Apocalypse/apocalyptic: Although present in his work on METAPHYSICAL DESIRE from the 1960s onward, the theme of “the apocalyptic” has assumed increasing importance in Girard’s oeuvre. Harking back to the etymology of the Greek term apokalypsis, apocalypse concerns the “disclosure” of something—a “revelation” or “unveiling.” The term itself has biblical roots, and Girard’s interest in it concerns the revelation of violence. Here Girard emphasizes violence as that which threatens human order and security because of its contagious nature, and he emphasizes the extent to which this revelation itself further undermines human order and security. That is, the biblical uncovering of human violence—the laying bare of SURROGATE VICTIMAGE—itself destabilizes culture and society. By desacralizing the principal mechanism by which humans have attained unanimity and social cohesion—SCAPEGOATING—human communities are thrown into chaos that, in the short and intermediate terms, can exacerbate rather than ameliorate violence. In this situation, Girard argues that the internal logic of mimetic violence plays itself out as the mimetic and contagious nature of violence generates an “escalation to extremes” that leads to destruction. Although Girard argues that his concept of apocalypse remains utterly faithful to the biblical tradition, it runs counter to a widespread understanding of apocalypse as divine violence against humanity.

Desire: Girard acknowledges that, while humans have evolved biological appetites that operate at the level of instinct, it is the further evolved capacity for MIMESIS that most fully accounts for the dynamics of human desiring, whether or not any particular desire builds on or directs a biological appetite.

Doubling: In Girard’s schema, conflictual MIMESIS is characterized by “doubling.” “Doubling” refers to the progressive and mutually reinforcing de-differentiation of subjects that occurs by virtue of an intensification of mimesis. That is, mimesis encourages, through positive feedback, an increasing symmetry between antagonists, which emerges despite increasing attempts at differentiation; it tends toward the erasure of significant differences between individuals—those differences that mark their sociopsychological identity and position within a particular cultural order.

Mediation: For Girard, whose conception of DESIRE is not object-oriented, desire is always mediated via a third party (a model or mediator) through a process of MIMESIS. There are two primary ways in which such mediation occurs: externally and internally. External mediation (mediation externe) occurs where the model or mediator is historically, socially, or ontologically distant from the subject such that conflict over the object of desire is precluded. Conversely, internal mediation (mediation interne) occurs where the desiring subject’s object of desire and their model’s object of desire overlap and thereby becomes a pretext for rivalry or “conflictual mimesis.” In this instance there is a mutual convergence on a desired object and the model is designated a “model-rival” or “model-obstacle.”

Metaphysical desire: Metaphysical desire (le desir de metaphysique) is an attraction to the very being of a mediator. In metaphysical desire, the object is merely a means by which the desiring subject can attain or absorb the mediator’s (imagined) autonomy, uniqueness, or spontaneity. Metaphysical desire is particularly evident when the object of desire is honor or prestige directly, and not just one of their concrete markers.

Mimesis/mimetic desire: The idea of “mimesis” is at the center of Girard’s thinking. The etymology of the term can be traced to ancient Greece (μίμησις) (mimesis), from μιμεῖσθαι (mīmeisthai), “to imitate,” and it has served a variety of purposes in theoretical discourse since at least Aristotle. In Girard’s thought it refers to imitative desire (le desire mimetique). For Girard, desire is itself imitative: we desire what we desire because we imitate—consciously or not—the desires of others. Girard has called this a “mimesis of appropriation” (une mimésis d’appropriation). The other main area in which Girard sees mimesis operating is in SCAPEGOATING. Here, the form of imitation observed is that of members of a crowd or populace converging around a victim or group of victims. Girard has dubbed this a “mimesis of accusation” or a “mimesis of antagonism” (une mimésis d’antagonisme). Girard’s conception of mimesis can be traced back to his very first work, Deceit Desire, and the Novel, where he posits a distinction between novelistic (romanesque) versus romantic (romantique) works; where the former reveal and demythologize the mimetic nature of social relations, the latter continue to propagate delusions about absolute human spontaneity and originality.

Myth: Myth is one of the three institutions of the SACRED—along with PROHIBITION and RITUAL. Myth is preeminently concerned with narrating the sacred. Myth is characterized by stories that possess a radically incomplete recollection of cultural degeneration and SURROGATE VICTIMAGE. Like rituals, myths represent stereotypically distorted accounts of both the cultural chaos associated with the sacrificial crisis and the cessation of this crisis through collective violence. Myths typically encode such mis-knowing (meconnaissance) by representing a primordial chaos—through, for example, “natural” and cultural calamities that signify the dissolution of difference, such as plagues or the appearance of warring twins or brothers (such as we see, for instance, in the mythical narrative of Romulus and Remus).

Prohibition: Prohibition is one of the three institutions of the SACRED—along with MYTH and RITUAL. For Girard, the main function of prohibition is to control mimetic contagion and thereby proscribe interpersonal conflict. Religious taboos/prohibitions commonly target mimetic behavior and the mythical transpositions of that behavior through representation. For instance, taboos are often focused on things such as behavioral mirroring, “imitative magic,” representational art, and the problematic of “twins.” By targeting these domains, prohibition is best seen as a sacred prophylactic that, although manifesting only dim self-awareness, is preoccupied with the forestalling of rivalry and the dissolution of differences that conflictual reciprocity engenders.

Pseudo-masochism and pseudo-sadism: Pseudo-masochism and pseudo-sadism represent two of the primary poles of psychopathology in Girard’s understanding. The prefix “pseudo” in both cases indicates what deconstructionists would call terms “under erasure”: terms that are considered necessary but problematic because of their traditional constructions. Here, Girard wants to distance himself from the Freudian conceptions under which the notions of masochism and sadism have been developed while wanting to retain something of their ambience or semantic field.

From one perspective, pseudo-masochism can be seen as a kind of METAPHYSICAL DESIRE in extremis. In MIMETIC DESIRE, the prestige of the model is sometimes boosted by his or her seeming indifference toward others. The pseudo-masochist concludes that their rejection by the mediator confirms the mediator’s supremacy and the absolute desirability of what the mediator desires. The pseudo-masochist looks for objects whose value is conferred and confirmed by the resistance encountered in attempts to attain them. Where a model serves initially as an obstacle to the consummation of a desire, the pseudo-masochist eventually will seek the obstacle itself—the model is valued because of the obstruction that he or she can provide.

Pseudo-sadism involves what Girard calls a “dialectical reversal” of pseudo-masochism: where the masochist will seek a mediator who will oppose them, the pseudo-sadist seeks masochists for the same end, of turning him or her into a demigod. The sadist seeks to be a mediator for imitators for whom he or she will provide violent opposition and, in so doing, hopes to turn this role of human divinity into a reality. For Freud such social pathologies are externalizations of internal disquiet; for Girard, these psychopathologies represent the internalization of external social dynamics.

Ritual: Ritual is one of the three institutions of the SACRED—along with PROHIBITION and MYTH. Ritual, along with prohibition, functions to control mimetic behavior. Both freeze into institutional form an imperfect comprehension of SURROGATE VICTIMAGE; they are distorted recollections of both the cultural chaos associated with a sacrificial crisis and its abatement through SCAPEGOATING. The primary form of ritual is sacrifice, which usually begins with carnivalesque features (masks, intoxication, the theatrical erasure or suspension of normal cultural codes, and so on) and concludes with the killing of an animal (or, in the past, a human or group of humans). Ritual is the institution of the sacred that is preeminently constituted by a performative restaging of a cultural crisis and its resolution through surrogate victimage, usually by means of a sacrifice.

(The) sacred: Girard continually emphasizes the connections between religion, social structure, and culture, which he sees as holding firm in so-called “primitive” (or pre-state) cultures, in ancient cultures, and even in “modern” (so-called) “secular” cultures―although the way these features interconnect and function in each case is importantly different. There are two senses of the sacred (le sacré) in Girard’s work. The first, evinced in early works such as Violence and the Sacred, is that the sacred is the anthropological correlate of the social; further, that violence lies at the basis of the sacred and that the institutions of the sacred—MYTH, RITUAL, and PROHIBITION—give institutional form and religious underwriting to the culture-forming power and ambit of human violence.

However, beginning with Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Girard develops a new conception of the sacred that doesn’t so much overturn as supplement his earlier view. He develops this view by posing the question of how it is we came to know about the (violent) sacred and its effects. His answer is that this knowledge is the product of the radically desacralizing effect of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, beginning with the psalms, the Joseph story, Job, and the Servant Songs of Isaiah, and culminating in the gospel narratives of Jesus’ passion.

Girard posits a fundamental distinction between myth and biblical narrative; where the former narrates events structured by SURROGATE VICTIMAGE in a way that legitimizes violence, the latter takes the point of view of the victims of that violence—thematizes violence—in a way that undermines its legitimacy. In this sense at least, Girard acknowledges the breakthrough insight of nineteenth-century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), whose antithesis between “Dionysus” and “the Crucified” anticipates Girard’s thesis in many respects—anthropologically, if not ethically, since Nietzsche repudiates Christian regard for victims in favor of Dionysian excess.

Scapegoating: Girard’s use of the term “scapegoating” (scapegoat: bouc émissaire) is consistent in many ways with the commonsense uses of that term: the violent and arbitrary convergence around a victim or group of victims who are seen as uniquely responsible for a particular group’s misfortunes. Although scapegoats need not be innocent in any strong sense of that word—that is, utterly blameless—they bear the blame for the social disorder surrounding them out of all proportion to their responsibility. In The Scapegoat, Girard argued that scapegoats are (mis‑)represented in remarkably similar ways—with what Girard calls “victimary signs”—and so we can see scapegoating in certain texts, even when authors do not see this themselves. Scapegoating is a central feature of SURROGATE VICTIMAGE.

Surrogate victimage: In Girard’s thought, “surrogate victimage” (mécanisme de la victim émissaire / le mécanisme victimaire) names the principal mechanism by which cultures constitute themselves sacrificially. Where MIMETIC DESIRE denotes those dimensions of imitative behavior oriented by reference to acts of appropriation, surrogate victimage has its basis in an increasingly envious and rivalrous MIMESIS of accusation. Surrogate victimage is best encapsulated by reference to a hypothetical scenario where a contagion of rivalrous mimesis has swept through a proto-human milieu and leveled the identities of individuals, so that mutual suspicion and enmity become pandemic. In such a situation of pervasive DOUBLING, Girard proposes that what invariably occurs is that an individual or group will emerge that is seen to be different enough by the crowd to polarize it in an escalating mimesis of accusation. In other words, the SCAPEGOAT functions in a sociopsychological sense by reintroducing difference when all other differences or markers of identity are collapsing. The mob polarizes around the scapegoat, who is lynched or banished. (Of course, the persecuting community does not see their victim as a scapegoat. Rather they see themselves as scapegoats of those they are accusing.) The esprit de corps produced by the lynching or banishment then ends up justifying or legitimating the lynching to the mob, post hoc. This accounts for the origin of the SACRED, according to Girard, as the victim―formerly thought to be the malign source of violent contagion threatening the community—is experienced post mortem as the bringer of a seemingly miraculous order and stability by virtue of their murder, which spontaneously quenched the mob’s mimetic violence.

Thus, religions begin with the deification of victims. Surrogate victimage is the mechanism that lies behind the primitive religiocultural nexus, giving rise to MYTH, RITUAL, and PROHIBITION—the three institutions of the sacred. Girard thus proposes that conflict rooted in rivalry better explains human violence and conflict than either “aggression” (the biological/zoological explanation) or “scarcity” (the economistic explanation).


  • ©Scott Cowdell, Chris Fleming and Joel Hodge (editors) Mimesis, Movies, and Media: Violence, Desire and the Sacred Vol 3(London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), and reproduced with kind permission of the publisher.

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