An Introduction to Mimetic Theory

•March 12, 2011 • 10 Comments




I compiled the following documentary film on the origin of cultures, in three parts, introducing some major topics of mimetic theory and René Girard’s thinking. Transcription of the videos (in English & Dutch) is available below, beneath PART III.

PART I of the film explores the fundamental role of mimesis (imitation) in human development on several levels (biological, psychological, sociological, cultural). René Girard’s originality lies in his  introduction of a connection between this old philosophical concept and human desire. He speaks of a certain mimetic desire and ascribes to it a vital role in our social interaction. It explains our often competitive and envious tendencies. More specifically, Girard considers mimetic desire as the source for a type of conflict that is foundational to the way human culture originates and develops. In his view the primal cultural institutions are religious. Following a sociologist like Émile Durkheim, Girard first considers religion as a means to organize our social fabric, and to manage violence within communities.

The more specific question the first part of this documentary tries to answer is the following: where do sacrifices, as rituals belonging to the first signs of human culture, originally come from? How can they be explained? Click to watch:

PART II starts off with a summary and then further insists on the fundamental role of the so-called scapegoat mechanism in the origin of religious and cultural phenomena.

PART III explores the world of mythology and human storytelling in the light of Girard’s theory on certain types of culture founding conflicts and scapegoat mechanisms. Girard comes to surprising conclusions regarding storytelling in Judeo-Christian Scripture. 




René Girard on Apostrophes

•July 15, 2014 • Leave a Comment

There was a time when a literary talk show could attract around 6 million regular viewers on a weekly basis. Apostrophes was one such prime-time show on French television, every Friday night (on the channel France 2 or “Antenne 2”). It was born out of the daring mind of Bernard Pivot, who also hosted the show as long as it ran (for fifteen years that is, from January 10, 1975 to June 22, 1990).

Guests included writers like Georges Simenon, Milan Kundera, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Umberto Eco, Vladimir Nabokov, Susan Sontag, Marguerite Yourcenar, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, John Le Carré and Charles Bukowski. All types of intellectuals (from historians to sociologists) came by as well, like Pierre Bourdieu and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Political figures like François Mitterand and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing didn’t pass the invitation. Even the Dalai Lama was a welcome guest.

René Girard appeared on the show twice, a first time on June 6, 1978 (episode 150 of the show) presenting his seminal book Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World), and a second time together with Michel Serres in the special episode Deux Philosophes Français aux Etats Unis (July 21, 1989).


The Grace of Prostitutes

•June 19, 2014 • 1 Comment

“… the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

[translated from a part in my book Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-'n-roll]

What a disturbing figure. Jesus openly declares that tax collectors and prostitutes – quintessential sinners – are entering the kingdom of God ahead of the chief priests and the elders of the people of Israel. Go figure.

The chief priests and the elders think highly of themselves. They get recognition from the common people. Or so they think. They have a religious and social status worthy even of some recognition from “the One” Himself. Or so they presume. In comes Jesus. He basically tells them they are high on some grand illusion. He tells them what’s real. And he knows that they know what’s real, deep down inside. Let’s have a closer look at how Jesus proclaims the truth.

Matthew 21:28-32

Jesus said, “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Intervention (Jesus is my homeboy)Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

As he often does, Jesus tells a story to get his point across. This time it’s about a father and two sons. Basically, the second son is a hypocrite and the first son falls victim to the hypocrisy of his brother. Of course the father will think that the second son is the one who worked in the vineyard and appreciate him for it, while it’s his other son who did all the work. In other words, the second son will get the recognition that should actually be given to the first son.

Apart from the story of Cain and Abel, there’s another Old Testament story about two brothers that resonates throughout this parable of Jesus, namely the Genesis story of Jacob who deceitfully takes a blessing from his father Isaac. This particular blessing was normally reserved for his brother Esau, the firstborn. In the Genesis story (Genesis 27:1-46), Jacob (“he grasps the heel”, a Hebrew idiom for “he takes advantage of” or “he deceives”) is the one who gets protection. As is known, Jacob later becomes “Israel”, ancestor of the Jewish people.

By referring to the story of its ancestor Jacob, Jesus implicitly criticizes how Israel tends to build its identity and structure its society. Jesus criticizes social systems that rely on the exclusion of others through rivalry and hypocrisy. This criticism is at once general and personal. Jesus suggests in his parable that the chief priests and the elders are like the second son. In other words, he tells them that they are hypocrites! He also implies that the tax collectors and prostitutes are like the first son; they fall victim to the hypocrisy of the chief priests and the elders.

HookerOf course the elders and chief priests deal with the tax collectors, but to protect their image they will deny any affiliation with “those collaborators of the Roman Empire who take money from their fellow Jews, in the process also fraudulently, deceitfully enriching themselves…” The reality of the situation is not that black and white though. It is no surprise that some of the chief priests and elders turn out to be as corrupt (or even more) as the tax collectors themselves. There is low life in high places. [AUDIO SONG TIP: Low Life in High Places by Thunder].

As for the prostitutes, Jesus suggests that they too suffer from hypocrisy. Indeed, when they meet a client in public, their client will deny any affiliation with them. Their client, be it a chief priest or an elder or someone else, might say “I don’t know the woman!”, and protect his reputation among the common people. And the prostitute, well, she has no choice but to forgive the hypocrisy of her clients beforehand. It’s part of the game she is forced to play. Otherwise she would lose all her clients. She plays forgiveness. [AUDIO SONG TIP: When You Were Young by The Killers].

Now we might understand a little better why Jesus claims that the tax collectors and prostitutes are “closer to the kingdom of God” and to the righteousness proclaimed by John the Baptist. They experience firsthand how mechanisms of social exclusion allow societies to structure themselves. They understand the injustice of many social systems. They know that acting against that injustice has to do with taking sides with the outcasts. To repent thus means to acknowledge that you yourself are part of a social game that’s played at the expense of others and to do something about it. It means “losing a life that is directed at a socially acceptable image/status/reputation/power” for the sake of “the excluded other”, the consequence being that you “gain your life” (as you no longer idolatrously lose yourself to an image).

Jesus himself always takes sides with the excluded others, and deeply understands the hidden truth behind our socially mediated identities. That’s why he says, after yet another parable (of the tenants) in the same chapter of Matthew’s Gospel:

Jesus RockJesus Rejected Cornerstone‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’

(Matthew 21:42)

Because he is willing to take the position of the social outcast, Jesus is right when he proclaims the paradox of the Gospel (Matthew 16:25-26):

“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

Jesus lives out (of) the Love of “the One” who is “Other than human” and therefore his identity and self-concept is not dependent on the socially mediated idolatries of this world. His self-respect is not dependent on the respect he gains from other people and therefore he is able to stand up for the outcasts in society.

Of course, when you imitate Jesus and take sides with the socially excluded, there are two possibilities: or other people will show mercy, or they will sacrifice you as well. Jesus is willing to run this risk because the love for his neighbor is stronger than the fear of becoming a victim himself. He refuses to sacrifice himself to a socially acceptable self-image at the expense of others. He is in no ways a masochist. Jesus believes that his Father – Love – “desires mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). That’s why he indeed can save others but cannot save himself when he is arrested and crucified (Matthew 27:39-41). If he would start a civil war others would be sacrificed because of him, and he thus would no longer obey to the call of Love.

As we know, Peter at first does not imitate Jesus. Peter succumbs to the fear of becoming a social outcast when Jesus is arrested (see below, excerpts from Matthew 26). He denies any affiliation with Jesus because he fears becoming a victim himself. If, on the other hand, he would have taken sides with Jesus, he would have chosen for himself more fully (as he would not have chosen for his image or reputation).

However, like the clients of the prostitutes might say “I don’t know the woman (the prostitute)!” to protect their reputation, Peter says “I don’t know the man (Jesus)” to protect his position in society. Peter wants to secure himself.

At the same time, like the prostitutes forgive the hypocrisy of their clients, Jesus forgives Peter’s hypocrisy beforehand. But unlike the prostitutes, Jesus does have the choice not to forgive Peter, which makes his actual forgiveness more fully an act of grace.

Nevertheless, Matthew makes clear that the grace of Jesus indeed has to do with the grace of “prostitutes”. The Evangelist deliberately constructs a genealogy of Jesus (in the first chapter of his Gospel) wherein he mentions four Old Testament women who had a questionable reputation. Tamar and Rahab are known as prostitutes, Ruth is a seductress and Bathsheba, “Uriah’s wife”, is known as an adulteress…

Maybe one of the first steps towards the righteousness of “the kingdom of Love” has to do with the acknowledgment that our identities exist by receiving grace from those we tend to despise… To realize this might imply the tears that begin to wash our sins away, tears of true metanoia… as we follow in Peter’s footsteps.

Matthew 26:31-35

Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: “‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”

But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.

The_Denial_of_Saint_Peter by Caravaggio_(1610)Matthew 26:69-75

Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said. But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.” He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!”

After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.” Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!”

Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

This post follows the suggestions for a high school course on mimetic theory. The aforementioned situations are examples of the third type of the scapegoat mechanism (this time about SHAME and not ressentiment).







Here are the previous posts:

  1. Mimetic Theory in High School (click to read)
  2. Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism (click to read)
  3. Scapegoating in American Beauty (click to read)
  4. Philosophy in American Beauty (click to read)
  5. Real Life Cases of Ressentiment (click to read)
  6. Eminem Reads the Bible (click to read)

La Mode(rnity)

•May 29, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Gustave Caillebotte_Paris Street Rainy Day 1877Last year, after meeting my friends from The Raven Foundation in Chicago, I had the opportunity to visit the exhibition Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity at The Art Institute of Chicago.

As the exhibition points out, the modern fashion industry was born in Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century. Since then, fashion – la mode - has become one of the main forces in today’s so-called individualistic and free market-driven western society. The fashion industry thus reveals one of the main paradoxes if not contradictions in modern man’s self-concept. Although nowadays we consider ourselves to be emancipated and autonomous individuals we nevertheless remain highly susceptible to herd behavior. René Girard might help us to understand this situation more broadly. [Read also the second part of a previous post by clicking here].

René Girard’s mimetic theory explains that, beyond physical needs, human desire is structured according to mimetic (i.e. imitative) interactions. People model each other’s ambitions and aspirations. As is well-known, the convergence of desires on the same object (e.g. two or more children wanting the same toy) or on the same goal (e.g. two or more people wanting the same job promotion, status or power) often leads to rivalry and sometimes even violence. Not surprisingly, the escalation of this mimetic rivalry (i.e. rivalry based on mimetic/imitative desires) within groups threatens the stability and even survival of communities.

History shows that human communities developed several traditions to prevent the potential destructive outcome of mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry. The French Ancien Régime, still deeply rooted in the feudal system of the Middle Ages, was incredibly hierarchical both socially and politically. There were three different Estates in society, the First being the Church, the Second the Nobility and the Third the so-called Common People. The common people had to accept their unprivileged position in society. They were told that they would evoke the wrath of God if they would question the privileged position of the Church and the Nobility. At the same time, the common people were told that a reward awaited them in “an afterlife” if they “behaved well” and accepted their fate. In other words, the Third Estate could not aspire to the position of the other Estates. In still other words, mimetic desire was suppressed by a religiously established system of taboos and rituals. People had to understand and accept that there were differences in society from birth.

Ancien Regime

Throughout the ages, Christian reformers criticize the Church whenever she lends herself to sustain a society where differences between people are based on oppression. From Saint Benedict to Saint Francis to Saint Ignatius to the “Prince of the Humanists” Desiderius Erasmus – all of them call for a return to the God of Christ, the God of the Gospels, to question the authority of the God who justifies certain types of violence and oppression. It is no coincidence then that several historians (Marcel Gauchet being one of them) understand the Enlightenment and the dismemberment of a principally hierarchical society on the basis of traditional religious means as a consequence of the Judeo-Christian influence on the western world. To quote Marcel Gauchet, Christianity is the “religion of the end of religion”.


Abraham Lincoln emancipation of slavesEventually, because Christianity gradually destroyed the authority of the God(s) of traditional religion, the hierarchical nature of society was no longer accepted. The French revolutionists cried égalité! and the idea of a principally egalitarian society was born – all human beings (should) have equal rights. This meant that mimetic desire became less suppressed, and this led to the emancipation of different groups in western society. First, factory workers started to compare themselves to the wealthy factory owners. Why shouldn’t the workers enjoy the same rights as their employers? In other words, the workers started to desire what their employers possessed and this mimetic desire could no longer be suppressed. Second came the emancipation of women. They started to desire the rights owned by their male counterparts. Third came the full revolt of blacks (heir to black slaves) in the US. Then came the emancipation of gay people who compared themselves to heterosexuals and desired and demanded equal rights… Finally, together with the aforementioned emancipatory movements, the emancipation of children and youngsters (and the phenomenon of a so-called youth culture) poses new challenges to our personal and social self-understanding. There’s a strange interaction going on, with a rivalry between young and old to become each other’s model or example. [Read more on the consequences for young people by clicking here].

What is striking in all these cases is that standing up for one’s own identity is based on a comparison with the identity of others. In standing up for themselves people imitate others.

shoe foot skeleton fashion victimNow, let’s interpret the phenomenon of fashion again from these observations. At the birth of modernity the traditional guidelines which structure the behavior of the individual members of society begin to erode. Individuals more and more find themselves in a vacuum concerning the way they could or should behave and lead their lives. However, instead of developing a life from a so-called very own autonomy and freedom (as people often believe they do – Girard calls this the romantic lie), people look at what others are doing to give their life (their desires and ambitions) direction. Hence a phenomenon like fashion. The fashion industry really rests on the assumption of individuals that they are free to create their own identity and thus is able to enslave those very same individuals to a never-ending cycle of mimetic desire. The price for a so-called free identity is an identity constantly on the brink of being sacrificed again to the latest trend. It’s what drives our economy on the one hand, and might destroy our natural environment on the other… It’s what drives our consumerism yet might destroy our soul (as we attach ourselves to what’s perishable)… I guess G.K. Chesterton is right, in a profound sense, “For when we cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing, we worship anything.”

fashion slavesIn short, the liberation of mimetic desire in western society has some good as well as bad consequences. Anyways, perhaps we should keep our desires “to have more (but never enough)” in check in order to prevent the next financial, ecological, social and personal crisis?

Chesterton quote on worshipidol worship social mediaChesterton quote on believing in anything

Eminem reads the Bible

•April 14, 2014 • 1 Comment

This post follows a previous thread on suggestions for the development of a high school curriculum on Mimetic Theory. Click the following titles to see what I’ve done on this so far (be sure to check out the pdf-files!):

  1. Mimetic Theory in High School (click to read)
  2. Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism (click to read)
  3. Scapegoating in American Beauty (click to read)
  4. Philosophy in American Beauty (click to read)
  5. Real Life Cases of Ressentiment (click to read)

Eminem (Horns)The story of Cain and Abel (in the book of Genesis) is compared to the story of Stan (by Eminem) to illustrate what I’ve called types 1 and 2 of the scapegoat mechanism. Cain and Abel is an example of the second type of scapegoat mechanism, namely hetero-aggression. Stan is an example of the first type of scapegoat mechanism, namely auto-aggression. By the way, the comparison between Cain and Stan is a translation of a text that first appeared in Dutch in my book Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-’n-roll (Averbode, 2009).





[As an aside, it is possible to criticize Nietzsche's concept of Judeo-Christian tradition as a product of ressentiment by comparing the third type of the scapegoat mechanism (ressentiment, indeed) with the story of Cain and Abel as an example of the second type. It is clear that, in the biblical story, the Lord condemns the actions of Cain. This implies that the Lord would condemn the actions of persons that are consumed by ressentiment as they take the parallel position of person A (Cain's position). Thus the god born out of the ressentiment of the so-called slaves (a god who recognizes the slaves while condemning the so-called masters) is not the God of Judeo-Christian tradition.]

[As a second aside, click here for more on hip-hop and theology.]

In short, what the following comparison is all about: mimetically ignited love – eros – for the imagined situation of the other leads to hate towards one’s own life and the life of the other (or, which is the same, love for a so-called acceptable self-image) – a crisis of identity and social order. Person A (CAIN or STAN) tries to resolve the crisis that arises out of a comparison with person B (ABEL or SLIM) by sacrificing the other or by sacrificing him/herself – thanatos!

PDF-text of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-18)

PDF-text of Stan (by Eminem)



Cain and Abel develop similar activities:
In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions.

Stan and Slim have similar experiences:
“See I’m just like you in a way… I never knew my father neither – he used to always cheat on my mom and beat her. I can relate to what you’re saying in your songs…”


Cain becomes angry because Abel gets attention from the Lord while he himself doesn’t seem to get any attention at all:
And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.

Stan becomes angry because Slim does get recognition from his fans – Stan being one of them – while Stan seems to find no recognition at all:
“Dear Mister-I’m-Too-Good-To-Call-Or-Write-My-Fans, this’ll be the last package I ever send your ass! It’s been six months and still no word – I don’t deserve it?”


The Lord worries about Cain:
The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?”

Slim worries about Stan:
“… why are you so mad?”


The Lord advises Cain to do well:
“If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you…”

Slim advises Stan to calm down and to do well:
“I really think you and your girlfriend need each other or maybe you just need to treat her better. […] I think that you’ll be doin’ just fine if you relax a little…”


The First Mourning (Adam and Eve mourn the death of Abel) by Bouguereau 1888“… but you must rule over it…”

“I just don’t want you to do some crazy shit.”


Cain kills Abel:
Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.

Stan kills himself and his pregnant girlfriend:
“Some dude was drunk and drove his car over a bridge and had his girlfriend in the trunk, and she was pregnant with his kid…”

Mimetic World Wars

•April 11, 2014 • 2 Comments

MAY 20th, 1910 – The royal and political heads of Europe are (still peacefully) gathered for the funeral of Edward VII, king of Great Britain and Ireland, of the British Dominions beyond the Seas, and Emperor of India. Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany, is also present at the funeral of his uncle. Once again, Wilhelm is confronted with the grandeur of his British relatives.

George V and members of WAFFIt is no secret that Wilhelm II was extremely jealous of his British uncle first and then of his cousin, king George V, because of the many colonies they owned (picture on the left, king George and members of the WAFF). This kind of envy can only exist towards people one feels closely related to. It’s easier to keep on admiring those who do not belong to our own social environment than those who are close to us. The great William Shakespeare constantly shows the paradoxical nature of human relationships, where contagious conflicts precisely arise between people who often admire each other first. Already in the prologue of Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare sets the stage for an escalation of a conflict between families “both alike in dignity” – a conflict that only comes to an end when Romeo and Juliet sacrifice themselves:

“Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;

Whose misadventured piteous overthrows

Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.”

So it’s not the difference or inequality as such that potentially creates enmity but our tendency to imitate those we somehow identify with. It’s – as René Girard would have it – a mimetic (i.e. imitative) law of human conflict, which Plato already refers to in his dialogue Lysis (215d) when Socrates says:

“By a universal and infallible law the nearer any two things resemble each other, the fuller do they become of envy, strife and hatred…”

These universal truths are repeated throughout history, time and again, as in a never ending circle. If we would ever experience a global war because of a lack of natural resources, then the origins of such a war would lie in the mimetic nature of human desire. We are not simply happy with the things we physically need. We want what others have, we imitate the desires of our fellow men, even if we don’t necessarily need what they have. That’s why our ecological footprint is too big. And that’s why we could create scarcities of natural resources. We’re not just happy with the satisfaction of our hunger. We want the grape instead of the cucumber if our neighbor is eating grapes, and this tendency is already present in our ape cousins (for more on this click here to see one of Frans de Waal’s experiments).

Both the origins of World War I and World War II have to do with people wanting grapes although they already had cucumber. The death of millions of Europe’s children eventually ended the first orgy of violence, but – to quote Shakespeare on this – “the parents’ strife” only momentarily came to a halt. World War II indeed meant that “from ancient grudge came new mutiny”, violence spreading itself like a contagious disease…

SPRING 1914 - Germany is one of the wealthiest and most dynamic countries in the world, having the highest material prosperity in the world. In 40 years time the population has increased by 65 % to 68 million inhabitants. Germany is also an industrial giant. Essen has the biggest steel and weapon factory in the world with 81000 people working there. Daimler, Benz, Siemens, AEG, BASF and Bayer are leading companies.

Hamburg, Kaiser Wilhelm II. im Tierpark HagenbeckDuring that time Kaiser Wilhelm II had the biggest land army in the world and he invested some of his private money to buy and develop cannons.  Growing up he had seen the richness of the British Empire and he tried to emulate this for his own country. Therefore he supported Germany’s naval expansion and eventually did obtain an empire in Africa and the western Pacific, although not as large as he wanted (on the right, Wilhelm II visiting the African Colonies). The so-called Great Naval Race of the early 1900′s was an extension of his need to do better than his relatives by trying to build more battleships than the British Royal Navy had.

JUNE 28th, 1914 – Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated by nationalists in Sarajevo. Kaiser Wilhelm II encourages the Austrians to adopt an uncompromising line against Serbia, effectively promising them German support in the event of war.

alliance_ententeThis move of Wilhelm II caused a chain reaction he did not foresee. Russia and her allies France and Britain entered the war against Germany and Austria. At first, Wilhelm did try to scale back the mobilization of Germany’s armed forces, but he was overruled by the grandiose war aims of certain generals and politicians. Germany went into war, not because of a lack of resources or poverty, but because of an excess of (mimetically enhanced) pride. The rest of Europe and the world would follow. The war and its aftermath would mean the end of German royalty.

NOVEMBER 11th, 1918 - Armistice is signed between an exhausted Germany and the Allies in the French Forêt de Compiègne. The event takes place in the railway car of French commander-in-chief Marshal Foch. The Germans feel humiliated.

Armistice (the Germans surrender at the end of World War I)

JUNE 22nd, 1940 – Adolf Hitler meticulously imitates what Marshal Ferdinand Foch had done 22 years earlier. Hitler orders to get Foch’s railway car out of Compiègne’s museum and forces the French to surrender in the same way and on the same spot as the Germans in 1918. This vengeance – a mimetic mechanism – announces a second wave of global war, terror and horrific sacrifice, ending in 1945.


Commemorating the wars and its victims, we can only hope for a European Union that deserves its Nobel Peace Prize.

European Union Nobel Peace Prize

A Woman’s Uncanny Valley

•February 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment


Originally I just wanted to write a post on the uncanny valley, a phenomenon first described by Masahiro Mori (former robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology) in an essay for Japanese magazine Energy (vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 33–35, 1970) – READ THE ARTICLE ON THE UNCANNY VALLEY BY MASAHIRO MORI IN ENGLISH BY CLICKING HERE (OR PDF VERSION HERE). But as you will notice, dear reader, it made me think about some other stuff as well :)

Mori predicted that we would respond with a heightened sense of affinity to robots that act or look like humans until a certain threshold of similarity is reached. Apparently, when it becomes too difficult to make a direct and clear distinction between humans and robots, humanoid robots become uncanny and we experience an eerie sensation. In the words of Mori, we indeed come to an uncanny valley.

The Uncanny Valley 2

Mori ended his article by raising a few questions: “Why were we equipped with this eerie sensation? Is it essential for human beings? I have not yet considered these questions deeply, but I have no doubt it is an integral part of our instinct for self-preservation.”

The Uncanny Valley 1

Mori also provides a preliminary answer to these questions in a footnote:

“The sense of eeriness is probably a form of instinct that protects us from proximal, rather than distal, sources of danger. Proximal sources of danger are corpses, members of different species, and other entities we can closely approach. Distal sources of danger include windstorms and floods.”

This is all very interesting from the perspective of René Girard’s mimetic theory. It helps in providing an answer to Mori’s questions.

René Girard considers man’s increased mimetic (i.e. imitative) ability as a source of empathy as well as enmity, as a force responsible for order as well as disorder. For instance, children tend to take older people as their example. By imitating elders (and others in general) young people not only learn how to live in a certain culture, but they also learn what to desire. Others also function as models for desires and ambitions.

initiation ritual Xhosa manhood circumcisionOf course, when the gap between an imitator and a model is big enough, there won’t be any problem between them. The relationship between a mentor and a pupil will then be one of admiration from the part of the pupil. However, when an imitator’s skills increase he might become a threat to the position of his model. As he has learned to desire the same objects as his model, his model might become an obstacle to his ambitions. Adolescents indeed often show a tendency to no longer respect a former hierarchy. They tend to become rivals to adults whose authority they no longer automatically accept. They as well as the adults thus experience an identity crisis. In other words, the gap between youngsters and adults threatens to disappear and this potentially destabilizes human communities. Following Mori’s terminology we can call this gap where the distinction between young and old seems to disappear an uncanny valley. Girard observes that, in order to avoid a crisis resulting from this kind of intra-group rivalry, cultures have developed initiation rituals. These rituals often allow for types of violence against “new adults” in a controlled, structured way (for instance in a certain time frame) in order to give them “a proper place” and to avoid destructive rivalries and violence. It is no coincidence that student sororities and fraternities to this day make use of initiation ceremonies. Like many rituals in many cultures they paradoxically create an order by “organized disorder”. Sometimes these rituals are very violent, however, with girls being gang raped – to name but one of the terrors. That’s why some students are committed to end “frat-related violence”.end frat related violence

So to answer Mori’s questions already from the point of view of Girard’s mimetic theory: we have learned, in the course of our evolution as human species, to fear the disappearance of differences because we have learned to associate it with destructive types of rivalry and violence. That’s why, as Mori observes, “corpses, members of different species and other entities we can closely approach” (and identify with) are experienced as “sources of danger”. Youngsters can take the place of adults, robots of humans… and rotting corpses (similar to but not quite the same as living human beings) can generate diseases and death where once there was life. Indeed violence itself is like a disease, contagious.

Apart from the potential rivalry between and among youngsters and adults there’s another type of rivalry that has been experienced as a fundamental threat to the survival and stability of human communities: the rivalry between men to obtain “the best females” of a group. No wonder then that sexuality, and in particular female sexuality, has been perceived as a potential destructive force across different cultures. Because of its association with rivalry and violence, sexuality could easily become a taboo. On the other hand however, sexuality is also needed to guarantee a community’s survival. As is the case with adolescence, sexuality became a ritualized cultural phenomenon in human life (from courtship dances to temple prostitution to marriage). Rituals in general allow for a transgression of that which is taboo in everyday life.

Female Genital MutilationTraditionally, a collection of taboos and rituals in a particular culture is justified by referring to a sacred realm (with supernatural deities, ghosts or magic forces). Mimetic theory explains how violence became associated with “invisible persons” through the scapegoat mechanism (READ MORE ON THE ORIGIN OF RELIGION BY CLICKING HERE). Hence everything that can be associated with violence had the potential to become associated with “invisible persons” or “gods” as well. Sadly the sacralization of sexuality often meant that women became scapegoats, unjustly held responsible for a potential crisis in the life of their respective communities. Women had (or have) to prevent men from desiring them, thereby preventing rivalries between men. In some cultures they had (or have) to wear a veil in public, in others they were (or are) circumcized. The reasons to this day given for female genital mutilation indeed hardly conceal the underlying sexism – taken from the European Campaign to end FGM: “FGM, in particular infibulation, is defended in this context as it is assumed to reduce a woman’s sexual desire and lessen temptations to have extramarital sex thereby preserving a girl’s virginity.” Extramarital sex is considered taboo in this context since it could stir rivalry between men, destabilize family life and hence destabilize community life as a whole. Female sexuality, taboo because it is perceived as a potential violent force, thus is highly ritualized: female circumcision is a form of sacrificial violence to prevent destructive violence (perceived as “the wrath of the gods”) from happening.

stand against FGMIn short, human history shows that women all over the world, in different times and in different cultures, have been perceived as “dangerous life-bringers”. They are feared and adored at the same time (read more on this by clicking here – post on TEMPTRESSES). Important and well-known myths from all over the world have transmitted the perception of women as potential troublemakers. I’d like to dedicate the second part of this post to a presentation of three versions of this perception of women. The message concerning Pandora, Eve and “uncircumcized women” should be clear. These women are considered to bring about “the uncanny valley”, the loss of differences that marks the breakdown of the normal social order. Indeed, chaos and disorder in communities is often perceived as a curse brought about by “bewitched women”. However, if the situation of women is read as a particular form of the scapegoat mechanism, the (whether or not ritualized) violence against women can be considered a curse or a “burden” women have to bear unjustly. Although the Bible is not without sexist tendencies, René Girard and others have argued that Judeo-Christian Scripture eventually reveals the truth of the scapegoating impulse behind our cultural institutions. In other words, according to Girard our ability to consider certain texts and habits as, for instance, “sexist” is a consequence of a knowledge gradually given to us through the biblical writings. But that’s another story… Let’s take a closer look at the women who are blamed for “the evils mankind has to endure…”


Prometheus, Thief of Fire and God Challenger in Greek Mythology

The Myth

Pandora (Jane Ray)After Zeus hid fire from humans, Prometheus stole it from the gods to give it back to mankind. Prometheus did not respect the hierarchical distinction between the human and the divine and was therefore banned to a rock in the Caucasus. Chained, Prometheus was visited daily by an eagle who ate out his liver. It is said that his liver regenerated each night because of his immortality. Prometheus was eventually freed from his eternal punishment by the hero Heracles. At the same time, Zeus had also punished mankind with Pandora, the first woman. She became the wife of Epimetheus who could not resist her, although his brother Prometheus had warned him not to accept her gift. Pandora unleashed all the evils in the world by opening a box that should have remained closed. The Greek epic poet Hesiod (between 750-650 BC) writes of Pandora: “From her is the race of women and female kind, of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.”

Eve, Thief of Forbidden Fruit and God Challenger in Hebrew Mythology

The Myth

The Fall of Man and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Michelangelo)After God had forbidden man to eat from the tree of knowledge, the woman who was eventually named Eve nevertheless took some of its fruit and also gave some of it to Adam, the first man. Eve did not respect the hierarchical distinction between the human and the divine and was therefore banished from the Garden of Eden, to earth, together with Adam. Eve is considered to have cursed mankind with death, suffering and all kinds of evils and troubles. Genesis 3:16-19: “The Lord God said to the woman, ‘I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’ To Adam God said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, You must not eat from it, cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.’”

The Thief of Women’s Clitoris and Preserver of Sacred Order in African Ritual

The Myth

Bruce Parry visited the Dassanech tribe in Ethiopia. Women of this tribe are circumcised. One of the women who circumcises the girls told Parry the story that justifies this type of ritualistic violence concerning female sexuality:

“Circumcision is our culture. If we stop our culture, we will all die. If a woman with a clitoris gives birth, she, her child, everyone will die. Her clitoris will come up to her head. It’ll come out of her nose, and back into her head. It’ll kill her, she’ll die. Her father will die, her mother will die. That’s why we cannot stop circumcising girls.”

Bruce Parry:

“I’m told if she doesn’t get circumcised, she won’t get married, and she’ll be cast out from the tribe.”



  • There is a hierarchy in society, establishing order by making clear distinctions.
  • This hierarchy is to be respected; we shouldn’t compare ourselves to higher ups or compete with them. In other words, mimetic rivalry is taboo in everyday life. We should respect distinctions and differences. No hubris!
  • If a person does not respect a society’s prohibitions and customs, he or she is cast out from society as he or she is considered to potentially bring a crisis (or chaos) to life. A new order is established by sacrificing an outcast (found at the margins of society – high or low) ritualistically, again and again in an unescapable cycle of events. More generally speaking, rituals allow for so-called “good” controlled violence in order to avoid “bad” uncontrollable violence from happening.
  • Women are to be suspected as potential troublemakers, maybe even warmongers. A crisis is never far away when women are around!
  • Order in society, established by maintaining certain taboos and (sacrificial) rituals, is considered sacred, as a divine commandment.

René Girard 1985

•February 1, 2014 • 4 Comments

In 1985, René Girard received his first honorary doctorate at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. More followed at various universities throughout the world. In December 2006, he was installed as a member immortel of the Académie Française, the highest honor a French intellectual can achieve in his home country.

A month after René Girard received his first honorary doctorate an interview with him appeared for Dutch television (IKON). The interview is in English with Dutch subtitles.


There is also footage from the ceremony for the honorary doctorate at VU Amsterdam.



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