Technology

Apr. 16th, 2019 05:04 pm
tealin: (Default)
On top of all the madness of going to sea, cramming to get stuff done for Free Comic Book Day, juggling a handful of commissions that somehow happened, property drama, and just keeping myself fed and rested and generally clean –

I have just dropped more than a month's rent on a new laptop.

When I bought my current one (which I named Klaus) I needed something that would keep up with animation software and running/editing large video files, which in 2012 meant a dedicated graphics card and a top-of-the-line chip, so I ended up with a gaming laptop. I considered future-proofing a good investment, figuring if I bought the best model going at the time, I'd get a good head start on technology and it'd take a while to fall behind. I have never played a game on him, but Klaus has been more than up to the jobs I've asked of him, and has accompanied me around the world and on many, many trips to the SPRI archives, and sailed through it all without a ruffle.

Klaus is still a workhorse, but has developed a few tics in the last year or so, such as occasionally failing to wake up after going to sleep, or not going to sleep when closed and then BSOD-ing. And he's started to slow down a bit, in small but noticeable ways, probably because of the umpteen gigs of photos I'm too paranoid to relegate to my backup drive. None of this was too obstructive, and better than one would normally expect from a seven-year-old computer, but when I found out Microsoft was going to stop supporting Windows 7 in January I realised it was finally time to shop around for a replacement.

Imagine my surprise to discover that, seven whole years* after I last scoped out the market, a mid-range Windows work laptop has LESS power than my now-ancient gaming one. Having lived most of my life when exponential improvement in personal computing was the norm, this was shocking. On top of this they've done away with disc drives in most models, and my beloved 'end' key has been relegated to a function on the number pad. Surely we all ought to have solid state hard drives, 64GB RAM, Blu-Ray disc drives, and full programming functionality as a matter of course, now? What is this going backwards?
*that's 1,457 in computer years

Anyway, all the reviews for the model I was looking at – more or less a one-for-one replacement of the one I have now but with slightly more storage and RAM – complained of it being slow, and I was darned if I was going to pay new money and not get a faster machine. There didn't seem to be another option besides dropping an extra £500 for a SSD/HDD hybrid. Luckily a refurbished one turned up for about half that markup, so I ordered it this morning. As it's the Nice Version it has the additional perks of a better screen and backlit keyboard, which I've wanted for a while. It's in naval colours, so I'm going to name it Bowers. He was super organised, had a flawless memory, and a good head for figures, so it seems a good fit. I need a crackerjack project manager, and if I can't have one in person then I can conjure one in my computer. He should arrive Friday.

This is shaping up to be another expensive year ...

Notre Dame

Apr. 15th, 2019 08:58 pm
tealin: (stress)


It's not about me, but ... it's like watching a childhood home burn down.
tealin: (stress)
Sorry the Girard posts dried up, there ... I've been scrambling to tidy away all that has to be done before I spend a week on a sailing ship, next week. Meanwhile the house has been thrown into upheaval with one housemate surprise-leaving, so despite the crunch I am very thankful to be running away to sea as there is nothing I can do about it.

Anyway, neither writing posts nor getting ahead a little in the radio series have been high priorities, so as you can see, things have slid. I will keep going until I reach the point I want to reach, though, Lent or no. This point is currently eighteen entries from now, but I tend to reorganise as I go along so it's impossible to say, really. If you want to 'read ahead' as it were, the radio series is here: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-scapegoat-the-ideas-of-rené-girard-part-1-1.3474195 (scroll down to find all 5 parts). We've got through episode 1, but I recommend listening to it anyway because David Cayley structures his explanation a bit differently; there may be things that I didn't cover, which he will refer to later.
tealin: (catharsis)
Girard claims that the single victim mechanism ending in divinization of the scapegoat is the foundation of all cultures. He sees, the world over, in many genesis myths and divine figures' origin stories, deeply encoded collective violence – the figure is murdered (Abel), marries in a sacrificial way (Persephone), is dismembered to make something (Ymir), is consumed (Dionysus), etc.* Societies organise themselves around this ineffable experience of transcendence – this is what brought us together the first time, so this is what defines us.

I, personally, amateur that I am, think that sometimes Girard overstretches himself to make a very good theory fit absolutely everything. I can see this being the origin of organised religion, perhaps, or capital-S Society (the intangible structures by which people organise themselves), but culture? Maybe, being an artist, I am thinking about culture too materially, but what does mythology have to do with the shape of your spearheads, or your recipe for bolognese? Chimpanzees have cultures, without having mythology.

As far as religion, I would posit that – independent of mysticism – its ultimate beginning grains are in superstition, and even pigeons can be superstitious. There is enough natural inclination towards superstition in humanity that weird pseudo-religions pop up all the time, for example Monty Jesus or cargo cults or 'cursed' objects that, if they are disturbed, will somehow bring you bad luck ('we don't know how it works but just don't touch it, OK?') which I'm sure everyone has encountered at least once. There is something in us that wants to propitiate the random fluctuations of the space-time continuum to randomly fluctuate in our favour, or at least not against us.

However, I can definitely see the single victim mechanism playing into, and reifying, a nascent superstition. You get a bit of a culture going and into the mix of The Way We Do Things is whatever superstitious practices have arisen organically. Then the magical unifying, purifying effect of the single victim mechanism happens and you think, wow, whatever that was, it really worked. The divinised scapegoat is very easy to graft into your existing superstition, and then you're on your way to a mythology and, out of that, religion.

*Girard quotes stories that don't come from Europe and the Near East too, I just can't cite them off the top of my head or find sources online for you to read, so I've gone with the more commonly known ones. The radio series uses The Wife of Python, from sub-Saharan Africa, to decode collective violence in mythology. I remember reading a Salish story about a woman who was married to a whirlpool to stop it drowning fishermen, which had collective violence written all over it, but Googling has turned up nothing, alas!
tealin: (Default)
My very favourite movie just so happens to have a perfect encapsulation of the single victim mechanism, so I shall walk you through it as an exemplum.

This is Mr Hollom. He is an anomaly in being a 29-year old midshipman. Midshipmen are sort of apprentice officers; as you can see, his peers are all basically children.



He breaks a taboo by fraternizing with the crew – or trying to – when officers and crew are supposed to be strictly divided. Here he is trying to join in their jolly shanty sing-along.




Come One, Come All, To Girardian Screencap Theatre )

Chapter 21: The Founding Murder
tealin: (catharsis)
We've seen humanity's tendency to take out their collective violence on a scapegoat, and the purgative effect that release of violence has. But who, in this boiling chaos of the mimetic crisis, will draw the short stick of the scapegoat?

The Single Victim Mechanism pops up again and again in all cultures around the world, so it appears that it's something fundamental to how we are socially wired as humans. Different cultures have different ways of dealing with it, preventing it, and defusing it, which I will get to a few entries from now, but for now I want to make a little diversion to explore how scapegoats get chosen.

Scapegoats tend to be obviously 'different' somehow. As Girard puts it in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 'All peoples have a tendency to reject, under some pretext or another, the individuals who don't fit their conception of what is normal and acceptable.' In examining historical and apocryphal scapegoats, Girard says that they tend to be identifiably 'other' to begin with. It could be something physical like a scar, or a limp; they are foreign, or set apart by religion, habit, or ethnicity; they have been socially elevated or have elevated themselves, like a politician or a celebrity; they have transgressed some societal code or broken a taboo. Essentially, they are someone who already has less social currency than the majority, and as the crisis snowballs there is less and less consequence for turning against them. It's OK to take it out on the scapegoat because everyone agrees it's OK: you're not going to lose your own social currency for scapegoating them.

When our village is plunged into crisis – say there is a disease wiping out livestock – the stress and fear exacerbate existing animosities and create new ones; the violence which is the byproduct of the initial crisis threatens to be as dangerous as the crisis itself, and seeks to be channelled away. There might be all kinds of finger pointing and deflection, but the deaf old woman who lives in a hovel at the edge of the forest is an easy one to single out: she never says hello, she has a funny smell, she probably hates us otherwise why would she keep to herself so much? She probably brought down this curse on our cattle out of spite. And her cat looks like it knows things.

Once we start looking, there are all sorts of reasons to confirm she's a wrong 'un, and her behaviour when apprehended doesn't help. Surely it's in everyone's best interests that we give this antagonist her comeuppance, and rid our community of her corrupting presence. Tadaa, single victim mechanism.

This same conjunction of otherness and powerlessness is why Jews keep being scapegoated, everywhere the diaspora took them. They live among us (whoever 'us' is) but are not us – they write funny, dress funny, talk funny; they keep to themselves, have different habits at home, and do who-knows-what in their places of worship; there are too many of them coming here and they're outbreeding us. It is interesting to note that a lot of the complaints about Jews at the turn of the 19th century are exactly the same as the ones made about Muslims now. One might almost be tempted to think there was a repeating pattern that had nothing to do with the objections themselves . . .

I, personally, find it interesting that being somehow 'other' is also a common feature for many stories' protagonists. As it was explained in my screenwriting class, only an outsider can see what is wrong with a paradigm and have the incentive and power to change it. This is why orphans are disproportionately represented in fiction: they have the fresh, objective perspective of a child, can see things which those more securely embedded in social structures cannot, and have agency that the others don't have. Orphans also fall victim to a lot of transferred violence – who is going to stand up for them? – so the wrongs of a society are brought unambiguously home to them.

Chapter 20: The Single Victim Mechanism: a Case Study
tealin: (catharsis)
So we've had our mimetic crisis, as the war of each-against-each hots up and violence rises. Our animosities have aligned and then, like a magnet to iron filings, the scapegoat attracts all the community's violence and unifies us in collective hatred of them. We rise up, unite our energies for the very necessary and urgent expulsion of this common enemy, and when at last the battle is won, peace reigns in the land.

As Girard puts it:
No one in the community has an enemy other than the victim, so once this person is hunted, expelled, and destroyed, the crowd finds itself emptied of hostility and without an enemy. Only one enemy was left, one who has been eliminated. Provisionally, at least, this community no longer experiences either hatred or resentment toward anyone or anything; it feels purified* of all its tensions, of all its divisions, of everything fragmenting it.
     The persecutors don't know that their sudden harmony, like their previous discord, is the work of contagious imitation. They believe they have on their hands a dangerous person, someone evil, of whom they must rid the community. What could be more sincere than their hatred? Thus the mimetic ganging up of all against one, or the single victim mechanism, has the amazing but logically explicable property of restoring calm to a community so disturbed an instant earlier that nothing appeared capable of calming it down. [I See Satan Fall Like Ligntning, Chapter 3]


If the scapegoat was responsible for all the bad feelings – as they most certainly were, or we would not have violently expelled them; we are reasonable creatures – then they must also be responsible for this sudden inexplicable peace which has come upon us, because it was their expulsion/death that it brought it about. They must be something other than human, to have this powerful effect on all of us. Perhaps they are something divine. Perhaps they didn't really die, or were transformed, or did die in some mortal sense but are granting us their blessings from beyond the veil.

This all sounds like I'm assuming people are credulous idiots, but remember that this is unconscious, and the effect can be subtle. There are enough historical examples to show how this seed could be planted, which grows as the collective violence recedes in the cultural memory. It doesn't have to be a literal divinization (though it sometimes is: think of Julius Caesar) – often the scapegoat is just put on a pedestal, or gilded in an attempt to make a collective apology for the collective violence. Over time, as history turns into legend, these can become divinizations, and even within living memory the effect can be almost the same.

My favourite example of this is the Romanov family. At the time of the Russian Revolution, Nicholas II was on the throne; as the top representative of the feudal system, the people's rage focused on him and his family. They were quickly apprehended and sent off into exile, where, eventually, they were executed. In 1981 they were canonised as saints by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, and adopted by the church at home after Communism fell. You don't get more divinized than that these days.

There are echoes, also, in how John F. Kennedy is remembered in the US. He was not a victim of collective violence, but was a victim whose death united a deeply divided country in mourning – a scapegoat after the fact, in a way. He is now held up as an ideal of an American president, his administration mythologised as 'Camelot,' his persona unimpeachable compared to his peers.

The tendency to divinize scapegoats may not be consciously known, but is unconsciously acknowledged by anyone who advises not to kill a prominent figure 'lest they become a martyr.' A martyr may not be a god, but they continue to have power over their followers after death – perhaps even more than in life – which is close enough for government work, as they say.

*This is the Greek notion of catharsis, which I will definitely be getting into later [points at icon], but there's a lot of dinner to get through before dessert.

Chapter 19: Which Goat to Scape?
tealin: (catharsis)
This is hardly worth being an entry at all, but I'm going to start using a term I haven't properly introduced yet, so I'm taking time out to do that now.

Mimetic crisis is how Girard refers to the escalation of violence in a population as mimetic rivalries intensify, and people imitate and one-up each other's violence. It's the thunderhead full of static electricity looking for somewhere to ground. Once contagion starts, and one animosity snowballs, the scapegoat emerges and the tensions of a community align.

The mimetic crisis is a perilous, unpredictable, chaotic cloud of undirected energy, in which anyone could be a victim. This is a dangerous state for any society to find itself in, and there will be forces at play to get out of it as soon as possible, either by defusing it with ritual (something I will get into later) or nominating a scapegoat before the natural process of alignment finds one organically.

Right, got it? Soup of angry bad energy, you want to hit someone, casting around for an acceptable target = mimetic crisis. Let's go.



Chapter 18: The Divinization of the Scapegoat
tealin: (catharsis)
This is another small semi-diversion from Girard's thinking, but one which I feel is important to explore a little, in light of mental health, especially trends in young people.

If we imitate each other's desires, and also imitate each other's animosities, then it stands to reason that if someone's animosity is directed at us, we might imitate their hatred and turn it into self-hatred.

Someone with a robust ego would see hatred directed at them and rebuff it with defiance, or perhaps mirror the animosity and enter a rivalry with the person victimizing them. But if you do not have such a firm belief in the rightness of your self, or if you've been conditioned not to project or transfer animosity onto another relationship, you will adopt the animosity of your accuser, their desire to see you brought low, and turn that against yourself. What is depression, self-harm, or suicide, but the imitation and enaction of others' violence towards you?


I'd really like to know where Quasi got enough confidence to sing that whole optimistic song. Gosh.

Chapter 17: The Mimetic Crisis
tealin: (catharsis)
Before I move on with introducing new ideas, I think it's very important to go over the Single Victim Mechanism again, all in one place, just to make sure we've got it. It's important to remember that this is all unconscious, but once the pattern is explained it's pretty clear to see it happening all around. (This is a simplified version of Girard's model, which loses some of his subtleties, but is, I hope, easy enough to grasp.)



1. Mimetic Desire - You adopt the desires of those around you. This puts you in conflict with the others who desire the same thing.

2. Mimetic Rivalry - The conflict with your competitor becomes more of a preoccupation than the object of desire itself.

3. Transference - When animosity with your mimetic rival is uncomfortable or unresolvable, you transfer that animosity to another, easier target.

4. Alignment - Consensus grows as to which target is the most acceptable receptacle for everyone's animosity. Having one's animosity mirrored by others reinforces it and it grows.

5. Snowballing - One target proves to be the most popular and least problematic; like a snowball rolling down a hill it gathers mass and momentum from other animosities until it is the one overarching conflict.

6. The Scapegoat - When all of society is aligned against one common enemy, the chaotic crisis of mimetic rivalries is harmonised.

In some ways, this last step is an ideal state of being for a society, if it can be maintained, and history has seen many, many examples of leaders trying to engineer this state of affairs: give your people a common enemy and you can get them to do practically anything; plus, all that troubling internal strife goes on the back burner. You can scapegoat a specific 'them' (the Russians, the bourgeoisie, illegal immigrants, The Libs) or it can be 'anyone but us' (as seen in North Korea and isolationist religious groups) but it serves the same function. Everyone's compass of fear and hate is pointing the same way.

The trouble is, the longer this unified animosity is maintained, the more tension grows – you can strive for Tantric Scapegoating, but eventually the charge builds up too much and the lightning will strike.*

The violent expulsion of the scapegoat has an almost magical effect on the community. To reach that point, their animosity needs to have been so intense, and so unanimous, that the instant the target of their animosity is out of the picture there is a preternatural peace. The tension disappears, and for one glorious moment, all their petty quarrels are miraculously scrubbed out, and they are all one. Of course, in no time the mimetic rivalries start to buzz again, but no one can deny that the expulsion of the scapegoat transformed their lives for a time.

*Note of caution for would-be rabble-rousers: You cannot know if it will strike your intended target, or if the population you have been manipulating will decide, independently, in the moment of crisis, to transfer their animosity to you ...

Chapter 16: The Mimetic Scapegoat
tealin: (Default)
Most everyone is familiar with the term 'scapegoat' to refer to an individual or group which is blamed for whatever needs blaming. They are usually just an easy target and not necessarily guilty as charged, or not as guilty as the mob says they are, but blaming them is a simple solution to a complicated situation, and people like those.

The origin of the term is in that (in)famous compilation of ancient Hebrew law, the book of Leviticus. There was a tradition, lo these many centuries ago, where on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would take a he-goat and ritually transfer all the sins of the community onto it. It would then be driven off into the wilderness, taking all those sins with it, giving the community a moral blank slate to start the new year, and maybe do better this time. It is an odd permutation of an animal sacrifice (which was also practised at this time) but an evocative one.

The unifying power of a common enemy – a collective act of violence against a target which is the receptacle of a society's bad feelings – is the core of Girard's thinking. The chaos of each-against-each mimetic rivalries turning into the unity of all-against-one in the expulsion of the scapegoat is, for him, a fundamental pattern in all human societies, and utilised through history to keep human violence under control. He calls this the single victim mechanism.



Chapter 15: The Single Victim Mechansim
tealin: (catharsis)
The base state of society is one where all our individual mimetic rivalries make a web of little animosities with those immediately surrounding us.


As we pick up others' animosities, and transfer our uncomfortable interpersonal tensions onto less personal, less problematic, lower-stakes targets, the flow of violence starts to align. Over time certain targets prove to be more attractive than others – they can't fight back, or they more plainly 'deserve it', or you won't be punished for hating them – and these attract the animosity of more and more people.


Once they start gaining imitators, animosities start snowballing, and absorbing the smaller, less attractive ones in their path. People are always looking for someone or something to blame for their problems, especially when the real cause of them is uncomfortable or unsolvable. If a large number of people agree that X is at fault, well, they must be onto something, right? 50 million Frenchmen can't be wrong!

Eventually all the competition will be absorbed into one super-animosity which dominates the social landscape, dividing society into 'us' (the wronged) and 'them' (the wrongers). 'They' are blamed for all the problems, and receive the concentrated force of all the animosity that we've transferred from our smaller conflicts.

If there is some equality in number or power on either side of the divide, then you get a polarisation, which reaches its natural conclusion in civil war:


If, however, 'they' are a minority, or lack sufficient social or other power to hold their own in this conflict, you end up with a scapegoat. This scapegoat can either be a group:


... or it can be an individual:


For Girard's purposes, this amounts to the same thing, as they both serve the same purpose as the target for everyone's transferred animosities, and the receptacle for the violence that goes with that.

The idea of the scapegoat is nothing new to any of us (though I will be exploring it in some depth, next) but when we think about it, our attention is usually on the individual or group being scapegoated. But now, turn around, and look at the general population: all the petty little interpersonal squabbles have disappeared as the one superanimosity dominates the culture. There is an astonishing unity that could not otherwise be achieved. This is the real bedrock of Girard's theory.

Chapter 14: The Scapegoat
tealin: (catharsis)
As desires and violence are transmitted from person to person, they can gradually spread across an entire culture. The parallel to contagious disease is an apt one: some desires take a great deal of work and ideal conditions to pass on, others sweep through a population like wildfire. Twenty years ago hardly anyone outside of California had met a vegan, and it was a scandal when a celebrity was outed as gay. On the other hand, you would definitely have heard of the macarena and probably done it a few times. Twenty years on, the general public's attitudes towards sustainability and homosexuality have changed tremendously ... and we're doing the macarena again, apparently.

There are plenty of examples of social contagion through history, from the adoption of Roman culture by the colonised Brits, to the dancing plagues of the Middle Ages, to the California Gold Rush. The invention of mass media, broadcast media, and especially the Internet, have sped up the rate at which imitation can spread, to the point where something can 'go viral' far faster and more effectively than any actual virus can. But they are not responsible for the phenomenon in itself; rather, they take advantage of, and amplify, an existing tendency in human nature.

As imitations get passed around, some are more powerful than others, and, being more attractive, eliminate the competition. This sees a gradual re-alignment of desires and rivalries until all of society organises its antipathy in one direction, which is what we will talk about next.

Girard Digest 13: Alignment
tealin: (catharsis)
To bring us up to date, these are the main ideas so far:
  • Humans are inherently imitative (mimetic) creatures
  • We want other people to validate our desires/values by imitating them, but also view other people as competitors, creating a double bind: imitate me, but don't imitate me too well.
  • When we imitate others' desires, we come into conflict with them as we both strive for the same thing (mimetic rivalry)
  • Eventually, the conflict with one's rival becomes more of a preoccupation than the desire you have in common
  • We can either express our animosity to our rival through violence (which includes a wide range of social hostility as well as the physical kind), or, if violence towards our rival is unacceptable, then we transfer that violence onto another opponent.

If you've been reading along, you may be one step ahead of me already. If humans are imitative, and we imitate another's desires, then: we also imitate another's violence. This, you may not be surprised to learn, is called mimetic violence.

Say I am in conflict with my sister. There is only so much tension our relationship can bear, and I would rather not sacrifice our relationship for whatever it is we're fighting over. I have all this pent-up animosity, then, which can't be directed at the person causing it, but isn't just going to go away on its own. I meet you at the coffee machine, and you tell me about your terrible commute in to work, how the first bus was late which made you miss your connection, and there was a funny smell, and the driver was rude. You're right! The transit system is terrible. We bond over shared transit horror stories. I find my frustration with the transit system growing more desperate by the day. Soon I am rude to the drivers. The drivers, in turn, imitate me and are rude back. When I am caught carving an anatomical detail into the back of a seat, they refuse to pick me up. My hatred of the transit system burns hotter.

There are three things happening here: First, I pick up your hatred of the transit system as an acceptable substitute for my animosity towards my sister – hating an enormous abstract over which I have no power is much safer than escalating interpersonal conflict. Second, we become competitive in how much we can hate on the transit system – I may never have given it a second thought before, but once I adopt your hatred, I must demonstrate my sincerity by one-upping it, which you do in return, and before long our mimetic violence has us acting out our violence towards public transport. Third, the drivers and I enter a separate cycle of mimetic violence, this time an adversarial one rather than the friendly one I have with you. Across the board, violence increases.

I may never know what your desire was, which caused you to enter a rivalry with the transit system. It is enough that you offered me a new rivalry into which I could channel the problematic animosity from my existing rivalry. Possibly you adopted your transit rivalry from someone you met, too, rather than developing it independently. There might be a whole chain of transit-haters who have picked up this hatred second-, third-, seventeenth-hand, all because someone, somewhere, found out her husband was flirting with a bus driver.

The easy transmission of both desire and animosity between people leads to a phenomenon that should be familiar to anyone who's had a cold: contagion.

Girard Digest 12: Contagion

For the record, I am a big fan of both public transit and my sister, who works in a different field of animation and is therefore never going to be my rival. At least not professionally. ;)
tealin: (catharsis)
He’d never, ever, laid a finger on anyone. He’d always run rather than fight. And murder, now, surely murder was an absolute? You couldn’t commit 0.021 of a murder, could you?
It's time once again to redefine a word you thought you knew, for the purposes of understanding mimetic theory.

Most of us think of 'violence' as some variation on hitting someone with a baseball bat. This is, of course, violence. But sociologically, violence is a spectrum that includes blunt instrument trauma along with any sort of behaviour that robs from another human being the quality of life they might otherwise have achieved. So, breaking someone's legs with a baseball bat: definitely violence, as they now have to cope with a disability. It is also violence to deny someone access to basic needs, or to work upon someone's mind until they believe themselves unworthy of fulfilling those needs.

I can try to explain this all I like, but a far better writer than me embedded a decent exploration of the broader meaning of violence within one of my very favourite stories:

     'You can’t just go around killing people!'
     'Why Not? You Do.' The golem lowered his arm.
     'What?' said Moist. 'I do not! Who told you that?'
     'I Worked It Out. You Have Killed Two Point Three Three Eight People,' said the golem calmly.
     'I have never laid a finger on anyone in my life, Mr. Pump. I may be—all the things you know I am, but I am not a killer! I have never so much as drawn a sword!'
     'No, You Have Not. But You Have Stolen, Embezzled, Defrauded, And Swindled Without Discrimination, Mr. Lipvig. You Have Ruined Businesses And Destroyed Jobs. When Banks Fail, It Is Seldom Bankers Who Starve. Your Actions Have Taken Money From Those Who Had Little Enough To Begin With. In A Myriad Small Ways You Have Hastened The Deaths Of Many. You Did Not Know Them. You Did Not See Them Bleed. But You Snatched Bread From Their Mouths And Tore Clothes From Their Backs. For Sport, Mr. Lipvig. For Sport. For The Joy Of The Game.'

Terry Pratchett, Going Postal


Moist von Lipwig was fairly indiscriminate with his acts of violence, but when this violence is organised systematically – racism, sexism, ageism, etc – then it is called structural violence. Structural violence has been much in the discourse lately, highlighted by the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements, among others. It is important to remember, though, that structural violence starts at home. It didn't spring up when a committee got together to decide, for example, that African Americans were disposable; it merely enshrines a pattern of individual acts of violence, and being thus enshrined gives them broader societal permission. And those acts of violence need not be shootings on the street or lynchings in backwoods Alabama: violence includes quiet everyday actions like denying someone clean drinking water, banning them from your swimming pool, or telling your children not to sit near them on the bus. I deny you a job with health benefits, and I 0.73 kill you.

Sociology uses this very broad definition of violence because it encompasses both the violent acts we commonly consider to be ‘violence’ and the hostile thoughts and feelings from which the violent acts progress. Understanding them as one phenomenon with varying degrees of expression gives a fuller picture of what’s going on. When a woman stabs her husband, we call her the ‘violent’ one, but when you understand that he has been emotionally abusing her for decades, the violence has been there all along, and the assault is only the latest evolution of it. Similarly, a man who has been propagating hatred of Muslims online does not only become ‘violent’ when he opens fire on a Christchurch mosque: he has been violent the whole time. If violent behaviours can be recognised for what they are and corrected before they turn into what we commonly think of as ‘violence,’ then loss of life and livelihood can be prevented. If violence is off our radar until it turns into physical violence, then it's too late.

Girard uses the term ‘violence’ for the animosity that arises from mimetic rivalry, which is either directed at one’s rival or transferred to some other opponent because violence within the rivalry is impermissible. It is important to remember that this means hatred, suspicion, undermining, ostracisation, and scorn as much as it does actual acts of physical violence. In many cases the physical violence only occurs long after the social violence has a secure foundation. An apple can only exist if there is an apple tree for it to grow from; just so, the acts we consider ‘violent’ grow from a structure of violence that does not necessarily resemble the fruit.

Girard Digest 11: Mimetic Violence
tealin: (catharsis)
Conflict, generally, is not OK. When you are caught up in the strains of a mimetic rivalry, there's a lot of animosity that can't be expressed or resolved in an acceptable way – murder generally being frowned upon, and defeat unconscionable, or maybe just, you know, keeping the friendship is more important. So it's floating around like static electricity in a thunderhead, looking for somewhere to ground. At some point you are introduced to someone else's opponent, which feels much safer than yours – they're further removed, or the rivalry more diluted amongst a large crowd – and bam! Like a lightning bolt, the animosity of the first rivalry is channelled into the second.


You probably don't even realise this is what you are doing. The bad feelings from the original relationship are uncomfortable, so as soon as you find somewhere to put them that decreases the load on your mental servers, and has fewer consequences than the original rivalry, you do so. This is the grease that keeps society running smoothly and its individuals moderately sane. If we were all trapped in conflict with those nearest to us there would be individual crimes of passion all over the place.

In the radio documentary, Girard gives an example that we can probably all identify with: You have a colleague who comes in to work even more fired up than usual about politics, for no discernible reason. There may be no actual political reason why he's so passionate about it today. But last night he had a fight with his wife; he can't express his anger with her without making the situation worse, and he can't defuse the situation constructively, so he turns that animosity against his political opponents. This is not a conscious decision – he did not wake up that morning and decide to be angry at Congress instead of his wife, and goodness knows there's always some justification for political anger – but the ferocity of this fury has been fed by that deflected stream.

There was a theory around the end of the 19th century that organised sports was a way to deflect the sort of energies that would otherwise lead to war, and that the conflicts of the future might be played out on the football pitch rather than the battlefield. This theory doesn't come up much after the First World War, and the Second probably killed it, but from a Girardian perspective it's not all wrong – being able to transfer your animosity onto an athletic rivalry which is, in the end, inconsequential, could be a helpful release valve. In my opinion, the trouble with it is that they weren't anticipating the 20th century's consumer culture would pump so much mimetic desire into the population that nothing could satisfy it.

Chapter 10: Violence
tealin: (catharsis)
I'm going to go a bit off-piste with this entry, and indulge some of my own thoughts before I continue on the main thread of this series and what I know of Réné Girard's thinking. I take complete responsibility for what's in this entry, so if it's complete bollocks, don't blame Girard!

Competition is, by its nature, in search of a resolution. It must either be won or abandoned. If the point of a competition is to win it, then how do you win so definitively that you nullify any opportunity for rivalry to return? If you achieve your desire, even if this desire has no further desire on the other side of it (uncommon) you continually compete to retain it; to prove, eternally, that you are the most deserving. Using the example from yesterday of a romantic relationship, marriage is only the end of the story in Disney movies. The same goes for other thresholds of achievement.

There are two ways to put a complete stop to mimetic rivalry: first, relinquish your desire. The cuckolded husband in 'El curioso impertanente' commits suicide, the ultimate concession of defeat. The other is to prove your absolute dominance of the desire by destroying the object of that desire.

This last is a common feature in Romantic literature, especially tragedies. The mimetic rivalry becomes so consuming that in order to best all one's rivals, one destroys the very thing that you were rivals for. My sterling example of this is Rogozhin in Dostoevsky's The Idiot: his desire for Nastasya, who has drawn most of the men in the book into a mimetic rivalry for her, is so completely overpowering that (spoiler) he ends up murdering her. Othello's murder of Desdemona is much the same: it doesn't matter that the rivalry which obsessed him was fabricated by Iago, once that seed was planted, they were on their way to tragedy. Many such 'crimes of passion' arise from this compulsion to assert one's dominion over the object of desire, from sudden slaying to the slow death of emotional abuse.

The destructive resolution of mimetic rivalry explains a phenomenon in fan culture, too, I think, which has been called 'breaking all the toys.' Russell T. Davies was often criticised for this when he was showrunning Doctor Who and then Torchwood, when he would write the canon into a closed box by killing off the cast or some other such finality. In some fandoms the competition between fans gets so intense that the fans become rivals of the creators, trying to prove that theirs is the greater love, greater even than the love that brought the thing into being. This seems especially common in pre-existing properties where the current creators are continuing a franchise started by someone else, and are therefore merely a sort of elevated fan. If these creators are not careful, they can get sucked into the fan rivalry. I think Davies' moves were his power play in that game: he asserted his dominance over those who desired a show by writing it into a position where no one else could get their grubby hands on it, even if it meant destroying it. The image of a toddler breaking the toys he doesn't want to share strips bare the role of mimetic rivalry in this behaviour.


On a global level, the United States and Soviet Union were so entrenched in their mimetic rivalry that they amassed enough firepower to annihilate the world they wanted to possess. Luckily for all of us it never came to that (or, at least, we have backed away from that precipice), but for a while we were well on our way to the ultimate breaking of the toys.

Admitting defeat or destroying the object of desire are internal resolutions for the mimetic rivalry – the dynamic is entirely contained amongst the players, including its ending. This makes sense in a narrative, where you need to wrap things up within the characters and timeline you've established. In reality, internal resolutions are generally best avoided: most of us would rather not commit murder, or admit defeat. Therefore the anxieties stirred up by mimetic rivalry are transferred externally, and that will get us back on the Yellow Brick Road tomorrow.

Chapter 9: Transference
tealin: (Default)
Girard developed his mimetic theory when he went to the States to do a history PhD. Part of a PhD is teaching undergraduate courses, and because he was French he was given a French literature class to teach, despite not having any sort of literary background. Reading these novels, sometimes just a chapter ahead of the class, he was struck by the thematic similarities in them, and started looking for similarities across all great literature, when the literary establishment was more interested in differences. He found that jealousy, and the conflict arising from it, was a repeating factor in great books from every culture and across all time periods.

There is one format of story that keeps arising again and again. He found it first in 'El curioso impertanente,' a novella embedded within Don Quixote: A man is in a relationship with a woman. He wants to test her commitment, so he invites a friend to try to seduce her. The friend succeeds. Tragedy ensues.

This formula of a man imitating another man's desire for a woman, and the conflict arising from their rivalry, reappears continually* in both the books and the lives of the great writers. Shakespeare returns to it again and again; Girard identifies Proust and Joyce as particular fans of it, and claims it to be an obsession in Dostoevsky's later works. The Romantics – when the novel really took off as an art form – put great emphasis on the autonomy and originality of the individual, so it was interesting that their novels kept coming back to imitation. Girard titled his book on the subject Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Romantic lie and novelistic truth); the English translation, which couldn't make the pun available in French, took the title Deceit, Desire, and the Novel.

Once identified in this particular form in Romantic novels, it was easy enough to see the pattern in other forms in other places: mythology, poetry, everyday life – and, as a historian, in history. The dynamic plays out between individuals, between groups, and between entire nation-states: what was (is?) The Cold War but a mimetic rivalry on a planetary scale?

*It is usually the men desiring a woman, not the other way around. I am no literary critic, and my knowledge of the canon is limited, but I find it hard to think of a female example, though I'm sure they must exist. I suspect this is down to two things: most of the canon's writers are male, and women tend to be conditioned to avoid competition, to back down in the face of a rival rather than assert themselves. The one example that comes to mind is in Jane Eyre, where she and Blanche Ingram are set up as rivals for Rochester, but it was entirely his machination to make Blanche look like a rival in order to excite Jane's jealousy. So again it's a man trying to incite a mimetic rivalry which he expects to run the way it would do with men involved, i.e. competition, when in actual fact Jane just refuses to play. (There are class issues heavily involved in this as well, but it's hard to imagine them being the deciding factor if it were male jealousy at play.)

This isn't to say women are immune from mimetic rivalry – I can state emphatically from personal experience that they certainly are not – only that the particular manifestation of it that first caught Girard's eye seems to be predominantly a male-led thing.


Chapter 8: Breaking the Toys
tealin: (catharsis)
Individuals who share a desire are united by something so powerful that, as long as they can share their desire, they remain the best of friends. As soon as they cannot, they become the worst of enemies. ... We want others to love what we love, admire what we admire, but as soon as they do, they're our competitors.

– David Cayley, Ideas: The Scapegoat, Ep. 1



The sharing of desires/values is a powerful social bond, which brings people together and gives them a common purpose. But when two people desire the same thing, they run the risk of becoming rivals. As long as their attention is on the object of desire, and that thing is sufficiently far off, or plentiful, or abstract, that they can both desire it without getting in one another's way, their rivalry can be forestalled. It is difficult to continue in this stasis indefinitely, though: either one will lose interest and fall away, or they will begin to compete with each other, if not for the object itself, then to prove that their own desire is the strongest.

Common wisdom has it that a little competition is a good thing: it spurs people to do better, to make more, to put in that little extra effort and achieve what they thought they couldn't. To some extent this is true, but competition is a powerful tonic – a little may be beneficial, but more than that is toxic, and it's easy to get the dose wrong or lose control.

As imitative creatures, we want others to imitate our desires, so we model a desire and say, 'imitate me.' Once someone takes up your call, you become what Girard calls mimetic doubles – they imitate you, you imitate them, and gradually you become more and more alike as you both strive towards the object of your desire. The more your goals align, the closer you become – either more identical, or more precise mirror images, as discussed in chapter 3.

As our desires define our identity, another person moving into the same psychological space feels threatening, and we move to defend our territory. We want them to imitate us, but we want them to stay safely on that side of the imaginary line, and for their desire not to challenge ours. People generally tend to feel that their mimetic rival is more successful at modeling the desire than they are, which prompts a psychological (and indeed sometimes literal) arms race as they one-up the other's intensity of desire. Your mimetic rival is simultaneously your model and the obstacle between you and your desire, who must be overcome.

Eventually the intensity of the rivalry eclipses the desire which brought you together in the first place: your focus is primarily on outdoing the competition, rather than the object of desire in itself.


This pattern is abundantly clear in fandom. Fandoms coalesce around a shared interest, which is a type of desire, and for a while, a productive and supportive community is formed. But then people start getting competitive about who is the biggest/best fan, and that's when the purity tests and shipping wars start, as fans, or groups of fans (which inevitably splinter into individuals as the rivalry turns inwards), jockey for position as No. 1 and set bars for others, to narrow the competition. 'Imitate me in the love of this thing,' they say, 'but don't get closer to it than me.'

Chapter 7: Deceit, Desire, and the Novel
tealin: (catharsis)
So, we've established that humans are imitative creatures, and that included in this conscious and unconscious imitation are those desires which are not biological or instinctual in nature. Desires are more or less synonymous with values, as the 'value' of objects and behaviours is relative to how much they are desired. Culture can be described as a system of desires (i.e. values) held by the majority of a population. These imitative desires are called mimetic desires, as Girard prefers the term mimesis to describe imitation that is both conscious and, more importantly, unconscious.

Mimetic desire is, then, desiring what another person desires, imitating their modelling of that desire. Because so much of our identities are bound up in our desires, and their value is relative to how many people share them, we want our desires to be shared by those around us. You can lead, or you can follow: most of us do both. Someone introduces you to a new thing, and you validate them and find fellowship by adopting their desire; you need to have your new desire validated, so you introduce it to your friends, and hopefully someone else will pick it up and tell you, yes, this is a good desire to have, for I desire it too. Desires can bring people together, build a community, define the borders of that community. A common desire can be the cause of tremendous cooperation and industry, the cement of friendship, and the spark of education – we learn because we want to be like those from whom we learn, or as a means to achieving the desires of those we admire.

This is also the subconscious process on which advertising runs. Very quickly from the birth of mass print media, you can see advertisements shift from listing the objective qualities of the product ('Dr Bumgartner's Patent Liver Pills are scientifically devised to calm your digestion and improve the purifying function of the liver') to providing models for you to imitate (Sandy in Birmingham says, 'Dr. Bumgartner's Patent Liver Pills have seen off my dyspepsia!') until, ultimately, they presented attractive or important people in association with the product, on the assumption that you would acquire a desire for the product in your attempt to be more like them (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in brilliant tennis whites enjoy a banquet on a Mediterranean terrace: 'Thank goodness for Dr Bumgartner's Patent Liver Pills!'). As the radio documentary puts it, 'the desire is not for the beer or the car, but for the quality of being of the people drinking the beer, or driving the car.' The desire that sells the product is a profitable byproduct of the desire to be as beautiful, carefree, and confident as the people in the ad.


I must restate that mimesis, and mimetic desire, is not necessarily in an of itself a bad thing: it has been the basis of all our individual development and, to a large extent, the development of mankind from the Stone Age to now. The transmission of desires from one person to another, and their dissemination through a population, is necessary for human cooperation and cohesion. But there is a shadow side, which arises from the inevitable competition for these desires, in the forming of mimetic rivalries.

Chapter 6: Mimetic Rivalry

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