COV&R 2023 and the Lasting Influence of Mimetic Theory on Peacebuilding
Grappling With Desire
When I was in graduate school, I was exposed to a novel idea: that great works of literature teach us how little control we have over our own desires.
Contrary to common sense, our desires actually control us, getting us into all sorts of intractable conflicts. Whether we’re stealing a coat or stealing a lover, getting revenge or going to war, the lesson is the same: we want what others want, to the point of violence.
It was almost distressing how much sense this made to me—because it described my own feelings as a PhD student. Those senior students I most admired, I also came to resent. The nearer a colleague’s research interests came to my own, the more I judged and compared myself to them. I ached for some guarantee that I would beat them if we applied for the same jobs.
The thinker who exposed these things to me was René Girard. His theories of desire made me miserable because they exposed in me attitudes that direly needed deep honesty and healing.
Girard’s observations about literature became an entire theory of human culture, of how we manage desire and violence, and of how we might become more conscious of the victims we create along the way. In 1990, he and others established the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R), an international scholarly organization that researches and refines these insights about desire, violence, and belief. Here, I met others with similar experiences to mine: scholar-practitioners who see greater possibilities in themselves and the world when these insights are taken seriously.
Girard’s own writing focuses on humanity’s repeated failure to learn these lessons, and many of his students follow suit. It’s important to stay sober about our messy human realities. Still, I and others have gotten something more out of the Colloquium. We have new insight into just how much potential human beings really have. When blessed with relationships that lift us up, help us untangle ourselves, and provide us with good desires to imitate, we can be extraordinary.
Humility, Diversity, and the Future of Mimetic Theory
In the last 50 years, Girard’s insights have shaped fields like art, theology, psychology, urban planning, and peacebuilding. The nonviolent message in his thinking informs unRival’s mission and team dynamics. We continue to support the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, which carries Girard’s ideas forward.
This past June, in Paris, the COV&R celebrated Girard’s 100th birthday. Together, we talked about the future of his “mimetic theory” of human desire, and how it might continue to do good in the world.
One of the most important themes in those conversations was humility. Fr. James Alison talked at length about the intellectual humility he experienced from Girard. Here was a scholar willing to ask questions and hear others’ insights and criticisms. A person who, if a room cheered his arrival, would look over his shoulder before realizing the applause was for him.
Girard modeled a kind of “self-forgetfulness” which we believe is indispensable in peacebuilding. A gracefulness, even under criticism. A willingness to change one’s mind. That kind of humility resists the temptation to become the “hero” of ours or anyone else’s story.
This is sage advice for those of us who like to think in theories or “-isms.” While any theory can be a useful starting place, it becomes less so if we convince ourselves that one theory or perspective will solve the world’s problems. This is especially tempting for a theory as wide-ranging as mimetic theory.
So Sandor Goodhart—who also accompanied Girard in the early days of his thinking—encouraged us to continue putting mimetic theory to the test. Girard’s major contribution, Goodhart says, was always his method of myth-busting. His way of reading pierced through stories that justified violence and made room for the timeless wisdom of victimized voices. It is important that mimetic theory itself never close itself off from its own essential critique.
When your object of study is the stories that humans tell themselves, there is always more to learn. Mimetic theory can humbly join other wisdoms—indigenous traditions, postcolonial theories, liberation theologies—in making space for those victimized and anonymized by violence. Such collaboration can help refine mimetic theory’s unique insights about imitation, rivalry, and their roles in conflict and liberation.
From Theory to Practice: Eureka Moments and the Power of Story
This trust in mimetic theory’s capacity to learn and grow grounded my contribution to the Colloquium this year, as I tried to communicate the powerful potential we’ve seen in our peacebuilders. Their influence brought me back to the “eureka moments” I experienced studying Girard: those dramatic moments of insight that changed me for the better, made me more human.
“Eureka moments” like these are so sudden and powerful that they can disarm us, even at our most defensive. In a moment of insight, we can face our flaws with stunned lucidity, without angrily reacting to what brought them to light. Biblical scholar J. P. M. Walsh uses the illustration of King David receiving judgment from the prophet Nathan:
Nathan, the “outsider,” succeeds in getting David to reimagine himself and his world. The story [2 Sam. 12:1-7] is what works this transformation. It wheels around and confronts the king, and he sees himself in its light. It even gets him to pronounce judgment on himself. … Such is the power of a story. It draws us out of ourselves, into itself, and enables us to reimagine ourselves and our world.
Mimetic theory walks us through similar “eureka moments” about ourselves, our relationships, and the victims we create. It offers, in Girard’s own words, a “conversion” away from belief in our autonomy and self-sufficiency, towards deeper attention to those we victimize in pursuit of our desires. Hearing the same insights from different peacebuilders has reinforced my belief in mimetic theory’s importance to peacebuilding.
But theory is rarely enough. We need to immerse ourselves in stories that bring these truths to life—especially those of victims and peacebuilders. Theirs is the language that will create new “eureka moments” in more and more people.
The peacebuilders I’ve met through unRival astonish me with clear yet complex stories about mimetic desire. They teach me to better interrogate stories that divide the world into heroes and villains. They teach me that the felt experiences of victims are dependable evidence and wisdom.
The power of those emotions deserves further study. “In life, if we can’t feel emotion, we can’t make a single rational decision,” says author Lisa Cron. And while “it is emotion, rather than logic, that telegraphs meaning,” with emotional stories comes further recognition that there is something here, in these stories and in our feelings, worth reasoning about.
UnRival is determined to show how narrative arts can bring mimetic insights to life in ways that transform us—like I was transformed. I can’t wait to discover more about how this intersection of theory and story can contribute to the durable peace we’re all building together.
Want to learn more about how unRival Network and the Artisans of Peace program are disrupting rivalry and advancing the cause of justice and peace? Click here to access our free resource, Peace is Possible.
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