/ theol / cover / bulletin / xtexte / bulletin03-6.html

COV&R Logo

Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 3 (Sept. 1992)

Abstracts of the COV&R-Conference ("Ethnocentrism and the Study of Violence") at Stanford University May 7-9, 1992

Gil Bailie (Temenos) Crossing the Jor dan "Opposite Jericho"

To try to understand today's ethnic violence in terms of ethnicity is as naive as it is to try to curb that violence by encouraging ethnic identification. What underlies the resurgence of ethnic passions is the demise of larger more heterogeneous cultural units. As these larger units disintegrate, both social and psychological reflexes favor a revival of smaller more ethnically homogeneous ones, but the same process that led to the demise of the larger social systems will eventually overtake the smaller ones as well. Ethnic passions are symptoms of a much larger and more profound cultural crisis. Inter-ethnic conflict is a desperate attempt to snatch at the remnants of cultural and psychological identification in a world now living on non-renewable cultural resources.

Passages from the books of Numbers and Joshua in the Hebrew Bible are used to show how a mounting sacrificial crisis can lead to a fierce preoccupation with historical antagonists. The crossing of the Jordan "opposite Jericho" is taken as the pivotal moment in the Israelite cultural enterprise when this preoccupation becomes the dominant fact of cultural life. After the holy violence at Jericho and Ai there occurs a revival of the sacrificial cult that had been rocked by dissent in the days of Moses and Aaron. By comparison with Joshua, Pope Urban II's launching of the Crusades is briefly discussed. Mention is made of the Joshua of the New Testament, who enters the Jordan "opposite" his heavenly Father.

Louis Burkhardt (Colorado University), Ethnocentrism & the Reception of the Work of René Girard

The accusations of 'ethnocentrism' and 'ethnocentric' operate as one of the final ways for a speaker to invert a hierarchy of ethnic differences, while claiming to view differences in a non-hierarchical, inclusive way. This use of 'ethnocentrism' and 'ethnocentric' as tools of exclusion is especially common when 'ethnic' is extended from racial and national differences to cultural, religious and phi losophical ones. In other words, the use of the labels 'ethnocen trism' and 'ethnocentric' constitutes a culturally-specific abuse of ostensibly egalitarian, multi-cultural language. As long as a group can be labelled 'ethnocentric' it can be excluded from serious consideration and deprived of respect. The risk of this informal and anecdotal talk is that I might simply reproduce and extend the problems I discuss. I want to relate the reception of the work of René Girard to what I detect as a form of intellectual ethnocen trism without simply reciprocating the attitudes and perceptions that strike me as undesirable. Most of you have probably been aware of the kind of adverse reactions to the theory of mimetic desire to which I will make reference. The fact that I am a relative newcomer to the work of Girard (being in first grade in 1961, the year Mensonge romantique et vérité ro manesque was published in France) foregrounds the pertinen ce of what I have to say. Any theory--psychoanalytical, Marxist, structuralist, feminist, et. al.--is bound to be misunderstood in its introductory phases. What's remarkable is that radical misunderstandings of Girard's theory still persist among scholars at a level of intensity unmerited by either its level of conceptual clarity or its novelty.

My assumption is that ethnocentrism involves a desire to protect one's identity. This protective desire might as well be called conflictive mimesis, for it arises only in the context of an other who somehow threatens to take away that identity. As we know, conflictive mimesis always exaggerates differences in order to justify itself. These exaggerations are neither conscious nor controllable, and the misperceptions begin to loop back into the situation, giving even more (illusory) cause for alarm and, again, overdifferentiation. Such is the fate of Girardian theory in many circles. However, the misreadings and misperceptions themselves validate with existential immediacy the claims of the theory.

René Girard (Stanford University), Ethnocentrism and Western Culture

The contemporary struggle against ethnocentrism is complicated by the fact that, far from being a contemporary invention, anti- ethnocentrism has been an important intellectual tradition, at least since Montaigne, and a purely Western one.

Under more elegant labels, ethnocentrism is the main object of satire in Enlightenment literature. Nietzsche defends ethnocentrism as aristocratic self-confidence and denounces the struggle against it as an integral part of our Christian heritage and its concern for victims.

Roel Kaptein (University of Ulster), Ethnocentrism in Northern Ireland: Its Escalation into Violence and Terrorism

1. The word ethnocentrism is first used in print in 1907. This reflects a change. Originally it was the pre-rational certainty that the own culture was right and good, the others wrong and, if they were the culture of enemies, bad. Culture as such gave being. In modern times this certainty has disappeared. We are not any longer sure about our culture because it does not any longer give being and so it becomes a model-obstacle. We have to win over it, in order to have again being.

The development in fact went already further. We have become anthropocentric. We are not any longer sure about our being as human. Our very humanity has become our model-obstacle.

2. Ethnocentrists always seek scapegoats, because they cannot cope with the situation. The reason for the (not understood) uncertainty must come from outside. This is in fact true: The reason is the decay of culture as a whole. All ethnocentrists seek a powerful outside scapegoat-enemy. For Northern Irish Roman Catholics it is the UK, for the Protestants the R(epublic of) I(reland). For us as anthropocentrists it is nature, the world as a whole.

3. In N(orthern) I(reland) two ethnocentrists groups are fighting for the power. The RCs are the weakest, so the most ethnocentrist. Both groups are mirroring the endless double-relationships in the world (UK<>RI; US<>USSR &c).

4. Ethnocentrism being a model-obstacle relationship with the own culture and, consequently, with all surrounding cultures, which can be seen as enemies, it is full of model-obstacle relationships everywhere. Structure is constantly destroyed by it, all relationships inside and outside being replaced by model-rival and model- obstacle relationships.

5. So the world of ethnocentrism is full of scapegoats, from outside and inside (as, in fact, NI itself is originally the scapegoat of the UK and the RI). And, the other way round, the whole world being ethnocentric (and anthropocentric), openly ethnocentric groups are heavily scapegoated by the whole world.

6. Consequently an ethnocentric situation cannot be saved by normal political means inside or even outside of the country (Yugoslavia and Nagorno-Karabach are points in case). Because ethnocentrism is full of the sacred, churches are part of the problem and of very little help to solve it.

7. Terrorism is consistent ethnocentrism. It tries to destroy its own culture and the culture of the opponent. "Deep down" it seeks to destroy culture in order to create a new world, the goal of primitive ritual (as anthropocentrism tries to destroy nature and humanity, driven by the same dark goal). Terrorists, being deeply into the sacred, seek being by dying for the cause, seek to become (religious) saints.

8. So terrorism in our world is no accident. It is in fact everywhere, here and there, where the circumstances are favorable, as they are in NI, coming into the open. All terrorism and terrorists in the world, even of opposite groups, belong together and eventually work together, in a small sub-culture, on the fringe of culture and no-culture. The media are the big allies of terrorism, in many senses doing the same as they do.

9. The only way out is freedom from the mimetic mechanisms. Time and again it becomes clear that this freedom is possible and changes the situation. In NI there are several "cradles of freedom", groups of people who know what is happening and seek their way together out of the ethnocentric madness.

10. Since 1980 the mimetic model has been introduced to NI, in the community of Corrymeela and in many other groups. Some years ago a team "Understanding conflict, and finding ways out of it", working exclusively with the model, with four members, was founded. A medical project is using the model in order to give cancer patients freedom from their illness.

Andrew J. McKenna (Loyola University Chicago), The Song of Roland, Ethnocentrism and Violence: Euracism and Mine

Ignorance of others defines Otherness as such. The anonymous XIth- century epic poem, The Song of Roland, reads as a text-book case of a "text of persecution" as described in Girard's The Scapegoat. The work's Western movie style or Manichaean dualism, and attendant racism, weds violence to the sacred in the manner of Old Testament mythology (as opposed to its prophetic tradition), whereby its ethno-ethic differs more from Homeric epic than from a properly sacrificial violence informing much contemporary geopolitics. Its splendid rhythms connect with ritual, while the fate of the treacherous Ganelon beckons compari son and contrast with the Passion narrative in Scripture.

Tobin Siebers, The Ethics of Anti- Ethnocentrism

The paper forms a collage detailing the meeting place between ethnocentrism in our anthropological culture and current debates about multiculturalism. First, it presupposes that the West is an anthropological culture, in which self-image is constructed via an encounter with cultural others. This is why anthropology today is so conflicted: it does not know how to use the diversity that it finds, whether it should, or even whether diversity really exists. Second, I presuppose that multiculturalism reproduces descriptions created by Western anthropological culture and that we may understand why certain debates arise in academia by thinking about anti-ethnocen trism in the context of ethnography. In effect, the paper asks about the differences between intercultural and intracultural differences, which, I submit, is to ask about the difference between ethics and politics.

The first section on anti-ethnocentrism concentrates on Geertz's essay, "The Uses of Diversity," because it clinches the problem of what anthropology is today: the zone where we worry the most about whether encounters with others victimize them. Although Geertz writes ethnography from the native's point of view, he wants to use diversity. How do we justify using human difference, if our fundamental insight in the West is that using differences victimizes? We have come to believe that there are no objective grounds to regulate encounters with cultural others, so we are left with three choices. 1) We conclude that we cannot represent others without distorting their lives and harming them. 2) We become connoisseurs of diversity -- aesthetes -- but are compromised politically because the native remains a museum piece, a collectible, exotica. 3) We use the encounter with otherness as an occasion to reflect on ourselves. This is the "I confess" mode of anthropology, where the field trip is a crucible of adversity in which my suffering forms myself. It is self-victimization for the sake of aggrandize ment. In short, anthropologists must victimize others or themselves, but both spectacles of violence are staged for the edification of Western culture.

The second section on multiculturalism takes up Rorty's response to Geertz. Rorty sees Geertz's attitude as apolitical because it either descends into self-loathing, which is not useful for utopian reform, or it tries to posit a supercommunity, which exists nowhere and has no local politics; it is an aestheticized morality. Rorty opposes objectivity to solidarity, arguing that we too often sacrifice anti-cruelty for the truth, solidarity for objectivity, and he recommends that we stop worrying about whether we are hypocrites or liars and attend to solidarity as a first principle: to do whatever is necessary not to victimize. But the current scene makes this choice difficult because it gives the lion's share of ethics to the victim. The worst thing that anyone can do is to deny that someone is a victim when he or she makes the claim. We cannot dislodge people from the position of the victim. We have a problem siding with the victim, therefore, because victims are all around, and we have no way of deciding who is really being harmed and when. Multiculturalism tries to build solidarity through curriculum reform but it cannot be sufficiently inclusive in the final analysis to satisfy its own principles, and it reproduces the threefold dilemma of the ethnographer: 1) Experience the other and distort the other in the process. 2) Appreciate the other as an aesthetic category. 3) Use multicultural reading to forge a new self for the reader.

We need some way to talk about what violence is, symbolic or not, what a community is, who is in, who is out, what is cruel, what is not--which means that solidarity begins to rely on objectivity. Solidarity and objectivity are the rock and hard place where we are caught.

Finally, it is important to note that canon formation, while necessary, will not solve the problems of a multicultural society. In fact, the shift to "multiculturalism" and "ethnicity" as terms is a way of shifting the site of race relations to the university. It scapegoats the university, making it responsible for problems that it cannot solve. You have to overlook a great deal of suffering and cruelty to place social reform on the back of curriculum. You have to get to the university before entering these debates, and this fact effectively excludes those for whom the debate is most important: the racially excluded, the underprivileged, and the poor of this country. The shift from civil rights to multiculturalism is one of the great failings of the last 4 decades. In the best light, it shows our political leadership trying to solve race relations on the cheap, from the top down (the famous trickle down effect). In the worst light, it is a scheme to scapegoat the university for the political irresponsibility of federal, state, and local government.

Norman C. Stolzoff (U.C. Davis), Generative Violence and Participant-Observation

This paper explores three points. First, I ask: what is the relation between the anthropological method of participant-observation and the Girardian theory of generative violence? How does mimetic desire enter into the field-research equation and influence interpretation? Knowing as we do about the mimetic basis of violence, how does a Girardian fieldworker do research on "theatres of violence"? By drawing on my own fieldwork experience in Jamaica to date, I want to show how the effects of mimetic desire on ourselves as fieldworkers may distort our judgement and how we interpret ritual events. As inquisitive visitors from afar, it is hard not set up pyschosocial "shields" to protect ourselves from the most violent manifestations of mimetic desire and our interactions with local people who have their own complicated feelings about wealthy, white Euro-Americans. In the process, we can also block ourselves off from the mimetic struggle and the violent means we use to get out of it. Second, I extend Jeffrey Alexander's insight presented in his critical introduction to the volume entitled Durkheimian Sociology: Cultural Studies (1988) that we must "separate the ritual process from any expectation of its consensual outcome" (14). That is, we often fail to recognize that we impute structure on ambiguous events that are inherently polyvalent. Third and finally, I discuss the Jamaican dancehall in order to ground my analysis in an empirical context. The dancehall in Jamaica is both an "entertainment" event and a type of popular music among the young, poor, black masses. However, the study of the dancehall is important because it is the site of many forms of violence ranging from the symbolic to the collective. For example, on more than one occasion thousands of angry fans have been known to drive stars from the stage by hurling bottles at them. The paper concludes by offering an interpretation of these "stonings" as a form of generative violence.