In The Righteously Mimetic Mind, author Luca Luchesini explores additional intersections between the work of Jonathan Haidt, from view of the Prospecting Lens, and Rene Girard, from the view of the Mimetic Lens. We will be focusing on the areas not covered by the previous blog entry, which you may wish to reference.
One the questions about WEIRD (Western) societies that was not discussed in the last post was whether and how WEIRD societies still incorporate the Mimetic Lens's archaic sacred model of sacrifice and scapegoating.
Luchesini focuses in part on how both Haidt and Girard rely to an extent on the work of Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern sociology and anthropology. As a short-hand analogy, Haidt contends that humans behave as if they were 90% chimpanzee, or individualist thinkers, and 10% bee, or collectivist thinkers -- that is, selfish beings striving to belong to a bigger and nobler entity. "People reach ecstasy when they are able to transition to the feeling of “being part of a whole”. . . . Haidt identifies three ways by which people can reach this state: awe in nature, drugs, and social raves (e.g. sports, musical, religious and political rallies of any sort). Again, Haidt tries to bring experimental evidence or at least exhibits to our nature, and he mentions the research around mirror neurons and oxytocin."
Luchesini connects Haidt with Girard through the work of Elias Canetti, who won a Nobel Prize in Literature and also wrote Crowds and Power about the psychology of crowds. Canetti's thesis was that people join crowds "because they provide an antidote, albeit temporary, to the typical human trend of differentiation and take people back to a state where they are equal to each other and without any bound." As Luchesini describes:
Canetti observes that to start a crowd it is necessary to have a smaller group of people that can identify themselves with a goal and act as a catalyst for the bigger crowd to form, if the right environmental conditions arise. This catalyst is called the "crowd crystal" and is indeed the first structure that for Canetti appeared in primitive groups in the form of the pack.
Luchesni then goes on to consider Girard's mimetic theory. He agrees with my previous blog entry that the Mimetic Lens accurately describes the genesis of WEIRD societies and their moral basis in Christianity.
Then he discusses the interesting phenomenon that Haidt also observed, which is that over time, most Western churches dropped many of their "sacred" rituals in favor of teaching that the scapegoats of society are innocent victims, and the religious idea of "sacred" was transposed into the secular concept of "scarcity." Scarcity is the modern substitute for "sacred" and reflects the modern trend towards deifying markets and consumerism.
So, not recognizing the mimetic origin of desire, modernity found universal scarcity as the sole possible explanation. We all crave for someone else’s things, and we observe that in the long run (and even with increased income) the situation does not improve. If we still do not recognize the mechanism of desire, the obvious conclusion is that there are not enough resources to make us all happy.
Thus, secular Western institutions are built around the sacredness of scarcity. Like the violence in the archaic sacred model, a form of violence is permitted in the nature of economic competition that cleanses and purges unproductive or unlucky scapegoats. The entire Western economic system comprises an archaic sacred model that depends upon a fundamental belief that scarcity is a sacrosanct concept.
This is felt most acutely in the consumerist quest for "scarce" objects and experiences. An object or experience is imbued with a sacred quality when it is deemed to be "scarce". Any number of historical asset bubbles involving tulips, shares of stock, houses and beanie babies bears this out. The attractiveness of vacations is enhanced by an air of exclusivity or exotic nature. If too many people are allowed to participate, the object or experience declines in sacred value.
As an aside, this is also what animates the marketing and advertising industry -- to imbue designated objects or experiences with a scarce or sacred quality that makes them desirable. In effect, they perform a secular priestly function.
Luchesini notes a certain irony in this that although we in WEIRD societies would appear to understand the effects of mimetic desire when thinking about human relations, we go on coming up with theories in the public sphere that reflect a misunderstanding of what is going on:
The irony in this process is that the mimetic nature of desire remains largely misunderstood, at least to the large majority of people and this happens despite that many of the bards of the modern nations, from Dante to Shakespeare and Cervantes, have instead developed a very precise and accurate theory of mimetic desire in their literary works. The establishment of modernity on a base that still leaves hidden or misunderstood the true nature of human desire has also had detrimental effects on all the doctrines that tried to diagnose and overcome its illnesses.
Neither Luchesini nor I are the first to recognize that adherence to economic dogmas is tantamount to a religious faith in something sacred, and concomitant sacrificing is regularly performed in the form of direct government coercion or government sanctioned competitions depending on whether the theory is based in socialist or capitalist notions of rectitude. Those who fail to conform with the norms of such theories are frequently singled out as scapegoats "deserving" of some form of punishment or degradation. A mere refusal to accept the dogma is often enough to place one in the category of a potential scapegoat.
Of course, it all done in the name of a victim or victims in WEIRD societies, as discussed in the prior post. Tellingly, both pro-socialist and pro-capitalist literature often involve plot lines that are mimetic twins with opposing victims. Thus, in Upton Sinclair's pro-socialist work, The Jungle, the virtuous protagonist immigrant workers are corrupted by the capitalist system, but find salvation in the end when they attend socialist meetings and experience a form of catharsis with a like-minded crowd. In Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, the capitalist protagonists are corrupted by a socialist system and then find salvation in a capitalist utopia and experience catharsis with a like-minded crowd. These plots are essentially retreads of the Christian conversion stories that begin with St. Paul.
Having established victimhood, and therefore righteousness in new sacred secular doctrines, the protagonists in each novel go forth to vindicate their beliefs by attacking designated scapegoat adversaries represented by the capitalists in The Jungle and the socialists in Atlas Shrugged. But note that the scapegoats in the books would never be identified as scapegoats by the authors or protagonists, because to the participant in an archaic sacred system, the scapegoats are always anathema to society, are guilty of something and must be neutralized and eliminated.
Inspected under the Mimetic Lens both of these novels show the interplay and intermingling of both the archaic sacred model of society and the innocent victim model. As Girard often said and Luchesini duly noted above, after 2000 years this process remains incomplete and continues to involve opposing mimetic structures and alternate cycles of actually saving victims and committing violence against mimetic rivals in the name of victims.
I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.