Mimetic Desire & the Scapegoat: Notes on the Thought of René Girard

by | 4 Sep 2023

KEY CONCEPT

René Girard (1923-2015) was a synthetic theorist with a singular idée fixe, a grand pattern that he could not help but see inscribed and repeated everywhere in human culture. The key elements of Girard’s philosophical anthropology are mimetic desire, mimetic violence, and the scapegoat mechanism. This piece explains these key ideas and offers some reflections on their relationship with critical thought. 

By way of background, Girard was born in Avignon but moved to the United States in the 1950s and spent most of his career at Stanford. His work amounts to a startling set of claims about the truth of human nature and the origin of social order. Across his many books, essays, and interviews, he enthusiastically applied this hermeneutical union of anthropology, theology, ethology, classical mythology, Nietzschean philosophy, and renaissance literature, each of which he treated as empirical sources to be read literally in support of a theory that he claimed was a discovery. 

Girard was anachronistic even when his work first appeared in the late twentieth century. As French poststructuralism proclaimed the death of all grand narratives, origin stories, and sociological truths, Girard took the opposite direction. While he shared poststructuralism’s critical stance towards both Marx and Freud, who he frequently discusses in his work, he was ultimately sympathetic to their attempts at forming a general human science. By contrast he was scornful of the language games of deconstruction and of Foucault’s studies of power, which he regarded as mythopoetic. At the same time, his openly confessed Catholicism contributed to academic suspicion that he was offering nothing but a disguised apologia for reactionary Judeo-Christian religion. 

Girard’s thought is more nuanced than that. It is a unique and challenging way of thinking about social order, crisis, and collective ethics. As environmental and epidemiological crises multiply around the world, as populism spreads while inequality continues to grow exponentially, and as digital technologies transform culture into an algorithmic soup of mimetic repetition, status games, and blame, Girard’s focus on these themes makes his work worthy of renewed attention, if only to understand its influence on our digital environment today. In this sense, Girard has had an indirect impact on the world through his influence on the libertarian billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel. Thiel, who took Girard’s course at Stanford as an undergraduate, became the first outside investor in Facebook because he recognised its potential to spread mimetically, helping it grow from a small social network to a worldwide social media platform. 

Mimetic desire

Any introduction to Girard must start by unpacking his strange claim that all human desire is a mimetic phenomenon. What is meant here by desire? The fact that humans are mimetic animals as such is not controversial. We learn speech, manners, skills, habits, reading, and many more complex modes of behaviour by copying others. Fashion, tastes, fads, and other aesthetic trends come and go because we like to copy each other. This sort of representational mimesis has been recognised and dissected by philosophers and storytellers at least since Plato. Mimesis, in this sense, is usually thought of as a positive thing; as the precondition of communication, and the way that humans form and maintain culturally distinctive communities. All human relationships are on some level mimetic and reciprocal. A smile begins a conversation that develops into a friendship, or a marriage. A snub invites an insult that escalates into a fight, or a war. 

More subversive is Girard’s concept of mimetic desire. The claim is that we do not only copy behaviour but also desire itself. We model our desires on the desires of others, we want only what we perceive others to want. If we admire or are attracted to someone, it is because we have reason to believe others admire or are attracted to them too. And where two people are attracted to someone or something, a third will soon follow. This seems obvious to advertisers or anyone who paid attention to the market in cryptocurrencies. But in general, our models of subjectivity derived from philosophy, psychoanalysis, and psychological science tend to imagine desire as a phenomenon internal to the embodied subject, not a social relationship, something circulating between subjects.

This entails a radical rethinking of what constitutes a normal human relation. Mimesis as a structuring principle leads to an interdividual model of subjectivity that transcends ego/alter relationships. Modern individualism is allergic to the full implications of mimesis, even though they are observable all around us. The post-enlightenment romantic-rationalised subject is supposed to have an authentic, autonomous mode of being. The history of critical theory is, in one sense, the attempt to liberate this authentic subject from the suppression inflicted by tyrants (Rousseau), by ideology (Marx) or by the repressed wishes of the unconscious (Freud). Post-enlightenment culture admits the fact of mimesis only grudgingly, and never to its full extent, because to do so would mean undermining its founding assumptions. 

According to Girard, this is a grand illusion. We only think we are individuals mimetically. In other words, we want to feel like authentic individuals because we think others feel like they are authentic individuals. But in truth, no one ‘is’ just themselves, no one is autonomous, everyone is lacking, everyone is copying their desires from the outside. This is what modern individualism must constantly suppress. We attribute desires to our individual egos and justify them to ourselves, because we see others do it. Individualism thus obscures the dangerous link connection between mimesis and violence. Mimetic desire is constantly, unavoidably at work, setting the stage for rivalry and violent conflict.

Mimetic desire is acquisitive and therefore rivalrous. On one hand, we obviously cannot all acquire or become what others already have. The model of my desire is also, therefore, the obstacle to my achieving it. On the other side of the mimetic relationship, the experience of being imitated is just as aggravating, introducing unwanted attention and uninvited competition. When we say imitation is the highest form of flattery, it is usually to soothe the rage of a child who feels they are being imitated. The aphorism’s existence proves it is a lie. In fact, imitation is infuriating. We are therefore in a bind: everyone wants to be seen as different, and yet everyone is unable to avoid mimicking the desires of others, which in the modern world includes the desire to be seen as different. The fact of being unable to realise one’s desire, of being thwarted, rejected, or opposed, and the converse feeling of being copied by another recursively acts as the stimulant of the desire. In other words, mimetic desire escalates in intensity under its own steam. 

Mimetic violence

Violence threatens to erupt whenever mimetic rivalry takes hold. For the moderns, violence is regarded as a problem that arises only abnormally and is always to be despised. But in archaic societies, Girard claims, violence was taken for granted as the background context in which all mimesis occurs. For this reason, archaic societies were much more willing to actively suppress desire. Mimetic appropriation was to be feared and prohibited, and this was the function of religion. In every archaic culture, violence was always associated with and contained by the sacred. 

Here is the hypothesis. Wherever two people want the same thing and seek to acquire it, a mimetic rivalry is formed. Unless it is contained, the mimetic desire for the object spreads just like a contagious virus. Unchecked, the shared desire exponentially infects the community. At that point, it causes de-differentiation of the members of the group. Everyone wants to have or to be the same thing. Desires converge and violence erupts. 

The next step is mimetic violence. Once violence breaks out in the community, it becomes mimetic too. Mimetic desire shifts from the object of desire to the violence itself. It is no longer the object that counts but the desire to visit violence upon those who have inflicted it against us. Whereas animals and primates are content to establish dominant hierarchies within their communities, humans fight to the death, and even beyond, as blood feuds pass reciprocal violence down the generations. The community is destroyed, riven by reciprocal acts of vengeance between rivals, families, groups, and ultimately nations. The order of things dissolves, the world is inverted, monsters appear, evil flourishes, retribution multiplies. Unless the mimetic crisis is arrested, the community tears itself apart.

The scapegoat

The scapegoat mechanism is what arrests mimetic violence and, at the same time, lays the foundation of a renewed social order. This profoundly strange idea is the point of greatest conjecture in Girard’s theory. In a mimetic crisis, as reciprocal violence escalates, all order breaks down. Everyone is obsessed with visiting violence on their rivals. If this continues, everyone will eventually be killed or dispersed. Girard speculates that many societies ultimately destroyed themselves in this way. Yet in some cases, a scapegoat is found, and peace established. 

The idea is that the object of mimetic imitation switches from the cycle of violence towards mimetically heaping blame upon a single target, arbitrarily chosen by the community. The individual may be selected because in some way they stand out as being different: perhaps they are an outsider, or are sick, or have a physical disability that marks them out. In any case they are a person whose death shall not be avenged. As mimetic desire at this point is chaotic and uncontained, it spreads quickly between individuals and converges on different objects. Thus, the group’s desire to end violence converges on this single person who is to be blamed for causing all the trouble. The victim is soon universally blamed for the crisis and hated for it. The sum of the community’s desire for vengeance is unanimously projected at this single victim. The group unanimously declares them guilty and collectively murders the victim. This act of lynching unites the community in peace.

Consequently, if peace breaks out, the victim’s guilt seems confirmed, but so too is their special status and magical power. The murdered victim becomes retrospectively venerated as a god. Hence, Girard argues, all archaic gods are dual faced. They are mythologised as both bad (the cause of the crisis) and good (the saviour of the community). Girard claims that this explains why archaic gods and heroes of mythology so often are described as outsiders or have physical features that marked them out as unusual. They were real people. 

Every community has a collective murder of its deity at its heart. Mimetic violence resolved by the scapegoat mechanism is the foundation of every epistemic world – like Cain killing his brother Abel, or Romulus his brother Remus. Only the killing of a single victim can resolve the mimetic conflict.

This in turn accounts for two defining features of all religions: prohibitions and ritual sacrifice. Mimesis is a universal and constant problem, so after the lynching of the original victim brings peace to the group, rivalries inevitably re-emerge, whether for reasons internal to the community or because of environmental factors like floods, plagues, or famines. When mimetic violence threatens to erupt, the community remembers that a saviour previously ended a time of chaos. The sacrificial ritual is performed as a re-enactment of the original collective murder, an attempt to produce the same peace-giving effect by killing a substitute victim, whether human or animal. The ritualised repetition of the original killing recalls a moment of maximum violence, now performed by a designated priest in front of the whole community as a sacred act. The sacrificial victim takes the position of the original scapegoat: in many societies, the victim is therefore venerated, worshipped, and allowed to rule the community before being put to death. 

This structure underlies all sacrificial rituals, according to Girard and, just as surprisingly, it works. Order is renewed by ritual sacrifice. The only misunderstanding is the belief in the divine power of the god whose death is being recalled. Ritual sacrifices work via the mechanism by which mob violence is mimetically quelled through the agreement that the disorder was caused and resolved by the victim. Mimesis, not magic, remains the active agent.

Alongside sacrificial re-enactment, the other strategy for maintaining peace is the religious prohibition of mimesis. All prohibitions, Girard claims, ultimately concern the limitation or economising of desire. For instance, complex marriage rules exist to prevent fighting over desirable sexual partners. Incest is forbidden because it would lead to a battle between brothers. And transgression brings real violence in its wake. Real crises, such as natural disasters or plague epidemics, are attributed to transgressions against prohibitions, sometimes by the gods themselves. We can understand the link between archaic prohibitions and their function by centring mimesis: first at the level of sacred objects, such as mirrors, which can lead to mimetic rivalry; then at the level of behaviours like mimicry and appropriation; then at the level of individuals perceived to have contagious ‘symptoms’: twins, adolescents transitioning to adulthood, the sick, and so on. 

Girard’s claim is that the mythology of every religion retrospectively describes a mimetic crisis and its resolution through the killing of a victim who was supposed to have been responsible for the crisis. Myths provide reasons for the prohibitions that, at a structural level, aim to prevent the mimetic crisis from recurring. Hence, for example, Oedipus should be understood as a true story but not one about a son who slept with his mother and thus gave his name to some universal desire for incest. It is a story of a king who lived during a time of plague, engaged in a mimetic rivalry with Creon and Tiresias, and was accused of patricide and incest as his people collectively named him as the cause of the plague and expelled him from Thebes. 

For Girard, the Judeo-Christian bible marks a decisive break with the otherwise universal phenomenon of prohibition, scapegoating, and sacrificial repetition. The bible begins with incidents of rivalry and sacrifice, including child sacrifice, but the stories of Job, Joseph, and the Christian gospels are read as desacralized anthropological commentaries on mob violence and mimetic desire. Read this way, they invert the pattern of all prior religions. The crucifixion reveals that the victim of collective lynching is always innocent and that sacrificial killings are unjustified. Justice is on the side of those who resist mimetic scapegoating, standing up for the victim even if the cost is to make themselves a victim of the mob. 

Once the mechanism is exposed, it loses its mystically power. Girard claims that Christianity is important as it offered a way out of the cycle of sacrificial killing. But Christians rarely seem to recognise this message. They too have shares in the bloody history of religious scapegoating, most obviously demonstrated in antisemitic pogroms and the Holocaust. Antisemitism, for Girard, rests on a divine interpretation of the gospel. If it is taken as God’s will, then someone must be punished for rejecting the Messiah, and the Jews are the obvious targets. In contrast to a divine reading, Girard calls for a desacralized anthropological account that requires no belief in a transcendent deity, but instead a structural analysis of the gospels. But easily how this secularised humanist reading sits alongside his own profession of personal faith is a difficult question to answer. 

Modernity and critique

Capitalism and modernity, which might be the same thing in this theoretical matrix, are characterised by deliberate transgressions against prohibitions on mimetic desire. Capitalist expansion can be understood as a spreading mimetic conflict that found stability only by constantly moving ‘outside’ itself, through colonial violence and appropriation under the guise of ‘growth’. Philosophically, modernity engendered an attitude that views religion primarily as a source of unjustified prohibitions to be overturned in the name of liberation, rationality, science, and progress. In both dimensions the power of prohibitions over desire has been eroded.

It is only from a secular modern perspective that we can discern the underlying anthropological mechanisms that Girard identifies. But understanding the scapegoat and mimesis does not necessarily mean we are free of their causes or effects. Girard’s critique of modernity is, at its most elementary, a call to rethink the much more complex relationship between social order, desire, and prohibition. The point is not to go back to re-establish cultural prohibitions or to reinvent God, as reactionaries such as Schmitt, Heidegger, and a litany of contemporary conservative populists demand. We cannot re-mystify what has been exposed and desacralized, nor should we try. Girard is not a conservative in any reactionary sense. Yet, although he is firmly on the side of the victim and deplores scapegoating of the innocent, Girard is not quite a ‘progressive’ either. 

For Girard, it is a mistake to think that it is an unqualified good if mimetic desire is no longer regulated by prohibition. Today, desires proliferate. They are the source of new profits and power, by social media firms, advertisers promising images of sex and success, populist politicians, competing militaries, TikTok influencers, and so on. Tearing down old prohibitions on behaviour liberates desire, but abolishing an inert rule inherited from a discredited religion is not a straightforward victory. It is not that desire is bad, or good; like the gods, desire always has two faces, a duality of effect. While it is true that it makes new desires possible and allows them to be realised by more people, at the same time, the very process by which this occurs also unleashes more mimesis and therefore more rivalries – only today, we call this rivalry ‘competition’. 

When the obstacle to a desire as encoded in an old, irrational religious rule is abolished, it is replaced by a multiplicity of new obstacles: those models of desire who are always already our inspiration and our mimetic rivals. Compared to old fixed prohibitions, mimetic rivals are much more mobile, cunning, and capable obstacles to us getting what we want. The reason is obvious: they want it too and will work against us to have it. Frustrated desires proliferate thanks to the same processes that engendered those desires, and in response to this generalised conflict that is usually called ‘the market’, we inevitably generate new scapegoats. After all, everyone needs someone to blame. 

Modern scapegoats, like the old gods, remain ambivalent characters. We attribute to them responsibility for events that are out of their control, even if we know they are artificially, if not arbitrarily, selected for their roles. This seems to confirm that collective culture is only possible through the symbolic isolation of symbolic figures upon which we perform an inversion of responsibility. The active agent (society, a virus, the climate) finds its surrogate in a figure that is an effectively passive subject (the individual who is praised or blamed). They are viewed as both wretched and somehow terribly powerful. People from outside the community find themselves blamed for problems that they had no hand in creating and are persecuted for it. Wherever evil is proclaimed, a victim is being selected. 

At the other extreme, our leaders inherit the role of the sacrificial substitute. If Girard has a political theology, it is that every king is a substitute for a murdered god, and every god was originally a murdered king. The legal system prohibits rivalrous violence and seeks to channel and regulate mimetic desire in the capitalist economy. Political leaders, celebrities, CEOs, and criminals – or all three embodied in the same figure, a Berlusconi, Blair, or Trump – capture our attention as we shower them with praise and blame, attributing to them powers that they do not possess but which they will happily pretend to hold. The modern constitutional legal system immunises the king and his substitutes, preserving them from ritual sacrifice (though we always wish to see the defeated candidate leave office). Despite this, constitutional democracy has been good at containing violence, at least internally. Yet the nature of the mimetic mechanism means that it can always spiral out of hand at an exponential rate, while those outside the imagined community of the nation state remain readily available for scapegoating. 

These general observations lend themselves to a myriad of possible critical avenues of legal thinking. Yet Girard is not an easy reference point, and relatively little critical legal work has taken its cue from his work. Perhaps this is because the ambivalent figure of the scapegoat can be related to Girard himself. His work can be condemned as Eurocentric epistemological imperialism and as a profoundly universal humanism; as disguised Catholic apologia and as a heretical desacralisation of all religions. It is absurdly reductive yet complex in its implications. It defends all victims yet denounces all mass movements as inherently dangerous mimesis. It has inspired a billionaire investor to create a technology that it would deplore. It sits uneasily within the academic elite and yet somehow outside it, offering ideas that are equally problematic for Marxists, liberals, conservatives, theologians, psychoanalysts, historians, lawyers, and poststructuralists. But it is certainly something original and singular, and that is worth thinking about. 

I have tried to present Girard’s theory at its highest yet concisely. I do not expect it to convince anyone; I remain ambivalent myself. Yet, if one is prepared to take this strange mixture of hermeneutics, exegesis, and conjecture seriously, it opens new perspectives on the hidden foundations of the world. Or, perhaps, just a fleeting desire to be like René. 

1 Comment

  1. Great summary

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