Girard: Desire, Doubles and Violence

René Girard’s theory of mimetic rivalry (or mimetic desire) presents an account of human relationships based upon the imitative nature of desire. It offers an explanation of how violence generates the structures of human community, and examines how myth, ritual, and prohibition both conceal and control violence. Underlying this theory is the structuralist idea of difference: Girard is writing in the wake of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ adaptation of de Saussure’s linguistic structuralism to the anthropological study of societies: for Lévi-Strauss, social order is structured by differences. Thus, the loss of difference marks the breakdown of the social order.

Girard maintains that human desire is mimetic: we learn what to desire by copying the desires of others. The desires we mimic can take many forms. Advertising and consumer culture offer obvious examples: seeing others enjoy certain products fosters an acquisitive longing for those products. Conflicts arise when desire becomes acquisitive: if supply—for whatever reason—is limited, mimetic rivals soon find their craving focused on a single object and their relationship becomes conflictual (Things Hidden 126).

However, the real issue at stake in mimetic rivalry is not simply the possession of any particular object/product. Mimetic rivalry replaces acquisitive desire for coveted things when the rivals become aware at an unconscious level that they “lack” part of what it is to be a complete human being. The rivals’ experience of their own lack therefore entails a “misrecognition” of the other as whole and complete. The other is seen as the representative of “genuine” personhood: s/he is the “model” that embodies the desires and possessions that constitute “authentic” human being. At bottom, rivals covet not a common object but each other’s “wholeness.” In mimetic rivalry the other exists simultaneously as model and obstacle. These dual roles are inseparable because there is competition to fulfill desire. The coupling of model and obstacle leads to violence.

To an external viewer, the rivals then form doubles: in taking each other as a model, each creates/ becomes a mutual obstacle for each other. Doubles invariably lock into a reciprocity of escalating frustration and antagonism, and this mimetic exchange becomes violent. However, the rivals appear to each other as something other than human—rivals often see each others as monstrous.

“Order, peace and fecundity depend on cultural distinctions,” the loss of which “gives birth to fierce rivalries and sets members of the same family or social group at one another’s throats” (Violence and Sacred, 49). This can be a loss of distinction (“symmetry”) between good/ evil, fathers/ sons, male/ female, humans/ beasts, humans/ gods, animate/ inanimate objects, and so on. It is important to note that several of the texts on the reading list are obsessed with doubles (Alex/ the Law, Tyler/ the narrator, Ripley/ Dickie, etc.) and the inability to tell one identity from another. These texts, therefore, may be said to be enact what Girard refers to as the “sacrificial crisis”—a generalized state of violent chaos which is characterized by the loss of distinctions brought about by “mimetic contagion.”

After a period of this violent chaos, people begin to search for its cause. However, no one person or group can be solely responsible for the violence and disorder because violence is contagious and mimetic. The crisis will continue to mount until a surrogate victim—a scapegoat—is identified and killed—“sacrificed.” For Girard this is an essentially religious act of “sacred [“good”] violence.”

The act of sacrifice cathects all the mimetically generated violence onto an arbitrary victim. Since this dynamic works unconsciously, the group is also able to transfer responsibility for the violence onto the victim, even to the point of attributing to him/her the violence they have just committed against him/her (“justification”). Through “scapegoating,” disorder is reduced and difference—and thus peace—returns to the larger community.

For Girard, then, murder/ sacrifice lies behind every peaceful order. The scapegoat mechanism channels violence away from the community and towards a surrogate victim: the surrogate victim is “identified” as the origin of the violence which threatened to destroy the community. The “peace” that follows the sacrifice throws the violence that preceded it into relief. Thus, the act of scapegoating (re)establishes the key conceptual difference that founds social order: “good”/ “bad” violence.

For Girard, religion, ritual and prohibition arise from the sacrificial crisis. All three are generated by the scapegoating through which communities seek to control their violence. Religion, through ritual, reenacts and discharges mimetic rivalry by dispatching sacrificial victims—think of the ritual consumption of Christ. Societies also try to prohibit things that are so mimetically charged that they provoke intense rivalries merely by being available (drugs, weapons, certain technologies, etc). Prohibition and ritual attempt to foreclose sacrificial crises and suppress violence before it explodes (see, for example, Things Hidden 121).


In the absence of a transcendent (i.e., juridical) power, literary texts function not unlike ritual and prohibition, to the extent that they argue for a reduction in violence and routinely offer their own sacrificial victims or scapegoats.



Further Reading:


René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977

René Girard, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987