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:

To This Day

Shane Koyczan is a spiritual man. A man of poetry and gentle madness. A man of stories, a man of truth. A man of beauty. His poem To This Day would be a great way to end a first part of a journey with mimetic theory in high school, especially regarding what I’ve written so far on the film American Beauty. It could follow these posts:

  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)

quote A weed is but an unloved flower Ella Wheeler WilcoxTo This Day and Shane’s TED-talk contain many themes I’ve written about before, for instance in a post entitled Atheism: a lack of unbelief?:

A person’s worth cannot be determined solely by human perception and judgment. Man is not simply the child of a “social other”, i.e. the product of a man-made social environment in which he gains or loses a sense of (self-) worth. He’s also, following the thoughts of people like James Alison and Emmanuel Levinas, a child of “the other Other”, and we should postpone any final judgment on other people and ourselves.

It also reminded me of this famous quote: “Every finite spirit believes either in a God or in an idol” (Max Scheler, 1874-1928). I wrote about this in several posts before, for instance in a post entitled That is (not) the question, about rap star Diam’s conversion to Islam – it talks about how we have the tendency to sacrifice ourselves and others to the demands of a so-called admirable (self-)image that seeks confirmation and recognition:

quote Shane Koyczan Be the weedDiam’s discovered how she tried to live up to the expectations of her fans, and how this enslaved her. She was kneeling to an image of herself as the admirable idol her fans wanted her to be. Kneeling to Allah, on the other hand, apparently meant that Diam’s no longer bowed to the demands of the music and entertainment industry. It was a turning point in her life. It enabled her to free herself, and to criticize the priorities in her life. From now on, she would seek and explore another source of motivations for her life.

Finally, Shane Koyczan’s story is reminiscent of Peter Howson’s story in a post entitled Desert Moments with Peter Howson:

“I used to be very badly bullied at school and when I was a bouncer in a nightclub for quite a few years I changed in a false sense then, and became a bully myself.” In other words: Howson became the imitator of his persecutors… He followed the mimetic principle of vengeance.

CLICK TO WATCH the video To This Day (click here to read the lyrics in pdf):

I’d like to give some quotes from his TED-talk as well, because they illustrate some key insights from René Girard’s mimetic theory and they reminded me of those previous posts:

quote do not be conformed by this world RomansWe were expected to define ourselves at such an early age, and if we didn’t do it, others did it for us. Geek. Fatty. Slut. Fag. And at the same time we were being told what we were, we were being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always thought that was an unfair question. It presupposes that we can’t be what we already are.

See, they asked me what I wanted to be, then told me what not to be. And I wasn’t the only one. We were being told that we somehow must become what we are not, sacrificing what we are to inherit the masquerade of what we will be. I was being told to accept the identity that others will give me.

quote be this guyOne of the first lines of poetry I can remember writing was in response to a world that demanded I hate myself. From age 15 to 18, I hated myself for becoming the thing that I loathed: a bully. When I was 19, I wrote, “I will love myself despite the ease with which I lean toward the opposite.

CLICK TO WATCH Shane’s TED-talk:

Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism

Click here to read Mimetic Theory in High School.

In this post I’d like to present three types of the scapegoat mechanism as it evolves out of mimetic interactions, in a formulaic way. The following weeks I’ll post examples of these types (rap song Stan by Eminem, the biblical story of Cain and Abel and one storyline from the movie American Beauty – I already worked on these examples in my book, published in Dutch: Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll). This will show how these types or ‘formulas’ can be used to analyze inter/intrapersonal and social situations.

CLICK HERE FOR A PDF VERSION OF THE THREE TYPES OF THE SCAPEGOAT MECHANISM

metaphysical mimetic desire

THREE TYPES OF THE SCAPEGOAT MECHANISM

Scapegoat Mechanism Type 1 AUTO-AGGRESSIONScapegoat Mechanism Type 2 HETERO-AGGRESSIONScapegoat Mechanism Type 3 RESSENTIMENT OR SHAMEShame (explanation)

Empire of the Watchmen

[on two types of “rewards” – goals or consequences of one’s actions? – and the implications for human interactions]

“If there is no God, everything is permitted…”

This is basically the challenging idea of Ivan Karamazov, one of the main characters in The Brothers Karamazov, the famous novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). Could this be true in any way?

At the beginning of a new year, I always ask my students the following questions:

Suppose there is no principal’s office, suppose you could never be punished for any of your actions – would you still respect your fellow students and your teacher?

Suppose there are no grades to win, and you didn’t receive any reward for studying your courses and reading your books – would you still listen to your teachers and study?

What would you do if you are not watched, if you live outside “the empire of the watchmen”?

Consider Matthew 6:1-2 & 6:5: Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. […] So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. […] And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.

To put things slightly differently:

Suppose there is no hell, no punishment in any way, would you still respect your fellow man?

Suppose there is no heaven, no reward in any way, would you still respect your fellow man?

Actually, this is the kind of challenge Christianity puts us to. Christ teaches us that there isn’t something like a heaven as an established “world” for which we should bring all kinds of sacrifices in order to obtain it. As if heaven would be the ultimate goal and justification of our existence. That’s exactly like the reasoning of a student who is prepared to work hard at his courses and to obey his teachers, not because he’s intrinsically interested in his courses or respectful of his teachers, but because he considers getting good grades as his ticket to success, power and happiness – “paradise”.

Christ subverts this sacrificial logic. Rather than being an ultimate goal that justifies, explains and gives meaning to our life, “heaven” is the potential consequence of our actions. By taking up responsibility for ourselves and one another, by loving our neighbor (which is “the righteousness of God’s Kingdom”), we co-create “heaven”. To use the student-analogy again: the student who learns to be genuinely interested in his courses will get good grades as a logical consequence of his love for studying. And he will have learned something!

Consider Matthew 6:25-34: Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

On the other hand, those students who are focused only on getting good grades and who fear failure will tend to forget what they have learned from the moment they have their grades and no longer “need” the information from their courses. Or they will stop being friendly to their former teachers once they have graduated.

In short, Christ doesn’t want us to respect our neighbor because we fear hellish punishment or long for some heavenly reward. He wants us to respect our neighbor because of our neighbor. He liberates us from a system of fear and anxiety based on punishments and rewards, creates the possibility of responsibility (because only a free man can be responsible) and genuine love – without ulterior motives -, and transforms the nature of sacrifice. In Christ’s view, sacrifice is not a gift to receive something from someone you need, nor is it a necessary obligation to protect some kind of “honor gone mad” (see the tragedy of Japanese kamikaze pilots during the Second World War),  but it is a gift from people who are thankful for what they already received by living up to the possibilities of their freedom.

Consider Matthew 5:23-24: So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Of course, there’s a dark side as well to this liberation. Let’s go to the classroom once more. If a teacher tells his students that he will not punish them or, on the other hand, reward them with good grades, there are two possibilities: there will either be an atmosphere of cooperation guided by a genuine motivation to study, or… total mayhem – “hell”!

In Battling to the End, a book in which René Girard reconsiders the treatise On War by Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), the apocalyptic dimensions of Christ’s teachings are related to Christ’s deconstruction of “the god(s) of sacrifice” and of sacrificial systems in general. Girard makes clear that the biblical revelation indeed has two possible outcomes: either a world of ever more rivalry and violence, or a world of ever more Love.

Reading Battling to the End a while ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about two stories in the shadow of a potential apocalypse: Empire of the Sun and Watchmen. In both these stories further mayhem and violence is avoided – at least for the time being – by the restoration of a sacrificial system of fear. Empire of the Sun reminds us how the Second World War came to an end in Japan: by sacrificing tens of thousands of innocent people, victims of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Watchmen also displays this kind of sacrificial logic. In the fictional story of this graphic novel, the tensions between the US and the USSR during the Cold War are released after an alleged nuclear attack from outer space. Once again the death of millions of civilians provides a “peaceful world”, some sort of “paradise” – however precarious.

In Empire of the Sun, the way the Second World War unfolds in the Far East creates the setting for a boy’s coming of age story. Empire of the Sun actually is an autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard, and tells the story of an aristocratic British boy, James (“Jim”) Graham. In 1987, Steven Spielberg made a film based on Ballard’s novel, with a young and astonishing Christian Bale taking the lead role. In the film, Jim’s privileged life is upturned by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, December 8, 1941. Separated from his parents, he is eventually captured, and taken to Soo Chow confinement camp, next to a former Chinese airfield. Amidst the sickness and food shortages in the camp, Jim manages to survive and becomes a token of spirit and dignity to those around him, all the while hoping to get back “home” again. Jim eventually finds comfort in the arms of his mother, after losing his Japanese kamikaze-friend among many others… The scene of Jim reunited with his mother sheds a little light of hope in a world which seems condemned to the sacrificial peace of the atomic bomb – and a seemingly never ending story of fear and worries, with no peace of mind…

I made a compilation using scenes from both Empire of the Sun and Zack Snyder’s 2009 movie adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen. The two stories raise powerful questions regarding humanity’s possibility to cope with freedom and responsibility. I think they’re opening up a lot of issues that are also discussed at the COV&R Conference in Tokyo, Japan (July 5-8, 2012). As Jim learns towards the end of the film: there are no clear-cut, magical solutions to overcome the devastations of a world at war… But to follow Christ’s footsteps, one step at a time, might take us to unexpected and new dimensions. Watch out!

TO READ MORE ABOUT WATCHMEN AND MIMETIC THEORY, CLICK HERE TO READ – PDF

(this essay already appeared at The Raven Foundation and the Dutch Girard Society)

CLICK HERE TO RECEIVE INFORMATION ON MUSIC AND LYRICS USED IN THE COMPILATION – PDF

CLICK TO WATCH:

Dance and Drill

I just finished reading the thought-provoking little book Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, by William H. McNeill. The author experienced the effects of drill exercise and marching together himself during military training in September 1941:

“Marching aimlessly about on the drill field, swaggering in conformity with prescribed military postures, conscious only of keeping in step so as to make the next move correctly and in time somehow felt good. Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved. A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual.” (p.2).

This experience of ‘keeping together in time’ relies heavily on ‘mimetic’ ability, i.e. the ability to ‘imitate’ the movements of others. At the same time, individual rhythm is created by imitating the same movement over and over, as a ‘repetition’. ‘Losing’ your own individuality by bonding with others during a drill exercise seems closely connected to an ecstatic dance experience, as this is described by the late Michael Jackson:

“Consciousness expresses itself through creation. This world we live in is the dance of the creator. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye, but the dance lives on. On many an occasion when I am dancing, I have felt touched by something sacred. In those moments, I felt my spirit soar and become one with everything that exists. I become the stars and the moon. I become the lover and the beloved. I become the victor and the vanquished. I become the master and the slave. I become the singer and the song. I become the knower and the known. I keep on dancing… then it is the eternal dance of creation. The creator and the creation merge into one wholeness of joy. I keep on dancing… and dancing… and dancing. Until there is only… the Dance.”

There is a sacrificial element in dancing that is important for the formation of ritual. Dancing prepares individuals to lose their day-to-day consciousness in order to become part of a bigger whole. Dancing creates unity and peace. McNeill refers to the description of a ritual by the African Swazi people:

“The warriors dance and sing at the Incwala [an annual festival] so that they do not fight, although they are many and from all parts of the country and proud. When they dance they feel they are one and they can praise each other.” (p.8).

Sometimes the mimetic (i.e. ‘imitative’) process of dance and drill connects individuals so tightly to each other that they are willing, not only to lose themselves in an ecstatic experience, but also to actually and physically sacrifice their lives. McNeill illustrates this by citing a soldier’s ruminations about what he experienced during war:

“Many veterans who are honest with themselves will admit, I believe, that the experience of communal effort in battle, even under the altered conditions of modern war, has been the high point of their lives… Their ‘I’ passes insensibly into a ‘we’, ‘my’ becomes ‘our’, and individual fate loses its central importance… I believe that it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self sacrifice at these moments so relatively easy… I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my life.” (p.10).

McNeill then points to the close connections between the unity and bonds created by dance, ritual and drill on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the unity enhanced by directing these bonds towards a common enemy in violent and warlike situations:

“Obviously, this sort of merger between self and the surrounding group, attained in the heat of battle, is analogous to the ‘boundary loss’ attributed to dancers. It is also induced by close-order drill, though only in attenuated measure. If so, drill, dance, and battle belong together. All three create and sustain group cohesion; and the creation and maintenance of social groups – together with resulting rivalries among groups – constitute the warp and weft of human history.” (p.10).

In the following chapters McNeill suggests dancing rituals must have played a tremendous role in human evolution, regulating important aspects of community life. It is remarkable, especially if you’re familiar with René Girard’s mimetic theory, how dancing rituals seem to emerge around objects individuals of the same group could fight about – women, territory, food. McNeill describes how hunting could have become more efficient, structured by what Girard would call the pattern of ritual sacrifice – in which participants first lose themselves in the ‘chaotic’ yet community enhancing ecstasy of dance, followed by the commonly approved killing of a certain victim:

“… it seems best to settle for the observation that if Homo erectus bands learned to consolidate sentiments of social solidarity by dancing together, their hunting would have become more efficient. Hunters could, like modern pygmies, rehearse their past successes through dance, mimicking how they ambushed prey, drove it into a trap, or merely prodded it out of its burrow. Such re-enactments, combined with enhanced emotional solidarity provoked by the rhythms of dance, would – like military drill in Old Regime armies – make actual performances in the field more predictable. And, as was also true of such armies, the emotional bonding induced by dance would allow each individual hunter to play his part more bravely, standing firm when an encircled animal tried to break out, and using his stick in time-tested ways to turn it back or head it towards a trap prepared in advance.” (p.30).

McNeill goes so far as to propose the idea that ritualistic patterns, as ‘imitations’, indeed ‘re-enactments’, most likely preceded articulate language and structured future forms of communication. Ritual dance must have sustained communities during times of crisis:

“Dancing… could scarcely be so general if it did not have a positive effect on collective survival by consolidating common effort in crisis situations. The connection is most obvious in war dances, which prepared fighting men for the risks of ambush and battle; but the more general consolidation of sentiment among all members of the community, male and female, old and young, that community-wide dancing induced may well have been more important in maintaining everyday routines and all the forms of cooperative behavior needed for the effective conduct of community affairs.” (p.38).

In other words, dancing must have managed potentially violent situations among members of the same group. One such potentially violent situation concerns everything connected to sexuality, as ‘in the wild’ males tend to fight each other for females. The late Jim Morrison, singer of rock band The Doors, describes how the violent, death (‘thanatos’) oriented side of sexual energy (‘eros’) is somewhat controlled by the ‘cathartic’ power of ritual. The following quote is taken from the book by Stephen Davis, Jim Morrison – Life, Death, Legend (Ebury Press, London, 2005, p.182-183):

“As soon as quote factory Jim Morrison began giving interviews, ‘think pieces’ about the Doors and Rock Theater began appearing in the press, garlanded with poetic epigrams that were carefully strung together by Jim like love beads. ‘We’re really politicians. You could call us erotic politicians.’

‘We’re primarily a rock and roll band, a blues band, just a band – but that’s not all. A Doors concert is a public meeting called by us for a special kind of dramatic discussion and entertainment. When we perform, we’re participating in the creation of a world, and we celebrate that creation with the audience. It becomes the sculpture of bodies in action. That’s the political part, but our power is sexual. We make concerts sexual politics. The sex starts with me, then moves out to include the charmed circle of musicians onstage. The music we make goes out to the audience and interacts with them. They go home and interact with their reality, then I get it all back by interacting with that reality. So the whole sex thing works out to be one big ball of fire.’

‘I offer images. I conjure memories of… freedom. But we can only open doors; we can’t drag people through.’

‘Our work, our performing, is a striving for metamorphosis. It’s like a purification ritual, in the alchemical sense. First, you have to have the period of disorder, chaos; returning to a primeval disaster region. Out of that, you purify the elements, and find new seed of life, which transforms all life, all matter, all personality – until, finally, hopefully, you emerge and marry all those dualisms and opposites. Then you’re not talking about good and evil anymore, but about something unified and pure.’

Jim could even make sense when he was dead drunk. Thoroughly loaded, Jim slurred his words in what was supposed to be a major interview with a nervous, intimidated Richard Goldstein. ‘See, the shaman… he was a man who would intoxicate himself. See, he was probably already an… ah… unusual individual. And, he would put himself into trance by dancing, whirling around, drinking, taking drugs – however. Then he would go on a mental trip and… ah… describe his journey for the rest of the tribe.’

Everyone who read this understood what Jim was saying: that the Doors were more than just an act, more than just a rock band. Jim was calling signals, and the wide receivers of the nascent rock culture definitely caught the ball.”

Morrison’s reasoning reflects the strong connection between ‘violence’ and ‘the sacred’, a connection which René Girard worked out extensively in Violence and the Sacred. The Christian Story, Girard argues, unveils the violent mechanisms which produce the sacred, and criticizes the absolute necessity of sacrifice suggested by ‘traditional’ religion.

It is remarkable how William H. McNeill writes a book with insights so similar to those of mimetic theory, yet he never mentions René Girard. For me, this once again confirms the validity of essential claims made by Girard.

To end this post, I invite you to watch yet another compilation I made. This time I combined images of Leni Riefenstahl‘s Nazi propaganda film Triumph des Willens and a video of Michael Jackson. It shows the close connections, discussed by McNeill, between dance, drill and war, or, as Girard would say, between violence and the sacred – idolatry being one of the most important effects of the mechanisms which produce that ‘sacred’.

Please don’t get me wrong. By compiling these images I’m not implying Michael Jackson ever sympathized with Nazi Germany. On the contrary, Michael Jackson seems to absorb the mechanisms which are potentially violent and dangerous to produce some ‘ecstatic’ celebration in the realm of entertainment. After all, he was one of the biggest entertainers of all time. Sadly and tragically he paid the price for that, as he couldn’t escape the sacrificial mechanisms of mass adoration (for more on this, read my post The Church of David LaChapelle).

CLICK TO WATCH the compilation: