«War, Terrorism and Cultural Crisis: The escalation of mimetic rivalry and re-sacralising violence in modernity This essay examines the nature of ...»
Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, 119.
position subject to a supernatural taboo and license, the monarch was, in large part, removed from the rivalries of the aristocracy that could result in the monarch’s removal, scapegoating, or assassination. Yet, Girard states that, following the French Revolution, no one in France could “be privileged without knowing it.” 26 The bourgeoisie and the “common people” could then desire and take what the king had, namely power and status. Thus, power and sovereignty became internally contestable and accessible.
According to Girard, the way that human cultures have conventionally dealt with internal mediation and mimetic rivalries is scapegoating. 27 Girard argues cultural breakdown is conventionally resolved by the accumulation of rivalries (“all against all”) being cast onto a victim (“all against one”) through the unanimous imitation of an accusation that results in expulsion or murder. 28 The unification of desire by scapegoating a victim produces a newfound cultural unity and order built on the justification and ritual repetition of unanimous violence.
Through anthropological and literary analysis, Girard has chartered how the violence of the mob maintains culture by transferring the power of unanimous violence onto the victim, who is portrayed as divine and ‘sacred’. 29 Instead of identifying the power of reconciliation in the mob’s action, the victim is claimed to have some supernatural power to mediate and unify all desire. Girard claims that the Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, 128.
Girard calls this process of scapegoating by a number of other terms: ‘the scapegoat mechanism’, ‘the victimage mechanism’, ‘the surrogate victimage mechanism’, or the ‘single victim mechanism’ (Girard, Things Hidden, 23–47; I See Satan Fall, 36). Cf.
René Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Y. Freccero (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 12–23; Violence and the Sacred, 68–88.
Girard, Things Hidden, 24; I See Satan Fall, 22 and 24.
Girard remarks that the Latin root word “sacer” has a double meaning indicating the double nature of the sacred in archaic cultures. It is translated as “sacred” or “accursed” which has both beneficent and maleficent aspects denoting the disorder of distorted desire and the restored order of scapegoating (Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 257).
twin power of the mob – to cause and resolve chaotic violence – results in a “double transference” where both order and disorder, good and evil, are ascribed to the victim through supernatural agency. 30 This double transference onto the victim is the basis for the construction of the (violent) ‘sacred’ in archaic31 culture and consciousness, which structures and is maintained by rituals, laws and myths.
In Girard’s view, then, ‘religion’ and ‘culture’ are fundamentally inseparable as ‘religious’ rituals, myths and laws develop that are based on the “violent sacred” and become the foundation for culture. On the basis of these pillars, the violent sacred instructs humans “…as to what they must and must not do to prevent a recurrence of destructive violence”32, which includes a ritualised version of the original violence against the victim, namely in sacrifice. Sacrificial rituals are, then, inaugurated to imitate the original violence against the victim and appease the deity, who is believed to have the power to cause disorder and order. It is important to note that Girard does not regard religion or culture as violent in themselves, but as controlling mechanisms to minimise violence and regulate human relations. Furthermore, Girard in no way condones the use of “sacred violence”, and the attempt to project cultural or religious structures as sacred, because it is inherently contradictory and mendacious: it gains mimetic fulfilment and unity through the expulsion of the other, which is hidden, rationalised and imitated.
Furthermore, Girard argues that warfare has acted as an important sacrificial institution in human history to restrain and channel violence. It acts in the manner of a scapegoating, but does so by targeting a whole people as enemy. In medieval times, René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 257-64; I See Satan Fall, 71-2.
Girard uses the word ‘archaic’ to denote a pre-modern, traditional culture characterised by a singular tradition of sacrificial rituals, myths and prohibitions. I follow his use of the word in this essay.
Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 259.
warfare was regulated through aristocratic codes and rules, like that of duels and tournaments, and allowed for relatively controlled expressions of violence. However, with the onset of revolution and total war in modernity, warfare was released from its regulatory restraints, under the pressure of mass mimetic dynamics. Girard regards the advent of ‘total war’ following the French Revolution and under the direction of Napoleon as the turning point for mimetic rivalry and violence in modernity. In total war, the conventions and structures of war are purposefully disregarded. They are no longer the preserve of the aristocracy and its codes and strategies; rather, war becomes absolute, unrestrained from the rules and conventions that had structured it as a sacrificial activity, that is, an activity that cathartically released mimetic tensions in a controlled fashion.
Based on Schmidt’s genealogy of terrorism, Girard argues that at the same time as Napoleon unleashed total war, irregular war (and the roots of terrorism) developed, as partisans sought to combat invading armies. 33 In irregular warfare, the codification of war is clearly broken, with the distinction between soldier and civilian purposefully confused. According to Girard, this “ensures the passage from war to terrorism” in which total war has escalated to the point where there are no longer legitimate armies but only fighters “ready to do anything.”34 The advent of total war and irregular warfare, for Girard, is also a premonition of the apocalypse. Girard regards the effectiveness of modern institutions (e.g., legal systems, nation-states and politics) as increasingly under threat. While these institutions have provided unprecedented levels of order, peace and justice in the modern world, they are at the same time increasingly challenged to constrain violence and justify themselves through limited uses of violence to control more widespread Girard, Battling to the End, 66.
Girard, Battling to the End, 66.
Furthermore, according to Girard, the breakdown in the effectiveness of cultural institutions to restrain violence in modernity and postmodernity can be attributed to one major cause: to the biblical tradition, and to some degree, to the world’s major religions. Girard argues that in the biblical revelation human violence is definitively exposed and the possibilities for a cultural shift away from violence occurs. In his later work, Girard identifies how the Judeo-Christian tradition undermines scapegoating violence by revealing the innocence of the victim of human violence. This revelation, culminating in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus, leads to a gradual deconstruction of the distinction between “the mob and the victim”, “us and them”, by showing the mimetic/relational basis of human nature and its fulfilment in divine love that transforms distorted desire and mob violence. In this way, Girard establishes a distinction between the archaic-mythical (“pagan”) and biblical traditions centred on the victim, while also showing how the biblical tradition seeks to un-distort and re-direct traditional culture in its misguided search for unity and peace. Thus, the cultural crisis that seems to afflict the modern world is really the emergence of a definitive choice for humanity: for or against violence.
The Escalation to Extremes in (Post)Modernity Applying Girard’s analysis to modernity, it seems that in a similar way to archaic cultures, the international order, under the hegemony of the USA, acts to contain mimetic violence and the potential for mass destruction within a legal-political order structured around the limited use of violence. However, while violence is used in a sacrificial manner, the international order also seeks to uphold the values of justice, human rights and peace, based around a growing consciousness of the evil of human violence and the innocence of the victims. This order was for most of the second half of the 20th century structured around mimetic rivalry, that is, the superpower rivalry between the US and USSR. The escalation to extremes was an ever-present threat in this rivalry as it relied on the avoidance of mutually assured destruction (MAD) by not engaging in total war through nuclear weapons. Though some elites were willing to risk total destruction at points in this period, ultimately MAD was avoided by fortuitous diplomatic and political efforts. The fear of nuclear mass destruction, however, has re-emerged following the Cold War in relation to nations such as North Korea and Iran, and in reference to terrorist groups.
Furthermore, while the US-USSR rivalry was seemingly resolved by economic warfare, Russia’s recent ascendency and manipulation of existing conventions around war and international relations indicates that this rivalry is reemerging in a (re)new(ed) way. Russia’s efforts, interestingly, show how international rules around war can be covertly manipulated in an age of international law and nuclear weapons. It also shows the potential of a nation seeking to stave off a cultural crisis (following the breakdown of communism in the early 1990s and democratic capitalism in the late 1990s) through an identity that is heavily structured around an external threat and enemy (the West). It demonstrates another aspect of Girard’s analysis of war – that national wars rely on the movement of mass “hostile feeling” (in Russia’s case, a history of anti-Western sentiment), which can be catalysed, cultivated or manipulated through the “hostile intent” and tactics of leaders.35 In this regard, President Putin has shown the effectiveness of media propaganda and war in stoking mass feeling and resentment.
Nevertheless, the ceasefire in the Ukraine shows how the international Girard, Battling to the End, 187.
political order can produce outcomes of peace through negotiation, though only after the warring parties are willing to come to the table. According to Girard’s analysis of war, conflict often ceases because of strategic reasons on the part of one or more of the warring parties (that is, because they cannot win or they will lose more than what is gained, even if they are victorious).36 Through sanctions against Russia and limited support for Ukraine, the West has been able to force Russia and its rebel allies to recognise its strategic reality. These strategic outcomes are fragile, relying on a strategic balance between the parties to the conflict being maintained and other mutual interests being fostered, such as the reward of alleviating sanctions against Russia. 37 Unless a lasting and just peace can be reached, peace or ceasefire agreements can be strategic moves on the part of the weaker rival to re-gather its strength in preparation for future conflict.38 Girard remains pessimistic about the potential of politics to restrain mimetic violence, particularly in the long-term, without a meaningful peace. Long-term peace requires some manner of internal change away from violence (conversion) that can be the basis for just relations amongst the parties, such as through complete exhaustion with or revulsion to violence (like in Europe after World War II or in East Timor following the Indonesian occupation).39 Thus, the potential of violent escalation is an ever-present one in the contemporary world order, especially as it is constantly being contested by rivalries between nation-states (e.g., the US and Russia) and, more recently, with non-state parties. World order has been conventionally focused on the machinations of nationstate rivalries, particularly in using the dynamics of these rivalries to contain violence.
In the 21st century, however, there has been a new entity introduced to global politics Girard, Battling to the End, 12-14.
Girard, Battling to the End, 12-19.
Girard, Battling to the End, 13.
Girard, Battling to the End, 99.
and warfare that has changed the game dramatically – the extra-state actor, such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS, ISIS or Da’ish). These extra-state actors seem willing to go where the MAD rivals feared to trod: total victory, and so, total destruction.
There are grave fears that these extra-state actors could obtain weapons of mass destruction, most likely from collaborators in state agencies or by theft from a weak state institution. The emergence of these non-state actors seems to represent the movement of international rivalries to a new extreme, beyond traditional state-based systems, in which international laws and structures do not matter in the face of total victory and guerrilla-type tactics. At the same time, however, even amongst nationstates, the rules of the game are being stretched, especially by Russia, as rivalries escalate and the cultural crisis of postmodernity becomes more deeply entrenched.
On the other hand, while terrorist groups have scandalised many nations and peoples around the world by their extreme use of violence, these extremist groups also seem willing to fight conventional wars such as in Iraq and Syria (though in extreme ways) in order to bring about their own socio-political system and culture. In this way, they are an exemplar of the breakdown of the institution of war, though in a confused or contradictory manner: on one hand, rules do not matter for Islamic extremists, rather only victory over the infidel is important; yet, on the other hand, their violence and victories seek to institute systems and rules purportedly handed down by God in order to bring salvation and order.
This contradiction at the heart of modern extremism presents two aspects of Girard’s insights: that violence is escalating beyond its conventional cultural restraints in postmodernity; and that while extremist groups are a product of the breakdown of the institutional restraints around modern violence and warfare, they seek to produce new cultural systems based on ‘sacred violence’ to re-institute order amidst the seemingly chaos of a disintegrating and disorientating pluralistic world. Islamic terrorism and extremism, then, is (in large part) a reaction to the cultural crisis experienced by modernity (and accelerated in postmodernity): the breakdown of sacrificial institutions that kept violence in check, most particularly the institution of warfare; and the inability to cope with this new situation because of a lack of cultural and political resources, such as an effective nation-state and civil society, to cope without using violence as a means of forming unity. This cultural crisis has been exported from the West as the biblical spirit of the victim has infected almost every culture worldwide. This has occurred through the spread of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the globalisation of Western cultural forms that have grown in concert with this tradition, such as human rights and Western political systems. The spread of the biblical spirit has, of course, involved levels of violence, oppression and domination, which has confused its reception with issues of power and rivalry and with colonial and capitalist systems.
Thus, this essay contends that extremist groups seek the unity around violence found in archaic cultures, but they contrast to these archaic cultures in that violence is intentionally instituted and explicitly celebrated at the heart of their activity. For archaic cultures, violence was not the explicit object of motivation or worship, though it was at the heart of their mythical projections. Therefore, there is a deep disorder in perpetrators of extremist violence, especially in their attribution of violence to God, but the level of disorder is becoming more explicit and clear to the modern world.
Violence is more honestly embraced as the way to salvation and order by extremists in a way that archaic cultures really had no choice.