110 Comments

I love this line: "Girard devoted his life to exposing the lies behind fashions and trends. And now, after his death, he is fashionable and trendy. It’s almost like some kind of punishment."

Our legacies are so often ironic. Reminds me of Carl Jung who reportedly said: The best thing about being Carl Jung is that I'll never get to call myself a "Jungian".

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That's funny. Don't fall in thrall of any guru. It's an abdication of your intellectual and moral freedom.

For example I have recently been taking pleasure in saying I told you so w.r.t Zizek to my friends who thought he was some sort of leftist.

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When I was a kitten, a quote was attributed to one of the Sex Pistols "Kill your idols before they get a chance to embarrass you."

I have never been able to learn the provenance of this quote, but it seems like sound advice.

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And don't name your kid or dog after a currently fashionable celeb.

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Keep it simple -- name them "X".

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Great article. But I feel it does no good to 'secularize' Girard and gloss over the roots of his theory - which is Christian. The Devil is the root of mimetic desire, and it was Christ's sacrifice that demonstrated how it is overcome. It's because the scapegoat mechanism is so pervasive that the Christian story was so compelling throughout history.

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I sympathize with this account, but I think it is Girard's theory that led him to his Christianity, not the other way around.

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Brilliant article. Well thought out, and carefully delivered. Thanks for this great read.

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What I love most about your writing is how you manage to put complex things into simple words – and strip academic ideas of their academic language.

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Yes. Ted is exceptionally good at that.

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Because exceptions prove the rule, I immediately tried to think of exceptions. The legend of Cain and Abel comes to mind...yes they were brothers. But Cain was a farmer and Abel a herder:agriculturism vs nomadic hunter/gatherer, so at first glance it seems an exception. Then we realize they were competing for the same prize: God's favor.

God's preference of Abel's animal sacrifice over a vegetable sacrifice led Cain to slay his brother --which in itself can be considered an 'animal' sacrifice.

Girard's insight that the scapegoat symbolizes this union of opposites points to a metaphysical truth. In our dualistic universe, opposing forces are by turn exposed then unified, in a continuos dance of Kali and Shiva, yin and yang, creation and destruction .

So I guess that's why 'exceptions prove the rule'-- because they're only exceptions on the surface. When we dig deeper we see the seeming opposites are enfolded in a series of layers inside the whole.

Brilliant article Ted!

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Mar 26·edited Mar 26

Cain and Abel is an example the Girard often returned to. As he points out, however, the difference between biblical text and the pagan stories around at the time is that the scapegoating is not hidden, and the innocence of the victims is apparent. This is heightened further in the New Testament, with the ultimate scapegoating of the ultimate innocent (and in this case, willing) victim -- Girard's offbeat but compelling understanding of Christianity.

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Thank you Ted. I will qualifying my comment by saying I am not a Girardian scholar, but I have been aware of his work for since David Caley's series on CBC Ideas ( https://www.davidcayley.com/podcasts/category/Ren%C3%A9+Girard ) and have followed him through secondary sources.

This is the most succint AND applicable summary of his work I have encountered. Thank you for making him accessible.

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Choose your enemies carefully, ’cause they will define you/

Make them interesting, because in some ways they will mind you/

They’re not there in the beginning, but when your story ends/

Gonna last longer with you than your friends.

— U2, Cedars of Lebanon

The old adage "Choose your enemies carefully, for you will become like them" might be backwards: it is our likeness that makes them our enemies.

Thanks Ted for once again for discussing important ideas in an accessible but not reductionist manner.

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It’s the shadow. What we despise in others is what we despise in ourselves

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Mar 26·edited Mar 26Liked by Ted Gioia

Nice summary but I must dispute that Girard " never discussed popular culture." See the following excerpt from "Evolution and Conversion" in which he discusses and praises Seinfeld.

https://scapegoatshadows.com/seinfeld-the-big-salad/

edit: I don't hold it against you though. "Evolution and Conversion" is for whatever reason not as widely discussed but I think might actually be the clearest and fullest explication of his ideas.

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These behaviors, as Jane Goodall explains, are all related to our evolutionary background of being a primate species, i.e., a tribal species. Our closest primate species, the chimpanzees, are about 98% genetically identical to us and display many of the same behavioral traits. We different is some areas, three of which are that humans are more altruistic than chimpanzees, we have a much greater ability to communicate with one another, and we are have many more ways to kill one another. But another trait that is good is that we can educate ourselves to understand why some traits that we acquired as a species are no longer beneficial in today’s environment compared to a hundred thousand years ago and we can learn how to mitigate many of there tribal predispositions. On educated person at a time.

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There's this quote that I love from Dr. E.O. Wilson, Sociobiologist

"The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technology."

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Mar 25·edited Mar 25

While imperfect, it is those medieval institutions that have most effectively restrained our reliance on paleolithic emotions and god-like technologies.

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Chimps have gotten most of the attention in studies, but in recent decades, our closeness to Bonobos has been recognized by researchers. They are just as closely related to us as chimpanzees, yet have very different social behaviors, using sexual relations to resolve conflicts instead of chimp-like aggression, and a preference for food sharing and female led societies. It increasingly looks like a mistake to reduce our inheritance to just primal chimp behavior.

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A timely reminder of the timeless ideas of René Girard. During this season of Pesach and Easter, profoundly interlinked as they have been for almost two thousand years, it is also fitting to observe Girard’s great insight that Christianity arose because for the first time the scapegoat story was told from the perspective of the victim.

Even for those who reject the transcendental and refuse to believe Jesus was resurrected and is now alive, this shift in perspective opened the world-changing floodgates of empathy, compassion and all-healing love.

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Buddha did that without being crucified.

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W. H. Auden once sitting in a lecture where the speaker (I think it was Joseph Campbell, but I may be misremembering) said something like “Jesus and Buddha were both attacked by spears, but for Buddha the spears turned into flowers.” Auden shouted out 'on good Friday the speakers were real"

I'm sure I'm butchering the quote, I'm not a poet. But I think from my memory of 'Satan fell like lightning' Girads point was there had to be real death of the innocent to restore peace.

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Except peace wasn't restored and I don't expect it will ever be until we're gone from this life. There is individual peace and it's collective peace that's missing.

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YES. Ted you keep nailing it (so to speak) Some of the best theologians out there are Girardians! (See: James Alison) https://jamesalison.com/en/about/

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The problem with Girard is that he's one of those thinkers who explains everything and thus explains nothing. Like Freud and Marx, his faintly ridiculous catch-all theories can't be fully disproved because they have no empirical traction whatsoever - they are theories-as-stories: they have an internal structure that's neat and compelling. "Mimetic desire" is just a description of the causal transmission of ideas and doesn't really account for our choices, but only interprets them.

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If you think empirical research is not shot through with mimesis...

I think there is in grand, general theories like Girard's a paradoxical humility because they open themselves up to critiques like your first sentence.

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"If you think empirical research is not shot through with mimesis... " - my point really, just like anything that threatens Marxism's worldview is "Bourgeois science / false consciousness"

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I haven't read Girard so I'm just guessing here but given Ted's fine essay above it sounds like critical theory to me, not science. The value of Freud, Marx, and I guess Girard is that they can provoke us to update our mental maps of how things work. We think in terms of the relations between abstract categories, i.e. we think like how these guys write. And they don't have to be either right or empirically grounded to be useful. Freud was wrong about lots of stuff but his contributions continue to stimulate. Descartes is kinda famous for being the philosopher everybody disagrees with.

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Ted is a wonderful writer. I agree on your point about critical theory helping us look at things in a new way (but I still take issue with Girard's catch-all theory of human behavior).

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Actually, a lot of work has been done in evolutionary biology and psychology about memes and their roles in evolution and the coevolution of culture and human beings. Check out Dawkins, Dennett and Henrich just for starters.

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This reminds of a Tolstoy quote about a character being annoyed by another person because he has those same qualities in himself that he despises. At least, the Tolstoy character (I believe in War and Peace) has self-awareness that most people lack.

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#8 + #9: The most violent wars (at least in modern times) have been brother against brother: The Troubles in Ireland, Arab v. Jew in the Middle East. I didn’t have a word for this until tonight. Mimetic.

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Cain and Abel

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Ben and Jerry, Tom and Jerry, The brothers Karamazov.

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I salute thee Herr Forkenspoon

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Siskel and Ebert

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We could go on and on. I'll let you have the last word.

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The far left and the far right. Angry, intolerant. So much alike.

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To your second point that "Imitation is the economic engine of most businesses—just look at the big social media companies or fashion brands—but it’s always disguised."

I don't think it's disguised at all. No one is pretending anymore.

Thread is a carbon copy of Twitter.

Instagram Reels is a carbon copy of TikTok.

Marketing, as well, is very much on the nose with its taglines, clearly hinting at status anxiety and group-think, especially when targeted to Gen Z.

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Mar 25·edited Mar 25

Startups do have a strong motivation to imitate already successful businesses. When it comes to marketing campaigns for consumer products/brands, though (which is functionally a separate topic) I think the encouragement to imitate other consumers is almost always well disguised. It's certainly there, and is a prime driver of behaviour, and a big reason for the success of certain campaigns, but it's rarely if ever directly referenced or invoked.

Open and direct encouragement to imitate others -- the "What are you waiting for? All your friends and neighbours are buying it/doing it/wearing it/using it, don't be left behind!" sales pitch -- was common in marketing campaigns in the forties through the sixties but has pretty much completely disappeared, with a few exceptions. Modern marketers are more likely to portray the purchase/use of a product that everyone else is buying as evidence of bold individualism.

The imitation factor can't be completely disguised via the tactic of drawing attention to the desirability of its opposite, but it's clear that they're trying to capitalize on what market researchers have identified as a lack of awareness among consumers about what's motivating their own behaviour.

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Yes, I see your point and agree that open encouragement is not as obvious as it used to be.

Most of my experience in marketing lies in the digital/SAAS space - network effects are highly saught after and community angles are widely used.

So it very much depends on the type of product being sold. But I agree with you that when it comes to purchases that play on people's need for status, uniqueness and a perceived sense of exclusivity are the primary selling message.

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Take care with Girard. He describes Western civilization and not something we are biologically fated to. Dawn of Everything by Graeber and Wengrow and Charles C. Mann's books about pre and post Columbian America clearly show how what Girard deals with is a European tradition, not human nature.

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This simply isn't true. Girard discusses mythologies from a wide range of cultures in his work, and offers commentary on everything from Buddhism to the Aztecs. A lot of his work was inspired, at an early stage, by structuralists, such as Claude Lévi-Strauss's studies of Brazilian myth systems, and he's very interested in aboriginal societies. He would definitively reject any charge that his research or views were limited to Western civilization.

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Ok. Given that range of Girard's study, what did he say was the cause of mimetic desire? Is it a human universal, like music, or a thought trap, like hierarchical social organization?

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How do they do they show that? I was not aware that it was in anyway specific to Europeans, in fact I cannot see how that is possible.

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I gtg but you've got the references that will answer your question if you care to follow up.

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