“Negative identity is a phenomenon whereby you define yourself by what you are not. This has enormous advantages, especially in terms of the hardening of psychological boundaries and the fortification of the ego: one can mobilize a great deal of energy on this basis and the new nation [the US] certainly did. . . . The downside . . . is that this way of generating an identity for yourself can never tell you who you actually are, in the affirmative sense. It leaves, in short, an emptiness at the center, such that you always have to be in opposition to something, or even at war with someone or something, in order to feel real.”
—Morris Berman, A Question of Values
There is a little-known French philosopher called René Girard who has been quietly working away at a social theory that, if correct, has the potential to overturn everything we think we know about ourselves and the world we live in. In outlining his theory of mimetic desire, mimetic rivalry, and what he calls “the scapegoat mechanism,” Gerard argues persuasively how sacrificial violence is the dark secret underpinning all human cultures. The scapegoat mechanism is the means by which a group transfers its collective hostility onto a single victim, discharging it and returning the group to unity. As I’ve tried to outline above, America’s and other dominant groups’ penchant for scapegoating is hardly a secret; but Girard repositions it from being a cultural artifact to being the cultural artifact.
The problem which scapegoating solves is what Girard terms mimesis: an unconscious form of imitation that invariably leads to competition. Girard describes desire as the most virulent “mimetic pathogen.” This idea was simply stated, as long ago as 1651, in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan: “if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies.” We can see this easily enough at the microcosmic level. If two people share an affinity for each other, they make friends and share their common interests. The problem, Girard writes, is that this very affinity will eventually lead them to desire the same thing and end up as rivals. Two best friends fall for the same woman; the affinity quickly turns to antipathy and they end up murdering each other to prove whose desire is stronger. An even more common example is when two children are playing with toys: one picks up a toy and instantly the other wants to play with it. A previously harmonious arrangement quickly dissolves into anger and tears. Mimesis is like an endless dance of unconscious imitation in which people find themselves desiring things because they are desired by someone else. “Keeping up with the Joneses”: mimetic desire aroused not by the object itself but by the desire of others for the object. Competition becomes its own end, and the object of desire becomes irrelevant as previously civil neighbors become consumed by rivalry. They are now locked into a “negative identity” in which each needs the other in order to feel real. This idea is popular in movies, such as “cop hunts killer” doppelganger narratives, and in comic book characters like Batman and the Joker — opposite sides of a single coin, strengthening and justifying each other through opposition. It is also seen everywhere we look, only not quite so starkly drawn.
Girard’s theory extends this model to encompass (and explain) entire societies. It argues that, without the release provided by sacrificial violence, mimetic desire leads inevitably to mimetic rivalry and will finally culminate in mimetic violence. Humans are so highly imitative that, without the scapegoat mechanism, violent outbreaks within any social group will spread like wildfire and decimate the whole group. If two people desire the same thing, their desire will soon spread to a third, a fourth, and so on. Once the object is forgotten, mimetic rivalry snowballs into widespread antagonism. The final stage of the crisis is when the antagonists no longer imitate each other’s desires for an object, but each other’s antagonism. Think of Rwanda.
To cite a current example, Girard’s theory might explain the series of attempted shootings that occurred immediately after the Sandy Hook-Adam Lanza event. In one especially bizarre incident (reported by The Associated Press on Dec 19th 2012), during a discussion in a barber’s shop about the shootings, a customer said he wanted to kill Adam Lanza. Another customer (a 57-year-old man) inexplicably took this statement as a threat. “You want to murder me?” he allegedly demanded, went to his car, took out a pistol, and fired several shots at the man. (He missed, and was charged with assault and armed criminal action.) Such an incident illustrates several things. One man expresses a violent desire to kill Adam Lanza — who is already dead. This frustrated desire for a scapegoat is then apparently strong enough to trigger another man, who identified with Lanza (the scapegoat) and took “defensive” action. So in the absence of the much-needed scapegoat mechanism, during a time of maximum social instability and disruption in the US community, the result was an act of inexplicable and indiscriminate mimetic violence.