Michigan State University Press

Studies in Violence, Mimesis and Culture

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Studies in Violence, Mimesis and Culture

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The Ambivalence of Scarcity and Other Essays

First published in French in 1979, “The Ambivalence of Scarcity” was a groundbreaking work on mimetic theory. Now expanded upon with new, specially written, and never-before-published conference texts and essays, this revised edition explores René Girard’s philosophy in three sections: economy and economics, mimetic theory, and violence and politics in modern societies. The first section argues that though mimetic theory is in many ways critical of modern economic theory, this criticism can contribute to the enrichment of economic thinking. The second section explores the issues of nonviolence and misrecognition (méconnaissance), which have been at the center of many discussions of Girard’s work. The final section proposes mimetic analyses of the violence typical of modern societies, from high school bullying to genocide and terrorist attacks. Politics, Dumouchel argues, is a violent means of protecting us from our own violent tendencies, and it can at times become the source of the very savagery from which it seeks to protect us. The book’s conclusion analyzes the relationship between ethics and economics, opening new avenues of research and inviting further exploration. Dumouchel’s introduction reflects on the importance of René Girard’s work in relation to ongoing research, especially in social sciences and philosophy.

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Beneath the Veil of the Strange Verses

Reading Scandalous Texts

Jeremiah L. Alberg

Jeremiah Alberg’s fascinating book explores a phenomenon almost every news reader has experienced: the curious tendency to skim over dispatches from war zones, political battlefields, and economic centers, only to be drawn in by headlines announcing a late-breaking scandal. Rationally we would agree that the former are of more significance and importance, but they do not pique our curiosity in quite the same way. The affective reaction to scandal is one both of interest and of embarrassment or anger at the interest. The reader is at the same time attracted to and repulsed by it. Beneath the Veil of the Strange Verses describes the roots out of which this conflicted desire grows, and it explores how this desire mirrors the violence that undergirds the scandal itself. The book shows how readers seem to be confronted with a stark choice: either turn away from scandal completely or become enthralled and thus trapped by it. Using examples from philosophy, literature, and the Bible, Alberg leads the reader on a road out of this false dichotomy. By its nature, the author argues, scandal is the basis of our reading; it is the source of the obstacles that prevent us from understanding what we read, and of the bridges that lead to a deeper grasp of the truth.

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Can We Survive Our Origins?

Readings in René Girard's Theory of Violence and the Sacred

Are religions intrinsically violent (as is strenuously argued by the ‘new atheists’)? Or, as Girard argues, have they been functionally rational instruments developed to manage and cope with the intrinsically violent runaway dynamic that characterizes human social organization in all periods of human history? Is violence decreasing in this time of secular modernity post-Christendom (as argued by Steven Pinker and others)? Or are we, rather, at increased and even apocalyptic risk from our enhanced powers of action and our decreased socio-symbolic protections? Rene Girard’s mimetic theory has been slowly but progressively recognized as one of the most striking breakthrough contributions to twentieth-century critical thinking in fundamental anthropology: in particular for its power to model and explain violent sacralities, ancient and modern. The present volume sets this power of explanation in an evolutionary and Darwinian frame. It asks: How far do cultural mechanisms of controlling violence, which allowed humankind to cross the threshold of hominization—i.e., to survive and develop in its evolutionary emergence—still represent today a default setting that threatens to destroy us? Can we transcend them and escape their field of gravity? Should we look to—or should we look beyond—Darwinian survival? What—and where (if anywhere)—is salvation?

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Economy and the Future

A Crisis of Faith

A monster stalks the earth—a sluggish, craven, dumb beast that takes fright at the slightest noise and starts at the sight of its own shadow. This monster is the market. The shadow it fears is cast by a light that comes from the future: the Keynesian crisis of expectations. It is this same light that causes the world’s leaders to tremble before the beast. They tremble, Jean-Pierre Dupuy says, because they have lost faith in the future. What Dupuy calls Economy has degenerated today into a mad spectacle of unrestrained consumption and speculation. But in its positive form—a truly political economy in which politics, not economics, is predominant—Economy creates not only a sense of trust and confidence but also a belief in the open-endedness of the future without which capitalism cannot function. In this devastating and counterintuitive indictment of the hegemonic pretensions of neoclassical economic theory, Dupuy argues that the immutable and eternal decision of God has been replaced with the unpredictable and capricious judgment of the crowd. The future of mankind will therefore depend on whether it can see through the blindness of orthodox economic thinking.

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Flesh Becomes Word

A Lexicography of the Scapegoat or, the History of an Idea

David Dawson

Though its coinage can be traced back to a sixteenth-century translation of Leviticus, the term “scapegoat” has enjoyed a long and varied history of both scholarly and everyday uses. While WilliamTyndale employed it to describe one of two goats chosen by lot to escape the Day of Atonement sacrifices with its life, the expression was soon far more widely used to name victims of false accusation and unwarranted punishment. As such, the scapegoat figures prominently in contemporary theories of violence, from its elevation by Frazer to a ritual category in his ethnological opus The Golden Bough to its pivotal roles in projects as seemingly at odds as Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of Western metaphysics and René Girard’s theory of cultural origins. A copiously researched and groundbreaking investigation of the expression in such wide use today, Flesh Becomes Word follows the scapegoat from its origins in Mesopotamian ritual across centuries of typological reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ death, to its first informal uses in the pornographic and plague literature of the 1600s, and finally into the modern era, where the word takes recognizable shape in the context of the New English Quaker persecution and proto-feminist diatribe at the close of the seventeenth century. The historical circumstances of its lexical formation prove rich in implications for current theories of the scapegoat and the making of the modern world alike.

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A God Torn to Pieces

The Nietzsche Case

Giuseppe Fornari

Giuseppe Fornari’s groundbreaking inquiry shows that Friedrich Nietzsche’s neglected importance as a religious thinker and his “untimeliness” place him at the forefront of modern thought. Capable of exploiting his own failures as a cognitive tool to discover what other philosophers never wanted to see, Nietzsche ultimately drove himself to mental collapse. Fornari analyzes the tragic reports of Nietzsche’s madness and seeks out the cause of this self-destructive destiny, which, he argues, began earlier than his rivalry with the composer and polemicist Richard Wagner, dating back to the premature loss of Nietzsche’s father. Dramatic experience enabled Nietzsche to detect a more general tendency of European culture, leading to his archaeological and prophetic discovery of the death of God, which he understood as a primordial assassination from which all humankind took its origin. Fornari concludes that Nietzsche’s fatal rebellion against a Christian awareness, which he identified as the greatest threat to his plan, led him to become one and the same not only with Dionysus but also with the crucified Christ. His effort, Fornari argues, was a dramatic way to recognize the silent, inner meaning of Christ’s figure, and perhaps to be forgiven.

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The Head Beneath the Altar

Hindu Mythology and the Critique of Sacrifice

Brian Collins

In the beginning, says the ancient Hindu text the Rg Veda, was man. And from man’s sacrifice and dismemberment came the entire world, including the hierarchical ordering of human society. The Head Beneath the Altar is the first book to present a wide-ranging study of Hindu texts read through the lens of René Girard’s mimetic theory of the sacrificial origin of religion and culture. For those interested in Girard and comparative religion, the book also performs a careful reading of Girard’s work, drawing connections between his thought and the work of theorists like Georges Dumézil and Giorgio Agamben. Brian Collins examines the idea of sacrifice from the earliest recorded rituals through the flowering of classical mythology and the ancient Indian institutions of the duel, the oath, and the secret warrior society. He also uncovers implicit and explicit critiques in the tradition, confirming Girard’s intuition that Hinduism offers an alternative anti-sacrificial worldview to the one contained in the gospels.

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Intimate Domain

Desire, Trauma, and Mimetic Theory

For René Girard, human life revolves around mimetic desire, which regularly manifests itself in acquisitive rivalry when we find ourselves wanting an object because another wants it also. Noting that mimetic desire is driven by our sense of inadequecy or insufficency, Girard arrives at a profound insight: our desire is not fundamentally directed toward the other’s object but toward the other’s being. We perceive the other to possess a fullness of being we lack. Mimetic desire devolves into violence when our quest after the being of the other remains unfulfilled. So pervasive is mimetic desire that Girard describes it as an ontological illness. In Intimate Domain, Reineke argues that it is necessary to augment Girard’s mimetic theory if we are to give a full account of the sickness he describes. Attending to familial dynamics Girard has overlooked and reclaiming aspects of his early theorizing on sensory experience, Reineke utilizes psychoanalytic theory to place Girard’s mimetic theory on firmer ground. Drawing on three exemplary narratives—Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Sophocles’s Antigone, and Julia Kristeva’s The Old Man and the Wolves—the author explores familial relationships. Together, these narratives demonstrate that a corporeal hermeneutics founded in psychoanalytic theory can usefully augment Girard’s insights, thereby insuring that mimetic theory remains a definitive resource for all who seek to understand humanity’s ontological illness and identify a potential cure.

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Mimetic Politics

Dyadic Patterns in Global Politics

War, violence, and the disruption of social orders are critical areas of focus in mimetic theory, and a mimetic perspective applied to the study of politics illuminates social processes and phenomena over and beyond typical explanations offered by mainstream political science. Unlike traditional political science ontology, the mimetic perspective highlights neither individuals nor groups, but “doubles,” or “mimetic twins.” According to this perspective, in order to grasp the fundamental rationales of political processes, we need to concentrate on the distinctive propensity of either individuals or groups to engage in mimetic contests resulting from their unreflective disposition to imitate each other’s desire. This disposition has been strikingly described by the French-American anthropologist Rene Girard: “Once his basic needs are satisfied (indeed sometimes even before), man is subject to intense desires, though he may not know precisely for what.” Via mimetic theory, Farneti highlights phenomena that political scientists have consistently failed to notice, such as reciprocal imitation as the fundamental cause of human discord, the mechanisms of spontaneous polarization in human conflicts (i.e., the emergence of dyads or “doubles”), and the strange and ever-growing resemblance of the mimetic rivals, which is precisely what pushes them to annihilate each other.

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The One by Whom Scandal Comes

René Girard (Translated by M. B. DeBevoise)

“Why is there so much violence in our midst?” René Girard asks. “No question is more debated today. And none produces more disappointing answers.” In Girard’s mimetic theory it is the imitation of someone else’s desire that gives rise to conflict whenever the desired object cannot be shared. This mimetic rivalry, Girard argues, is responsible for the frequency and escalating intensity of human conflict. For Girard, human conflict comes not from the loss of reciprocity between humans but from the transition, imperceptible at first but then ever more rapid, from good to bad reciprocity. In this landmark text, Girard continues his study of violence in light of geopolitical competition, focusing on the roots and outcomes of violence across societies latent in the process of globalization. The volume concludes in a wide-ranging interview with the Sicilian cultural theorist Maria Stella Barberi, where Girard’s twenty-first century emphases on the continuity of all religions, global conflict, and the necessity of apocalyptic thinking emerge.

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