I attended a Girard-themed conference today, and in prep I recently read his classic Violence and the Sacred. He is a hard read for me, as he is often arrogant, repetitive, opaque, and exaggerates. Even so, this is to his great credit: he stays focused on important issues.
I'd add that, while I'm sure Girad had some interesting ideas, treating work like this as serious scholarship is deeply threatening to academics as the pursuit of knowledge.
I certainly think there is a place for throwing out hypothesises but the issue in works like this is that the complexity is used to hide the ambiguity and lack of a clear statement of what it would mean for the claim to be true. This often leads to the exact nature of a claim shifting -- hiding the switch from an innocuous plausible interpretation to an unlikely one.
Yes, lots of smart people insist that they found the work to offer them deep insight -- but that's largely because dense confusing writing lets the reader project on their own ideas and creates a sense of achievement. I bet you'd generate even more ideas if you just had them read a bunch of history on violence.
Ultimately, the test should be this. How often does the community studying the work straight up say "yah he was just dead wrong here". Given that the greatest minds in math like Newton made tons of mistakes and in theory they never need to guess if the work is more than a kind of academic relic the scholars should be *agreeing* on where substantial errors were made. If they aren't then either it was pretty obvious or there is no clear meaning.
Girard is hard for me to really understand, it's like he has a different way of thinking about things, which at first seems unrigorous and almost guaranteed to come to incorrect conclusions constantly, but he fairly diligently avoids making any falsifiable statements, and yet the topic is very persistently focused on important things, so it doesn't seem right to just dismiss it. And then later on I notice something unusual in life and think "hmm this does seem like Girard's theories are a match for this situation" and that seems to happen more often than you would expect from just meaningless humanities blather. So, I'm not quite sure what to think.
Hi Robin, let me see if I can convince you of the importance of the scapegoat mechanism.
Consider early hominids without language or culture: essentially just very smart and hyper aggressive chimps. The number one threat to these highly mimetic creatures is internecine, Hobbesian violence. Instead of hunting for food and procreating, they end up all hating and killing each other, wiping out their own genetic material. Suppose some hominid tribe stumbles onto a solution for this problem (a random social mutation, as it were): the diffuse internal strife suddenly gets concentrated onto one individual. When that individual is killed, the bloodlust is temporarily satisfied. The tribe notices this and imbues this individual with some magical qualities. In periods of strife, instead of killing each other, they attempt to repeat this original sacrifice by ritually killing another supposedly magical/evil/divine individual. Thus, the sacred is born: religion, a new way of harnessing the power of violence and a solid foundation for the establishment of more complex culture. These religious tribes quickly outcompete their self-destructive rivals and begin to dominate their environment, forming the first civilizations.
The key is to think about the scapegoat mechanism not in a modern "postsacral" sense (like blood feuds), but to see it as a Darwinian selective mechanism which enables certain groups of hominids to achieve a massive reproductive advantage over others.
It's pleasing to read something sceptical about Girard and the commenter Peter Gerdes voices my own discomforts with this kind of hypothetical storytelling. Girard seems to me to state the bleeding obvious, but in unnecessarily dense language. We copy each other and often a nasty distraction will take the heat out of a situation.
This kind of rhetorical scholarship seems to have massive appeal for no better reason that people like the message. I'm currently reading Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism and feeling very similarly. Like I'm not learning anything.
But when Girard suddenly became really fashionable I was swept along with it (oh the irony) until I stopped to ask 'what am I really learning here'.
I suspect it's much simpler -- failing to punish someone after a substantial crime will be seen as a kind of disrespect. If your brother was killed by members of another clan and, even though usually the punishment for killed is execution, in this case no one is killed you'll feel disrespected and treated unfairly. If this was the last killing in a long cycle of violence you'll resent the rest of your clan for denying you your equal share of vengeance after they got their share.
Now you likely prefer that it's the perpetrator who pays that price but if some other random person pays it then you've at least not been disrespected.
So the solution to the interminable fued is to substitute a third party to show the aggrieved party they were being given the full measure of respect without extending the fued (and hunting the third party down may have even forged bonds).
I believe the purpose of scapegoating is to avoid going as far as determining the final winner; otherwise we should expect them to follow the blood feud to its logical conclusion.
A few background ideas:
One, people prefer to have mutual information. I think the evolutionary function this provides is mostly kin recognition, but since we don't have any hard-wired way to detect our genetic relatives we recognize more general patterns and then use those instead. I say the most important is shared experience, which I expect is mostly because sensory data is the most information dense, but almost any mutual information will do to increase pseudo-kinship. Even in a modern context, the normal approach for building trust in business relationships or geopolitical negotiations is accomplishing something low-stakes (often VERY low, like just showing up to a meeting) and building from there.
Two, people do not generally want to do sustained violence, even under conditions of blood feud. If they did, we wouldn't see so many enforcement mechanisms, like public humiliation and the ridicule of women, to encourage it to continue. This is because violence is very risky, and an intensely bad experience even for the winner under most conditions.
So if two groups find themselves in the middle of blood feud, I expect they simultaneously want to end the blood feud, and can't just agree to do so because making such an offer is a sign of weakness which the other side would likely exploit. I expect that the only way to de-escalate a blood feud is to do something appropriate for a blood feud, like violence. The problem is, how to do something appropriate for a blood feud without simultaneously continuing/escalating the blood feud? And how do both sides agree, without explicitly doing so?
This is why a scapegoat fits the bill: you can accuse some stranger to whom neither side has any connection of being somehow involved in one of the incidents. My best guess is that it would basically amount to an accusation of deception, something like "they came near our land and we thought it was the other clan attacking" or "they told me X which caused me to attack the other clan, but X was a lie" or similar. If the other side also wants to de-escalate (which we expect), they go along with it and once the now-agreed-upon-offender has been killed everyone agrees honor has been satisfied and things de-escalate. Naturally if they want the feud to continue, they don't go along with it, and the feud goes on.
So blood feuds tend to end when a stranger is killed firstly because both sides want the blood feud to end and secondly because they can't overtly agree to do so and thirdly because they need an acceptable action to take without continuing the blood feud, so mutually assigning blame to the stranger and killing him as a scapegoat is on the short list of things that meets the requirements.
I like reading Girard - but at reflection time I also struggle to make sense of his writing.
I don't know how that fits into the narrative of the scapegoat mechanism being the basis of all civilization - but one pretty obvious explanation of how we get it (as an equilibrium) is that it was started as a way to make peace by making justice and punishing those who break the rules - but with time people discovered that its efficiency as a peace maker does not really depend on it being based on true facts. Making peace was more important than making true justice - so societies started to use more and more fake reasoning. A guilty scapegoat is a very good target - but when it is hard to establish the blame - then an innocent scapegoat would do.
Girard themed? That sounds like a nightmare.
Philosophically, I'm not a fan of most Philosophy. Philosophy isn't practical, let alone pragmatic, and it is inherently opinionated. Logically - it is not even remotely Scientific, contrary to equally fallacious, arrogant academic opinion.
Girard was an academic requirement for me to read, and I hated it - like most Philosophy, not all, but most. Reading Girard was barely tolerable for me - it's nothing but elitist academic ego masturbation of his opinions - recused from Science - like most Philosophy.
Philosophy is the inherently arrogant academic attempt to objectify the inherently fallacious and subjective opinions of academics. It's like an academic circle-jerk of arrogant academic opinions, and there are entire libraries full of this useless philosophical garbage.
It's like reading Carl Jung interpret the mental flatulence of dreaming. Even intelligent people do, say, and write stupid things. Girard is good example.
The scapegoat issue is pretty challenging. Imagine a community that is experiencing a drought. The people are becoming increasingly frustrated and angry, and tensions are rising. One day, a group of people decide to blame a stranger for the drought. They accuse the stranger of being a witch and causing the drought. The community then comes together and kills the stranger.
While the stranger is innocent, his death helps to defuse the tension and violence in the community for the short run. The people now have a common enemy, and they can unite against him. The scapegoat mechanism has therefore helped to restore peace and order to the community. But it does not solve the drought problem, obviously. It merely attributed the problem to something in which the community could unite to control.
Grouping up and controlling that outside force, even if it is the wrong attribution, is preferable to infighting or not being able to face the problem directly at all.
Girard acknowledges even though the scapegoat mechanism does not actually solve the problem, it can help to prevent the problem from getting worse via the release in catharsis in-group vs out-group catharsis. In the case of the drought, for example, the killing of the stranger may not make it rain, but it may help to prevent the community from becoming so divided and angry that it descends into chaos.
Girard also believed that the scapegoat mechanism helped to create and reinforce social order. By uniting against a common enemy, the scapegoat mechanism helped to create a sense of solidarity and shared identity within the community. This sense of solidarity was essential for the development and maintenance of complex social structures. So while not always immediately solving the outside problem it had the side effects of recalibrating the social order.
"The scapegoat is the foundation of culture. It is the first and most fundamental form of social order. It is the mechanism by which societies defuse their violence and create a sense of solidarity and shared identity." - René Girard, Violence and the Sacred
A prime example is religion. Would religion have developed, and even survived, the way it has without scapegoating?
"Round up the usual suspects!"
"“sacred” mainly just means “things we aren’t very self-aware or honest about”"
Is this not congruous with the sacred as seeing things from afar to see them together? To see something in far mode means it is psychologically distant and abstract, it is inherently not being looked at concretely, and if it isn't concrete we aren't necessarily being honest about it.
I don't know that this is adding value being it is contingent on a number of things I haven't read and perhaps just skip to the end of the comment for a book about scapegoats. I believe it was Bryan Caplan writing many years ago about the remarkable resiliency of human emotions and moods to return to baseline even when something devastating happens. Does the reality of Stockholm syndrome, social desirability bias, and return to baseline within a relatively short time for something to become psychologically distant change anything with Girard or your story? Often in Stockholm syndrome the former group is still around, does murdering all of them negate the conformity and asabiyah to the new group? I am not really well read enough anthropologically and historically to make claims across cultures and time, but often it seems like not only are all the men killed. The older women and all very young children are also killed. What qualifies as an older woman in the ancient world when life was much physically harsher and this would have shown in the skin and other phenotypic features? 30? 25? Women who already had a kid or two? 35 is advanced maternal age. Often a homeless 45 year old today can look like they are approaching 65. If my 40 year old methhead neighbor had more gray hair she would look like a 60 year old. I haven't read Girard or Wrangham, but is Girard coherent in light of Wrangham and self domestication? What time period is Girard speaking about with regard to ancient considering the DNA revolution has cracked a window open beyond several thousand years ago that he may have not been aware of? Does Girard distinguish at all between scapegoats and sacrifices or conflate the two? It seems like sometimes they go together and sometimes not. There is a book by Ronald Hutton that is very rich in anecdotes and details and is nearly entirely about scapegoats, but I am not sure I can see Girard's idea in it. The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present https://www.amazon.com/Witch-History-Ancient-Times-Present/dp/0300238673/
From what I remember, Girard was also hypothesizing that part of the appeal of killing a scapegoat is that the people who do it, previously in conflict against each other and disunited, become united through collective violence against the victim.
You seem to be missing that from your picture. But there is something intuitive about that to me: imagine a band of boys becoming united through bullying a victim, or imagine Bismark's Europe becoming united through excluding Russia.
Does Girard provide any examples? I am drawing a blank, unless Socrates was a scapegoat? I guess it unlikely that contemporary historians would be likely to categorize a scapegoating as such. Or are they just historically insignificant?
People sometimes attack outsiders in some way as a part of hazing rituals. This bonds the group together because it's costly and excellent ground for storytelling, but avoids escalating dynamics. It's an outsider, not an insider or rival who is attacked.
I’m curious if putting Girard and Agamben’s Homo Sacer into contact brings a new reading.