Ktismatics

4 March 2007

My Rival is Myself

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:31 pm

Hegel exposes the self and the other engaged in mortal combat. The winner hopes to establish his autonomous being-for-self, but this autonomy is attained only through recognition by the loser. The loser, on the other hand, finds autonomy in being able to fulfill the winner’s desire for recognition. The master and the bondsman can both achieve a kind of autonomy, but it’s always incomplete. The master desires the other’s recognition; the bondsman desires the master’s reliance on him. Both desire the desire of the other.

Rene Girard presents another elaboration of Hegel’s desire of desire. In exploring mythic conflicts, Girard discovers that whatever one party values, the other invariably tries to take away. The wronged party seeks vengeance; the other party retaliates. As the conflict escalates it becomes self-perpetuating, until eventually no one can remember quite how it started. To an outsider witnessing the escalation it becomes increasingly difficult to discern who is the provocateur and who the avenger. Though the adversaries see each other as opposites, to the outsider they seem indistinguishable from one another, identical, whatever differences there once were effaced by the irresolvable rivalry that threatens to destroy them both.

Girard traces rivalry to desire. I sense an incompleteness within myself; my desire is to complete myself, to attain whatever it is that I lack. But what will fulfill my desire? I don’t know — my desire is free-floating, unattached to any particular object of desire, characterized purely by lack. So I start looking around at others: what is it that they desire? A piece of land or a goblet, the favor of a particular woman or god? If they desire it, then that must be the thing that would complete them. If it will complete them, it will complete me. I want it too. This is what Girard calls mimetic desire: imitative desire, desire of the desire of the other.

In all varieties of desire examined by us, we have encountered not only a subject and an object but a third presence as well: the rival. It is the rival who should be accorded the dominant role. We must take care, however, to identify him correctly; not to say, with Freud, that he is the father; or, in the case of tragedies [e.g., Cain and Abel] that he is the brother. Our first task is to define the rival’s position within the system to which he belongs, in relation to both subject and object. The rival desires the same thing as the subject, and to assert the primacy of the rival can lead to only one conclusion. Rivalry does not arise because of the fortuitous convergence of two desires on a single object; rather, the subject desires the object because the rival desires it. In desiring an object the rival alerts the subject to the desirability of the object. The rival, then, serves as a model for the subject, not only in regard to such secondary matters as style and opinions but also, and more essentially, in regard to desires.

When modern theorists envision man as a being who knows what he wants, or at least possesses an “unconscious” that knows for him, they may simply have failed to perceive the domain in which human uncertainty is most extreme. Once his basic needs are satisfied (indeed, sometimes even before, man is subject to intense desires, though he may not know precisely for what. The reason is that he desires being, something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess. The subject thus looks to that other person to inform him of what he should desire in order to acquire that being. If the model, who is apparently already endowed with superior being, desires some object, that object must surely be capable of conferring an even greater plenitude of being. It is not through words, therefore, but by the example of his own desire that the model conveys to the subject the supreme desirability of the object…

Two desires converging on the same object are bound to clash. Thus, mimesis coupled with desire leads automatically to conflict. However, men always seem half blind to this conjunction, unable to perceive it as a cause of rivalry. In human relationships words like sameness and similarity evoke an image of harmony. If we have the same tastes and like the same things, surely we are bound to get along. But what will happen when we share the same desires? Only the major dramatists and novelists have partly understood and explored this form of rivalry.

– Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 1972

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11 Comments »

  1. I like Hegel, because I think he points to the deepest of human longings. But I think Girand’s version is a bit more accurate in terms of how the world actually works.

    “When modern theorists envision man as a being who knows what he wants, or at least possesses an ‘unconscious’ that knows for him, they may simply have failed to perceive the domain in which human uncertainty is most extreme.”

    “To be certain of one’s own existence is the ultimate arrogance.” – Daniel Libeskind (Jewish architect :)

    I think this is also related to our Neitche conversation on how or whether we are influenced by cultural forces or by more permanent ones. There’s some converging point where they come together, but remain separate but appear indistinguishable.

    Jason

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    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 5 March 2007 @ 6:59 pm

  2. Girard builds a theory of sacrifice on his idea of mimetic rivalry. As two sides escalate a conflict, they come more and more to resemble each other. Mimetic rivalry is based on imitation, but eventually it’s not clear who is imitating whom: it’s like copies without originals in Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. Conflict is the systematic destruction of differences. In order to restore differences the conflict has to be resolved without just starting another round of retaliation. You need a scapegoat: a sacrificial victim that is similar to the conflicted parties but that is not under either side’s protection. The sacrifice serves to discharge the violence onto a neutral object, thereby neutralizing it and breaking the cycle of vengeance. So in OT economy the mutual antagonism between God and man can be resolved by a sacrificial victim that stands in for man but that is flawless like God. Kill it, and the cycle of violence ends: man and God re-establish their differences from one another.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 6 March 2007 @ 12:04 am

  3. Girard (from above): he desires being, something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess. The subject thus looks to that other person to inform him of what he should desire in order to acquire that being. If the model, who is apparently already endowed with superior being, desires some object, that object must surely be capable of conferring an even greater plenitude of being. It is not through words, therefore, but by the example of his own desire that the model conveys to the subject the supreme desirability of the object…

    How does this mimetic desire tie in with oppression; I’m thinking specifically about those who oppress. Hegel’s master/slave theory makes sense in oppression: the oppressor needs the oppressed to give them attention. With mimetic desire, is there a desire for the master to impose their superior being upon the slave in order to convince the master, himself, that his being is superior and something to be desired? Perhaps mimetic desire and Hegel’s theory work complement each other……as I consider it, though, I have my doubts. What about systems of oppression that give individuals no way out but to pursue the role of the oppressor? To make it to the top of the food chain; to be the Godfather pulling the strings. This seems to me to be at least partly motivated by the basic instinct to survive. And once you get to the top, you have to oppress in order to survive. If you show any weakness, someone else will kill you and take your place. Fear is a motivator.

    Maybe that’s what I’m questioning: how does fear relate to desire (Hegelian or mimetic, or even Lacanian/Freudian)?

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    Comment by Erdman — 17 June 2008 @ 5:31 pm

  4. “With mimetic desire, is there a desire for the master to impose their superior being upon the slave in order to convince the master, himself, that his being is superior and something to be desired?”

    I think that’s right Erdman. It’s counterproductive though, since this makes the master dependent on the slave for his own sense of self. The master is enslaved to the slave’s desire for the master. (If I was the master I think I’d have to learn to live with it, but that’s the idea.)

    For Hegel a perpetual oscillation is set up between master and slave over who really controls plenitude of self, with each looking to the other to fill his own lack. If the slave can overcome the fear of the Absolute Master, who is Death, he can prevail over the master in the struggle and the roles will be reversed. But the struggle doesn’t end, since both sides lack something which they believe only the other can fill.

    For Girard, though, this perpetual struggle between master and slave means that they become more and more alike. Both sides envy the other’s perceived self-possession and want it for themselves. They try to take it from one another by violent means. Sooner or later the slave overthrows the master and they change positions relative to each other. But the structure persists: there are always slaves and masters fighting each other, and the struggle becomes an end in itself. Violence is an attempt to assert difference between one side in the conflict and the other, but because it is self-perpetuating and retaliatory in nature it paradoxically reduces difference, making each side in the conflict an imitator of the other side.

    “This seems to me to be at least partly motivated by the basic instinct to survive. And once you get to the top, you have to oppress in order to survive. If you show any weakness, someone else will kill you and take your place. Fear is a motivator.”

    The master fears the slave and vice versa: fear of the other comes to dominate. The object isn’t to have anything in particular but to defeat the other: to take what he has and to prevent him from taking what you have. So aggression and fear go hand in hand. Both sides in the competition are alike in this regard. Girard calls attention to the ironic etymology of the word “competition” = com + petition = to seek together. Aggression and fear are complementary emotions and motivators in competitive rivalry.

    Girard I think agrees that this competitive imitation is part of human nature. He sees ritual as a way of keeping people apart, giving different groups their own identities and territories and laws so they can preserve their own autonomy and plenitude. Rivalry breaks down ritualistic differences and the laws that prevent mutual violence. So I think Girard would regard re-establishing law and ritual as a desired end of any crisis. Paul, by contrast, says in Ephesians 2 that laws of separation are the source of enmity between rival groups and that it should be abolished, merging the two competitors into one new man.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 18 June 2008 @ 4:12 am

  5. How do these thoughts relate to globalization and pluralization?

    I’m thinking particularly about that last paragraph: Girard I think agrees that this competitive imitation is part of human nature. He sees ritual as a way of keeping people apart, giving different groups their own identities and territories and laws so they can preserve their own autonomy and plenitude. Rivalry breaks down ritualistic differences and the laws that prevent mutual violence. So I think Girard would regard re-establishing law and ritual as a desired end of any crisis. Paul, by contrast, says in Ephesians 2 that laws of separation are the source of enmity between rival groups and that it should be abolished, merging the two competitors into one new man.

    It would seem that going back to localized law and ritual is not an option. The world is connected, and local distinctions seem to be either disappearing or being absorbed into the new global “main stream.” What happens in the U.S. seems to be a reflection of the inevitable take over by the internet into a global mass market of people all sharing the same space, albeit the virtual space of the internet.

    So, an example: the Seattle grunge music scene in the early 90s. A bunch of disenfranchised kids didn’t have any higher aspirations other than to listen to music and create music that expressed their satirical, cynical, and frustrated perspective. Music execs. were busy polishing pop and looking at the New York and L.A. scenes for the same kinds of sounds. Nirvana changed everything and they went from a garage band to Nirvana Mania (to rival that of Beatle Mania) in something like a year. As soon as the record companies found out that the isolated, inbred Seattle music style (“grunge” was originally a derogative term subsequently embraced by the reject band The Mudhoney’s) was catching on, they signed up all the good Seattle bands and took grunge national. Music hasn’t been the same since. The point being that any isolated local artistic developments of any significance will be mass marketed in the future.

    This leads me to ask if the idea of “local charm” will not disappear or be exported in some way the more the media (internet) becomes a part of our lives. So, the question is, in light of pluralization/globalization, is Girard’s or Paul’s recommendation the better one? Is it possible to make one new man? Or should we fight, tooth and nail, to maintain local law and ritual (and local distinctives)?

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    Comment by Erdman — 18 June 2008 @ 11:30 am

  6. “Is it possible to make one new man? Or should we fight, tooth and nail, to maintain local law and ritual (and local distinctives)?”

    This is a highly astute and salient question, Erdman. The purportedly distinctive aspect of postmodernity is the loss of metanarrative and the consequent shattering of consensus, but others believe just the opposite: multinational capitalism is THE metanarrative of our times. As you observe about Nirvana, the marketplace absorbs all local differences by co-opting them, packaging them, and selling them everywhere.

    It’s been argued that Paul’s “one new man” philosophy made it possible for Rome to dominate the world, since through the universal solvent of Christianity it could assimilate every local culture into itself. Capitalism is a sort of secular Christianity in this regard. Money is the common metric in capitalism, by which the value of everything is decided. What is the common metric, I wonder, in Christianity? Is it morality? Are all local variations judged on the basis of how much they seem to align with generally agreed-upon standards of moral goodness? Maybe. This is the residue of law, or maybe it’s the universalization of law. Local Jewish purity laws and rituals and so on, which collectively establish a rather arbitrary system for distinguishing categories of things and people from one another. Christianity instead developed a universal moral law, which instead of categorical differences now evaluates people on a continuum from bad to good. So maybe goodness becomes the capital of Christianity, the basis for universal valuation and comparison. In conjunction you get money and morality linked together in what Weber called “The Spirit of Capitalism.”

    What would happen if Christianity abandoned its universalized moral law and actually embraced the idea of freedom, life in the spirit, and love for one another? Would more local experiments be attempted and allowed to blossom without being squeezed by the universal standards? Instead of laws establishing arbitrary local boundaries, would these local experiments emerge and synergize in a more spontaneous way? Would the ethos of freedom override mimetic desire and rivalry, by which everyone would imitate what looks like a winning experiment and thereby again universalizing it? I don’t know, but it would be an improvement.

    The difficulty with all this in the multinational marketplace scenario is that there’s always somebody at the top of the money pyramid who stands to gain the most by co-opting and mass-marketing the successful experiments. I wouldn’t count on these high-money types to see the light and embrace difference for its own sake.

    Much thought can and should be devoted to this sort of issue. I’ve just been reading Homo Sacer by Agamben, where he tries to sort out some of these things. For Agamben the law is all about exclusion. Who doesn’t have to obey the law? The sovereign. Who doesn’t get to benefit from enforcement? The disenfranchised. Is it possible politically and economically to get beyond law so that this class distinction can be abolished? Paul seems to want it to happen, except when he backslides into legalism and authoritarianism.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 18 June 2008 @ 2:01 pm

  7. Precisely related to this discussion is today’s (june 17) post by Shaviro called “Monstrous Flesh,” where he evaluates Hardt & Negri (Empire, Multitude) on issues of emergent variety within global capitalism. Click on Pinocchio Theory on my blogroll to get there. (You may recall my abortive attempt to discuss H&N here at Ktismatics several months ago, but the discussion got waylaid before it even began by all sorts of entertaining but frustrating distractions. Maybe that’s what happens when the monstrous flesh of the multitude gets agitated.)

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    Comment by ktismatics — 18 June 2008 @ 2:26 pm

  8. K: What would happen if Christianity abandoned its universalized moral law and actually embraced the idea of freedom, life in the spirit, and love for one another?

    As you say, things get complicated b/c of mass marketing. Perhaps Rome’s promotion of Christianity to its official religion is similar to the current state of mass marketing Christianity in the U.S.: something of the pureness of the faith gets lost in translation. The faith gets translated into a product that can be bought and sold.

    Perhaps the only way to spread the good news is through non-commercial means. Or maybe it is mass production itself that strips away the pureness from something like “freedom” or “love.”

    The Gospels narrate that Jesus repeatedly pushed the crowds away and/or retreated from them.

    I don’t want to suggest that purity is necessarily lost in the crowd; I simply suggest that this is a good description, historically, of what typically happens. And I think there are reasons for it.

    One of the reasons might be that marketing, by its very nature, must make itself distinct and unique. This means setting itself off against the other: the other product is defective or less desirable. Now we are back into the territory of desire. It would seem that there would be a fundamental conflict of interests if one were to market freedom b/c marketing always seems to operate on generating “excess desire,” and with excess desire we lose freedom.

    The point is that we can no longer operate apart from mass marketing, and as such it seems as though we are doomed.

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    Comment by Erdman — 19 June 2008 @ 9:19 am

  9. I think there can be a difference between marketing and sharing information. It may be difficult to distinguish but the key is in desire itself. The marketer sets out to convince, to possess, to control, if necessary to manipulate, an other’s desire.

    I wonder whether ‘Science’ could be illustrating this idea by supposedly just placing the current ‘truth’ out there, take it or leave it? But science today is useless unless it produces life enhancing technology. Pure science is denied funding and placed on the back burner as something that can be showcased when needed.

    I see Jesus and the crowds similarly. A unique micro message of truth that demands at its core the willful abrogation of the demands of the self. When accompanied by miracles and other good stuff, with perhaps the idea of challenging the powers that be and becoming independent and even perhaps in turn becoming a world power again… But the fundamental evolution of the leader to grab a hold of this people power and do the needful is painfully missing and the crowds are disappointed. They don’t want the micro message to dominate. The desire that has been awakened must now be fulfilled. A recalcitrant messiah is not wanted.

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    Comment by samlcarr — 19 June 2008 @ 7:03 pm

  10. Sam,

    Your point about science and funding is intriguing in light of a headline I just read today about McCain: As part of his campaign hype, he wants to offer $300 million to the person who can provide a significantly better non-gas car battery.

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    Comment by Erdman — 23 June 2008 @ 6:55 am

  11. There’s no question that certain kinds of scientific endeavor get more money thrown at them than others. The government acts like a socialist state when it comes to promoting inventions that generate profits for stockholders. Now if McCain wanted to pay this hypothetical inventor $300 million of the taxpayers’ money, after which the public owned all subsequent rights, profits, etc. accruing thereto, I’d be in favor. But I’m sure that’s not what he has in mind.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 23 June 2008 @ 11:55 am


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