At the risk of drawing overly simplistic lines between the ritual or pagan and the modern world, one might say that Shakespeare scholar, controversial thinker and Catholic philosopher René Girard* identifies a crucial lack in our contemporary relation to an apocalyptic horizon. There has arguably always been such a relation, and perhaps necessarily so, but whereas before entire social groups participated in organized ritual re-enactments of 'the worst', today we are left with, well, CNN and FOX, or an endlessly thematized and sensationalized, yet ultimately hollow and unsatisfying, disembodied simulation of such stakes.
Yet simulation of any kind is never without its
specifically the danger to inspire real violence. This would seem a
precarious line. And although the lines separating the ritual from the
real have never been pure, today in this age increasingly permeated by
the so-called hyperreal,
and combined with an unsustainable market which is forever (and with
help) in denial of its own mounting internal fragility, the stakes
of such danger is arguably unprecedented. As marketably
successful as his theory may be, one wishes that Baudrillard
(though others would defend
sometimes took more pains to emphasize the severity of these risks. In
any case, I think Girard is an important thinker, and so I have
reproduced in part an intriguing interview–more revealing perhaps than
the LeMonde one on"9/11"–below.
* Significantly perhaps, Girard is one of those philosophers who claims that philosophy is over, to be replaced by a new science and a return to religion.
The supreme paradox of the Gospels is that the revelation should never happen. And therefore Plato's work is not a revelation of the scapegoat mechanism since philosophy is immune to it.
RG: The idea of grace in Christianity or Judaism is precisely that the truth cannot be known by human means because it is always buried by the mechanism of Satan. What is the idea of Satan? How can Satan cast out Satan? Satan casts out Satan through the unanimity of scapegoating, which forces absolutely everybody not to see the victim as the scapegoat any more but as the weird combination of guilt and salvation that a primitive god is. Whereas, in Judaism and Christianity, you have a totally different type of God who is not dependent on the victimage mechanism.
Q: Here the positions of the victimizer and the object of desire and rejection, the victim, are rather clearly defined and stable. This does not seem to be the case in internal mediation, where we can no longer distinguish between victim and pursuer.
RG: Right, it is a circle. Internal mediation implies what I call double mediation; in other words, the model becomes the imitator of his imitator and the imitator becomes his model of its model; that's what mimetic escalation is. It is a storage of violent energy which tends towards explosion and this explosion takes place all the time, of course. In order for this violence to be deferred, there must be a collective transference against a collective victim that can be completely arbitrary and against whom all tensions are projected, the scapegoat. If all believe in its guilt, the destruction of that victim will leave the community without an enemy. It is this state of being without an enemy, attributed to the victim, which brings about the mystery of the sacred. Because the scapegoat embodies all evil and the next second, it embodies all good, so the sacred would be there and the sacred would be the first to be represented, after a long apprenticeship with prohibitions and rituals.
Q: Earlier, you mentioned religion as the most important means for the deferral of violence. One can say that the market system, as it is defined in GA, assumes many of the functions of religion in regard to the deferral of violence. What is your opinion in regard to the market's capacity of replacing religion?
RG: The market and the multiplication of goods should be regarded as part of the sacrificial mechanism. In other words, the message of mimetic rivalry is that we all want the same things, and the market allows us to have the same things. So, the market can be considered a religion, I would say a substitute religion, but one should not overdo it because in its best aspects, the market is not rationally intelligible. But you could say that there are no victims in the market, there are only beneficiaries. People make money, people consume and exchange and so forth but this is not necessarily sacrificial. First, this is questionable; there are many losers, many victims. Second, the market is to a certain degree like all sacrificial means and the proof is that it has a limited life span.
Consider for example the people who, at the end of the war would devote their entire activity, their energy to the possession of washing machines, dishwashers, or automobiles-- they are no longer satisfied with that, they take it for granted. The market is ignorant as to what we really want or need. Nowadays you hear for example that we need computers, we are not even sure that computers can satisfy our desire in as wide a way as other things but the computers kept the economy going, at least for a while. Therefore the market maybe is more self-sustaining than many other systems but it is not completely so: its efficiency participates in historicity. And there is also a mimetic escalation which has counterproductive effects for the ecology and all sorts of things. So, I would agree to a certain extent with a positive view of the market but I would say in many respects it's the same old thing and that there is no absolute solution to the problem of man who, however unfashionable it may be to say at this time, yearns for the absolute.
Q: At least in principle, the market system implicitly has faith in its endless capability of deferral ....
RG: .... of renewal
Q: .... of renewal and deferring the potential violence inherent in mimetic desire.
RG: Yes, at the same time, I don't want to be too pessimistic, but, at this very moment, there are some disturbing aspects in the down-sizing mania, for instance, which bring out the negative aspects of mimetic rivalry. It seems to me that the market, fundamentally, like all modern institutions, is a complex combination of an archaic sacrificial basis combined with aspects of Jewish-Christian revelation and, as you say, its better than anything we had before, and I don't want to sell it short. But at the same time, it constantly gives signs of crisis. So far it has had the ability to renew itself but it has also had moments of great crises which have led to monstrous events. One can see that the totalitarian crises of the 30s and 40s and the whole communist system were in a way problems caused by a collapse of the market and these problems are still with us. Therefore, without denying the theoretical capacity of the market to renew itself, we can have serious doubts about the ease with which it will do it...
Read the whole thing.
For a dissenting take on the necessity of scapegoating, see here.
Relatedly, from here:
The afterword to Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media is a sophisticated theoretical entry, "Sacrificial Violence and Postmodern Ideology," in which Sharrett attempts to resituate sacrifice as a mode of defining and explaining violence in popular culture. Revisiting Rene Girard's theories, he questions the appropriateness of the structural process of ritual sacrifice to contemporary models of identity and culture. The issue Sharrett poses by rethinking Girard's work is not whether contemporary culture continues to feature sacrifice and scapegoating. Clearly, the straightforward structural employment of these forms and processes seems insistent and undeniable. The issue, rather, is whether ubiquitous media representations of bloodletting remain connected to shared myths that still shape and define the society and the viewer's place in it, or whether the myths have been destroyed, individuals diminished, and the society depoliticized, leaving popular narratives of sacrifice empty and defined only by their value as commodities...
Bataille is important to Sharrett because, without the critical lens he offers, violence in postmodern cinema loses depth or the meaning accrued through traditional relations to the real world. Even the most graphic instance of filmic violence potentially becomes like any other image, homogenized and emptied of meaning or seeming originality. National myths or cultural codes of representation are eroded and other substantive meanings largely evacuated, leaving only the images themselves. For, indeed, as films have become largely self-referential commodities, the concern is that they are increasingly intended for the spectator's consumption, regardless of "content." Attempts to critique this process, like Oliver Stone's excessive use of media pastiche in Natural Born Killers or Errol Morris's elevation of formal "documentary" qualities as subject for inquiry in The Thin Blue Line, largely fail, as these texts, also, are emptied of meaning by the very forms they employ. More routine examples of violence in contemporary action films merely rework and recirculate self-consciously spectacular images that affirm, in their familiarity, the conservative status quo.