Mimetic Desire and the Scapegoat Mechanism (Perception Warfare p 9)


“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.

7 thoughts on “Mimetic Desire and the Scapegoat Mechanism (Perception Warfare p 9)

  1. again jake off the top of my head…..wonderful aricle and as usual your comments well appreciated……off the top of my head…manipulating of energy somewhat but not totally in the gurdjieifian school of thought…..ie food for the moon but in this case for the opponents………free choice note to myself was sent to you before i read your present post

  2. Good to see you back in action Jason, I’ve missed your insightful and enlightening writing.

    I’m loving Auticulture and have am slowing digesting it article by article. I’ve been drawn to follow your online exploits for a while and I’m finding your current venture to be exciting, stimulating and very synchronistic. Oh, and I’m so glad you auted yourself. I’ve often thought that many of my non-mainstream traits may have something to do with me being mildly autistic.

    You’re the first researcher that I’ve heard mention Rene Girard. I first found out about him from a Belgian friend and felt his theory fitted my childhood situation snuggly–like you I was bullied relentlessly by an older brother and this behaviour was facilitated unconsciously by both parents and encouraged by my father. There was lots of splitting at home and in the wider family as well. I often used to search family documents for evidence of my adoption, such was my sense of being unwanted and different. And yes, much later on I realised that my sensitivity and vulnerability made me the prime candidate to act as the family scapegoat and so very nearly the sacrificial lamb in my 20’s.

    My own simplified understanding is that our sense of self, the ego, that which we (mis)perceive to be who we are, is a construction that, like a beaver’s damn, requires constant attention (affirmation) to hold it’s form. You could say that the ego is a personal narrative, or culture, that continuously needs to define and redefine itself most often in accordance with a wider culture. But being dualistic it’s form is dependent on having an opposite, an antithesis. Therefore all egos/cultures need to be oppositional, to have an enemy if you will, in order to maintain integrity. The logic of culture goes something like: we are who we are only because of who or what we are not.

    In the case of the family, disharmony in the parental relationship brings with it a threat to the stability of that family and one strategy to restore harmony, especially with damaged individuals, is to identify an external problem. To this end the bad behaviour of children is often facilitated by one or both parents to redirect hostility away from themselves. A scapegoat, I would say, is the glue that holds the family together. Not that that is any consolation to me.

  3. Hey Joe

    I know lots of joes but as far as I know this is the first I’ve heard from you.

    It’s no consolation to know that one was a victim not of one’s family but of a collective mechanism that keeps the family intact. But, maybe it’s a consolation that, because of those experiences, we are that much better qualified to navigate the Island of Dr. Moreau-like madhouse we call culture, to recognize the danger signs, and help others make it through the minefield?

    Good to know you’re out there. I am starting to wonder (not for the first time) how many kindred-kindling souls are watching & listening and keeping their silence, through their own shyness and reserve, unconsciously testing me in my resolve. I do sometimes despair from the feeling of crying in the wilderness.

    But then the wilderness is where we scapegoats get sent. You’d think we must be pretty thick on the ground by now…?

  4. Good morning Jasun and Joe!

    I agree with you completely Joe, I am also thrilled with what Jasun is doing here at Auticulture and find I go through each article and post slowly, many times over. Just as I have listened to Jasun’s Stormy Weather podcasts over and over, each time I glean a new treasured thread of connection to an idea or feeling. Your thoughtful analysis of the problem of scapegoating is wonderful, and I suspect reflects your depth of understanding of human nature as you have grown older. Please be careful not to misplace your kindness on family members who may have been…simply cruel and mean.

    Jasun, to your observation, yes, I would believe that you have a much, much greater audience than you know. Speaking for myself, one of the more painful aspects of the spectrum is living life literally, with no “membrane” to filter information. I listen, read, watch and absorb the ideas you develop and have often wanted to respond. But I needed to wait until I had the ability to respond in a way that came even a little way towards the depth of understanding that you have. When I had that, then I had the courage. A lifetime of being misunderstood makes one be a little more careful.

    All of the reading etc., gives me context, which is so important to me…I can hardly express how important. I cannot bear to see or learn anything without context…or how it relates to other things. If your work was a painting, it would not be an austere still life with no background – it is canvas bursting with Impressionistic life:-)

    I read once that the true purpose of play is to counteract culture. (I like that…not the dry psychological-speak that it serves the purpose of training children to be adults). To see you, to hear and to read you, is seeing playfulness in this way. Literally. Mature, kind, spontaneous, open with no culturally-directed agenda. I would encourage anyone, on the spectrum or not, to play here! True play always brings feelings of peacefulness and ease and security – emotions that autists need so much.

  5. Hi Jason,

    I have a small blog – Philosophy and Mimetic Theory @ desidelerium.wordpress.com – if you’re interested in reading some more about MT. Great post – thanks for getting Girard out there!

  6. Pingback: » Can I get you to like me and my editing and writing method for bloggers ?

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