Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture

EvolutionandConversionbookcoverI received my copy Wednesday of René Girard’s book, Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture (2007), written with Pierpaolo Antonello and João Cezar de Castro Rocha. It’s in interview form, same as Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), and intentionally so, as a means for updating and clarifying the ideas Girard first elucidated in Things Hidden, and for responding to some criticisms of his ideas. In particular, he will (we’re told) revisit the idea of (self-)sacrifice, and he will examine the ‘emancipative character’ of mimesis (not just how it traps us) and the crucial intertwined notions in human history of conversion (which he refers to as “a form of intelligence, of understanding”) and evolution, and likewise of progression and permanence.

Interestingly, quite a bit of the book (one chapter out of seven) is taken up with a history of Girard’s life, from childhood onwards, and a 4-page chronology of his life appears in the back before a bibliography of his works.

The contents are as follows:

Foreword (7 pp)

Introduction: ‘One long argument from the beginning to the end’ (16 pp)

Chapter 1: The Life of the Mind [Girard’s history] (39 pp)

Chapter 2:  ‘A Theory by Which to Work’: The Mimetic Mechanism (40 pp)

Chapter 3: The Symbolic Species (40 pp)

Chapter 4: Dialogues and Criticism: From Frazier to Lévi-Strauss (23 pp)

Chapter 5: Method, Evidence and Truth (37 pp)

Chapter 6: The Scandal of Christianity (38 pp)

Chapter 7: Modernity, Postmodernity and Beyond (34 pp)

Chronology of Girard’s Life (4 pp)

List of Girard’s Publications (2 pp)

Index [7 pp, and totally inadequate, by the way]

Each chapter opens with a quote from Charles Darwin.

There are copious notes at the end of each chapter, most leading to more things to read (by lots of people other than Girard), sometimes (but not often enough) explaining something in the text more fully.

I’m on page 78 now, in the second chapter. Here’s what I want to note and report so far; my notes are in order of discovery, and both because the text jumps around from topic to topic and because I am omitting things, may seem somewhat disjointed:

** The argument of Girard’s 1972 work Violence and the Sacred “can be summed up in one quotation: ‘violence is the heart and secret soul of the sacred.’” (from the Foreword, by Michael Kirwan)

I don’t think this connection can be stressed enough.

** A little how about to think about mimetic theory, or how mimetic theory may change the way we think:

“[T]his double-bind structure pervades Girard’s explanatory system, both in reference to individual cognition and to sociohistorical development. In Girard’s hypotheses the same principle accounts for the positive as well as the negative traits of a given phenomenon. Imitation breeds conflictual results, but is also the basis of any cultural transmissions [it’s how we learn]; the other may act as a pedagogical model but she or he may also become a rival. In Girard’s anthropological recount, the sacred is what controls collective violence, but is itself also based on a ‘pharmacological’ use of violence. This is indeed one of the intellectual challenges of mimetic theory: it forces us to think, not in a dialectical sense, as in a system of clear-cut oppositions, but by antinomies, that is, by concilliating polarized elements of phenomena which inevitably appear paradoxical, because they are generated by a single, yet ambivalent, basic cognitive mechanism: imitation.” (from the Introduction) [He does talk at one point about the difference between imitation and mimesis; mainly, it’s that mimesis is more unconscious.]

** Reality, knowing, mediation — Is there anything out there and how can we know?

Girard is not a big fan of deconstruction! and refers to himself as a ‘realist’ — that is, he believes there is something real out there, which can be known, even though our experience of it is mediated.

Still, we are not by a long shot unbiased observers or self-directed actors:

“In spite of having been deconstructed by a century of critical and philosophical discussions (structuralism, post-structuralism, hermeneutics), this belief in the autonomy of the self — mainly derived from the idealistic-romantic tradition — remains still deeply grounded in our understanding of the modern mind: we always tend to represent ourselves as autonomous in respect to our choices, desires and convictions. Moreover, there is always a blind-spot in our perception of reciprocal hostility, competition and rivalry. We are ready to deconstruct anything except the idea that we are self-directed and that the persecutors are always the others.” (from the Introduction)

** Christianity, in Girard’s view, is what shows us how empty our religion is, and it’s what’s brought about the secularization of the last centuries — and that secularization, in turn, may bring us running to religion as a way to order chaos:

“Christianity is essentially the cultural and moral acknowledgement of the sacrificial origins of our culture and our society.The end of religion, and even scientific atheism itself, has been produced by a religion: Christianity.” (from the Introduction)

“[I]f the sacrificial structure cannot work any longer, because its injustice and arbitrary nature have been unmasked, then, from an evolutionary viewpoint, modern society is facing a new experimental phase, while history becomes a laboratory in which humanity tries to find new processes and structures of equilibrium and stability.” (from the Introduction)

The expansion of the Christian paradigm, which has imposed the rejection of the sacred and triggered the secularization of the world, in fact signifies a phase in which man is no longer protected by the false transcendence of the sacred, by the rigid processes of the systemic use of violence (either actual or symbolic). The gradual erosion of every dharma, of every rigid social hierarchy and division based on sacred norms, has plunged the modern individual into mimetic social flux, deep into ever more extreme oscillations of desire and resentment mobilized by the increasing democratization of societies [because, I’m guessing, democratization makes us all more or less equals, erasing differences]. What has been needed therefore are structures of ‘containment’ … based on forms of secularized transcendence (democratic ideology and institutions, technology, mass media, market society, the objectification of individual relationships, etc.), which contribute to the postponement, the holding back, of the apocalyptic event, the real, ambivalent, potential terminus of the dissolving of the religious/sacred order of the world (either the revelation of violence, or the dissolution through violence).” (from the Introduction)

Girard seems to feel (at least to this point in the book) that it could go either way — we could teeter back into “mechanisms dominated by a sacrificial logic” (cites 9/11 as an example) or “there is also a possibility of redemption,” by whatever name we call it … defence of the victims, non-violence, imitatio Christi, etc.

** Some personal stuff:

Asked if he felt “a constant feeling of not belonging to any environment” in his various milieux, Girard answered:

“I think that, on the one hand, it is true that I tend not to belong to specific environments or fields, but on the other hand, I cannot be considered an outsider in the classical sense of the term. I never felt an outcast, as many intellectuals like to represent themselves.This is probably because I had, and still have, a very strong sense of belonging to my childhood. I had a very happy childhood and I have always tried to surround myself with the things of my childhood.” (from Chapter 1)

It’s mimetic of me to say that I can relate to this sense of not belonging and yet not not belonging — a sort of happy observer-participant — though for me I’d theorise that it’s because I have a strong sense of belonging to my self, which came about through the combined factors of a stable childhood and benignly neglectful parents, and which probably doesn’t bode well for my ability to fully understand interdividuality on anything but an intellectual level. On the other hand, I’m not really sure what I mean by self….

** An Attitude of Curiosity

Speaking of his being a realist, believing in the ‘truth’ of facts, and resisting the philosophical trends of his time (post-structuralism, hermeneutics) which admit only to interpretations and lack of access to ‘truth,’ Girard responds that he is somewhat philosophically naïve: “The capacity to be surprised is legitimately regarded as the main scientific emotion. … There is a form of humility as well, in the sense that it is a methodological attitude, a postulate that you have to have in order to solve specific problems. I have the impression sometimes that the book I am reading could upset my entire existence.”  (from Chapter 1)

I love that.

** The Mimetic Crisis and Scapegoating

In Chapter 2, Girard says that mimetic crisis doesn’t always lead to scapegoating; some groups don’t survive because they can’t find a way to cope, they can’t find a victim to polarize their rage.

He talks about the choice of the scapegoat as arbitrary but not random. It’s preferential– scapegoats are usually exceptional in some way, whether inherently so or made so by the group: “Infirmities, or unpleasant traits, are mistaken for guilt.”

Even if there isn’t a “preferential sign of victimization, the scapegoat will be chosen anyway. At that crucial moment something will often be interpreted as a sign. Anything. And everybody thinks they have found the solution, the culprit. In a way, the scapegoat mechanism functions like a false science, like a great discovery that is made, or something that is suddenly revealed, and then one reads in the eyes of other people the same insight.”

** Culture’s Connection with Murder and Sacrifice:

He talks also in this chapter about doubles, twins, rituals, the role of the object in the mimetic triangle, the mythical connection of the founding of culture with sacrifice and murder.

The Bible speaks of Cain as the founder of the first culture (his legacy is the legal institution, domestication of animals, music and technology) but it’s not like he goes off and founds a city in the text. He murders his brother. Then, after the murder, we get the law against murder: “if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over” (Gen 4:15). “That law [my emphasis] represents the foundation of culture, because capital punishment is already ritual murder.”

** Appetite, Basic Need and Desire

Girard clarifies the distinction (if only for a moment) between appetite and desire. Appetite is physiological. People may also conflict over basic needs in a scarce environment. “One must never exclude the possibility of violence that has nothing to do with mimetic desire but simply with scarcity.” Basic appetites and needs can trigger conflicts, “but it is also true that the conflicts once triggered easily become trapped in a mimetic mechanism. One might say that any violent process that has any duration, any temporality, is bound to become mimetic.


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