Welcome to Girard
Have universities always been such unhappy places? In an interview in The White Review, Elif Batuman, journalist and author of two semi-autobiographical campus memoirs set years before the advent of social media, observes that, even then, the American university was designed to be a “competition mill.” “In a way you could think of it as selection for the most self-critical, miserable people,” she writes. Batuman has always had a sharp eye for the mechanisms of cultural validation. Her essays have considered the importance of the creative writing MFA and the writer’s workshop, in other words, the primary institutions for producing fiction writers, and she has, like her fellow skeptics, questioned both their validity and their effectiveness in creating quality literature.
There is a parallel point to be drawn with respect to contemporary art. What does it mean for an artist to have ambition, and what are the available avenues for realizing it? What is today’s version of living in a loft-studio? Are artists participating in a cargo cult around their predecessors, in which they LARP art? As Batuman points out in the introduction to her first book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, the social institutions that promote and canonize exceptional individuals seem to do so by effacing the web of discursive relations in which works respond to and elaborate on their contemporaries. Art is no longer taken to be a shared project.
Thankfully, The Possessed offers readers another understanding of art. In the
book, Batuman freely admits to having wanted to become a writer, but not by posturing as one. As a graduate student in Russian literature, her life, which essentially consists of attending classes and reading, lacks the material for a conventional autobiography. Likewise, the other characters in the book, fellow would-be academics and mildly eccentric scholars, are more neurotic than exceptional. But in a way, the existence of The Possessed is itself proof that defining one’s own relationship to literature can itself produce literature. Like its antecedents, which might include Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives or Khodasevich’s Necropolis, Batuman’s book brilliantly tells the story of the creation of a person’s literary sensibility.
Literary criticism, for Batuman, makes writing a humanist undertaking. “It’s not like filling your house with more and more beautiful wicker baskets,” she writes, observing that works of literary fiction, in being overly devoted to convention, just seem to accumulate, each one being fundamentally no different than the next. Naturally, this is equally true of contemporary art, which is even more so a basket collection if deprived of a shared discourse. An art of LARPers has no collegiality. If there is no means by which someone else’s work can further one’s own, art becomes a zero-sum game in which everyone else is an obstacle to realizing one’s own project or gaining the attention of audiences. This tragic social arrangement fosters envy, rivalry, even outright violence.
Batuman describes this contentiousness using the theoretical language of the philosopher René Girard, one of her professors during the years recounted in The Possessed. According to Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, people mistakenly locate the origins of their desires within themselves, when in fact desires are a form of learned, imitative behavior. In simple terms, the only reason we want anything (or anyone, for that matter) is because someone else also wants it. No object or person is ever intrinsically appealing. Girard idiosyncratically calls desire “metaphysical,” by which he means it resembles an unknown, foreign power that assumes control of your body and mind.
Girard would’ve been—or maybe was—a great cult leader. He presents himself as a guru who offers you a deep insight that had never occurred to you before, but which seems to make perfect sense. In The Possessed, Batuman and her circle of friends have their lives overturned by attending Girard’s classes.
(I also became vicariously fixated on Girard via The Possessed. His ideas changed the way my collaborator, Q Takeki Maeda, and I thought about art, and they inspired a series of related exhibitions. The principle of mimetic desire helped us structure the narrative element of our work The Teeth of the Gears, and Girard’s later concept of the scapegoat would be the basis for our first show at Essex Street.)
The attraction, I guess for many, lies in the way that Girardian thinking invites one to consider social dynamics in an almost mechanistic way. In this
sense, it is similar to Bourdieu’s writing on cultural capital. In both cases, once the reader adopts a certain way of thinking, the metaphor becomes literal. For instance, when Bourdieu describes cultural competence inculcated at a young age, he regards taste as inherited—literally so, passed down by blood:
It confers the self-certainty which accompanies the certainty of possessing cultural legitimacy, and the ease which is the touchstone of excellence; it produces the paradoxical relationship to culture made up of self-confidence
amid (relative) ignorance and of casualness amid familiarity, which bourgeois families hand down to their offspring as if it were an heirloom.
If you would imagine a hypothetical person who exudes this cultural legitimacy, you could also describe them in terms of Girard’s notion of the mediator, that is, the one who dictates, without even trying, what is desirable for the individual. This person confers status and value on the people and objects. Culturally, we understand individual expression and authenticity to be the core values, and it seems all but impossible to refute their importance. They define personhood. But for Girard, we are all followers; there is no genuine desire. We inherit our desire from someone else who, for their part, is also more than likely following someone else.
Last month, an item of Kunst-Werke’s “KW” merch sold out almost immediately after it posted a photo of Kanye West wearing it on Instagram. This is an everyday example of mimetic desire in action. One could say tech companies, because they work on the model of advertising, are institutes for the study of mimetic desire. The venture capitalist Peter Thiel publicly describes himself as a Girardian. All of this is clear enough to us now, but in 2010, at the time The Possessed was published, one could only very faintly see the outlines of what would become our present. What kind of chaos ensues when we are all imitating each other, chasing the same things?
Though Girard would continue to develop the concept of mimetic desire as a literary concept, his subsequent work was devoted to the field of anthropology, a context in which he would attempt to articulate the connection between myth and culture, violence and rivalry. In times of crises, Girard believed, a society would unconsciously project their own sense of being threatened onto a scapegoat. The accused could be a minority, as in religious persecutions, or an individual, as in regicides or witch hunts. Through mimetic desire, the hysterical search to find the blameworthy could also snowball, leading to widespread accusations and moral panics.
Girard’s interest in the scapegoat lies in the fact that no group ever claims to be intentionally scapegoating its victims. When we read documents prepared for a witch trial, for instance, there is a marked disparity between the reader’s point of view and that of the persecutors who are, in the heat of the moment, fully convinced of the culpability of the accused. Having the benefit of objectivity, as well as historical distance, only we understand what has truly happened. Girard argued that all myth, literature, even culture as a whole, exists to reconcile these two points of view. Society, after realizing it has wrongly blamed an innocent victim, creates a myth that recasts the victim as a hero, essentially rewriting the story to conceal the violence it has inflicted, absolving itself of responsibility for its own misdeeds.
As Girard observes, the scapegoat is an omnipresent figure in literature and art, most notably in the Christian Church, where it is undeniably a central figure. Perhaps for this reason, Girard became closely associated with theological institutions, a fact that likely made his work disagreeable for many. But one could also speculate that the same ressentiment that makes Girard’s theories relevant to the Church also makes them fascinating for the those in arts. They seem to suit those who are trying to find a place in a world where people seem to be continually at each other’s throats.