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Celebrating the Life and Thought of René Girard

October 25, 2016

I first met René Girard in his office at Stanford University in 1992; his assistant had directed me there to wait for him. In half an hour he popped in; I introduced myself and he told me how pleased he was that I had made myself at home in his study. From the beginning I was impressed by his graciousness and generosity.

The occasion was one of the early meetings of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, an international, multidisciplinary academic body devoted to exploring the implications of the mimetic and scapegoat theories generated by Girard.

James Williams, a key figure in the emergence and growth of COV&R, has pointed out that Girard was highly influenced by Charles Darwin, whose works he read in his youth. This influence is multi-faceted and forms the basis for my reflection on Girard.

Darwin provided both a meta-theory and a methodology for Girard. It is clear from Girard’s writings that he saw the emergence of mimetic desire, scapegoating, and sacrifice from an evolutionary perspective. Each of these were operative for thousands of years before coalescing in taboos, rituals, and myths central to the emergence of culture. Darwin’s methodology involved close observation, the discovery of a theory that made sense of a pattern, and the reinforcement of the theory through further careful analytical observations. Girard always referred to his theories as “scientific” and he did this with awareness that Darwin, his Model, had bushwhacked the methodological path he was to follow.

Mimetic desire means that our desires are always modeled after the desires of others. We see a Model taking delight in an object (which may be material but could just as well be relational or non-material like recognition). We then desire the same thing for ourselves, wanting not just the object but the satisfaction and happiness that go with it (ontological desire – wanting to be the Other). Just as evolutionary theory can be expressed simply—all the biological species have evolved from less developed pre-existing species—yet is incredibly complex in its dynamics, so mimetic desire is extremely complex in how it shapes the emergence of human cultures. Just one example: most religions and cultures have taboos and teachings that prohibit taking something that belongs to another, a phenomenon directly linked to mimetic desire.

Girard stumbled across the concept that societies in crisis re-create a sense of unity and order by projecting their violent impulses on a victim through his reading of the story of the death of Jesus. This insight about scapegoating he immediately set about to corroborate through careful studies of anthropology, mythology, and the writings of the Ancient Greeks. Day after day, studying from 3:00 a.m. to noon, he digested book after book after book. Not only did he find corroboration for the initial insights, there were supplementary discoveries like the link between scapegoating and the emergence of sacrificial systems, with their supporting rituals and myths.

Consistently working on the scientific corroboration of his ideas for nearly 60 years he mastered literary figures like Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare, ancient Greek and contemporary European philosophy, key anthropologists like Evans-Prichard and Levi-Strauss, the Bible, writings from many contemporary fields, and near the end, On War by nineteenth century military strategist, Clausewitz. The latter prompted one of his last books, Battling to the End, in which he draws attention to the potential for runaway, out-of-control violence at a time when the belief in what might constrain violence is waning.

Over the last decade, a new scientific branch of mimetic theory has opened up with research on mirror neurons that facilitates our mimetic capacity at the neuro-biological level. This line of inquiry has, if anything, reinforced Girard’s mimetic theory, while contributing new insights into its dynamics.

In 2006, Girard, with his wife Martha, came to Saint Paul University for the Conference of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion with the theme of “Mimesis, Creativity, and Reconciliation.” We wanted to systematically draw out the positive and creative aspects of mimetic theory. A high point was a public dialogue among Girard, peace theologian Walter Wink, and Duncan Morrow, a peacebuilder from Northern Ireland. Girard was at his prime, with a twinkle in his eye and his characteristic wit, delivered with impeccable timing he engaged his dialogue partners in a challenging way, generating new insights.

The 2006 Colloquium eventually led to two books: René Girard and Creative Mimesis and René Girard and Creative Reconciliation.

Now 10 years after the 2006 COV&R gathering, we are inviting anyone with an interest in the ideas of René Girard to come to a public lecture by Purdue Professor of English and Judaic Studies, Sandor Goodhart, the fourth person to get a doctorate with Girard as supervisor. The lecture will be in room LAF 120 at Saint Paul University at 7:30 on November 3. The next day we will gather in room GIG 103 for a day-long colloquium paying tribute to the life, work, and contribution of René Girard.

For more information of the official event page, click here

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Michael McIntyre      November 02, 2016 at 08:56
Given the roots of Girard's thought in Darwin, I want to ask is there a loop back in terms of theories of Reconciliation which amount to deep theories of the relationship of learning, projective transfer. communicative liberation and enactment, to the

world of animals. And, as furthering of these reconciliative developments, given they they have strongly influenced us in terms of Darwin's & Girard's theorizing, in what way does does this new understanding influence our understanding and relationship with them. I am thinking about Prison Farms and the influence caring for wounded animals has on certain inmates, of Timothy Findlay's remarkable novel "Not Wanted on the voyage" in the contrast Findlay makes between Noah and his wife, who communicates with animals. and of the the South African Animal communicator Anna Brakenback -see her Youtube video on the Black Leopard - who roots her view in quantum physics. Is this not an integrative "looping back" which integrates the Darwinian world with which Girard began and in fact integrates that world in an evolutionary way with vast implications for a deep integration of the human and the beleaguered planetary environment? Providing we can recapture or awaken this capacity as Findlay and Brakenback suggest is possible. Maybe Abattoirs and their human genocidal equivalents might disappear.