By Philip L. Tite
On November 4, 2015 the renowned literary theorist, René Girard (Stanford University) passed away at the age of 91. In an online announcement on the Stanford News, Cynthia Haven offers a comprehensive and glowing overview of the life and work of this seminal thinker of the 20th century. Girard is referred to as “the new Darwin of the human sciences” – though, I must add, a very controversial “Darwin” for those of us who study myth, violence, and religion.
As Haven correctly observes, or at least hints at, Girard’s work did not go uncontested. Indeed, since my own introduction to Girard’s work back in the 1990s, I have noticed that Girard’s theories tend to evoke either admiration to the point of near hagiographic devotion or disdainful dismissal by those repulsed by not only his grand theory on scapegoating and mimetic violence, but also the various subtexts of his thinking. Rarely have I found scholars or students who react to Girard without falling into one of those dichotomies. Scholars are either Girardians or anti-Girardians. There is little room for neutrality in the academy, at least with such a provocative thinker.
Girard is well known for his theory of mimetic desire leading to the scapegoating mechanism to defer the rivalry that causes social disintegration. The scapegoat, due to the social harmony evoked by the death or exile of the scapegoat, is transformed into a hero or god figure. However, the cycle continues to arise, resulting in further scapegoating – via sacrificial systems – until, so Girard argues, Jesus Christ appears and dies as an innocent victim. Christ’s death, therefore, breaks the cycle by revealing the scapegoating process. For Girard, Judaism almost got it right, but missed the mark, while Islam – despite its monotheistic foundation and chronologically following Christianity, is a problem in that it fails to recognize the importance and function of Christ’s death. Christianity, according to Girard, is the answer for the world’s problems today.
When I teach my Theorizing Religion and Violence course, I include a section on Girard, specifically while dealing with myth-ritualism and violence (we also deal with Frazer and Raglan among others). My goal is not to impose Girardian theory on my students, but rather to expose them to an important thinker who has had – and likely will continue to have – a profound impact on the academic study of religion and violence. Often presentations of Girard’s theory are highly inaccessible to the undergraduate student (and rarely do we have enough time in a general course on religion and violence to thoroughly read through his major works, such as, especially, Violence and the Sacred). So what I’ve done is to have my students watch an interview where Girard’s presents his own views on his theory:
We use this video along with supplemental readings as our “data” to analyze. Our discussion afterwards often evokes from students surprise at much of Girard’s thought. I’m not sure how much of my own view – as a non-Girardian – influences my students (I do try to present various positions so that my students can make their own evaluations of the material studied), but several common problems arise in class discussions. Some of the key problems I see in Girard’s theory include the following:
(1) This is a grand theory and grand theories have fallen out of vogue in the latter half of the 20th century. This is the kind of theory that Daniel Pals once referred to as a kind of functionalism that “lead[s] logically to reductionist conclusions” (Eight Theories of Religion, 149); i.e., all of religion, and not just an element or aspect of religion, is reduced to a singular origin or cause, a type of totalizing reduction found in the work of Marx, Durkheim, and Freud (in contrast to Weber). Unlike methodological reductionism, such functionalism, according to Pals,
… is not just a matter of explaining one aspect of religion while other theories explain other aspects. The premise of such functionalism is that it has found what is basic and fundamental. Religion – all of religion – can be fully accounted for by tracing it to a single underlying circumstance or elemental cause: to humanity’s universal state of neurosis, to the universal claims of society on the individual, or to the world dynamics of class struggle. Such explanations reach wide to sweep evidence from all cases into the embrace of a single formula. That is the key to their appeal. (Eight Theories of Religion, 149)
With Girard, such a totalizing causal explanation covers not just the origins of religion, but of violence, culture, and group formations. Not only all of religion, but all of civilization is accounted for by his theory. Basically, everything tends to go back to mimetic desire and the rivalry it evokes. This is the single formula proposed by Girard and that formula definitely has held a strong appeal for many humanities scholars.
(2) Girard is ahistorical in his approach, even though he offers an origin (an originary moment) for religious violence. In our video, he blatantly states as much. Given that his hypothetical “first killing” or rivalry is not just symbolic, but an actual event, it would seem that a greater sensitivity to history and prehistory would be needed. It is also insightful to notice that his work is tied directly to literary sources (“texts”), as if mythology and folklore are the key to human psychology and social psychology. History and prehistory – including cognitive research into human evolution – play no part in Girard’s work. Rather, we are treated to a walk through classical literature that dances in opposition to Freudian approaches to religion and myth.
(3) The theory works too well. This critique may seem odd, but think about it for a moment. If a theory works in all cases, then might that theory be forcing data to fit into the theory with no symbiotic “check” between theory and data? This is a grand theory. Grand theories work because they are totalizing. Totalizing theory obscures the particularity of the data and thus obscures rather than struggles with and through the tension between particularity and generality. (Cf. Tite, “Categorical Designations and Methodological Reductionism: Gnosticism as Case Study,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 13.3 : 269-292.)
(4) There is a very clear Christian bias in the work, transforming an explanatory theory into a confessional statement of Christian theological superiority. Although the Christian bias is not as obvious in Violence and the Sacred (indeed, I once had to point out this bias to a specialist in myth studies while discussing Girard’s theory), it arises starkly in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (on Judaism) as well as in the video we watched as a class (on Islam).
In a sense, accounting for Judaism and Islam vis-à-vis Christianity suggests that Girard is addressing a rivalry between the so-called Abrahamic religions (might Girard’s theory now be applied to his own theory? Does mimetic rivalry between world religions, in particular Abrahamic religions, underlie this very theory of religious violence?). I’m reminded of the genealogical analysis of Abrahamic religions offered by Aaron Hughes (“Abrahamic Religions: A Genealogy,” Bulletin for the Study of Religion 44.1 : 3-11). By placing Girard within such a genealogy, Girard seems to fit less with Hughes’s third stage of interfaith dialogue and more with the first or second stage of supersessionism or an interreligious dialogue where Christianity (or an aspect or form of Christianity) remains dominant and superior.
Thus, Girard’s treatment of the New Testament Gospels, in particular, attempts to preserve and apply the soteriological significance of Christ’s death within a world split by geopolitical and ideological violence. In the end, Girard is more a Christian theologian than a social scientist or anthropologist.
There are strengths to Girardian theory, of course. One of them is the importance of desire as a psychological – indeed, social psychology could be evoked here – factor in the emergence of conflict. Girard is also one of the few who see “violence” in a positive, or slightly positive, light. Most studies of religion and violence approach violence as a negative thing, something to explain and/or overcome (e.g., Cavanaugh, Juergensmeyer, Lincoln, and Jewett all come to mind). Girard offers a view of violence contributing to social cohesion. This is one of the distinctions I’ve seen between modern approaches to religious violence and the older myth-ritualist school of thought.
From my comments, it is obvious that I do not agree with Girard’s theory. I’m no Girardian. In part, I tend to resist any grand theorizing – my skepticism is evoked even when I recognize significance and even brilliance (e.g., I love and admire Carl Jung’s work, but I totally disagree with his theory of the collective unconsciousness). I don’t really love or admire Girard’s theory of mimetic violence, though I do teach it as an object of study (much as I do cosmogonic worldviews steeped in Platonic thought), but I am sad to hear of his death. He was a giant in the field, whose impact is less in what he said (i.e., his actual theory) and more the influence he has exerted among a wide range of talented scholars over the past several decades. There are few left that we could identify with myth-ritualism studies of religion and violence. Girard’s death may mark the final closure on an approach that goes back to James Frazer.
For those of us who study theory and religion – at that meta-level of studying the study of religion – it will be fascinating to see how his influence continues or wanes in the next decade or so now that this indomitable personality is gone, to see how the literary works he has left behind will continue to shape and direct theorization and debates over the nature of religion, violence, sacrifice, desire (perhaps in relation to affect theory?), and myth.
Philip L. Tite (Ph.D. McGill University, 2005) is the editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and (with James Crossley) of Postscripts, is a specialist in early Christian studies with strong interests in method & theory in the academic study of religion, and is an affiliate lecturer in the Comparative Religion Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. He also serves on the AAR Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence steering committee and the editorial board of the Journal of Religion and Violence. He is the author of several books, most recently The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolary and Rhetorical Analysis (TENT, 7; Leiden: Brill, 2012).