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1In order to understand the status of the political in the thought of René Girard, we shall attempt to address two closely connected questions. We shall first attempt to show that there is scant space for the political in the most recent version of Girard’s “mimetic theory:” the tripartite system of “mimetic desire,” the “victimage mechanism,” and “Judeo-Christian revelation.” We shall then attempt to determine the conditions under which the core of the system might nevertheless contribute to a theory of the political or, in other words, the sacrifices and amendments that mimetic theory would have to undergo in order to be applicable to a great swathe of social life, which at present it tends to pass over or dissolve rather than explain. These are actually two aspects of one and the same problem, the solution to the former bringing with it the solution to the latter.

2Due to considerations of space, we shall assume a general familiarity with the main tenets of Girard’s anthropology. [1] Let us simply recall that, from his third book onward, [2] Girard believes he can explain all of the characteristics specific to individual and collective human life on the basis of a single principle: the mimetic excess that distinguishes the human species from other primates. For Girard – and this is essential to our thesis – mimesis is the principal source of all the conflicts that can tear apart and poison a community, for it causes the desires of both individuals and groups to spontaneously converge on the same objects. At the same time, however, it also constitutes the cure for the ills to which it gives rise, insofar as its capacity to spontaneously focus violence on a single target – the “surrogate victim” – allows it to temporarily reconcile the community that it has divided, by way of a unanimous and cathartic act. Without this salutary, self-regulating “victimage mechanism,” human societies and, ultimately, humanity as a whole, would succumb to a mimetic crisis that could only end in humanity’s self-destruction. [3]

3Furthermore, we shall take as a given the classical definition of the political as “the totality of activities, mechanisms, and institutions through which a society maintains its inner harmony and external security.” [4] For harmony and security are not immediate and stable givens. They must be safeguarded by an authority or a system that is capable of regulating the conflicts that arise within a community or between it and other communities. It is this capacity for conflict management that constitutes the essence of political power. Let us note here that it is not necessarily the preserve of one part of the community, one that is endowed with a coercive power and that looks down on the rest from on high; it can also be embodied in the very fabric of certain social structures. [5]

A Paradoxical Absence

4Given these two definitions-that of the victimage mechanism and that of the political system as such – we might expect to find in Girard a renewal of political anthropology as much as one of religious anthropology. And yet, this is not at all the case. Although Girard brought to light a principle of conflict management which allowed him to rethink the existing theories of sacrifice and its associated rituals, and even to account for certain practical developments such as the domestication of animals, he never attempts to apply this principle to the political domain, or more generally to the analysis of relations of domination and subordination between human beings. [6] His writings contain no extended study of, nor any elaboration on, all that bears on the political. Although he often pillories social contract theories, he does not show whether and how the victimage theory might explain what they cannot, and this is the case throughout his work. Nowhere does he offer a novel analysis of political power and the forms it assumes, nor of the divisions and conflicts that it creates, nor of their possible resolution. One looks in vain through Girard’s works for his precise views on the state and its functions, the status of nations, the relations between the religious and the political, the functioning of democracy, etc. When he does broach these questions, it is only in the various interviews he has granted, which have not all been published. But there he only touches on these questions without ever subjecting them to a systematic treatment. At most, he sketches an account of the genesis of centralized power, in suggesting that the sacred king – originally a sacrificial victim granted a reprieve – was able to take advantage of the delay between the assumption of his position and his ritual immolation in order to gradually transform himself into a political leader and thereby turn the “burden of royalty” into a form of coercive power. [7]

5The absence of a political theory in his work is all the more surprising considering that Girard himself has always been concerned with life and with concrete political problems. His early works considered the relations between France and the United States, and his Battling to the End[8] betrayed a deep knowledge of the political history of Europe, a fact which surprised many readers. If, then, his mimetic theory – to which nothing that is human is supposed to be incomprehensible – passes silently over such an important aspect of social life, this cannot be due to mere negligence on his part, nor to the inevitability of some sort of lacuna in a domain that does not admit of exhaustive treatment. It is likely that there are deep-seated theoretical reasons for this silence. What these reasons are, we shall now attempt to discover.

From Triangular Desire to Mimetic Desire

6As is well known, Girard has used the expressions “triangular desire” and then “mimetic desire” in order to indicate that a subject’s relation to an object is always mediated by another subject. We do not desire things because they are desirable but because another’s desire, real or imagined, makes them appear so. But this third party is not only a model for the desiring subject. As soon as the latter starts to follow in his footsteps, the model also becomes an obstacle and a potential rival. This is the driving force of Girard’s anthropology, and the source of the continual resurgence of violence in human relations. On this point, Girard’s view has never altered, which is why commentators have generally failed to note that the notions of triangular desire and mimetic desire are not entirely equivalent, and that the slide from the former to the latter does not represent a mere terminological shift.

7At the very beginning of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Girard distinguishes between two forms of triangular desire: one involving external mediation, in which the mediator is an imaginary or real transcendent model (e.g. Amadis de Gaule, Napoleon, or a distinguished contemporary) with whom no rivalry is possible, and one involving internal mediation, in which the model is similar to oneself and, ipso facto, a possible rival. Although Girard himself does not remark on it, this early analysis of desire conceives of imitation as a secondary phenomenon. Desire is not triggered by mimesis, but rather, to use the classical vocabulary of the passions, in the one case by admiration for the model, and in the other by envy or jealousy. It is these passions that lead to mimetic behavior.

8Furthermore, as Marxist thinkers such as Lucien Goldmann have observed, Girard does not treat these passions themselves, or these systems of desire, as basic elements, but traces them back to distinct political and social systems. In accordance with de Tocqueville’s analyses, he associates external mediation with aristocratic societies and internal mediation with democratic societies. [9] Even if the seeds of mimetic theory were already there in his first book, [10] the fact remains that mimesis is not yet there seen as a blind drive operating in an undifferentiated space. Snobbery, which, following Hocart, Girard discovers to be as important for sociology as it is neglected by sociologists, amounts at heart to the imitation of the great figures of the world. [11] If Girard sees it as a characteristic feature of democratic societies, [12] this is because it takes on an intensified form there due to the absence of the transcendent mediator to which it aspires. Although it remains implicit, the primacy accorded to external mediation is essential, for the latter is not simply a prior condition that is destined to disappear in the imitative domino effect that it engenders, even though Girard himself will later give this impression. Indeed, we must not forget that, as Descartes and Freud rightly emphasized, we are necessarily children before we are adults and that, without the protection of adults, children would perish. Thus, whether we live in a hierarchical society or not, whether our upbringing is authoritarian or not, our first experience is of an absolute dependence on adults. By the same stroke, the latter are our first models, and perhaps the mold from which all the others are cast. External mediation is not, then, a contingent feature of the human condition; it is constitutive of it. [13]

9It is precisely this basic truth that fades into the background in Things Hidden, losing its place at the heart of mimetic theory. As soon as man is defined as a mimetic animal, and as soon as this property is supposed to govern all the others, the mimetic relation is immediately conceived as reciprocal and symmetrical. There is no more reason to be interested in the fact that A imitates B than there is to be interested in the fact that B imitates A. The two processes occur at the same time and, what is more, sustain each other. Girard therefore now sets out from mimetic rivalry [14] in order, without further ado, to describe its deleterious effects and discover its regulatory mechanism. Right from the start he focusses on the negative reciprocity of violent exchange, just as Lévi-Strauss looked from the outset to the positive reciprocal play constituted by the exchange of women. Reciprocity is the keyword of his “fundamental anthropology,” as it was for structural anthropology. He therefore runs the same risk as his predecessor. The latter had planned a study of the “structures of subordination” [15] which would have formed a counterpart to his study of the “structures of communication,” but never saw the light of day. More prudently, or perhaps simply because he is less sensitive to this lacuna, Girard passes over the issue of relations of domination and subordination in complete silence. It is not until the last part of Things Hidden that the notion of external mediation very discreetly reappears, and then only within the framework of an “interdividual psychology.” This neologism, created by Girard in order to characterize such psychology, is by itself highly indicative of his almost exclusive interest in what he calls “relations between doubles,” or the twin brothers of mimetic rivalry – or, to put it more precisely still, the conjoined twin brothers of mimetic rivalry. [16] At the end of his analysis, only one form of external mediation remains capable of resisting the erosion of differences and the contagion that occurs in relations between doubles. Between the imitation of Jesus Christ and a deadly mimetic dynamic, there is no longer any middle path toward the salvation of humanity.

The Victimage Mechanism and Morphogenesis

10Nevertheless, in the Girardian system there is one way out of the cycle of reciprocal violence and its attendant destruction of differences [effets d’indifférenciation]. This is the surrogate victim mechanism, which is both cathartic and morphogenetic. The process of its discovery and its fundamental properties were first expounded in Violence and the Sacred; its description was then taken up again and its effects more fully described in the first part of Things Hidden.

11In both of these works, Girard’s approach is that of a naturalist attempting to move from ethology to ethnology, i.e. to form plausible conjectures on the emergence of the process of hominization and the genesis of the institutions specific to human societies on the basis of observation of the animal world. Nevertheless, he does not follow quite the same path in each work. As we know, in Things Hidden, he defines the human species via two distinctive properties: on the one hand, the absence of those natural relations of domination found in other primates; on the other, a greater aptitude and propensity for mimesis, which is linked to human beings’ larger brain volume. He develops these ethological arguments, however, only after having already constructed the essential elements of his theory of the victimage mechanism [17] – which he deduces from the mimetic capacities intuitively attributable to human beings, and which he shows to be capable of generating the whole range of cultural phenomena: rituals and prohibitions, monarchical institutions, trading rules, the domestication of animals, and so on. In Violence and the Sacred, he starts out from an observation often made by experts on animal behavior; namely, the ease with which an animal that is prevented from satisfying its aggressive drives can find an alternative object for them. It is this observation which leads him to discover in human beings an analogous cathartic process, also based on the transference of violence to a substitute victim, but this time operating at the level of the community: the victimage mechanism.

12Let us imagine a society in the grip of widespread violence, a society breaking apart along a plethora of fault lines. And suppose that at a particular moment, for one reason or another, all of the resentments felt by the various members of the community come to be focused on a single victim – the surrogate victim – and that the community then rains down on him in unison. There is little doubt that such a unanimously approved, collectively committed murder, which distills the violence of the whole community and unleashes it on a single victim, should calm and reconcile the community, temporarily purging it of its poisonous atmosphere. Now suppose that, once calm has been restored and unity regained, the community, aware of having reached the brink of implosion, wishes to eliminate the risk of returning to that state. In that case it will not only introduce prohibitions to prevent violence from erupting and spreading again, but because violence cannot be completely contained, the community will also periodically provide a public and legitimate outlet for it, by means of appropriate rituals. For Girard, this is the original function of sacrifice, the efficacy of which is based on a double substitution: first, a “founding act violence” substitutes a unique victim for all the members of the community; then an act of ritual immolation substitutes a “sacrificable” victim, taken from the margins of or outside the community, for the surrogate victim of collective murder. [18]

13Catharsis and substitution are then the two pillars of the victimage mechanism and its byproducts. They are the two properties that are attributed to it from the start of Violence and the Sacred, and are, in our view, the least contestable. It is only at a later stage that Girard returns to mimetic desire in order to claim that it is the sole generative principle of both the crisis that tears the community apart and the mechanism that spontaneously heals this division. In doing so, he attributes to the mechanism itself, as to the mimesis from which it is supposed to issue, a seeming excess of morphogenetic properties. Furthermore, he holds that its cathartic and regulatory power is dependent on a strict condition which, in truth, is perhaps not essential: human beings’ misrecognition of the mechanism that they unwittingly act out. It thus remains for us to examine these two crucial aspects of the theory, in order to discern its limits.

14The first chapter of Violence and the Sacred contains a weak spot that its author has never amended. He claims that in societies without a state – which he wrongly defines as societies lacking a judicial system [19] – sacrifice would be the only form of legitimate violence. Having characterized sacrifice as a form of violence that does not risk vengeance, he then adds that, in such societies, it would also be the only effective way of eliminating the mortal danger that they face. While the victimage mechanism spontaneously puts an end to the violent excesses of the cycle of reprisals, the sacrificial ritual deliberately takes the initiative: it prevents the explosion of violent desires and the ensuing spiral of vengeance by periodically throwing these desires a bone. Because every violent act invokes another, and because all reprisals invoke further reprisals in turn, without sacrifice the whole society would rapidly be engulfed by violence.

15But is this really the case? With good reason, Raymond Verdier has raised the objection to Girard that vengeance itself might be ritualized. [20] Far from being blind, excessive, and sans foi ni loi, the vengeance that has been observed in societies without a state is on the contrary targeted, calculated, and governed by a code of honor. Far from destroying a society, it reestablishes a balance between the groups that compose it, and at the same time prevents any one group from wiping out another. For Verdier, Girard remains blind to the existence of a civilized form of vengeance, present in “vindicatory systems,” which he confuses with a notion of savage vengeance borrowed from theorists of the state of nature – which is an imaginary construct of no use to either the ethnologist or the historian. Verdier might have added that Girard reduces the vindicatory to the vindictive, just as others have lumped together sacrifice and murder.

16What is the root of Girard’s error, and why has it not been rectified either by him or by his overly zealous disciples? The cause of his error lies in a form of reasoning by association, the faulty character of which might easily go unnoticed. As he writes, “Vengeance, then, is an interminable, infinitely repetitive process. Every time it turns up in some part of the community, it threatens to involve the whole social body.” [21] As this passage makes clear, Girard surreptitiously slides, without the least proof, from a thesis concerning time to one concerning space. Later on, his mimetic hypothesis will help to make this slide smoother and even to give it legitimacy. That vengeance is an interminable process does not imply that it is contagious. Two families, lineages, clans, or nations, can bear each other an eternal hatred, passing it on from generation to generation, without thereby pulling other families, lineages, clans, or nations, into the fray, nor, a fortiori, causing the community as a whole – or more apocalyptically, the whole world – to be engulfed by violence. A segmental societal structure is, on the contrary, a barrier to such proliferation, [22] and the vindicatory logic elucidated by Verdier is a means of buttressing this firewall.

17If Girard and the majority of his commentators have failed to grasp this objection, it is not just due to lack of information; it is also because the savage vengeance and the generalized violence described in Violence and the Sacred are not purely imaginary, as Verdier claims, but are potentially present in all societies. The study of vindicatory systems itself shows that they are not perfectly stable and self-regulating, but are often on the verge of tipping over into the savage vengeance that they are meant to contain. What is interesting is that in these dangerous situations, it is usually by means of sacrificial mechanisms and rituals that the looming disaster is averted and balance restored. It is as though sacrifice were, in the final analysis, the vindicatory system’s regulatory principle or safety valve. [23]

18It is nonetheless true, however, that the vindicatory system is a particular form of legitimate violence, and though it is neither a form of sacrificial nor of state violence, it possesses no less regulatory power. To ignore it is to disregard societies without a state, and to disregard these is to deny oneself the possibility of properly understanding the state, of comprehending the specificity in which it consists. In Violence and the Sacred, the latter is implicitly reduced to the criminal justice system. Now, as the death penalty undeniably has its origins in sacrifice, [24] it follows that the decline of sacrificial practices will ultimately lead to the decline of the state. Thus, in the postsacrificial world described by Girard from Things Hidden onward, there is no longer a place for the state, nor for politics in general. Following the devaluation of all institutions, there remains an undifferentiated space which offers no resistance to mimetic rivalries, themselves now deprived of any form of internal regulation.

19In order to understand this idea of a tabula rasa, it is necessary to return to the principle of sacrifice as it is interpreted in mimetic theory. It is because the victimage mechanism is supposed to have generated everything else that it brings everything else down with it in its fall. This postulate, however, appears rather rash. For if mimesis, being the main architect of things, could therefore destroy everything, it does not follow that it could also rebuild everything by itself. One can use a hammer to destroy a computer but not to repair it, or to kill someone but not to bring them back to life. We must therefore tread carefully here.

20We can accept Girard’s definition of what he first called the “sacrificial crisis” and then the “mimetic crisis” as a crisis of a lack of differentiation [crise d’indifférenciation]: the loss of any difference between the salutary violence of sacrifice and the homicidal violence of murder, or between friends and enemies, parents and children, and masters and disciples – all of these differences are swept away in the whirlwind of mimetic rivalry. We can also concede that the unanimous alliance against the surrogate victim puts an end to this crisis, not only by providing an outlet for the pent-up violence and overcoming the divisions within the community, but also by reestablishing the difference between legitimate and illegitimate violence, and the difference between the sanctified victim and the lynch mob that has now come to worship him, once its members have been reconciled with one another through him. However, the victimage mechanism cannot achieve any more than this. It allows the differences that had been effaced by the crisis to reappear, but it neither creates nor recreates them. This is clear where generational or sexual difference is concerned, but it is no doubt also true for many other differences and hierarchies. The victimage mechanism creates a climate in which they can flourish, but it does not itself generate them.

21Girard is confronted with the same problem as that faced by social contract theorists. He improves on their analyses, but runs into no less intractable difficulties. Mimetic rivalry amounts to a more radical version of what in Leviathan Hobbes calls “the state of nature” and what Rousseau, in the Second Discourse calls “a new state of nature” or in The Social Contract, “our primitive state.” A state of war is no longer potential or hypothetical, but inevitable and necessary. It is not only brought about through competition for indivisible objects or by an accidental transformation of self-love [amour de soi] into egoism[amour-propre]. Rather, because human beings are mimetic, they inevitably covet the same objects, and when two rivals meet, they are necessarily more concerned with “the obstacle to be overcome than the object to be attained.” [25] As Hobbes says, in this state of general war, human beings seek peace as a condition of their survival. For Rousseau, the human species would perish were it not to change its way of being. But in such a situation, how are human beings to come to an understanding that would allow them to substitute peace or harmony for war? It is to Girard’s credit that he addresses this question. A unanimous act of violence against a surrogate victim is precisely “the act by which a people is a people,” the act which transforms a multiplicity into the unified totality [totalité solidaire] sought by Rousseau. And in the sanctified victim we can glimpse the dawn of the “mortal god” who for Hobbes was to take on the role of the sovereign.

22However, spurred on by, and almost as though he were intoxicated with, the success of his analysis, Girard immediately compromises it by seeking to derive all of the institutions and essential characteristics of human societies from mimesis alone. Rousseau was both more modest and more lucid when, in his Constitutional Project for Corsica, or in his Considerations on the Government of Poland, he did not base his reasoning on an abstract and general notion of humanity but on particular peoples, each endowed with a specific national tradition.

23Let us be clear: Girard is quite justified in reviving the state of nature tradition. As Hobbes and Rousseau knew, yet today’s social scientists tend to forget, thought experiments are not only legitimate but are in fact indispensable. In order to establish the principle of inertia, it is first of all necessary to imagine frictionless movement; in order to establish the law of gravity, it is first of all necessary to imagine bodies falling in a vacuum, even if nature abhors a vacuum. It is because he understood and heeded this necessity that Galileo is rightly considered the father of modern physics. Einstein proceeded in the same way in establishing the theory of relativity. Girard is then perfectly justified in asking what humanity would be if the individuals composing it were ruled exclusively by mimesis, and in establishing certain wide-ranging principles on the back of this hypothesis. His only mistake was to stop there. His mimetic theory, we might say, ignores friction. It proceeds as though all of physics followed from the law of inertia alone, as though we could describe the falling of a body without taking into account the resistance of the air. His reading of Clausewitz demonstrates this. Girard takes from him only the notion of an “escalation to extremes.” At no point does he look for a mechanism that might slow down this escalation. If Clausewitz himself appeared to seek out such a mechanism, this was only because he shrank back from his discovery, hesitating to draw all of its consequences. This is why, for Girard, it is necessary to complete his work.

24In short, it is Girard’s blindness to anything exterior to and independent of mimesis that detracts from his anthropology. Two further examples, with which we shall conclude this section, will allow us to demonstrate this, should any further proof be required.

25Despite the fact that it plays a significant role in all societies, Girard says almost nothing about sexual difference. This is detrimental to his account of initiation ceremonies, which focuses exclusively on their sacrificial dimension. Having deduced from the mimetic principle that desire “lacks an object,” [26] he does not see that in most societies initiation ceremonies serve as the locus of a battle of the sexes for control over procreation. [27] This oversight is equally detrimental to his general theory of the social bond, which is likewise exclusively based on the victimage mechanism and mimesis, and supposes that these operate in a neutral and homogeneous social space. Yet it can hardly be doubted that, as Hume saw, the mutual attraction between the sexes is one of the main sources of sociability. It works to institute relations of equality between parents and between children, as well as hierarchical relations between generations, and divides the social sphere into relatively stable and autonomous units. As mimesis is, for Girard, principally a source of violence, it is likely that such family ties could serve as a counterpoint to its destructive effects.

26Girard often speaks of human “communities,” but never of their limits, nor of the territory that they inhabit. [28] More precisely, he does offer a hypothesis on the origin of the point around which any group assembles – this is of course the site where the surrogate victim was killed – [29] but he offers no theory of and, indeed, does not even mention, territorial borders. [30] Nevertheless, many sacrificial rituals are performed on the edges of a community’s territory, and for peoples that lack political bodies, such rituals can serve as a means to extending their territory and absorbing new populations. [31]

The Victimage Mechanism and Ignorance Misrecognition

27Another contentious aspect of mimetic theory is that it sees misrecognition [méconnaissance] as a sine qua non of the successful functioning of the victimage mechanism. It is only because human beings know not what they do, only because they are the pawns of the victimage mechanism, that the latter can reconcile them at the victim’s expense. If they knew that this victim were neither more nor less responsible for the ills afflicting the community than any other of its members, his murder would lose its cathartic power and would even become impossible.

28Girard clings to this hypothesis because it constitutes the fundament of what he calls “Judeo-Christian revelation.” The latter is nothing less than the slow unveiling of the victimage mechanism over the entire course of the Bible, an unveiling which is consummated in the drama of the Passion. It follows that all of the rituals and institutions that have their origins in the victimage mechanism – in other words, all of the known forms of civilization – would begin to totter when irremediably undermined by the discovery of the murders and the corpses on which they rest. This is not the place to discuss this interpretation of the revelation. We shall only attempt to show that the premise on which it is based is extremely fragile.

29We would not deny, of course, that misrecognition plays a significant role in human relations, particularly in violent relations. To this extent, Girard’s account of mimetic rivalry is convincing. The more the conflict between two rival parties escalates, the more they come to resemble each other, and the more they imagine themselves to be different from each other. In general, a third party does not fall for this illusion. But it can happen that the proximity between the opposed values, of which the two parties claim or believe themselves to be the last line of defense, succeeds in going unnoticed by anyone.

30We can therefore concede that both the victimage mechanism and the rituals that flow from it are always accompanied by a significant degree of misrecognition; but does it necessarily follow that without misrecognition the mechanism would be completely ineffective and the sacrifice useless? A few examples will suffice to show that that is unlikely to be the case. Let us begin with an example that Girard knows well, that of the Buphonia. In the course of this ceremony, an ox is sacrificed in a very precise ritual manner, the details of which it is not necessary to recall here. However, this sacrifice, whose name means “ox-slaying,” has a very distinctive character: it is followed by the simulacrum of a trial, as though the killing of the ox were a crime for which the guilty party ought to be punished. Indeed, the one who felled the ox immediately fled the scene, as though he had done something wrong. Unable to fall on him, the remaining participants begin to accuse each other of bearing the principal responsibility for the victim’s murder, until the point when the sacrificial knife, [32] accused in turn and unable to defend itself, is found guilty and thrown into the sea. It is evident that the violent origins of this sacrifice – attributed by Girard to all rituals of this kind – do not need to be concealed in order for it to constitute a religious and legitimate act; on the contrary, these origins are made quite clear in the second act of the ritual, when the knife takes the place of the surrogate victim. The ritual is both a perfect illustration of the theory of sacrificial substitution and a refutation of the theory of ignorance.

31We might say the same thing of the Jewish scapegoat ritual (Leviticus, 16), which, curiously, Girard has never analyzed. Two goats that are as similar as possible are chosen; lots are then drawn in order to determine which will be offered to Yahweh and which to Azazel. The first – the ritual victim – is burned as a sin offering; the second – the scapegoat or surrogate victim – having been burdened with all of the sin of Israel, is sent into the desert. The text only states that, on his return, the man who has led the goat to Azazel must cleanse himself. Many commentators claim that his mission was to cast the goat into a ravine. [33] Sacrifice in its literal sense is thus closely associated with an ignominious death. Here again, the ritual ceremony bears not only the trace but, as it were, the ritual memory, of its violent foundations.

32This, however, is not all. We know that Jewish sacrifices completely disappeared during the first century AD. This was not because the realization or revelation of the sacrifices’ violent origins invalidated them, but because since Josiah’s reforms all sacrifices had to be performed in the Temple, and this had not been rebuilt following its destruction by the Romans. Pious Jews have contented themselves with reading the sacrificial prescriptions contained in the Law on the appropriate dates and times of the ritual calendar. When performing the ritual in which we are most interested, however, they do much more than this. As Frazer writes, “Modern Jews sacrifice a white cock on the eve of the Day of Atonement […] The father of the family knocks the cock thrice against his own head, saying, “Let this cock be a substitute for me, let it take my place, let death be laid upon this cock, but a happy life bestowed on me and on all Israel. Then he cuts its throat and dashes the bird violently on the ground. The intestines are thrown on the roof of the house.” [34] Leaving aside its nonliteral use of the verb “to sacrifice,” this passage describes a private version of the collective scapegoat ritual, bringing to light in startling fashion the violence inherent in it. Girard often compares the ritual process to a criminal who continually attempts to efface the traces of his deed. Here, the opposite is the case. The high priest and the sacrificial victim have disappeared, but the ritual brings the surrogate victim and its terrible fate to the forefront. The main byproducts of the victimage mechanism are lacking, but the mechanism itself and its violent mise en scène remain, as though it were more stable than the rituals it has engendered, or even indestructible.

33A great deal of evidence supports this hypothesis. Machiavelli, for example, tells of how Cesare Borgia repaid Remirro de Orco for his good and faithful service. Given carte blanche by Borgia in his mission of pacifying Romagna, this “cruel and ready man” soon drove the brigands from the region and restored order and security, to the general satisfaction of its inhabitants. But his brutal methods nevertheless caused collateral damage and incited much resentment. Borgia therefore, “had him placed one morning in the piazza at Cesena in two pieces, with a piece of wood and a bloody knife beside him. The ferocity of this spectacle left the people at once satisfied and stupefied.” [35] Like a floorcloth that, soiled with all the dirt it has picked up, is discarded once it has fulfilled its function, like the pharmakos that was either put to death or banished from the city, but only after having been made to pass through all of the streets and squares in order to carry away their pestilential odor, the faithful servant is served up for public condemnation, in order that all of the violence and disorder that in one way or another he had a hand in be swept away along with him. Here we are no longer dealing with a ritual, but with the political exploitation of the victimage mechanism. It crudely reveals to us the workings of such rituals, without this revelation damaging the mechanism’s efficacy in the least.

34We also find the mechanism at work in the genesis of the modern world. Let us compare the traditional coronation ceremony of the Mwami – the king of Rwanda [36] – with the speech given by Saint-Just on 13 November 1792, during the trial of Louis XVI. In a crucial respect, these bear a significant resemblance. The Rwandan king is treated as a condemned man. A bull is sacrificed in front of him and finished off like a wild beast. The king then climbs on to the animal’s flank and is drenched with blood in order to emphasize their identification as fully as possible. An official presiding over the ceremony then recites the following lines: “I sentence you to wounding by spear, broadsword, vireton, rifle, club, and machete. If any man or woman has died from an arrow or spear wound…I shall inflict these wounds on you.” As Luc de Heusch has noted, “we can see the Mwami being transformed into a scapegoat, burdened with the crimes of the whole kingdom.” Exactly the same could be said of Louis XVI as he appears in Saint-Just’s violent indictment, particularly when the latter attributes to him, in extensive detail, the guilt for all the blood spilled since the beginning of the Revolution: at the Bastille, at Nancy, on the Champ de Mars, at Tournay, at the Tuileries, and so on. While in the Rwandan ritual the king’s life is spared, first by sacrificing an animal in his place, then by allowing him to escape from a burning wooden hut in which he has taken refuge, the hot-headed revolutionary recommends that the Convention not waste any time on a judicial ritual, to which Louis, guilty of the greatest evils ever inflicted on the nation, has no right. As he says, those whose task it is to “found a republic,” ought on the contrary to do away with the tyrant as the Romans rid themselves of Caesar. Even though his recommendation was not followed to the letter, and though the trial did go ahead, Louis XVI was found guilty of monstrous crimes and decapitated; and though the decision was far from unanimous, [37] his death did in fact serve to irreversibly found the republic. In this way, the Revolution did not strip politics of its sacred dimension but only replaced the king’s sovereignty with the no less mysterious concept of the Nation. Everything that had been royal became national. The nation is the religious complement of the republican state, with its cult, its rituals, and its sacrificial demands inscribed in black and white in the Marsellaise and the Chant du depart[38] – but it took many decades for this cult to become established. For more than a century, the monarchists were able to give the impression, or labor under the illusion, of being capable of regaining power, without ever succeeding in reviving a past that had died [passé révolu]. Nevertheless, it was not a political defeat that definitively took the reins of power from them, but what has fittingly been called the “sacred union” against the common enemy, i.e. the new cult of the nation, consecrated in blood under the auspices of the victimage mechanism once again.

35The common counterargument to this idea is that nations are now themselves in decline and destined to disappear. As widespread as it is in certain western countries, this impression is surely misleading. The least stable political entities are great empires and multination or multiethnic states, which is why, far from disappearing, borders rather have a habit of multiplying. [39]

36Two of the most significant political phenomena of the last century – communism and National Socialism – are also two of the most significant religious phenomena. Both regimes developed similar, imposing rituals; both made scapegoats of the “classist enemies” on the one hand and the “stateless Jews” on the other. However, as both attempted to build a new empire, we should not be too quick to conclude that their failure demonstrates the decrepitude of the victimage mechanism. Among the many causes of their downfall is no doubt a common overestimation of the power of human will, which led on the one hand to such a defiance of the laws of nature as to induce economic misery and on the other to a headlong rush into suicidal wars of conquest. By itself, the victimage mechanism is incapable of halting such self-destructive processes; once again, it is not all-powerful. However, it does not need to be so in order for it to be omnipresent. We have just traversed several centuries in the history of the western world, without seeing it bend or show signs of weakening. Why should it be otherwise in the future? It is unlikely that we have seen the last of it.

A Girardian Theory of Democracy?

37An African custom previously served as the inspiration for an article that we devoted to the ritual origins of democracy. [40] In this case, a ritual hunt was resorted to in order to resolve a futile dispute that threatened to degenerate into a violent confrontation between two hardline factions. At the end of the hunt, the dispute was resolved in favor of the camp that brought back most game, and culminated in a feast which reconciled the whole community. We argued that our democratic process – which consists in counting votes rather than the spoils of a hunt in order to settle political debates, sometimes of enormous consequence – is no more nor less rational than this customary practice. What is important is rather that there is unanimous agreement over the process to be adopted and the largest possible number of participants in it. We have renounced the ritual hunt and lost its cathartic effect, but we are left with the hunt for votes and the low blows and mud-slinging of our electoral campaigns. Judging by its history and lexicon, voting itself bears the traces of its violent origins. Votes were initially cast with stones, shards of broken pottery (the original meaning of “suffrage,” for the Latin suffragium) or shouts. The peaceful process with which we are now familiar was born amidst this sound and fury. In a myth related by Walter Burkert, Hermes is stoned with voting pebbles. This myth seems to reverse the real course of events or to describe a regression: in the beginning, we stoned individuals, then we put these stones to a new use in voting – first in courts, and then in other assemblies. [41]

38As Hobbes knew, the first task of politics is to ensure a state of peace, if not of harmony. But his solution to the question of how peace might be attained is incompatible with his own theories, just as it is with those of Girard. If every indivisible object is ipso facto an object of potential rivalry, and if sovereignty is by definition indivisible, it is difficult to see how human beings, however strong their desire to escape the war of all against all may be, could come to choose the same sovereign and accept his authority. They will rather fight over who should exercise sovereignty.

39Furthermore, history tells us that the majority of those who desire power desire it as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end. The more individuals are of this tendency and are prepared to eliminate rivals in their own camps as much as, and even more than, their adversaries in opposing camps, the more likely they are to gain and wield power. This is hardly surprising. It is a political illustration of the Girardian theme par excellence: the violent enmity of twin brothers. In such a state of affairs, the more institutions tend to concentrate power and render it unassailable, the more they provoke frustration and resentment. On the contrary, it is by dividing up power in order to weaken it, and by rendering it precarious in order to ritualize the process of its conquest, that these institutions might exercise some control over the outbreak of violence. In other words, the best hope for the preservation of people and property does not lie in the attempt to use politics to eliminate all conflict, but in making political power itself the objective of most conflicts.

40This is exactly what occurs among the Nambikwara, where competition to become a chief, and thereby to gain the right to polygamy, staves off a competition between the men for possession of the women, which would prevent everyone from marrying and thus put the community in danger. [42] The unity of the community is maintained by substituting an institution for a group of individuals, and by making it the focus of the principle conflicts that might break out between the members of the community.

41But this model is also applicable to large modern societies. It allows us to better comprehend the nature of Hobbes’ theory, which sees civil war as inevitable in the absence of an indivisible power, or that of Rousseau, which rejects the party political system. Both are determined to avoid the confrontation of particular wills to the detriment of the general will. Montesquieu showed that it is necessary to divide up power in order to neutralize the threat of violence, while Schumpeter has shown that democracy is inseparable from a state of competition between several political parties. [43] Such pluralism is not only necessary for the protection of freedom, but also in order to quell a lust for power and to ritualize conflicts.

42Girard’s work could be thought of as a clarificatory supplement to this last point, even if his predecessors had already laid the essential groundwork for it, albeit in an incidental and unsystematic manner. For as the history of ethnology has taught us, wherever relatively stable human societies are concerned, we are never confronted with an undifferentiated mass, but always a segmented body containing divisions within itself and ritualized competition between the groups that compose it. Only the configurations and the denominations of these groups change. In this regard, Murdock rightly draws a connection between the bipartisan nature of modern democratic societies and the many “dual organizations” present to some degree throughout the world – structures composed of two opposed but complementary moieties which are connected via the services they render each other and the ritual confrontations between them, and which are associated with, respectively, Elders or Youths, Heaven or Earth, Right and Left, Lightness and Darkness, and so on. As he notes, the jousting matches that take place within these structures help them not only to control outbreaks of endogenous violence, but also to prevent this violence from accumulating and overwhelming other communities. [44]

43If we look closely, we can see that democracy in no way abolishes the divide between people and power. It is not, nor could it ever be, the government of the people by the people. In reality, the people never govern, and as Schumpeter notes, we can only make it govern by definition. The people can choose who will govern them, and democracy consists in this and nothing else. This choice, however, is only valid on two conditions: one, that a number of candidates are in the running; and two, that those who are elected can be discharged from their offices. The capacity of an unhappy electorate to dismiss its governors is the touchstone of the democratic system. A prime minister, as Schumpeter explicitly states, is a scapegoat. The official function of a government minister is to ensure that the will of the people prevails in her electoral district. Her main function is to serve, when necessary, as a safety valve. [45] During a heat wave, we no longer sentence the rainmaker to death, but we do get rid of the health minister who was unable to ensure that the most vulnerable had enough to drink.

44There is no need to go into further detail in order to see that the victimage mechanism has more than one trick up its sleeve, and that it underpins modern societies just as much as traditional societies. If Schumpeter is right, it even constitutes one of the driving forces of democracy. Let us just note here that this has unpleasant consequences for the “demi-habile” slumbering in each of us. It is, for example, pointless to lament or make a mockery of the excessive number of candidates for the presidency of the French Republic, on the pretext that certain candidates have no chance of being elected, or to maintain that political rallies, which reduce complex problems to simplistic slogans with floods of rhetorical eloquence, are a waste of time and energy, or to become indignant at the barbs traded by the various candidates, etc. It is inevitable that in the tumult of election season far greater focus will be put on the clash of personalities than of political programs. Still, in the agora just as in the courtroom, it is surely healthy for the views and emotions of the different groups to be expressed and challenged with some vehemence. This theatrical dimension of politics is a source of sadness for independent spirits, but the shared ritual roots and cathartic processes of politics and theatre may well make the two forever inseparable. Inverting Clausewitz’s expression, we might even say that politics is the continuation of war by other means. In modern democratic societies, this takes the form of a covert war which spares the population the horror of riots and massacres.

45Of course, this conception of politics might be deemed too reductive. It will be pointed out that power is also a means of modifying the norms at work in a society and the range of possibilities available to individuals and groups, [46] and that political battles are not only about rival ambitions but also about values. This is quite true, and if such values come to be opposed in the form of Good versus Evil, the ensuing conflict can turn into a civil war and degenerate into the massacre of one camp by the other. What generally prevents such a disastrous outcome is the fact, noted and analyzed by Tocqueville and Pareto, [47] that the majority of conflicts do not involve masses but resolute minorities united by common values – elites, in Pareto’s sense. A self-confident and united elite is almost impossible to remove from power. It is internal doubt and division that leads to its decline, allowing it to be ousted by a new, more determined elite. This principle prevails under almost all regimes, albeit according to different modalities. A revolution is never brought about by the people, but by minorities transforming the vague aspirations of this or that element of the people into a political will and a political force. As in Westerns and in traditional societies, it is small groups that square up to each other, with the people rallying to the camp of the victor. The latter’s victory is the proof of its legitimacy. [48] In all domains, whether political, moral, aesthetic, or otherwise, it is the elites who set the agenda, who decide whether something is either no longer possible or, on the contrary, has become indispensable. We are probably wrong, then, to speak of a “democracy of public opinion.” In democracies too, the elite passes judgment and the people follow; the latter are then consulted and a poll or an election “confirms” that the elite really did express, and thereby sanctified, the opinion of the people. Each individual prides himself on having his own opinion and rejecting what his fellow men regard as a superior authority; but still he bends to collective opinion or feels guilty about straying from it. It is under the influence of the external mediation from which we set out that shifts in values take place or that a “tyranny of the majority” comes to be established. [49]

46As concise as they are, these reflections show that the Girardian hypotheses that seemed to us most plausible in their original domain might prove equally relevant to the consideration of political institutions and activities. If it does not yet prove this, this short exercise has at least given an indication of the robustness of these hypotheses.


Lucien Scubla’s Replies to Charles Ramond’s Questions on the Above Article

47Charles Ramond: you write that, “as Descartes and Freud rightly emphasized, we are necessarily children before we are adults […] without the protection of adults, children would perish. Thus, whether we live in a hierarchical society or not, whether our upbringing is authoritarian or not, our first experience is of an absolute dependence on adults. By the same stroke, the latter are our first models, and perhaps the mold from which all the others are cast. External mediation is not then a contingent feature of the human condition; it is constitutive of it.” But should parental mediation not rather be called “internal mediation”? For by definition our parents are extremely close to us. Indeed, is parental mediation not the very essence of internal mediation? It is because of this that Girard can account for Oedipus, for his rivalry with the father-model, who is both a distinguished public figure and Oedipus’ kin. It is not because there is domination or subordination that there is external mediation: on the contrary: an external mediator such as Napoleon cannot impose his domination on, but can only be a source of fascination for, a Julien Sorel, or anyone born at a much later time.

48No, it is indeed a question of “external” mediation. Whether a form of mediation is external or internal does not depend on the spatial distance, but rather the social distance, or the difference in status, that it involves. Like Amadis or Napoleon, parents are external mediators for their children, as are masters for their disciples, and a king for his subject and even his entourage. But children grow up and disciples break free from their masters; external mediation is then replaced by internal mediation, admiration for a model by competition with a rival. Because of the protection his status affords, it is difficult for a king to enter into rivalry with anyone, except his potential successors. Even the great historical or fictional models can become our quasi-rivals – in the sense that here there is no risk of “double mediation.” Caesar imitates Alexander and attempts to equal or outdo him; Napoleon imitates Caesar and attempts to surpass his achievements; a tyrant can vie with Ubu, and so on. In any given case, admiration can turn into hatred should the proud admirer be humiliated when he proves incapable of raising himself to the level of the model.

49Moreover, I do not define external mediation as a relation of domination (of actual or potential coercion), but as a relation of admiration. It consists in taking a distinguished figure for a model – this is Girard’s own definition. But even in his first book, Girard does not explain this crucial point clearly enough. When he makes the transition from “triangular desire” to “mimetic desire” he forgets that admiration precedes imitation and explains it. Here we have to return to Descartes, for whom admiration was the first of the passions. Studies have shown that even apes imitate other apes of a higher rank and show contempt for those of a lower rank. This notion of rank is crucial, but Girard does everything he can to avoid it. In Violence and the Sacred, he translates “degree” by “difference.” [50] Like Lévi-Strauss, he tends to reduce all hierarchical relations [relations d’ordre] to differential, horizontal oppositions. Nevertheless, what he calls the “sacrificial crisis” is precisely this crushing of vertical and hierarchical differences into horizontal differences – and though he describes this process extremely well, his conceptualization of it lacks sufficient subtlety. Although external mediation is not in itself a relation of domination, the two are often linked, insofar as we always admire something or someone whose capacities exceed our own, and that might therefore come to exercise control over us.

50To return to the question of parent-child relations, there is no doubt that Girard’s explanation of the Oedipus complex is infinitely superior to Freud’s. Girard shows that it is impossible to reconcile all of Freud’s texts on this question because they contain two incompatible theories: a mimetic theory – dimly made out by Freud – which would suffice to explain Oedipal phenomena, and standard psychoanalytic theory, which he vainly strove to connect with his mimetic intuitions, resulting in an incoherent hotchpotch. Girard is absolutely right on this and, all things considered, his work does not diminish psychoanalysis, but imbues its theory of identification with renewed strength.

51Unfortunately, however, Girard overlooks Freud’s description of the absolute dependence of small children on adults, and the mixed feelings of admiration and fear that the latter inspire in them. This description, which is not dependent on the Oedipal theory, nor on any other psychoanalytic postulates, has lost absolutely nothing of its force. It paints an exact picture, if not of the beginnings of human life, then at least of our initial experience of the outside world. “The father must be eliminated” writes Girard, in his justified critique of Freud’s account of the founding murder in Totem and Taboo. But this sounds like a revealing slip of the tongue, for putting the accent too squarely on fraternal rivalry risks forgetting the primacy of external mediation, which is inherent in the relation to the adult world that children necessarily enjoy from birth – a world symbolized by the father.

52Charles Ramond: You believe that Girard is guilty of an “error” in regard to the contagiousness of vengeance. That vengeance is an interminable process does not imply, for you, that it is contagious. “Two families, lineages, clans, or nations, can bear each other an eternal hatred, passing it on from generation to generation, without thereby pulling other families, lineages, clans, or nations, into the fray, nor, a fortiori, causing the community as a whole – or more apocalyptically, the whole world – to be engulfed by violence. A segmental societal structure is, on the contrary, an obstacle to this proliferation, and the vindicatory logic elucidated by Verdier is a means of buttressing this firewall.” But do not phenomena such as the domino effect triggered by the First World War, or the deliberate institution of a cycle of massacres and reprisals in order to inflame the Algerian war, give support to Girard’s theses?

53Lucien Scubla: In moving surreptitiously from the interminable nature of violence to its supposed universalization, Girard passes over vindicatory systems without even seeing them. Such systems, however, are found in all segmental societies, a classic example being that of the Nuer, referred to at the beginning of my article (this is an example with which Girard must be familiar, since a study on it appears in his bibliography, though he evidently read this too quickly). Their great stability is attested to by the fact that they often become entrenched in societies with a state. This is the case in Corsica. Tourists can visit the country and ethnologists can carry out research there without the slightest fear for their lives or the least danger of being swept up in a whirlwind of mimetic violence. The same goes for the island’s inhabitants, who are familiar with the system. Everyone knows who has killed whom and why, and this is why they can calmly go about their business without feeling threatened or driven to spread violence throughout the community.

54I don’t mean to say that violent conflagrations never spring up there; my point is simply that it is not true that vengeance inevitably leads to them. Along with certain others, this unfortunate (and never amended) hypothesis of Girard’s has damaged his credibility among anthropologists, even among those who were initially seduced by his theory of sacrifice and sacred kingship. In 1988, I took part in a colloquium on vengeance which Girard and Verdier both participated in. On the basis of detailed theoretical and empirical arguments, I showed that the Girardian theory of sacrifice and the theory of vindicatory systems are not only compatible but also complementary. Verdier accepted my conclusion; Girard himself made no objection but has not modified his description of vengeance one iota.

55To take the case of the Algerian war: if I were to give a Girardian analysis of it, I would be interested first and foremost in the extremely bloody internal struggle between the FLN and the MNA, whose consequences were felt long after independence, and whose scars still endure today. This is not an isolated phenomenon. We see the same kind of mimetic rivalry at work between the armed groups fighting Israel, and between the opposing factions in all of the main communities in the Lebanon, whether Christian, Druze, or Muslim (see the work of Isabelle Rivoal, which I refer to in a note on internecine war and conjoined twins). I am quite convinced that Girard can partially explain such phenomena; but that does not justify his too summary analysis of violence, which itself does violence to the truth and prevents the most sound aspect of his work from receiving the recognition it deserves in the scientific community.

56Charles Ramond: Even while accepting that the “sacrificial crisis” or “mimetic crisis” is a crisis of undifferentiation, you maintain that the power of the victimage mechanism is limited. Even if “It allows the differences that had been effaced by the crisis to reappear […] it neither creates nor recreates them.” According to you, this is “clear where generational or sexual difference is concerned, but it is no doubt also true for many other differences and hierarchies.” But could one not object that there is an important difference between “gender” and “sex”? One cannot deny that, biologically speaking, both “men” and “women” exist. But Girard has insisted that there is no such thing as “masculine desire” or “feminine desire,” no more than there is “homosexual desire” or “heterosexual desire,” “desire to succeed” or “desire to fail,” “desire to enjoy” or “desire to suffer,” “desire of what is allowed” or “desire of what is prohibited:” in short, that there is no fixed object of desire. For him, desire is simply desire, and this is why its object can change radically depending on the circumstances and the imitative actions in play. On this view, rigid or fixed natures do not exist, and “mimesis” itself might well be at the source of certain differential categories. Sometimes children become the parents of their parents, when the latter return to or remain in a childlike state…

57Lucien Scubla: There are two main arguments that I bring against the Girardian view. The first is based on common sense. If sexual desire were as sensitive to mimesis as Girard suggests, if each sex were not very strongly attracted to the other, humanity would have disappeared millennia ago. Where this question is concerned, mimetic theory compounds the failings of psychoanalysis, which argued that, having begun with a polymorphous sexuality, the child only acquires a genital sexuality at the end of a more or less accidentally determined libidinal path. If these theses were at all plausible, the human species would never have succeeded in populating the entire surface of the earth.

58The second argument is drawn from ethnology. Masculine initiation rituals, as well as the relations between fathers and maternal uncles in patrilineal societies, contradict the thesis that desire lacks an object. All of these practices, along with their accompanying myths, show that a child is one of the objects most naturally coveted by human desire. This gives rise to a double rivalry: men envy women’s procreative capacities, and men vie with each other (almost always, the paternal side with the maternal side) to maintain their hold over the children women bring into the world.

59Let us restrict ourselves for now to the case of initiations. Initiation amounts to a new birth. As Girard says, in the initiatory death of the novice the mimetic crisis and its violent resolution are brought back to life. The initiate takes the role of the surrogate victim, and is subjected to a symbolic sacrifice: circumcision, scarification, the amputation of a finger, the extraction of a tooth, etc. This is all true, but it only represents one aspect of such rituals. Initiation is also a form of childbirth. The men symbolically kill the children in order to bring them back to life again on their own terms – to give them a second life imagined to be superior to the purely animal life bestowed on them by the women. For a precise ethnological description of this process, see Robert Jaulin’s La Mort Sara. For a theoretical analysis, please see the article of mine published in Cités, to which I refer in a footnote.

60Finally, that children become parents, and that the latter sometimes become dependent on their children, does not make the difference between the generations vanish – a difference that, in all societies, reappears whenever a child is born. In this regard, initiation rituals only establish a more marked and stable hierarchy between the initiated and the un-initiated.

61Charles Ramond: You reproach Girard for saying almost nothing about sexual difference, despite the fact that it plays a considerable role in all societies. But does not the evolution of our societies (particularly in regard to the question of homosexual marriage) seem to be following a Girardian path? That is, a gradual evolution toward a “frictionless” society (to take up your own formulation, according to which “mimetic theory ignores friction”) in which desire would be felt as much for members of the same sex as for those of the opposite sex (or for others still)? Is this evolution, which might seem to some quite “contrary to nature,” not in fact the contemporary consequence of the fact that mimesis is at the root of all our institutions – even if it takes us some time to realize and accept this?

62Lucien Scubla: Homosexual marriage is first of all a good illustration of what Girard calls triangular desire and what Hocart calls snobbery. As the latter has shown, marriage was originally an important element in the king’s coronation ritual. This is perfectly illustrated by an example that will be very familiar to children: it is on the same day that he accedes to the throne that King Babar marries Céleste (an apt moniker, considering that their union has a cosmic character). Where a king is polygamous, there is often no marriage ceremony for secondary wives or for concubines. The institution of marriage, however gradually spreads throughout the whole society. First it is the important figures at court who desire to be married in a less sumptuous, but analogous, manner to the king and queen, then their relatives, and finally the commoners. In many countries, the bride and groom are referred to as the king and queen of the day, and Maronite couples are even crowned during the marriage ceremony. Today, marriage is undergoing the kinds of changes that Hocart observed in regard to other customs, such as the wearing of a hat, which was initially a royal privilege: once it reaches the lower levels of society, it is often no longer in vogue at the higher levels where it first made its appearance. This is what is happening with homosexual marriage.

63Furthermore, “marriage for all” is almost always associated with “adoption for all.” Here we again encounter the desire to be in control of procreation that I mentioned earlier. This time, however, it is connected to two phenomena that are characteristic of modern societies: on the one hand, the desire to completely dissociate procreation from sexuality; on the other, the multiplication of “claim rights,” including the right to have children, which are jumbled together with “liberty rights,” as can be seen in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – an amorphous mass by comparison with the fine Declaration of 1789.

64Finally, the theme of homosexual marriage illustrates a point that I address in the last section of the text. It is an elite (in Pareto’s sense) that has campaigned for this form of marriage for several years, and that has gained the support of a large percentage of the population through its skillful use of external mediation: France, the argument goes, would lag behind other important modern countries if it failed to adopt this measure. Here we again encounter the snobbery discussed by Hocart. As he notes, from the nineteenth century onward, the great powers, following England’s lead, had to have colonies in order to maintain their status, just as the rich had to have a second home. In earlier centuries, when status was determined by the splendor of royal ceremonies, kingdoms and principalities would compete with each to stage the most grandiose funerals. In our time, it is necessary to acquire nuclear weapons in order to join the club of great powers, or to legalize homosexual marriage in order to be a modern country.


  • [1]
    For a treatment that situates Girard within the history of anthropological thought, see Lucien Scubla, “René Girard ou la renaissance de l’anthropologie religieuse,” Girard, Cahier de l’Herne 89 (2008): 105-110.
  • [2]
    René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann (London: Athlone, 1987) [Des Choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde (Paris: Grasset, 1978)].
  • [3]
    See René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (London: Bloomsbury, 2013) [La Violence et le sacré (Paris: Grasset, 1972)] and the first part of Things Hidden [Choses caches]. These two texts, one analytic, the other synthetic (in Descartes’ sense), complement each other. The first, which, following the very path taken by the author, methodically traces the facts back to the principles that render them intelligible, is the most convincing of the two. The second, which deduces a whole series of consequences, illustrated by facts, from a number of axiomatically posed principles, does not allow the author’s discoveries to be grasped so easily.
  • [4]
    Jean Baechler, “Politique et société,” Communications 22 (1974): 125. This very dense and very clear article contains a well-documented sketch of a general theory of human societies that is full of astute ideas. Our only reproach would be that it accords religion too small a role in the genesis and functioning of regulatory authorities in human societies. Although Girard’s thought might be capable of filling this gap, it itself does not take into account the relative autonomy of the political, other than in the sense of the “centrality” that Baechler accords it.Online
  • [5]
    This is the case in the political system of the Nuer, which for this reason has been described as “organized anarchy.” In this society comprised of interlocking segments arranged in a fractal pattern, no particular individual, lineage, or clan is endowed with political power or authority. It is this very segmental societal structure that ensures that conflicts can be successfully managed, on the basis of two governing principles: the “principle of fission,” which keeps conflicts at the lowest possible level of segmentation, and the “principle of fusion,” which, by always opposing segments of equal status, prevents either one from definitively getting the better of and subjugating either the other or a third. See E. E. Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Life and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940) [Les Nuer, Description des modes de vie et des institutions politiques d’un peuple nilote, trans. Louis Évrard (Paris: Gallimard, 1968), 195-220].
  • [6]
    The pages which follow his fine demonstration of the sacrificial origins of domestication are significant here (Things Hidden [Choses cachées, 77-81]). One expects this demonstration to be followed by a similar analysis of slavery, which would initially have the purpose of procuring sacrificial victims, and would then facilitate the constitution of a servile workforce, susceptible to domination. But Girard does not address this question. It does not occur to him that the same ritual process which led human beings to domesticate animals could equally well have led them to enslave their own kind, and thereby to create forms of life which were more durable than the rituals which gave rise to them. Concerned as he is to show that among human beings specific rituals take the place of natural relations of domination (“dominance patterns”), which latter, as in other species, might have kept a lid on human beings’ internal violence (Things Hidden, [Choses Cachées, 98-108]) he does not say a word about the relations of domination that human beings have nonetheless come to establish between themselves.
  • [7]
    Girard, Things Hidden, [Choses Cachées, 59-66]. See also Job: the Victim of his People (London: Athlone, 1987), 91-93 [La Route antique des hommes pervers (Paris: Grasset, 1985), 135-138]. On the “burden of royalty,” see J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1913/2012) [Le Rameau d’or, (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1981), vol. 1, 486-500]. On the ritual origins of the state, see A. M. Hocart, Kings and Councillors (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1936/1970) [Rois et courtisans (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1978)]. For a discussion Girard’s extension of the work of Frazer and Hocart, see Lucien Scubla, “Sacred King, Sacrificial Victim, Surrogate Victim or Frazer, Hocart, Girard” in The Character of Kingship, edited by Declan Quigley, Oxford and New York: Berg, 2005, 39-62 [“Roi sacré, victime sacrificielle et victime émissaire,” La Revue du MAUSS 22 (2003): 197-221].
  • [8]
    René Girard, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre, trans. Mary Baker (Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 2010) [Achever Clausewitz, Entretiens avec Benoît Chantre (Paris: Carnets Nord, 2007)].
  • [9]
    René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976) [Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Paris: Grasset, 1961), 125, 129)].
  • [10]
    Girard, Battling to the End, 31 [Achever Clausewitz, 74].
  • [11]
    A. M. Hocart, “Snobbery,” in The Life-Giving Myth and Other Essays (Frome and London: Rodney Needham, 1969), 129-138 [Le Mythe sorcier et autres essais (Paris: Payot, 1973), 136-146]; Girard, Deceit, Desire [Mensonge romantique, 219-230].
  • [12]
    Girard, Deceit, Desire [Mensonge romantique, 223].
  • [13]
    On this point see Hocart’s fine essay, “In the Grip of Tradition,” in The Life-Giving Myth, 9-27 [Le Mythe sorcier, 125-135].
  • [14]
    Things Hidden [Des Choses cachées, 15].
  • [15]
    Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology (London: Allen Lane, 1968), 309 [Anthropologie structurale (Paris: Plon, 1958), 342].
  • [16]
    Incidentally, this kind of relation is not insignificant for our topic. In order to justify the struggle between rival factions in certain Middle Eastern countries, the story is sometimes told that they are descended from conjoined twin brothers who had to be cut in two with a knife. (Isabelle Rivoal, “Division, équilibre, médiation. Une lecture de l’opposition factionnelle dans le monde arabe,” Ateliers, Laboratoire d’Ethnologie et de Sociologie Comparative, 27 (2004): 150).
  • [17]
    Girard, Things Hidden [Des Choses cachées, 93]. Ethology is however already referred to on pp. 15-16.
  • [18]
    Girard, Violence and the Sacred [La Violence et le sacré, 146-149].
  • [19]
    Although in our legal conception, the judiciary comes after the legislative and the executive powers, it is historically the first of the three. As Portalis said, there were judges before there were laws. Likewise, there were judges before there was a public power capable of enforcing their sentences. Among the Nuer, this power, or rather this function, is exercised by the leopard-skin chiefs, who are ritual mediators occupying a position outside of the segmental structure which constitutes their political system. As with our judges, they can only intervene at the request of the parties concerned; contrary to our judges, they lack the power to impose legally binding sentences, and can only threaten religious sanctions and perform expiatory sacrifices. (Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer [Les Nuer, 180-181, 191-192, 201-205).
  • [20]
    Raymond Verdier, “Le système vindicatoire,” in La Vengeance, T. 1, Vengeance et pouvoir dans quelques sociétés extra-occidentales, ed. Raymond Verdier (Paris: Éditions Cujas, 1981), 11-42.
  • [21]
    Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 16 [La Violence et le sacré, 31].
  • [22]
    See note 5 above regarding the Nuer society.
  • [23]
    See Lucien Scubla, “Vengeance et sacrifice: de l’opposition à la réconciliation,” Droit et cultures 6 (1994): 77-101.
  • [24]
    Girard, Violence and the Sacred [La Violence et le sacré, 412-415].
  • [25]
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques (Paris: Armand Colin, 1962), 13. In the following paragraph, we shall assume that the rudiments of Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s theories are familiar to the reader. On this, see Lucien Scubla, “Peut-on mettre la loi au-dessus de l’homme? Sur la philosophie politique de Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” in Introduction aux sciences sociales, ed. J.-P. Dupuy (Paris: Ellipses, 1992).
  • [26]
    Girard, Things Hidden [Des Choses cachées, 323].
  • [27]
    See Lucien Scubla, “Théorie du sacrifice désir et théorie du désir chez René Girard,” in Violence et vérité. Autour de René Girard, ed. Paul Dumouchel (Paris: Grasset, 1985), 359-374; “Hiérarchie des sexes et hiérarchie des savoirs ou Platon chez les Baruya,” Cités 9 (2002): 13-24; “De l’échange de femmes au don des femmes. Le déni de la procréation dans l’atome de parenté” La Revue du MAUSS semestrielle 39 (2012): 79-100; also Anne Ducloux, “Quand ‘recevoir’ c’est prendre, et ‘rendre’ déprendre. Émancipation des belles-filles par le ‘nouage du turban’ à Boukhara (Uzbekistan), La Revue du MAUSS semestrielle 39 (2012): 101-118.
  • [28]
    except into a conversation with Marie-Louise Martinez available at
  • [29]
    Girard, Violence and the Sacred [La Violence et le sacré, 426-427].
  • [30]
    As Girard sees it, the community does indeed have an interior and an exterior – these constitute the conditions of possibility of the expulsion of the pharmakos and the capturing of a future sacrificial victim – but it has neither limits, nor territory, nor an identity as such. Girard, a strict nominalist who rejects all forms of Platonism and essentialism, ultimately recognises no other form of existence than that of individuals bound by indissoluble mimetic relations. Even the conflicts between European nations that he discusses in his Battling to the End have no specificity of their own, and are very quickly reduced to an undifferentiated mimetic rivalry whose only salutary outcome would be a homogenized and borderless Europe, open to all humanity (Battling to the End [Achever Clausewitz, 302-339). Arguably, the views expounded by Pierre Manent in his La raison des nations (Paris: Gallimard, 2006) or by Alain Besançon in Sainte Russie (Paris: de Fallois) do better justice to the question of nationhood and are in this respect more illuminating.
  • [31]
    See A. Adler “Ce qu’est une frontière pour les Iraqw à la lumière de son traitement ritual. Analyse de l’ouvrage de Robert J. Thornton, Space, Time and Culture among the Iraqw of Tanzania (New York: Academic Press, 1980),” manuscript (2008).
  • [32]
    The ox, having been felled with an axe, then had its throat cut with a knife.
  • [33]
    Frazer, Golden Bough, 210 [Rameau d’or, vol. 3 (1983), 821].
  • [34]
  • [35]
    Machiavelli, The Prince, 2nd ed., trans. Harvey C. Mansfield (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 30.
  • [36]
    Luc de Heusch, Essais sur le symbolisme de l’inceste royal en Afrique, reworked in Essais sur la royauté sacrée (Brussels: Éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 1987), 59-60. Girard quotes these passages in Things Hidden [Des Choses cachées, 65] and makes further reference to this ritual in Violence and the Sacred.
  • [37]
    Just as much as misrecognition, unanimity might seem necessary for the successful implementation of the victimage mechanism. But in reality it is only in Girard’s abstract model, in which human beings are mimetic automatons, in the philosophers’ state of nature, or among the undifferentiated hordes known to the ethnology of old, that unanimity has a chance of being attained. To demand it in the case of a real human society of whatever sort amounts to a denial of the possibility that the mechanism could be regulated by human beings. One only needs to say that the regulatory effect grows in proportion to the tendency toward unanimity. In The Village of Cannibals (trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992)) [Le Village des cannibales (Paris: Flammarion, 2008)] Alain Corbin refers to Girard in describing how, on the occasion of a fair that took place at the end of the Second Empire, a group assembled around a victim whom it persecuted and ultimately killed. In Le Sacrifice inutile (Paris: Flammarion, 2011, 48-64), a work that abounds with subtle and penetrating analyses, Paul Dumouchel contests the relevance of this Girardian connection on the grounds that the persecution is not unanimous and that a stable group is not formed. But in our view, his mistake is to infer that the victimage mechanism is therefore not at work in this case, and that, more generally, it is ineffective in modern societies due to the lack of sufficient bonds of solidarity for the spreading of violence. What is invalidated by this example is rather the Girardian theory of spontaneous mimetic contagion, for it is difficult to see why, if it is found wanting here, how it could be valid for traditional societies in which the bonds of solidarity discussed by Dumouchel generally divide communities into independent or rival groups, thereby forming numerous barriers to contagion.
  • [38]
    On these questions, see Lucien Scubla, “La place de la nation dans les sociétés individualistes,” Droit et Cultures 39 (2000): 191-210, and “Les dimensions religieuses de la déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen de 1789,” Ateliers 27 (2004): 81-108.
  • [39]
    According to Régis Debray, twenty-seven thousand miles of new borders were drawn up between 1991 and 2010.
  • [40]
    Lucien Scubla, “De la démocratie comme rite ou comme pure procédure,” Cahiers du CREA 2 (Paris: École polytechnique, 1983): 143-145; “Peut-on mettre la loi au-dessus de l’homme?” 142.
  • [41]
    Walter Burkert, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972/1983), 165 [Homo necans, Rites sacrificiels et mythes de la Grèce ancienne (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2005), 202, 254. This book was published in the same year as Violence and the Sacred. In a more restricted domain, but with much greater erudition, Burkert comes to conclusions that often accord with those of Girard.
  • [42]
    Dan Sperber, Le Structuralisme en anthropologie (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1973), 82-83. We are in agreement here with Sperber, who rightly rejects Lévi-Strauss’ reading in terms of reciprocal services between the chief and his community (77-79).
  • [43]
    Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 5th ed. (London: Allen and Unwin, 1976) [Capitalisme, socialisme et démocratie (Paris: Payot, 1974)]. His analysis of democracy is, in our view, an unequalled masterpiece (Capitalisme, socialisme et démocratie, 321-427).
  • [44]
    George Peter Murdock, Social Structure, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949) [De la structure sociale (Paris: Payot, 1972), 101].
  • [45]
    Schumpeter, Capitalism [Capitalisme, 342].
  • [46]
    Baechler is particularly insistent on this point: “politics is the social apparatus that determines how large or small the range of available choices is” (“Politique et Société,” 126).Online
  • [47]
    See Alexis de Tocqueville, The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) [L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution], and for an excellent introduction to this author, long considered inflammatory and still largely unknown in France, see Julien Freund, Pareto, la théorie de l’équilibre (Paris: Seghers, 1974).
  • [48]
    For a good ethnographical example of this, see Raymond Jamous, Honneur et baraka (Paris: Éditions de la maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 1981). On the death of the sultan, the claimants to the throne compete against one another, and the winner is ipso facto God’s chosen one. It is he who has the baraka (225-228).
  • [49]
    Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, part 2 of vol. I, chapter 7 [De la démocratie en Amérique].
  • [50]
    Violence and the Sacred [La Violence et le sacré, 78-81].
Lucien Scubla
Lucien Scubla is an anthropologist and a researcher at the Institut Marcel Mauss (École des hautes études en sciences sociales). Among other works, he is the author of Lire Lévi-Strauss (Odile Jacob, 1998) and Donner la vie, donner la mort (Le Bord de l’eau, 2014).
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