Mimetic Desire and Conflict
Rene Gerard (1923-2015), a very influential French historian, philosopher, and literary critic, forwarded the concept of mimetics, the idea that what people desire derived from observing other people, in other words, people imitate the desires of others (Girard 2004, 8-9). So ingrained is mimetic that “If human beings suddenly ceased imitating, all forms of culture world vanish.” Girard drew an important distinction between appetites (needs) and desires (Fleming 2002, 58). He suggested that appetites constituted the biological basis of human life such as the basic appetite for food and water. Desire, however, is an inherently human trait that is challenging to satisfy and is also not a biological need. Rather, desire is based upon the want for what other people have, and thus encompasses much of human existence such as a person’s hopes, visions, romantic attachments, and religious observances. It also exists only relationally, in other words, one does not observe a Mercedes and desire it, but rather sees others desiring the Mercedes and thus desires it herself.
Girard observed that conflict resulted from mimetic desire which led him to propose two categories: externally mediated and internally mediated desires (Fleming 2002, 60). External mediation is when a model (the person being imitated) is far removed from the imitator so that there is little chance of conflict occurring between the model and the imitator in attempt to obtain an object (perhaps a valuable painting or fame or riches). Alternatively, internal mediation is when the model and the imitator are in close proximity (perhaps in the same village) and there is a real chance of conflict occurring in attempt to obtain an object. Girard claimed that internal mediation resulted in the diminishing of differences between the model and the imitator. Both parties, in effect, become doubles of one another, which Girard referred to as the “Sacrificial Crisis.” The parties become more obsessed with one another than the actual object they desire, and end up mirroring one another in a paradoxical attempt to differentiate themselves.
Mimetic Desire, Conflict on the Social Level, and the Scapegoat
The Sacrificial Crisis results in an increase of violence which could grow to progressively undermine cultural order and social hierarchies, which Girard referred to as “a crisis of distinctions” (Fleming 2002, 60). Memetic desire could potentially lead to social obliteration and collapse. Thus, Girard introduced the concept of the Victimage Mechanism intended to explain how human societies maintained order and their existence despite desire within them resulting in conflict that could potentially eliminate social harmony (Fleming 2002, 60). Girard stated that societies maintained order and existence by attaching violence to a scapegoat (Fleming 2002, 61). This scapegoat (“a surrogate victim”) could be a marginalized individual or group of people to whom society attributes the problems and tensions. The response could either be to banish or eliminate this scapegoat (Girard 2004, 8-10). The death or expulsion of the scapegoat would restore relations, order, and harmony to the community but only for a temporary period. Girard observed another paradox involved here, namely, that to avoid communal violence those within the community would commit violence (on a scapegoat) to keep violence temporarily at bay.
The Sacred and the Mimetic Function of Sacrifice
For a community violence was deemed sacred if it restored harmony to the wider community. Girard thus posited the scapegoat mechanism to be central to ancient, primitive religion which lacked an objective, impartial judicial system (Girard 1977, 22-23). Girard emphasized the role violence played within religion proposing that religion had its origins in conflict generated by mimetic desire. Girard claimed that religion rendered sacred a certain social or cultural configuration, namely, ritualized sacrifice (Girard 1977, 19). Girard’s thoughts seem technical, but Girard said that the purpose of a religious ritual such as sacrifice was to maintain peace and that it managed this through institutionalizing a repetition of violence.
Violence and Sacrificial Substitution
The religious institutionalization of sacrifice relates to the scapegoating mechanism and is account for by Girard’s theory of sacrificial substitution (Girard 1977, 1). Girard referred to an inner human “impulse” toward aggression that must be diverted and placed on a sacrificial victim (Girard 1977, 13). An analogy using biblical narratives from the Pentateuch are used such as in Cain’s murdering of his brother Abel, because the former, unlike the latter, lacked a sacrificial outlet. This lack of an outlet manifested in Cain’s killing of Abel. Girard stated that humans could more easily engage in ritualized sacrifice if they believed a divine mandate allowed or ordered them to do so. This sacrifice, which could be of a human being or an animal, would divert the society away from committing violence on its own members that it wishes to protect. Here a differentiation is drawn between insiders and outsiders. The scapegoat is always deemed to be an outsider to the insider community, and the sacrifice of the scapegoat temporarily suppresses insider rivalries, quarrels, and jealousies, and thus reinforces the social fabric.
The Judicial System as a Resolution to Ritualized Sacrifice
Girard observed that modern societies mostly no longer practiced ritualistic, institutionalized sacrifice although it was evidently common within primitive societies. Girard attempted to account for this (Girard 1977, 13). He noted that human beings, primitive or modern, possessed the inclination toward violence often undergirded by the internal memetic desire for revenge, the idea that “the only satisfactory response for spilt blood is the blood of the killer” (Girard 1977, 13). Girard noted that vengeance is an infinitely repetitive process, a “vicious cycle” which threatened to impact the whole social body and put it into jeopardy (Girard 1977, 14-15). However, Girard believed that the cycle of vengeance was broken by the modern judicial system which deflected the “menace of vengeance” (Girard 1977, 15). Importantly, the judicial system did not eliminate the desire for violence (vengeance) but that it was rather limited to a single act of reprisal via a sovereign authority. The judicial system essentially specialized in meting out revenge on perpetrators. Girard suggested that this effectively provided a “cure” for the “disease” of violence based on vengeance, and that this was why modern societies no longer institutionalized ritual sacrifice (Girard 1977, 22). For the primitive societies, there were no judicial processes in place to deal with with outbreaks of violence, and sacrifice was their means to preserve social harmony (Girard 1977, 18-19)
Response: How Girard’s Theory of Sacrificial Substitution Elucidates Black Pain and Vengeance in South Africa
I could not help but to draw parallels from Girard’s theory of sacrificial substitution to the much publicized event of the slaughter of the goat on Clifton Fourth Beach which took place in 2018. Girard’s reasoning provides clarity on the issue of black anger in our nation although the implications of his thoughts can be unsettling.
In its most simple form, the Clifton Fourth Beach incident occurred when black protesters took to a wealthy “white area” to “exorcize” the demon of racism (via the ritualized sacrifice of a goat) after a private security company unlawfully removed beachgoers (including blacks) from a beach due to alleged criminal activities thought to have taken place there. Investigations found that no racism was involved despite the claims made by some. However, what was clearly shown was a vivid state of black anger and vengeance taking full expression. Following Girard’s reasoning, black South Africans living in a post-apartheid South Africa who are yet pained and angry, and in pursuit of vengeance fixed these sentiments to the goat which acted as a surrogate victim. Certainly, the goat is not guilty for the black pain due to apartheid or for apartheid’s lingering legacies. According to Girard, it simply took form of a sacrificial outlet for the expression of black anger and vengeance. Girard’s also noted that institutionalized sacrifice eventually disappeared (or at most existed in a diminished state) in ancient societies that instituted judicial systems, such as Greece and Rome (19). Clearly institutionalized sacrifice does not command the public domain within South Africa, and although ritualized sacrifice does exist (as shown on Clifton beach) it exists only in a diminished state. Why? Because our judicial system, however competent or incompetent, acts as the “final word on vengeance.” It is uncomfortable to entertain the implications of Girard’s theory. Why? Because it could suggest that ominous elements within the local black population really would have dished out bloody vengeance on the white populace deemed guilty of past transgressions in the absence of a judicial system. Unfortunately, we already witness transitions in this direction through the violent and ant-white rhetoric within the leadership ranks of some political parties who stated their desires to kill the white population.
So I believe that Girard’s theory of sacrificial substitution does speak to and helpfully illuminate a real social phenomenon in our society, namely black anger which cannot be suppressed in attempt to hide its existence.
Fleming, Chris. 2002. “Mimesis and Violence -An Introduction to the Thought of Rene Girard”. Australian Religion Studies Review: 15.1. 57-72
Girard, Rene. 1977. Violence and the Sacred, trans. by Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. 1-37.
Girard, Rene. 2004. Violence and religion: cause or effect? The Hedgehog Review, 6(1): 8+