Mimetic Meditations: On Violence, Faith and Politics
Fleming, Chris. (2004). Rene Girard: Violence and Mimesis. Cambridge: Polity.
University of Western Sydney
Despite what is said around us, persecutors are never obsessed
with difference but rather by its unutterable contrary, the lack of difference.
—Rene Girard, The Scapegoat
The unconscious is structured like a lynching.
—Philippe Sollers, 'Is God Dead'.
1. The intensified national debates about the political mobilisation of religion and faith post September 11 in the context of neo-liberal western governance have been conducted against a backdrop of western hegemonic notions of faith that privilege white subjects and their conceptions of suffering. A fact that both frames any and every response that is formulated in religious discourse in strictly moralistic parameters, and that also mask exclusivist western notions of belonging. Responding to such debates that have been commonalised in Australian the public sphere (most recently with Sheikh Al Hilaly's controversial comments), Chris Fleming's introductory work on Rene Girard is a timely intervention to better understand the 'scriptural economy' (De Certeau, 1984) wielded by binary camps that evacuate the power relations semantically loaded in each bifurcated sphere of divided loyalties. For those not familiar with Girard's work, Fleming's introduction is useful in breaking down and explaining Girard's theoretical oeuvre while providing important personal interpretations that illuminate the complexity of Girard's theory.
2. Rene Girard, a retired French professor from Stanford University was recently inducted into the French Academy for his theoretically sophisticated originality. This appointment attests to his 'trans-atlantic' popularity across various academic departments such as comparative literature, theology, anthropology and philosophy. And, this is what Fleming is able to introduce to first time readers, such as myself. Fleming skilfully manages to sum up Girard's basic ideas and expose their inner workings through useful examples. At times an excessive but appreciated use of dense language shrouds the intended message to the reader. For each chapter, Fleming themes it according to one of Girard's most influential concepts and traces its development throughout the whole book through an extensive range of references.
3. In the opening chapter 'Mimetic Desire', Fleming lays out Girard's evocative notion to better understand the intimate and cathectic relationship between human desire and violence. For Girard, desire is an imitation of a pre-existing desire that is perceived in an 'admired' other. The will to desire is thus initiated when the other's desire are detected by the self. However, Girard goes onto to elucidate "to say our desires are imitative or mimetic is to root them neither in their objects nor in ourselves but in a third party, the model or mediator, whose desire we imitate in the hope of resembling him or her" (10). Desire, in this sense, operates in a series of triangulated transactions between the model (other) that stimulates the desire, the disciple (self) who in a possessive turn desires what the model desires, and the object that is imbued with a desiring value in the first place. With the noticeable psychoanalytic turn in cultural theory, Girard's mimetic desire presents a dilemma because he locates such a process through an innovative novelistic reading in the Lacanian realm of the imaginary (that also sheds the strict hold of Hegelian dialectics), which would render it inaccessible in terms of political intervention. However, its usefulness is revealed to a certain extent when applied to the global flows of profligate violence (Jenkins 2004: 9-12).
4. Fleming by way of Girard ushers a discussion in his second chapter 'Sacrificial Crisis and Surrogate Victimage' about a non-utopian cognisance that 'mimetic rivalry' is inherent in such relationships. To elucidate this mechanism perhaps a Girardian reading of the Cronulla race riots may be helpful at this point. This conceptual detour makes apparent that these actions stem from the legacy of the founding violence of white invasion and history of a repressed mimesis. The fragility of this sovereignty is thus predicated on a tactical ability to continuously legitimate its political illegitimacy to itself as much as to others through the premature halting of the other's enjoyment. Renata Salecl reiterates this point, alluding to the idea that:
...the Other who outrages 'our' sense of the kind of nation ours should be, the Other who steals our enjoyment is always the Other in our own interior; i.e. our hatred of the Other is really the hatred of the part (the surplus) of our own enjoyment which we find unbearable and cannot acknowledge, and which we transpose ('project') onto the Other via a fantasy of the 'Other's enjoyment'. Therefore hatred of the Other, in the final analysis, is hatred of one's own enjoyment. (1994: 21-22)
5. With this in mind, the attacks in Cronulla within the distinction between the 'legitimate' use of force by the state and 'illegitimate' use of force by non-state actors that has to be made coherent and acceptable to the privileged members of the state who have a possessive investment in maintaining white patriarchal sovereignty against what is portrayed as the 'white man's burden' of an incessant indigenous sovereignty (Moreton Robinson, 2004). Yet, what Cronulla illustrates that this legitimacy can be extended and co-opted into a form of sanctioned mercenarism that protects the state's iconic borders against 'home bred outsiders'. These minorities are then policed and contained to ensure that they do not disrupt the status quo of this imagined unit. The policing is then accentuated during uncertain times when the parasitic desires, not just the presence, of the other become intolerable.
6. The five thousand white 'mob', (Girard uses this term when explicating the violence of desire) perceived the 'Arabs' presence as belonging to a unified group 'enjoying' their time on the beach and thus as possessing the sense of community that they too desire. The other, in this instance, instigated and impeded the white desire to be re-centred even in the peripheral settings of the beach. Far from being senseless and motivated by alcohol as many cultural commentators suggested, the violence towards the other (and the revenge attacks) was generated from a cartographic anxiety that saw an inevitable impasse in the circulation of desire. Thus, without the discursive deployment and material exploitation of minorities, nation-states would not have the building blocks to foster themselves as imagined desiring communities. At the discursive level, minorities as the Other provide the contrasting image on which nations feed their desires: uncivilized/civilized; backward/developed, their oppressed women/our liberated women, and so on (51). This process of categorical naturalization is the spatial correlative of whiteness's non-relational social epistemology. In its solidification, it underwrites private property and the construction and orderly maintenance of segmented social space, from beaches to streets to suburbs to demarcated zones of unwelcome defences against asylum seekers. The media coverage about Cronulla and the quick attempts by John Howard to reduce the racist tropes of such attacks allude to how "whiteness at various times signifies and is deployed as identity, status and property sometimes singularly, sometimes in tandem (as the ability to rally for one's race demonstrates) (Harris 1993:1725).
7. Inverting this triangular relationship for the immigrant, that other is the naturalised 'host'. That desired subject metamorphoses into an inherently impossible achievement of 'becoming' in the Deleuzian sense without the necessary death of the immigrant self. I characterise the recent apologetic tone of members of the Lebanese Muslim community leaders to al Hilaly's 'sexist and racist' comments and the litany of other racial horrors committed by 'our' misguided Arab youth as but another example of otherness of the self. Here a form of self-orientalisation that often becomes an impossible racial nightmare experienced by migrants in some way or another is enacted. This because such reactionary responses are articulated within a polite cosmopolitanism or as a form of identity politics that ultimately reproduces ethnic and cultural identities as commodified and deployable to meet a wider notion of the national good . The migrant's racial melancholia entails a hypochondriac response, particularly when the newly arrived migrant's mimetic proclivities push him/her to assimilate into a system of white privileges and inevitably fails to do so. If, as Freud writes, melancholia stems from the lost object's introjection, the subject migrant then needs need to cleanse him/herself of the racialised body which marks him/her from white cultural markers of acceptance. This jettisoning of the self in the hope of entering the Australian racial order of tolerance and cosmo-multiculturalism is but another act of mimetic desire that earlier migrants went through during the White Australia policy and its not-so white remnants. I would diagnose this, with the support of my hardworking 'grateful migrant' (Kwok 2006: 201) doctor parents, as a 'dis-identificatory disorder' leading to what Foucault calls the "objectivizing of the subject", where "the subject is either divided inside himself or divided from other. This process objectivizes him." (2003:126). To put it simply, "mimetic desire makes us believe we are always on the verge of becoming self-sufficient through our own transformation into someone else" (141).
8. Concluding that mimetic desire leads to rivalry and therefore to an increase in the pressure within society to have recourse to violence, Fleming in third chapter 'Myth, Tragedy, History' then proceeds to show how this operates in Girard's deconstruction of texts of persecution (101-110). It is here that religious discourse enters the picture, even for non-religious observers, as the recent lynching of Saddam Hussein illustrates. For Girard, mimetic desire and its attendant rivalry operates at a more or less unconscious level. The pressure it generates is nonetheless tangibly embodied. Religion and other forms of ritualized human organisation such as the Coalition forces in Iraq allow the releasing of this mounting pressure through the myth and ritual of sacrifice. Thus, opponents are locked in a rivalry generated by their similarity, a rivalry generating further reciprocal imitation - and escalating rivalry. To both opponents alike, this is a relation of interdependence as well as competition, in which the blurred yet sacrosanct boundaries of the self and other are, to some extent, shaped by their very rivalry itself and owe continued existence to its prolonged 'conflictual mimesis' (Girard 1978: xii). Violence is ritually expressed by the killing of a sacrificial victim. In order for this religious purging of the social pressure for violence to work, Girard maintains, it must remain at the unconscious level. That is, in the offering of a victim through sacrifice, the community must believe that the violence is demanded by the sacred and that the victim is really deserving of death. It must be noted that the community is not conscious of scapegoating. Admitting that 'our' nation is killing others is socially unacceptable. For if there is not a shared agreement about who will be sacrificed, violence may become anarchic in its manifestations instead of ordered. In turn, the sanctity of the group may be destroyed. To keep the sacrificial secret, an acceptable pretext to sacrifice group members must be concocted. What Girard calls the ritual victim constitutes this pretext. In the context of striving for group homogeneity, the enemy is the Iraqi, the Arab, Saddam (add more here if desired). In addition to a ritual victim, a second or surrogate victim must stand in for members of our group against whom we have real grievances. As a nation we agree to kill members of a surrogate-victim sacrificial class expressly created for the purpose. Upon it we displace our anger at other members of our group - the internal others who may be threatening the tentative monopolized hold on violence by the nation state from inside.
9. At present, those of 'Middle Eastern appearance' have embodied the latest others along the continuum of cultural and racial demonisations that have been inherent in Australia's racial history. This continuum produces and purges 'others' along various spatio-temporal moments not only to help 'purify' the whiteness of the state, but also to strengthen its resolve against those who would threaten it with an unacceptable difference.  The ritual victim gives us a justifiable reason to kill our own. The surrogate victim is constituted in the portion of 'our' group that we kill (in the symbolic/physical/ontological sense) internally on a daily basis through an assertion of a powerful corporeal presence - the indigenous other. Girard cogently sums up this process saying "rather than blame themselves people inevitably blame either society as a whole, which costs them nothing, or other people who seem particularly harmful for identifiable reasons" (1986:14).
10. The fact of scapegoating can only be recognized by an external observer, one not caught up in the mimetic desire and rivalry of the community. This aspect about Girard's work is unsettling as it denies the situatedeness of the subject within a web of shifting and contradictory power relations made discernible and localised by instantiating and conflictual markers of race, gender and class to name a few. Fleming goes to great lengths, I think, throughout the book and especially in the Conclusion to clear Girard's name from the overbearing theoretical shackles of postmodernism that is reductive of other voices of interdisciplinary dissent. He is also weary of the 'surrogate victimage' that operates at the bureaucratic levels of academic turf wars by castigating any professions of faith within the academy as Girard has been vocal about his return to Roman Catholicism. I think this is a valid point on Fleming's part as the polarised division of religion vs secularism has been transplanted in the academic sphere of the university between academics who 'study' religions and religious communities and those academics who may be 'religious' without specialising in religious studies (149-151). This religious imaginary of the nation which is proposed by institutional bodies exhibits an insular and monologic belief of the 'faithful' and strives to occlude those who are not easily assimilable within its descriptive borders (Pugliese, 2005). Moreover, this national imaginary reifies complex cultural and religious discourses of the 'postcolonising' Australian nation (Moreton- Robinson, 2003) and allows it to be ideologically reappropriated by rival 'minority' cultures to construct 'fatigued' and reterritorialised religious and ethnic identities (Deleuze & Guattari, 1986).
11. Fleming touches upon this point somewhat by delving into Girard's exploration of Judeo-Christian scriptures in his fourth chapter 'Non Sacrifical Violence: The Judeo-Christian Scriptures'. Fleming explains that for Girard that the relative authority of certain religions, languages and cultures (namely Christian) and the conditions of their violent structures "were progressively unveiled, revealed for their arbitrariness and horror, and finally, utterly repudiated" (111). Girard's unshakeable convictions in his religious proclamations backed by an anthropological deconstruction of Christian texts demands a thorough questioning of the manner in which academic knowledge about religion has been and continues to be couched - and as such, assessed - within culturally specific terms of demonised rhetoric. Whilst remaining mindful of that which differentiates various 'minority' individuals and academics, such formations permit an understanding of their shared experiences of exploitation and repression. Individual experiences, therefore, are encoded within a varied collective consciousness, and it is the task of this Girardian understanding to express the potential of this uncertain collectivity of persons.
12. Girard's understanding of human behaviour in his biblical exegeses, in his anthropological inquiries into revered myths and texts, in his brilliant understanding of the operationalism of human desire and its interminable links to violence are exposed in Fleming's inviting work to the academy. Chris Fleming's book is a worthwhile academic read in an age when the violent contagion of mimetic desire unites desiring participants again and again in the spectatorship of near-planetary acts of multiple, not just single, victim suffering.
Farid Farid is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney. He is researching the diasporic cultural politics and practices of the diverse Iraqi community in Sydney in the context of the ongoing war in Iraq.
1. For a lucid exposition of how the 'Arab Other' has become the repository of social anxieties even among migrant communities read Poynting, Scott et al. (2004). Bin Laden in the Suburbs: Criminalising the ArabOther . Sydney, NSW: Sydney Institute of Criminology.
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© borderlands ejournal 2007