Some stories are more true than others. This statement runs the risk of being loaded so much with criticisms by postmodern epistemologies that it might ultimately be abandoned, destined to become a lone voice crying in the wilderness of supposedly interchangeable cultural narratives. And yet the idea that there are different degrees of truth in storytelling is one of the major claims made by René Girard’s so-called mimetic theory. His work basically explores two sides of the storytelling process regarding the origin and maintenance of culture.

First, human beings make up stories for a number of reasons. On a formal level, however, this make-up seems to maintain some general characteristics, regardless of the specific contexts in which it appears. As a mimesis of reality storytelling always relates to actual events with different degrees of interconnectedness. Stories can represent actual events, can represent a fictional situation that shows what potentially happens in the actual world, or can represent a fictional situation whose fictitious character is realized precisely because it exceeds the limits of what could happen in the actual world. Each representation reveals its own character in a comparison with the actual world. From this comparison we may conclude in what sense a certain representation is true. In any case, every narrative representation always also includes, as a mimesis of reality, a distance from reality. No story is reality itself (outside the story). One of the questions that could be addressed is how and to what extent this distance can be considered positive or negative.

C.S. Lewis on Myth

It should be stressed that the acute awareness of a distance, or even a divide, between different representations of reality and reality itself is not as old as humanity itself. It probably coincides with the birth of Western philosophy in ancient Greece. From that time onwards, the cultural experience of reality becomes an issue. Whereas in archaic cultures man seems to mainly consider himself as a receiver or transmitter of truthful stories forged by sacred powers (great ancestors, spirits or gods), in Western culture man begins to discover himself as the author of stories (and gradually as a historical being). This also means that he becomes more aware of his potential to deceive others. Hence traditional stories, as they are told by man, should not necessarily be considered true anymore. Those stories become unreliable myths, while the search for truth becomes the quest for a language that uncovers reality from behind particular cultural deceptions.

The shift from a mythological to a philosophical worldview thus is twofold:

  • In mythological cultures stories represent the subject of meaningful speech, while man is the object that is spoken to. In other words, man is shaped by the stories of his culture. In post-mythological cultures man gradually becomes the subject of meaning, while stories become objects of inquiry. In other words, man shapes the stories of his culture.
  • In mythological cultures truth is only accessible to man insofar as sacred powers don’t trick him and grant him knowledge and truth. In post-mythological cultures man himself becomes capable of and responsible for gaining knowledge and truth.

The pinnacle of the belief that there is a culturally independent, universal language for accessing an objective truth is reached in the Age of Enlightenment. Of course, as is known, that universal language is provided by a so-called transcendent reason and the modern scientific method. Today, however, there is a well-established tradition in the humanities where the enlightened reason is believed to have overstepped itself. Enlightened reason not only claimed objectivity regarding the explanation of the natural world, but also regarding the justification and evaluation of cultural values, which became highly problematic on the political level. For indeed, by reducing reality to a so-called objective and inevitable truth, modern political ideologies like fascism and communism became violent totalitarianisms. One could say that, in these contexts, reason became violently unreasonable in ‘forgetting’ that it doesn’t escape being embedded in a cultural narrative as well (a ‘made up’ story).

The unprecedented scale of the violence of modern political ideologies in a paradoxical way reveals the second side of the storytelling process regarding the origin and maintenance of culture. Cultural narratives serve as an attempt to escape social disintegration by distinguishing so-called justified sacrificial violence from so-called unjustified escalating violence. This is essentially René Girard’s definition of myth.

René Girard on Myth

In other words, cultural narratives contain violence. They keep violence in check… by violent means. From the perspective of Girard’s mimetic theory, modern totalitarianisms therefore can be interpreted as failed myths. They were stories that could not ‘make up’ human beings, meaning that they produced more violence than that they provided human beings with protections against violence. Exactly why this kind of mythmaking increasingly fails in the course of history is yet another issue that could be explored.

In short, man and his culture are not only the cause of potential mimetic representations of reality, they are also the result of mimetic dynamics represented in mythic storytelling. As René Girard shows, mythic representations exteriorize the potentially violent nature of those mimetic dynamics (violence in this context is understood as a possible outcome of mimetic desire). This exteriorization at the same time is a kind of exorcism of uncontrollable violence. Through myths man claims to ‘know’ which habits, desires and creatures are taboo or should be ritually sacrificed in order to prevent (social) chaos. The cultural order thus not only produces sacrificial violence, it is itself also the product of such violence; it is the result of violence ‘kept in check’.

René Girard on Tomb as First Cultural Symbol

Today, however, we find ourselves confronted with the opportunity to be highly suspicious of whatever cultural justification (i.e. myth) for taboos or sacrifices. According to René Girard, Judeo-Christian tradition especially revealed archaic cultural justifications as part of a scapegoat mechanism. Cultural justifications, in other words, were discovered as at least partly blaming the wrong phenomena for certain events. In this sense, Judeo-Christian tradition hurts the ‘ego’ or narcissistic identity of any cultural order, insofar as this order is maintained through scapegoat mechanisms. It is perhaps possible to understand and examine the heritage of Judeo-Christian spirituality, and other spiritual traditions, as a criticism of individual and collective narcissism (as this narcissism is shaped by particular cultures and preserved by their narratives). I would like to show that a spiritual realm of forgiveness allows for individual self-honesty as an epistemic device for truth, as it also allows for freedom and responsibility beyond guilt. If man acknowledges his initial vulnerability and powerlessness in the face of what happens beyond his control, he might neither punish himself nor others to regain power over a certain situation. Instead, he might start looking for the real causes of what happened and no longer exteriorize his fears and frustrations as entities apart from him.

Finally, in this regard it could be investigated how stories can function as ‘safeguards of transcendence’. This could be a major concern. In other words, the question could be how stories do not get locked up in themselves as a kind of tautological reduction of reality (a deviated transcendence). The history of science-fiction stories, and especially the influence of the graphic novel Watchmen as a ‘meta-story’, might be a good way to address this issue. More specifically those stories, under certain circumstances, might help to transform (physically or mentally) violent sacrifice into non-violent sacrifice (a concept that could be developed).

As for now, it seems there are two major pitfalls in storytelling. On the one hand, there is the temptation of using modern technical reason and the scientific method to establish a totalitarian story of universalism wherein individuality is defined within limits relevant to a system of ‘technical management’ (politically speaking this is the temptation of a communist or neo-liberal globalism). On the other hand, there is the temptation of making truth wholly relative of individual particularities and thus establish a totalitarian story of particularism (politically speaking this is the temptation of nationalism). This totalitarian particularism refuses to acknowledge the sameness with others and therefore, paradoxically, excludes otherness. In this context, it would be interesting to bring scientific insights into mimetic processes to the table and also explore what happens when these processes are denied.

 

 

 

Ernest BeckerIn 1973, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker (1924-1974) published his seminal book The Denial of Death. Because of this publication, a year later and two months after his death, Becker was granted the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction.

The Denial of Death elaborates the following thesis:

The basic motivation for human behavior is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death.

One of the most important functions of culture therefore is to provide symbolic defense mechanisms against the knowledge of mortality. Culture, and religion in particular, can be understood as an attempt to deny death. In this context Becker writes about immortality projects. These projects allow us to create a symbolic, so-called meaningful and heroic self-concept that we feel outlasts our physical self and time on earth.

Combined with the insights of yet another “out of the box” thinking literary critic and anthropologist, René Girard (1923-2015), we might conclude that the creation of our heroic self-concepts is possible because of our mimetic (i.e. imitative) nature.

The way we think about ourselves and the way we develop a sense of identity is always mediated by our social environment. And that which makes something like a social environment possible precisely is our – indeed mimetic – ability to put ourselves in each other’s shoes. Neuroscientists have discovered that so-called mirror neurons in our brains play a very important role in this regard. These brain cells allow us to imitate others. They allow us to pretend that we’re someone else and to take another person’s point of view. And this allows us to imagine what others are experiencing, thinking, expecting or even desiring. In short, our mimetic ability is the conditio sine qua non to empathize and bond with others, and to develop a sense of self.

Of course our imaginative projections about others can be wrong. That’s why we, rather unwittingly, constantly look for the confirmation of mutually established social expectations. The question “Am I doing this right?” seems to be the ever present subtext to our behavior. It really structures the interaction between ourselves and others. To quote sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), we expect that others have certain expectations and act accordingly. That’s how a social order is established in a particular culture.

Each (sub-)cultural environment establishes its own identity concepts, based on particular mimetic interactions. Those identity concepts are models that we use to create a meaningful image for ourselves. As stated earlier, according to Becker, a meaningful culturally defined self-image can be understood as an attempt to escape the realization that we are mortal beings. In other words,

our attempt to create an image that is loved by others whose respect we (mimetically) learned to desire = an attempt to deny death.

Although they might provide us with a good and secure feeling, there’s a downside to our immortality projects. We might become so obsessed with our symbolic, so-called meaningful self-image that we might be prepared to literally sacrifice ourselves to it. As anxious persons, we show the tendency to act according to the supposed expectations of “meaningful” others in order to gain their approval. As we become more obsessed with our social status, we might accomplish exactly what we were trying to move away from, death! Think of workaholics who destroy their own health, or think of ISIL suicide bombers, who sacrifice themselves in order to gain a supposedly “sacred” identity. Jesus of Nazareth formulates this tragic, failed and paradoxical attempt at “the denial of death” in our cultural and/or religious projects very succinctly in the Gospels (Matthew 16:25a-26a):

For whoever would save his life will lose it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?

And not only that, we might also be prepared to sacrifice those others we deem a threat to our self-image. Jesus himself becomes a victim of people (among them are his own disciples!) who try to protect their “socially acceptable” self-image.

In short, if we make it our goal “to be loved” by so-called meaningful others, we tend to become auto- and hetero-aggressive.

ernest-becker-quote-the-idea-of-deathThe question is whether we can be saved from our sacrificial tendencies. Since we are relational beings [or since our being is essentially relational], we can only be saved from these tendencies if we receive an identity from a being that is not at all interested in “being loved” (a being that comes from outside the human game of mutually established social expectations). This can only be a being that is not mortal, since it is mortality that leads human beings to the desire “to be loved”. If we experience the love of such a being, we can distance ourselves more and more from the desire to adjust ourselves to a self-image that seeks the approval of others. Moreover, since we diminish our auto-aggressive tendencies we will also diminish our hetero-aggressive tendencies. We will no longer defend a so-called socially acceptable self-image at the expense of others. Paradoxically, the acknowledgment of ourselves and our mortality might allow us to surrender to that Love that is “not defined by death”. Our newly found ability “to love” will enable others to love themselves as well, and save them as well from their auto-aggressive tendencies, thus enabling them to love others, etcetera. Until the whole world is “saved” by this Love.

Christians are convinced that the “Spirit of Love” springs from the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and his so-called “Father”. They believe that God can be experienced as a Love – at least at the human level – that is not defined by death. One of the images they use to speak of this Love indeed is the image of the Trinity (love means “relation”, thus the image of a relation between a Father and a Son, and the Spirit that springs from that relation, is appropriate). To be loved by Jesus of Nazareth thus means to be loved by a being that allows us to more fully accept ourselves and others.

In other words,

the Love incarnated by Jesus potentially saves us from our cultural (be it secular or religious) illusional immortality projects.

This post follows a thread on suggestions for the development of a high school curriculum on Mimetic Theory. Click the following titles to see what else I’ve done on this so far (be sure to check out the pdf-files!):

  1. Mimetic Theory in High School (click to read)
  2. Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism (click to read)
  3. Scapegoating in American Beauty (click to read)
  4. Philosophy in American Beauty (click to read)
  5. Real Life Cases of Ressentiment (click to read)

Eminem (Horns)The story of Cain and Abel (in the book of Genesis) is compared to the story of Stan (by Eminem) to illustrate what I’ve called types 1 and 2 of the scapegoat mechanism. Cain and Abel is an example of the second type of scapegoat mechanism, namely hetero-aggression. Stan is an example of the first type of scapegoat mechanism, namely auto-aggression. By the way, the comparison between Cain and Stan is a translation of a text that first appeared in Dutch in my book Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll (Averbode, 2009).

CLICK TO READ PDF-VERSION OF A COMPARISON BETWEEN CAIN AND STAN

CLICK TO READ PDF-VERSION SCAPEGOAT MECHANISM 1 & 2 (EXAMPLES)

Stan

Cain

[As an aside, it is possible to criticize Nietzsche’s concept of Judeo-Christian tradition as a product of ressentiment by comparing the third type of the scapegoat mechanism (ressentiment, indeed) with the story of Cain and Abel as an example of the second type. It is clear that, in the biblical story, the Lord condemns the actions of Cain. This implies that the Lord would condemn the actions of persons that are consumed by ressentiment as they take the parallel position of person A (Cain’s position). Thus the god born out of the ressentiment of the so-called slaves (a god who recognizes the slaves while condemning the so-called masters) is not the God of Judeo-Christian tradition.]

[As a second aside, click here for more on hip-hop and theology.]

In short, what the following comparison is all about: mimetically ignited love – eros – for the imagined situation of the other leads to hate towards one’s own life and the life of the other (or, which is the same, love for a so-called acceptable self-image) – a crisis of identity and social order. Person A (CAIN or STAN) tries to resolve the crisis that arises out of a comparison with person B (ABEL or SLIM) by sacrificing the other or by sacrificing him/herself – thanatos!

PDF-text of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-18)

PDF-text of Stan (by Eminem)

CAIN AND ABEL COMPARED TO STAN AND SLIM

  • IDENTIFICATION (THROUGH MIMESIS)

Cain and Abel develop similar activities:
In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions.

Stan and Slim have similar experiences:
“See I’m just like you in a way… I never knew my father neither – he used to always cheat on my mom and beat her. I can relate to what you’re saying in your songs…”

  • ANGER BECAUSE OF A – FELT, THOUGH NOT NECESSARILY REAL – LACK OF RECOGNITION

Cain becomes angry because Abel gets attention from the Lord while he himself doesn’t seem to get any attention at all:
And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.

Stan becomes angry because Slim does get recognition from his fans – Stan being one of them – while Stan seems to find no recognition at all:
“Dear Mister-I’m-Too-Good-To-Call-Or-Write-My-Fans, this’ll be the last package I ever send your ass! It’s been six months and still no word – I don’t deserve it?”

  • RECOGNITION NONETHELESS FOR THE PERSON WHO FEELS UNRECOGNIZED

The Lord worries about Cain:
The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?”

Slim worries about Stan:
“… why are you so mad?”

  • A WARNING FOR THE POSSIBLE EVIL CONSEQUENCES OF FRUSTRATION, ANGER AND STUBBORN PRIDE

The Lord advises Cain to do well:
“If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you…”

Slim advises Stan to calm down and to do well:
“I really think you and your girlfriend need each other or maybe you just need to treat her better. […] I think that you’ll be doin’ just fine if you relax a little…”

  • A FINAL WARNING 

The First Mourning (Adam and Eve mourn the death of Abel) by Bouguereau 1888“… but you must rule over it…”

“I just don’t want you to do some crazy shit.”

  • WARNING GOES IN VAIN – MURDER ON A DESOLATE PLACE

Cain kills Abel:
Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.

Stan kills himself and his pregnant girlfriend:
“Some dude was drunk and drove his car over a bridge and had his girlfriend in the trunk, and she was pregnant with his kid…”

From time to time I’m confronted with objections to mimetic theory that, looked at more closely, are based on some misconceptions. Here are some clarifications, hopefully. (For more on scientific research concerning imitation, click here: Mimesis and Science).

1. REGARDING MIMETIC DESIRE

Already in 1961, publishing Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, René Girard made the world familiar with his concept of mimetic desire. Mimetic desire is literally desire based on imitation. Like so many others before and after him, Girard observes that human beings are highly mimetic creatures. Humans imitate each other in all sorts of ways and thereby learn from each other – they learn good as well as bad behavior… To name but one example, people imitate the sounds of their environment and learn to speak, for instance, with a Texan accent. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing :).

By introducing the concept of mimetic desire, Girard stresses that our desire is structured by imitating others who function as models for our desire. It is important to distinguish this type of desire from our basic biological or physical needs. When you’re walking in the desert alone and your body is yearning for water, your desire for water is, of course, not based on the imitation of someone else’s desire. True, nature has its impact on human life. However, when our basic physical needs are met, our desire goes beyond them. Our basic need for water is transformed in what eventually became a supermarket world that asks us to choose between different types of water, juices and soft drinks. Growing up, we develop a certain taste, transmitted to us by our social and cultural surroundings. We might even develop desires that not only go further than our physical needs, but also against them (anorexia being one example).

coca cola thirst asks nothing moreSo, it’s not just nature that defines human life, nurture has its way too… We all have the biological need for food, but if we were born in another part of the world we would probably have developed different eating habits. It’s as simple as that. We imitate others. We mimetically learn to quench our natural thirst and to satisfy our natural hunger in a certain, culturally dependent way. No one is born with the desire for the newest soft drink produced by The Coca-Cola Company (indeed, Thou Shalt Covet What Thy Neighbor Covets – click to read this article by famous marketeer Martin Lindstrom), as no one is born with the desire to become a police officer. Our identities are not ahistorically determined from birth, they’re co-created with others.

We always write our personal history together with others, and we mutually influence each other. Since we’re social creatures we cannot escape this influence. Relationships precede and shape our (sense of) identity. Even if we go against our tendency to imitate an immediate social environment that seems indifferent towards the victim of some crime or accident (see “Bystander Effect” – click for more), we probably still imitate heroic examples from stories we grew up with (“The Good Samaritan” may be one of them).

Two questions often appear after these considerations, which show just how hard it is to let go of any type of Ego Illusion:

  1. We often imitate others to adjust to our social environment. We imitate others because we desire social recognition. So, our desire for social recognition must be more fundamental than our mimetic tendencies, no?
  2. If we imitate each other’s desire for something, someone still has to be the first to desire that something. Surely, the latter’s desire cannot be based on imitation, can it?

I’ve answered the first question before, but I’ll repeat it here. Of course we often imitate others to ‘fit in’. However, we could not develop a desire to fit in if it weren’t for our mimetic abilities. Our mimetic abilities allow us to put ourselves in each other’s shoes. They allow us to pretend that we are someone else. For instance, a little girl playing with her dolls pretends being a mother by imitating real mothers. Our mimetic abilities allow us, thereby, to imagine – however preliminary – what others are experiencing, expecting and desiring. So our ability to empathize and to adjust to the expectations of others (maybe to gain their recognition) rests on mimetic ability.

The second question seems very logical. Confronted with real life cases, the quest for ‘the first model’ is not that easy to answer though. Even simple situations show it might be the wrong question. Think, for instance, about two babies in a room full of toys. Let’s name the two Bobby and Johnny. Bobby starts playing with a little ball. Note that he didn’t necessarily wake up with the desire to play with a ball. Already in this sense his desire isn’t his own. It is awakened by people who left him the ball to play with. After just ten seconds, Bobby gets tired of the ball. He doesn’t really enjoy playing with it. So he starts playing with some other toy. He has no desire to play with the ball whatsoever. In comes Johnny. He saw Bobby playing with the ball and this raised Johnny’s attention. Now that the ball is left, Johnny takes the opportunity to start playing with it himself. In this situation Johnny is the imitator. However, when Bobby notices Johnny playing with the ball, he immediately leaves the toy that was more fun to him and tries to lay his hands on the ball Johnny is playing with now. In this situation Bobby is the imitator. In short, Johnny’s desire rests on the imitation of Bobby as model for his desire, while Bobby’s desire rests on the imitation of Johnny as model for his desire. It’s no use asking “Who’s first?” Johnny and Bobby mutually reinforce each other’s desire by becoming each other’s model and imitator. Thereby they become each other’s rival. René Girard speaks of the rivalry between mimetic doubles. More generally, we become each other’s rival if we cannot or do not want to share the object of our mimetic desire. Here’s an example – it could have been Bobby and Johnny 🙂 – CLICK TO WATCH:

2. REGARDING RITUAL SACRIFICE

Some consider René Girard’s explanations on the origin and maintenance of human cultures far-fetched. Well, are they?

René Girard considers the very first sacrificial rituals as imitations of a scapegoat mechanism in groups of primitive humans whose internal (mimetic) rivalry threatened to destroy the group itself. Primitive human societies experienced the killing of one member of their group by a significant part of the community as something which restored calm and order. This must have happened so much in primitive human societies that they started making certain associations.

On the one hand primitive societies experience turmoil as long as ‘the common enemy’ is alive, while on the other hand they experience peace after he is beaten to death. Gradually they will associate new situations of disorder with the resurgence of a former victim of group violence. In other words, they experience a person who is not visibly present anymore, but whose presence is ‘felt’ in situations of turmoil. In other words still, one of the former victims of group violence has become a ‘ghost’ or a ‘god’. At the same time, primitive human societies also ‘learn’ that killing someone apparently restores order. So together with the belief in ghosts and gods considered responsible for all kinds of possible violent disasters, the belief originates concerning the effectiveness of sacrifices to restore, renew and/or keep order, life and stability in human society. If primitive societies would have seen that the victims of group violence are no more responsible for violence than other members of the group, they would not have developed these beliefs. Violence became something sacred because the victims of group violence were considered exclusively responsible for the violence they were associated with. Those victims were scapegoats.

ancient human sacrificeGirard argues that all other associations regarding ‘the sacred’ rest on this first association between violence and divinized victims of group violence. Everything that can be associated with violence had the potential to become sacred or divinized as well. Sexuality became sacred. Indeed, sometimes males fight over females. Food became sacred. Indeed, people fight over food sometimes. Territory  became sacred. Indeed, people go to war sometimes because of territory. Nature as a whole became sacred. Indeed, natural disasters are ‘violent’ and provoke violence if they cause lack of food and water… And so the world and the experience of man became sacred.

Religions came and went, but the age-old associations regarding the sacred were transmitted down the generations. The Greeks still had Ares, god of war, as they had their goddess of love, Aphrodite. The Romans copied (indeed, ‘imitated’) the Greeks and spoke of Mars and Venus.

Asked why they perform their rituals and sacrifices and why they respect their taboos, primitive societies always answer: “Because our ancestors did it, and because we have to respect the ghosts and the gods in order to sustain our community…”

Could it really be true that the structure of ancient human sacrifice goes back to a mechanism that can still be observed in our ape cousins? And that this mechanism provides the foundation of the archaic sacred? Is it far-fetched to suspect that the former fact (the structure of ancient human sacrifice, which begins with a fight!) has something to do with the latter fact (the scapegoat mechanism)?

Pavlov DogGirard has argued that the dividing line between human and ape lies in the way mimetic quarrels became a threat to the survival of primitive human communities. Precisely because the mimetic ability of humans grew, their tendency towards near uncontrollable mimetic rivalry increased likewise. Hence it became possible that humans began to make associations that their ape cousins could not make regarding the communal killing of a group member. Compare to Pavlov’s dog: a dog who has only arbitrarily or sporadically heard a signal while getting food will not drool if he hears the signal, while Pavlov’s dog who has systematically heard the signal while getting food will at some point start to drool from the moment he merely hears the signal… Apes won’t associate turmoil with a victim, while primitive humans will start to do exactly that at some point. The consequences can be suspected: primitive humans will start to consciously ritualize the scapegoat mechanism, while apes only experience this mechanism sporadically. Here’s a powerful example of the mechanism, nonetheless, observed in a group of monkeys. We can almost observe how it must have been like that ‘a loathed enemy’ became ‘a revered god’. This also explains why gods have a ‘dual’, ‘ambiguous’ quality.They’re good and bad…

CLICK TO WATCH:

Some of us working on mimetic theory would like to develop some material that could be useful in high school curricula, in different disciplines. I’ll be posting some ideas and present some possible content in the months to come. This is how an introduction to a high school course on mimetic theory could look like. Any suggestions are welcome!

CLICK HERE TO READ A PDF VERSION

A.      HUMAN BEINGS AS CRISIS MANAGERS

We all have to deal with crisis situations. A crisis happens when we are challenged to renew or change the order of things as we know it. Therefore it is always a threat, big or small, to the systems that bring stability to our lives. A crisis is a time to make decisions in order to preserve a given system of stability or to create a new one. As such it is not just an event which forces us to adjust to its course, but also an opportunity to imagine other ways of being in the world. A crisis is violent when it is primarily experienced as an assault on our personal integrity and our socially defined identity. On the other hand, a crisis might contain the promise of a better protected personal integrity and an enhanced social identity when it is experienced as an assault on systems of stability that actually suppress us. In short, the crisis situations that befall us and subvert the world as we know it are experienced either as a curse or a blessing, either as doom or chance.

Confronted with crisis situations, every human being is able to ask three clusters of questions, one scientific and two philosophical. Here’s what the crisis manager named human might think about:

  • SCIENTIFIC QUESTIONS:

How can a crisis situation be explained? What are its causes and consequences? How do we, people, deal with it and what explains our behavior?

To use a business analogy:

How do people behave within the company and what problems arise out of this behavior?

  • A FIRST SET OF PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (MEANING):

Where do we want to go from here, confronted with this crisis? What is the ultimate goal of what we are trying to do? What are we hoping for?

To use the business analogy:

What does this company stand for? What goals does it hope to accomplish?

  • A SECOND SET OF PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (ETHICS):

How should we behave ourselves if we want to accomplish our goal, dealing with this crisis? Should we deal with the crisis situation like we normally do, or should we change our behavior?

To use the business analogy:

How should people behave within the company in order to accomplish its goals?

Once the two sets of philosophical questions are answered, science of course functions as a means to make the fulfillment possible of thought-through goals which transcend (and therefore guide) the merely scientific endeavor.

B.      MIMETIC THEORY – INSPIRATIONAL THINKING IN TIMES OF CRISIS

I.                    CONSIDERING “CRISIS MANAGEMENT” QUESTIONS

As long as we are alive and well as human beings, we are mimetically connected to each other. It is because of our mimetic (i.e. imitative) ability that we are social creatures. Mimetic theory, as it was initially developed by René Girard, tries to understand and explain the possibilities and pitfalls of human social behavior by studying its mimetic interactions. It attempts to answer the three clusters of questions, identified previously, concerning “crisis management” as the condition humaine:

  • SCIENTIFIC QUESTIONS:

How do crisis situations in human life arise out of mimetic interactions? How are these mimetic interactions influenced by conditions of the natural environment? Or, on the other hand, how do mimetic interactions construct patterns of human behavior that influence the natural environment in negative or positive ways? How do we normally deal with crisis situations arising out of mimetic interactions?

  • PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (MEANING):

What goals are desirable for human life, considering the mimetic nature of human beings? What are we trying to accomplish by studying mimetic interactions?

  • PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (ETHICS):

How should we behave if we want to accomplish our goals? Should we deal with crisis situations, arising out of mimetic interactions, like we normally do – like our ancestors did, for instance? Should we accept certain morals (of which the origins can be scientifically explained)? Or should we try to change our behavior?

II.                  OUTLINE FOR A COURSE USING MIMETIC THEORY

  • MIMESIS AND EMPATHY

Any course using mimetic theory starts with a simple observation: the way we think about ourselves and the way we develop a sense of identity is always mediated by our social environment. And that which makes something like a social environment possible precisely is our – indeed mimetic – ability to put ourselves in each other’s shoes.

Man as Social Being (Wolfgang Palaver)

Neuroscientists have discovered that so-called mirror neurons in our brains play a very important role in this regard. These brain cells allow us to imitate others. They allow us to pretend that we’re someone else and to take another person’s point of view. And this allows us to imagine what others are experiencing, thinking, expecting or even desiring. In short, our mimetic ability is the conditio sine qua non to empathize and bond with others, and to develop a sense of self.

double mediation

Of course our imaginative projections about others can be wrong. That’s why we, rather unwittingly, constantly look for the confirmation of mutually established social expectations. The question “Am I doing this right?” seems to be the ever present subtext to our behavior. It really structures the interaction between ourselves and others. As it happens though, the recognition we get from one social group might be of more importance to us than that of another. We might empathize more with the members of the San Francisco symphony orchestra we’re part of than with the homeless of that same city. Or we might feel so close to our favorite football team that we become really hostile to its adversaries.

So our ability to empathize with others turns out to be a two-edged sword. It connects us with and disconnects us from others at the same time. It can connect us to the members of a group we want to be part of against a common enemy. Even more so, it can stir rivalry between members of the same group or the same social environment. That might be surprising, but on second view it will turn out to be quite logical. Our mimetic ability allows us to take other people as models for our behavior. It allows us to learn from them in all sorts of ways, but it also plays a significant role in structuring our desires and ambitions. For instance, there’s more than one twelve year old soccer player walking around with a shirt of Lionel Messi or some other soccer idol, secretly dreaming of being the next soccer sensation.

  • MIMESIS AND RIVALRY – THE PROBLEM OF MIMETIC DESIRE

There seems to be no harm in identifying with someone you admire and take as an inspiration for your own desires and ambitions in life. At first glance, that is. As long as the model you imitate belongs to quite another world than your own, as long as there is a significant distance between yourself and your model – in space, in time, or both –, chances of a conflictual relationship with the model are reduced. On the other hand, when that distance is no longer experienced, things might turn ugly, both for yourself and your model. As a twelve year old forward in a soccer team, it’s fairly easy to admire Lionel Messi, but it might be a hell of a lot harder to appreciate the talents of the new teammate who comes in and takes your spot. Identifying yourself as being the forward (or even “the Messi of the team”) immediately complicates your relationship with this newcomer, as he arouses the desire for your former status and the recognition it is supposed to bring. You might, for instance, try to get rid of the new guy by locking him out. Good coaches, though, know how to deal with these types of situations, even strengthening their team in the process. When two or more forwards imitate and thereby reinforce each other’s desire to be the best player on their position, it indeed can make them all better players in a consequently better team.

Mimetic Rivalry

Good coaches and managers are able to use mimetic rivalry in constructive ways, allowing their employees to recognize and respect that “the best has won.” However, all management efforts aside, mimetic rivalry remains a tricky thing. It is literally rivalry based on the imitation of desires for certain material and/or immaterial objects (e.g. a trophy, some sort of social recognition or status, power within a company, wealth, etc.).

Envy Pride Mimetic Desire

Human desire is, beyond instinctive needs and wants, highly mimetic (i.e. based on imitation). True, we’re all born with certain physical needs (for food, water, oxygen, etc.). But no one is born with the desire to become, say, a culinary chef. That is a socially (and therefore mimetically) mediated ambition that gets different cultural expressions. Mimetic desire and mimetically mediated ambition can easily lead to frustrations and destructive conflicts between people who take each other as model.

Mimetic Desire

When two or more people, consciously or more often rather unwittingly, imitate each other’s desire, they become each other’s annoying obstacle when they cannot or do not want to share the object of their desire. In short, they become antagonists because of mimetic desire. Paradoxically, it is because people are close to each other and can imagine what it is like to be in the other’s shoes, that they can become each other’s archrivals in the context of a mutually shared desire. As said, our mimetic ability connects and disconnects.

  • THE SCAPEGOAT MECHANISM AS RESPONSE TO MIMETIC CRISES

The mimetic building blocks of our psychosocial fabric are at once responsible for the preservation and disintegration of that very same fabric. One of the well-tried means to restore a social order that is in crisis because of escalating mimetic rivalry, is the so-called scapegoat mechanism. This restoration again rests on mimetic processes. Let’s turn to the example of the soccer team once more. When a team loses time and again, that’s normally no favorable factor for the group atmosphere. Teammates start blaming each other for bad results, maybe even sabotaging each other. There also might be ill-will towards the coach by players who feel they’re not given enough opportunities to play matches. And when the coach becomes part of the rivalry and frustrations within the team, that’s usually the end of his career there. As more players imitate the ill-will of some teammates towards their coach, the latter becomes the one held responsible for all the major problems within the team, and he’ll be fired by the board in the end. Instead of recognizing the mimetic origins of social disorder, people tend to blame one outsider or a group of outsiders. This scenario is well-known. Coaches indeed often function as convenient scapegoats, unjustly blamed for a crisis they’re not or only partly responsible for. Like other scapegoats they’re interpreted in a twofold manner by the group they’re expelled from: perceived as the main cause for the tensions, divisions and disorder within the group, and experienced as the main cure while being sacrificed (expelled, or worse) to restore unity and order within that same group. Scapegoats are at once villain and hero, monster and savior, hated and loved, unwanted and wanted, scorned yet needed. Think, for example, of dictatorial regimes who blame all their domestic problems on foreign enemies. As long as a dictator can unite his citizens against some outside enemy, he can at least prevent them from uniting against himself and remain in the saddle. This means that he cannot completely destroy the enemy he publicly loathes. Dictators need the periodic sacrifice of their scapegoat in order to preserve the social fabric on a very large scale, but human beings in general tend to use the scapegoat mechanism on a day-to-day basis, albeit often in smaller ways.

Scapegoat Team Building

  • GOALS OF THIS COURSE

Because of the widespread presence of the scapegoat mechanism and the sacrifices that go along with it in the preservation of social order and peace, it is a real challenge to imagine other ways of building human communities. The question is how to create communities where differences between people don’t lead to escalating rivalries that tend to leave no difference at all – except for the violently established difference between a group and its scapegoat or sacrificial victim. In other words, are there ways to create a social order and peace that leaves room for non-violent, creative conflicts that originate in the irreducible yet fascinating differences between ourselves and other human beings?

The goal of this course is, first, to become more aware of the psychological and social mechanisms this introduction already briefly touched upon. Among others, it will present three ways by which mimetic connections between ourselves and other human beings might become mentally and/or physically violent and destructive. Some stories, old and new and from different media, will function as mirrors that reveal some of those important aspects of who we are as human beings. It will allow participants to analyze actual events and to reflect upon their own life. For those interested, extracurricular background information is given, including some scientific and philosophical material. Secondly, this course invites participants to actively grow into a way of being that prospers non-sacrificial peace and a way of life that is giving and joyous.

In the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch (1907-1996) published a series of studies that demonstrated the power of conformity in groups. His findings come as no surprise, since we, as human beings, have the natural tendency to imitate others… don’t we ;)? Because of this tendency we desire social recognition, and easily adapt ourselves to what others are doing – even if it doesn’t seem to make any sense.

The capacity to imitate others allows us to “walk in someone else’s shoes”, to imagine what others might expect and to be sensitive about those expectations. Hence, as said, the desire for social recognition springs from our imitative or mimetic tendencies.

Asch’s experiments were highly influential and directly inspired Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) and his studies of obedience to authority. In any case, these experiments are classical studies in the world of psychology, and naturally attract mimetic scholars – even if their theoretical framework is somewhat different from that of Asch and Milgram, and sustained by new empirical research from the neurosciences.

CLICK TO WATCH the Asch Conformity Experiment:

As proven by Milgram’s studies of obedience to authority and the later executed Stanford Prison Experiment, the way we adapt to our environment often leads to tragic situations. A variation of the Asch Conformity Experiment reveals how it can be comic as well.

CLICK TO WATCH:

Another interesting phenomenon from the point of view of mimetic theory is the so-called bystander effect. It shows how imitating others can foster mechanisms of exclusion and scapegoating impulses. “Why should I do what could equally be done by others?” seems to be the underlying question we use for avoiding our responsibility to help a person in need amidst a crowd.

CLICK TO WATCH:

These short films once again demonstrate how deeply embedded is the tendency to imitate what others are doing… or not doing…

As a kid, René Magritte used to play at an abandoned cemetery, together with a little girl. He saw a painter there, who seemed to him to possess magical powers… (thanks to Marcel Paquet’s Taschen book, for this and the following information on Magritte).

Of course, later on, Magritte (1898-1967) became a painter himself, and an intriguing one. The Belgian surrealist managed to create a world of ideas and suggestions on the canvas. As it turns out, many of his paintings drew from the experiences he had at the cemetery of his childhood. His surreal work contains a world of opposites: a heavy rock is painted as a levitating object, a nocturnal landscape is depicted under a blue, white clouded and sunlit sky… These and other examples remind of the contrasting experiences Magritte underwent at the cemetery: the promising life of two young children contrasts with a place of dead, decaying bodies, as the first hints of a sensual interplay between a boy and a girl contrast with the barrenness of the graveyard surroundings. At the same time, Magritte’s paintings convey the paradoxes of any artist’s ‘magical’ creativity: at once all-powerful and powerless. Indeed, a painter is able to create a world according to his own laws (levitating rocks, for example), yet he never manages to capture reality itself. The Treachery of Images (French: La trahison des images; 1928-1929), Magritte’s well-known painting of a pipe, makes this clear. The subscript Ceci n’est pas une pipe shows the idea that we only access reality through images, representations, or indeed, mimesis. The image of a pipe is not the pipe itself. A poetic equivalent could be the expression ‘I’m speechless’. For saying ‘I’m speechless’ actually implies speaking, so the reality of being speechless is misrepresented by the expression itself. The Italian movie La vita è bella (Roberto Benigni, 1997) contains a riddle in a similar sense: “When you say my name, I’m gone… Who am I? Answer: ‘Silence’…”

Medieval thinkers were very much aware of these paradoxes and of the mediated nature of all human knowledge. Reality, which was ultimately divine to them, is always bigger and ‘different’ than our representations of it. We live by symbols and images, referring to ‘what lies beyond’ them. Somehow we seem to lose this awareness more and more. We seem to lose ourselves to the impression we can control many aspects of our own life, and many aspects – if not all – of ‘reality’. We live in a world where everything is said to be ‘manageable’, a world of plans and strategies, of ideologies and calculations – calculated ‘risks’ and false certainties. We think we can master reality, that we are free and independent ‘Masters of the Universe’, yet the background radiation of our day-to-day conscience tells a different story: climate change gets at us in unexpected ways, terrorist attacks stun us time and again, and accidents ‘do happen’.

I just finished reading The Book of Illusions, a novel by Paul Auster. He’s on my list of favorites already (next to Milan Kundera and John Maxwell Coetzee – who are, as I discovered after I’d read them, both admirers of René Girard’s work –, and next to the not so well-known Craig Strete). I loved reading the story because of its surreal feel, because it breathes both the anguish and hope that ‘nothing is what it seems’. The story is carried by the character of a David Zimmer, a Vermont professor who lost his wife and two young sons in a plane crash. As fate would have it, he delves into the life of the mysterious silent comedian and film director Hector Mann. Writing the story of Mann’s life and films somehow saves Zimmer’s life from despair. As it turns out, there are some remarkable analogies between the two men. In some ways, the life of Zimmer is an imitation of Mann’s life. Moreover, one of Mann’s later films, The Inner Life of Martin Frost, represents an important aspect of Mann’s own life. So we have one imitation after the other. As a whole, Auster’s novel reflects aspects of our own ‘condition’. We are mimetic creatures, we live by ‘representations’ of ourselves and of reality as a whole. We construct our own ‘story’. Yet life is not a story. Louis Paul Boon (1912-1979), a famous Flemish writer, honorary citizen of my hometown Aalst, conveyed this insight in a great way. A book has a beginning and an end, while we don’t actually know when ‘we’ begin, nor can plan when we catch a deadly disease or undergo a life threatening accident. Our lives are ‘open endings’, fractures, interrupted beyond our control by unplanned experiences. Paul Auster seems to also make clear that in order to give life a chance, an author must be prepared to ‘burn’ his own work. He has to ‘question mark’ it. The chapter on The Inner Life of Martin Frost, the one late movie of Hector Mann watched by Zimmer, magnificently reflects this indeed ‘surreal’ and ‘poetic’ idea. The movie is about the muse of writer Martin Frost. Claire Martin, as she calls herself, is slowly dying while he finishes his story. In order to bring her back to life, Frost burns his story, thereby expressing the irreducibility of any human being’s character. He understands that capturing someone else’s life in a well-defined story (with beginning and ending) actually ‘kills’ this person in a way. Writing about Claire is also stating ‘this is not Claire’. Here’s the fragment:

Martin shakes out three aspirins from the bottle and hands them to her with a glass of water. As Claire swallows the pills, Martin says: This isn’t good. I really think a doctor should take a look at you.

            Claire gives Martin the empty glass, and he puts it back on the table. Tell me what’s happening in the story, she says. That will make me feel better.

            You should rest.

            Please, Martin. Just a little bit.

            Not wanting to disappoint her, and yet not wanting to tax her strength, Martin confines his summary to just a few sentences. It’s dark now, he says. Nordstrum has left the house. Anna is on her way, but he doesn’t know that. If she doesn’t get there soon, he’s going to walk into the trap.

            Will she make it?

            It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that she’s going to him.

            She’s fallen in love with him, hasn’t she?

            In her own way, yes. She’s putting her life in danger for him. That’s a form of love, isn’t it?

            Claire doesn’t answer. Martin’s question has overwhelmed her, and she is too moved to give a response. Her eyes fill up with tears; her mouth trembles; a look of rapturous intensity shines forth from her face. It’s as if she has reached some new understanding of herself, as if her whole body were suddenly giving off light. How much more to go? she asks.

            Two or three pages, Martin says. I’m almost at the end.

            Write them now.

            They can wait. I’ll do them tomorrow.

            No, Martin, do them now. You must do them now.

            The camera lingers on Claire’s face for a moment or two– and then, as if propelled by the force of her command, Martin cuts between the two characters. We go from Martin back to Claire, from Claire back to Martin, and in the space of ten simple shots, we finally get it, we finally understand what’s been happening. Then Martin returns to the bedroom, and in ten more shots he finally understands as well.

            1. Claire is writhing around on the bed, in acute pain, struggling not to call out for help.

            2. Martin comes to the bottom of a page, pulls it out of the machine, and rolls in another. He begins typing again.

            3. We see the fireplace. The fire has nearly gone out.

            4. A close-up of Martin’s fingers, typing.

            5. A close-up of Claire’s face. She is weaker than before, no longer struggling.

            6. A close-up of Martin’s face. At his desk, typing.

            7. A close-up of the fireplace. Just a few glowing embers.

            8. A medium shot of Martin. He types the last word of his story. A brief pause. Then he pulls the page out of the machine.

            9. A medium shot of Claire. She shudders slightly–and then appears to die.

            10. Martin is standing beside his desk, gathering up the pages of the manuscript. He walks out of the study, holding the finished story in his hand.

            11. Martin enters the room, smiling. He glances at the bed, and an instant later the smile is gone.

            12. A medium shot of Claire. Martin sits down beside her, puts his hand on her forehead, and gets no response. He presses his ear against her chest–still no response. In a mounting panic, he tosses aside the manuscript and begins rubbing her body with both hands, desperately trying to warm her up. She is limp; her skin is cold; she has stopped breathing.

            13. A shot of the fireplace. We see the dying embers. There are no more logs on the hearth.

            14. Martin jumps off the bed. Snatching the manuscript as he goes, he wheels around and rushes toward the fireplace. He looks possessed, out of his mind with fear. There is only one thing left to be done–and it must be done now. Without hesitation, Martin crumples up the first page of his story and throws it into the fire.

            15. A close-up of the fire. The ball of paper lands in the ashes and bursts into flame. We hear Martin crumpling up another page. A moment later, the second ball lands in the ashes and ignites.

            16. Cut to a close-up of Claire’s face. Her eyelids begin to flutter.

            17. A medium shot of Martin, crouched in front of the fire. He grabs hold of the next sheet, crumples it up, and throws it in as well. Another sudden burst of flame.

            18. Claire opens her eyes.

            19. Working as fast as he can now, Martin goes on bunching up pages and throwing them into the fire. One by one, they all begin to burn, each one lighting the other as the flames intensify.

            20. Claire sits up. Blinking in confusion; yawning; stretching out her arms; showing no traces of illness. She has been brought back from the dead.

            Gradually coming to her senses, Claire begins to glance around the room, and when she sees Martin in front of the fireplace, madly crumpling up his manuscript and throwing it into the fire, she looks stricken. What are you doing? she says. My God, Martin, what are you doing?

            I’m buying you back, he says. Thirty-seven pages for your life, Claire. It’s the best bargain I’ve ever made.

            But you can’t do that. It’s not allowed.

            Maybe not. But I’m doing it, aren’t I? I’ve changed the rules.

            Claire is overwrought, about to break down in tears. Oh Martin, she says. You don’t know what you’ve done.

            Undaunted by Claire’s objections, Martin goes on feeding his story to the flames. When he comes to the last page, he turns to her with a triumphant look in his eyes. You see, Claire? he says. It’s only words. Thirty-seven pages–and nothing but words.

            He sits down on the bed, and Claire throws her arms around him. It is a surprisingly fierce and passionate gesture, and for the first time since the beginning of the film, Claire looks afraid. She wants him, and she doesn’t want him. She is ecstatic; she is horrified. She has always been the strong one, the one with all the courage and confidence, but now that Martin has solved the riddle of his enchantment, she seems lost. What are you going to do? she says. Tell me, Martin, what on earth are we going to do?

            Before Martin can answer her, the scene shifts to the outside. We see the house from a distance of about fifty feet, sitting in the middle of nowhere. The camera tilts upward, pans to the right, and comes to rest on the boughs of a large cottonwood. Everything is still. No wind is blowing; no air is rushing through the branches; not a single leaf moves. Ten seconds go by, fifteen seconds go by, and then, very abruptly, the screen goes black and the film is over.

(Taken from Paul Auster, The Book of Illusions, Faber and Faber open market edition, 2003, p.265-269).

As a Phoenix rising from her ashes, Claire breathes new life into Martin Frost’s existence, melting away his ‘frost’, taking him away from the reflections in his books to the tangible reality of her ‘body’ – born, nevertheless, from the sparks of his imagination… Spicy, ‘mimetic’ detail: as Claire (‘the brightness’) was willing to sacrifice herself to let Martin’s story come alive, Hector was willing to sacrifice himself to save… well, you’ll have to read the book to know ;-).

Paul Auster’s is a story of the paradoxical power of art, storytelling and human communication in general. In order to ‘experience’ reality, we cannot but refer to it by ‘duplicating’ or ‘imitating’ it. As this is also a ‘treason’ of reality it’s exactly what ‘saves’ it at the same time. For that which we ‘possess’ in words, images and gestures is not reality ‘itself’, reality remains ‘untouched’ and ‘unspoiled’ in a way. It’s what lies ‘beyond’, as that sublime, ungraspable mystery…

sunset-boulevard-posterWhile reading the book, I couldn’t help but imagine the films of one of my favorite directors, namely Billy Wilder (1906-2002). In more than one way, the story of Hector Mann in Auster’s book reminded me of the story in Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. I also had to think, surprisingly perhaps, of another kind of moviemaking. I was reminded of a video-clip by Norwegian pop-band a-ha, for their big hit song ‘Take on Me’. 25 years after the song earned six awards at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards (September 5, 1986), I’d like to celebrate the art and craftsmanship of the video once more. Like Paul Auster refers to moviemaking in his novel, a-ha made a video-clip with references to yet another art-form, comics. Scott McCloud points to the distinction between animation and comics in his truly inspiring book Understanding Comics – The Invisible Art: “Each successive frame of a movie is projected on exactly the same space – the screen – while each frame of comics must occupy a different space. Space does for comics what time does for film!” Makes one think about the mysteries of space and time, and our vain attempts to grasp them…

understanding-comics-the-treachery-of-imagesWell, what kind of storytelling you prefer, doesn’t really matter. However, I’m strongly convinced that what we need today is the art of storytelling. Too many tragedies seem to happen nowadays because of people who live from ‘indisputable ideologies’ (stories turned frigid) – the Norwegian had their tragedy, the world as a whole had 9/11. To write the story to let others come alive, while also realizing that ‘the other’ is  always bigger than ‘our story’ – that’s what we need… “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1). The Word between one man and the other, the Poet creating proximity and distance at the same time, creating tenderness… Like a painter, who caresses the image of his beloved model with a paintbrush, leaving the model herself ‘untouched’…

‘She’ is always the one who saves us from ‘the labyrinth’ – from the dark cave of the womb into the light. ‘She’ is reality beyond our words and imaginations, beyond the games we play, beyond virtual competitions where we try to find a sense of ‘victory’, beyond the illusion that we are ‘masters’ of reality. Life is not a programmed, predestined computer game (Tron, the movie, anyone?).

Enjoy ‘Take on Me’… and the life bringers. Click to watch a pop defining moment – ‘mirror, mirror…’ indeed:

Just recently I stumbled upon quite a fun BBC documentary about monkeys. Fragments can be watched below.

Of particular interest to anyone who’s concerned with mimetic theory are the following observations, eminently shown in the documentary:

Besides getting smarter, monkeys living in larger groups also become more competitive, even aggressive and violent. From the point of view of mimetic theory this comes as no surprise, since an increased learning capacity is based on the same principle as an increased tendency for a certain type of rivalry: imitation or ‘mimesis’. Monkeys learn through imitation, but they can also become rivals through imitation. The latter happens when they imitate each other’s desire for a certain object – be it a female, a piece of food or some favorable territory. It is from this mimetic interplay that a craving for ‘status’ and ‘power’ emerges, as well as a certain ‘greed’.

Individual rivaling monkeys tend to gather allies to compete with each other. Again, the engine behind these forms of empathetic bonding seems to be mimesis by which monkeys are able to ‘project’ themselves in other members of the group. They might even ‘imagine’ what others are up to and make plans for themselves. The so-called mirror neurons in the brain play a tremendous role in this regard.

Normally, rivaling groups balance each other and keep their violent tendencies in check. However, sometimes an individual monkey becomes the victim of a whole group. The documentary shows what happens when this victim dies. His former attackers – actually the ones who murdered him! – gather around the dead body, unusually calm. [WATCH THE DOCUMENTARY FROM 4:23!]

René Girard considers this type of event foundational to the way human culture eventually originated and to the way it developed sacrificial rites. Already the BBC documentary states that more monkeys are victim to other monkeys than to predators. Girard claims that the intra-violence of mob lynching must have occurred even more in primitive ape-man societies, since rivalries must have been more intense there due to an ever stronger mimetic ability. Gradually, our primitive ancestors might have made associations during their experience of killing a common ‘enemy’ that account for the emergence of sacrifice. Aggression, rivalry and turmoil within the group seem to persist for as long as the common enemy lives. From the moment he is dead, contention ceases. ‘Chaos’ no longer reigns. ‘Order’ is restored.

The sacrificial rites of our ancestors suggest that they indeed gave meaning to victims of ‘mob lynching’. According to René Girard, the significance these victims and the mob lynching eventually received, creates the dividing line between animals and humans, and has two aspects:

1. Chaotic situations or crises within a community can be controlled by killing someone – hence the rise of what is eventually called ‘sacrifice’.

2. Chaotic situations are associated with the resurgence of a victim that is held responsible for previous chaotic situations. Indeed chaos reigned for as long as some victim was alive. That victim, therefore, is perceived as ‘being’ chaos – what seems to be beyond the control of the community, as a ‘transcendent’ or ‘sacred’ force. This violent force – i.e. the now divinized and ‘invisible’ victim – can be stopped, as experience seems to show our ancestors, by killing a new victim. So together with sacrifice the potentially violent gods originate who demand that sacrifice.

Very important to understand Girard’s mimetic theory is the observation that the victims of this type of collective violence are scapegoats, meaning: held responsible for something they’re not really responsible for (even when they are, in fact, considered ‘bad’ individuals). The real source for certain types of rivalry, tensions, conflicts and chaotic situations within communities are all sorts of ‘mimetic’ interactions. This is something the first human communities don’t realize, and that’s why, according to Girard, religion and human culture as a whole developed in all kinds of directions from sacrificial origins. Some of these origins can still be observed in groups of our actual ‘family members’, the monkeys and the apes, who, more than ever, seem to mirror fundamental aspects of ourselves.

‘Know thyself’ the Temple of Apollo at Delphi read. Start this quest by watching the fragments from the documentary Clever Monkeys

– CLICK TO WATCH:

Bruce Springsteen‘s take on the story of Christ’s Passion certainly reflects a profound spiritual awareness of what this event is actually about. In an episode for VH1 Storytellers, Springsteen meditates on his song Jesus was an only son, and brings out the universal and existential truths the story of the Passion reveals.

CLICK TO WATCH it right here:

Click here to read a full transcription of this video.

Springsteen’s interpretation of the song’s ending is especially moving. A transformation takes place. Whilst in the beginning of the song Jesus is comforted by his mother Mary, at the end it’s the son who comforts his mother. Mary is asked to respect the particular destiny of her child. Jesus chose the path of compassion and love. He was touched, so deeply, by the suffering of the outcasts that he couldn’t do anything else but reach out to them. By associating him with these scapegoats, he eventually became a victim himself. In refusing to take part in a social system that constructs itself by means of sacrifices, Jesus was eventually sacrificed himself.

Following Springsteen’s reasoning, Jesus cannot start some sort of ‘civil war’ to defend himself, because that would make him the imitator of his persecutors – Jesus would thus become a sacrificer himself, a ‘prince of this world’, a ‘Muammar Gaddafi’… Christ’s kingdom, on the other hand, is ‘not of this world’. Jesus follows, in the song’s words, ‘the soul of the universe’ which ‘willed a world and it appeared’. Indeed, by withdrawing from vengeance (i.e. the imitation of the persecutors), Jesus creates the possibility of a new world. Imitating the one who ‘offers the other cheek’, the one who forgives and approaches his persecutors and betrayers with compassion, allows us to accept our own and each other’s weaknesses and iniquities, without us being victimized or ‘crucified’ for doing so…

At the end of Springsteen’s song, Jesus seems confident that his ‘Heavenly Father’ would ultimately refuse the sacrifice of his son – and this confidence is reflected in the stories of Christ’s resurrection. Jesus fully imitates ‘the One who doesn’t want sacrifices or victims’ and therefore he is said to be the ultimate incarnation or ‘materialization’ of Love: A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory.” (KJV, Matthew 12:20). Bruce Springsteen speaks of this mystery of the incarnation at the end of his ‘sermon’:

“Whatever divinity we can lay claim to is hidden in the core of our humanity… When we let our compassion go, we let go of what little claim we have to the divine.”

Love seeks to be concrete and ’embodied’. The very nature of Love is to throw off its spiritual garment, to ’empty’ itself from the ‘sacred’ realm in order to become ‘flesh’ – which is called ‘kenosis’. The story of Christ’s Passover can be considered a pinnacle in our clumsy attempts to express this reality. However, if these attempts produce songs like Bruce Springsteen’s Jesus was an only son, we should be grateful, as we are comforted by the fragile light of hope amidst our own ‘darkness on the edge of town’.

The sports-minded Jesuit Patrick Kelly wrote the following on Bruce Springsteen’s faith and his Roman Catholic background in a column for America Magazine (The National Catholic Weekly) – February 10, 2003 (click here to read):

Faith, hope and love have always played a part in Bruce Springsteen’s songs, but this has become more explicit in recent years. Springsteen’s willingness to talk about these themes also is relatively new.

The Rev. Andrew Greeley’s article, “The Catholic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen” (click to read Am., 2/6/88), seems to have been a catalyst in this regard. The Catholic novelist Walker Percy read the article and wrote to Springsteen in early 1989, particularly interested in the fact that Greeley described him as a Catholic. “If this is true, and I am too,” his letter read, “it would appear the two of us are rarities in our professions: you as a post-modern musician, I as a writer, a novelist and a philosopher. That and your admiration of Flannery O’Connor. She was a dear friend of mine, though she was a much more heroic Catholic than I.” Walker Percy died before Springsteen responded to his letter, but the musician wrote in a four-page letter to Percy’s widow:

“The loss and search for faith and meaning have been at the core of my own work for most of my adult life. I’d like to think that perhaps that is what Dr. Percy heard and was what moved him to write me. Those issues are still what motivate me to sit down, pick up my guitar and write.”

Percy’s nephew, Will Percy, subsequently interviewed Springsteen about the formative influences on his song-writing for the Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles’s magazine Doubletake in 1998 (click here to read).

I assembled some excerpts from this interview. Click here if you’re interested.

René Girard’s mimetic theory is heir to a long and widespread Christian tradition of meditating on imitation, more specifically on the imitation of Christ. This tradition is such an essential part of the Christian ‘DNA’, that Christians throughout the ages have dwelled upon it. Not surprisingly then, the wisdom of a famous Medieval Catholic monk – Thomas à Kempis – coincides with the insights of a contemporary Christian rock star – Bono. I found it interesting to organize a meeting between the two. So, here you have it: some excerpts from De Imitatione Christi next to a video fragment of an interview with Bono.

Thomas à Kempis (c.1380-1471) is famous for his spiritual guide De Imitatione Christi – ‘(On) The Imitation of Christ’. These are its first words:

Qui sequitur me non ambulat in tenebris dicit Dominus. Hæc sunt verba Christi, quibus admonemur quatenus vitam eius et mores imitemur, si volumus veraciter illuminari, et ab omni cæcitate cordis liberari. Summum igitur studium nostrum, sit in vita Jesu meditari.

(De Imitatione Christi, Liber Primus Caput I, 1).

Translation:

“He who follows Me, walks not in darkness,” says the Lord. By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.

Christ indeed asks us to imitate him, thereby reorienting our mimetic abilities. Bono, lead singer of rock band U2, tried to follow this call from an early age and always looked for authentic ways to develop his life as a Christian. He tried to follow in the early church’s footsteps:

In school I met some people who knew the Scriptures. It was quite a moment there when people got very interested in the early church and the possibilities of imitating the early church.

Because of certain mimetic tendencies, our ears often remain deaf to these possibilities. All too soon we imitate those who judge us, and we become judgmental ourselves. Answering Christ’s call to ‘follow’ him has to do with finding out the truth about our’selves’ and with the ability to love our neighbour. The evangelical paradox is this: in obeying Christ we don’t lose ourselves but instead we actually find who we are – we become free! Christ represents the realm of grace and forgiveness, where we don’t have to hide our weaknesses and iniquities. This realm is an antidote for the temptation to present ourselves in such a way that we don’t run the risk of being judged. We are often tempted to enslave ourselves to an admirable image (Latin: imago) or to imitate an illusory idol. Bono puts it this way:

The key that great art has in common with Christianity is: “Know the truth and the truth will set you free.” I’ve held on to that very tightly. That’s how I start my day as a writer. I (can) start on a lie… and a lie can be being the person that you’d like to be, rather than the person you are…

If we don’t experience ‘the space of grace’, we will indeed easily lie about our own shortcomings and place the blame on something or someone else – and thus create scapegoats. We are so used to being judged that we judge others in our defense, and so multiply the evil we are trying to avoid. To imitate Christ means to imitate the One who is merciful and by doing so, in turn, free others in becoming and accepting themselves. The dynamic thus created is a dynamic of love which eventually hopes to save the world from the ‘bad’ imitation of ‘an eye for an eye’ violence. Bono also talks about this interruption of ‘the laws of karma’ (i.e. the laws of harmony, balance as well as revenge) by the creative, unexpected and ‘unbalancing’ dynamic of grace and forgiveness:

I’m pretty sure that the Universe operates by the laws of Karma essentially. All physical laws do. What you put out comes back against you. Then enters the story of Grace, which really is the story of Christ, which turned this view of the Universe upside down. And it’s completely counter-intuitive. It’s very, very hard for human beings to grasp Grace. We can actually grasp atonement, revenge, fairness… all of this we can grasp. But we don’t grasp Grace very well. I’m much more interested in Grace because I’m really depending on it.

In order to become loving persons – which is the ultimate goal of the biblical enterprise – we first need to accept ourselves as we are. That’s why Thomas à Kempis advises us to temporarily withdraw from a world where we are tempted to keep up appearances by gossip and rumors. From time to time, we need to retreat from ‘the company of men’ in order to distinguish ‘the call of the One who creates us’

… so we might truly become ‘imitators of Christ’:

Quære aptum tempus vacandi tibi, de beneficiis Dei frequenter cogita. Relinque curiosa, tales potius perlege materias, quæ compunctionem magis præstent quam occupationem. Si te subtraxeris a superfluis locutionibus et curiosis circuitionibus nec non a novitatibus et remoribus audiendis, invenies tempus sufficiens et aptum bonis meditationibus insistendis. Maximi Sanctorum humana consortia ubi poterant vitabant et Deo in secreto vivere eligebant.

Dixit quidam: Quoties inter homines fui, minor homo redii. Hoc sæpius experimur, quando diu confabulamur. Facilius est enim tacere quam in verbo non excedere. Facilius est domi latere quam foris se posse sufficienter custodire. Qui igitur intendit ad interiora et spiritualia pervenire, oportet eum cum Jesu a turba declinare.

(De Imitatione Christi, Liber Primus Caput XX, 1-2a).

Translation:

Seek a suitable time for leisure and meditate often on the favors of God. Leave curiosities alone. Read such matters as bring sorrow to the heart rather than occupation to the mind. If you withdraw yourself from unnecessary talking and idle running about, from listening to gossip and rumors, you will find enough time that is suitable for holy meditation. Very many great saints avoided the company of men wherever possible and chose to serve God in retirement. 

“As often as I have been among men,” said one writer, “I have returned less a man.” We often find this to be true when we take part in long conversations. It is easier to be silent altogether than not to speak too much. To stay at home is easier than to be sufficiently on guard while away. Anyone, then, who aims to live the inner and spiritual life must go apart, with Jesus, from the crowd.

The video fragment of an interview with Bono on ‘faith, hope and love’

– CLICK TO WATCH:

For more cross-references between U2 and mimetic theory I highly recommend a book, in German, by Austrian Brigitte Dorner: U2 ist ihre Religion, Bono ihr Gott. Zur theologischen Relevanz der Rock- und Popmusik am Beispiel von U2. For more information, click here.