In which I Arbitrarily Blame René Girard for All the Mimetic Desire in Movies: Thoughts on Mimesis, Movies, and Media: Violence, Desire, and the Sacred, Volume 3


So I just completed a draft of a review of Mimesis, Movies, and Media for Reviews in Religion and Theology. The book is a collection of essays applying René Girard’s philosophy of mimetic desire to popular media (mostly movies and TV shows). Briefly put, Girard focuses on mimetic desire – we want what others want, which leads to rivalry (when we both can’t have it), which leads to violence. I teach my religious studies students about Girard’s model of scapegoating rituals, which ties into mimetic violence when it spirals out of control. At a certain crisis point, an arbitrary victim is chosen who is loaded with all of the evils thought to be causing the crisis, and violence is direct at him/her as a unifying (we all hate that MF) and stabilizing act (our violence is directed at the victim, not at each other). Mimesis, Movies, and Media serves as an introduction to Girard’s ideas of mimetic desire, and might serve as a good text for an undergraduate course integrating philosophy and media studies.

The essays are generally good, but there are a few that stand out:

Paul Dumouchel looks at the Kubrick and Spielberg film A.I., asking how the film communicates to the audience that the robot boy, David, loves his “mother,” and has already become human. It is not by exhibiting emotion, which many of the other robots also do. Unsurprisingly it is through mimetic desire, whether he is imitating a model of love programmed into him, or directly imitating his mother’s biological son when he returns home. This imitation leads to rivalry, which quickly escalates to violence. David is just too similar – aesthetically (he is not a toy like Teddy, or plastic looking like Gigolo Joe) and emotionally – forcing a choice between two sons for the family.

Although I’ve enjoyed Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, Carly Osborn will have me watching it in a very different light. She traces the downplaying of mimetic desire in Lee’s adaptation from book to film, in order to lower conflict and make the characters more attractive to the audience. Essentially, while Rick Moody’s book builds to a crisis in an ugly, almost diseased world, Lee creates a nostalgic, romanticized coming of age story. The woman I used to watch The Ice Storm with grew up in the 70s, and reading Osborn’s essay, a flood of memories came back of her experiencing that nostalgia as we watched. I wonder how much of my own enjoyment of the movie mimetically fed off of hers.

And Peter Y. Paik examines The Cabin in the Woods, specifically (spoilers) why the two intended sacrifices refuse to kill each other to save the world at the end. To remind you, Cabin features five college students who think they are in the middle of a horror movie situation as a family of zombies picks them off, one by one, only to find out that the whole scenario has been crafted by a high-tech agency as a spectacle for ancient gods living under the earth. If the sacrifices do not happen as scripted, the gods wake up and the world ends. Paik argues that when the youngsters are faced with the violence that maintains the stability of their world, they fall into a state of “impotent self-hatred” and give up too easily. He likens this to similar realizations about capitalism, and it is easy to generate parallels: the disillusionment that came to many young people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline when they were met with violence from corporate and government interests working together, or the scapegoating of poor people, black people, Latino people for the failures of capitalism to create a just society, and the (often homicidal) violence done to them in response.

I do have some minor criticisms, not of particular essays but of tendencies appearing throughout the volume.

One weakness is consistent throughout: the mimetic assimilation of “philosopher voice.” At the outset, the editors present the contributors as “priests and postmodernists, couch potatoes, theorists and humorists, of different ages, institutional affiliations, and disciplinary orientations” (p. 3). They go on: “There is also perhaps an Australian flavor to be discerned in this collection, as it approaches topics of high importance with a light touch.” Unfortunately, I did not hear such diversity in the voices of the authors. They all more or less sound like philosophical essays. This means using adjectives like “problematic” as nouns, turning nouns into verbs, and adjectivizing (see, I can do it too) names, like Girardian or, in an analysis of the show Dexter, Dexterian.

This homogenous voice may be a defense against the embarrassment some of these authors show at applying philosophy to such low art as popular media. It begins with the “Introduction,” which takes the time to defend the volume’s examination of films and TV: “we can allow – or hope – that our interpretive lenses are able to incorporate more than words on a page, allowing us to countenance the idea that high ideas may come in putatively low forms” (p. 2). Dumouchel seems to credit any insights to the more philosophically reputable Stanley Kubrick rather than the populist Steven Spielberg, including the ending, which was already in the treatment left by Kubrick and which has its defenders. Joel Hodge limits his examination of superhero films mainly to the Nolan Batman series, with a few nods to Superman and Spider-Man. This leaves him forcing examples out of Batman that don’t really fit his thesis, while ignoring or unaware of much more apt examples from other superhero movies. Paolo Diego Bubbio begins with a half-page defense of his choice to contribute his essay that includes this characterization of (one imagines) his supposed critics: “when philosophy and intellectual analysis [as opposed to dumbass analysis?] come to focus on popular culture phenomena, such as comics, movies, and TV programs, they are regarded as trivializing ideas and as committing themselves to marginal and eventually unimportant work” (p. 171; emphasis added). Bubbio rightly disagrees, even getting a small snap in at these imagined critics with a well-placed parenthesis: “In a Mad Men scene that (no irreverence intended) has an almost Dostoyevskian flavor…” (p. 181; adjectivizing!). The self-marginalization of theologians and philosophers, the two biggest contributing fields to this volume, is bad enough already. You don’t need to apologize for applying your skills to works that normal humans actually care about. In fact, next time you should include video games, which are a fantastic source for the analysis of mimetic desire and rivalry leading to violence, especially online games. It’ll make your colleagues’ heads explode!


A More Fluid Tool for Textual Criticism? A Really Sloppy Test Case with John 1:34

So I’m debating whether to develop a project down the line dealing with text criticism (external evidence at least), and I want to put this idea out there and see if anyone thinks it might be fruitful.

Basically the problem has to do with the dating of manuscripts. First, dates inherently include margins of error, whether from carbon-dating, paleography, or other variables. These may be wide, hidden in that “circa.” Second, not all scholars working directly on dating the manuscripts agree with each other on how to narrow things down. One thinks the handwriting looks second century, another fourth. The use of the nomina sacra points one way, the binding on the papyrus another. It seems like the general solution is to pick the most convincing from among arguments which, without the manuscripts in hand (and the proper training), it may be difficult to judge. If we are qualified, it may be the case that the handwriting leans one way and the binding another — we should not dismiss the variance suggested by the data we have.

Granted, if the datings range from 150 to 400, some scholars may be bound to be right, and others wrong. But there is no way of deciding that without more data. It becomes an arbitrary choice between Type I and Type II errors.

And when we pick the dating we prefer, we tend to artificially narrow it down. A dating of 175-225 in the original study becomes ca. 200, which then becomes rigid as it is cited and cited again.

But think about two manuscripts with datings of 175-225, but with different readings. You might find scholars who say, “Both readings are equally as old.” But by the estimates, there could be 50 years or more separating the two. And think about the Church Fathers writing in those years: Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian… These were theologically and scripturally active decades where fights were being fought over the authority of Scripture on a number of important points. The critical change could easily have happened within that 50-year span.

Is there not a more comprehensive, nuanced way to look at the transmission of readings in the various manuscripts that testify to them?

What I’m thinking of working on is a way to aggregate the various studies done on manuscripts to get a more fluid idea about how prevalent a reading was at a given time. Here is one really, really sloppily done example.

John 1:34 gives three different readings, in which John the Baptist testifies that Jesus is:

  • God’s Son (ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ)
  • God’s Chosen One (ὁ ἐκλεκτὸς τοῦ θεοῦ)
  • Chosen Son (electus filius)

Each reading has its defenders, and no particular internal argument has won the day. Even English versions give different readings: CEV, KJV, NASB, and NRSV give “Son of God,” while NIV and NLT have “God’s Chosen One.” One appears in p66, the other (apparently) in p75, both of them early.

I took 17 early manuscripts (dated no later than the 7th century), and (again very sloppily) aggregated the various datings for each manuscript. The more diverse conclusions, or the fewer studies, the wider the margins of error. The result I got was this:

John 1 34

Does this make sense to people?

I should highlight that these levels of prevalence have margins of error that are wider the earlier on we look, so this would have to be refined to show that. But despite the similar dating of the earliest manuscripts for “Son” and “Chosen,” “Son” aggregates higher early on. One thing I found interesting is that “Chosen” seems to increase until it is almost 45% of the evidence around 270, when “Son” gets as low as 53%. It’s at this point, when the two readings are close to 50/50, that the conflation, “Chosen Son,” begins to rise. This would seem to suggest that Chosen Son is indeed a conflation and not the original reading, created (or gaining popularity) in response to the likelihood of seeing manuscripts of both types.

Does that sound like a fruitful way to look at this?

Other things to look at potentially:

  • Refining this data, drawing in later manuscripts as well and addressing margins of error in these estimates.
  • Comparing, for example, the Western text to the population or to another group of texts.
  • Using this to test readings against turning point dates (i.e. manuscripts we are, say, 90% sure are prior to 270 or 350 with mss we are 90% sure are later — is there a significant difference in their reading of John 1:34? And what does this tell us?).

I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts!