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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Synthesizing the ethics of Rene Girard, Wendell Berry, & Jacques Derrida

By Daniel Silliman

for Dr. Justin Jackson
Mimetic Theory, Eng. 404

In the works of Rene Girard, Wendell Berry and Jacques Derrida, we are presented, in three disparate fields by three very different writers, with a vision of human culture saturated by violence. Their respective projects aren’t, on the face of it, the same. While Girard is analyzing the literature of Shakespeare or Proust, Berry is culling through statements from the U.S. department of Agriculture, and Derrida is looking at ghosts in Marx or exploring the possibility of a science of writing. Yet, between them there is an important similarity: they are all ultimately concerned with an ethical response to pervasive violence.

Girard is a literary critic and an anthropologist. His work is purposed towards the better understanding of literary texts and cultural rites, to explain them and to explore them. Yet, reading his explanations of the mimetic structure of human nature as he’s discovered it in literature and societies, we find ourselves regularly presented with an ethics. In the end of Job, a book that is both a work of literary criticism and anthropology, we find ourselves choosing a god. “If we want to rid ourselves of the system of action and representation based on the scapegoat,” we are told, and so strong has the aversion to scapegoating been sewn into the text that as a question it is almost rhetorical, we must follow in the path of Job and “hope for the God of victims.” In the middle of the anthropology essay “Are the Gospels Mythical?” Girard becomes almost evangelical, arguing that we should “choose Jesus as our model,” that, “at the first hint, we should abandon the disputed object to our rivals and accede even to their most outrageous demands.” Girard is a literary critic and an anthropologist, but in the end he is an ethicist.

If he weren’t, if he were strictly and properly academic and analytical, he would be maddening. To read Girard is to come again and again to the ethical question: what must I do? How can I escape from violence? Indeed, Girard and his readers are compelled to ethics by the subject matter.

Girard begins with what he considers the most basic human characteristic and moves secondly to what he holds is the foundation of civilization. For Girard, what humans are, most essentially, is mimetic. Mimesis, imitation, is what makes us human, is the substance of the basic relational interactions, between brothers, sons and fathers, and, in fact, is present everywhere someone desires something and is the source of human conflict. Mimetic desire leads to conflict by begetting a rivalry. The imitator, who can not see himself as worthy to be a rival of his model, eagerly imitates his model in pursuing what the model desires and, in this eagerness, threatens the model. As James Williams explains, “If our desire to be like a model is strong enough, if we identify with that person closely enough, we will want to have what the model has or be what the model is. If it is carried far enough and if there are no safeguards braking desire . . . then we become rivals of our models.” By this eager imitation the model is elevated and in that elevation is the threat that he may be debased. The mimesis of admiration becomes the mimesis of envy and model becomes an obstacle. The model is made into an idol, and then smashed. The relationship between the two becomes, inevitably, a struggle, a rivalry. This rivalry leads to violence and mimesis becomes disorder. To restore order, the community unites in violence, converging upon a scapegoat to kill or expel it and the community becomes unified by that violence against the one. One person is found to bear alone the responsibility for the disorder, alone to take on the blame for the problem plaguing the whole community, and is therefore sacrificed, scapegoated, restoring and maintaining order.

Violence is used to solve violence, and human culture and community are founded and preserved by this violence. Girard sees sacrificial scapegoats everywhere, sees our world from the beginning to the present day as drenched in this violence. “Human communities constantly resort to sacrifice,” he writes. For Girard, this violence is pervasive and all but inescapable.

Yet we cannot simply accept this violence, these sacrifices, as necessary. Girard is not merely explaining the mechanisms of the system; he is unveiling the horrific violence behind communal order, behind society itself. He is digging up a mass grave of tortured murder victims, amass grave that stretches back to the beginning. He holds, radically, to the true innocence of all these victims. Girard's case is that no matter how extensive the justification, there was no better reason for the victimization than that somebody had to die to restore order. The guilty become guilty by being named the so, and are rarely given a voice to object. The violence is real violence that has been disguised, these victims are real human victims that have been dehumanized. Girard asks us to stand with him and view the discoveries of this anthropology with revulsion and horror.

Doing this, we come repeatedly to the ethical questions, asking Girard and asking ourselves how we can stop this horror. Reading the text one is driven to demand an answer of how to break the cycle, how to not commit these crimes.

It is, for Girard, a difficult question. The violence he sees throughout history – since the foundation of the world, since the founding violence, since Able was slain by his brother – is one characterized by its disguise, by its self-justification so elaborate as to never appear to need to be justified. The point at which one is confident one is not participating in this violence is the point where one is likely to be guilty. The violence clusters in our blind spots. We are easily moved to denounce the scapegoating of our enemies, to denounce the victimization of those we see as innocent, while still justifying the victimizations, the scapegoating of others. “We ferociously denounce the scapegoating of which our neighbors are guilty,” Girard writes, “but we are unable to do without our own substitute victims. We all try to tell ourselves that we have only legitimate grudges and justified hatreds.” A prime example here is the Christian scapegoating of the Jews for the scapegoating of Christ. To kill a Christ-killer is to become guilty of that which one blames one’s victim, is to be once again “starting up the victimage mechanism.” Girard is making the radical claim that all scapegoats are innocent, our own as much as others. It is easy to think one has embraced Girard’s theory, and with it his ethic, while actually only slipping into a more sophisticated and more subtle form of the same crime. “We practice a hunt for scapegoats to the second degree,”he writes, “a hunt for the hunters of scapegoats.”

Our only hope of escaping from this violence is a “passionate identification with the victim” which he holds “is the authentic source of knowledge.” It must be a passionate and wholesale identification, for anything less – either an equation of sympathy with the victim and the victimizers or an attempt at distance and impartiality – is a maintenance of the system of violence. Our only hope of escaping from this violence is to look always to our own violence, being wary lest in taking the part of the victims we “re-establish the sacrificial system” that creates victims. Our hope is in the imitation of Christ, who wholly rejected this rivalry, this scapegoating, this violence, its very logic, who shared the lot of the victim until the end. We should, Girard writes, follow Job to follow Jesus’ “participation in the struggle against the God of the persecutors. . . when he reveals the scapegoat phenomenon,” in an undermining of the logic of violence. Let us, Girard says, “choose Jesus,” let us “at the first hint . . . abandon the disputed object to our rivals and accede even to their most outrageous demands.”

Wendell Berry, seeking to escape the logic of violence, seeking to “practice resurrection,” starts with humility. The feeling of reading Berry is one of quietness. He is a man frightened by the reality of apocalypse, frightened by the human abuse of the world, by the solutions set out to solve past solutions that are tipping our lives and our world off-kilter, sending them spinning and banging into self-destruction, and yet he speaks softly, calmly. This calmness is humility, for when Berry is worried about strip mining, he is worried about the way he himself puts words to paper, when he is worried about the effects of technology on character, he is worrying about how to cut his grass, when he is worried about the increasing misuse of land, he is worrying about growing trees on his Kentucky farm “The reach of responsibility,” he writes, “is short.”

For Berry, the response to violence must be personal, practical, and local. Responsibility must finally be owned individually. “A proper concern,” he writes, “must be practised, not by our proxy-holders, but by ourselves.” Berry is refusing to shrug off the problem of violence, to let himself escape responsibility by some comparison with others, to grant himself a clear conscious. He is taking it personally. He is, in biblical language, looking to the log in his own eye, refusing to say that “the guilty are always other people, and the wrong is always somewhere else.” In this personal and local response, Berry is not setting forth a categorical ethic. He is making a commitment to a manner of living (“invest in the millennium”) that works out in practical terms (“plant sequoias” ). He is committing himself and urging a commitment not to a program, not to the certainty of a system, but to a way of acting, a manner, a consciousness.

It is common to think that a response – a solution – comes with knowledge. More knowledge, more study, more information, it is thought, will provide us with a solution. Berry rejects this. For Berry, “the evidence is overwhelming that knowledge does not solve ‘the human problem.’” Knowledge is not the solution because it is involved in the problem, and a problem cannot solve itself. “Always,” he writes, “the assumption is that we can first set demons at large, and then, somehow, become smart enough to control them.” It is this cycle of solutions, solutions requiring further solutions, that Berry believes we must stop.

Berry is constantly worried about the double bind of knowledge, its function as a pharmakon where the poison is inscribed in the cure, the cure always involving a reassertion of the poison. The pharmakon is technology, and as such it will always be with us. We cannot rid ourselves of technology, which is not just computers, cars, and cell phones but also buttons, hammers, and milled lumber. Berry is often accused of being a luddite, of simply opposing technology, but he is not opposing technology, but arrogance. He doesn’t think that he can escape the pharmakon, can somehow “get past” technology, but thinks he can seek to always remain conscious of it. He believes in the possibility of always remembering his own arrogance. He writes:

“One thing that we dare not forget, is that better solutions than ours have at times been made by people with much less information than we have. We know too, from the study of agriculture, that the same information, tools, and techniques that in one farmer’s hands will ruin land, in another’s will save and improve it.”

We forget, because of arrogance. Looking to the double movement of technological solutions, to this poison labeled as a cure, to this cure that promises to cure itself, Berry sees arrogance. The mark of knowledge, of the faith that knowledge only given time will arrive at the answer, is arrogance. It is arrogance that assumes we will find a technological replacement for personal restraint, arrogance that believes worry is unnecessary for a solution is coming, arrogance that is blind to itself. It is here where Berry identifies the problem: arrogance.

One could perhaps argue that the difference between Berry and Girard is in the locus of the problem. Where Girard begins with mimetic desire, Berry begins with arrogance. This difference, however, is superficial. Berry’s description of arrogance includes desire. The arrogant mind, he says, is “blinded by its visions of what it desires.” Girard, likewise, sees the blind enslavement to mimesis as due to pride and egoism. The arrogant mind is the mind caught up in the mimetic system unaware, blindly looking for specks in other’s eyes, looking for a solutions and scapegoats. The arrogant mind is the mind that thinks itself free from arrogance, thinks that while others are subject to mimesis and imitation leading to violence, it stands free. Both Berry and Girard find the locus of the problem in blindness that does not know it’s blind, claim that the blindness is worst when it claims to see, and they both end with an attempt to act knowing that they’re blind.

What Berry urges, rather than the arrogance of knowledge, is understanding. Understanding is marked by humility, patience, and commitment. In relating a story about an old woman who was known to have lived in the barn with her animals and said that she talked to them so that they might be familiar, Berry says it is understanding, an unquantifiable and uncalculatable knowledge, that allows us to conduct ourselves rightly towards the world. Using the contrast between the “crazy” old lady and the stockman whose wealth of knowledge without familiarity has him always making a skill-less commotion and never tells him the health and condition of his stock, Berry tells us to value understanding, not knowledge. Using the example of marriage, Berry writes, “I take it as an axiom that one cannot know enough to get married, any more than one can predict a surprise. The only people who posses information sufficient to their vows are widows and widowers – who do not know enough to remarry.” Knowledge is not enough, he says, does not see far enough to aid us. What we need is not knowledge, but a comportment of humility.

Knowledge and blindness are arrogant, and cure is blinded to the poison, carrying it along in that blindness. To understand, he says, one must be humble. To recognize one’s own violence, one’s own blindness begotten by desire, one must be humble. Berry is making an argument for humility. More importantly, he is attempting to work out that necessary humility in the quietness of his own life, in “correct discipline that cannot be hurried,” inviting us to follow him into this quietness of humility worked out locally and taken on personally. “It is the properly humbled mind,” he writes, “in its proper place that sees truly, because – to give only one reason – it sees details.”

Any attempt to become conscious of the mechanisms of violence, to see, will need to involve looking closely at the details of the structure, at the little gaps in the structure that already exhibit the full maturity of violence and scapegoating. Attention to detail, a shortening (and focusing) of analysis, will bring us to see our own blindness, will show that the problem of violence has always already begun. Looking at the detail of a painting, down close to the swirl of the paint, can often tell us something about the structure of the whole that the view of the whole hides. We are always tempted to push the analysis out, farther from our own responsibility, our own implication. “There is nothing more difficult than detecting the structuring mechanism at work,” Girard writes, than detecting the “sacrificial subterfuge” – nothing more difficult and nothing more needed. The mechanism hides itself, covers its tracks, recreates itself in our analysis when we look away. We must, if we are to detect the structuring mechanism, if we are to see our own blindness and mitigate our own violence, bring our analysis of the structure in closer and closer.

Jacques Derrida wants to turn us to the structure, to zoom us in, asking the questions before the questions and looking always especially closely at the details. Girard, as we’ve noted, begins with mimesis. In laying out his theory that all desire is mimetic desire, he quickly moves to making that case and moves over the description of why that case needs to be made. All desire is mimetic and the reason we flatter ourselves otherwise is because we privilege spontaneity over mimesis. Girard recognizes this, saying “our languages are constructed to contrast the mimetic with the spontaneous,” and yet he also misses this, not stopping to fully realize what he’s just noted. “Mimetic desire,” he says, “is intrinsically good,” as if we have been but innocently mistaken and a correction can happen easily and quietly in a side note. Derrida urges us to stop at this point, at noting the contrast between the two words and to note, further, that it is more than a contrast and that this is more than an innocent mistake. The Derridian project looks to the polarities and the dichotomies arranged, in Western Metaphysics and by Western Metaphysics, in hierarchical structures privileging immediacy and presence. Derrida would look into this dichotomy, spontaneity vs. mimesis, and find here an opposition such that “the two terms are not simply opposed in their meanings, but are arranged in a hierarchical order which gives the first term priority.” That is to say, he finds here, already, violence. Mimesis, Derrida points out, is a charge, an accusation. Are you guilty or not guilty? The trial has already begun, here before we have started. “Homer, the blind old father, is condemned,” in Plato’s Republic, “because he practices mimesis,” is “cast out of the city, like every other mimetic poet.” Thus before Girard has completed his first move, Derrida has moved into the details of the cracks of the structure and found the problem, the violence, already full formed.

Andrew McKenna will call this Derrida’s “preoccupation with formal structures,” faulting him for holding an ethics that seems to be worried about structures rather than humans. Perhaps so. Reading Derrida, the desire arises to turn away from his endless detours into the details of writing, to dismiss them, to move to the real ethical crises. But we ought not to go until we note the ethical message of Derrida. The ethical message is this: wait wait. Look again. Do not think we have so easily escaped. The violence has already begun.

Derridian ethics tells us to look for and be attentive to the poor, the hidden and marginalized, the parenthesized. The use of the parenthetical, in the Disemination sentence “this (therefore) will not have been a book,” displays this Derridian ethic of the parentheses. The urge is to read the sentence having excised or incorporated the parenthesis, to read either, “this will not have been a book,” or “this, therefore, will not have been a book.” The parenthetical is annoying. It is a mid-text side step, a two-step disrupting the unity of the sentence, the placement of the sentence, and is a move that throws the unity of the text off center. Parentheses are un-subsumed fragments still worrying the edges of the oneness of the text, demanding either to be cut or considered. It stands bracketed in a middle non-position, neither brought into the text, admitting the material, nor expelled. The parenthetical is the stranger. The stranger within the gates is a disruption of the community until he is either counted and made familiar, or put out. Parentheses mark a ruption. They are the disinherited, erased from the sentences, arrested. The Derridian ethic of the parenthetical is the ethic of realigning with the parenthetical, of stilling the urge to strike the disunifying element and encouraging rather an attentiveness and openness towards the parenthesized. It is the opposition to the urge of violence that rises at the rupture, the attempting to approach the stranger as the face of God.

Derrida does not think this is an easy move, a simple attainable act. The parenthesis will disturb the text until it is integrated or expunged, but to make either move is not to end the problem. To solve one parenthetical is to let another in and if they are absent then they are, like ghosts, like homeless people hidden from a political parade, there precisely in not being there. To realign one’s self with the parenthesized could be merely to invert the order but still to maintain it, perpetuating the order and its violence. He always moves first to the inversion, turning the hierarchy on its head in a display of the ridiculousness and the violence of the hierarchy, yet he knows and wants us to know that the logic of the violence is still in place. That which we must seek to avoid is not this particular hierarchy of Western Metaphysics, but Western Metaphysic’s hierarchies as such. Considering the example of writing and speech, Johnson tells us that “in the course of his critique, Derrida does not simply reverse this value system and say that writing is better than speech. Rather, he attempts to show that the very possibility of opposing the two terms … is an illusion.”

For any move to be fixed, to be final, would be a reestablishment of the violence we sought to escape. To arrest the continual reconsideration, for Derrida, is to loose the “ethico-religious dimensions” of his project and thereby reassert that which he sought to work against. To embrace this ethic of the parentheses would mean to always remain open to the parenthesized, open even to that which was put out of the text while we were accepting the first parenthetical. To embrace his “lost sheep ethics” requires that we always remain willing to pursue another sheep, even that sheep which was lost while we were finding the first lost sheep. Derrida is urging us towards an ethics that is self-conscious and never closed. We cannot conclude our escape from violence without reasserting that violence, without merely moving it into our blind spot. We must, then, continuously seek the escape as “a hope, an expectation, a tear, a prayer.”

There is a final similarity, even a unity, in the diverse works of Girard, Berry, and Derrida. Even when these three are not saying the same thing, their messages and worries neatly join and work together in a united ethics. Their respective fields bring them to this ethical consideration in different ways and with different practical concerns. Girard is never concerned about the metaphysical status of writing. Berry is never worried about primitive taboos about twins. Derrida never talks about trailer parks. To stop with any one of them would be to narrow our ethical concerns. By synthesis, by bringing in all three of these thinkers, we allow this ethics to be emphasized where they repeat each other and brought to bear on the width of human activity where they differ. The three, combined, marshal a force of argument they may not be able to carry individually. The three of them each approach and consider vital the question of how one ought to live in this world and, when synthesized, present us with a full-bodied set of ethical concerns, and a manner in which to ethically live.

Each of them reaches for an ethics founded on the three principles of awareness, openness, and humility. Seeking awareness, they are all worried about violence, especially hidden violence. They seek to not stop with a simple answer, but to let their ethical concerns complicate the world and their lives. Seeking openness, they are attempting to reorient their world around concern for victims. They are seeking to be an aid to all that is weak, poor, marginalized, helpless, and strange. Seeking humility, they are all especially attempting to be aware of their own arrogance and blindness, of that violence which they themselves perpetuate. They seek to take ethics personally. They seek to be patient, to labor faithfully, not opting for a fix, a simple, singular and once-offered answer. They seek a manner and a way of living that will not allow them to be blinded into accepting their own actions that are, as Berry writes, “making a nigger of the world.” They seek a manner of living such that they may not participate, as Girard said, in creating a society where everyone is “ruled by mimetic desire, everyone shares in making existence as barren as the desert, but no one is aware of it.” They are all, in their various projects, attempting to work out an ethical plan that will not be another disguise for violence. They are seeking a life of ethical awareness, openness and humility and they recognize that this may well be impossible, that they may be seeking the life of the saint, yet that they have no other option.

“It is,” Berry writes, “an old story. Evil is offering us the world: ‘All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.’ And we have only the old paradox for an answer: If we accept all on that condition, we lose all.”

Works Cited:

Berry, Wendell. “Getting Along with Animals.” New Farm Magazine, September/October, 1979
“Global Problems, Local Solutions.” Resurgance, 2001, issue #206
“A Good Scythe” in The Gift of Good Land. Berkely, North Point, 1982.
“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Reclaiming Politics Fall/Winter 1991
Standing by Words. Berkely, North Point, 1983.
What are people for? Berkely, North Point, 1990.
The Unsettling of America. San Francisco, Sierra Club, 1986
Caputo, John. “The Jewish Augustinianism of Jacques Derrida.” Hillsdale College, April 18, 2005
“Deconstruction in a Nutshell I.” Hillsdale College, April 19, 205.
Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Chicago, University of Chicago, 1981.
Girard, Rene. “Are the Gospels Mythical?” First Things, April 1996.
I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Maryknoll, Orbis, 2001
Job: The Victim of His People. Stanford, Stanford University, 1987.
Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Stanford, Stanford University, 1987
Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins, 1979
Johnson, Barbara. “Translator’s Introduction” in Dissemination.
McKenna, Violence and Difference. Urbana, University of Illinois, 1992.
Williams, James G. “Forward” in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.


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