Mimesis and Sacrifice
Applying Girard's Mimetic Theory Across the Disciplines
Series: Violence, Desire, and the Sacred
- ISBN: 9781350057418
- Published By: Bloomsbury Academic
- Published: October 2019
Mimesis and Sacrifice: Applying Girard’s Mimetic Theory Across the Disciplines, edited by Marcia Pally, is the fruit of an interdisciplinary conference hosted by the Theology Department of Humboldt University of Berlin in June 2016. Given the broad scope of the conference, titled “Sacrifice: Biological and Theological Investigations for Economic and Military/ Political Praxis,” it is not surprising that the resulting volume covers a diversity of interests, ranging from evolutionary biology to gender studies to political philosophy to rabbinic literature. Uniting these disparate themes is a focus on the emergence of sacrifice and its structural impact on society through a Girardian lens.
Tersely summarized, René Girard understood humans as inherently mimetic creatures—that is, they imitate the desires of those around them. This tendency to mirror each other’s values creates a scarcity of resources, pushing individuals to compete for their own well-being over and against those around them and generating an inward bent that results in the deterioration of a community’s needs. Such tensions come to a climax when, with the goal of alleviating the pressure caused by this competition, a community selects a scapegoat who is violently killed (“sacrificed” in Girardian terms) so that stability may be re-established.
Girard’s memetic view of human nature and his understanding of sacrifice as a proxy provides a meta-structural account of slaughter; by examining the cultural impact of such events, he tries to explain the innate human factors that give rise to sacrificial rites themselves. His concerns are far-reaching, providing a metanarrative of the human experience and an interpretive key to understanding historical rituals (3-5).
Nonetheless, with this broad approach, it is understandable that Girard’s work has encountered some challenges due to advances in both the sciences and the humanities; these challenges serve as motivation for the contributions in this volume. Each of its fourteen chapters roughly examines a potential threat (or set of threats) to Girard’s thesis, typically resulting in slight modifications to his work. For example, in their respective chapters, Hassan Rachik and Tsvi Blanchard object to the universality of Girard’s categorization of sacrifice. Rachik examines Islamic sacrifice in Morocco to demonstrate that there exists a multitude of motivations behind various sacrificial activities (66-73). Meanwhile, Blanchard suggests that in early Judaism, sacrifice acted as a means of covenantal relationship with God (87-88). Similarly, John Milbank argues that the gift-giving reciprocity at the heart of sacrificial systems prevails beyond the ancient tribal world and into (at least) monarchical forms of government, thereby expressing pessimism towards the view that scapegoating serves as a central motivation for sacrificial activity (179-187). For all these authors, however, their critiques do not require altogether abandoning Girard’s thesis but qualifying it in light of such evidence.
This approach is perhaps best exemplified in the introduction, wherein editor Pally takes up one such threat to Girard’s theory from evolutionary biology. Recent studies indicate that hunter-gatherers prioritized cooperativity over dominance, creating a unique challenge to mimetic theory. She writes, “These findings suggest some tension with the Girardian archaic, where society-rending competitive aggression arises within the group, precisely where evolutionary biology finds cooperativity and solidarity to be strong” (10-11). Pally argues that Girardian anthropology may be nuanced to include a proto-human nature (that of Adam) and a deutero-human nature (that of Cain). Rather than seeing this advancement as a problem to Girard’s thesis, she suggests that it helps rectify some of its shortcomings. In the proto-human nature, humans developed their mimetic tendency as a means of survival. By imitating one another, they can attain the benefits of a cohesive society. Only once this society grows to a considerable size does it become common for a privileged few to dominate the many. This abuse of power gives rise to the deutero-human nature, in which our mimetic tendency must now operate from a position of scarcity—thus bending the will towards the self and creating a need for sacrifice. In re-reading Girard according to this two-fold view, Pally provides a fascinating interpretation of the Christian doctrine of the Fall. Mimesis is both the virtue and vice of humans, offering the foundation for communal living while providing an entry point for violence.
From this introduction, it is possible to see traces of the thread that unites otherwise diverse authors and chapters. Pally’s editorial goal is not to provide a linear argument for rebutting all potential concerns about Girard’s view of human nature but simply to note problems and suggest possible solutions. Each author has different reservations about the source work. It would be overreaching to suggest that this volume argues toward a single, harmonious thesis beyond the general idea that Girard’s work is not rendered moot by contemporary scholarship. As such, a generous reader might see this work as a nuanced approach to understanding the implications of mimetic theory and Girardian sacrifice across disciplines. To a cynical reader, however, it may come across as a compilation of problems that crop up should we try to import Girard’s work beyond its intended scope.
Cody C. Warta is a PhD candidate in analytic theology at the University of St Andrews.Cody C. WartaDate Of Review:August 8, 2022