One of the amusing effects of this week's announcement that Britain's Prince William is going to marry his long-time girlfriend, Kate Middleton, is that every copy of the blue dress that Kate was wearing at their photo-op has disappeared. The shops here in London say that they sold out of the dresses within 24 hours of the latest event-of-the-century announcement. People understand why, of course, at least intuitively: everybody wants to be somebody and the somebody that everybody who's anybody wants to be this week is either partner in Britain's new royal couple.
For more than thirty years, however, a dedicated and growing group of scholars have been working on a theory that explains this kind of phenomenon more explicitly. These folks, a menagerie of cultural and literary critics, theologians, philosophers and sympathizers, are followers of Rene Girard, the French-American cultural critic, now easing his way into retirement after a successful teaching career at Stanford, among other places. Girard practically stumbled into an idea a few years back that he calls Mimetic Theory. The details are still being worked out (in sessions like the one I attended last month in Belgium), but the basic gist of the theory can be grasped by any ten-year-old, let alone the frenetic adults who were shaking down the racks at Harrod's this week. The theory has three pillars:
First, Girard discovered, all desire is mimetic. Human beings copy one another, not just in terms of language, but in terms of what we want (apart from basic biological needs). The key here is that, strictly speaking, there are no desires that are your own. You get them all from others. Second, human conflict happens when the desires of multiple people converge on the same object. This is called mimetic rivalry and involves both objects we can see (that dress) and those we can't, such as a transcendent state of well-being (happiness). Third, this mimetic rivalry can plunge a whole community or society into crisis and this crisis is resolved through what Girard calls 'the scapegoat mechanism:' One person, then another, and then a whole group of people point the finger of suspicion at one individual, the sacrificial victim, who is then expelled or destroyed. This restores order to the community. Think Roger Williams here, or almost any tribe of Native Americans.
Admittedly, that is all pretty bad news: we are, by nature, not really free and worse, we are prone to pretty brutal forms of violence. Well, maybe we suspected all of that anyway. The good news, however, is that according to Girard, there is a way out of all of this: the Gospel. In the words of one Girardian (as the groupies are known), Michael Kirwan, S.J.: "the gospel is the biblical spirit that exposes the truth of violent origins, takes the side of the victim and works toward the overcoming of scapegoating as a viable means of social formation." In other words, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus subvert the whole ghastly enterprise.
If you are still reading, you may be asking why any of this matters. Well, as the Girardians point out, if mimetic theory is true, then we may need to really re-think some of our most treasured pre-suppositions. If Girard's world is, in fact, the world we live in, then the modern notion of the free, autonomous, self-actualizing individual, for example, is a myth. It also means that Hobbesian social contracts (i.e. the U.S. Constitution), may not, in the long run, keep the peace, precisely because they are based on false theories of why there is any violence in the first place. Girard's theory prompts all kinds of other questions: Could theology have a new way of imagining the purpose of the passion, the meaning of the resurrection, or the doctrine of original sin? What might be the best political arrangement in light of mimetic theory? Does capitalism, with its explicitly mimetic marketplaces, just make things worse?
Interesting questions, without obvious answers. Girard is not without his critics (I have not a few questions myself). What is interesting, however, is how diverse his following is (Christian and not) and how unpredictable his critics are (atheist and not). This suggests that he may really be on to something. In any case, it is worth checking out. Among other things, it may help us make some sense of the nasty state of American politics at the moment. The best introduction to Girard is short and to the point: "Discovering Girard" by Michael Kirwan, a British Jesuit. It is written in plain English. James Alison is a theologian who has done a lot of work on Girard and original sin, as well as human sexuality. Lastly, Rowan Williams is a fan, in spite of a few reservations. There is much to explore further, but I'll leave that to you. I need to go shopping. I hear that blue is really in right now.