Monday, December 19, 2011

Note to Mimetic Theorists: The 1% are not Scapegoats, the 99% are

Sometimes I wake up and the earth is flat. My body is convinced that the earth stretches out more or less indefinitely on either side, and up above is a very big benign God who is going to put everything right totally pronto with an infinitely fine sense of justice and, yes, love too.

Then I stand on the floor, everything whirls round and gravity shifts like a roller-coaster, and I know with terminal clarity that I'm on this tiny piece of rock with a molecule-thin layer of air hurtling through space at unimaginable speeds, and I've really got to figure it all out myself. It's Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks, not The 10 Commandments with Charlton Heston. That's when the normal day gets going.

A moment later someone switches on some micro apparatus out of which pours an unbelievable volume of noise and the words are mostly to do with some person being incredibly angry about something and somebody. That's when I know I am a human being.

But then I remember I have a Ph.D. and have studied mimesis. So I can do this! I can work the problem, just like Tom.

In the late twentieth century a number of converging pathways showed that the human ape is radically imitative (mimetic), to the extent that imitation provides a powerful explanation for his near-limitless violence and also the way he always finds scapegoats to excuse and displace it. And, oh, yes, one of the converging pathways was, amazingly, the Christian bible which showed itself an acutely accurate demonstration of these phenomena, and at the same time, by natural implication, that Christ offers a decisive way out.

So, you bet, there's a chance of saving this ship, and I and a number of brave folk have set to tinkering with what we think is the instrument panel on the strength of the theory. The earth may not be flat and there is no big God in the sky box, but we can rescue this spinning rock at this eleventh hour because there is a germ of gospel hope in the rock itself, in its human components touched by the Spirit. Like good old Tom, and with the help of Houston (Risen Jesus) we can re-rig the space capsule for a safe landing. We might even make it into a completely alternative life system, a life-star, so to speak, full of peace, love, solidarity and joy.

I sit down at my desk and log on to the planetary computer, the thing we call the internet, and the way so many of us eager astronauts communicate and try in our way to fly the planet. And then all the earth's spinning and flailing and yawing and pitching hits me like an explosion. Wow, this thing is waaay out of control! There are wars and uprisings, hurricanes and earthquakes, hunger and thirst, lies and arrests, suffering, hatred and death.

What to do? Really? What to do especially if you have a theory of everything?

Well, first perhaps a little recent history. Rene Girard is the father of mimetic theory. His major book, his Das Kapital in a manner of speaking, is Things Hidden since The Foundation of the World. It was published in English in 1987, and is coming up for its English-speaking 25th anniversary. (It was first published in French in 1978.) The impact of this work, along with his previous development of his thought and his subsequent writing, led in 1990 to the foundation of an academic association dedicated to his theory, the Colloquium On Violence And Religion (acronym Cov&r). This organization is responsible for the ongoing academic application and exploration of what is called the mimetic model. The academic world of course is an intellectual world and fosters pure thought and research. Girard's last full-length work, a book called Battling to the End, by its very title confesses quite a pessimistic view on humanity's ability to pull out of its favorite sport of killing.

Ahh, a further increase in the angular velocity of our crazy spinning rock! This time nudged onward by the very author who laid out the main diagnosis of the problem, along with its inherent solution! Or is he in fact trying a desperate gamble, like a man accelerating a car toward a cliff in order to prevent his friend in the passenger seat shooting him with a gun? Who knows? I for one am definitely looking forward to the last-minute swerve, if not from Girard certainly from the spinning rock.

A number of other organizations have sprung up dedicated to mimetic theory. One of these is our own Theology & Peace, for which I am writing here. We were formed in 2007 as a conference organization, after a number of people, myself included, felt that Cov&r, with its broad academic purpose, did not offer enough pro-active concern in theology to stimulate growth in faith and practice. So, yes, let's take the medicine on the road.

But then there is more to theology than a particular conference organization and 2011 has surely provided the most powerful external jolt to in-house reflections. A different wobble has been introduced into our spinning rock by popular protest movements from the Arab Spring, through indignados of Spain, to the Occupy phenomenon here in the U.S. Largely and consciously nonviolent these uprisings of the downtrodden and dispossessed have brought to political consciousness younger generations previously unvoiced and they have raised a flag to theologians aware Jesus likely has a stake in this somewhere.

As I now finally get into my day, fiddling on the keys of my laptop while drinking coffee at my imaginary social club (which is actually a bookstore), where for a moment I kid myself that everything in the world is about writing or chatting, and hence words, gentle biddable words, I come to the point I have wanted to make since I got out of bed. And from hereon this blog might get perfectly serious.

There has been a "Girardian" reaction to Occupy, also heard in some evangelical circles, which I find both intellectually superficial and functionally Pharisaical. To the Occupy language of "We are the 99%, oppressed by the 1%" it objects that for Christians it is always "We are the 100%", no exclusions. Hence, yes, we feel sympathy with the situations and sentiments expressed, unemployment, indebtedness, loss of homes, loss of faith in the political process, but no, this language of social differentiation is definitely not the gospel. So stop it, please, at once!

And the mimetic concept of the scapegoat is turned like a huge cannon on the protesters and in one shot their moral claim is blown away. End of game. Mimetic Theorists 1, Occupy 0.

There is so much wrong with this it's hard to know where to begin.

From an historical, structural, social and economic perspective the 1% are those who excluded the 99%. You don't have to be an economist and understand the mechanisms of capital accumulation to know that those already with money have an enormous leverage which average people don't and that leverage came from somewhere. Beginning from aristocracy whose forefathers grabbed land by force (Normans in England provide a casebook example) and continuing through factory and business owners who drive down wages and stash the proceeds, wealth is always structurally tainted ("unrighteous mammon" as Jesus precisely called it). But if you also factor in the credit derivatives which caused the 2008 crash, opaque instruments where no one really had to guarantee anything while making huge profits (check bank bailouts for final liability), the Occupy case is spectacularly correct. The great majority have been scapegoated by the gilded few.

This is counter-intuitive for a Girardian mind to accept but it is intelligibly, mathematically the case. Now, of course, if Occupy was to go on a rampage down Wall St. stringing up financiers from the lamp posts then, yes, these would immediately also be scapegoats, victims of crowd mimesis and violence. But isn't it absolutely, painfully plain that the majority of people in the Occupy camps strove mightily to avoid this outcome and so preserve the clear structural truth of the 1% as scapegoaters?

To abandon the structural truth is to turn mimetic theory into a cookie-cutter formula, a shibboleth claiming pious validity but masking a deeper human reality, viz. the poor. It is to make Girardian thought a right-wing social armor. Which brings us in turn to Pharisees.

I do not use the word "class" readily, because it has been infused with violence by Marxist rhetoric. It is a word easily conflated with violence. But if we take it in a purely sociological or taxonomic sense there can be no doubt that Jesus in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 23, addressed the Pharisees as a class and launched a stinging critique of them as such.

Why? Because Jesus saw the structural features of Pharisaism as deeply antagonistic to the gospel. In Luke he launches a similar but shorter critique against the wealthy, in the "woes" of chapter 6. It is the attack on the Pharisees which is by far the most blistering. This class of men represented a severely demanding response to the law, but in the process they missed the simple radicalism of the gospel, and their concern with minutiae was precisely what blocked them from that radicalism. Could we say that Jesus scapegoated the Pharisees? No, not unless he wanted to hurt them and kill them at the same time as he exposed their systemic avoidance of his truth. But of course this is not the case. Rather he attacks their practices and ideas trenchantly and deeply and thereby carries through a class critique. A class in this instance is the accumulation of power and violence in a particular group made available through the generational build-up of sacred order around them. The Pharisees were probably a religious 1% (only six to seven thousand of them according to Josephus) but they were highly influential and Jesus as a teacher and preacher of the in-breaking of God's newness was obliged necessarily to take them on.

To object to a nonviolent critique of the 1% therefore runs the risk of siding with Pharisaism and being itself functional Pharisaical, which is the appearance of goodness but the denial of its radicalism.

Gospel radicalism is expressed in solidarity with those who do not have power, those who are poor and downtrodden. Solidarity places the individual's bodily life somehow on their side, at their side. Solidarity is what saves nonviolence from superficiality and pharisaism. A coruscating piece written by a desperately ill and indebted woman and shared on facebook by a fellow gospel astronaut, demanded solidarity from progressive evangelicals. These evangelicals seem to have had something of the same reaction to Occupy as some mimetic theorists. It was this piece that pushed me into writing the above, seeking one more time to nudge along our spinning rock within its own crazy dynamics.

Ah well, I'm back home and it's almost time again for bed and sleep. For the comfort of a flat earth!

Tony Bartlett, T&P Theologian-in-Residence

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