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René Girard's Mimetic Theory

Wolfgang Palaver

Publication Year: 2013

A systematic introduction into the mimetic theory of the French-American literary theorist and philosophical anthropologist René Girard, this essential text explains its three main pillars (mimetic desire, the scapegoat mechanism, and the Biblical “difference”) with the help of examples from literature and philosophy. This book also offers an overview of René Girard’s life and work, showing how much mimetic theory results from existential and spiritual insights into one’s own mimetic entanglements. Furthermore it examines the broader implications of Girard’s theories, from the mimetic aspect of sovereignty and wars to the relationship between the scapegoat mechanism and the question of capital punishment. Mimetic theory is placed within the context of current cultural and political debates like the relationship between religion and modernity, terrorism, the death penalty, and gender issues. Drawing textual examples from European literature (Cervantes, Shakespeare, Goethe, Kleist, Stendhal, Storm, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Proust) and philosophy (Plato, Camus, Sartre, Lévi-Strauss, Derrida, Vattimo), Palaver uses mimetic theory to explore the themes they present. A highly accessible book, this text is complemented by bibliographical references to Girard’s widespread work and secondary literature on mimetic theory and its applications, comprising a valuable bibliographical archive that provides the reader with an overview of the development and discussion of mimetic theory until the present day.

Published by: Michigan State University Press

Series: Studies in Violence, Mimesis and Culture

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v

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pp. vii-xi

According to Roberto Calasso, René Girard is one of the “last surviving hedgehogs.”1 With this thesis, the Italian philosopher makes use of Isaiah Berlin’s interpretation of Archilochus’s dictum in order to describe the founder of the mimetic theory more closely. Berlin diff erentiates “hedgehogs” such as Plato, Dante, Hegel, Dostoyevsky, or Proust from “foxes” such as Aristotle, Shakespeare, or Goethe. While the former authors...

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Preface to the English Edition

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pp. xiii-xv

Since this book was first published in 2003, the worldwide acceptance of Girard’s mimetic theory has expanded significantly. What was once an insiders’ tip among cultural theorists and scholars of literature and religion now finds itself increasingly in the focus of academic attention. This can be seen most clearly in the numerous honorary doctorates Girard has received in past years, and above all in his induction into the Académie française in 2005.1 The awarding of the Dr. Leopold Lucas Prize by the Eberhard...

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1. Life and Work of René Girard

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pp. 1-14

René Girard refers time and again in his analysis of literature to the correspondence between the lives of authors and their work. From the perspective of the mimetic theory, the existential connections between biography and work are not to be overlooked. In his first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, Girard bases his central thesis on the observation that Cervantes, Flaubert, Stendhal, Proust, and Dostoyevsky arrived at their insights into human nature by going through a personal...

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2. Religion and Modernity

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pp. 15-31

The mimetic theory is first and foremost a theory of religion. It describes the “religious” dimension of interpersonal relations—the idolatry of models or sexual partners—just as it explains the origins of archaic religions and the qualitative difference between these and the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the following chapters, these three areas will serve as the basis for extensive discussion of the mimetic theory, the scope of which finds itself between the conflicting poles of religion and modernity. ...

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3. Mimetic Desire

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pp. 33-134

The increasing relevance of the mimetic theory is based not only on the light it sheds on religion, but also on its ability to explicate violent conflict in human society. In essence, it is a “theory of conflict,” one that both elucidates the causes of interpersonal clashes and also off ers solutions to them.1 In the German-speaking world, the mimetic theory has long been excluded from theoretic discussion. In other countries, Girard’s works were quickly...

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4. The Scapegoat Mechanism as Origin of Culture

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pp. 135-193

Girard’s work on mimetic desire leads to the second large step of his theory in the direction of an all-encompassing theory of culture. The core of this second part is formed by his thesis of the scapegoat mechanism, which posits that human culture emanated from a founding murder. Girard claims that the first forms of human civilization were engendered by the collective deterrence of violence in archaic situations of crisis. ...

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5. Biblical Revelation and Christianity

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pp. 195-273

The third stage of the mimetic theory is formed by Girard’s analysis of the writings of biblical revelation.1 Using the same interpretive lens he used to analyze myths, Girard encountered texts in his examination of the Bible that showed a radical diff erence from the mythical perspective. These texts no longer took the perspective of the lynch mob, as was the case with myth, but that of scapegoats victimized by mob persecution. ...

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6. Political Implications of the Mimetic Theory

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pp. 275-295

As a theory of culture [tr. Kulturtheorie], the mimetic theory explains not only the genesis of archaic religions and the foundation of human civilization, but also the formation of major political institutions, which in Girard’s eyes can be traced back to the scapegoat mechanism. In the following chapter, we will pursue the violent origins of political power, legal order, and war through analyses of sacred kingship, capital punishment, ...

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7. Mimetic Theory and Gender

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pp. 297-307

Girard’s analytical search for the victims of primitive social and political persecution shows similarities to feminist stances that take the victim status of women as a starting point for their critique of patriarchal society.1 His method of textual interpretation, like the feminist method, can be characterized by a “hermeneutics of suspicion.”2 Such parallels, however, should not cause one to understand the mimetic theory as any kind of feminist stance. Many feminists themselves accuse...


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pp. 309-312


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pp. 313-365


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pp. 367-395

Index of Terms

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pp. 397-398

Index of Names

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pp. 399-403

E-ISBN-13: 9781609173654
E-ISBN-10: 1609173651
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611860771
Print-ISBN-10: 1611860776

Page Count: 420
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Studies in Violence, Mimesis and Culture