The National Catholic Review

One of the amusing effects of this week's announcement that Britain's Prince William is going to marry his long-time girlfriend, Kate Middleton, is that every copy of the blue dress that Kate was wearing at their photo-op has disappeared. The shops here in London say that they sold out of the dresses within 24 hours of the latest event-of-the-century announcement. People understand why, of course, at least intuitively: everybody wants to be somebody and the somebody that everybody who's anybody wants to be this week is either partner in Britain's new royal couple.

For more than thirty years, however, a dedicated and growing group of scholars have been working on a theory that explains this kind of phenomenon more explicitly. These folks, a menagerie of cultural and literary critics, theologians, philosophers and sympathizers, are followers of Rene Girard, the French-American cultural critic, now easing his way into retirement after a successful teaching career at Stanford, among other places. Girard practically stumbled into an idea a few years back that he calls Mimetic Theory. The details are still being worked out (in sessions like the one I attended last month in Belgium), but the basic gist of the theory can be grasped by any ten-year-old, let alone the frenetic adults who were shaking down the racks at Harrod's this week. The theory has three pillars:

First, Girard discovered, all desire is mimetic. Human beings copy one another, not just in terms of language, but in terms of what we want (apart from basic biological needs). The key here is that, strictly speaking, there are no desires that are your own. You get them all from others. Second, human conflict happens when the desires of multiple people converge on the same object. This is called mimetic rivalry and involves both objects we can see (that dress) and those we can't, such as a transcendent state of well-being (happiness). Third, this mimetic rivalry can plunge a whole community or society into crisis and this crisis is resolved through what Girard calls 'the scapegoat mechanism:' One person, then another, and then a whole group of people point the finger of suspicion at one individual, the sacrificial victim, who is then expelled or destroyed. This restores order to the community. Think Roger Williams here, or almost any tribe of Native Americans.

Admittedly, that is all pretty bad news: we are, by nature, not really free and worse, we are prone to pretty brutal forms of violence. Well, maybe we suspected all of that anyway. The good news, however, is that according to Girard, there is a way out of all of this: the Gospel. In the words of one Girardian (as the groupies are known), Michael Kirwan, S.J.: "the gospel is the biblical spirit that exposes the truth of violent origins, takes the side of the victim and works toward the overcoming of scapegoating as a viable means of social formation." In other words, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus subvert the whole ghastly enterprise.

If you are still reading, you may be asking why any of this matters. Well, as the Girardians point out, if mimetic theory is true, then we may need to really re-think some of our most treasured pre-suppositions. If Girard's world is, in fact, the world we live in, then the modern notion of the free, autonomous, self-actualizing individual, for example, is a myth. It also means that Hobbesian social contracts (i.e. the U.S. Constitution), may not, in the long run, keep the peace, precisely because they are based on false theories of why there is any violence in the first place. Girard's theory prompts all kinds of other questions: Could theology have a new way of imagining the purpose of the passion, the meaning of the resurrection, or the doctrine of original sin? What might be the best political arrangement in light of mimetic theory? Does capitalism, with its explicitly mimetic marketplaces, just make things worse?

Interesting questions, without obvious answers. Girard is not without his critics (I have not a few questions myself). What is interesting, however, is how diverse his following is (Christian and not) and how unpredictable his critics are (atheist and not). This suggests that he may really be on to something. In any case, it is worth checking out. Among other things, it may help us make some sense of the nasty state of American politics at the moment. The best introduction to Girard is short and to the point: "Discovering Girard" by Michael Kirwan, a British Jesuit. It is written in plain English. James Alison is a theologian who has done a lot of work on Girard and original sin, as well as human sexuality. Lastly, Rowan Williams is a fan, in spite of a few reservations. There is much to explore further, but I'll leave that to you. I need to go shopping. I hear that blue is really in right now.

Comments

Marie Rehbein | 11/19/2010 - 3:17pm
I agree with Carolyn.  Is it available in the US?
JANICE JOHNSON | 11/20/2010 - 3:18pm
Admitedly, I have a limited understanding of Girard's ideas and will stand corrected by Fr. Malone, Bret and others, if mistaken.  I think that Marie in #13 points out something critical in Girard's theory;  the place of the Gospels......Revelation of the passion, crucifixion, resurrection of Jesus....in the history of humankind.  Girard sees the Christian Cross as the pivotal point that turned the  myth of the mimetic, scapegoat  mechanism on its head.  Christ came to set us free;  he is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  How well Christians live the gospels is another story.  There is still excrutiating violence in our society, .  What are its roots?  I think Girard is trying to find the reasons in his anthropoligical studies.  Great ideas for dispute and discussion!

David, Girard lost a number of followers when he converted to Catholicism. 

Interesting how a blue dress leads to a lively discussion! 
Marie Rehbein | 11/20/2010 - 11:31am
Brett,
Matt Malone says we do not really have free will as if it is always the case that mimetic tendencies, particularly rivalry, dominate our behavior.  I disagree, because both Carolyn and I have decided that, though we really like the dress, we would choose to be gracious about not being able to have it.
Carolyn and I? might meet over the last dress and encourage one another to go ahead and take it because we don't need it.  This is the kind of thing I see people doing all the time, while the occasional person who "needs" something relatively unnecessary is given a wide berth to get what he or she "needs", whether that is going first at an intersection or something material.
We choose whether to engage in mimetic behavior and which mimetic behaviors to engage in.  We can consider what is written in the Gospels in order to make that choice.  Therefore, we are really free.
David Cruz-Uribe | 11/20/2010 - 9:20am
"Any intellectual with followers is worth staying away from."

As a committed Einsteinian in physics and an equally committed Darwinist in biology, I take exception to this!  :-0

Anonymous | 11/19/2010 - 11:52pm
Final post, I have video for you Marie :)  Running of the brides in boston's Filene's Basement:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95J74TTfGu4
Anonymous | 11/19/2010 - 11:30pm
I think, Marie, that if you were in a community where all of the women wanted to pick up this specific dress from a local store and, let's say, the clerk shorted the order by 200 dresses - that poor clerk could then be torn to pieces by the Dionysian bacchanal-like crowd of dress crazed women for their mistake ;)

PS - on an interesting side note, a major investor in facebook was a Girard protoge - Peter Thiel; he supposedly saw the potential of mimetic behavior of the site (peer recommendations and "like" button") by the studies of Girard.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/feb/08/theory-mimetic-desire

And, finally, here is a viral example of how the internet and social networking can lead to scape-goating and mob behavior (luckily it is only a mock-situation):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyMdOT8YJgY


Marie Rehbein | 11/19/2010 - 10:19pm
I can see where Carolyn and I might get into some conflict over the only remaining dress, but I don't see how this would activate the "scapegoat mechanism" or what form of behavior this would involve, considering this is only a dress.
Adam Ericksen | 11/19/2010 - 9:00pm
"Sometimes a dress is just a dress." Aren't all dresses just dresses?  What makes this specific dress popular at this specific time? Is it just a coincidence that British culture now thinks this dress is more desirable than other dresses? Just a coincidence that the dress is flying off the racks after Kate wore it on television? I'd say this is an exellent example of mimesis at work.  Kate is now one of the great mimetic models for British/American fasion.  Thanks for bringing it to our attention.
JANICE JOHNSON | 11/19/2010 - 4:27pm
Thank you, Fr. Malone for this essay on Girard.  I'm at a novice stage learning his ideas and will look into Fr. Kirwan's book.  Another excellent reference is a book by Gil, Bailie, a Catholic layman who is a friend and follower of Girard....."Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads", Crossroad Publishing, 1995, with a foreword by Girard.  I hope "America" will do further articles on his ideas  especially as related to our beliefs.
Anonymous | 11/19/2010 - 3:49pm
People, people - we are discussing Girard, not blue dresses of the future princess ;)

I think that his work on theological anthropology ("I see Satan fall like lightening") should be read by all current seminarians and I have a hunch that Benedict is knowledgeable of Girard.

Also, all aspiring novelists (myself included) should really drop everything they are doing at the moment and pick up "Deciet, Desire and the Novel" if they want to be any good at displaying the roots of human conflict and illusions.

Thanks for the into and essay on Girard - I am warming up even more to America.
Anonymous | 11/19/2010 - 12:50pm
One of my favorite internet sites is National Review Online's Uncommon Knowledge section which does in death interviews with someone every other week on a topic of current interest.

Here are five links for a week about a year ago with Rene Girard.  So get it from the horse's mouth as to what he thinks.

http://tv.nationalreview.com/uncommonknowledge/post/?q=NmZmNTA4MzBiMWZkNzY5MTM5ZGIyYTU4Mzc2YjE5ZWM=

http://tv.nationalreview.com/uncommonknowledge/post/?q=ZTdmMjRhZTgxMjMyNzc3MzFhMGUyMTNlOGRhNmM3NTI=

http://tv.nationalreview.com/uncommonknowledge/post/?q=NTVlNGRiOWQ0OTYwYjQwMzIwYzk4MmZkOTM2NzgzMmM=

http://tv.nationalreview.com/uncommonknowledge/post/?q=N2RkMGNlNzRkYTU2MmYxNTM2N2IxZDc0NTNmOWRkNjM=

http://tv.nationalreview.com/uncommonknowledge/post/?q=OGU4M2IwNjg2MDQ3MWE4NDkyY2RiYjVjYWM4YmFmMGQ=

And for you liberals this interview was done at the dreaded Hoover Institute at Stanford.  The Uncommon Knowledge general site is http://tv.nationalreview.com/uncommonknowledge/ 

Just go there and search for girard and you will find the list of interviews as well as many, many others.
david power | 11/21/2010 - 8:31pm
Five years ago on  a Mexican Beach featured in the end of "Shawshank Redemption" I remember reading Augustine writing something of the sort.I think that the idea of desire inspiring desire is easily traced back to a fourth century African .St Augustine gave a very explicit    analysis of the phenomenon.This is my plug for the Confessions of St Augustine which deserve to be read by every Catholic.I have now commented on three blog postings and feel the eyes of Tim Reidy trained on me.    
Adam Ericksen | 11/21/2010 - 10:08am
This is really interesting.  Thanks for the conversation.

I'm very grateful that many people/friends can deal with issues like the "blue dress" with grace.  To that I say "Amen" and give thanks to the Holy Spirit.  I fear, though, that what easily happen between friends, couples, family members, and acquaintances, is that problems easily develop even when we act so graciously.  For the simple fact that we are human, the person who gets the "blue dress" might start feeling a bit guilty and implicitly ask herself, "Why did I get the 'dress'?"  The person who didn't get the "dress" might begin to feel resentful and begin to implicitly ask, "Why didn't I get the 'dress'?"  We'd rather not deal with the issues of guilt and resentment we have toward friends because we fear that the other might think we are petty, and thus the friendship is at risk.  Still, our frustration needs an outlet, so we unconsciously find a scapegoat.  The most common example of this is gossip, which unites two or more people against someone who has nothing to do with the issues of the "blue dress".  Our guilt and/or resentment washes away for a moment as our frustration is redirected toward another.  We haven't dealt with the real cause, so frustration will once again boil over and the process repeats. 

When people can deal with their conflicts in gracious and loving ways, as opposed to scapegoating, the Holy Spirit is at work and I'm indeed thanful for that.