The following is the introduction to the special double-size September-December 2016 issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion (the full table of contents having already been posted). The introduction to this issue on René Girard was written by guest editor, Michael Jerryson. Although our publisher has kindly made this introduction freely available, we offer this piece here on the blog in order to give readers an overview of the most recent issue of the Bulletin. Again, we wish to express our thanks to Michael for his efforts in bringing this issue together.
Associate Professor, Philosophy and Religious Studies Department, Youngstown State University
In the great Indian epic The Mahabharata, two warring factions seek the throne of Hastinapura. On one side are the Kauravas, one hundred brothers and a sister who were born from a blind king and his pious wife. The Kauravas are extremely jealous of their cousins, the Pāṇḍavas. The Pāṇḍavas are the five sons of Pandu; however, Pandu was unable to conceive children on his own. His two wives Kunti and Madri copulated with gods and gave birth to his children. As such, each Pāṇḍava was blessed with divine gifts. These gifts allow the Pāṇḍavas to accomplish great feats, but they also become a reason for the Kauravas’ resentment.1 Jealousy becomes a prevailing motif throughout the epic, particularly in the relations between the Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas. It explains the initial friction between the two sides of the family as well as the ways in which the friction gives way to warfare.
The Mahabharata is not unique with regard to bouts of jealousy and violence. Many epics contain such intersections. However, René Girard provides another layer of analysis for the epic, a pervasive existentialist angst that derives from mimetic desire. Girard argues that humans are plagued by the same jealousy found in the Abrahamic story of Cain and Abel: “Mimetism is a source of continual conflict. By making one man’s desire into a replica of another man’s desire, it invariably leads to rivalry; and rivalry in turn transforms desire into violence” (Girard 1977, 169). In the Indian epic, the Kauravas desired what the Pandavas had; it was the source of their rivalry and the jealousy led to their ultimate destruction in the Kurukshetra War.
René Girard focused a significant portion of his attention on the origins and the pacifications of religion and violence. He found that mimetic desire was a catalyst for violent patterns in societies. Whereas some scholars of religion like J. Z. Smith have focused on the subordinating power of alterity,2 Girard examined the reflexive desire implicit in the construction of the Other. Girard did not linger on the question of whether or not people had mimetic desire. For him, this was an implicit condition of existence. Instead, Girard deliberated on the ways in which cultures address this proclivity for mimesis.
This special double issue is devoted to the work and legacy of René Girard. One of the most prodigious scholars to work on religion and violence, Girard produced scholarship that has stimulated thousands of scholars for over forty years. His work also led to the formation of academic organizations. Perhaps the most notable is The Colloquium on Violence and Religion: The International Association of Scholars of Mimetic Theory (COV&R), of which Girard was the honorary chair until his death. COV&R was founded in 1990, and the organization launched a journal four years later, Contagion: Violence, Mimesis, and Culture.3 COV&R holds annual conferences on Girardian theories and research, the most recent at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne in 2016.4 In addition to COV&R, there are other organizations such as the Raven Foundation, which sponsors the online Raven Review: Social Commentary on Religion, Politics, and Pop Culture.5 Imitatio is yet another academic resource that provides grants for scholarship on Girard’s work and was formed “to press forward the consequences of René Girard’s remarkable insights into human behavior and culture” (Imitatio).
On November 4, 2015, René Girard died at his residence in Stanford, California. He had served as the Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature, and Civilization, from 1985–1994 and had continued as professor emeritus of French Language, Literature, and Civilization. One of his colleagues at Stanford University, Cynthia Haven, reminds her readers of the Stanford News that Girard was a member of the prestigious Académie Française and that during his induction into the prominent academy, Stanford University philosopher Michel Serres referred to him as “the new Darwin of the human sciences” (Haven 2015).
While there are scholars who support Girard’s work and see much of his work as a launching point for further work—and carry the reference as “Girardians”—there are notable critics who disagree with Girard, even his most foundational concepts. Regardless of their positions, the advocates and dissenters of Girardian theory evince René Girard’s widespread impact. This commemorative issue hosts a compilation of essays by some of the most influential scholars to write on religion and violence. Some authors advance Girard’s work, some authors critique it; collectively, their work pays tribute.
In “Criticism, Critique, and Crisis in the Assessment of the Work of René Girard” Sandor Goodhart provides a background to Girard and his work. Goodhart locates the “three big ideas” in Girard’s oeuvre: mimetic desire, the management of the sacrificial crisis through scapegoating, and the revelation of these ideas in Jewish and Christian scriptures. He maintains that while these big ideas provide important intellectual trajectories, they have suffered from some common misconceptions. As one of the few scholars of Girard who studies Judaism, Goodhart acknowledges that Girard took the path of Christianity (and that many scholars who have worked on Girardian ideas are scholars of Christianity). However, he argues that a scholar can apply Girardian perspectives without adhering to a particular theological position.
David Frankfurter provides an alternative reflection on Girard’s big three theories in “The Study of Evil and Violence without Girard.” Turning to the issue of methodology, he argues that Girard’s investigation into religion and violence employs an archetypal narrative bereft of historical contexts. A close examination of sacrifices in their socio-historical contexts reveals a very different pattern than Girard’s premises provide. Frankfurter points out that sacrifice is not the central rite of religion and is not explicitly about killing. There are indeed acts of performative mimesis, but these cannot be understood through the narrow definition Girard provides. Moreover, the scapegoating theory simplifies what is a much more complex socio-political and theological dynamics. As such, Frankfurter finds that Girard’s work is not so much a theory, but a legend of a priori doctrine.
In “Something Bigger than Girard,” Jonathan Klawans addresses implicit problems in the pursuit of an origin for religion. Klawans argues that René Girard engages in an exercise reminiscent of Mircea Eliade’s work, one rife with over-generalizations to fit the theory to data and marked by the identification of author as guru. In a contraposition to Sandor Goodhart, Klawans notes that Girard sustains a position that the Gospels and Christianity are ultimately and uniquely revelatory. If a theory is not falsifiable, it is not an academic theory. He recommends that future Girardian scholars nuance their work and reformulate their approach as a hypothetical dynamic.
Vanessa Avery pursues a nuanced approach and ventures into the uncharted regions of Girardian research with “Whither Girard and Islam? Reflections on Text and Context.” René Girard and scholars of Girard have made efforts to connect their work with Islamic thought (and to invite scholars of Islam to their conferences), but there has been a notable dearth of Islamic scholars who have engaged with Girardian theories. Avery contends that perhaps some of this reticence may relate to the different literary structures, with biblical scriptures employing narratives, and the Qur’an’s focus on individual responsibility and the lack of vicariousness.
Martha Reineke builds upon Girard’s work and explores new directions in “The Worm in the Pudding Cup: Violence, Disgust, and Mimetic Theory.” Throughout the article, Reineke pays homage to Girard through her careful bricolage of psychological, anthropological, and theological theories and data. For instance, she connects Richard Beck’s psychology of disgust to mimetic desire in order to explore ways in which cultures enact pollution management. Reineke asks, “To secure the explanatory power of mimetic theory, must blood of the female reproductive system be an instance of violence?” She argues that linking blood with an abject sacred instead of violence strengthens Girard’s theories. Whereas Girard found the notion of twinning as an exemplar of sacrificial violence, Reineke locates ethnographic examples in which twins are not ancillary to violence, but rather act as aspirational and communicative ideals.
Margo Kitts provides an alternative background and context for René Girard in “Mimetic Theory, Sacrifice, and the Iliad?” She locates Girard among several other prominent scholars in the twentieth century who worked on “sacred violence”: Sigmund Freud, Adolf Jensen, and Walter Burkert. Whereas Goodhart extols Girard for his inclusive theories that transcend their Christian origins, Kitts reaches a different conclusion. She finds that Girard’s “mystical Christian foundation” for mimetic desire and scapegoating provides limitations to its wider appeal and relevance. As Girard’s contribution to the discourse is predominantly literary and philosophical, Kitts tests her conclusion through a careful application of Girardian concepts to the violent examples in a pre-Christian poem, the Illiad.
Mark Juergensmeyer reflects upon Girard’s treatment of mimetic desire, sacrifice, and war in “On Girard: Mimesis and Cosmic War.” Juergensmeyer acknowledges the importance of mimetic desire within the study of religion and violence, but questions Girard’s causalities. For Juergensmeyer, mimetic desire is a complicated ingredient. War requires an (often constructed) enemy. Sometimes a war is born out of mimetic desire, but sometimes violence leads to mimesis. Whereas Girard posits that sacrificial rites put an end to the cycle of violence, Juergensmeyer aligns himself with many in the anthropological field in which rituals of sacrifice re-enact the hunt and the physical violence that came earlier. Instead of sacrifice as a purification of war, war of cosmic importance is the means by which sacrifice gains meaning. In this way, terrorists envision themselves in a cosmic war against the United States, one in which the United States is both vilified and admired.
As should be explicitly clear from the brief discussion of the articles above, this issue resists a uniform position on René Girard and his work. Some scholars such as Sandor Goodhart and Martha Reineke labor to advance his ideas; others like David Frankfurter and Jonathan Klawans heavily critique them. In the beginning of this introduction, I argued that Girard’s concept of mimetic desire points to the existential angst inscribed within the divine-mortal tandem of the Mahabharata. The example supports both the supporters and critics of Girard. It displays ways in which Girardian ideas intersect with non-Western religious scriptures; however, it reinforces the point that his ideas lend better to literary references without particular socio-historical contexts. The inclusion of both sides in this commemorative issue pays homage to an academic in the best way possible. The various positions illustrate the ways in which Girard has provoked intense, theoretical, and insightful conversations on religion and violence. Vive la pensée critique!
Buitenen, J. A. B. van, and James L. Fitzgerald, eds. 1973. The Mahābhārata: I. The Book of the Beginning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Girard, René. 1977. Violence and the Sacred. Translated by Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Haven, Cynthia. 2015. “Stanford Professor and Eminent French Theorist René Girard, Member of the Académie Française, Dies At 91.” Stanford News, November 4. http://news.stanford.edu/2015/11/04/renegirard-obit-110415/.
Imitatio. “About Imitatio.” http://www.imitatio.org/aboutimitatio/.
Smith, Jonathan Z. 2004. Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Michael Jerryson (Ph.D. University of California, Santa Barbara 2008) is Associate Professor of religious studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Youngstown State University, Youngstown OH. He is a specialist in the study of intersection of identity and religious violence, with a particular focus on Buddhism. He is co-chair of the AAR Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence group, co-editor of the Journal of Religion and Violence, and is the author or editor of numerous books including Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand (Oxford University Press, 2011 and the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence (edited with Mark Juergensmeyer and Margaret Kitts; Oxford University Press, 2013).