September 3, 2016


René Girard and Secular Modernity : a review of René Girard and Secular Modernity: Christ, Culture, and Crisis, by Scott Cowdell (Thaddeus Kozinski, 9/03/16, Imagginative Conservative)

 In the remainder of this review, I would like mainly to add my own Girardian reflections on secular modernity. What follows is essentially a summary of the second half of Dr. Cowdell's book (the first half is just a build up to it, providing background on Girard's life and the development of his theory of mimetic desire, violence, and culture), by way of my own analysis of secular modernity, particularly, what I shall call modernity's soteriology, as this term captures the heart of Girard's thought.

In a recent work, Girard provides an outstanding summary of the entire gamut of his work, from his treatment of the origins of man, "hominisation," to the apocalypse, which he considers a man-made event, as will be explained presently. Any summary from either Dr. Cowdell or me could not compare with the richness of this one, so please bear with its length:

My work has often been presented as an investigation of archaic religion, through the methodology of comparative anthropology. This approach aimed at elucidating what has been called the process of hominisation, this fascinating shift from animality to humanity that occurred so many thousands of years ago. My hypothesis is mimetic: it is because humans imitate each other more than animals that they had to find a way of overcoming a contagious similitude, prone to causing the complete annihilation of their society. This mechanism--which reintroduces difference at the very moment when everyone becomes similar to one another--is sacrifice. Man is born of sacrifice and is thus a child of religion. What I call, following Freud, the foundational murder--namely, the killing of a sacrificial victim, responsible for both the disorder and the restoration of order--has constantly been reenacted in rites and rituals, which are at the origin of our institutions. Millions of innocent victims have thus been sacrificed since the dawn of humanity to allow their fellow men to live together or, more precisely, to not destroy themselves. Such is the implacable logic of the sacred, which the myths dissimulate less and less as man becomes more self-aware. The decisive moment of this evolution is Christian revelation, a sort of divine expiation in which God in the person of his Son will ask man for forgiveness for having waited so long to reveal to him the mechanisms of his violence. The rites had slowly educated him; now he was ready to do without them. It is Christianity that demystifies religion, and this demystification, while good in the absolute, proved to be bad in the relative, for we were not prepared to receive it. We are not Christian enough. One can formulate this paradox in another manner and say that Christianity is the only religion that will have foreseen its own failure. This prescience is called the apocalypse.

What Girard means by the apocalypse is not the event of divine judgment and retribution at the end of the world before the Second Coming of Christ, though he does not dismiss this way of reading the event. Girard himself interprets it, as he does most things, anthropologically, as the ever-escalating, mimetic violence unto self-destruction that men ineluctably inflict upon themselves in their rejection of both the archaic, violence channeling, sacrificial scapegoating of the pagan city, and the violence destroying sacrifice of the Divine Scapegoat. Modernity is, for Girard, the graveyard of man's futile attempts to control his own violence, attempts occasioned by his growing awareness of his inability to generate and preserve culture through violence. Instead, man has staved off the escalating violence by his own artifices: These are the katechons of the modern era: literally, "that which restrains," such as the peace-making nation-state, the venedetta-canceling, impartial judiciary, the free market of victimless exchanges, and an endless supply of mass-produced consumer products and violence-and-sex-channeling entertainments.

Surprisingly, Girard claims that the real possibility of apocalyptic violence was occasioned by the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of the Son of God, for he defeated the ancient model of channeling violence, but gave no quarter to any other mimetic model but Himself. And this apocalyptic possibility has been actualizing itself ever since, to an exponential degree in late modernity. Modernity's soteriology is thus twofold, depending on one's perspective: for those who reject the Divine Scapegoat, modernity, with its programmatic rejection of all religious violence and its relentless, even fanatical, ideological concern for victims, is precisely what saves us from the apocalypse; for those who accept His non-violent atonement (and on this Girard insists), modernity is nothing else but the apocalypse's inevitability.

In spite of modernity's katechons having performed their restraining function for hundreds of years, there is still much mimetic violence in today's world, indeed, more than ever before. But to the true believers in these katechons, any violence done by, on the one hand, the devotees of modernity, can only be the result of a deficient application of these katechons: a not-free-enough market, a not-centralized-and-powerful-enough state, too-many-hierarchical-and-morally-absolutist institutions. The contemporary violence enacted by the enemies of modernity, on the other hand, such as the September 11, 2001 attacks, can only be explained as the result of those few, surd elements of what should now be an entirely extinct, archaic-religious scapegoating culture. These violent religious dinosaurs simply have not yet been fully modernized by the peace-making influence of the secular state, the globalist economy, the World Bank, the IMF, NATO, the United Nations, democratic nation building (through "peace-making" violence, if need be), or the blandishments of consumerism. As the modern, secular, anti-scapegoating state and the modern, victim-concerned culture it embodies have become more pervasive and influential, religious violence has indeed radically decreased, modernity's devotees insist, and terrorist attacks such as 911 are merely the last gasps of a terminally ill, pre-modern model that only persists due to the West's anemic tolerance of and complacency towards the futile resistance of those fundamentalists and fanatics who are not yet resigned to modernity's inevitable triumph.

The democratic nation-state, the free market, international law and transnational organizations, a commercialist, non-violent, bourgeois culture, life-enhancing technology, medicine, science, the depoliticization of religious belief and practice, the declaration of and enforcement of human rights and the dignity of every human, the universal concern for victims institutionalized in law and government--in other words, secularization--all of these katechons, according to modernity's soteriology, prove modernity's moral superiority, even its more perfectly Christian character, for these institutions and practices require no scapegoats: no human sacrifices, on the one hand, no suppression of religious freedom, on the other--and they have brought about an unprecedented material prosperity to boot! Girard maintains that these mechanisms, constituting the secularization of modern life, are indeed the result of the Gospel, as Dr. Cowdell points out, for they have produced undeniably good temporal effects; as Jacques Maritain argued, whatever good there is in modernity's practices and institutions are due to the Incarnation's historical fructification in western culture due to the sacralization of the image of God in every human. Differing from Maritain (and, generally from Thomists), Girard would say the good of modernity is primarily its refusal to resurrect the violent archaic sacred, a refusal caused by, as well as the cause of, its universal concern for victims; and he would attribute this refusal and concern to Christ's unmasking and thus dismantling of the scapegoating murder and cover-up at the heart of human culture. The dynamic that this Christ-inspired secularization has set forth in the West requires the eradication of all dehumanizing hierarchies, repressions, taboos, and proscriptions; such is the good of modernity vis-à-vis medieval and ancient culture.

But what is the upshot of these Gospel-influenced mechanisms when belief in and submission to Christ is either absent or rendered private, subjective, and politically and culturally sterile? The answer to this is precisely where Girard's thought is essential for a Thomistic theory of culture. What could be integrated into the latter is the understanding of modern culture and politics as essentially hidden scapegoating, the prolongation and escalation of archaic violence, but now, millions upon millions of human sacrificial victims--the unborn, the elderly, the handicapped, the poor and middle class in the first world, the vast majority in the third world, religiously, culturally, and intellectually starved souls, brave-new-world soma addicts, the so-called collateral damage in perpetual, epic-scale wars.

Except that violence, from abortion to "epic-scale war" has been in precipitous decline since the late '80s/early '90s, when globalization began forcing Christian norms--democracy/capitalism/protestantism--on the whole world.  

Note, for instance, that the last war in the Western Hemisphere--which is completely Christianized--ended this week.

And the poor minority of the First World and the vast majority in the Third World are getting wealthier rapidly and living longer and healthier lives, benefiting rather than being damaged.

In order to argue that they are victims, we need to hold that imperfectly understanding the tenets of the religion that is bringing them such benefits does more damage than peace, health and wealth are worth. This is a notion that only we wealthy white folk could ever enunciate and on one actually believes.

No one has ever died of intellectual starvation.


Posted by at September 3, 2016 8:18 AM