Mimetic Binds and Scapegoat Mechanisms.

Introducing Mimetic Theory



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The French-American literary critic, religious scholar, anthropologist and philosopher RenŽ

Girard (b.1923) is known today as one of the most influential and controversial contemporary

thinkers. During the course of forty-five years Girard has developed an interdisciplinary

cultural theory based on research in the field of literary theory, anthropology, the science of

religion, philosophy, psychology and theology. 25

Girard’s system is extremely ambitious as he tries to re-think the founding principles of

human culture from basically two structures: mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism.

According to Girard himself, his system has been developed at a most inconvenient time.26

The great systems, which flourished in the 19th century, appear to have vanished with Freud.

Today there is an immense scepticism surrounding this kind of thought.

Girard’s system is a scientific hypothesis. On a par with Darwin’s hypothesis of evolution

Girard’s aim is to provide a coherent theory on cultural origin and development. He does not

claim to have found the only truth concerning human development, but he postulates a

hypothesis, capable of integrating a number of facts that make historical phenomena


In 1961 Girard published his first book Mensonge romantique et vŽritŽ romanesque (Deceit,

Desire and the Novel). 27 It was an analysis of desire in the novels of mainly Cervantes,

25 See Per Bj¿rnar Grande. ’Syndebukkmekanismer og mimetiske bindinger – en presentasjon av RenŽ Girards

teori,’ Kirke og Kultur 5 (1991): 451-456.

26 ’Saddam Hussein er bŒde en forbryder – og en syndebuk.’ Interview with Girard in the Danish newspaper

Information, March 15 (1988).

27 Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure (Baltimore, London: Johns Hopkins U.P.,

Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust and Dostoevsky. Even if the word mimesis was not yet in use, the

starting point of Girardian theory was a reflection on imitative desire. In Deceit, Desire and

the Novel, the basic understanding of desire is a desire according to the other. The most

common denominator in the European novelistic tradition is, according to Girard, the

revelation of metaphysical desire. Metaphysical desire is contrasted with spontaneous desire

and comes about when the hero desires an object via a mediator.

The mediator plays a central role in Girardian thinking. If desire were not afflicted by a

mediator there could be some possibility of desiring freely. But so long as there is a mediator

present, there cannot be any linear desire. The mediator can receive and hinder desire. He/She

transforms desires into secondary and rivalistic desires. The desire between subject, object

and mediator is labeled triangular desire.

In Deceit, Desire and the Novel Girard concludes that there is no such thing as autonomous or

spontaneous desire. All desires are interdependent and mediated. The nearest you can come to

a free, spontaneous desire is through religious conversion, through imitating Christ. This

freedom and spontaneity, however, is mediated.

The consequences of desiring through a mediator leads to rivalry materialized as jealousy,

hatred and envy. The fact that desires are not original but mediated, creating secondary

desires, means that desires have become metaphysical. During the time-span from Cervantes

to Dostoevsky and to modern-day mentality, the complexity and intensity of metaphysical

desire has been enhanced. Don Quixote’s external mediation is neither hidden nor very

complex. He proclaims to the whole world that his mediator is the knight Amadis de Gaul.

According to Girard the society surrounding Don Quixote is rather healthy as regards

metaphysical desire. People clearly see the madness in Don Quixote’s imitation. But since the

17th century the effects of metaphysical desire have become more contagious, which has led

in turn to an intensifying of desire in order to hide the role of one’s mediator. Stendhal is

important in this context because of the way in which he reveals an intensifying and hidden

way of desiring. In The Red and the Black Stendhal describes the mimetic game of hiding

desire in order to provoke desire. Thus the act of imitation has become much more hidden


than in the days of Don Quixote. Julien Sorel, the hero in The Red and the Black, punishes

himself (by putting his arm in a sling) for revealing his imitation of Napoleon.

Girard claims, from his reading of selected classics, that over the centuries there has been a

development from external to internal mediation, from an external imitation of for example

saints and knights to a more internal imitation of the ordinary person in the street. Thus the

effect of metaphysical desire becomes graver, more intense and more hidden.

In our days its nature is hard to perceive because the most fervent imitation is the most vigorously denied.

(Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, 15.)

People wish to live with the illusion of spontaneous desire and believe that they do. It is this

illusion concerning one’s autonomy, which, according to Girard, some novelists have been

able to reveal. The difference between the romantic novelist and the romanesque or realist

novelist is based upon their different approaches towards the mediator.28 The romantic writer

will show and propagate the mediator’s presence, often as a rival. But he will not reveal the

mediator's role in mediating desire. The romantic writer believes in the autonomy of the

characters and, according to Girard, is himself governed by a desire for autonomy. The

romantic lie consists in seeing desire as spontaneous and linear. The realist novelist both

presents and reveals the role of the mediator. The mediator is revealed as the decisive factor in

the protagonist’s desire. The realist novelist is, according to Girard, the most trustworthy

explorer of desire, a desire which Girard labels desire according to the other.

Through a reading of certain selected novels Girard discovered that desire is neither primarily

based on the subject or on the object. If desire were something inherent in the subject, it

would be possible to attain autonomy. Then desire could be something original and

individual.29 If desire were based on the object, desire would be based on a spontaneous

attraction towards different objects, such as money, houses, cars etc. Contrary to these views

Girard claims that desire is not spontaneous, individual or primarily provoked by objects, but

that desires are mediated through what other people desire. There is no such thing as original

desire, only mediated desire.

28 The difference between romantic and realist literature is not a difference according to epoch. The difference is

based on an approach towards desire. There is, however, in Girard’s work, a preference for novels written in the

realist tradition.

In the depiction of the psychology of mimetic desire, Girard’s reading of Proust has been of

great importance. In In Search of Lost Time, Parisian society, not only the upper classes (the

Faubourg Saint-Germain), but all layers of society are revealed as being ridden with

metaphysical desire. Proust’s insights into his characters reveal different forms of hidden

imitation. Especially among the aristocracy and the literary salons, the secrecy, the snobbism,

the role-playing leads to a subtle but brutal hindering of desire. The genius of Proust,

according to Girard, is how he reveals the different layers of desire as a hidden desire towards

the other. Desire for the other is sublimated into arrogance, snobbism, of a coquettish worship

of art and artists.30 Everyone is frantically trying to convince the others of their autonomy.

Proust, instead of writing in the vein of contemporary thought, reveals the illusion of

autonomous desires and brings in the captivating effect of the mediator, the other. According

to Girard this process of hiding the role of one’s mediator is the process of turning men into

Gods in the eyes of each other.31 Seeing the other as godlike is only possible through the

process of metaphysical desire.

Already in this first major work Girard presents himself as a Christian thinker. Metaphysical

desire is the consequence of our having pulled the gods down from heaven, making the sacred

flow over the earth.32 Simultaneously with the secularization process there is the process of

anthropological resacralisation, of being possessed by the mediator and divinising him. Girard

concludes this tour de force of desire by seeing metaphysical desire as a consequence of

having lost or having resigned from transcendental faith, while true freedom lies in choosing

the divine model.33

Girard’s work can, at first glance, seem rather independent of contemporary theory. But one

must remember that desire was a theme very much ˆ la mode in post-war France. The starting

point of metaphysical desire is the discovery of human weakness. The concept of internal

weakness seems initially to be tinged by existentialistic thought, but actually the process is

understood differently since the emphasis is on the other. This inner weakness can very easily

lead to different kinds of possessive reaction towards one’s mediator. The mediator becomes

both model and hinderer. What often happens is that the model will begin to desire, especially

29 See J¿rgen J¿rgensen. ”PŒ sporet av den tabte oprindelse,” Paradigma 4 (1990): 44-45.

30 See especially chapter IX (The worlds of Proust) in Deceit, Desire and the Novel.

31 Ibid., Chapter II.

32 Ibid., 62.

33 Ibid., 58.

in the long term, what the subject itself desires. And inevitably the mediator will transfer his

desires, from the object to the subject. This model, where both the subject and the mediator

desire each other’s desires is called double mediation. This intensifies the rivalry. In the

process they become more and more alike, while they frantically profess their difference.

(Metaphysical desire makes people profess their uniqueness, their difference, while the

opposite is actually the case.) According to Girard, Dostoevsky, especially in The Eternal

Husband, reveals the mechanism of double mediation.34 In the process of desiring intensely

the desire is transformed, often to such a radical degree that one loses sight of the original

object. In the end all desires point towards the mediator.

In the same way as Proust, Dostoevsky places the mediator in the foreground and relegates

the object to the background.35 According to Girard, Dostoevsky pushes the disastrous effects

of the mediator to an apocalyptic level. Dostoevsky is the author who goes furthest in

revealing the ontological sickness of metaphysical desire. By endowing his characters with

the most intense desires and lumping them together in the most unfavourable conditions, he is

able to reveal the culminating effects of metaphysical desire (murder, madness and suicide).

By showing the ultimate consequences of metaphysical desire, Dostoevsky is able to invert

the scene in a convincing manner, by introducing the divine alternative, the Christian model,

the imitation of Christ. The insight that, whilst one is possessed by the other, there is no true

religious life, only the act of becoming one another’s gods and rivals, seems to stem primarily

from Girard’s reading of The Possessed.36

Before presenting the next stage in Girardian theory (the scapegoat mechanism) I will try to

give a short summary of mimetic desire in Deceit, Desire and the Novel. Mimetic desire is, as

I have mentioned, not a term used in this book. But all the ingredients, the basic psychology

based on the concept of the other, is already present. Mimesis in Deceit, Desire and the Novel

is based upon a desire according to the other. There is no hint of any biologically

preconceived mimesis. Instincts tend to limit the desire for acquisition, for example among

animals. Among humans there are no such instinctual dominance patterns that prevent

acquisitive mimesis.37 Girard criticises Freud’s understanding of desire as object-related, and

34 Girard. Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (London: Athlone Press, 1987), 338-347.

35 Deceit, Desire and the Novel, 45.

36 Ibid., 59-61, 158, 162-163, 189-190, 249-255.

37 R.J. Golsan,. RenŽ Girard and Myth. An Introduction (New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1993),

primarily driven by two separate desires: the Oedipus complex and narcissism.38 Girard does

not see mimesis as primarily sexual (Freud) or governed by the will to power (Nietzsche).

Neither is mimetic desire primarily understood in moral/ethical terms such as good and evil.

Mimesis is born out of a desire according to the other and controlled by models. In this

respect desire can assume any form depending on the mimetic influences. Lundager Jensen’s

term borrowed desire seems significant, because desire is seldom dependent on any inherent

drive.39 The worth of something is dependent upon the desire caused by others. In this respect

desire is an interdividual phenomenon, which works according to its own laws.

In La Violence et le sacrŽ (Violence and the Sacred) from 1972, Girard gives an

anthropological interpretation of the sacred in myths, emphasizing Greek drama. The sacred

in Violence and the Sacred is perceived as ways to control the violence in a society of

scapegoating. According to Finn Frandsen, Girard projects his theory from the psychological

to the cultural.40 Although he begins, in Violence and the Sacred, by analysing the sacred,

mimesis/mimetic desire is introduced and is seen as a force which leads to scapegoating.41 In

the mimetic delirium which arises when a society is afflicted or in crisis, a frenetic activity

arises whereby someone has to be found responsible for this terrible situation, someone who,

by being sacrificed, can restore peace. In other words, sacrifice has to come about in order to

prevent a disintegrating society dissolving into violence. The conflicts, caused by mimetic

desire, can reach apocalyptic dimensions where the all-against-all finds a solution in allagainst-

one. The choice of scapegoat can be arbitrary, but it tends to be someone marginal,

who differs from the community or has some kind of weakness. This means that it may be a

foreigner, a child, a woman, somebody with a physical or psychological deficiency. But it

could also mean someone of high rank, for example, in some cultures, the sacrifice of a king.

According to Girard, the most primitive and basic sacrifice was probably made

spontaneously, in a raw and unconscious manner. Gradually it became more conscious and

ritualistic. Thus there has been a certain evolution from violent to less violent types of


38 Ibid., 21-24.

39 See Lundager Jensen. RenŽ Girard, 10.

40 Finn Frandsen. ’Beg¾ret, volden og offeret,’

41 Girard. Violence and the Sacred (5th Ed.) (Maryland Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 145-149.

Not only the rituals but also the myths reflect this violence. From a mimetic reading of myths,

Girard claims that all myths originate in this collective violence.42 Myths try, in different

ways, to hide the violence, often by a transformation of this same violence. The last thing a

writer of myths will admit is the guilt and wrongdoing of the community's violence. Myths

are written from the community's point of view, meaning the sacrificers’ point of view. In this

respect myths have a legitimising effect on society. But usually the immolation is transformed

into something fantastic and heroic. The victim is very often divinised, which indicates that

the community cannot bear its own violence.

Myths try to cover up violence. But, at the same time, myths can, when interpreted rationally,

from an anti-sacrificial and de-mythologized point of view, be read as texts of victimizing.

Myths, usually, in a hidden way, refer to some sort of violent origin. It is from such a

suspicious reading Girard uses mythical texts to discover and uncover collective violence. In

this way myths can be seen as an attempt to hide reality. Myths both displace and refer to

violence in a society. According to Girard, violence is the force which displaces and

mythologizes reality. Seen in this perspective violence is the birth of culture, since expulsion

creates difference and division, an inside and an outside, a them-and-us, a society.

Religion expresses this birth of culture in a logical way. In order to prevent a community from

going under in violence, one establishes a surrogate victim in order to re-establish peace. In

this way religion upholds society. And because the victim is capable of bringing peace,

he/she is often divinised. Sacrificial religion is therefore a force capable of bringing order to a

society, an order which is peace-oriented yet requires violence. In this respect the community

does not worship the killing, but the peace which is a consequence of the killing. One might

say that Girard defines religion as the attempt to prevent violence by the aid of the surrogate

victim. In 1972, when Violence and the Sacred was published, Le Monde wrote that someone

had finally given a coherent, rational and atheistic theory on the nature of religion.

A scandal arose in 1978 when Girard’s main work was published. In Des Choses cahŽes

depuis la fondation du monde: Reserches avec Jean-Michel Oughourlian et Guy Lefort

(Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World) the author presented both himself and his

42 To get the best systematic presentation of Girard’s understanding of myth, see Chapter 3 (What is a Myth?) in The

Scapegoat (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985), 24-44, and Chapter 5 (Mythology) in I See Satan Fall Like

Lightning, (NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 62-70.

work as something far from atheistic. On the contrary, his work was constructed around the

sacrificial revelation in the Gospels. Girard’s view on religion as sacrificial was seen from a

non-sacrificial Christian point of view. Things Hidden became something of a sensation,

especially in France. In academic circles, scholars began to use the concept of the Girardian


In Book I of Things Hidden, Girard tries to develop a fundamental anthropology based on the

scapegoat mechanism. The most fundamental difference between human and animal is not,

according to Girard, primarily intelligence, but the way humans ritualise and divinise killing.

Humans are not capable of killing, and therefore must ritualise and make sacred its murder.

In Book II, Girard discusses the Judaeo-Christian scriptures. From these texts, he claims, a

new understanding of violence is revealed. Thus in the Old Testament one finds violent,

sacrificial texts, where God participates in the violence, but, at the same time, it is in the Old

Testament that a new understanding of violence and sacrifice is revealed – especially in

certain texts of the Prophets.43 Certain texts in the Old Testament reveal that the violence

which men claimed to be divine, was in fact purely human violence.

The final revelation of violence as human violence comes in the New Testament. The reason for

this revelation is partly the result of the shift in perspective. The authors write from the point of view of the persecuted, not from the persecutors point of view - the latter being typical for myths. This means a new point of view is introduced. By writing from the perspective of the persecuted, allegedly divine violence is revealed as human violence. Violence is displaced, from God to man. Christ becomes a victim precisely because he tries to reveal the violence in society. The innocent becomes the guilty. In this way, from the perspective of the New Testament writers, an absolute injustice occurs. The innocent becomes victimized, and the peacemaker is crucified. This perspective is so acute in the story of Christ, that people became aware of the innocence of the scapegoat. Therefore, the Passion functions as an uncovering of victimization, thus indicating a new religious approach. The Passion refers to a non-sacrificial God who allows the sun to shine on the godly and ungodly alike. The God manifested in Christ’s life is a non-sacrificial God who shows undifferentiated love towards everyone.

43 Things Hidden, 154-158.

In Things Hidden the sacrifice of Christ is seen from a non-sacrificial point of view.44 The

sacrifice is not God-willed, but a consequence of Christ’s revealing the violent structures in a

sacrificial society. And this revelation of non-violence, of a non-violent God, makes society

less able to function according to the scapegoat mechanism. The glaring injustice makes some

people proclaim the victim’s innocence, and by such a proclamation, the victimage

mechanism loses its efficiency. Scapegoating requires unanimity. Dissent makes the

victimage mechanism less efficient. In this respect the sacrifice of Christ, seen in the context

of the history of mentality, makes people aware of the victim's innocence and enhances their

concern for victims. People, by interpreting the Passion from a non-sacrificial point of view,

have thus propagated a non-violent God who shows the deepest concern for the victim. From

this non-sacrificial point of view, one might also regard secularization and demythologization

as two important consequences of Christ’s sacrifice.

The sacred god, based on victimization is actually based on the sacrificial principles of

society. The god which is praised as a sacrificial god, is a god of persecution. Actually,

according to Girard, this god is a projection of human violence. This understanding of a

sacrificial god, nevertheless, continues, in historical Christianity alongside a non-sacrifical

conception of God. But this god, created out of mimetic desire, demanding violent sacrifices,

is the god of this world. This structure of mimetic desire, leading to victimization and murder,

Girard actually calls Satan. Satan is the structure which leads to murder.45 As this structure is

so dominant in the world, it may be problematic to claim that Christ rules the world.

However, he rules over those who denounce sacrifice, who choose to imitate Christ’s love and

obedience towards his Father. By revealing the structures of this world, Christ also reveals

how the system destroys itself.46 In trying to trace scapegoats, one will oneself be scapegoated

by others. The victimage mechanism, especially in a less sacrificial society, means reciprocal


In this respect the passive, non-violence of the Passion, expresses a clear logic: if God were to

reveal his holiness through worldly power (sacrifice), he would, at the same time, act according to the destructive principles of this world, which would only confirm these principles built upon

44 Ibid., Book II, Chapter 2, 180-223.

45 Ibid., 162, 418-419.

46 Girard. Job. The Victim of His People (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1987), 157-160.

47 The reason why lesser sacrificial societies create reciprocal violence is that victimization is not legitimate and the attempt to scapegoat somebody will easily lead to revenge. Such revenge would be more difficult in a society

violence. By renouncing worldly victory, Christ’s passion represents a lasting victory, the victory of love, which does not require sacrifice.

In Girard’s anti-metaphysical theory there are few speculations on God's existence. The true

religious attitude lies in the radical message of love, in the imitation of Christ.48 Christ is the

only model without violence, and therefore the only way to a loving God. Natural religion is

thus revealed as being built upon scapegoating; in other words as a false, projected godhead,

developed and attracted by human violence.

In Book III of Things Hidden Girard attempts to develop an interdividual psychology built

upon mimetic desire. By re-using and developing further the basic understanding of imitation

in Deceit, Desire and the Novel, Girard attempts to interpret some classic psychological

illnesses. The Oedipus complex, the death wish, narcissism, sado-masochism, paranoia

etcetera are interpreted as different forms of mimetic binds, caused by violence. These

complexes and illnesses are not necessarily something inherent, but are usually activated by

different mimetic games. The Oedipus complex for instance, is not regarded as something

inherent in the child, but something that appears when he or she imitates the father's (or the

mother's) jealousy and aggression.49 Therefore Girard blames Freud for seeing the child as

guilty, since he or she only imitates the mimesis of the parents. Such complexes are not,

according to Girard, biologically founded in humans, they are consequences of some kind of

violent mimesis. Many illnesses and complexes can be seen as variations of mimetic desire.

They are therefore neither static nor refer necessarily to the early years of childhood. Human

psyche changes according to its mimetic models.

If one regards mimetic theory in relation to the history of philosophy, it entails a critique of

philosophy as an attempt to avoid mimetic desire. According to Girard, philosophy is just as

interwoven into sacrifice as religion, but, by partly expelling mimesis from the discourse, and

by avoiding seeing the fundamental drive in sacrifice, philosophy becomes a new kind of

secularised sacrifice.50 Plato’s act of postulating truth as something independent of mimesis,

has lead philosophy and, partly, theology into a rather lifeless world of ideas, thereby losing

dominated by the scapegoat mechanism as everyone would agree on the guilt of the scapegoat.

48 Things Hidden, 206, 430-431.

49 Ibid., 352-367.

50 Ibid., 263-270.

the most vital force needed to understand human existence. Therefore Plato and the majority

of thinkers since Plato have interpreted true existence in the light of which ideas are right,

without paying attention to what engenders these very ideas. According to Girard, existence is

a mimetic game, often dominated by the delusions of metaphysical desire, culminating in

different forms of victimizing. Conflict can therefore, in an academic setting, materialize itself

as a struggle for the right ideas, often without any sensitivity towards the desires which have

formed them. In that respect the academic tradition, ridden with the illusion of being outside

mimesis and sacrifice, becomes deceptive and lifeless - and sacrificial.

Finally, it is important to view Girard’s understanding of culture as evolutionary; not in a

teleological manner, but as seeing culture evolving in ways that attempt to avoid violence. The

revelation of the scapegoat mechanism has, in modern society, dissolved many prohibitions and created an atmosphere of liberty, wealth and differentiation, often as a consequence of the fulfilling of individual desires. Our Western culture today benefits from the loss of sacrificial structures, lavishing in differentiation and individualism, but, at the same time, the effects of mimetic desire, necessarily create new scapegoats in other parts of the world. In this respect concern for victims has become acutely global.