- The Frontier of Race in Mimetic TheoryAmerican Lynchings and Racial Violence
René Girard stands as one of the most fascinating figures in the study of violence and religion. As a thinker, theorist, and theologian, his contribution to literary and cultural theory is indicative of his profound ability to see beyond societal phenomena into the very mechanizations of human existence. Historians, economists, philosophers, psychologists, and even neuroscientists have followed Girard's lead and stepped into the waters of mimetic theory in order to surf the waves of such concepts as desire, imitation, and violence. Yet amid the number of articles, monographs, and anthologies produced by Girard and his colleagues in the Academy, only a few scholars have struck out further into the open seas of mimetic theory to explore the deep depths of violence when channeled by human constructs of race and ethnicity. The works of Cheryl Kirk-Duggan (1994, 2001),1 Diana Culbertson (1993),2 Martha Reineke (1993),3 Theophus Smith (1994),4 and Fred Smith (1999)5 represent some of the first attempts. Their excellent scholarship taps the surface of the often-hidden layers of mimetic rivalry in modern-day forms of scapegoating. Building upon their arguments, this article presents both a call and deeper engagement of mimetic theory within the context of race. Starting the conversation where [End Page 1] René Girard left off, the two questions driving this analysis are: (1) What does mimetic theory have to say about the African American6 experience of lynching? (2) What does the history of lynching in North America have to say to the study of mimetic theory?
These questions present challenging inquiries to the historiography of mimetic theory, which has heretofore taken only a glance at race as a category of analysis. The fact that race has been almost absent in treatises of mimetic theory is quite remarkable, given that Girard's work involved the study of contentious binaries, subjugation, and scapegoating—taxonomies that speak directly to the ideological mechanisms of anti-black racism and terrorism in America. In short, race has remained an unexplored territory in Girard's own work. This fact is further surprising given that Girard spent many years in America, some of which were lived in North Carolina during the 1950s—a place where Girard first experienced the "completely segregated and quite conservative"7 feel of Jim Crow culture during his short time at Duke University (1952–1953).
Born on Christmas day in 1923 in Avignon, France, Girard was not unacquainted with the harshness of life that accompanied the violence and oppression of America's racialized landscape. Growing up in France, Girard, his four other siblings, and his parents experienced the occupation of Nazi German troops. The latter part of his school years was spent as a "provincial student in [a] wartime city among German officers, Nazi functionaries, and, to a greater or lesser extent, a collaborating population."8
His experiences in France caused him to once remark that "occupied Paris had paralyzed me."9 Girard noted that he was "not affected the way [he] should have been." Cynthia Haven's detailed biography, Evolution of Desire, intimates that Girard was often "affectless" in his "reaction to events around him, as if he were puzzling over his own detached nature."10 Haven even wondered whether Girard, when experiencing or confronting lived oppression, "simply was not feeling what he expected to be feeling, or as other claimed to have felt."11 "Affectlessness" perhaps explains why when living in America, he saw racial violence but did not fully attend to it.
For example, when Girard spent a year in North Carolina in the early 1950s, he stated, "You can smell the lynching."12 Such a statement was indicative of the number of lynchings that occurred in the South almost weekly in states like Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana. According to lynching scholars Stewart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck,
Although mobs murdered almost 300 white men and women, the vast majority—almost 2,500—of lynch victims were African-Americans. Of these black victims, [End Page 2] 94 percent died in the hands of white lynch mobs. The scale of this carnage means that...