out of which our societal order descends as commanded by the gods — false gods who wield both curses and blessings, punishments and rewards. It is a hierarchical order, to be sure, but one that is now rooted in the uniquely human experience of the Sacred, i.e., the divine sanctioning of sacred violence whose ‘unconscious’ foundation was a collective murder. Religion of the Sacred is what distinguishes us from the other animals. It is the natural mechanism which replaces the mechanism of dominance hierarchies: a mechanism of sanctioned violence that provides order in the face of a threatening chaos of profane violence.

Language was born in the vital distinction of the sacred and the profane — which Durkheim had argued years before Girard as being the most basic of human distinctions, the one from which all other distinctions descend. But Girard feels that before even language was born there was religious ritual. And the most primitive and ancient of religious rituals is blood sacrifice precisely because it is a reenactment of the collective murders which founded human culture. We must do the same thing over again in order to appease the gods. Girard’s is the only hypothesis that begins to make sense of why, amidst all the incredible diversity among ancient tribal religions, the one common denominator is ritual sacrifice.

Language is born not only to give expression to these vital rituals, and to their realms of the sacred and the profane, but also eventually in part to continue the process of unconsciously concealing the true nature of it all. The language of myth is born to tell us tales of chaos and peace from the perspective of the victimizing community, deflecting all the responsibility for the violence onto the gods. When one reads the available texts in light of this hypothesis, the amount of decoding that can begin is astounding.

Much has happened in the development of human culture, of course, since those early millennia of human tribal communities. We now even have desacralized (“secularized”) bases for sanctioned violence — such as the Rule of Law has become in our now secularized Western cultures. But Girard’s proposal is that the logic of accusation and sacrifice have remained at the center of what is genuinely human culture.

And we are just now arriving at the third key Girardian insight, the other important dimension to Girard’s work which most lends itself to the tasks of these pages, namely, faithful reflection on the weekly Christian lectionary. In his first two major works, Girard focused primarily on literary texts and mythological texts in seriously proposing an anthropological theory with considerable explanatory power to the academic community. In his third major work, however, Girard turned to another category of text that is largely scandalous (remember the Greek skandalon) to the academic community: the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. Even the title was borrowed from scripture: Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (Matt. 13:35). Here, Girard ‘came out of the closet’ with his proposal that this anthropological thesis is not only bold in being “generative” in scope, but that it is an anthropology divinely revealed through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He chose the title he did, in fact, because it is part of Girard’s thesis that these things hidden since the foundation of our human cultures would have remained so unless God had finally intervened to reveal them to us. We would continue to have — as Isaiah so aptly put it, and as Jesus so poignantly quoted it — eyes without seeing and ears without hearing (Is. 6:9-10; Mark 4:12 and par.).

Earlier we suggested the trinitarian faith as the shape of God’s salvation from our fall into the problems created by the trinitarian shape of our desire. We have been trapped in the effects of modeling each other’s desires ever since the First Adam. It would take a Second Adam, someone entirely new, for us to model how to live in the love of the Creator, i.e., a Second Adam who succeeds where we fail in being obedient to the loving desire of the Creator (cf., Rom 5:12-21). But we postulated this incarnation of the Son before we laid out this second, even more deadly and persistent anthropological reality, namely, the reality that behind the cultures which cradle and form each of us is a deadly logic of sacrifice. For the Son to come into this world and bring God’s salvation, his loving obedience to the Father would necessarily entail being handed over to our engines of sacrifice. The Son would also become the Lamb of God, the lamb slain since the foundation of the world, so that in his being raised from the dead to grant unconditional forgiveness, he would also finally open our eyes and ears to the nature of our Sin, the sin which his death on the cross forgives. I want to say that it forgives the sin at the same time it reveals it to us. But it’s even more gracious and amazing, I think: the cross forgives our sin so that it might begin to be revealed in the first place. We have no hope of ever being able to see something so dark about ourselves unless we are first forgiven for it. It is the so-called “original sin,” the sin that goes back to the origins which have generated the very cultures that formed us. In Christ Jesus we have a sacrifice that God transforms into self-sacrifice, a life of loving service, which is the founding event of God’s culture, otherwise known as the “Kingdom of God.”

There are so many amazing things that begin to come together with a new clarity — such as Satan as the Accuser, the reigning principle of this world, opposed by the Paraclete (the “Holy Spirit” of St. John’s Gospel), which is the Greek word designating the lawyer on behalf of the Accused. But I need to bring this to a close soon — or I will have great trouble justifying my title of Girardian anthropology in a nutshell.

Before closing, however, I would like to address a major criticism of Girard’s work that brings us back to where we began this particular elaboration of it: his reluctance to accept the modern / post-modern relativizing of truth. A common reaction to Girard’s bold truth claims is that they are imperialistic. They touch those chords in us Westerners that strike shame in us for the imperialistic imposition of truth that describes so much of our Christian history. There is no denying the fact that the Christian claims to universal truth have, in partnership with of our imperialistic cultures (an apostatized Christian faith known as “Christendom”), been turned into the justification for all manners of horrific imperialistic violence against peoples of other cultures.

The question is whether or not we let our shame perform yet another violent expulsion: on the Truth itself. Do we, because of our sin, jettison the Truth along with our abuse of it? ‘Throw out the baby with the bath water,’ so to speak? Does the existence of a universal truth necessarily mean imperialistic violence? Must we settle for only relative truth? The answer no doubt lies in the Truth itself. If it is a Truth with something like the cross at its center, it should somehow be about being vulnerable to our violence rather than the instigator of it.

On this very important matter, let me give the last word to Girard. In Part Two of Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, Girard demonstrates a “non-sacrificial” reading of the Gospel, one which makes clear that the sacrifice of the Cross is about our need for sacrificial violence which we project as God’s need. We are the ones who, through our false idols, demand sacrifice, not God. The next chapter relates how historical Christianity has lapsed back into a sacrificial reading of the Gospel in order to once again justify our violence. He concludes Part Two with a chapter that draws a dramatic distinction between the Logos of Violence (championed by Heraclitus – “War is the father of all and king of all”) and the Johannine Logos of Love. The Prologue of John (John 1:1-18) is about how the former is continually trying to expel the latter. I leave the reader with the posing of a universal truth which I do not think could be imperialistic. Girard writes:

The Johannine Logos is foreign to any kind of violence; it is therefore forever expelled, an absent Logos that never has had any direct, determining influence over human cultures. These cultures are based on the Heraclitean Logos, the Logos of expulsion, the Logos of violence, which, if it is not recognized, can provide the foundation of a culture. The Johannine Logos discloses the truth of violence by having itself expelled. First and foremost, John’s Prologue undoubtedly refers to the Passion. But in a more general way, the misrecognition of the Logos and mankind’s expulsion of it disclose one of the fundamental principles of human society. . . .This revelation comes from the Logos itself. In Christianity, it is expelled once again by the sacrificial reading, which amounts to a return to the Logos of violence. All the same, the Logos is still in the process of revealing itself; if it tolerates being concealed yet another time, this is to put off for just a short while the fullness of its revelation.

The Logos of love puts up no resistance; it always allows itself to be expelled by the Logos of violence. But its expulsion is revealed in a more and more obvious fashion, and by the same process the Logos of violence is revealed as what can only exist by expelling the true Logos and feeding upon it in one way or another. (Things Hidden, pp. 271, 274)

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul Nuechterlein

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