Debunking Girard image

Debunking Girard

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René Girard is intriguing for several reasons, but for me the most intriguing is that so many people take his famous mimetic theory seriously. I've been pointed in his direction numerous times by well-meaning readers (often, it must be said, eager to dissuade me from preaching substitutionary atonement), and there are sections of the academy where his (admittedly fascinating) concept is revered as if it has been demonstrated, rather than merely suggested. So Joshua Landy's article, Deceit, Desire and the Literature Professor: Why Girardians Exist, is very welcome, not just for its readability and caustic wit—though that too—but for its compelling critique of a widespread idea.

Landy certainly pulls no punches. “What’s the difference between Girardianism and Scientology?” he asks early on. “Why has the former been more successful in the academy? Why is the madness of theory so, well, contagious?” He begins by summarising Girardianism for the uninitiated: (1) all desire is “mimetic,” in that we desire things because other people desire them; (2) therefore we have rivalry, and thus violence; (3) thus we have scapegoating, as a single victim takes the collective rage of a society; (4) at which point we turn to Jesus, and find that the victim of collective violence is actually innocent, which exposes the structure of society and thus removes its power. Elements (3) and (4) are, he suggests, “so fanciful that it’s hard to know what to say about them,” but the body of the article is taken up with rejecting (1) and (2), both sociologically and literarily.

So, for a start, shared desire does not produce rivalry or violence unless, as Hobbes argued a long time back, there is not enough to go round:

Is it really true that all violence is a by-product of mimetic rivalry? Here’s the kind of situation Girard is asking us to imagine. Two men, Jimmy and Joey, stand beside a lake on a hot day. Jimmy decides to go for a swim. Joey, who would never have had this idea in his life, immediately decides to do likewise. Inevitably, this causes a death struggle between the two men as they fight over the lake.

The scenario above is of course absurd. Not only is it ludicrous to imagine that Joey couldn’t have had his own, autonomous hankering to take a dip (we’ll come to that in a moment); it’s also ludicrous to imagine that anyone in their right mind would start a fight in these circumstances. (Beaches are simply littered with people not fighting with each other.) But why not? Isn’t it true that “as soon as we desire something that is desired by a model sufficiently close to us in space and time . . . we strive to snatch the object away from him”? No, of course it isn’t. Jimmy and Joey are standing right next to each other, yet Joey has no desire whatsoever to deprive Jimmy of his opportunity to swim. And the reason is simple: there’s plenty of lake to go around. Mimetic desire is not enough to cause rivalry; in order to have rivalry, you also need scarcity of resources.

Neither is all desire mimetic in the first place:

“Nothing is more mimetic,” declares Girard, “than the desire of a child.” One wonders, has he ever met a child? Has he ever tried to feed one a brussels sprout? “Yum yum,” we say, absurdly hoping that our desire for healthy food will carry over mimetically. “Blech,” says the child, unceremoniously spitting it out. You can’t get a child to want to eat brussels sprouts, because this kind of desire depends on liking, and children just don’t like brussels sprouts. They do not get all their desires from parents (even in such a wonderfully closed environment, with so little outside stimulus). They can see their parents eagerly eating healthy food till the cows come home, but they will stand right by their decision to yell for marshmallows. (Not to mention their decision to yell for more. Where did little Suzie get the desire to hear the same story ninety-six times in a row? Surely not from the grownup she’s tormenting with it.)

At this point, Girard’s defenders might be inclined to respond that although desire is not always mimetic, it sometimes is, and that’s what Girard really meant. To which Landy responds:

Well, yes and no. I mean, imagine if I tried to stage a comeback for Thales, that famous preSocratic philosopher who claimed (more or less) that everything is made of water. Here I am, then, running around saying “everything is water” to anyone who will listen. “Don’t be ridiculous,” you tell me, “not everything is water.” “All right,” I concede, “only some things are water (namely, the watery things); but isn’t that more modest observation an important one to bear in mind?”

The problem with my “Some Things Are Water” campaign is not that the claim is false; it’s that everyone already knows it.

The last line of defence is that Girard’s theory produces better readers, by highlighting a trope and making us more attuned to it. Landy thinks the opposite may be true:

Sometimes it’s not quite enough to cherry-pick the things you like, to make as if they represent the text as a whole, to reorder them to suit your hypothesis, and to explain away what’s missing; sometimes it’s fun to pretend, instead, that the missing pieces are in fact there. Thus Girard wants Potiphar to be Joseph’s adoptive father, so he just says he is. Girard wants the Crucifixion to look like a purely human event, not an act of cosmic redemption ordained by God, so he makes it so. He wants it to be desired by the entire community, so he tells us (amazingly) that the disciples themselves were in favor. And he wants the Python myth of the Venda to be about a woman being killed by her community, not a woman disappearing on her own, so he says that too. Over and over again, it’s the same thing: Shakespeare, Molière, Dostoevsky, Proust; the Eden story, the Exodus story, the Jonah story; the wicked husbandmen, the Crucifixion; the Oedipus myth, the Cyclops myth, the Python myth ...

Is it really true, then, that exposure to Girard will make people better readers? Might it not tempt them, instead, into becoming cherry-picking, evidence-disdaining, overgeneralizing, plot-rearranging fabricators?

Why, then, do people like Girard so much? There is always an element of Bulverism in responding to such a question, but Landy’s answer has the ring of plausibility to it:

Girardian doctrine is a theory of everything, on the cheap. It’s one of those systems that make you feel as though you know everything about everything while in fact requiring you to know almost nothing about anything; it’s enough to “know” the four stages mentioned above and bingo, you have an explanation for the stock market crash, the evils of capitalism, and your neighbor’s ugly divorce.

Indeed. So, as Landy concludes: “All in all, then: the Girardian theory is not true; it does not make us better readers; and it’s not an exaggeration of anything important.”

Nevertheless, it does have one thing going for it. In a curious irony, there is one thing in life that most certainly is driven by mimetic desire, or the desire to do something because somebody else is doing it. And that is quoting René Girard.

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