- A New Way to SufferGirard, Rancière, and Political Subjectification
The question of politics is underdeveloped in René Girard's mimetic theory. This can be fairly easily accounted for. First, mimesis is essentially an ethical mechanism. In Girard, it pertains both to a set of moral prescriptions and to an ethos, understood here as a way of being that exchanges harmful repetitions for favorable ones.1 Throughout his work, Girard advances an ethics of generosity that steers clear of reciprocity, which, in his framework, would lead to violence.2 Second, Girard concentrates on social structures and religious institutions that have been developed over the ages to deal with mimetic crises. These structures of containment protect communities from an all-consuming outbreak of violence by channeling the destructive impetus toward a scapegoat and subsequently bringing peace to the group. Third, in Girard there is no specific mode of mimesis that is characteristic of politics. There is one universal mechanism of how mimetic desire is produced and this procedure operates across all forms of human behavior. This means that, at a fundamental level, there is no specifically political form of mimesis that could [End Page 161] be elaborated. Even though Girard frequently provides a mimetic reading of various political events, his emphasis is on mimetic logic, rather than a politics of mimesis. Equally, political forms of individuation generated through mimesis are of little interest to Girard.
Some scholars have attempted to fill in this gap in Girard's theory. Notably, Nathan Colborne, Roberto Farneti, and Wolfgang Palaver have shed new light on political practice, political theory, and political conflict, respectively, by offering a mimetic perspective.3 At the same time, they open mimetic theory toward politics. This double opening—of politics to mimesis and mimesis to politics—is important because Girard's theory can yield valuable interpretations of contemporary political forms. Elsewhere, I argue that Girard's work can provide a productive conceptual framework for elucidating radical left-wing political projects—such as housing cooperatives, co-op farms, and autonomous zones—that are happening in activist milieus today.4 Mimetic theory is useful in this context because it allows us to interpret these projects in terms of the mimetic training its participants undertake in order to bring about social change. Members of such cooperatives surround themselves with models whose habits they wish to take up, and in this way they exchange their bad repetitions for good ones. They orient their mimesis in an endeavor both to become better versions of themselves and to spread their chosen mimetic model to others in a positive contagion. These projects constructively manage the imitative disposition of human beings by specifically directing their members' habits in daily practices. And this is how ethics (in the sense of ethos) overlaps in this context with political practice. In this contribution, however, I would like to focus on the possibility of developing political subjectification within a mimetic framework. And more broadly, I want to consider the place of mimesis within politics.
For this purpose, I turn to the work of contemporary French philosopher Jacques Rancière. In his early work on nineteenth-century workers' movements, Rancière argues that it is not suffering itself but a different form of suffering that leads people toward emancipation. In his archival work on the French proletariat, he demonstrates that workers learned a new way to suffer through the literature they studied in their spare time. The impulse for emancipatory political action did not come from the fact of enduring hunger, low wages, and poverty; rather, such an impulse emerged from learning a new, bourgeois form of experience through reading certain types of literature, like Chateaubriand's René. In his later work on literature, Rancière turns to characters in nineteenth-century French novels, in particular characters who decide to follow the example of other characters encountered in books. For instance, he considers [End Page 162] Balzac's The Village Rector (Le Curé de village) and Flaubert's Madame Bovary, where these so-called "lost children of the letter" ("enfants perdus de la lettre") cross the boundaries of their usual experience to become different subjects and, as a consequence...