Mimetic Euphemism and Mythology: Group Therapy, Scapegoating, and the Displacement of Disquiet
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Mimetic Euphemism and Mythology:
Group Therapy, Scapegoating, and the Displacement of Disquiet

Mimetic theory draws support from diverse disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. But arguably Girard would have even more influence if his theory had stronger life data, and one field well positioned to provide such input is psychology. Girard distinguished his thinking from Freud, while critiquing the psychoanalytic tradition more generally, in Book III of Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World1—a work taking the form of an extended dialogue with two psychiatrists. One of these, Jean-Michel Oughourlian, has begun to develop the Girard-inspired practice of "interdividual psychology."2 In Girard's own hands, albeit to a limited degree, mimetic theory has been applied to mental health issues.3 The purpose of this study is to interpret the data from 10 sessions of group therapy, which has proved suggestive for mimetic theory.

The role of scapegoating in group formation and cohesion was observed, in tandem with a misrecognition of this process by participants. Most suggestive, however, was the constant deployment of metaphorical illustrations as the group sought to process conflict, from which the authors draw possible theoretical conclusions. Namely, that what they observed and are calling "mimetic [End Page 37] euphemism" is a process whereby group disquiet is explored unawares through metaphorical examples of threat, danger, conflict, and dissolution, all of which serve to displace the group's disquiet and keep it from rising to consciousness. It is proposed that this observed process might suggest the natural emergence of mythology from the scapegoating process as a way of mapping the conflict onto an alternative narrative serving to shift the threat, and the solution, outside the group.

This theoretical possibility is the unexpected outcome of an investigation into group formation, conceived in the hope that key Girardian themes would reveal themselves. One of the authors, Bruce A. Stevens, is a clinical psychologist who regards group therapy as providing valuable "here and now" data for human interaction.4 In 2013, he ran two therapy groups with college freshmen. One provided the raw data for this study.5 While many characteristic Girardian themes might have been investigated, his main interest was in the scapegoating process. Scapegoating is relatively common in group therapy and this proved to be the case with one of the two groups showing this phenomenon. The new possibilities regarding metaphoric displacement that emerged might suggest a development in our understanding of the mythologizing process in Girardian terms.

THE DATA

A therapy group of Psychology 101 students ran (with ethics committee approval) for one hour weekly over ten weeks at the University of Canberra, from February 14 to April 18, 2013. Initially there were 12 members, but it soon settled down to a varying cohort of between seven and nine. Participating students were granted study credit toward their psychology degrees, but no other inducements were offered for their involvement. Almost all came for six sessions to receive maximum credit. A couple attended less frequently, while a few were present at nearly every session. Sessions were recorded in both video and audio formats with transcripts produced to aid analysis. Participants chose their own pseudonyms, which are used in this paper. Citations are referenced in shorthand form, referring to the session (S) number and the line numbers (L) as they appear in the transcript.

This group therapy experiment might be a first for Girardian studies, the authors being unaware of any similar undertaking. The leader of the group was Bruce Stevens, the first author, and the analysis was assisted by Scott Cowdell, a theologian who has written extensively on Girard and who pored over ten [End Page 38] hours of video footage along with the transcripts. Both were on the lookout for Girard-related themes, including mimetic processes involving triangular desire, mimetic contagion, undifferentiation and doubling, the group leader's role in providing structure or containment, the emergence of any "pecking order" to restrain the escalation of rivalry and undifferentiation, any selection and persecution of a scapegoat, and any appearance of "all against all." The leader acknowledges that he was not entirely able to escape the mimetic cauldron of...