The Uncategorizable René Girard

As I mentioned in my previous post, my current interest—perhaps single-minded obsession—is in my fairly recent discovery of the mimetic theory of René Girard. I just attempted and discarded perhaps dozens of ways to qualify and categorize that name, René Girard1. Trained as a medieval historian in his native France, he first developed an intuition about human beings as imitators par excellence as he taught French literature in the United States. This single insight took him through the disciplines and analysis of literary criticism, anthropology, mythology, religion, politics, Shakespeare, the Bible, Christianity, evolution, and above all else the insight that our imitative constitution as human beings is the source of our violence.2

And so those who would try to say “French literary theorist René Girard,” are trying to reduce him to the earliest part of his career, before his dogged curiosity took him into many other fields. He would not stay contained, which is fitting, since his theory helps to explain how violence is contained in culture, until it isn’t. But with his later reflections on the violent sources of all cultures, Girard became too universalizing and much too religious to be taken seriously under the fashions of the irreducibility of different cultures and the expulsion of religion from all serious thought, respectively.

If you are beginning to assume that I am religious, well, yes, the archives of this blog can attest to that fact, often in cringeworthy ways that have tempted me to purge said archives on many occasions. My identity has always been wrapped up in grappling with Jesus and Christianity and my upbringing in a Mennonite community. I rightly pass for a Christian in many ways. Hell, I have even begun to preach in a church of late, much to my surprise. But my single driving passion, the things that have kept me interested in Jesus and more lately in Girard—who helped me to understand Jesus in ways no theologian ever had before—is learning to build communities that are not predicated on us and them, on the good inside, and the bad outside. And this is why I don’t expel “Christian” from my identity, even as I mourn and reject so much of what Christians have done, and are doing.

Because it’s easy to reduce the world to heroes, and villains. My side, and outside. But it’s not just easy, it’s inevitable. We have never not done this. And that boundary is straining, buckling, everywhere dissolving. Those on the outside are on the inside now. Disorder is everywhere. And that makes it easy for everyone to pick a villain, a contaminant that we will heroically drive out of the community to make it safe. If only there were no Muslims or gays. If only there were no Republicans, or no Democrats, to use the polarized parlance of my USAmerican neighbours.

It’s always harder to see our own expulsion stories, but here in Canada we have them, too. If only those uppity Natives would shut up, stay on their reserves, and be grateful, say some. If only white people would stop being white people, and maybe just somehow magically disappear from this land their ancestors colonized, then we would have peace, say others. And there are more global stories and more local stories and the stories we tell are always about how to return to some mythical peace, before whatever disturbances are wracking us came to intrude upon us, contaminate us. If only they would just behave or vanish or go back to where they came from or obey us, then we would be ok.

And while these stories are structurally the same, you will note that some are backed by concrete and powerful forces, while others are more of a cry in the wilderness from the oppressed. Some stories call for a return to a more stable status quo, while others call for revolution. But the history of revolution does not bode well for ways of being together founded in justice. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Goodbye Czar, hello Gulag.

It’s fitting that I began writing this on Good Friday, the day that Christians remember that Jesus became the paradigmatic expelled one, pushed literally to the margins, on a hill outside the city, and executed after a show trial by a coalition of everyone who desperately wanted to return to a form of peace that they blamed him for disturbing. Because we always believe two myths: that there was once a past that was better than this, stable and ordered, and that we can return to that serenity by what Girard calls scapegoating, which is to say that we always find someone to blame who is not really to blame. In the archaic past this person would be murdered by the community as their sacred duty.

Today, we have more subtle means. From the Indian reservation system in Canada to the for-profit mass incarceration of African Americans, we are always sacrificing others to maintain a cultural order. We sacrifice an unpopular politician in a democracy, but only symbolically by voting them out of office. (It is exceedingly rare to vote for someone, we are almost always voting against someone.)

This was an attempt to introduce Girard and the arc of his thinking as it developed over a long career. There’s so much more that I could talk about, but I wanted to keep this largely non-technical and general, to provide the outlines of his thought and the way it developed over the course of a long and exceptionally productive career. I have so much more to say about all of this, especially the way the theory itself is wonderfully economical in its basic concepts while having an enormous breadth of explanatory power for social phenomenon. I echo James Alison in saying that reading Girard is to find yourself read by him.

  1. I named him “French thinker” in my last post. 
  2. This list could well be longer. Ethnology, sociology, linguistics, ethology, theology, the Vedic tradition, and eating disorders are a few more that I can draw to mind without consulting some indices. 


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