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  • Exploring Girard's Concerns about Human ProximityAttachment and Mimetic Theory in Conversation
  • Kathryn M. Frost (bio)

René Girard developed his theory largely as a response to what he saw as Freud's profound discovery, namely, a recognition that violence and conflict are at the root of all social relations. Girard, however, rejected Freud's psychology of the autonomous subject and his emphasis on the family of origin dynamics in favor of the intersubjective experience of mimetic desire occurring between persons anywhere at any age. With imitation of others as the guiding theoretical principle of mimetic theory, Girard placed psychological movement in the relational realm and developed a psychology of interdividuality that offers a convincing account of the contagious rivalry that either directly or tacitly flows through much human conflict. I argue that though mimetic theory is a powerful improvement toward understanding relational conflict, Girard's singular focus on mimesis and his neglect of the evolutionary propensity toward relational proximity-seeking that is furthered by attachment theory, leaves him unable to develop mimetic theory in the direction of non-sacrificial relating on either a personal or social level.

By making use of attachment theory and research, I explore the possibilities of a hybrid mimetic theory refined by a developmental component. Such a [End Page 47] model can account for the dynamic interplay of human relationality and offer explanations for how and why relations can move rapidly from the ordered to the chaotic and back again. With additional consideration given to the power of proximity-seeking in early childhood and beyond, this hybrid model attempts to account for the ways in which humans work toward maintaining connections with others, including the ways proximity-seeking can go awry and lead to conflict. Girard's mimesis, or that "not-always-conscious" imitation of the other, is the glue that draws humans toward one another in positive ways of loving and learning and is also at the root of our hatred and conflict. We desire and learn from one another, which inevitably causes some type of instability (e.g., jealousy, envy, misrecognition), which, itself, demands the need for order often achieved by scapegoating the other. Throughout the mimetic entanglement process, Girard never loses sight of the manner in which connection to the other is ever-present. Mimesis maintains this connection as humans move in and out of conflict and ultimately represents a parsimonious method for understanding the interdependent nature of human conflict. That said, as rich as mimetic theory is in describing human relationality and its impact on conflict, the theory remains quite undeveloped in terms of any gains that might be made in the face of our inevitable rivalries. I attempt here to offer some ways in which mimetic theory can benefit from being interpreted in light of the power of attachment theory, suggesting that mimesis be viewed from a developmental perspective.

To substantiate these claims, I begin by describing how Girard's model powerfully and uniquely interprets human relations and conflict and is grounded in an intersubjective understanding. Next, I explore the role of both imitation and proximity-seeking in early infant research and discuss their importance in social bonding and relational conflict. Third, I critique Girard's exclusion of family relations from his theory, a move that effectively wiped out any emphasis on early prerepresentational growth as powerfully impacting relational conflict throughout the life span. And last, if mimesis is, indeed, reconstructed as having a developmental component, then I submit that there are other meaningful methods of understanding conflict resolution beyond either the scapegoating mechanism described by Girard or the straightforward renunciation of violence he viewed as the only answer to our human tendency toward sacrifice. [End Page 48]


For social theorists interested in understanding human conflict from an interpersonal perspective, few theoretical models are grounded in the kind of deeply relational ontology of self, able to make sense of the intense rivalries inherent in conflict cycles.1 Girard's mimetic theory appears to be one model that rejects the exaggerated notion of autonomy found in many individualistic theories of self and personality. Even theories presented as relational often contain an underlying assumption that a bounded, contained self...


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