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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 11 (Oct. 1996)

Report from the COV&R Conference held at Stanford, June 27-29, 1996

The theme of the conference was, "Ethnic Conflict in International Perspective," and the keynote address was René Girard's "Ethnic Conflict and Mimetic Theory". It seems best to concentrate on Girard's presentation rather than to give a brief summary of each offering, because it demonstrates how mimetic theory might be applied to political phenomena, which was the purpose of the conference to explore. The title of the conference was chosen so as to distinguish it from the last meeting at Stanford when we tried to take on the problem of ethnicity and spoke mostly about the inner-university problem in the USA of what has come to be called multi-culturalism. This time we wanted to lift our eyes to the international horizon, and Girard confirmed our desire by taking as the case study for an application of mimetic theory, the situation in the Balkans. Before getting down to the discussion of the case in point he introduced mimetic theory to this realm of discourse with a finesse that illuminated the theory anew even for those who have known it for a long time, and he began with an historical survey. Only after the Enlightenment did we begin to think that war might be eliminated, prior to that such ambition would have been taken as an expression of human pride. After the French revolution we began the wars not of the "corrupt elites" who could not help, because of their innate depravity, making war, but the democratic wars of the "people" which were the wars to end war because democratic and not oligarchic. Marxism-Leninism promised to end the contradiction of a revolutionary warfare that escalated rather than ended warfare, declaring that the failure of the revolution was due to its bourgeois nature. The righteous proletarians would end war - hardly! Shall we, therefore, conclude that in addition to this chronic self-deception humanity is also biologically afflicted with a compulsion to war? Not at all, and this is where the mimetic theory comes in. It s a cultural rather than a biological theory. "Perhaps it is more important as a theory of conflict than as a theory of desire," said Girard, "but we must start with desire." Then followed a brief introduction to the mimetic theory of desire, whose highlights are, "Man is the creature who does not know what to desire;" "..we must not confuse the sexual appetite with desire, which is what Freud systematically did...and our spurious individualism loves Freud very much because...the idea that our rivals are really the masters of our desire is the most difficult for us to face...To conclude from all this that the mimetic theory condemns mimetic desire would be absurd, even meaningless. Mimetic desire is fundamental to our humanity. In order to become human we must actively if as a rule unconsciously, imitate our parents, our teachers, our peers and other such models of desire who, as a rule, are not rivals but role models in the sense this expression is used by many psychologists." We all know how desire turns to rivalry because of the acquisitive nature of its mimesis, and that turn takes us from mimetic theory as a theory of desire to mimetic theory as a theory of conflict. Girard turns to the Balkan conflicts in conversation with the sociologist Rogers Brubaker ("National Minorities, Nationalizing States, and external National Homelands in the New Europe" Daedalus 124/2 [Spring 1995] 107-132), whose work he says, "..develops a theoretical framework that comes very close to what I would regard as a mimetic model for the study not only of the specific problem the author is dealing with, but of many other kinds of conflicts leading to military violence." Brubaker borrows the idea of "fields" from Bourdieu and sees the poles of conflict as fields of conflict within themselves, presenting therefore when they enter into external relations a "relation between relational fields." "Relational" is the important word for Brubaker, and so too for Girard. Each pole is unstable, a field of relations, that is, in turn, related to another relational field outside itself. The poles interact not as monads but as unstable fields of desire constantly changing under the impact of internal stresses caused by internal rivalries that are themselves affected by external rivalries. Of this Girard says,"What Rogers Brubaker is really saying, in my mimetic vocabulary, is that an escalation of mimetic rivalry occurred that generated the desire for ethnically homogeneous statehood among Croats on the one hand, and on the other hand, among Serbs in Croatia as well as the Serbs in Serbia." The poles became more hostile as they became more like each other. In the case of the Balkans the poles of the conflict are related in triangles made up of the ethnic minority (M), the ethnic homeland (H) and the titular state (T). Every relationship in this case is, therefore, H-M-T or some other variation of the triangle. In the case of the Balkans, Serbia related to Croatia in terms of the Serbian minority in the now depleted Krajina, and so on. In order to mobilize the Serb minority in Croatia to support the idea of a "Greater Serbia" Serbia had to present the spectacle of a militantly nationalizing Croatia, which was not hard to do because Croatia was already imitating Serbia's nationalism. Thus we have the instability of mimetic rivalry, and the two favorite phenomena of a Girardian mimeticist, triangles and imitation! To be sure the analysis Girard presents is very preliminary and incomplete, but it does point in a promising direction. We are also encouraged to discover that the phenomena important to mimetic theory are also evident to a sociologist like Brubaker. This shows that there is a convergence of analysis as we move away form a world of monadic objects of analysis. I have summarized Girard's paper because it epitomizes the seriousness and high quality of the program. I am very grateful to all who contributed, all who attended, and all who organized the conference, and especially to Martha and René Girard, whose hospitality was warm and generous, as usual. The mock stoning of our founder at the final banquet elicited some censorious reactions from members. It just shows that humor is the last thing to be internationally shared. For the record, you should know that as I was preaching next morning, on the text "Come unto me.." (and not to the false gods of California's New Age) a young woman rushed into the church and started cursing me in a loud voice, during the course of my sermon. She demanded that I step down from the pulpit so that she could preach. She said she had been sent by Zeus to stop me preaching. After she had been removed I told the congregation that I was immensely gratified to learn that what we were doing in this church was causing Zeus grief, and that I hoped we could do more to make him uncomfortable. Rosemary said I should not have tempted the demons by staging a stoning under a full moon. I do not fear the demons, even though I know they are no laughing matter, but it was Martin Luther who said the the one thing the devil cannot stand is being laughed at. And by the way it was a blue moon, and we stoned him only once!

Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly