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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 13 (Oct. 1997)


Henri Grivois and Jean-Pierre Dupuy (eds), Mecanismes mentaux, mecanismes sociaux- de la psychose à la panique. Ed. La decouverte Paris 1995 (ISBN 2-70701-2414-1)

This work contains the contributions to a meeting between Henri Grivois, a psychiatrist at an emergency ward in a central Paris hospital, and members of the CREA at the Ecole Polytechnique. Contrary to the current tendency in psychiatry, which speaks of a variety of psychoses, Grivois advocates the view that all psychotic phenomena are developments of an original experience or situation. He supports this view from his thirty years' experience with people in his emergency ward, whom he was able to meet right at the beginning of their psychotic problems, and who all spoke of the same alarming original experience: they see themselves at the center of the world, surrounded by everyone else, now threatened by them, now melted in with them. At this point everyone forms an undifferentiated crowd; only the confusing feeling remains, of standing in the center of all. This feeling can later crystallize into the most diverse and oppositional conceptions: as the imagination of a God or a devil, a ruler or a 'nothing', an other-wordly or underworld being.

This originary situation of Grivois is brought into relationship with the originary scene in the mimetic theory of Girard. According to Dupuy, this approximation is justified, above all because Grivois also explains the originary scene by means of an elementary mimesis. There is, he says, an innate tendency to copy the elementary gestures and movements of the other, a tendency which is so instinctive that normally it scarcely ventures to the threshold of reflexive consciousness. Most of the acts of imitation therefore remain unnoticed or are immediately forgotten. Deviation from normality sets in, according to Grivois, where a person begins to be more deeply affected by the invisible acts of imitation. He thereby spontaneously gains the impression that everyone is paying attention to him, everyone is imitating him. This impression awakens in him a striking reaction to his environment, which leads the others for their part to take notice of him in actuality. So an initial vague impression, which produced the aforementioned imitative reactions, is confirmed by consequent, visible, objective behavior, which finally leads to the impression of really standing at the center of everyone's attention.

Grivois first interpreted his medical experience with the help of Girard. Today he sets himself against Girard polemically because he thinks the latter fixes imitation much too late: according to Girard, it always assumes an already clear desire and cultural order. Dupuy shows in his introduction, however, that this is a misunderstanding, and he proposes to deepen Girard`s theory in the light of the work of Grivois. If he is correct, and if every individual, independently of his culture, can have the originary experience of a developing psychosis, then the hypothesis of Girard as to a real foundational event which stands at the beginning of all cultures becomes more plausible.

Mark Anspach demonstrates a further connection between Grivois and Girard in which he harks back to Durkheim. He interprets panic as the situation of a crowd without a leader, and psychosis as a leader without a crowd.

Daniel Dennett, one of the leading figures in cognition science in the USA, offers analyses which at first seem to have no connection with Grivois or Girard. He asks: how do we weave our 'I'? He makes comparisons with animals, with spiders, termite colonies or swarms of bees, in which the individual animals proceed only according to very slight reaction patterns, but nevertheless by their repetitions or interactions are able to construct objects or social orders of a higher complexity. In a similar way, says Dennett, narratives which we have not chosen weave our 'I'. A text is not the conscious and willed product of an I, but on the contrary the latter is the fruit of narratives. The I as narrative center of gravity offers itself as an emergent quality, as a necessary illusion, a brain which needs information about its own activity but is not refined enough to see through itself in its entire complexity.

Here we can see the connections between the work of Grivois and that of Girard which J.-P. Dupuy worked out in his introduction. The whole development of cognition science, according to him, amounts to the conception of the individual subject as a quasi-subject, that is, as a collective that has the attributes of subjectivity. For him, therefore, social and mental-subjective mechanisms are no longer in opposition. Complex interactions of simpler mechanisms develop points of attraction upon which everything converges and from which new attributes emerge, as with the scapegoat mechanism.

Is freedom therefore ruled out? Mathematical models show that minimal deviations within a mechanism can lead to completely different results. Without going into these models, Girard indicates in his contribution, through an analysis of the biblical narrative of the woman taken in adultery, how within the world of imitation a situation can occur by which minimal changes--free decisions (whether or not to throw the first stone) can have immense consequences.

Dupuy likewise takes up Girard's analyses in his introduction. It is not very clear, however, what freedom and decision ultimately mean for him. His introduction betrays much more his growing conviction that today, in the most varied scientific disciplines, one comes across mechanisms which invariably have an isomorphy with the mimetic theory and the scapegoat mechanism. Gratifying as this result can be for Girardians, it nevertheless poses a serious question for those who also wish to take seriously Girard's biblical dimension. Does not Dupuy establish too direct a relationship between those analyses which belong to the fallen world and those which are obtained from the order of creation? Are the results of cognition science, for example, already convincing enough, and are not examples taken from the animal world or from the world of fallen humanity used too directly for the explanation of human consciousness?

Raymund Schwager