Evolution and Conversion, cont’d (4)

(Previous posts on this topic: here, here, and here.)

Chapter 4, Dialogues and Criticism: From Frazier to Lévi-Strauss, is the shortest chapter. It’s primarily a clarification of Girard’s influences and a discussion of religion vs. science or scientific method.

Among possible influences mentioned (and mostly discarded) are anthropologist and myth researcher James Frazer, sociologist Gabriel Tarde, sociologist and philosopher Émile Durkheim, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, social anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, classics scholar Walter Burkert, and Christian philosopher and activist Simone Weil.

My notes:

** Political Correctness and Bias (more on this in the next chapter as well)

“The main difference between contemporary anthropology and my work is that I claim that all cultures scapegoat and victimize someone, while it is fashionable to say that only Western culture did that. If one talks about ritual killing in the Amazon, it is seen as a pure fancy of Western prejudice.”

** What I see as the craziness of academic bickering: Scapegoating the object!

Girard is asked how he responds to  Bruno Latour, who “claims that you are doing away with the object and in some sense you are ‘scapegoating’ it. He answers, “Latour wants to make me anti-objectal…”  Anti-objectal? LOL   Anyway, his answer is that it’s only during the peak of the escalation of mimetic crisis that the object disappears; “otherwise it is always there.”

** Some people have wondered how Girard can believe both in God and in science. Girard responds:

“I do not see why God cannot be compatible with science. If one believes in God, one also believes in objectivity. A traditional belief in God makes one a believer in the objectivity of the world.  … I still operate within a traditional epistomology, which considers things as real and sees God as the guarantor of that reality. Therefore, I do not understand why it should pose a problem to discuss my theory within a scientific framework.”

He says a bit later that “Readers do not realize how unphilosophical I am, and [they don’t realise] the fact that I have been guided by the idea of contributing to … a science of human relationships, always starting from actual and real human relationships, moving away from the ‘myth’ of the all-powerful subject.”

Others have criticised Girard for not writing simply as a Christian apologist rather than within the methodology of social science. He feels, rightly I think, that “to postulate the a priori truth of religion from the start, your reasoning would have a far weaker apologetic value. The mimetic theory has an apologetic value in terms of Christianity only if you assume all restrictions of knowledge of the scientific attitude.”

Still, I think the question of bias will always remain, because Girard is a Christian. What he’s trying to do seems akin to journalists, who of course have their own opinions, trying to report objectively what they observe, or for that matter like the task of all scientists, who also have their own beliefs about how things work, why and how they’re here, and so on, and who nonetheless experiment and analyse experiment results with as much objectivity as they can muster (helped by critique, peer review, etc.). We are all to some extent subjects, exerting subjective influence on what we hypothesise, study, conclude, etc.

Related to this is the final question in this chapter, about Michael Serres‘ view that critical thinking is shot through with violence: “In his view we have to renounce the inner violence of cultural progress as conceived in modern Western philosophy. To ‘criticize’ and to ‘discriminate’ are acts of expulsion, of division, of scapegoating.”

Girard, while sympathetic to this rendering of mimetic theory, doesn’t feel the same. He says that “there should be some critique of the subject: it does not have to be total negation. … I have to say that, personally, polemic does not trouble me much. If I am treated polemically, I will respond accordingly. It is true that it is a phenomenon of doubles, but I think it preferable to total silence. If you do not discriminate, you cannot distinguish, and to start thinking, you have to learn to distinguish. … The more we speak about dialogue in our time, the less we seem to practise it. Being polemical means acknolwedging the existence of the other as one who does not think like me. But going back to Serres’ position: it is clear that we are still in a critical world. There are aspects of our culture that we cannot transcend; we are circumscribed by our limitations. But, ultimately, I don’t see this as an issue of great importance.”

My position is somewhat in between Serres’, as represented here, and Girard’s (also as represented here).  “Polemic” is derived from the Greek word polemos, or war, and it speaks of a hostile attack or refutation of another. By that definition, I think it may be better to keep silence than to speak in this way. To adopt a cliche, “Ideas don’t attack, people do,” which is to say that a nasty personal attack can be cloaked as simply a ‘difference of opinion,’ accompanied by contempt and derision. Defending a belief position with persistence and tenacity may be warranted at times; defending it with hostility, or attacking another in order to defend it, seems to imply a kind of egotism, as well as an unawareness of the doubles phenomenon Girard speaks of.

Another understanding of polemic, though, is “the art or practice of disputation or controversy;” speaking and acting in a controversial manner at times seems to me part and parcel of living, conversing, thinking, feeling passionately. I disagree with Serres that criticism and discrimination are in themselves acts of expulsion, division, or scapegoating, but I think they often can be used for this purpose. On the other hand, I like what Girard says about argument as an acknowledgement of the other who is not me and who doesn’t agree with me, and I think that signal has tremendous potential for openness and learning.

This all reminds me of the tension I feel in Buddhism concerning ‘opinion’ and ‘belief’ — on the one hand, as Pema Chödrön has said, “holding on to beliefs [or opinions] limits our experience of life. That doesn’t mean that beliefs or ideas or thinking is a problem; the stubborn attitude of having to have things be a particular way, grasping on to our beliefs and thoughts, all these cause the problems” and on the other hand, Buddhists from the Dalai Lama to Chödrön to the Buddhist-on-the-street continue to strongly hold opinions, act on them, and express them with vigor and enthusiasm to others.


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