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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 15 (Oct. 1998)

Education, Mimesis, Violence and the Reduction of Violence (May 27-30, 1998)

More than 350 people gathered for four days in Saint-Denis for a symposium that was the occasion of creative, innovative, and productive discussions on a topic important at the present time not only for education but for society as a whole. Fourteen countries were represented at the Conference. The meeting confirmed the immense interest that mimetic theory and its epistemological power is currently awakening. The symposium offered a glimpse of the role mimetic theory could play more and more in the analysis of institutions and culture.

This meeting from its conception to its final realization has been a collective adventure that has been supported generously by individuals and institutions. To these and especially to the members of the steering committee belongs the credit for its success. In 1996 the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R) whose members were then meeting at Stanford Univesity enthusiastically welcomed the proposal of a meeting on the topic of education to be held in France.

The Centre Nationale pour l'Intégration Scolaire de Suresnes (le CNEFEI) designed the organizational plan. We received extremely valuable support from le CREA (Centre de Recherche pour l'Epistémologie et l'Autonomie), la Fondation de France, la Direction de la Protection Judiciaire de la Jeunesse, la Direction de l'Administration Pénitentiaire, the Council of Europe,and UNESCO.

In large measure the objectives of the Conferene were met. These included

(1) To make known the significance and validity of the theories of René Girard which have been ignored for too long by the French scientific and philosophical community. Together with the prize given him by the French Academy in 1966 for his philosophical achievement, our conference will certainly contribute to a better understanding and reception of Girard in France. We note in this regard the introduction of Girard by Renaud Fabre, Pesident of Paris 8, as well as the presence at the Conference of a number of eminent French intellectuals.

(2) To provide a forum for educators to examine how mimetic theory applies to their research and also to allow specialists in the mimetic theory to direct their analyses to education.

(3) To encourge dialogue not only in an international context but at interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary levels

(4) To advance our understanding of how to reduce violence in education.

The landscape of intellectual life currently suffers as much from narrow specialization as from eclecticism. Against the sterility of these trends, we need to create space for exchange and dialogue with a view to rigorous epistemological integration. Each discipline must maintain its own methodology and aims, yet we are persuaded that mimetic theory can illumine other fields of inquiry without imposing either an epistemological imperialism or a violent kind of reductive analysis. Education is a field that concerns every other discipline. For that reason, theologians, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, literary critics, and other specialists have traditionally contributed to its reflections.

The organization of the Conference in Round Tables and subsections was designed to invite discussion and not merely to juxtapose ideas. We designed cross-disciplinary discussion of non-violence in the analysis of social institutions such as the family, religion, sports, film, communication, the medical profession, and art.

Too often there has been a tendency to separate the two aspects of violence in education, i.e., institutional or symbolic violence on the one hand and anarchic violence on the other, whether the latter manifested itself intrasubjectively, intersubjectively, or collectively. Now, however, thanks to the sequential logic revealed by mimetic theory, we are able to understand that these two aspects are complementary and tied to the same process. This is an unparalleled epistemological gain. Former explanations were unable to make sense of seemingly disparate phenomena, which led to solutions being adopted that were both fragmented and biased. The Conference disclosed:(1) how school provokes mimetic rivalry (2) how schools exacerbate the scapegoating mechanism; and (3) how schools become the target of resentment.

Generally speaking, education is based on the dual mimetic desire to acquire and to communicate knowledge,not only between teacher and pupil but among pupils. Girardian analysis allows us to describe this process, and to show its fragility and potential pitfalls. In a school system based on competition and mimetic desire for a reified form of knowledge, pupils can fall victim to an infernal cycle of reciprocal desire,hateful rivalry, and deadly resentment. This possibility is all the more difficult to analyze and criticize because a positive kind of emulation with its inevitable cognitive conflict is indispensable for the stimulation of both the desire and the capacity to learn.

Mimetic theory allows us to perceive and define alternative paths. Violence can never be sanctioned, because it implies a fatal proclivity to negate or to destroy oneself or the other.We cannot forget that in the twentieth century, the legitimization of violence, although inspired by antithetical ideologies (nazi or communist) has always ended in murderous totalitarian regimes. We must recognize, however, that desire contains a certain component of creativity,as does the conflict to which it gives rise. Conflict can be positive if it is regulated by the essential edicts of the Law and animated by the quest to integrate the Other and the excluded third in the administration of justice.


Prohibitions can never be sanctioned when they flow from the law of the violent or the more powerful or when they are produced by sacral societies that generate them in an obsessive attempt to set limits to violence by drawing scrupulous distinctions between people and groups. (R. Girard) But the May '68 slogan that "it is forbidden to forbid" in addition to the fact that it would radically compromise every attempt at education, has revealed itself to be erroneous and destructive. Its negative effects can be seen in the breakdown of distinctions that it produces in the family or in school.

It is helpful to distinguish those prohibitions that give structure and to understand their anthropological function. In addition to the major anthropological prohibitions concerning incest and sexual difference (whose renewed pertinence ought to be clear to us at this end of the 20th century, when we note the ravages caused by their relative enfeeblement), mimetic theory allows us to reread the corpus of the Law in its Judaeo-Christian text and to perceive its contemporary necessity.

The Ten Commandments, in their Hebrew and Christian versions, considered in their double aspect as negative rules (the prohibitions) or as positive commands (the commandments properly so-called) produce liberating effects by obviating the dead ends caused by mimetic rivalry. They reveal the passage and decisive threshold from a symbolic violence based on the exclusion of the third party to a symbolic accord in which the other is welcomed as oneself in an act which integrates the excluded third.


Various conference speakers, from different points of view, insisted on the relevance of the command "to love one's neighbor as oneself" and "neither more nor less," added Rene Girard. One is either always turned either too much (or wrongly) toward the Other by the alienating obsession caused by mimetic desire. Rather, one must turn one's attention to oneself to discover true altruism. For Paul Ricoeur, the strictest form of toleration requires that one have "concern for oneself as for an other." Molho and Ott, drawing on the theories of Marshall Rosenberg concerning non-violent communication, showed that it was necessary to attribute importance to one's emotions and needs in order to escape from symmetrical violence and the emotional contagion of the other (perceived simultaneously as an object of fascination and as enemy.) The needs of each person in the pedagogical relationship include the feeling of internal security, confidence, respect, and dignity, the recognition by oneself and the other of a singular identity in the process of becoming, and a curiosity directed toward understanding, learning, knowing, cooperation, etc.


Many speakers at the conference recalled the importance of returning to the triangle, that geometrical figure basic to anthropology in order to describe human relations[ when they malfunction and when they function harmoniously] Mimetic theory describes the triangularity of malfunctioning desire in the figure of the skandalon. It also shows how the exclusion of the third party (pharmakon) works as the collusive glue in violent social accord. Once one is alerted to the risks and dangers of the mimetic triangle, one is able to imagine a pedagogical relationship which would free itself from violence by promoting good alternative triangular or ternary configurations.


If evaluation based on excellence is a prerequisite of the educational system , it must be administered correctly. When it makes use of a mimetic and meritocratic norm to crush all singularity, it privileges mediocre students. Then it inflicts psychological damage more than it recognizes excellence. Complexity and diversity are more interesting in evolutionary terms than conformist uniformity. They make it increasingly possible to recognize handicaps and individual vulnerabilities as life-enhancing values, not only ethically but pragmatically and biologically. To put this realization into practice, it is necessary to counter the specious evidence of evolutionary Darwinism. Irrespective of political correctness, institutions and opinions need to be altered to bring about the realization that the most fragile members of society must be placed at it protective center, for "it is in the wound that the secret of life is to be found" (M. Serres) Thus one might imagine in education, in therapy and elsewhere, tht emulation might be used to achieve integration in such a way that collusion would not function negatively but positively.


René Girard has already amply demonstrated in numerous works how the literary text, even more than those of the social sciences, can be a vehicle of teaching and instruction concerning human relations. It can, on the one hand, reflect violence and allow it to proliferate to the degree that it conveys mimetic fascination and collusive cohesion based on scapegoating. On the other hand, it can reveal with lucidity and depth the anthropological dimension of human relations and, by so doing contribute to the emergence of the human person. Thus every great work of literature contains educational potential. By making maximum use of the virtual relations present in art, theater and film, pupils are involved in an intersubjective process which allows them to define themselves as persons less subject to daily violence.

Religious texts have a privileged place in the work of René Girard. They are examined not so much in terms of their contribution to education or edification, but for their disclosure of anthropological processes and epistemology itself. Girard has shown how consensual unanimity at the foundation of culture was produced by the sacrificial death of a victim. . . .It is religion itself, however, through the Judaeo-Christian revelation--especially through the Passion narrative-- which gives us the means to understand and critique mimetic desire and the sacrificial violence that it engenders. The difficulty then in a pluricultural, plurireligious society is to permit education in this matter without indoctrination or contravening the rules of tolerance and respectful dialogue.

But if the religious text, along with the literary text, can reveal the victimage mechanism, that disclosure is not limited to those narratives. The human sciences, such as history and philosophy, as well as the world of sports, can supply comparable evidence.

Mimetic theory by its heuristic power permits us to re-examine older theories, and its critical capacity helps us to read in a new way the best of 20th century deconstruction. Finally it offers the means to conceive a true critique of culture and to contribute to a humanism founded on the concept of person.

The perfect model of person is that of the Trinity in Christian theology (one God in loving intersubjectivity), the exact opposite of the old anthropogenetic structure of a collusion based on the exclusion of the Third. Person is then understood as a model of intersubjective triadic relation where each contributes to the definition of oneself as another. . . . This notion of person is the key concept not only of all philosophy of education but of a critical anthropology of culture. . . .Mimetic theory and its implications for humanism in an open dialogue with other critical traditions is a precious resource for the future.

The extended summary of this conference was written by Marie-Louise Martinez. It was translated and summarized by William Mishler and Diana Culbertson.