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«War, Terrorism and Cultural Crisis: The escalation of mimetic rivalry and re-sacralising violence in modernity This essay examines the nature of ...»

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War, Terrorism and Cultural Crisis:

The escalation of mimetic rivalry and re-sacralising violence in


This essay examines the nature of contemporary violence in the context of the

radically shifting dynamics of modernity. In particular, the essay assesses the

changing state of warfare and the growth of religious-based terrorism. In order to do

this, I critically engage with the insights into violence and war provided by the

cultural anthropologist and theorist, René Girard, with respect to contemporary violence. In order to base this inquiry on contemporary data, I analyse the internal and international dynamics of contemporary conflicts in Syria and Iraq, assessing and applying Girard’s insights to these cases. These examples are chosen as they starkly present the conduct and dynamics of modern violence, terrorism and warfare. The essay argues that modernity is undergoing a cultural crisis reflected in the breakdown of sacrificial institutions that restrained violence, such as warfare. This breakdown is particularly reflected in the growth of ‘extremist violence’ and terrorism, with violence escalating to unforeseen extremes. The essay further argues that terrorist groups are essentially motivated to re-sacralise violence as a false antidote to modernity’s deepening cultural crisis. 1 Warfare, Extremist Violence and Modernity In his final major work (Battling to the End), René Girard argues that the institutionalisation and codification of warfare has broken down in modernity, Please note that in making this argument that I do not seek to exonerate or excuse the violence of the United States or other nation-states. This essay is proposing an analysis of the trajectory of modern violence.

revealing an underlying cultural crisis and an increasing inability to contain violence.2 Girard’s analysis in Battling to the End extends what is called his ‘mimetic theory’ to the dynamics of war and modern European history, through analysing Carl von Clausewitz’s famous treatise, On War. Girard argues that the rivalrous, mimetic dynamics that recur in human relations have become increasingly unrestrained from institutional and legal frameworks. 3 In particular, warfare largely lost its institutional manner regulated by aristocratic rules and codes of behaviour. While nation-states sought to address this loss of codification, warfare has tended to become more extreme, culminating in the development and use of weapons of mass destruction in which the distinction between combatant and civilian has been degraded.

Girard particularly explores how competition and rivalry in modernity, especially amongst nation-states, are characterised by increasing polarisation. He provides examples of this in his analysis of warfare in the last 200 years in Europe, especially between France and Germany. He argues that nation-state rivalry, especially French-German competition for supremacy in Europe, led to the breakdown of warfare as a codified institution and the onset of ‘total war’ (from Napoleon onwards) in which a whole populace is mobilised for violence against a nation’s rival(s). For Girard, total war represents a new stage of violence in human history. In it, the previous cultural system based around strict hierarchies (with the René Girard, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre, trans. Mary Baker (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2010). Girard’s work has traversed a number of academic disciplines, particularly anthropology, literary studies, philosophy and theology. To summarise, Girard’s insights have three major


1) that human desire is mimetic or imitated, i.e., it is stimulated by others;

2) that human cultures use scapegoats or victims to resolve mimetic rivalry and violence in order to create cultural unity; and,

3) that biblical revelation reveals the scapegoat mechanism and provides a positive way for structuring human desire and culture around God’s gratuitous love.

Girard, Battling to the End.

monarchy and aristocracy at the apex) is superseded by the nation-state where the old hierarchies are swept aside by a more egalitarian mobilisation of the whole populace.

According to Girard, this mobilisation is driven by the outbreak of what he calls “internal mediation”, that is, the increasing polarisation of mimetic desires and rivalries breaking free from cultural restraints, such as social hierarchies. 4 Because of the outbreak of total war, what Girard calls “the escalation to extremes”5 – the polarising and escalating nature of violence – now occurs “on a planetary scale”6, as the sacrificial restraints of pre-modern and medieval cultures were no longer effective. He further argues that the escalation to extremes is identifiable with what Christianity describes as the ‘apocalypse’. 7 For Girard, the violence of the apocalypse is not driven by divine intervention or punishment, but rather can be identified with the out-workings of unrestrained human violence through mimetic rivalry: “When sacrifice disappears, all that remains is mimetic rivalry, and it escalates to extremes.”8 In Girard’s view, then, violence is becoming more unpredictable because it has been unleashed from its sacrificial restraints. 9 Girard’s analysis seems apropos as more extreme forms of violence have developed in modernity, denoting a cultural crisis as the previous cultural institutions (such as around hierarchy and warfare) are degraded. Terrorist or extremist violence even moves beyond conventional state-based forms of violence, doing so in a way that has accelerated the onset of total war in modernity. Like totalitarian states René Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), 121.

Girard, Battling to the End, 1.

René Girard, “‘What is Occurring Today is Mimetic Rivalry on a Planetary Scale’:

René Girard on September 11” (with Henri Tincq). Le Monde, November 6, 2011.

Translated by the Colloquium on Violence and Religion. Available at www.morphizm.com/politix/girard911.html.

Girard, Battling to the End, xvi.

Girard, Battling to the End, 198.

Girard, Battling to the End, 68.

mobilised by total war, extremist religious groups derive their identity and unity from violence. Further than this, however, these extremist groups do not try to hide their victims (as totalitarian regimes do), but rather celebrate their violence in an explicit fashion and are willing to use violence in an arbitrary fashion, ignoring distinctions between combatants and civilians.

Alongside the breakdown of the institution of war and the growth of extremism, Girard identifies the rise of ‘security’ apparatuses and discourses (rather than ones based around warfare) as representing the new institutional paradigm for containing violence.10 In respect to international ‘security’, the dynamics of international rivalries especially in regards to the containment of mass or heinous acts of violence (e.g., by Al-Qaeda or Islamic State) and the use of weapons of mass destruction (such as in Iraq or Syria) have become primary motivators for the construction of large state-based and private security apparatuses. They also provide justification for the discourse of ‘strategic interventions’ to protect innocent people.

Thus, with the breakdown of the aristocratic cultural system and the rise of nationstates and extremist violence, security has become the over-riding concern and motivator for targeted violence: “…we have gone from an era of codified war to an era of security, where we think we can ‘resolve’ conflicts just as we cure sickness, with increasingly sophisticated tools.” 11 On this point, the US use of drones comes readily to mind as an exemplar of a sophisticated tool used to ‘cure’ extremist violence. Though a security paradigm has arisen to combat contemporary violence, Girard argues that political rationality has failed to comprehend the nature of violence in its reciprocal, unpredictable and escalating character.12 Girard, Battling to the End, 117.

Girard, Battling to the End, 117.

Girard, Battling to the End, 68-9.

Alongside these security apparatus, another reaction to the modern situation is found in the conduct of warfare itself. It now tends to operate in two opposing modes – in increasingly overt or covert ways, such as with Islamic State’s public violence in Iraq and Syria, or Russia’s covert tactics to foment and prosecute war in the Ukraine.

Thus, warfare is increasingly unregulated: it involves either unrestricted acts of violence in which violence is explicitly and ruthlessly performed; or denial of one’s involvement in what are usually unjustifiable acts and in which violence retains a performative character (particularly for those targeted), though allowing one to continue to play the game of international politics and limit reactions from the international community.

Girard on Desire, Violence and the Modern Cultural Crisis As mentioned, Girard’s theory of violence is based on his identification of mimetic desire and rivalry. It is worth undertaking a brief overview of these concepts to understand their significance for modernity. Girard’s mimetic theory as a whole derives from his first and primary insight into mimetic desire (or ‘triangular desire’), that is, that humans desire according to the desire of another. According to Girard, the origins of human relationality and self-identity, as well as culture, violence and religion, are to be found in the nature of human desire. Desire, structured by mimesis, moves the human subject toward an object, pulling it away from the model and enabling autonomous movement. However, imitation of the other’s form or what the other has is not sufficient to produce the ‘self’. 13 The complex interaction of these two types of imitation with the temporal dimension of mimesis (repetition) produces a Jean-Michel Oughourlian, The Puppet of Desire: The Psychology of Hysteria, Possession, and Hypnosis, trans. E. Webb (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), 10; James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes (New York: Crossroad, 1998), 29.

third sort of imitation: “wanting to be who the other is”.14 Thus, the mimetic draw of the model in mediated autonomy enables and structures the human’s new-found ‘ontological need’ to be: “a need which draws us to others and to imitate them in order to acquire a sense of being, something felt as a lack”.15 This imitation is not a negative aspect of human being, but rather draws humans into ever more complex forms of relationships and identities.

Girard has also shown how mimetic desire is connected to acquisitiveness, rivalry and violence. Girard noticed that mimetic desire became pathogenic and distorted when the subject of desire seeks to acquire what the model desires by grasping at the object of desire.16 In this circumstance, the subject asserts the ownership and priority of his/her desire over the other’s desire, which the Bible represents in such stories as those of Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel. 17 This

grasping desire usually leads to rivalry and scandal, which becomes more extreme:

“As rivalry becomes acute, the rivals are more apt to forget about whatever objects are, in principle, the cause of the rivalry and instead to become more fascinated with one another. In effect the rivalry is purified of any external stake and becomes a matter of pure rivalry and prestige. Each rival becomes for his counterpart the worshipped and despised model and obstacle, the one who must be at once beaten and assimilated.”18 Thus, once the conflict and rivalry are established, it tends to escalate up to the point where the object is forgotten and the rival becomes the focus of scandal for the Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, 29.

Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, 33.

Oughourlian, Puppet of Desire, 18.

René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. P. Gregory (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977); 145.

René Girard, with Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort, Things Hidden Since

the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford:

Stanford University Press, 1987), 26.

subject. Girard calls this state of rivalry the skandalon, in which the rival becomes a block to the subject’s desire so that the rival takes the subject’s focus, rather than the original object.19 Girard identifies two forms to mimetic desire and rivalry: what he calls ‘internal mediation’ and ‘external mediation’. In internal mediation, there is little or no distance between the subject and model, so that each becomes the other’s model and potential rival. 20 According to Girard, distance and difference between subjects of desire and their models, such as that cultivated by taboos and social hierarchies, ensure that the potential for conflict over shared objects of desire is minimised.

According to Girard, violence displays a lack of difference between desiring subjects and models―that there is nothing definitive that differentiates “me” from “you” and makes “me” better. For example, when the distance and distinction between the subject and model collapses in the pursuit of the same object, two rivals become undifferentiated from each other as “doubles” imitating each other’s desire, which usually results in conflict.21 This state of “undifferentiation” arises from “internal mediation” between the rivals, when the distance and social barriers between the subject and model are weak or collapsed.

Ordinarily, however, social barriers can prevent mimetic rivalry, such as the social distinctions between an aristocrat and a tenant farmer. These barriers establish differences and distance between the subject and model such that the subject cannot ever see him- or her-self justifiably capable of rivalry with the model. Girard calls these forms of relationships “external mediation”. External mediation is usually characterized by a one-directional relationship where the subject is influenced wholly

René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. J. G. Williams (Maryknoll, NY:

Orbis Books, 2001), 16.

Girard, I See Satan Fall, 119.

Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, 12.

or primarily by a model, and the model is unaware of or uninfluenced by the desire of the subject. Thus, the relationship remains external as there is no actual or possible mimetic reciprocity between the subject and the model.

Girard argues that modernity is particularly characterised by accelerating forms of internal mediation. 22 According to Girard, the democratic revolutions caused the final breakdown of the aristocratic hierarchies and unleashed desire through internal mediation. 23 The new democratic situation does not just mean universal suffrage in shared power and values, but, on its darker side, it means anyone can be in competition with anyone else: “Who is there left to imitate after the ‘tyrant’?

Henceforth men shall copy each other; idolatry of one person is replaced by hatred of a hundred thousand rivals. In Balzac’s opinion, too, there is no other god but envy for the modern crowd whose greed is no longer stemmed and held within acceptable limits by the monarch. Men will become gods for each other.”24 Democracy, then, is characterised by widespread competition in a manner previously unknown. This situation is possible because the revolutions of early modern Europe destroyed the central pillar of the pre-revolutionary class system: the divine right of absolute monarchs. 25 Previously, with the rise of absolute monarchs, the divine right of monarchs had created a definitive distance from and victory over the aristocracy, building on the distance between the aristocrat and the serf/peasant. It meant that the monarch was at the pinnacle of the social hierarchy, always to be imitated and never to be in rivalry with aristocrat or commoner. The divine right acted as a taboo to prevent violence and social breakdown: by making the monarch’s René Girard, with Pierpaolo Antonello and João Cezar de Castro Rocha, Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture (New York: Continuum, 2007), 240.

Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, 121.

Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, 119.

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