Friday, June 22, 2007

Death & Politics

by Joseph Bottum

[snip] These topics of violence and death in the Bible play a major role in the writings of René Girard, and it is hardly possible to consider questions of death and the origin of culture without mentioning Girard’s fascinating work on the ancient mythology of sacrifice and scapegoats.

In a biographical interview he gave in 1995, Girard declared that all the themes he has developed over the last four decades were present in his mind even in the late 1950s as a “dense intuition,” a “block” to be penetrated little by little. His publications began to appear in the early 1960s with widely acclaimed expositions of the way triangular relations form among characters in novels, particularly Dostoevsky’s. He then moved to anthropology, holding that ancient cultures are based on sacrificial violence against a scapegoat.

The connection came with his increasing study of psychology and his argument that desire is “mimetic”—that we learn what it is we want by watching what others want. The simplest examples involve the innumerable ancient stories, from Egypt down to Rome, that speak of siblings, often twins, one of whom is destroyed in the course of founding a new city. Girard insists we read these myths as recording genuine human murders: In the mad swirl of mimetic violence, each revenge in turn revenged, the nascent city threatens to devour itself. But with the choice of a scapegoat to sacrifice, the cycle can be broken with an unconscious agreement to aim all the culture’s vengeance at a single target.

Some of Girard’s followers seem to envision a precultural state of primal violence, opening Girard’s thought to the complaint that what little we know of ancient history offers no evidence that cities were actually born in riot and mayhem. To interpret sacrificial myths, however, we need not posit an original fury. We need notice only that every ancient culture manifests in its myths a deep terror of the mimetic escalation of violence. In response to this threatened violence of all against all, the old foundational myths pose the solution of another violence: the violence of all against one, the violence in which a victim is selected as the source of the cultural breakdown and sacrificed. The sacrificial victim, Girard writes, “unwittingly conjures up a baleful, infectious force that his own death—or triumph—transforms into a guarantee of order and tranquility.”

Girard’s final turn, to explicit Christian theology, allowed him to unveil the solution: At the center of his thought lies the Cross, the Sacrifice that breaks the cycle of sacrifice, violence, and mimetic murder. For Girard, the problem of forming a culture—of preventing and containing the spiraling disaster of internecine murder and cultural collapse—is like a quadratic equation with two solutions: the negative one of sacrificial mythology and the positive one of nonviolence, made visible by biblical revelation. Christ’s sacrifice breaks open the scapegoat mechanism for all to see the murder that lies at its root.

Girard is surely right that modern political theory has systematically underestimated the social power of revenge: At the root of ancient culture, he notes, there was a burial society—although it usually had to commit murder in order to get the body to bury. Along the way, Girard grants real insight into both how the ancients used sacrifice and why Counter-Enlightenment thinkers embrace death as they strain for some new foundation. Through the old cultural mechanism of murder, violence really can drive out violence—Satan can drive out Satan, to use Girard’s expression—by aiming the escalating aggression of a culture at a single enemy and victim, a scapegoat for all that ails it.

The trouble is that Girard seems to lack much political theory—or, at least, much political theory short of Isaiah’s. “It shall come to pass in the last days” that “all nations shall flow unto” the holy city, but eschatology is a bad guide to ordinary politics. Indeed, in Girard’s reading of history, the Judeo-Christian revelation has increased or even created our modern political problems, for the scapegoat myth—the negative solution to the problem of culture—ceases to work particularly well once we understand how it works.

If the ancient mechanism has begun to fail, as Girard insists, replaced by a new mechanism that will work only in the End Time, then what help is there for us now? Girardianism pushes us to conclude that modern culture, in its essence, has become irretrievably thin and self-contradictory, while the modern state has grown fundamentally ungovernable. Surely the scapegoat mechanism proves too much: With Girard’s psychological explanation of mimetic rivalry for the success of death at forming community, we are left with murder and apocalyptic change as our only alternatives—the quadratic equation with only two solutions.

A more ordinary use of death seems necessary to get us by, enriching everyday life with temporal extension. We need, I suggest, a new theory of the cultural power of grief for the between-time in which we live. We need an intermediate—and properly political—understanding of the debt the living owe the dead.

Read the article/essay here.


Athos said...

Bottum pulls together an enormous number of citations in this wonderful essay. It is well worth reading in full. Take for instance:

...those graveless streets in San Francisco are a problem—a ragged edge that scrapes at the bonds of the social order. If the deepest roots of a culture are in its funerals and memorials, and if political society derives from the fact that people die, then we have a badly injured culture and a severely weakened politics.

Did you know that San Francisco long ago outlawed cemeteries?

Make your own connections.

David Nybakke said...

From above "...present in his mind even in the late 1950s as a “dense intuition,” a “block” to be penetrated little by little"

Reading Raymund Schwager's book Banished from Eden he talks of deep memory -- even at our very cells. In a somewhat off the wall comment, I heard Judy Collins talk about the song Amazing Grace and that it seems to have an inner memory about it. What is so important about memory?

When we tie these threads together we can begin to grapple with the idea of original sin. And I believe that this is an important aspect to our understanding of "the human."

David Nybakke said...

Dear Athos,

I like the excerpt however you leave me with no alternative but to read the article even though I didn't feel I had the time or energy... Doesn't this excerpt demonstrate once again that we need the entire Girardian theory and not just a choosing of your favorite bits 'n pieces of it? Girard has said that the only way to break free of bad mimesis (which leads to our violence and death) is through an external mediator that is not caught up in the human funny business - in other words it relies on conversion to the new person as St. Paul tells us about in his writing, Eph 4:22-24

You should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God's way in righteousness and holiness of truth."

Nothing short of that will do.

Thing is that everyone keeps pointing back to politics or economics as the way of freeing ourselves from our violence and I think that they miss what Girard is saying.