Reciprocity and Rivalry: A Critical Introduction to Mimetic Scapegoat Theory

Abstract

This paper presents a critical overview of René Girard’s mimetic theory, identifies several concerns about the adequacy of mimetic theory’s account of human agency and interdependence, and suggests ways this account might be clarified and enhanced. We suggest that mimetic theory tends to reify or hypostatize the core reality of mimetic desire, which sometimes is spoken of as a kind of trans-individual entity that directs human action, no doubt because of Girard’s concern to avoid any taint of individualism or subjectivism. We argue, however, that hermeneutic and dialogical philosophies like those of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Mikhail Bakhtin explicate profound human relationality and interdependence in a way that obviates individualism without overriding or obscuring personal responsibility. The concern of many Girardian theorists that hermeneutic philosophy covers over or even rationalizes conflictual and violent human dynamics, we contend, is unfounded. However, we insist that most contemporary social theory, including hermeneutic thought, fails to do full justice to the challenges posed by envy, enmity, and scapegoating violence in human affairs and to the struggle for a good or decent life that mimetic theory richly portrays. Thus, we explore some of the possibilities for a fruitful cross-fertilization of mimetic theory and hermeneutic/dialogical viewpoints. Similarly, we argue that recent work on virtue ethics in theoretical psychology contains rich resources for elaborating what would be involved in a so-called “positive” or “creative” mimesis that moves beyond the destructive kinds of mimetic entanglement upon which Girardian thought has tended to concentrate. Finally, we suggest that any effort of this sort to clarify what Girard terms our “interdividual” human reality and to investigate positive mimesis would be greatly assisted by Eugene Webb’s delineation of a fundamental kind of “beneficient motivation” or positive “existential appetite,” a third species of human desire in addition to the two that Girard clearly identifies, namely finite needs and the kind of insatiable, artificial craving that the term mimetic desire usually designates.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Such critiques and efforts at reformulation include Bellah et al. (1985); Cushman (1990); Dunne (1996); Richardson et al. (1999); Richardson (2005); Sacks (2002); Sandel (1996); Sullivan (1986); Taylor (1985a, b, c, 1989), and others.

  2. 2.

    Redekop (2002) makes the helpful suggestion that creativity consists not in thoroughgoing originality but in “new combinations of what previously existed” (p. 64). But this just pushes a key part of the problem back a step. How do we elucidate the process by which models are combined, or on what basis do we weave them together into something of our own?

  3. 3.

    In this regard, it is interesting to note that the philosophers Williams (2002, p. 172ff.) and Guignon (2004, p. 152ff.) seek to thoroughly reinterpret “authenticity” as a “social virtue.” It is only a step in the direction of hermeneutic dialogue or Girardian interdividuality, but Williams begins by taking issue with Rousseau’s remarkable and influential contention that if he expresses what he feels at any moment he is assured of revealing his true self in a coherent and steady way and enabling others to recognize him as he truly is. (Social life becomes a kind of ongoing mutual “show and tell” from the heart.) Williams notes, however, that such feelings may be transient, unstable, trivial, or unworthy. Indeed, it is not enough to argue that a coherent identity or reasonable steadiness is achieved through an individual’s wholehearted identification with some core projects or ideals. What “steadies and stabilizes the inner life cannot itself be something within the inner life. . . . The steadiness of the inner life can be achieved only through our interactions with others within the social context in which we find ourselves” (Guignon 2004, pp. 152–153). We are expected to have some degree of consistency in our avowals and expressions over time; and, indeed, avowals would not count as beliefs and attitudes if they changed too often. Thus, we are “all together in the social activity of mutually stabilizing our declarations and moods and impulses” (Williams 2002, p. 193).

  4. 4.

    Without meaning to sound flip, we suggest that it is not an abstract entity called “Desire” that brings about these things. Rather, you and I do, albeit very much together, in close concert.

  5. 5.

    To put it another way, it steers a middle path beyond subjectivism and reifying desire.

  6. 6.

    Or pro- and anti-school prayer advocates, or pro-life and abortion rights groups.

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Correspondence to Frank C. Richardson.

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Richardson, F.C., Manglos, N.D. Reciprocity and Rivalry: A Critical Introduction to Mimetic Scapegoat Theory. Pastoral Psychol 62, 423–436 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11089-012-0472-x

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Keywords

  • Mimetic theory
  • René Girard
  • Hermeneutic philosophy
  • Human agency