A Reflection on the COV&R Conference, Amsterdam 2007

By Per Bjørnar Grande

Bergen University College


The theme of the highly successful Amsterdam conference was “Vulnerability and Tolerance,” but tended to be just as much about whether there is a clash of civilisations. The overall great success was that one managed to convey the local tragedies in Holland (the killings of Theo van Gogh and Pim Fortuyn) into a general and universal drama of scapegoating and violence of our time.

Before the specific lectures COV&R president, Sandor Goodhart gave a splendid introduction to mimetic theory. This summary laid a foundation for the rest of the conference. The presentation this year was anthropological; on how mimetic theory deals with difference, calling violence “difference gone wrong.” Mr. Goodhart’s yearly introduction really shows how versatile mimetic theory can be presented. (Perhaps the most important lecture of the entire conference?)

The introductory lecture at the VU University of Amsterdam was given by Ian Buruma. Buruma’s lecture on Enlightenment wars questioned some of the ideals of the enlightenment, seeing them as having developed into new kinds of dogmas such as Marxism, Maoism, Third World Liberationism, multiculturalism, etcetera. Buruma’s eloquent talk concluded with the possibility and challenge (in the West) to adhere to secular western law, making it possible for different cultures to live side by side in tolerance. The panel discussion afterwards developed into a highly rivalistic discussion about which culture, the Islamic or the Christian, is the least violent, a tendency which Buruma, in his previous talk, had branded as rather useless. The excitement and (in my case) desire to convey my own religion as superior, did not, I think, evoke my most noble desires. This kind of polarization is, perhaps, not the model for COV&R’s future inter-religious dialogue. Also the Israel-Palestine session became highly polarized: each party accused the other of causing the maladies. As one participant said to me afterwards, this was really a live version of mimetic rivalry. Bob Daly’s wise suggestion during the Business meeting was that one should invite the Israeli and Palestine delegates some days in advance and let them get to know each other (as was done at the Koblenz conference) “and they will fall in love with each other.”

The Amsterdam murders (Van Gogh, Fortuyn) were also the starting point for Henri Beunders lecture (Fortuyn, Van Gogh, Hirsi Ali. Driving out the Unholy Trinity from The Netherlands). The rather crude use of mimetic theory, as in the case of Professor Beunders, was a reminder that such an approach can, in certain cases, be more illuminating than dogmatic uses of the theory. Like Buruma, Beunders saw the mess in The Netherlands as partly caused by leftist-elites proclaiming a coffee-table culture based on fun, creating loneliness and estrangement for those excluded. The elite bourgeois bohemians, being cosmopolitan, tolerant, and adventurous, have, at the same time, created a world view based on individualism and material success. Beunders, however, criticized Buruma for blaming Fortuyn and van Gogh for provoking their own killings. The problem really lies with the killers, he emphasized. Beunders’ conclusion about the necessity of continual revolt, however, reminded me too much of Hegel’s violent world spirit. In stead of revolts Girardians tend to prefer non-violent conversions.

During the conference one was continually reminded that everything important is vulnerable. The vulnerability theme was highlighted in Joachim Duyndam’s lecture on Girard and Levinas. Levinas’ inner starting point on man was initially contrasted to man’s external vulnerability in mimetic theory. A couple of excellent interpretations of central biblical stories were presented (with the aid of Sandor Goodhart). However, I was greatly puzzled by claims that mimetic theory neither is a religious nor an ethical theory. Even Levinas’ work was not regarded as an ethical theory, as it does not give instructions on how to live. Really, is not this reductionism in extremis? In my view, Girard’s theory is religious (not in a narrow sense) from A to Z, and his later works indicate non-violence and undifferentiated love on practically every other page. If the work of Girard and Levinas is not ethical and religious in nature, this goes beyond my not too subtle understanding. And as Duyndam concluded, the common motif that Girard and Levinas share and the point where their views complement each other, is the internal ethical perspective of unique responsibility preceding and supplementing the comparative perspective of mimetic human nature.

A very interesting interview with Girard was read out by Robert Doran and Sandy Goodhart. The interview called Apocalypse after 9/11 indicated that Girard tends to see the recent events as some kinds of clash of civilisations, although he now seems more reluctant to the idea of mimetic envy as a cause to terrorism.

There were three prize winners of the Raymund Schwager Award. The talented young scholars are:  John Roedel, USA (1st prize), Anita Grace, Canada (2nd prize)) and Daniel Cojocaru, Switzerland (2nd prize). Cojocaru’s lecture on Ellis’ American Psycho gave a fine insight into how desires among young New York yuppies can make a serial-killer. Cojocaru highlighted the scene where the young and successful New York businessmen begin rivalling about which of their business card is the most slick & subtle. The protagonist, Patrick Bateman, gets sick with envy and reacts by committing his first murder. This is actually one of the best examples on desire according to the other’s desire, as there is absolutely nothing real at stake, only desire. 

A lot of fine parallel sessions were performed during the conference. It was a bit disappointing for us who gave lectures on literary topics that so few attended. I want to remind COV&R that mimetic theory was initially worked out by literary analysis; it is the foundation for mimetic theory. Perhaps there were too many parallel sessions at once?

The spirit of the Amsterdam conference was, on the whole, fantastic. I am sure that many made new friends. Also, there are not many academic conferences where the level of information on what is going on in the academic world is so acute. This is due to the enthusiasm of the participants, and also to the inter-disciplinary and generative nature of mimetic theory.

I would like to thank the organizers for doing such a marvellous job. The lectures, the conference rooms, the bedrooms, the food, everything was of a very high quality. The organizers really contributed to giving us a spiritual and intellectual boost. Thanks especially to Thérèse Onderdenwinjgaard whom I daily pestered with practical questions, and who even managed to locate my lost mobile phone by ringing my number and thereby helped me to discover it under a pair of clean underpants laid out so neatly for the next day.