Tuesday, January 17, 2012

René Girard - Violence and the Sacred

René Girard - Violence and the Sacred.
Translated by Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1977.
René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred, published in French in 1972 and English in 1977, reads like a combination of Durkheimian sociology combined with a sort of Freudian use of Mythology. Ideas and language of primitiveness and progress is still well at work here, as I had to keep reminding myself the book was published just before turns toward a sense of reflexivity on such matters took hold.
According to Girard, internal violence is endemic to societies, and “if left unappeased, violence will accumulate until it overflows its confines and floods the surrounding area” thus, “the role of sacrifice is to stem this rising tide of indiscriminate substitutions and redirect violence into ‘proper channels (Girard, 10).’ Girard does think there is a difference between the societies who practice human sacrifice and those that only use animals, but he thinks that the gap between such societies “should not prevent us from perceiving what they have in common (Girard, 10).” Sacrifice in both types of society is defined as “an instrument of prevention in the struggle against violence (Girard, 17).”
What separates “civilized” people from these “primitive” ones is a system of law. Girard writes of this, that
if we compare societies that adhere to a judicial system with societies that practise sacrificial rites, the difference between the two is such that we can indeed consider the absence or presence of these institutions as the basis for distinguishing primitive societies from ‘civilized’ ones. These are the institutions we must scrutinize in order to arrive, not at some sort of value judgment, but at an objective knowledge of the respective societies to which they belong (Girard, 19).
Religion, then, develops as a means for man to protect himself from his own violence. He writes,
Religion, in its broadest sense, then, must be another term for that obscurity that surrounds man’s efforts to defend himself by curative or preventative means against his own violence. It is that enigmatic quality that pervades the judicial system when that system replaces sacrifice. This obscurity coincides with the transcendental effectiveness of a violence that is holy, legal, and legitimate successfully opposed to a violence that is unjust, illegal, and illegitimate (Girard, 23).
Girard then explores these theses through a variety of literatures. The second chapter, “The Sacrificial Crisis” looks at tragedy, and how
the modern mind has difficulty conceiving of violence in terms of a loss of distinctions, or of a loss of distinctions in terms of violence. Tragedy can help to resolve this difficulty if we agree to view the plays from a radical perspective. Tragic drama addresses itself to a burning issue – in fact, to the burning issue. The issue is never directly alluded to in the plays, and for good reason, since it has to do with the dissolution by reciprocal violence of those very values and distinctions around which the conflict of the plays supposedly revolves (Girard, 56).
Chapter Three “Oedipus and the Surrogate Victim” turns to everyone’s favorite tragedy of this variety, the continuing importance of this story he explains this way:
It is generally assumed that collective violence – in particular, the pitting of all against one – is an aberration in the history of a society; a perversion more or less pathological in nature, whose study can hardly be expected to yield anything of sociological significance. Our rationalist bent (about which I will have more to say further on) leads to an innocence of outlook that refuses to concede to collective violence anything more than a limited and fleeting influence, a ‘cathartic’ action similar, in its most extreme forms, to the catharsis of the sacrificial ritual. However, the fact that the Oedipus myth has survived over several millennia and that modern culture continues to hold it dear would suggest that the effects of collective violence are greatly under-estimated (Girard, 81).
From reading Oedipus with Girard we learn that, “men cannot confront the naked truth of their own violence without the risk of abandoning themselves to it entirely. They have never had a very clear idea of this violence, and it is possible that the survival of all human societies of the past was dependent on this fundamental lack of understanding (Girard, 82).” In it we also learn about the “generating spark of religion itself and the "transcendental force that characterizes it” are produced by the “violent unanimity…
of social unity forged or reforged by the ‘expulsion’ of the surrogate victim” which forces us to see that, “then even more momentous matters are at issue. If this is indeed the case we will find ourselves dealing not only with myths but also with rituals and the whole question of religion (Girard, 87).
Chapter Four, “The Origins of Myth and Ritual” Girard starts to talk about how the “ritualistic mind” and “ritualistic imagination” work. He says that we are now dealing with “an animal pharmakos, a calf or cow that assumes, not some vague and ill-defined sins, but the very real (though often hidden) hostilities that all the members of the community feel for one another” and that in this chapter, “Our portrayal of sacrifice as an imitation and reenactment of spontaneous collective violence in no way conflicts with the definition I proposed in Chapter 1 (Girard, 99).” He says that,
To understand how and why sacrifice functions as it does, we should consider the proposition that the ritual victim is never substituted for some particular member of the community or even for the community as a whole: it is always substituted for the surrogate victim. As this victim itself serves as a substitute for all the members of the community, the sacrificial substitution does indeed play the role that we have attributed to it, protecting all the members of the community from their respective violence 0 but always through the intermediary of the surrogate victim. Girard, 101-2
With this theory of the “surrogate victim” Girard is “evolving a theory of myth and ritual – in short of religion as a whole (Girard, 103).” In this process of sacrificing the “surrogate victim” the “ritualistic mind strives to reproduce the operation of violent unanimity without understanding its mimetic nature (Girard, 104)” and “The ritualistic imagination strives to repeat the original generative process. (Girard, 114).” From this analysis, Girard concludes that men are “doomed to ritual, arguing that this is because, “given the fundamental importance to mankind of the transformation of bad violence into good an the equally fundamental inability of men to solve the mystery of this transformation” arguing that it is not surprising that “the resulting rites assume forms that are both highly analogous and highly diverse (Girard, 115) and that if his hypothesis is correct, “no single religious form will suffice to illuminate the whole picture, but a multiplicity of examples will cast light on its various aspects until everything gradually becomes clear and certainly prevails (Girard, 104).” This leads us to another well-loved-by-theory myth, Dionysus.
Chapter Five, simply titled “Dionysus” gives Girard the chance to tell us that he has “no doubt” that “these [Bacchanalian] festivities commemorate a sacrificial crisis (Girard, 119).” He says, that, “The Bacchae takes as its subject a festival that goes wrong. And we will hardly be surprised at this unpleasant turn of events when we consider that this bacchanal is none other than the original bacchanal; that is, the sacrificial crisis. The tragedy seems to offer strong evidence in support of my theory of the meaning of festivals (Girard, 127).” Thus, he concludes,
Religion, then, is far from ‘useless.’ It humanizes violence; it protects man from his own violence by taking it out of his hands, transforming it into a transcendent and ever-present danger to be kept in check by the appropriate rites appropriately observed and by a modest and prudent demeanor. Religious misinterpretation is a truly constructive force, for it purges man of the suspicions that would poison his existence if he were to remain conscious of the crisis as it actually took place (Girard, 134-5).
So, from these myths, we learn that religion “humanizes violence” and protects him from his own through rituals (primitively, sacrificial, civilized, legally), as stated earlier.
In Chapter Six, “From Mimetic Desire to the Monstrous Double” Girard says that perhaps nothing “could be more banal that the role of violence in awakening desire (Girard, 144)” and that the Freudian death drive “is no more than a last surrender to mythological thinking, a final manifestation of that ancient belief that human violence can be attributed to some outside influence – to gods, to Fate, to some force men can hardly be expected to control” and that “it is a mode of thought that refuses to confront human conflicts squarely. It is an act of evasion, an attempt to ‘pass the buck’ and find an alternate sacrificial solution in a situation which makes such a solution increasingly difficult (Girard, 145).” Since, he argues, “desire itself is essentially mimetic, directed toward an object desired by the model (Girard, 146)” then “Mimetic desire is simply a term more comprehensive than violence for religious pollution. As the catalyst for the sacrificial crisis, it would eventually destroy the entire community if the surrogate victim were not at hand to halt the process and the ritualized mimesis were not at hand to keep the conflictual mimesis from beginning afresh (Girard, 148).”
He explains how “mimetic desire” names “religious pollution” more comprehensively than “violence” by telling the reader that
In the collective experience of the monstrous double the differences are not eliminated, but muddied and confused. All the doubles are interchangeable, although their basic similarity is never formally acknowledged. They thus occupy the equivocal middle ground between difference and unity that is indispensable to the process of sacrificial substitution – to the polarization of violence onto a single victim who substitutes for all the others (Girard, 161).
He describes this muddling of differences in terms of masking, wherein “They [masks] are beyond differences; they do not merely defy differences or efface them, but they incorporate and rearrange them in original fashion. In short, they are another aspect of the monstrous double (Girard, 167).” He explains this further in Chapter Seven on “Freud and the Oedipus Complex” saying that, “Mimetism is a source of continual conflict. By making one man’s desire into a replica of another man’s desire, it invariably leads to rivalry; and rivalry in turn transforms desire into violence (Girard, 169).”
Though Girard does take issue with some of Freud’s conclusions, in Chapter Eight on “Totem & Taboo and the Incest Prohibition,” he tell us that “Freud made an important discovery. He was the first to maintain that all ritual practices, all mythical implications, have their origins in an actual murder. Freud was unable to exploit the boundless implications of this proposition; in fact, he seemed unaware of the truly vertiginous scope of this idea (Girard, 201).” For Girard, the primal horde is the original sacrificial crisis. Thus, taboos are restrictions which “serve a basic. They maintain a sort of sanctuary at the heart of the community, an area where that minimum of nonviolence essential to the survival of the children and the community’s cultural heritage – essential, in short, to everything that sustains man’s humanity – is jealousy preserved (Girard, 221).”
In Chapter Nine, “Lévi-Strauss, Structuralism and Marriage Laws,” Girard turns to issues of language and insists that “There is no thought that is not symbolic in the structuralist sense of the word (Girard, 229)” and that,
To refer to the origin of symbolic thought is to speak as well of the origin of language. If the mechanism of the surrogate victim gives birth to language and imposes itself as the first object of language, it is easy to see why language should first state the conjunction of best and worst, the divine epiphany, the rite that commemorates this epiphany with the myth that recalls it (Girard, 235-6).
Saying further of how this relates to structuralism that, “the sacred concerns itself above all with the destruction of differences, and this nondifference cannot appear as such in the structure (Girard, 241).” He explains in depth that:
As long as meaning is healthy, the sacred is absent. It remains outside the structure, untouched by structural ethnology, banished by structuralism. … Structuralism constitutes a negative but indispensible stage in the discovery of the sacred, for it does away with the confusion that has previously prevailed. Thanks to structuralism, it is possible to distinguish the finite quality of sense – of structure – from the infinite quality of the sacred, that inexhaustible reservoir form which all differences flow and into which they all converge.
We now know that the sacred reigns supreme wherever a cultural order has not yet taken hold, has only begun to take hold, or has lost its hold entirely. The sacred also reigns over structure: engenders, organizes, observes, and perpetuates it or, on the contrary, mishandles, dissolves, transforms, and on a whim destroys it. But the sacred is not actually present in structure in the sense that it is present everywhere else (Girard, 242).
Thus, where a “cultural order” has not yet been put in place, the sacred is present. Within such a situation “Ritual violence is intended to reproduce an original act of violence. There is nothing mythic about this original violence, but its ritual imitation necessarily includes mythic elements (Girard, 249).”
From this investigation of the relationship between the sacred and structure, in penultimate Chapter Ten, “The Gods, the Dead, the Sacred, and Sacrificial Substitution,” Girard returns to sacrifice itself, arguing that his “theory of a violence that is sometimes reciprocal, sometimes unanimous and generative, is the first truly to take into account the double nature of all primitive divinities, the blending of beneficent and maleficent that characterizes all mythical figures who involve themselves in mortal affairs (Girard, 251).” He has accomplished this unprecedentedly complete study by first “tracing the course of violence through those beings who appeared to incarnate it: mythic heroes, sacred kings, gods, and deified ancestors” in such a way that “those various incarnations enrich our understanding of the many roles of violence and clarify the function of the surrogate victim and the preeminent importance of violent unanimity (Girard, 256-7).” But, he argues, “these incarnations are invariably illusory in one sense” because “Violence belongs to all men, and thus to none in particular (Girard, 257).” By which he means that,
all the actors have the same role, with the exception of the surrogate victim. But anybody can play the part of surrogate victim. It is futile to look for the secret of the redemptive process in distinctions between the surrogate victim and the other members of the community. The crucial fact is that the choice of the victim is arbitrary. The religious interpretations we have considered so far are at fault precisely because they attribute the beneficial results of the sacrifice to the superhuman nature of the victim or the other participants, insofar as any of these appear to incarnate the supreme violence (Girard, 257).
The way that he thus explains the sacred in light of this kind of relationship of the community to its members, is especially interesting in light of Derrida’s idea of auto-immunity, I think. Girard claims,
Sacrifice too can defined solely in terms of the sacred, without reference to any particular divinity; that is, it can be defined in terms of maleficent violence polarized by the victim and metamorphosed by his death (or expulsion from the community, which amounts to the same thing) into beneficent violence. Although the sacred is ‘bad’ when it is inside the community, it is ‘good’ when it returns to the exterior. The language of pure sacredness retains whatever is most fundamental to myth and religion; it detaches violence from man to make it a separate, impersonal entity, a sort of fluid substance that flows everywhere and impregnates on contact. The concept of contagion is obviously a by-product of this way of envisaging the sacred. Girard, 258
Contagion, here already, is an important way of thinking through the role of ritual and religion in society. Since “the birth of the community is first and foremost an act of separation … metaphors of severance permeate the generative act. … whether we refer to catharsis or purification, purgation or exorcism, it is actually the idea of evacuation and separation that is foremost (Girard, 267).” With an understanding of how these acts of separation are generative in society, we see that “all sacrificial rites are based on two substitutions. The first is provided by generative violence, which substitutes a single victim for all the members of the community. The second, the only strictly ritualistic substitution, is that of a victim for the surrogate victim” since “as we know, it is essential that the victim be drawn from outside the community” then “ritual sacrifice is defined as an inexact imitation of the generative act (Girard, 269).” Thus, he concludes,
Ritual requires the sacrifice of a victim as similar as possible to the ‘monstrous double.’ The marginal categories form which these victims are generally drawn barely fulfill this requirement, but they provide the least unsatisfactory compromise. Situated as they are between the inside and the outside, they can perhaps be said to belong to both the interior and the exterior of the community (Girard, 272).
In this conclusion, Girard tells us that “We encounter once again a remarkable fact: religious misapprehension figures largely in the very real protection offered society by ritual sacrifice, and indeed by religion in general (Girard, 273).” This “fact” of “religious misapprehension’s role in religion (which, to remind you, is how people protect themselves from their own violence) leads us to the Girard’s final chapter on “The Unity of All Rites.”
Chapter Eleven, reminds us that “the surrogate victim is the basis for all religious systems (Girard, 280)” and uses this idea to look at rites of passage, which he says, “have to do with the acquisition of a new status (Girard, 281).” He argues that,
The rite of passage is always an awesome experience, because it is impossible to predict at the outset what its course will be. Although the initiate knows what he is losing, he has no idea what he will be taking on. Violence will determine the final result of this monstrous mixture of differences, and the less one has to do with that, the better. In short, structure and change don’t go together. And even when change looks predictable to us, religious man fears that it might become uncontrollable. The idea of a nature subservient to social laws, or even to natural laws, is utterly foreign to primitive religion (Girard, 282).
Though, throughout the book, Girard has argued this way, and, thus, tried to demonstrate that generative violence penetrates all forms of mythology and ritual” he now says that we are “moving toward an expanded concept of sacrifice in which the sacrificial act in the narrow sense plays only a minor part (Girard, 297).”
With the minimization of the act, and the continuing importance of the concept, he defends the idea that “various ‘scapegoat’ phenomena are not the reflection of some ill-articulated guilt complex, but rather the very basis of cultural unification, the source of all rituals and religion (Girard, 302).” Thus, we see that,
All religious rituals spring form the surrogate victim, and all the great institutions of mankind, both secular and religious spring from ritual. Such is the case, as we have seen, with political power, legal institutions, medicine, the theater, philosophy and anthropology itself. It could hardly be otherwise, for the working basis of human thought, the process of ‘symbolization,’ is rooted in the surrogate victim. Even if no example taken alone offers conclusive proof of my theory, their cumulative effect is overwhelming; all the more so because they coincide with archetypal myths that tell, in apparently ‘naïve’ fashion, how all man’s religious, familial, economic, and social institutions grew out of the body of an original victim. The surrogate victim, as founder of the rite, appears as the ideal educator of humanity, in the etymological sense of e-ducatio, a leading out. The rite gradually leads men away from the sacred; it permits them to escape their own violence, removes them from violence, and bestows them all the institutions and beliefs that define their humanity (Girard, 306).
Thus, gesturing at Durkheim directly now, he says that “To carry Durkheim’s insight to its conclusion… religion is simply another term for the surrogate victim, who reconciles mimetic oppositions and assigns a sacrificial goal to the mimetic impulse (Girard, 307).” With this, he moves to his conclusion, in which he argues recites his main arguments, insisting still that “even if innumerable intermediary stages exist between the spontaneous outbursts of violence and its religious imitations, even if it is only these imitations that come to our notice, I want to stress that these imitations had their origin in a real event (Girard, 309).” And, once more claiming scientificity for his hypothesis and giving us a definition of “the religious,” stating that
whether my theory proves to be true or false, it can, I believe, lay claim to being ‘scientific,’ if only because it allows for rigorous definition of such terms as divinity, ritual, rite, and religion. Any phenomenon associated with the acts of remembering, commemorating, and perpetuating a unanimity that springs from the murder of a surrogate victim can be termed ‘religious’ (Girard, 315).
He concludes, in the first person, telling his reader that,
we have managed to extricate ourselves from the sacred somewhat more successfully than other societies have done, to the point of losing all memory of the generative violence; but we are now about to rediscover it. The essential violence returns to us in a spectacular manner – not only in the form of a violent history but also in the form of subversive knowledge. This crisis invites us, for the very first time, to violate the taboo that neither Herclitus nor Euripedes could ever quite manage to violate, and to expose to the light of reason the role played by violence in human society (Girard, 318).
Ultimately what I would say about this book is that it reads as a really interesting cross-roads for a lot of the other texts we’ve read, especially, as I stated at the outset, Freud and Durkheim. Many of our key themes appear (scientific method, literature, psychoanalysis, ritual, the sacred, etc.) and receive clear and interesting treatments. That being said, in reading this book it is hard not to be continually surprised at the ease with which Girard feels entitled to his language and his conclusions and to want to thusly, read him through those far more critical of such subjects, like Derrida. His position in French sociological and literary scholarship on religion places him between such periods and approaches, and for that, I guess, is perhaps still worth reading?

René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, Notes


  1. Thank you so much for this post. It helped me a lot in a four credit course I'm taking for the next three weeks. Lots to cover in a little bit of time, so every little bit of simplification helps!

  2. One wonders if, in decrying Girard as "entitled", you have really digested his thinking on sacrificial substitution.