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Can We Survive Our Origins?

Can We Survive Our Origins?: Readings in René Girard's Theory of Violence and the Sacred

Pierpaolo Antonello
Paul Gifford
Foreword by Rowan Williams
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  • Book Info
    Can We Survive Our Origins?
    Book Description:

    Are religions intrinsically violent (as is strenuously argued by the 'new atheists')? Or, as Girard argues, have they been functionally rational instruments developed to manage and cope with the intrinsically violent runaway dynamic that characterizes human social organization in all periods of human history? Is violence decreasing in this time of secular modernity post-Christendom (as argued by Steven Pinker and others)? Or are we, rather, at increased and even apocalyptic risk from our enhanced powers of action and our decreased socio-symbolic protections? Rene Girard's mimetic theory has been slowly but progressively recognized as one of the most striking breakthrough contributions to twentieth-century critical thinking in fundamental anthropology: in particular for its power to model and explain violent sacralities, ancient and modern. The present volume sets this power of explanation in an evolutionary and Darwinian frame. It asks: How far do cultural mechanisms of controlling violence, which allowed humankind to cross the threshold of hominization-i.e., to survive and develop in its evolutionary emergence-still represent today a default setting that threatens to destroy us? Can we transcend them and escape their field of gravity? Should we look to-or should we look beyond-Darwinian survival? What-and where (if anywhere)-is salvation?

    eISBN: 978-1-60917-435-4
    Subjects: Philosophy, Anthropology, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    Rowan Williams

    In the English-speaking intellectual world, René Girard’s work continues to inspire and exasperate in almost equal measure. But part of the difficulty in developing a systematic and properly critical reception of this extraordinary schema or set of schemata is that only very gradually have Girard’s theories been systematically connected with the main currents of intellectual modernity as understood in the Anglo-American tradition—notably the natural sciences and the whole world of empirical social and anthropological studies.

    The essays collected by Pierpaolo Antonello and Paul Gifford make a very significant contribution to this connectedness. In the light of these two new...

  2. Introduction
    (pp. xix-xliv)

    René Girard’s “mimetic theory” addresses the role of “sacred violence” in the constitution of human culture and social order. It has been increasingly acknowledged as one of the most striking breakthrough contributions to twentieth-century critical thinking: in particular, for its power to model and explain violent sacralities, ancient and modern, ranging from Crusade and pogrom to Dreyfus and the Holocaust; from gospel apocalyptic and environmental crisis to the religious wars, suicide bombers, and culture clashes of our fast-globalizing world.

    The present volume sets this power of explanation into an evolutionary and Darwinian framework. It aims to observe and explore how...


    • A Covenant among Beasts: Human and Chimpanzee Violence in Evolutionary Perspective
      (pp. 3-24)
      Paul Dumouchel

      René Girard inViolence and the Sacred(1972) and again inThings Hidden since the Foundation of the World(1978) claims that in most animal species intraspecific violence is generally limited, and that instinctual inhibitions strongly reduce or totally exclude murder among conspecifics. He adds that the weakness of instinctual checks against murder among humans gave a special urgency to the problem of violence in our species. In this he partially followed Konrad Lorenz, who had argued, a few years earlier, that while most animal species had evolved mechanisms that rein in intraspecific aggression or divert it toward alternative targets,...

    • Liminal Crises: The Origins of Cultural Order, the Default Mechanisms of Survival, and the Pedagogy of the Sacrificial Victim
      (pp. 25-48)
      Pierpaolo Antonello

      In2001: A Space Odyssey(1968), the American film director Stanley Kubrick resorts to a strange, fictional device to plot key turning points in the cultural evolution of humans: an ominous black monolith, seen to be something like a “black box” (which, in science and engineering, designates a device, system, or object that can be viewed solely in terms of its input, output, and transfer characteristics, without any knowledge of its internal workings).

      This eerie object serves in particular to highlight and problematize the quantum leap implied in human emergence: the leap involved, in the first instance, in our passing...

    • Victims, Sacred Violence, and Reconciliation: A Darwinian-Girardian Reading of Human Peril and Human Possibility
      (pp. 49-70)
      Harald Wydra

      Can René Girard’s “fundamental anthropology” help make sense of humanity’s immense “progress” during the short time of its existence—and contrariwise, of its prospects of transcending the seeming fatality of its own violence? The centrality of Girard’s thought for these questions derives from the fact that Girard, relaying Darwin, gives us the most precise and complete understanding of what role the control of violence plays in permitting civilizational progress—and at what cost.

      Like Darwin, Girard presupposes that the highly differentiated, elaborately constructed forms of life can be brought back to very basic, simple principles. In both cases, there is...

    • Empire of Sacrifice: Violence and the Sacred in American Culture
      (pp. 71-94)
      Jon Pahl and James Wellman

      American self-understanding has been brutally efficient in producing “innocent domination” (Pahl 2012b). Throughout American history, death-dealing, pursued as a matter of public policy, has been cloaked repeatedly in a sacralizing aura of rhetorical innocence. According to this “exceptionalist” narrative, usually asserted in direct contrast to the evidence, killing is an unfortunate accident, “collateral damage” in the otherwise noble history of American progress. American domination, even and especially where violently pursued, isinnocent.

      Usually, this killing is dressed up as sacrifice,” i.e., as heroic and costly self-dedication to an ideal or value (Denton-Borhaug 2011). The trope is remarkably mobile—and exceptionally...


    • From Closed Societies to the Open Society: Parochial Altruism and Christian Universalism
      (pp. 97-114)
      Wolfgang Palaver

      Recent research on human altruism has shown that altruism often relies on a common enmity vis-à-vis other groups, which strengthens internal cohesion. Today this typical pattern of human solidarity is called “parochial altruism,” and it is seen as referring back to the origin of human civilization. The French philosopher Henri Bergson mentions such a pattern in his description of closed societies, representing the first stage of human evolution. According to Bergson, closed societies were characterized by a static religion fostering a parochial altruism.

      With the help of René Girard’s mimetic theory it is not too difficult to interpret these societies...

    • Girard, the Gospels, and the Symmetrical Inversion of the Founding Murder
      (pp. 115-142)
      Paul Gifford

      The figure of sense I propose to examine is neatly summarized by René Girard himself in a recent text, “On War and Apocalypse” (2009):

      What I call (after Freud) the “founding murder”—the immolation of a scapegoat victim who is both guilty of disorder and able to restore order—is constantly reenacted in the rituals at the origin of our institutions. Since the dawn of humanity, millions of innocent victims have been killed in this way to enable their fellow humans to live together or at least not destroy one another.

      This is the implacable logic of the archaic sacred,...

    • Survival and Salvation: A Girardian Reading of Christian Hope in Evolutionary Perspective
      (pp. 143-166)
      Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly

      Thinking about the “End of all things” is a prevalent and enduringly popular urge. It is also a terrain rich in confusions; these are reproduced throughout popular speech and writing on this theme, commonly invoking the terms “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic.”

      We are prone to ask: Will this world survive indefinitely or will it perish unless a “higher” power intervenes to save it? Will we survive indefinitely by our own determined ingenuity in protean adaptations, or do we need a saving intervention from “beyond”? Thus structured and formulated, the question of survival and salvation recalls the cosmological alternative of “big bang”...


    • Northern Ireland: Breaking the Inheritance of Conflict and Violence
      (pp. 169-190)
      Duncan Morrow

      As part of the wider Western world, Northern Ireland is deeply tied to the presumptions, movements, and expectations of those around us. Indeed, it is arguable that we live as close to the geographical center of the North Atlantic democratic community as anyone. But unlike most of Western Europe and North America, it is our predicament to live together without a shared and acceptable transcendence provided by nation or state or religion. All of these modern sacralities have “cracked.”

      In the course of centuries of increasingly ethnocentric struggle, both religion and nation have become the tools of a struggle for...

    • Communities of Contrast: Modeling Reconciliation in Northern Ireland
      (pp. 191-214)
      Derick Wilson

      The internal “ethnic frontier” of Northern Ireland has been a space of intercommunity relations permanently subject to rivalrous and conflicting desires. At this interface, the daily lives of people and the energies of political parties, religious, cultural, and civic groups have been—and can in a flash, still become—consumed in a vortex of emotions and destructive actions.

      This ever-imminent vortex has been forged by the force field of our history of asymmetrical relationships (Wright 1987),¹ straining conflictually toward rival forms of belonging, both internally, in relation to the political establishment of Northern Ireland, and externally with its aligned cosmopolitan...

    • Responses to Morrow and Wilson
      (pp. 215-232)
      Mel Konner and Leon Marincowitz

      I stand in awe of the accomplishments of people like Derick Wilson and Duncan Morrow in making the historic reconciliation in Northern Ireland possible on the ground, and also in explaining in such a personal and intimate way, but also so analytically and so penetratingly, what is at stake and what has happened there. At the conference where we all spoke, I was also asked to comment on the Wilson-Morrow session and to try to draw some parallels with the Middle East. (At the time I was in the middle of a six-week visit to Israel and Palestine. I had...

    • Peace-Making in Practice and Theory: An Encounter with René Girard
      (pp. 233-250)
      Scott Atran

      I much enjoyed all the texts in this section; and, of course, I heartily endorse Mel Konner’s vibrant salute to those who put in the “hard yards” for peace.

      Without being a Girardian or even knowing Girard’s theory intimately, I’ve often found my paths crossing with his. I’ll try and say how I see the pattern of our encounters from the two points of view that interest me: as a consultant in “hands-on” peace-making, and as an academic anthropologist of violence and the sacred, based at the French CNRS (I also have American and British University connections).

      Morrow’s diagnosis of...


    • Nuclear Apocalypse: The Balance of Terror and Girardian “Misrecognition”
      (pp. 253-266)
      Jean-Pierre Dupuy

      In the section ofDes choses cachées depuis la fondation du mondeentitled “Science et apocalypse” (Girard 1978, 276–85), Rene Girard makes important observations on what we might take to be an improbable oxymoron: that of “nuclear peace.” This expression, he says, shows clearly that we are already living under a spell of Apocalypse. The Bomb has become like the “Sovereign of this world”; we exist under Her protection, even if we also know that Her destructive power derives from and expresses our own, purely human, powers.

      In this key work, Girard writes: “In a world that is ever...

    • Responses to Jean-Pierre Dupuy
      (pp. 267-286)
      Margo Boenig-Liptsin, Paul Dumouchel and Paul Gifford

      FromThings Hidden since the Foundation of the World to Battling to the End, René Girard describes our contemporary historical-cultural situation as a hybrid one, in which people have some awareness of the sacrificial mechanism while the mechanism continues to function. The type of explanation he seems to envisage is that the cultural osmosis of Christian values advances slowly and without uniformity; and that it has achieved no absolute ascendancy over the logic established, originally and to ongoing effect, within the social psyche at large by the economy of the archaic sacred.

      Girard does not very fully analyze the nature...

    • Girard, Climate Change, and Apocalypse
      (pp. 287-310)
      Michael Northcott

      In his latest book,Battling to the End, René Girard undertakes a series of culture-readings centered on an account of the end-game of modernity and its potential apocalypse. The book represents the culmination of the thesis, maturing throughout his work, about mimetic violence, rivalry, and the sacred. He suggests that the twentieth-century trend toward total war, including borderless wars such as the “war on terror,” and borderless economic competition to access the remaining natural resources of the planet, represented a phase change in the history of the age-old problem of human attempts to control and manage the threat of mimetic...

    • A New Heaven and a New Earth: Apocalypticism and Its Alternatives
      (pp. 311-330)
      Michael Kirwan

      Girard’s engagement with “the apocalyptic theme” would appear to be more recent than his classic preoccupation with “sacrifice,” spun out over the last forty years. Commentators have discerned an “apocalyptic turn” in his writings since 2001. The atrocity of 9/11 and the conflicts generated by it are for Girard one signal marker of a phase change ushering in the era of a newly unbridled “escalation to extremes,” a globalized relaunching of the age-old dynamic of violence between nations and groups.

      This phenomenon, he thinks, is something that we can no longer hope to keep under control by “sacrificial” means, such...