Your Founding Murder

by Yule Heibel on February 7, 2019

René Girard’s theories on the “founding murder,” which he posits as the (hidden) basis of civilization, along with his discussion of scapegoating, which is the psychological cover-up of that murder and subsequently the basis of all religions – until Christianity (see Battling to the End) – immediately made me think of the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There, early hominids imitate (mimic) one another’s aggressive behavior, but can’t really make much “progress.” Until, that is, one of them figures out that a large bone from a carcass can be used as a tool to smash and break the remaining bones. The next encounter with the rival troupe begins in the same way (mimetic rivalry). But then, the founding murder.

Now, it’s entirely possible that my reading of both Girard and that scene in 2001 is wrong. Most critics have read the latter as portraying the moment when “man” learned to use tools, and that, in this story, tool-using ability came via some kind of prompt or inspiration from the magical black monolith making its way through time and the universe. That is, it was dimly interpreted with some awakening feeling for awe or religiosity (it wasn’t understood by the hominids, it was merely a prod), and so, the monolith brought civilization. Slowly, painfully. As for my understanding of Girard, I’m still on chapter one of the book. Bear with me.

But I was struck how human civilization in 2001 begins with mimicry and murder. If I understand Girard so far, organized religion is subsequent to that foundational act. It is not, as in 2001, a consequence of “religion” (the arrival of the mysterious monolith). It’s actually the other way around: the foundational murder, as the civilizing process develops and takes hold, has to be covered up. We can’t admit to ourselves that such violence underwrites our being. We create what in German is called Verbrämung, which means both trimming (especially as a garment of plain cloth trimmed in costly fur) and euphemism (as in calling something by a pretty name when it actually isn’t pretty at all). We create, as per Girard, scapegoats. The scapegoat takes all the violence of our mimetic rivalry, our rage and anger, and is sacrificed as “the bad guy” who deserves to die.

Until, according to Girard, Christ, whose Passion showed that the scapegoat is actually innocent. The scapegoat is blameless, is guiltless, is used by the tribe to cover up its own murderous instincts. As Girard puts it, “Christ came to take the victim’s place. (…) Christ came to reveal that his kingdom was not of this world, but that humans, once they have understood the mechanisms of their own violence, can have an accurate intuition of what is beyond it.” (p.xv-xvi, “Introduction”) I’ll just leave that there for now, since I’m primarily interested for now in how we’re not renouncing violence, how we continue to engage in mimetic rivalry and mimetic desire.

You see, right there I had to stop myself from writing “stupid mimetic rivalry,” because try as I might, I’m piqued by all the outrage (a rivalry for who can be the most outraged) to become outraged myself. It’s very difficult to stand at a remove, to know when to engage and when to walk away.

I’ve mostly walked away from Facebook, but every time I still drop in I see this game play out (this horrible game, I want to write, which is indicative of how I too get sucked in to the violence, just by watching): the people I’m connected to on Facebook, which is a different environment than Twitter, are outdoing themselves in blatant displays of hatred. Their hatred might take the form of outrage, of calls for “social justice” or against “bigotry” and even against “hate.” But the underlying emotion is mental distress, put on display for all their tribe to see. I would argue it’s displayed simply to arouse imitation by others.

So, for example, someone might post, “I’m not going to watch the lying scumbag give the SOTU. Who else is opting out?” which in turn prompts a cascade of likes and replies (exactly as intended by the person who made the first post). The puke/barf/vomiting emoji gets liberal play, repeated at …well, ad nauseum. And each of these replies tries to outdo the previous one in a display of hatred for, in this case, Donald Trump.

In fact, Trump is the main object of outrage, and never ever is the “analysis” exacted by #theresistance turned on one’s own tribe. The other side, in this case the Democrats, are angels; everyone on Trump’s side is demonic. Within the tribe – the tribes, actually – the mimetic rivalry ratchets up and up, with each member trying to outdo the other to prove his or her righteousness.

The scapegoat must die! Die, say I!

I did watch the SOTU. First time I have, actually. And I thought it was pretty clever. (If anyone wants to know my thoughts on how it was structured to link past and present, while providing – almost – a subtle criticism of neomania and blind faith in innovation-for-innovation’s sake, which could be associated with both the neocon and neoliberal opposition, ask me in the comments and I’ll elaborate.)

Watching the SOTU I also had to think of the smirk and the idea that we attack most violently in others that which we fail to perceive in ourselves. As is now plain and well-documented, Nick Sandmann (the Covington Catholic school kid who allegedly disrespected a “tribal elder” by …wait for it, smirking) was behaving in an exemplary way when Nathan Phillips accosted him. (For those who criticize Sandmann for not doing enough to deescalate Phillips’s aggression, can you please remember that he’s 16 years old? He did exceptionally well for a teenager.)

But how the media and other Democratic Party entities attacked him for “smirking,” how the smirk was supposedly representative of his white privilege, his class privilege, his male privilege… How vile, to smirk.

Yet, oddly enough, all through the SOTU, many Democrats smirked. Often. Freely. Vividly. Eye-rolling and smirking was endemic in their tribe. Was their prior attack on Nick Sandmann, who clearly became a scapegoat, a way to hide the founding murder at the basis of their own violent emotions? Were they externalizing and projecting their own nasty actions on to this kid, projecting something on him which they do themselves all the time?

And if it is indeed the stupidity of media and the Democratic machine, along with all their Facebook-obsessed minions, that comes into full view and open display when seen in the light of mimetic rivalry and mimetic desire (“I desire to be as outraged as you, as angry, as full of violence as you!”), what do we make of the one face at the SOTU that scrupulously avoided the smirk – as she sat with a face that glared into the room like an Aztec god, stern and judgemental and mostly unmoved? Is it someone who will step out of the mimetic circle and create her own army, her own religion? Watch out…

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