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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 2 (March 1992)

Abstracts of the COV&R-Conference in Kansas City November 23, 1991

Eugene Webb (University of Washington), Introducto ry Remarks

My chapter on Girard in Philosophers of Consciousness: Polanyi, Lonergan, Voegelin, Ricoeur, Girard, Kierkegaard had two goals. One was to offer a concise summary of Girard's main ideas for people not already familiar with his thought. The other was to relate his ideas to certain philosophical issues. I think that if my discussion of Girard has some contribution to make to Girardian studies as such, it must be primarily as a working out of some of the implications of his ideas about mimesis for the under standing of philosophical reflection. The main focus of the book itself is on cognitional theory and its relation to ontology. I found in writing it, however, that some of the issues dividing the other thinkers I was studying could be helpfully elucidated by way of a Girardian analysis.

One of these, for example, was the role of myth in philosophical thinking. Bernard Lonergan began with a very limited conception of myth as a kind of feeble, misguided effort to think in a manner that might be described as "scientific." Eric Voegelin brought to focus another dimension of myth, as an inquiry continuous with philosophy which it could never fully pass beyond becau se philosophy as such, like myth, was essentially an expression of "the love of being through love of divine Being as the source of its order." What Girard offered to the exploration of such issues was a whole new per spective on both myth and the idea of "being." Voegelin appreciated myth in a way Lonergan did not, as did Ricoeur also, but although he was far from naive about the way human intentionality can become twisted into various forms of flight from consciousness, reality in general, and especially the reality of the human experien ce of what Voegelin called "existential tension," he (as well as Polanyi and Ricoeur) seemed to me to have little insight into the kind of polarization of violence that Girard brings to light in myth, nor did either Lonergan or Voegelin seem to have any sense of the way the whole idea of "being" related to that of power and to the fascination with power that Girard discusses under the heading of "meta physical desire."

It also seems to me, however, that the kinds of reflecti on that grow out of relating Girardian thinking to the philosophical concerns of the other thinkers discussed in my book points toward a need to expand the horizon of Girardian reflection itself to encompass the kinds of issues these philosophers deal with. In addition to the Girardian concept of mimetic desire as a basic motivating force in human beings, one must also recognize and understand the implications of a fundamental existential appetite, a desire (or motivation) to "be" that aims not at the illusion of possessing the being of an objective mediator but at the fulfillment of the human capacity to perform the distinctly human operations that go into existence as an attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible person. The light Girardian analysis throws on the reasons we fall short of this goal is invaluable, but its specific value is precisely to help us through insight to free ourselves for its more effective pursuit.

Andrew J. McKenna (Loyola University of Chicago) Response to "René Girard: Consciousness and the Dynamics of Desire" in Philosophers and Cons ciousness by Eugene Webb

In the light of this chapter's excellent presentation of mimetic theory, one is provoked to wonder whether the mimetic hypothesis should be ranged amidst a discussion of philosophers -- Ricoeur, Lonergan, Kierkegaard, Voegelin -- or whether it should not be regarded as an alternative, indeed an antidote, to philosophy's largely introspective tradition, to its preoccupation with mental operations independently of the modelling role of the other. The notion of mediated desire so thoroughly deconstructs, in exactly the sense broadcast by Derrida, the philosophical construct of subject and object as to recommend itself equally as a coherent alternative to prevailing theories, Freudian and Lacanian, of uncons ciousness. Even Foucault's analytic of power, a notion unduly entified by Webb, is illuminated by a theory which discloses the object of desire (be it power itself) as a signifier of violent rivalry.

Mark I. Wallace (Swarthmore College), Review of Webb's analysis of Girard in Philosophers of Cons ciousness

I raised two points in my evaluation. First, Webb criticizes traditional philosophers' attempts to spiritualize desire as the drive for union with the source as an exercise in false consciousness that camouflages the true potency of mimeticism and its destructive effects. Nevertheless, Webb is conflicted on this issue, and it is at this juncture that his analysis registers an important advance beyond Girard's more narrow understanding of mimesis. For though he chastises the philosophers' "romantic" nostalgia for mimetic myth of divine imitation, he adds this coda to his critique: "There can be circumstances -- when the models available are of the right sort, as in the case of the saint's imitatio Christi -- in which the interdividual dimensi on of human life can lead to possibilities beyond the . . . conflictual alone (Webb, 310). Herein lies an extension beyond Girardian analysis into the spiritual ether that Webb earlier in the book warns against: a valorization of healthy mimesis in which selfless imitation of the divine other breaks the cycle of internal agonistic mimesis and forms the basis for nonconflictual love and care for the other.

Secondly, I suggest that while Girard's (and Webb's) hermeneutic implies that the church-sanctioned mainline stories of God's nonviolent agency is the center of the biblical story, that those who endure the pain of sacrificial violence know that the numbing enigma of their suffering remains inscrutable and unanswerable within this model. The burden of emplotment falls to the reader, and she has to make sense of the violent and nonviolent mixed dis course, the pathologically frozen distortions, within the biblical witness; she cannot adequately do so, however, if the "original scenes" of text-mediated violence within the Bible are bracketed off by the Girardian canon within the canon. Though Webb's analysis of mimesis marks a significant break with Girard's more narrow theory of desire, like Girard, he does not adequately sound the depths of the Bible's complicity with the sacrificial violence that is always lurking just outside the door of the house hold of faith.