The Sacred and the Political

Explorations on Mimesis, Violence and Religion

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Elisabetta Brighi, Antonio Cerella
Political Theory and Contemporary Philosophy
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , July
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A diverse group of philosophers, theologians, and political theorists including Paul W. Kahn, Alain Badiou, and William T. Cavanaugh have been, for some time, drawing interesting connections between the theological and the political using a variety of theoretical frameworks. Often missing from these conversations, however, is René Girard’s mimetic theory of the origin of culture. The Sacred and the Political: Explorations in Mimesis, Violence and Religion, edited by Elisabetta Brighi, Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Westminster, and Antonio Cerella, Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Central Lancashire, is a collection of essays designed to close this gap in Girardian scholarship. This review focuses on prominent themes, ideas, and features of this volume. Individual essays are discussed as examples of these themes, ideas, and features.

The stated aim of this collection is to bring to bear Girard’s theory—that human culture is founded on the ritual murder of a scapegoat—on pressing questions related to the role of religion in the public square, and democratic politics in a time of proliferating global conflicts. This volume seeks to illuminate the contemporary situation by putting Girard’s corpus into dialogue with prominent figures in Western political thought ranging from Aristotle to Gianni Vattimo.

The majority of these essays are engaged in comparative political philosophy. These comparative essays often reveal surprising convergences between Girard and thinkers that may appear inimical to the spirit of Girard’s work. For instance, Ernesto Gallo’s essay, “Unlikely Twin? Machiavelli and Girard on Violence, Crisis and the Origins of the State,” sets out to examine how Girard's theory of the role of violence in founding socio-political institutions is similar to or different from that of Niccolò Machiavelli’s. Gallo’s analysis reveals that both Girard and Machiavelli are quite sensitive to the unitive dimensions of sacrificial violence. Both thinkers, Gallo argues, agree that social institutions depend on an original act of arbitrary violence and that, nevertheless, social institutions serve the important role of restraining human conflicts, while their respective views of religion in general and Christianity in particular are quite different.

Many such comparisons are made in this volume however, they are often made in order to illuminate current political problems and gesture toward possible solutions. For example, in “Spinoza, Girard and the Possibility of a Purely Immanent Democracy,” Stéphane Vinolo finds Girard’s solution to the current crisis of escalating global violence unsatisfactory. For Girard, by redirecting the violence of conflicting parties in a community to an innocent person or group, the scapegoat mechanism effectively restrains the scope of human mimetic violence in ancient communities. As Christianity—a religion that worships a crucified God—reveals that the sacrificial victim is in fact innocent, the scapegoat mechanism and the accompanying religious myth that justifies it breaks down. Vinolo states that, for Girard, the only remaining hope of ending global violence in a post-Christian world is for everyone to assent to Christian ethics.

Vinolo, however, finds this solution implausible. Instead, he proposes an “immanent” model of democracy that seeks to evacuate the public space of all transcendent and absolute values. He argues that if democratic decisions are made by a simple majority—without reference to absolute moral values—no one in the polity would be tempted to use violence to promote their own views, or to disobey a law based on prior moral commitments. Vinolo’s proposal is bold and thought provoking, but it does not appear more plausible than Girard’s, given such an “immanent” public space would, presumably, require the purging of members who continue to hold on to transcendent moral values. The need for this purge, however it would be accomplished, also betrays an underlying absolutist stance against violence, especially violence done in the name of moral values—a stance that is difficult to justify on purely immanent grounds.

Interesting political proposals like those of Vinolo’s offer the reader much to ponder, but the essays in this volume are of varying quality. Most of the essays are well organized and clearly argued, while others could have paid more attention to interdisciplinary readers who might not be familiar with the language of continental philosophy, especially given Girard’s transdisciplinary appeal. For instance, Paul Dumouchel’s essay, “Mimesis and Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason,” is populated with Jean-Paul Sartre’s peculiar philosophical jargon. Those who are not familiar with Sartre may have a difficult time with Dumouchel’s essay. Initially undefined terms such as “fused groups,” “series,” “serial structures,” and “praxis” are used liberally at the beginning of the essay. Dumouchel does take some time to explain these terms when explicating Sartre’s philosophical framework later on. But in the meantime, readers might be forced to speculate.

Finally, given the main trajectory of most of the essays, there are some that fit somewhat awkwardly in this collection. For instance, “Aristotle on Mimesis and Violence: Things Hidden since the Foundation of Literary Theory” by Arata Takeda does not deal directly or indirectly with contemporary political issues, or questions raised by religion’s confrontation with modernity. The essay itself is well written and compelling. However, given the stated aim of the volume, some readers might find the discussion on Aristotle’s Technique of the Drama—and why European interpreters such as Girard have been wrong to suppose that Aristotle thought the best tragedy must involve violence—a bit out of place.

Overall, The Sacred and the Political is an excellent and timely collection, putting Girard’s mimetic theory into dialogue with some of the most prominent Western political philosophers, ancient and contemporary. The value of this volume is that it fills a gap in Girardian scholarship by further developing Girard's theory in politically relevant ways. This volume will be of interest to students of political theory, political theology, and postmodern philosophy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yi Shen Ma is a doctoral candidate at the Claremont School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
February 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elisabetta Brighi is a Lecturer in International Relations at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster. She is the author of Foreign Policy, Domestic Politics and International Relations (2013) and Pragmatism in International Relations (2009), co-edited with Harry Bauer.

Antonio Cerella is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Central Lancashire and Convenor of the BISA Working Group 'Contemporary Research on International Political Theory' (CRIPT). His research lies at the crossroad of international political theory, continental philosophy, and political theology. His work has appeared, among others, in the Review of International Studies, Journal of International Political Theory, and Millennium. He is co-editor of the Special Issues “Mimetic Theory and International Studies” (Journal of International Political Theory, 2015), “Carl Schmitt: Political Theology and Modernity” (Journal for Cultural Research, 2016), and “Machiavelli and International Relations: Critical Reassessments” (International Politics, 2016).



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