The Tax of Being Human: A Girardian Guest Post by Greg Mayers
Vox Nova is happy to present this guest post by Father Greg Mayers C.Ss.R. Many of us here at Vox Nova are interested in the work of Rene Girard. Father Mayers gives those unfamiliar with Girard a useful introduction in what follows.
There is a new theory out about how we became human, how the transition happen between a higher primate species and the human species. The theory is not in competition with the theory of evolution, which is a theory of genetics, of material development and which completely ignores the non-material reality of our humanness, or reduces that non-material to a function of the material dimensions of being human. In fact the new theory is a compliment to the theory of evolution we all know under the generalized term of Darwinism, a term vigorously defended or much maligned depending on one’s ideological stance. The new complimentary theory is called the Mimetic Theory, which is most closely associated with the work of Rene Girard, professor emeritus of Stanford University and his collaborators.
First a word about theory. The common misunderstanding about the word theory is that it means simply one’s opinion on a matter that has no evidence. This is the popular understanding and is used as a way to dismissed inconvenient facts, observations and effects. In other words, the word “theory” is meant as a reduction to mere personal preference and of no significance in the public sphere. In fact, within the scientific community, a theorem or theory is an assumption or principle that does explain or illuminate one or many observable and testable phenomena.
One example is the theory that the universe we live in and observe started with the Big Bang, or the Big Inflation as scientist now insist. The Big Bang theory is based on observations of the current universe and stated in mathematical language and formula which are “run back” to the “beginning” of the universe until the math reaches the point where it is no longer useful or adequate as a tool of understanding. In other words, the math works out as far as it can go, but it cannot go farther than a certain point. Thus assumptions have to be made to explain what is left unexplained by the math, which otherwise works out for the observations we now have of the universe. This is to say the obvious: that there is no direct observation of the Big Bang, and there is no way to directly validate this theory. We are unable to change this theory from a theory to a certainty, an empirically incontestable fact. Yet the theory holds up under other mathematical and empirically testable facts. The preponderance of evidence strongly suggests at this time in our scientific observations and calculations that the universe began as a Big Bang.
It is well known that the theory of the Big Bang predicts that there will be left over stuff from that event. And how that left over stuff was accidentally discovered at Bell Laboratories is part of modern scientific folklore. That evidence for the left over stuff is made famous in the well known background radiation map of the universe, oval and colorful, which everyone has seen in various presentations on modern astronomy. As the preponderance of evidence shifts in the future another theory will arise to explain the origins of the universe.
Another example is the theory of evolution, initially put for by Darwin and his contemporary Alfred Wallace, to explain the variations in nature that he observed. That theory has been greatly refined over the course of years and is validated by genetic observations, which of course, were unavailable to Darwin. By following the track left behind by our genetic make up, we can trace our material, or physical origins back in time to a certain set of conditions or circumstances lost in pre-history. We cannot go back in time and make direct observations of these alterations, which happened at a glacial pace in comparison to our sense of time bounded by a set life span. So, we have to depend upon a theory about the origins of the genetic development of the human race. The preponderance of evidence points to the justification of the theory of evolution.
The Mimetic Theory of the “humanization” of our species put forth by Rene Girard is deceptive in its simplicity. The theory states that over an unimaginable and indeterminate period of time, thousands of years or maybe even millennia, higher primates became self conscious by means of their imitation of others in their social group. His theory is simply stated this way: We desire according to the desire of the other. This theory was explicitly and almost exactly stated in a recent film, although used in the film in a cynical manner and probably without conscious reference to the work of Girard. The film is entitled the Affair of the Necklace, based on a court case that served as the spark for the French revolution. One of the characters at the court of Louis the XIV is asked how he knows what to desire amidst all the intrigue and maneuverings of court life. To which he replies: I ascertain what I desire when I learn what everyone else desires.
Girard’s theory is as deceptively simple as is Einstein’s theory of relativity and, like Einstein’s theory, it is blossoming out with enormous implications for anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, evolution, religion and philosophy. Furthermore it is validated, like any such theory must be, in texts of literature, both secular and sacred, a validation exhaustively documented in Girard’s major works. To make very complicated scholarly research accessible to our understanding without going into it in detail, we can say that what Girard has discovered is the “left over stuff” from the first incidences of our becoming human beings. What he has found in the literary texts of human history is similar to the cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang. His theory is also being validated in the recent neurological observations regarding “mirror neurons” in the brains of higher primates and humans. In other words, it can be demonstrated empirically that we humans are hardwired to imitate others.
The important point to notice is the “object” of what we desire is always and everywhere, a learned desirable object. We do not have desire in us, we acquire desire from outside ourselves, from an other-than-me. The second important point to note is that without desire we do not have a self, we don’t know who or what we are until we acquire desire. Our desire, and thus the self we think is so independent, is mediated by the other. It is always a three way proposition, a triangulation. We (the subject) learn what to desire (the object) through and by the object desired by the other (the medium). This gives us a sense of self, which we don’t and cannot have alone, that is inter-dependent on the social structure, the others of our social context. In order to be, we have to be taught what to be, a teaching we acquire from another.
Just as in the genetic theory of evolution, where there is no single point at which physical stuff, genes, changed enough to support consciousness identity, that is there is no “missing link” to be discovered; so too in the mimetic theory there is no single point at which “humanization” happens. In both cases, evolution and humanization, we can say that they happened repeated in numerous favorable circumstances over the course of thousands of years, even over millennia, but the origin of both are lost in the mists of pre-history and are undiscoverable. Thus all we can rely on is a “theory” supported by the preponderance of available evidence.
There is one more important point in Girard’s theory that cannot be overlooked, although it is the most disturbing and controversial element of his theory. Human conscious identity popped into existence, or rather popped into and out of and into etc. existence, at the point of the death of another. In other words, human identity, the sense of self, is defined by death. It is impossible to discover what these foundational events actually were, but we can see traces of them in the human mythological record across cultural barriers. The foundational episodes leave behind their patterns in the stories that human tell themselves in order to make sense of their world, much as the cosmic background radiation map is the left over patterns of the original Big Bang. Although we cannot actually see it, there is a (or many such) real event that gave birth to these patterns. And that event was death. We can imagine that it started with the death of the prey in a group hunt. The animal is killed in the usual manner, a pattern learned, improved on and repeated over millennia. But one time something unheard of happens. Instead of the group falling upon the carcass of the prey in the usual social hierarchical order, perhaps the alpha individual or perhaps the group as a whole, stand back waiting for what…? Instincts would urge them to fill their hunger. But this time, instinct is abated, perhaps only momentarily, in one or many or all of the hunters. Instinct is suspended not by external circumstances or conditions which most certainly would have happened many times over in the course of pre-history. Rather instinct is abated by something internal to the hunter or hunters. Over the course of time, this suspension of instinct is learned by others in the group, following Girard’s theory: desire is learned from the desire of the other. In our imaginary story this becomes the foundational event for conscious identity, the first halting steps toward humanization, through the process of imitation.
The imitation of the other cuts two ways and both ways are simultaneous. We learn from others in our social group what to desire leading to both cooperation and competition. At some point we have to confront the documented fact of not just same species, but same social group killing – in human terms, murder. It is now a well known fact that in higher primates more individuals die at the hands of other group members than die as prey. Girard explains these “murders” as competition for the desirable object. But the significance of this particular act of taking life begs to be clarified. One individual gets tagged as the source of the group’s dis-ease by standing in the way of a desirable object, in this case group peace and order. The more agitated the group becomes, the less efficient and cooperative it becomes in hunting and survival skills. How to resolve this conflict? Remove the source of the disorder. Why the murder of another group member? It follows the logic of Girard’s insight: we acquire desire according to the desire of the other. An individual is tagged as introducing chaos in place of group order by its behavior. Once the individual is removed something miraculous and magic happens. Order and peace return. The tension is released. A condition that holds for a time until the next group disturbance, and identified scapegoat, happens. Murder is then reenacted to restore order out of the chaos. The reason the foundational murder keeps getting reenacted all the way up to this present time is that it keeps working. Get rid of the cause of the problem and the problem disappears, at least temporarily. But it also gets passed on.
This is Girard’s most arresting insight into the origins of humanization. In addition to and posterior to the foundation event for conscious identity, namely death of an other, there is also a foundational murder that gives birth to the social order and, by extension, to our sense of self. The foundational murder that gives birth to humanity in consciousness is lost to our awareness, just as the actual origin of the universe is unavailable to our observation. We have forgotten that we are individuals because of a murder or murders, the sacrificing of another individual for the sake of releasing the tension of our existence which arises out of our competition for a learned desirable object. The foundational murder gets transmuted into hero stories and religious sacrifices to appease angry gods, all of which are strategies to forget the original or foundational murder, to forget the horror of it and the weight of this horror on human consciousness.
Life is not only suffering, unsatisfactory (dukka) as Buddha taught, life is unbearable to the point where we must remove the very thing that is bearing it, namely the fragile sense of self which pops into being along with learned desire. According to Buddhist teaching anatman is the solution to the tension of life. Instead of removing the other by means of scapegoating them, or instead of sleeping in the foggy forgetfulness of our origins, which most human do most of the time, we remove the self, no-self. No-self means no desire. No desire means no tension, nothing to fight over. It is a retreat into a pre-self consciousness. Please note this is not a pre-conscious state, a primitive condition of human awareness. It is a state of consciousness without a sense of self clinging to it. Consciousness without content, and the most fundamental content of consciousness is self. That is one religious strategy for dealing with the unbearable likeness of being.
There is another religious strategy for dealing with the horrors of the origins of the fragile sense of self, a strategy that does not implicate desire as totally in cahoots with our distressed condition. And this strategy is to change the medium from which we learn what is desirable and thus gain a sense of self. Instead of desiring according to the desire of any other, and thus gambling on our sense of self in that any “other” will do, we learn to desire according to the desire of a particular other. This is the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition. The Judaeo part is called the “law” and the Christian development out of that is called the Christ, the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth. The Christian traditions says that the law didn’t work. It doesn’t absolve our complicity in the foundational murder and the resulting horror in human consciousness. We remain bound up in that trauma, and all human strategies finally fail to extract us from our complicity with it. Rather what is needed is a new start that goes back further than the foundational murder all the way to the foundational event, the enthrallment with death itself. This new start couldn’t take place until the human species evolved enough to bear it, in the Christian terminology, “in the fullness of time.”
The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the cornerstone of Christianity. Without it there is no Christianity, for the resurrection redefines the story of humanity. Instead of death defining what it means to be human, an unimagined and unexpected life uncoupled from death defines what it means to be human. The new model of what it is to be human is not just an “other”, or the “law”, neither of which addresses the fatal problem of death. The new model is the One who has undergone death, physically bears the marks of his death, showing that death is both real and a hollow threat to who and what we are. If one person can undergo death and overcome that fatal condition in rising from the dead, then that fact is of enormous significant to what it means to be human.
Equally important is the fact that the one who rises from the dead appears to other humans who knew him to be dead. Their reaction to this appearance is noteworthy. They might have been in shock, or grief, or guilt after the death of their friend and teacher. But the Christian record explicitly notes that they are terrified at the appearance of the risen Jesus. Their whole sense of self is threatened by the resurrection. The very debt or tax of being human is abolished. In Christian terminology not only sin is forgiven, but what we know, and have hidden from ourselves, to be the very origins of being human is forgiven. We have been wrong from the very beginning and that is no longer a problem. So we can look the big lie in the face, eye to eye, without fear of losing our footing. The resurrection shows that being human encompasses all of that, the foundational event, the foundational murder, the fragile sense of self received from others, and outpaces it all in orders of magnitude unheard of before. Instead of getting rid of the self, Christianity seeks the truth of the self. Or perhaps the truth in the self. That truth is uncovered in the fact of the resurrection.
There is one more part to this that cannot be seen intellectually or felt emotionally or otherwise brought down to what we sense as human finitude, much less written or spoken about. This story begs for a satisfying ending, a key to finally grasping the meaning of life, the reality of the resurrection, the model of being human. But how does one close on life uncoupled from death, where death is not denied and is made unnecessary? “Not denied and made unnecessary” just don’t go together in human consciousness. This requires something different. The self we think we know cannot grasp what the new self evoked in the resurrection is. Perhaps this very conundrum is only resolved in the imitation of the new Other, rather than in just any other. Going back to Girard’s theory that we learn desire from the desire of another, perhaps we can invoke a refreshed desire by changing the mediator, the model, the medium through which desire is learned. We don’t have to change the pattern or the conditions by which we have become human through evolution. The pattern holds true, in the sense of reliable. Instead of competition for the desirable object, the resurrected life, we simply, but not easily, become like the one who already has what we desire. By taking on his vantage point, we can see what is obvious to him, but hidden from us and only revealed to us in him.
This means that in order to get what we want we have to become the medium of what we desire, instead of acquiring the object of our desire through a medium or by sacrificing the medium. The purpose of human life is just that, to be the medium of what has been uncovered in the resurrection. But in attempting to write about it this already unravels and bleaches the tension out of our quest in a way that discourages us from the adventure it is meant to encourage.