The Scapegoat: Introducing Mimetic Theory (Part Two of Three)

When René Girard understood that a copied desire for the same object could cause conflict between two people, he began to wonder why we have not all destroyed each other. This led him to his second of three discoveries that get grouped together under the rubric of mimetic theory, the first being borrowed or mimetic desire, covered in the previous post

As covered in that post, the destructive possibilities of shared desire were quite clear in the archetypal example of the love triangle. Two men first copy each other’s desire for the woman, but then increasingly imitate each other’s rivalry and, ultimately, violence towards the other. But these men do not exist in a vacuum. Will their violent rivalry not also be transmitted contagiously to those around them, causing the whole group to fall into a state that Hobbes called the war of all against all as the community takes sides in the conflict?

To answer these questions, Girard again turned to fields that he was a novice in: anthropology and mythology. He detected a common thread, often disguised and hidden, in the constellation of myth, ritual, and taboo that we so often name as religion. What Girard discovered at the heart of all human culture is that we fight bad violence with supposedly good violence by sacrificing a scapegoat.

Let us imagine an early human community in strife for some reason or another. Perhaps there is a conflict between two males over access to a mate, a kind of love triangle as we already looked at. The entire tribe gets drawn into the conflict, forgetting whatever was even being fought over as everyone imitates everyone else’s rivalrous violence in an escalating fashion. Anyone who has experienced a mob phenomenon will know that this would feel as though something has possessed you. 

In the midst of the “possession” caused by escalating rivalry, the crowd, about to tear each other apart, turns on one of their own. In a way that nobody else will afterwards be able to explain, the rage of all against all transforms into all against one. The singled-out one is quickly seen to be the one responsible for all of this strife. The crowd, who were formerly imitating each other’s rivalrous violence, now imitate each other in their expulsion of the contaminating influence who brought this strife into their midst. Expulsion here is a euphemism for collective murder. The community atones for their crisis by uniting in blaming the surrogate victim for all of their troubles.

And it works. The group has no idea what has happened, carried along unconsciously by the intensity of the experience of being caught up in one another’s rage, and then in the unified peace that descends when all come into accord to murder the surrogate victim. The victim is seen as a demon, an outside force that came to disrupt their unity, but also as a god, come to teach them about how to resolve a crisis. This is why the gods demand sacrifice: because we do, unwittingly.

This evil/good polarity in the now-divinized victim explains not only all of the contradictory and even unsavoury aspects of so many of the mythological gods of various cultures throughout the world, but also the origins of the myths, rituals, and taboos that found human culture itself. Because the peace brought about by the sacrifice of the surrogate victim is based on a lie, mimetic rivalry will once again slowly creep into the group, growing into the crisis that will now be seen as a sacrificial crisis, as some more senior member of the community recalls how to resolve it: find out who’s to blame. Who’s the one in our midst that we must be rid of in order to restore peace?

The key thing to understand is that, from the perspective of the community in sacrificial crisis, the scapegoat is really guilty. They’ve learned is that a crisis like this arises because somebody stirred it up, and it will be resolved once that person is identified and expelled. And it succeeds, every time, so long as the truth of the essentially arbitrary nature of the victim’s selection remains hidden. It helps that they’re dead. Girard calls this state of veiled ignorance méconnaisance, loosely translated as misunderstanding or misrecognition. We never make victims, our actions are always just and true in rooting out the sources of evil among us.

Ritual names the infinitely variable generative process by which the early community imitates the founding murder of the surrogate victim. The group is unsure exactly why the murder worked last time, so they elevate small, needless details to the level of necessity, turning an accidental discovery into a ritual repetition that is itself the foundation of all cultural learning. Taboo, or prohibition, begins to name objects and practices particularly susceptible to mimetic rivalry, likely beginning with the incest taboo. If a sister is a viable mate, then brothers are far more prone to rivalry than if she is forbidden. Taboos also provide a convenient source of identifiers for future sacrificial victims, such as Oedipus, supposedly guilty of not only incest, but also of parricide. 

Most myths such as Oedipus Rex only need scant interrogation to see that they are tales of scapegoating. Oedipus is “fated” from the beginning to commit the crimes he is later accused of. He comes to Thebes as an outsider, with a limp, two classic stereotypes of scapegoats. He initially saves the city from a crisis, but later a plague—a classic mythical motif of a mimetic crisis—descends on the city and Oedipus’ crimes of parricide and incest are revealed. Oedipus, upon discovering his crimes, blinds himself and order is restored to Thebes. But myths are told by the survivors who come up with all kinds of fantastical explanations for the crimes of their victims, who must really be guilty for the victimage mechanism to work. And so the victims in myth will always agree with his or her tormentor, sometimes to the point of inflicting the violence on themselves in agreement with the crowd who accuses them. Myths lie. They are the primitive version of history as written by the winners. It’s hard for victims to raise their voice when they’re dead.

This theory of the collective founding murder of the surrogate victim is deeply unfashionable to many. It is too big, too ambitious, it explains too much, is too obsessed with violence. You can’t just explain all religion and culture in all of its multitude of forms without falling prey to ethnocentrism, can you? And yet, is there not something that unites us as human beings in all of our variability and multiplicity?

Girard himself would grow increasingly bold and unfashionable in lockstep. Violence and the Sacred made him an academic star, particularly in his native France. But Girard would turn next to the question of what relationship his victimage hypothesis had to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and his discoveries surprised everyone, including himself. Next time, we will explore the third of the three pillars of mimetic theory: the unique perspective of Christianity on victims.


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