Regardless of what one ultimately thinks of theoretician Rene Girard's ideas, the small and very readable book "Discovering Girard" serves as a perfect introduction to his thought. At some 130 pages it only has space to cover his theories at a high level, but it seems to present enough information for anyone to walk away with at least a decent understanding. Anyone who reads even ten pages will know why Girard causes both fascination and controversy. Some may find the application of his religious beliefs to his thought anathema and self-serving while others may find this very aspect the shining gem in his work. He converted to Catholicism in the 1950s and his work eventually granted Christianity, particularly the Gospels, a very special place. Though the controversy rages on, Girard, now retired, still writes while groups such as the "Colloquium on Religion and Violence" (COV&R) continue to discuss and develop his ideas.
Following a short biography and overview, the first chapter covers what many may find the most intriguing aspect of Girard's thought: the mimetic nature of desire. Simply put, Girard claims that the source of the world's violence arises from people who want what other people have, whether they have material things or non-physical or "metaphysical" things such as fulfillment, influence or power. In other words, desire arises from the need to imitate what we see as valuable. As long as the desired remains at enough distance from those that desire, conflict does not arise. Girard posits an almost geometrical triangular analogy where subject, object and model stand on all points of a triangle. The closer the subject gets to the object, the more likely that conflict and violence will arise. In other words, pronounced envy over mutually attainable things, physical or metaphysical, causes violence. Another implication of this idea is that the breakdown of social differentiation leads to crisis. The book doesn't go into much detail on what exactly this implies or looks like from a social structural standpoint.
Building on this, chapter two introduces "The Scapegoat Mechanism" in which a society suppresses or contains the violence arising from often inevitable mimetic desire. Here Girard introduces his ideas for the origin of social order and mythology. In a world of unconstrained mimetic desire a war of "all against all" will reign. This serves no one, so society (presumably its organizers or rulers) put forth a "scapegoat," either external or internal to society, to blame everything on and so focus the "all against all" aggression into an "all against one" aggression. This scapegoat becomes the focal point of violence and through expulsion or violent acts provides a release of tension from mimetic desire. Homeostasis and relative calm then supposedly falls on society. Girard here attempts to present an alternative theory of political order in contrast to social contract or suppression by violence. A society then uses religion, mythology, ritual, taboo and sacrifice as tools to contain conflict. Girard claims the origin of religion is sacrifice and scapegoating. Put another way, religion restores social order via suppression of human violence in ritual and practice. But it maintains this order through absolute silence about scapegoating. As such, mythology doesn't reveal its purpose outright. It contains and completely suppresses conflict through a mute redirection of violence to ritual.
At this point Girard's analysis takes a new direction. Following his conception of myth he revisited the Christian Bible and concluded that it contains an open critique of scapegoating. He then distinguishes the Bible from other religious perspectives and calls it unique and not even "myth." From this emerges his dichotomy of "Myth" and "Gospel." He claims that the Bible "unveils" the truth about scapegoating and cites numerous passages as evidence, including the Fall, Abraham and Issac, Joseph and his brothers, the servant of Yahweh, and the Jesus story. By these means the scapegoat mechanism can be uncovered and overcome and the "true Father," or God, revealed. As such, "God can never be recognized as one of the persecutors" and "Jesus must be completely independent from the world." The culmination of Girard's theories involves transcendence and even takes on theological tones.
Obviously not everyone will find these theories convincing. Many of non-religious persuasion, or even of non-Christian persuasion, may at least find the memesis of desire and the scapegoating mechanism plausible, but they may find an inherent self-justifying, and possibly polemical, religious intolerance in the "Myth" and "Gospel" distinction which renders the Bible "unique." Other questions arise about desire: is all desire mimetic? And does conflict also arise from other sources than mimetic conflict? If so, then much of Girard's thought may collapse on itself. Also, Girard's theories largely derived from his reading of literature. He claims to have discovered the mimesis of desire by reading the work of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Flaubert and a few others. Did he also follow up this largely literary social theory with actual historical data? The book doesn't mention this in detail, but obviously numerous correlating historical examples come to mind in light of Girard's theories. A full chapter of "Discovering Girard" deals with these and other criticisms. Some also think Girard stretches himself too thin across too many disciplines. Others find him a "hedgehog thinker," meaning that he has only one big idea. Still others point to the historical violence done in the name of the Bible as conflicting with Girard's idea of the Gospel as revealing scapegoating and overcoming violence.
That Girard remains controversial will surprise no one after reading this short book. As an introduction it excels in delineating multiple perspectives and implications, both positive and negative, of Girard's work. And though the author is a Jesuit Priest who seems more supportive than unsupportive of Girard's theories, the book nonetheless does not shy away from criticisms and feels fairly balanced overall. Anyone seeking an easy inroad to the thought of Girard should start here.
on June 21, 2009
Fr Kirwan's book is a good introduction to Rene Girard. Reading Girard's theory on mimetic contagion and scapegoating and its application to the Old and New Testament is a revelation. Girard sees the revelation of God in the Old and New Testament as not just another myth but rather the process by which God unfolds what has been going on in Human Culture since time began. For Girard, all human cultures are founded on a scapegoat who has been ritually murdered. Myth tells the foundational murder from the perspective of the vitimisers. Girard discovered that, by contrast, the Judeo-Christian scriptures do the opposite: they side with the victim.
However, having read Kirwan, it is always best to go back to Girard and let him speak for himself.
on January 30, 2013
The book looks at the man, Girard, and his theology, and then tries to explain his teaching is simple language. It is a small book but do not assume that it is a quick easy read. It connects theology to ornithology. It explains why we, humans, do what we do and why the world id in such a disastrous state. I have read it, will reread it, I believe it, and this theology has completely changed how I think about life, other people, God and myself.
on June 24, 2014
Kirwan's introduction to the thoughts of Rene Girard is helpful and incisive, but like Girard's work as one moves from memetic criticism to theology, the claims seem to take on a apologetic tone. Kirwan's explication is sound and he pulls from much of Girard's work, but he seems a bit too eager to defend Girard in the final chapter on Girard's critics and glosses over the serious problems that comparative religion from non-European sources does to the Girard's thesis as well as the problems that both textual and higher criticism post does the biblical "answer" to sacralized violence and individual m desire. Kirwan, however, does make Girard's insights on mimesis and individual culture clear as well as his insightful readings of Hegel, Hobbes, Shakespeare, and Nietzsche. If read with a mild skepticism towards its subject matter, I feel like this is a very useful introduction to the thought of Rene Girard.
on April 22, 2015
For me, this was the book that finally made me understand mimetic theory.
The discussion of Hegels "desire for the others desire" really hits the nail on the head, it explains how seemingly small trifles can turn people into deadly enemies. At the root is fear, fear that others will not recognise ones "sphere of authority" in the world, which leads to a phenomena which Girard calls "metaphyiscal rivalry" (as opposed to aquisitive rivalry, which concerns physical goods).
I would recommend reading this alongside Hobbes "Leviathan" as they both deal with the problem of the "war of all against all". Mimetic theory definitely fills out some gaps that Hobbes mentions only in passing and moreover it presents a plausible solution to the problem (Hobbes and the other enlightenment philosophers solves the problem through a social contract, which appears highgly implausible once the ramifications of mimetic theory is understood)