Monday, November 30, 2015

Mimetic Jihad

Those who protest against “Western ethnocentrism” imagine themselves to owe nothing to the West, since after all they rage furiously against it. But in fact, theirs is the most Western perspective of all, more Western than their adversaries. Not only is the revolt against ethnocentrism an invention of the West, it cannot be found outside the West. …Western culture is quite obviously ethnocentric. But it is no more ethnocentric than any other, even if its ethnocentrism has been more cruelly effective on account of its power. René Girard
The late René Girard - he passed away earlier this month - was one of the most original thinkers of the past one hundred years. I believe his work will eventually prove more important than the works of Freud, Nietzsche or Marx combined. And not just because he was right and they were wrong.

Girard's groundbreaking insight - that humans are 'mimetic', i.e.: that our desires come from observing what others want, with the result that human culture ultimately degenerates into violent competition for the things desired until a sacrificial scapegoat is found to 'take the blame' and so peace is restored (for a while) - has profound implications for our understanding of modern humanity and the worsening problem of collective violence.

But he went further: he argued that Christianity represented a 'structural break' in human history because, for the first time, the scapegoat - Jesus Christ - was innocent, and seen to be such. Now to our 21st century ears this might sound obvious: but Girard points out that every other culture (and many since) have always assumed the 'guilt' of the scapegoat. Indeed, he saw most religions as a solution to the problem of mimetic violence as they were built around a cult(ure) of sacrifice to preserve the peace. Christianity 'revealed' the falsity of the scapegoat mechanism, throwing us back on a previously unknown solution to humanity's mimetic compulsion to escalating violence: turning the other cheek and desiring the one thing everyone can have without constraint on the other, i.e.: the love of God. It worked, at least for a while.

The power of any theory - be it psychoanalysis, dialectical materialism or mimetic theory - is found in its predictive power. On this basis, Girard's theory stands head and shoulders above what passes for most contemporary analysis of our global situation. He sees the violence of Islamic Jihadism as a regression to a type of mimetic rivalry that threatens to drag us back to pre-Christian ways of competition and conflict.

Nor is the post-Christian West immune from mimetic rivalry and escalating violence. Girard saw the rejection of the West's Christian heritage (in a desperate attempt to stand outside of history, culture and heritage so as not to be ethnocentric) as a precursor to a greater level of collective violence than even our pre-Christian ancestors could have imagined. Nothing short of apocalypse in an age of Total War.

As more and more Western powers queue up to bomb Syria and rid the world of The Taliban al-Qaeda ISIS, we once again we find ourselves trapped in a world of mimetic desire and the search for scapegoats. It won't end well. It never did, and it never will. 

By the way, you can download and listen to a marvellous, five-part interview with René Girard by David Cayley - called The Scapegoat: René Girard's Anthropology of Violence and Religion - on iTunes here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Longing & Belonging

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. Milan Kundera
I was on a guided tour of Freemasons' Hall in Molesworth Street Dublin recently. It prompted a conversation about how organisations like the Freemasons can survive and even thrive in the 21st century (they get 20-30 membership applications a month apparently, so still growing).

At one level (perhaps more than one) Freemasonry is something of an anachronism these days: male only (though there is a separate Ladies Freemason Lodge); theist (though not necessarily Christian); and, well, secretive (though they do have a website). Of course, one man's anachronism may be another man's recipe for long-term survival: which is perhaps why so many of those institutions and organisations that are still around after hundreds, even thousands of years are not exactly PC in their values or practices. Churches, monarchies and lodges among them.

But I think there's more to it than whose allowed in, and who isn't (though that's a big part, and I'll come back to it later). The essence of long-lasting organisations is that they practice rituals that bind and remind its members of its purpose and beliefs. Sarah Perry points out the need for ritual even in our 'post-rational' age, choosing the arcane but still 'necessary' rituals of our courts and legal system to make her point. She goes on to notes that:
In fact, practice generally precedes belief. Ritual is more powerful than arguments and facts.
And if you don't believe me then guess what, science says it's true: the most important ritual we can do everyday to ensure our wellbeing and success is, well, any ritual, just so long as you practice at least one.

Those countries, churches and lodges that insist on the learning and practice of rituals - collectively and in private - are the ones that forge the bonds that survive the test of time. Nor do they have to be particularly 'secret' rituals - as Rupert Sheldrake points out in a delightful podcast on Choral Evensong, there's a reason why 'chant' is found in 'enchantment': singing together is surely the greatest ritual we can practice together in forging the bonds of belonging. Christmas carols anyone?

Of course, a desire to belong can be channelled the wrong way, like any, otherwise healthy desire. Take Scientology, for example. As the brilliant documentary Going Clear reveals, ritual practices can be used and abused in the service of deeply dysfunctional and plain evil organisations. Nor is organised brutality confined to cults (or churches on occasions): even some of Silicon valley companies have become synonymous with abusive rituals and routines that create toxic workplaces.

But if the price of avoiding the mis-use of ritual and belonging is a life of solitary autonomy, drifting from one novelty to the next, then it is clearly too high a price to pay for the growing numbers suffering from depression, loneliness and suicidal thoughts. John Milbank has penned a delightful essay on why nostalgia is preferable to modern, consumerist ennui:
At first variety reduces boredom, but in the long term it can induce it because it reduces the effort of response you have to make in the face of any experience. 
In fact, sustained attention to detail and creative use of what you're given is a far greater salve against boredom than the mere passive sampling of a large menu of consumer delights. 
For where less is offered, then the more the power to be fascinated by small differences and unfolding depths is cultivated. So the Count of Monte Cristo evaded boredom in his bare cell by gradually exploring all its hidden possibilities for communication, subterfuge and escape. 
For just this reason we have to wonder whether premodern peoples might even have been less bored than us, because greater monotony incited more active attention - to the changing seasons and the annual variations upon their changes, for instance - and a paucity of resources led to greater imaginative involvement with the use of words, music, human movement and ability to shape natural materials.
Again this points to why people long to belong to institutions and organisations that practice rituals connecting the past to the present to the future. It lifts us up from the drudgery of 'what's on the telly' and 'what time will I finish work'? Of course, we don't need to join a church or apply for membership of a club to experience some of the more uplifting aspects of belonging. Most of us are born into a very unique and exclusive club - our own family - which gives us plenty of clues and cues to what it means to belong. As Chesterton once wrote, we discover more variety and humanity in our own homes than in our ventures into the wider world:
The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born.
Here's my advice for any church or club suffering from a decline in membership and waning support from those who still belong (Catholic Church please note): make it hard(er) to become a member, require members to publicly signal their membership (fish on Fridays?) and insist on the shared expression of beliefs and belonging (back to 'enchantment').

But back to the Freemasons. What has helped them endure (in the absence of any 'Dan Brown-esque' conspiracy theories)? I think part of it is the price of entry, and no I don't mean the monthly membership fee. I mean the work would-be members have to put into being validated as potential membership material before final approval as a member (which can take up to a year). There's little incentive or reason to join something if there are no actual costs of entry (in terms of time, money or energy): in that case anyone can join but if 'everyone' is a member then there's really no such thing as 'membership'. The same is true of entire nations: one of the reasons for Denmark's remarkable cultural and social cohesion is its practice of hygge, gently lampooned by the way in Michael Booth's delightful book The Almost Nearly Perfect People. Here in Ireland we have our annual commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising - it's going to matter a great deal more than most people expect next year.

The opening quotation and image above are from a fascinating article by Rod Dreher on the important task of institutions and organisations - and their members - to preserve the memories that will sustain this and future generations: He notes:
When a society really wants to remember something as a society — e.g., mythical, religious, or historic stories that tell a people who they are and what they must do — it invents commemorative ceremonies around those stories. It is not enough to tell a particular story; the story has to be “a cult enacted.” That is, the story must convey a metaphysical truth, and thus has to be granted sacred status as an event that is taken out of the past and in some mystical way re-presented in the present. This is, of course, what the Orthodox Divine Liturgy and the Catholic Mass do. Rites are ways that societies maintain a living connection with their past, and enter mystically into it. 
We must practice in order to believe, so pass around the hymn sheets...

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