Justin Smith on René Girard

Justin Smith wrote a fairly critical blog post on René Girard to which I feel moved to reply. A lot of it attacks Girard’s appeal in Silicon Valley, which I don’t know much about. But the post also criticises Girard’s theory itself. The conclusion states that “René Girard, in sum, is not a particularly great theorist”.

We don’t all have to like the same things, but I think Girard deserves a better reading than Smith is willing to give him.

First, Smith gives a gratuitously unattractive representation of Girard’s method:

a theorist for him is someone who comes up with a simple, elegant account of how everything works, and spends a whole career driving that account home. A theorist spends all of their time on the positive construction of a case, and none of their time on skeptical doubts or objections, and least of all on the nagging call of humility that pipes back up again whenever a philosophically minded person starts to feel as if they’ve got something right — the call that says, “Why should I, of all people, be the one to have got things right? It seems so improbable.”

That’s very unflattering. But I’m not sure what reason Smith has to think it. It should be obvious that Girard never thought that he was the one to ‘get things right’. His entire career consisted of presenting ideas he found in the writings of others. His first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, located the idea of “mimetic desire” in the novels of Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Proust. It’s a work of pure exegesis. The title of his book, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, is also a giveaway. It’s a reference to Jesus’s words in Matthew (13:35), and the book is accordingly about things revealed by Jesus of Nazareth, not René Girard of Avignon. In truth I can’t think of a theorist who made more effort to avoid claiming personal responsibility for the ideas he presented. This is hardly surprising since it was a fundamental belief for Girard that, as he once put it, “individualism is a formidable lie” [1].

Smith’s suggestion that Girard spends “none of his time on skeptical doubts or objections” is belied by the very form in which Girard presented his ideas. Most of his books are records of dialogues. Long sections of books like When These Things Begin and Evolution and Conversion consist of Girard responding to objections formulated by his interviewers or brought by them from other sources. With most authors we can debate about whether “the nagging call of humility” is sufficiently active inside them. But Girard brings in external voices. His preference for this dialogue format is another expression of his strong anti-individualism. Why would somebody who wanted to spend “none of his time on skeptical doubts or objections” write his books by answering people who doubt and object to him?

Smith then turns from method to theory, first attacking Girard’s theory that humans desire mimetically — that is, we copy or borrow our desires from others. Smith writes: “For Girard, there is at least some desire that falls outside of the logic of mimesis, but only because it is a sort of proto-desire, a merely biological drive”. Smith goes on to criticise this point. But where does Girard make it? Smith doesn’t cite any text. Girard is quite explicit that he has no intention of reducing all of human psychology to mimesis [2]:

I’ve gotten into the habit of using the word “desire” to refer to the various appetites, needs, and appropriations that are shot through with and governed by imitation. Mimetic phenomena interest me […]. That’s why I place so much emphasis on them. But I’m not saying that they exclude all other types of explanation. For example, I believe in the love that parents have for their children, and I don’t see how you could interpret that love in a mimetic fashion.

Nor does he say anything to imply that these non-mimetic phenomena are “merely biological drives”. Smith declares himself to be “wary of human-scientists who seek to contain the biological with modifiers such as ‘merely’”, but where does Girard do this? There is no citation.

Perhaps more interestingly, one of Smith’s counterexamples to this claim (which Girard doesn’t seem to have made) is the possibility of a “post-mimetic” love:

at least sometimes a man “acquires” a woman by the logic of neighborly competition and status anxiety, but then discovers that she has a soul too, and is worthy of love just like any human being, quite apart from her significance for his social status.

I don’t know what sort of crass theory Smith is trying to wish onto Girard and then refute here — I guess he thinks that Girard believes we only want things or love people for the sake of “social status”? In any case, for a profound example of ‘post-mimetic love’, I would encourage you to look up Girard’s beautiful discussion of the statue scene in The Winter’s Tale. When Hermione is resurrected, Leontes is too; he is freed from mimetic desire and its metaphysical illusions. The resurrection of Hermione is, Girard writes, “Leontes’ reward for purging his bad desire” [3].

Far from being a refutation of Girard’s theory, the existence of this post-mimetic love is an illustration of it — of the whole theory, I mean, and not the distorted travesty of some amputated part of it. Girard’s full theory is that mimetic desire — toxic, dangerous, and hopeless — begins with the (non-mimetic) desire for being. “Mimetic desire”, Girard writes, “makes us believe we are always on the verge of becoming self-sufficient through our own transformation into someone else” [4]. If we overcome this, we give up on the hope of self-sufficiency and the desire to be transformed into someone else. We cease to desire the being of another and simply possess the being we have. We achieve what Spinoza calls acquiescentia animi— acquiescence in our own soul. Being in this state is the result of what Girard calls “conversion” (the sentence just quoted is from an essay entitled “Conversion in Literature and Christianity”). The resurrection of Hermione is a symbol of Leontes’ conversion: from mimetic desire into a state of acquiescence, when he can simply love Hermione free of the bad desire that drove him to envy and then destruction.

Conversion is present in Girard’s theory from the very beginning. It is the subject of the final chapter of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. In his essay on Proust [5], Girard points out that the whole of In Search of Lost Time is a story of conversion: the narrator undergoes a conversion and is resurrected into a new life which was lost the first time around to mimetic desire. He even uses a term that Smith uses — “post-mimetic desire”. The Annunciation of this new life is the madeleine: “an image of a reality that is past from the viewpoint of the author, a promise of a reality that is yet to come from the viewpoint of the narrator” [6]. The author is the achieved being of the narrator, who lives in the pursuit of being that is the condition of mimetic desire. Conversion is, then, the final message of Girard’s gospel — or rather the gospel Girard finds repeated in the great works of literature. It is the crown of the theory; for Smith to take it as a refutation of the theory is a profound misunderstanding.

Smith also attacks the other main part of Girard’s theory — the “scapegoat mechanism” to which he argues that mimetic desire naturally leads. As he explains in one interview [7]:

Inasmuch as they desire the same thing, the members of the group become antagonists, in pairs, in triangles, in polygons, in whatever configurations you can imagine. The contagion signifies that some of them are going to abandon their personal antagonist and “choose” their neighbor’s. We see this all the time, when, for example, we shift the hatred we feel for our private enemies, but that we don’t dare take out against them, onto politicians. In this way partial scapegoats emerge, and by means of the same phenomenon they are gradually reduced in number even as their symbolic charge intensifies.

Smith writes:

Perhaps even more worrisome for Girard’s mimetic theory is that it appears to leave out all those instances in which imitation serves as a force for social cohesion and cannot plausibly be said to involve any process […] leading to a culmination in scapegoating.

I would guess that here Smith is supposing Girard to claim that imitation — mimesis — can only lead to social cohesion through the scapegoat mechanism. But Girard explicitly denied this. Calling the sort of mimesis that leads to scapegoating “bad mimesis”, he explained that while he wanted to emphasise it, he never took it to be exclusive [8]:

in my work, the ‘bad’ mimesis is always dominant, but the ‘good’ one is of course even more important. There would be no human mind, no education, no transmission of culture without mimesis. However, I do believe that the ‘bad’ mimesis needs to be emphasized because its reality remains overlooked, and it has been always neglected or mistaken for non-mimetic behaviour, and even denied by most observers.

Smith also proposes another criticism:

Contrary to Girard’s theory of the scapegoat, a promising alternative account of sacrifice has been defended by such thinkers as the pioneering classicist Walter Burkert, for whom the origins of culture lie in a recognition of the transgressive nature of the killing of animals — even if it is necessary for human life, the spilling of animal blood is a sufficiently powerful action to knock the cosmos out of alignment, and it is only by rituals of atonement that it may be set right again.

In bringing this up, it seems only fair to discuss Girard’s reply to Burkert, which Smith fails to mention. Questioned about Burkert, Girard replied [9]:

In my view his theory has only one flaw: he argues that the hunting of large mammals came before religion. I think his book on Greek religion is remarkable. This is true of all the German anthropological theory on sacrifice. We had a discussion near Santa Cruz. From a theoretical standpoint, I wasn’t quite ready to enter into discussion with Burkert at that time, and he found my thesis too radical. He did not buy into my scapegoat theory because he prefers a theory that ultimately remains close to some kind of functionalism, as the ‘hunting hypothesis’ does.

And Girard discussed this ‘hunting hypothesis’ in Things Hidden [10]:

The hunt has an invariably ritual character in primitive societies. […] Specialists tell us that the human digestive tract has remained that of the mainly vegetarian omnivore, the kind of system that preceded ours in the course of evolution. Man is not naturally a carnivore; human hunting should not be thought of in terms of animal predation.

To understand what might have impelled human beings to set off in pursuit of the largest and most dangerous animals or to devise the strategies necessary for prehistoric hunting, it is necessary and sufficient to recognize that hunting, at first, was actively linked to sacrifice. The object of the hunt is seen as a substitute for the original victim in its monstrous and sacred aspects.

Girard, in other words, gave arguments for his own position in contrast to Burkert’s — for seeing the practice of hunting as deriving from ritual sacrifice rather than the other way around. You can watch a video of him discussing the evidence for this in cave paintings. My point is not that he is necessarily right, but that he has arguments on precisely this point, to which Smith gives no consideration. Smith fails to acknowledge that Girard rejects the “necessary for human life” part of the Burkertian story he favours, in a principled way.

Smith concludes that “it is easy on even a casual study of [Girard’s] work to spot the weaknesses and lacunae”. But his criticisms of Girard don’t seem based on even a casual study. They attack what he seems to guess that Girard believed, on the basis of not very much evidence. Nor are there any quotations provided to support the interpretation. René Girard may or may not be, as Smith suggests, “the theorist our era deserves”. But surely he, along with our era, deserves a fairer standard of critique than this.

[1] Girard, René. Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoit Chantre (Michigan State University Press, 2009), ch.1, §3.

[2] Girard, René. When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michel Treguer (Michigan State University Press, 2009), p.11.

[3] Girard, René. A Theatre of Envy (Gracewing, 2000), p.337.

[4] Girard, René. Mimesis and Theory (Stanford University Press, 2008), p.265.

[5] Girard, René. Mimesis and Theory, pp.56–70.

[6] Girard, René. Mimesis and Theory, p.68.

[7] Girard, René. When These Things Begin, p.19.

[8] Girard, René. Evolution and Conversion (Bloomsbury, 2008), p.56.

[9] Girard, René. Evolution and Conversion, pp.101–2.

[10] Girard, René. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (Bloomsbury, 2016), pp.68–9.

Lecturer in Philosophy, University of St. Andrews — personal website: https://axdouglas.com/