Man MAKING UP and MADE UP BY Mimetic Stories

Some stories are more true than others. This statement runs the risk of being loaded so much with criticisms by postmodern epistemologies that it might ultimately be abandoned, destined to become a lone voice crying in the wilderness of supposedly interchangeable cultural narratives. And yet the idea that there are different degrees of truth in storytelling is one of the major claims made by René Girard’s so-called mimetic theory. His work basically explores two sides of the storytelling process regarding the origin and maintenance of culture.

First, human beings make up stories for a number of reasons. On a formal level, however, this make-up seems to maintain some general characteristics, regardless of the specific contexts in which it appears. As a mimesis of reality storytelling always relates to actual events with different degrees of interconnectedness. Stories can represent actual events, can represent a fictional situation that shows what potentially happens in the actual world, or can represent a fictional situation whose fictitious character is realized precisely because it exceeds the limits of what could happen in the actual world. Each representation reveals its own character in a comparison with the actual world. From this comparison we may conclude in what sense a certain representation is true. In any case, every narrative representation always also includes, as a mimesis of reality, a distance from reality. No story is reality itself (outside the story). One of the questions that could be addressed is how and to what extent this distance can be considered positive or negative.

C.S. Lewis on Myth

It should be stressed that the acute awareness of a distance, or even a divide, between different representations of reality and reality itself is not as old as humanity itself. It probably coincides with the birth of Western philosophy in ancient Greece. From that time onwards, the cultural experience of reality becomes an issue. Whereas in archaic cultures man seems to mainly consider himself as a receiver or transmitter of truthful stories forged by sacred powers (great ancestors, spirits or gods), in Western culture man begins to discover himself as the author of stories (and gradually as a historical being). This also means that he becomes more aware of his potential to deceive others. Hence traditional stories, as they are told by man, should not necessarily be considered true anymore. Those stories become unreliable myths, while the search for truth becomes the quest for a language that uncovers reality from behind particular cultural deceptions.

The shift from a mythological to a philosophical worldview thus is twofold:

  • In mythological cultures stories represent the subject of meaningful speech, while man is the object that is spoken to. In other words, man is shaped by the stories of his culture. In post-mythological cultures man gradually becomes the subject of meaning, while stories become objects of inquiry. In other words, man shapes the stories of his culture.
  • In mythological cultures truth is only accessible to man insofar as sacred powers don’t trick him and grant him knowledge and truth. In post-mythological cultures man himself becomes capable of and responsible for gaining knowledge and truth.

The pinnacle of the belief that there is a culturally independent, universal language for accessing an objective truth is reached in the Age of Enlightenment. Of course, as is known, that universal language is provided by a so-called transcendent reason and the modern scientific method. Today, however, there is a well-established tradition in the humanities where the enlightened reason is believed to have overstepped itself. Enlightened reason not only claimed objectivity regarding the explanation of the natural world, but also regarding the justification and evaluation of cultural values, which became highly problematic on the political level. For indeed, by reducing reality to a so-called objective and inevitable truth, modern political ideologies like fascism and communism became violent totalitarianisms. One could say that, in these contexts, reason became violently unreasonable in ‘forgetting’ that it doesn’t escape being embedded in a cultural narrative as well (a ‘made up’ story).

The unprecedented scale of the violence of modern political ideologies in a paradoxical way reveals the second side of the storytelling process regarding the origin and maintenance of culture. Cultural narratives serve as an attempt to escape social disintegration by distinguishing so-called justified sacrificial violence from so-called unjustified escalating violence. This is essentially René Girard’s definition of myth.

René Girard on Myth

In other words, cultural narratives contain violence. They keep violence in check… by violent means. From the perspective of Girard’s mimetic theory, modern totalitarianisms therefore can be interpreted as failed myths. They were stories that could not ‘make up’ human beings, meaning that they produced more violence than that they provided human beings with protections against violence. Exactly why this kind of mythmaking increasingly fails in the course of history is yet another issue that could be explored.

In short, man and his culture are not only the cause of potential mimetic representations of reality, they are also the result of mimetic dynamics represented in mythic storytelling. As René Girard shows, mythic representations exteriorize the potentially violent nature of those mimetic dynamics (violence in this context is understood as a possible outcome of mimetic desire). This exteriorization at the same time is a kind of exorcism of uncontrollable violence. Through myths man claims to ‘know’ which habits, desires and creatures are taboo or should be ritually sacrificed in order to prevent (social) chaos. The cultural order thus not only produces sacrificial violence, it is itself also the product of such violence; it is the result of violence ‘kept in check’.

René Girard on Tomb as First Cultural Symbol

Today, however, we find ourselves confronted with the opportunity to be highly suspicious of whatever cultural justification (i.e. myth) for taboos or sacrifices. According to René Girard, Judeo-Christian tradition especially revealed archaic cultural justifications as part of a scapegoat mechanism. Cultural justifications, in other words, were discovered as at least partly blaming the wrong phenomena for certain events. In this sense, Judeo-Christian tradition hurts the ‘ego’ or narcissistic identity of any cultural order, insofar as this order is maintained through scapegoat mechanisms. It is perhaps possible to understand and examine the heritage of Judeo-Christian spirituality, and other spiritual traditions, as a criticism of individual and collective narcissism (as this narcissism is shaped by particular cultures and preserved by their narratives). I would like to show that a spiritual realm of forgiveness allows for individual self-honesty as an epistemic device for truth, as it also allows for freedom and responsibility beyond guilt. If man acknowledges his initial vulnerability and powerlessness in the face of what happens beyond his control, he might neither punish himself nor others to regain power over a certain situation. Instead, he might start looking for the real causes of what happened and no longer exteriorize his fears and frustrations as entities apart from him.

Finally, in this regard it could be investigated how stories can function as ‘safeguards of transcendence’. This could be a major concern. In other words, the question could be how stories do not get locked up in themselves as a kind of tautological reduction of reality (a deviated transcendence). The history of science-fiction stories, and especially the influence of the graphic novel Watchmen as a ‘meta-story’, might be a good way to address this issue. More specifically those stories, under certain circumstances, might help to transform (physically or mentally) violent sacrifice into non-violent sacrifice (a concept that could be developed).

As for now, it seems there are two major pitfalls in storytelling. On the one hand, there is the temptation of using modern technical reason and the scientific method to establish a totalitarian story of universalism wherein individuality is defined within limits relevant to a system of ‘technical management’ (politically speaking this is the temptation of a communist or neo-liberal globalism). On the other hand, there is the temptation of making truth wholly relative of individual particularities and thus establish a totalitarian story of particularism (politically speaking this is the temptation of nationalism). This totalitarian particularism refuses to acknowledge the sameness with others and therefore, paradoxically, excludes otherness. In this context, it would be interesting to bring scientific insights into mimetic processes to the table and also explore what happens when these processes are denied.

 

 

 

Saved from the Denial of Death?

Ernest BeckerIn 1973, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker (1924-1974) published his seminal book The Denial of Death. Because of this publication, a year later and two months after his death, Becker was granted the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction.

The Denial of Death elaborates the following thesis:

The basic motivation for human behavior is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death.

One of the most important functions of culture therefore is to provide symbolic defense mechanisms against the knowledge of mortality. Culture, and religion in particular, can be understood as an attempt to deny death. In this context Becker writes about immortality projects. These projects allow us to create a symbolic, so-called meaningful and heroic self-concept that we feel outlasts our physical self and time on earth.

Combined with the insights of yet another “out of the box” thinking literary critic and anthropologist, René Girard (1923-2015), we might conclude that the creation of our heroic self-concepts is possible because of our mimetic (i.e. imitative) nature.

The way we think about ourselves and the way we develop a sense of identity is always mediated by our social environment. And that which makes something like a social environment possible precisely is our – indeed mimetic – ability to put ourselves in each other’s shoes. Neuroscientists have discovered that so-called mirror neurons in our brains play a very important role in this regard. These brain cells allow us to imitate others. They allow us to pretend that we’re someone else and to take another person’s point of view. And this allows us to imagine what others are experiencing, thinking, expecting or even desiring. In short, our mimetic ability is the conditio sine qua non to empathize and bond with others, and to develop a sense of self.

Of course our imaginative projections about others can be wrong. That’s why we, rather unwittingly, constantly look for the confirmation of mutually established social expectations. The question “Am I doing this right?” seems to be the ever present subtext to our behavior. It really structures the interaction between ourselves and others. To quote sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), we expect that others have certain expectations and act accordingly. That’s how a social order is established in a particular culture.

Each (sub-)cultural environment establishes its own identity concepts, based on particular mimetic interactions. Those identity concepts are models that we use to create a meaningful image for ourselves. As stated earlier, according to Becker, a meaningful culturally defined self-image can be understood as an attempt to escape the realization that we are mortal beings. In other words,

our attempt to create an image that is loved by others whose respect we (mimetically) learned to desire = an attempt to deny death.

Although they might provide us with a good and secure feeling, there’s a downside to our immortality projects. We might become so obsessed with our symbolic, so-called meaningful self-image that we might be prepared to literally sacrifice ourselves to it. As anxious persons, we show the tendency to act according to the supposed expectations of “meaningful” others in order to gain their approval. As we become more obsessed with our social status, we might accomplish exactly what we were trying to move away from, death! Think of workaholics who destroy their own health, or think of ISIL suicide bombers, who sacrifice themselves in order to gain a supposedly “sacred” identity. Jesus of Nazareth formulates this tragic, failed and paradoxical attempt at “the denial of death” in our cultural and/or religious projects very succinctly in the Gospels (Matthew 16:25a-26a):

For whoever would save his life will lose it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?

And not only that, we might also be prepared to sacrifice those others we deem a threat to our self-image. Jesus himself becomes a victim of people (among them are his own disciples!) who try to protect their “socially acceptable” self-image.

In short, if we make it our goal “to be loved” by so-called meaningful others, we tend to become auto- and hetero-aggressive.

ernest-becker-quote-the-idea-of-deathThe question is whether we can be saved from our sacrificial tendencies. Since we are relational beings [or since our being is essentially relational], we can only be saved from these tendencies if we receive an identity from a being that is not at all interested in “being loved” (a being that comes from outside the human game of mutually established social expectations). This can only be a being that is not mortal, since it is mortality that leads human beings to the desire “to be loved”. If we experience the love of such a being, we can distance ourselves more and more from the desire to adjust ourselves to a self-image that seeks the approval of others. Moreover, since we diminish our auto-aggressive tendencies we will also diminish our hetero-aggressive tendencies. We will no longer defend a so-called socially acceptable self-image at the expense of others. Paradoxically, the acknowledgment of ourselves and our mortality might allow us to surrender to that Love that is “not defined by death”. Our newly found ability “to love” will enable others to love themselves as well, and save them as well from their auto-aggressive tendencies, thus enabling them to love others, etcetera. Until the whole world is “saved” by this Love.

Christians are convinced that the “Spirit of Love” springs from the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and his so-called “Father”. They believe that God can be experienced as a Love – at least at the human level – that is not defined by death. One of the images they use to speak of this Love indeed is the image of the Trinity (love means “relation”, thus the image of a relation between a Father and a Son, and the Spirit that springs from that relation, is appropriate). To be loved by Jesus of Nazareth thus means to be loved by a being that allows us to more fully accept ourselves and others.

In other words,

the Love incarnated by Jesus potentially saves us from our cultural (be it secular or religious) illusional immortality projects.

Eminem reads the Bible

This post follows a previous thread on suggestions for the development of a high school curriculum on Mimetic Theory. Click the following titles to see what I’ve done on this so far (be sure to check out the pdf-files!):

  1. Mimetic Theory in High School (click to read)
  2. Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism (click to read)
  3. Scapegoating in American Beauty (click to read)
  4. Philosophy in American Beauty (click to read)
  5. Real Life Cases of Ressentiment (click to read)

Eminem (Horns)The story of Cain and Abel (in the book of Genesis) is compared to the story of Stan (by Eminem) to illustrate what I’ve called types 1 and 2 of the scapegoat mechanism. Cain and Abel is an example of the second type of scapegoat mechanism, namely hetero-aggression. Stan is an example of the first type of scapegoat mechanism, namely auto-aggression. By the way, the comparison between Cain and Stan is a translation of a text that first appeared in Dutch in my book Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll (Averbode, 2009).

CLICK TO READ PDF-VERSION OF A COMPARISON BETWEEN CAIN AND STAN

CLICK TO READ PDF-VERSION SCAPEGOAT MECHANISM 1 & 2 (EXAMPLES)

Stan

Cain

[As an aside, it is possible to criticize Nietzsche’s concept of Judeo-Christian tradition as a product of ressentiment by comparing the third type of the scapegoat mechanism (ressentiment, indeed) with the story of Cain and Abel as an example of the second type. It is clear that, in the biblical story, the Lord condemns the actions of Cain. This implies that the Lord would condemn the actions of persons that are consumed by ressentiment as they take the parallel position of person A (Cain’s position). Thus the god born out of the ressentiment of the so-called slaves (a god who recognizes the slaves while condemning the so-called masters) is not the God of Judeo-Christian tradition.]

[As a second aside, click here for more on hip-hop and theology.]

In short, what the following comparison is all about: mimetically ignited love – eros – for the imagined situation of the other leads to hate towards one’s own life and the life of the other (or, which is the same, love for a so-called acceptable self-image) – a crisis of identity and social order. Person A (CAIN or STAN) tries to resolve the crisis that arises out of a comparison with person B (ABEL or SLIM) by sacrificing the other or by sacrificing him/herself – thanatos!

PDF-text of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-18)

PDF-text of Stan (by Eminem)

CAIN AND ABEL COMPARED TO STAN AND SLIM

  • IDENTIFICATION (THROUGH MIMESIS)

Cain and Abel develop similar activities:
In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions.

Stan and Slim have similar experiences:
“See I’m just like you in a way… I never knew my father neither – he used to always cheat on my mom and beat her. I can relate to what you’re saying in your songs…”

  • ANGER BECAUSE OF A – FELT, THOUGH NOT NECESSARILY REAL – LACK OF RECOGNITION

Cain becomes angry because Abel gets attention from the Lord while he himself doesn’t seem to get any attention at all:
And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.

Stan becomes angry because Slim does get recognition from his fans – Stan being one of them – while Stan seems to find no recognition at all:
“Dear Mister-I’m-Too-Good-To-Call-Or-Write-My-Fans, this’ll be the last package I ever send your ass! It’s been six months and still no word – I don’t deserve it?”

  • RECOGNITION NONETHELESS FOR THE PERSON WHO FEELS UNRECOGNIZED

The Lord worries about Cain:
The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?”

Slim worries about Stan:
“… why are you so mad?”

  • A WARNING FOR THE POSSIBLE EVIL CONSEQUENCES OF FRUSTRATION, ANGER AND STUBBORN PRIDE

The Lord advises Cain to do well:
“If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you…”

Slim advises Stan to calm down and to do well:
“I really think you and your girlfriend need each other or maybe you just need to treat her better. […] I think that you’ll be doin’ just fine if you relax a little…”

  • A FINAL WARNING 

The First Mourning (Adam and Eve mourn the death of Abel) by Bouguereau 1888“… but you must rule over it…”

“I just don’t want you to do some crazy shit.”

  • WARNING GOES IN VAIN – MURDER ON A DESOLATE PLACE

Cain kills Abel:
Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.

Stan kills himself and his pregnant girlfriend:
“Some dude was drunk and drove his car over a bridge and had his girlfriend in the trunk, and she was pregnant with his kid…”

Objections to Mimetic Theory?

From time to time I’m confronted with objections to mimetic theory that, looked at more closely, are based on some misconceptions. Here are some clarifications, hopefully. (For more on scientific research concerning imitation, click here: Mimesis and Science).

1. REGARDING MIMETIC DESIRE

Already in 1961, publishing Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, René Girard made the world familiar with his concept of mimetic desire. Mimetic desire is literally desire based on imitation. Like so many others before and after him, Girard observes that human beings are highly mimetic creatures. Humans imitate each other in all sorts of ways and thereby learn from each other – they learn good as well as bad behavior… To name but one example, people imitate the sounds of their environment and learn to speak, for instance, with a Texan accent. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing :).

By introducing the concept of mimetic desire, Girard stresses that our desire is structured by imitating others who function as models for our desire. It is important to distinguish this type of desire from our basic biological or physical needs. When you’re walking in the desert alone and your body is yearning for water, your desire for water is, of course, not based on the imitation of someone else’s desire. True, nature has its impact on human life. However, when our basic physical needs are met, our desire goes beyond them. Our basic need for water is transformed in what eventually became a supermarket world that asks us to choose between different types of water, juices and soft drinks. Growing up, we develop a certain taste, transmitted to us by our social and cultural surroundings. We might even develop desires that not only go further than our physical needs, but also against them (anorexia being one example).

coca cola thirst asks nothing moreSo, it’s not just nature that defines human life, nurture has its way too… We all have the biological need for food, but if we were born in another part of the world we would probably have developed different eating habits. It’s as simple as that. We imitate others. We mimetically learn to quench our natural thirst and to satisfy our natural hunger in a certain, culturally dependent way. No one is born with the desire for the newest soft drink produced by The Coca-Cola Company (indeed, Thou Shalt Covet What Thy Neighbor Covets – click to read this article by famous marketeer Martin Lindstrom), as no one is born with the desire to become a police officer. Our identities are not ahistorically determined from birth, they’re co-created with others.

We always write our personal history together with others, and we mutually influence each other. Since we’re social creatures we cannot escape this influence. Relationships precede and shape our (sense of) identity. Even if we go against our tendency to imitate an immediate social environment that seems indifferent towards the victim of some crime or accident (see “Bystander Effect” – click for more), we probably still imitate heroic examples from stories we grew up with (“The Good Samaritan” may be one of them).

Two questions often appear after these considerations, which show just how hard it is to let go of any type of Ego Illusion:

  1. We often imitate others to adjust to our social environment. We imitate others because we desire social recognition. So, our desire for social recognition must be more fundamental than our mimetic tendencies, no?
  2. If we imitate each other’s desire for something, someone still has to be the first to desire that something. Surely, the latter’s desire cannot be based on imitation, can it?

I’ve answered the first question before, but I’ll repeat it here. Of course we often imitate others to ‘fit in’. However, we could not develop a desire to fit in if it weren’t for our mimetic abilities. Our mimetic abilities allow us to put ourselves in each other’s shoes. They allow us to pretend that we are someone else. For instance, a little girl playing with her dolls pretends being a mother by imitating real mothers. Our mimetic abilities allow us, thereby, to imagine – however preliminary – what others are experiencing, expecting and desiring. So our ability to empathize and to adjust to the expectations of others (maybe to gain their recognition) rests on mimetic ability.

The second question seems very logical. Confronted with real life cases, the quest for ‘the first model’ is not that easy to answer though. Even simple situations show it might be the wrong question. Think, for instance, about two babies in a room full of toys. Let’s name the two Bobby and Johnny. Bobby starts playing with a little ball. Note that he didn’t necessarily wake up with the desire to play with a ball. Already in this sense his desire isn’t his own. It is awakened by people who left him the ball to play with. After just ten seconds, Bobby gets tired of the ball. He doesn’t really enjoy playing with it. So he starts playing with some other toy. He has no desire to play with the ball whatsoever. In comes Johnny. He saw Bobby playing with the ball and this raised Johnny’s attention. Now that the ball is left, Johnny takes the opportunity to start playing with it himself. In this situation Johnny is the imitator. However, when Bobby notices Johnny playing with the ball, he immediately leaves the toy that was more fun to him and tries to lay his hands on the ball Johnny is playing with now. In this situation Bobby is the imitator. In short, Johnny’s desire rests on the imitation of Bobby as model for his desire, while Bobby’s desire rests on the imitation of Johnny as model for his desire. It’s no use asking “Who’s first?” Johnny and Bobby mutually reinforce each other’s desire by becoming each other’s model and imitator. Thereby they become each other’s rival. René Girard speaks of the rivalry between mimetic doubles. More generally, we become each other’s rival if we cannot or do not want to share the object of our mimetic desire. Here’s an example – it could have been Bobby and Johnny 🙂 – CLICK TO WATCH:

2. REGARDING RITUAL SACRIFICE

Some consider René Girard’s explanations on the origin and maintenance of human cultures far-fetched. Well, are they?

René Girard considers the very first sacrificial rituals as imitations of a scapegoat mechanism in groups of primitive humans whose internal (mimetic) rivalry threatened to destroy the group itself. Primitive human societies experienced the killing of one member of their group by a significant part of the community as something which restored calm and order. This must have happened so much in primitive human societies that they started making certain associations.

On the one hand primitive societies experience turmoil as long as ‘the common enemy’ is alive, while on the other hand they experience peace after he is beaten to death. Gradually they will associate new situations of disorder with the resurgence of a former victim of group violence. In other words, they experience a person who is not visibly present anymore, but whose presence is ‘felt’ in situations of turmoil. In other words still, one of the former victims of group violence has become a ‘ghost’ or a ‘god’. At the same time, primitive human societies also ‘learn’ that killing someone apparently restores order. So together with the belief in ghosts and gods considered responsible for all kinds of possible violent disasters, the belief originates concerning the effectiveness of sacrifices to restore, renew and/or keep order, life and stability in human society. If primitive societies would have seen that the victims of group violence are no more responsible for violence than other members of the group, they would not have developed these beliefs. Violence became something sacred because the victims of group violence were considered exclusively responsible for the violence they were associated with. Those victims were scapegoats.

ancient human sacrificeGirard argues that all other associations regarding ‘the sacred’ rest on this first association between violence and divinized victims of group violence. Everything that can be associated with violence had the potential to become sacred or divinized as well. Sexuality became sacred. Indeed, sometimes males fight over females. Food became sacred. Indeed, people fight over food sometimes. Territory  became sacred. Indeed, people go to war sometimes because of territory. Nature as a whole became sacred. Indeed, natural disasters are ‘violent’ and provoke violence if they cause lack of food and water… And so the world and the experience of man became sacred.

Religions came and went, but the age-old associations regarding the sacred were transmitted down the generations. The Greeks still had Ares, god of war, as they had their goddess of love, Aphrodite. The Romans copied (indeed, ‘imitated’) the Greeks and spoke of Mars and Venus.

Asked why they perform their rituals and sacrifices and why they respect their taboos, primitive societies always answer: “Because our ancestors did it, and because we have to respect the ghosts and the gods in order to sustain our community…”

Could it really be true that the structure of ancient human sacrifice goes back to a mechanism that can still be observed in our ape cousins? And that this mechanism provides the foundation of the archaic sacred? Is it far-fetched to suspect that the former fact (the structure of ancient human sacrifice, which begins with a fight!) has something to do with the latter fact (the scapegoat mechanism)?

Pavlov DogGirard has argued that the dividing line between human and ape lies in the way mimetic quarrels became a threat to the survival of primitive human communities. Precisely because the mimetic ability of humans grew, their tendency towards near uncontrollable mimetic rivalry increased likewise. Hence it became possible that humans began to make associations that their ape cousins could not make regarding the communal killing of a group member. Compare to Pavlov’s dog: a dog who has only arbitrarily or sporadically heard a signal while getting food will not drool if he hears the signal, while Pavlov’s dog who has systematically heard the signal while getting food will at some point start to drool from the moment he merely hears the signal… Apes won’t associate turmoil with a victim, while primitive humans will start to do exactly that at some point. The consequences can be suspected: primitive humans will start to consciously ritualize the scapegoat mechanism, while apes only experience this mechanism sporadically. Here’s a powerful example of the mechanism, nonetheless, observed in a group of monkeys. We can almost observe how it must have been like that ‘a loathed enemy’ became ‘a revered god’. This also explains why gods have a ‘dual’, ‘ambiguous’ quality.They’re good and bad…

CLICK TO WATCH:

Mimetic Theory in High School

Some of us working on mimetic theory would like to develop some material that could be useful in high school curricula, in different disciplines. I’ll be posting some ideas and present some possible content in the months to come. This is how an introduction to a high school course on mimetic theory could look like. Any suggestions are welcome!

CLICK HERE TO READ A PDF VERSION

A.      HUMAN BEINGS AS CRISIS MANAGERS

We all have to deal with crisis situations. A crisis happens when we are challenged to renew or change the order of things as we know it. Therefore it is always a threat, big or small, to the systems that bring stability to our lives. A crisis is a time to make decisions in order to preserve a given system of stability or to create a new one. As such it is not just an event which forces us to adjust to its course, but also an opportunity to imagine other ways of being in the world. A crisis is violent when it is primarily experienced as an assault on our personal integrity and our socially defined identity. On the other hand, a crisis might contain the promise of a better protected personal integrity and an enhanced social identity when it is experienced as an assault on systems of stability that actually suppress us. In short, the crisis situations that befall us and subvert the world as we know it are experienced either as a curse or a blessing, either as doom or chance.

crisis is danger and opportunity

Confronted with crisis situations, every human being is able to ask three clusters of questions, one scientific and two philosophical. Here’s what the crisis manager named human might think about:

  • SCIENTIFIC QUESTIONS:

How can a crisis situation be explained? What are its causes and consequences? How do we, people, deal with it and what explains our behavior?

To use a business analogy:

How do people behave within the company and what problems arise out of this behavior?

  • A FIRST SET OF PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (MEANING):

Where do we want to go from here, confronted with this crisis? What is the ultimate goal of what we are trying to do? What are we hoping for?

To use the business analogy:

What does this company stand for? What goals does it hope to accomplish?

  • A SECOND SET OF PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (ETHICS):

How should we behave ourselves if we want to accomplish our goal, dealing with this crisis? Should we deal with the crisis situation like we normally do, or should we change our behavior?

To use the business analogy:

How should people behave within the company in order to accomplish its goals?

Once the two sets of philosophical questions are answered, science of course functions as a means to make the fulfillment possible of thought-through goals which transcend (and therefore guide) the merely scientific endeavor.

B.      MIMETIC THEORY – INSPIRATIONAL THINKING IN TIMES OF CRISIS

I.                    CONSIDERING “CRISIS MANAGEMENT” QUESTIONS

As long as we are alive and well as human beings, we are mimetically connected to each other. It is because of our mimetic (i.e. imitative) ability that we are social creatures. Mimetic theory, as it was initially developed by René Girard, tries to understand and explain the possibilities and pitfalls of human social behavior by studying its mimetic interactions. It attempts to answer the three clusters of questions, identified previously, concerning “crisis management” as the condition humaine:

  • SCIENTIFIC QUESTIONS:

How do crisis situations in human life arise out of mimetic interactions? How are these mimetic interactions influenced by conditions of the natural environment? Or, on the other hand, how do mimetic interactions construct patterns of human behavior that influence the natural environment in negative or positive ways? How do we normally deal with crisis situations arising out of mimetic interactions?

  • PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (MEANING):

What goals are desirable for human life, considering the mimetic nature of human beings? What are we trying to accomplish by studying mimetic interactions?

  • PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (ETHICS):

How should we behave if we want to accomplish our goals? Should we deal with crisis situations, arising out of mimetic interactions, like we normally do – like our ancestors did, for instance? Should we accept certain morals (of which the origins can be scientifically explained)? Or should we try to change our behavior?

II.                  OUTLINE FOR A COURSE USING MIMETIC THEORY

  • MIMESIS AND EMPATHY

Any course using mimetic theory starts with a simple observation: the way we think about ourselves and the way we develop a sense of identity is always mediated by our social environment. And that which makes something like a social environment possible precisely is our – indeed mimetic – ability to put ourselves in each other’s shoes.

Man as Social Being (Wolfgang Palaver)

Neuroscientists have discovered that so-called mirror neurons in our brains play a very important role in this regard. These brain cells allow us to imitate others. They allow us to pretend that we’re someone else and to take another person’s point of view. And this allows us to imagine what others are experiencing, thinking, expecting or even desiring. In short, our mimetic ability is the conditio sine qua non to empathize and bond with others, and to develop a sense of self.

double mediation

Of course our imaginative projections about others can be wrong. That’s why we, rather unwittingly, constantly look for the confirmation of mutually established social expectations. The question “Am I doing this right?” seems to be the ever present subtext to our behavior. It really structures the interaction between ourselves and others. As it happens though, the recognition we get from one social group might be of more importance to us than that of another. We might empathize more with the members of the San Francisco symphony orchestra we’re part of than with the homeless of that same city. Or we might feel so close to our favorite football team that we become really hostile to its adversaries.

So our ability to empathize with others turns out to be a two-edged sword. It connects us with and disconnects us from others at the same time. It can connect us to the members of a group we want to be part of against a common enemy. Even more so, it can stir rivalry between members of the same group or the same social environment. That might be surprising, but on second view it will turn out to be quite logical. Our mimetic ability allows us to take other people as models for our behavior. It allows us to learn from them in all sorts of ways, but it also plays a significant role in structuring our desires and ambitions. For instance, there’s more than one twelve year old soccer player walking around with a shirt of Lionel Messi or some other soccer idol, secretly dreaming of being the next soccer sensation.

  • MIMESIS AND RIVALRY – THE PROBLEM OF MIMETIC DESIRE

There seems to be no harm in identifying with someone you admire and take as an inspiration for your own desires and ambitions in life. At first glance, that is. As long as the model you imitate belongs to quite another world than your own, as long as there is a significant distance between yourself and your model – in space, in time, or both –, chances of a conflictual relationship with the model are reduced. On the other hand, when that distance is no longer experienced, things might turn ugly, both for yourself and your model. As a twelve year old forward in a soccer team, it’s fairly easy to admire Lionel Messi, but it might be a hell of a lot harder to appreciate the talents of the new teammate who comes in and takes your spot. Identifying yourself as being the forward (or even “the Messi of the team”) immediately complicates your relationship with this newcomer, as he arouses the desire for your former status and the recognition it is supposed to bring. You might, for instance, try to get rid of the new guy by locking him out. Good coaches, though, know how to deal with these types of situations, even strengthening their team in the process. When two or more forwards imitate and thereby reinforce each other’s desire to be the best player on their position, it indeed can make them all better players in a consequently better team.

Mimetic Rivalry

Good coaches and managers are able to use mimetic rivalry in constructive ways, allowing their employees to recognize and respect that “the best has won.” However, all management efforts aside, mimetic rivalry remains a tricky thing. It is literally rivalry based on the imitation of desires for certain material and/or immaterial objects (e.g. a trophy, some sort of social recognition or status, power within a company, wealth, etc.).

Envy Pride Mimetic Desire

Human desire is, beyond instinctive needs and wants, highly mimetic (i.e. based on imitation). True, we’re all born with certain physical needs (for food, water, oxygen, etc.). But no one is born with the desire to become, say, a culinary chef. That is a socially (and therefore mimetically) mediated ambition that gets different cultural expressions. Mimetic desire and mimetically mediated ambition can easily lead to frustrations and destructive conflicts between people who take each other as model.

Mimetic Desire

When two or more people, consciously or more often rather unwittingly, imitate each other’s desire, they become each other’s annoying obstacle when they cannot or do not want to share the object of their desire. In short, they become antagonists because of mimetic desire. Paradoxically, it is because people are close to each other and can imagine what it is like to be in the other’s shoes, that they can become each other’s archrivals in the context of a mutually shared desire. As said, our mimetic ability connects and disconnects.

Mimetic Desire (The Raven Foundation)

  • THE SCAPEGOAT MECHANISM AS RESPONSE TO MIMETIC CRISES

The mimetic building blocks of our psychosocial fabric are at once responsible for the preservation and disintegration of that very same fabric. One of the well-tried means to restore a social order that is in crisis because of escalating mimetic rivalry, is the so-called scapegoat mechanism. This restoration again rests on mimetic processes. Let’s turn to the example of the soccer team once more. When a team loses time and again, that’s normally no favorable factor for the group atmosphere. Teammates start blaming each other for bad results, maybe even sabotaging each other. There also might be ill-will towards the coach by players who feel they’re not given enough opportunities to play matches. And when the coach becomes part of the rivalry and frustrations within the team, that’s usually the end of his career there. As more players imitate the ill-will of some teammates towards their coach, the latter becomes the one held responsible for all the major problems within the team, and he’ll be fired by the board in the end. Instead of recognizing the mimetic origins of social disorder, people tend to blame one outsider or a group of outsiders. This scenario is well-known. Coaches indeed often function as convenient scapegoats, unjustly blamed for a crisis they’re not or only partly responsible for. Like other scapegoats they’re interpreted in a twofold manner by the group they’re expelled from: perceived as the main cause for the tensions, divisions and disorder within the group, and experienced as the main cure while being sacrificed (expelled, or worse) to restore unity and order within that same group. Scapegoats are at once villain and hero, monster and savior, hated and loved, unwanted and wanted, scorned yet needed. Think, for example, of dictatorial regimes who blame all their domestic problems on foreign enemies. As long as a dictator can unite his citizens against some outside enemy, he can at least prevent them from uniting against himself and remain in the saddle. This means that he cannot completely destroy the enemy he publicly loathes. Dictators need the periodic sacrifice of their scapegoat in order to preserve the social fabric on a very large scale, but human beings in general tend to use the scapegoat mechanism on a day-to-day basis, albeit often in smaller ways.

Scapegoat Team Building

  • GOALS OF THIS COURSE

Because of the widespread presence of the scapegoat mechanism and the sacrifices that go along with it in the preservation of social order and peace, it is a real challenge to imagine other ways of building human communities. The question is how to create communities where differences between people don’t lead to escalating rivalries that tend to leave no difference at all – except for the violently established difference between a group and its scapegoat or sacrificial victim. In other words, are there ways to create a social order and peace that leaves room for non-violent, creative conflicts that originate in the irreducible yet fascinating differences between ourselves and other human beings?

The goal of this course is, first, to become more aware of the psychological and social mechanisms this introduction already briefly touched upon. Among others, it will present three ways by which mimetic connections between ourselves and other human beings might become mentally and/or physically violent and destructive. Some stories, old and new and from different media, will function as mirrors that reveal some of those important aspects of who we are as human beings. It will allow participants to analyze actual events and to reflect upon their own life. For those interested, extracurricular background information is given, including some scientific and philosophical material. Secondly, this course invites participants to actively grow into a way of being that prospers non-sacrificial peace and a way of life that is giving and joyous.