This collaboration between a social work researcher with expertise in systems of care for those with disabilities and a literary scholar asks whether mimetic theory can shed light on relational dynamics surrounding children with intellectual disabilities. Data came from two sources: field experience with organizations in China and interviews with stakeholders of organizations in Michigan. The result is an interpretive model that identifies both negative and positive mimetic dynamics: cycles of violence involving rivalry and scapegoating and a “conversion spiral” triggered by exposure to models of compassionate care. This study offers an example of how mimetic theory can be studied through field work and applied to a practical context. In turn, it shows how practical application can extend mimetic theory. The authors present their work in dialogue format for reasons that are part of their discussion. Dennis Feaster is an associate professor of social work and Curtis Gruenler is a professor of English, both at Hope College.
Gruenler: Let’s start with how we came up with the idea for this project.
Feaster: This was my first exposure to mimetic theory. We met for coffee and you asked me what I was working on. I told you about some of the stuff I was doing in China with parents of kids with disabilities and professionals who work with kids with disabilities. There are so many cultural disincentives to parenting a child with a disability—like social stigma, financial burden, limited opportuni-ties—and to working with people with disabilities generally, kids especially. The opportunity cost is significant for workers. You could be doing something with much higher status and much higher financial reward in any sector. Why would people do this? One of the questions I asked was, “How did you find your way to these organizations?” And the pattern that came out was that usually people have been introduced to it through someone else.
My primary colleague in China, Xu Bing, first served as a translator for a British special educator named Rose who was in Zhengzhou to assist with a disability-inclusive early childhood education program. Rose and Xu Bing and three other Chinese educators went to an orphanage where all of the children had disabilities. Xu Bing didn’t really have any exposure to special education, to people with disabilities, or to orphan care, so it was a first for her on a lot of levels. The limited exposure that she did have with kids with disabilities was with an early childhood inclusion program. And she had begun to see how much it benefited kids and families, so she was primed for it. She described the kids she saw when they got to the orphanage: they were not very well cared for, they were dirty, their faces were a mess, many of them were drooling—stereotypical images for people with disabilities who are essentially being neglected. Rose’s face lit up and she held them and she loved them. And Xu Bing said it just changed the way that she looked at the world. The three teachers who were there were turned off. So four had the same experience of seeing these kids through another lens, and it changed one and didn’t change the others.
That pattern of being introduced to people with disabilities through those who already had a positive relationship was significant. We even called it in our coding “mediated exposure.” We actually had positive mediated exposure and negative mediated exposure. For a lot of people in China, their exposure to people with disabilities was as beggars in the street. That just reinforced the negative ste-reotypes, but being able to encounter a person with disabilities in a space that was safe essentially served as a guide. And when I talked about mediated exposure, you said that sounds like mimetic theory, and I said, “What’s that?”
G: Mimetic theory tends to come out as a theory of violence, because that’s how Girard formulated it. But the first thing that clicked for you was the conver-sion, Xu Bing’s core experience as first encountering the positive model. And that is also true to the theory in the sense that Girard came up with it in the context of his own conversion experience that he only talked about much later. James Alison writes about how we see our sin only from the perspective of being forgiven—the disciples can really see what was going on with Jesus only after the resurrection.1
F: Xu Bing for instance had—and I have—constant exposure to the violent bits of mimetic theory to the point that you’re aware of it without being conscious of it. But when you see the opposite happening that’s what grabs a person. With Xu Bing, what clicked for her absolutely turned off the other three—they were not able to connect to the conversion spiral. And in some sense it actually pushed them farther away. Xu Bing had had her own Christian conversion experience before that, and so maybe that was a factor.
G: The process of realization is itself mimetic. Mimesis mediates an under-standing of what someone else is thinking and feeling that allows you to get inside their head.
F: There has to be some kind of relationship for that to happen. It doesn’t necessarily have to be vulnerable—it can be violent. But there has to be a connec-tion between two people for that to happen.
G: That makes me think of the methodological aspect of this work in the sense that the social sciences are trying to be objective about collecting data and analyzing it empirically and yet also have to struggle with the reality that humans only understand each other through deeply sympathetic emotion where we bring our whole selves to it and we only really understand by loving.
F: Even the first stumbling, faltering steps of that love, which can be messy but that’s got to be. The data are important, and objectivity is certainly aspirational in some regard, but the real work lies in how we bring ourselves to one another, and in how the ensuing relationship is transformative. In interpersonal social work (and other mental health professions), a lot of attention is given to the nature of the working relationship and the “therapeutic alliance” that develops between client and clinician. In fact, seeing how this idea may be reflected in mimetic theory was one of the first things that attracted me to Girard when you first described it to me. Speaking of which, how did you first encounter Girard and mimetic theory?
G: When I was in graduate school I was looking for Christian models of think-ing about literary studies, and that’s when I started reading him
.F: Did you have mediated experience of him through another relationship, initially?
G: I had met Robert Hamerton-Kelly, the dean of the chapel at Stanford when I was an undergrad, through friends in the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship group, and he became quite close to Girard. Eventually I was able to meet Girard because Hamerton-Kelly set up some workshops for folks new to mimetic theory. Girard was already pretty old, but he sat in on some of the sessions. Several times I remember we would come to a question of what does mimetic theory really say about something and people would start looking in René’s direction, and he would just not engage. He was not interested in being the referee to make the call. It was so clear he was giving this away. I think partly he was very aware of renouncing rivalry and not wanting to be in the position to guard his status as the master or anything like that. As I’ve read about other people’s experience with him, there was a well-practiced habit of living out the theory, of renunciation, and behind that wanting the theory to be taken up by others in a community in order to see how far it could go and really make it something more than just whatever it would be for him, and therefore serve the greater truth and value of the idea.
F: Do you have a sense of what Girard would say about whether he created or discovered the theory?
G: He talks about his whole career being exploration or unfolding of one very dense insight. So certainly discovery rather than creation.2
The Importance of Dialogue
F: And that seems to be an integral part of who Girard was in that a lot of the parts of his theory are most readily distilled through interviews, his constant life of dialogue.3 Maybe there is an implicit methodology in there that might be worth exploring. What is it about dialogue? What are the pre-conditions for dia-logue to occur? What happens in a dialogue and after a dialogue that connects to Girard’s theory?
G: Even the research on mirror neurons that suggests a neurological basis of mimetic theory (see Kathryn Frost’s article in this issue) seems like part of a larger recognition of how we’re always in some kind of dialogue with other voices. It’s part of how we think. Even in solitude we’re simulating in our minds the voices that we know. And we make that explicit and maybe most powerful when we’re actually in dialogue.
F: There may even be a diabolical dimension to that in that I can be in ac-tive rivalry with you and you may not even know it if I’ve taken the idea and extrapolated that in my own head and I am in combat with my idea of you and my idea of your idea.
G: Actually being face to face makes explicit what the real dynamic is, and maybe it will quickly get unpleasant if the relationship is really all about rivalry, but the interaction summons those parts in us that enable us to really make space for someone else’s thinking.
F: If I’m actually in conversation with you, I at least have the opportunity to let you speak for yourself, and then I have to do something with that. In the political mimetic frenzy we’re in now, people are face to face and it has the appearance of dialogue, but each person is speaking to, in psychodynamic theory, this internal-ized object that they’re observing. So I’m really talking to that internalized object and somebody else is doing the same thing on the other side. We’re talking at each other but there’s no dialogue.
G: All real thought happens in dialogue, but dialogue can be exclusive or inclusive. You can have dialogue that’s a real meeting of the minds, but there’s still an over-against in which you’re creating your shared fortress against the rest of the world, in rivalry with everyone else. So dialogue is most productive when there is at least the implicit or imagined possibly of a third who would be included. What we’re doing with our conversation is imagining who would be reading this, how we could make the dialogue we’re having understandable to a possible third.4
F: Which relates to the 2016 project we did: looking at some of these phenom-ena through the lens of mimetic theory with students and with the goal of com-municating that more broadly to people who may have never heard of mimetic theory (or some of my colleagues in sociology who are dubious about the idea of a complex mimetic theory).
G: You were training the two students and me in how to do social science research at the same time that I was introducing mimetic theory. It was a rich interplay between these two modes of thinking and the data in front of us. What do we hear from the people we interviewed and how do we process that?
F: How do you distill mimetic theory into a functional set of ideas that we can actually begin to apply as a lens to understand the things we are observing? One of our shared interests was in the world of disabilities. I’ve seen how orga-nizations who serve people can get into rivalry because they’re doing things like competing for a limited amount of resources. And I would argue that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are the most under-resourced group across time and space.
G: I thought you were going to say not the most under-resourced but the most scapegoated. Any kind of otherness can mark someone for scapegoating, but we all have the potential of becoming the disabled other and will at some point, so it is a particularly loaded category. One of the famous ancient scapegoats Girard likes to discuss is Oedipus, who has a physical disability that makes him limp. Intellectual disabilities are not as visible, and yet what they affect is social func-tioning, which plays into all of the mimetic relational dynamics.
F: I’m expecting this person with intellectual and developmental disabilities to do their part in making me feel comfortable in a social interaction, and now I feel uncomfortable—I’m doing my part and I’m uncomfortable, therefore they must be the problem. We project all of our stuff on the innocent victims who have done no wrong other than being human.
G: And get marked as the guilty party for reasons that are essentially arbitrary.
F: People with intellectual and developmental disabilities are often the ca-naries in the coal mine. Where are they located, who’s helping them, who serves them, what voice do they have?G: Part of what makes this whole study seem robust is that you had already worked through all of your Chinese data and come up with a model that in the end only needed just a little bit of tweaking to become a really good model for the processes as understood through the lens of mimetic theory.
F: And without my knowing about mimetic theory. My dissertation work focused on orphan care in China. When I joined the faculty at Hope College, I shifted my focus to intact families of children with disabilities in China. Given my connection to key stakeholders from my dissertation work, I now had the op-portunity to interact more directly with the families of children with disabilities. Because of the intense vulnerability of this group, and because of the dearth of information in the professional literature, I began a two-year process of conduct-ing a situation analysis and needs assessment with regard to these families and the professionals and volunteers who serve them.
he first-year focus was on the experiences and perceptions of families of children with disabilities in China. I conducted qualitative, exploratory research on a convenience sample of parents of disabled children who participated in sum-mer activities with a program, unique in China to my knowledge, that focuses on supporting parents with children of disabilities (13 individual interviews as well as an additional 24 families in focus group sessions). The second year I focused on a convenience sample of professionals and volunteers (21 interviews with individuals and focus groups with another 43 professionals and volunteers).
Given the exploratory nature of my inquiry, I used a grounded theory approach.5 Rather than coming to the field with a hypothesis to test, grounded theory seeks to identify the theory implicit in the data. Working cross-culturally through translators and through transcriptions, this involved a process of open and axial coding of interviews to see what themes emerge within each interview and how those themes show up across interviews to create a model. The results of the coding were shared with stakeholders in China in order to receive feedback on the credibility and cross-cultural confirmability of the findings.
G: Explain the terms “open and axial.”
F: Open coding refers to the process of identifying themes and connections within a case and axial coding refers to this process between cases. There are multiple coders, so as we each independently read through an interview, what themes are we noticing, what ideas that might clump into themes? That would be an open coding process. In grounded theory methodology, previous analysis informs subsequent analysis. It might even show up in iterations of interview guide questions. That’s the axial coding piece. As we look at the themes that emerge in interview A, interview B, interview C, through interview Z, then what are we seeing across cases? The goal is to get to the centermost themes that would seem to explain as much as possible within each case and across cases. To use a solar system analogy, that central idea serves as the mass of the sun that holds all the planets in their orbits. That’s what the mimetic theory essentially seemed to provide, an elegant way to connect a lot of those things—what you and I eventu-ally called the violence loop and the conversion spiral.
That was our point of departure for our collaborative study: we brought in some of the raw, non-coded original transcripts from some of the parents and professionals in China and then did a series of interviews here of parents of people with disabilities and professionals in the US to see how these line up across cultures—in Zhengzhou, China, and in Holland, Michigan. Then we used the qualitative content analysis process, open and axial coding, but with the added lens of mimetic theory. That was one of the more challenging things for me to get my head around, because it’s not a pure grounded theory process if we have a lens that we’re looking through. So how does the lens highlight the dynamics that are illustrated in the interviews and across interviews?
G: You used the phrase “the theory implicit in the data,” which recognizes that there’s always theory implicit. Is this about dialogue again? The interviews are a dialogue in a sense between the researcher and the subject. The researcher brings a theory and the subjects bring theory too, and what theory is coming to light through all that? Whose theory?
F: I’m drawing on my previous life as a clinical social worker and working with people in therapeutic settings where that’s essentially what each session is, grounded theory. I might come with some cognitive-behavioral ideas, especially ideas for interventions—I have a theory set that helps me predict desired change or undesired change. But that does me no good if I don’t understand (and if the client doesn’t understand or doesn’t give voice to their understanding) the context that they’re functioning in. Now, as a social work prof, one of the things that I teach students is when you’re working with a client in micro-practice, let’s say one-to-one clinical relationship, you’ve got two experts in the room. You’ve got the social worker or the clinician who’s an expert on planned change and you’ve got the client who’s the expert on the client system. And you need both. Oftentimes what I’ve found when working with clients is the initial issue shows up, but what clients are really doing is assessing me to see if I’m safe, if I can be trusted, and so working through an initial issue is actually the gateway to working through some deeper issues, once I prove myself trustworthy. And that unlocks the door to the deeper place where deeper work can be done. In my mind that’s functional open and axial coding.
So methodologically I’m pretty pragmatic. In my mind what we’re doing as a research group is a process that shows up in the clinical world all the time. I want to hear the person’s voice explaining the situation from their perspective as much as possible without having that voice muted by my own projection of my theoretical perspectives. What we were doing was teasing out these different perspectives where people were saying: this is my experience, this is my life, these are the things I’m noticing, these are the strengths I recognize, needs I recognize, opportunities I want to have, and barriers that exist around me.
G: That was the framework we were using for the questions.
F: Strengths, needs, opportunities, and barriers. We took the questions that we asked of folks in China and asked those same questions to folks here in West Michigan to allow for the same parallel structure. And once we heard their voices, we looked through the mimetic theory lens to see what it showed us. And as an unapologetically pragmatic social worker: so what? Well, it actually suggested a lot of benefit in applications when working with the highly vulnerable in the communities.
Two Places, One Model
G: One of the interesting things about the setup is the difference between Holland, Michigan, and Zhengzhou, China.
F: One of the big differences between the China parent interviews compared to here is the role of social stigma. When I asked them “What are your needs? What are your barriers?” they described all of these deeply stigmatized social constructions that confined families and children with disabilities to deep social isolation. We don’t have that here in the same way or to the same extent. Stigma presented as a kind of invisible and all-pervasive force that had immediate and palpable effects, like gravity: you can’t directly perceive it, but you can’t escape it and you know it by its effects. And so in China when I ask about what are your hopes for your child, they would say the negative of the stigmatized social construction. It was to the point of “There’s no future for my child.” Parents of children with disabilities in China who I spoke with don’t have an end game. Here’s a representative quote:[This father] hopes that the community can someday understand and accept and have compassion with children with disabilities, including his child. It’s really hard for communities to understand and to accept children with disabilities. Even [this father’s] own parents don’t understand their grandchild and they don’t want to know about [autism and intellectual disabilities]…he want[s] his son to be able to someday grow up and to live with dignity in a community [that accepts him].
They’ve actually asked us in the US for what my colleague calls success stories, which they see as success stories but we see as regular life: this is how my son goes to school, the supports he gets at school, the system of the vocational train-ing that’s provided through governmental and nongovernmental organizations.
I expressed the conceptual model of findings from the 2014 parent interviews in this diagram:6
The Chinese parent interviews show this movement from lack of awareness or denial of disabilities on the part of the parent through the process of diagnosis, then a process of cure seeking. Which I’ve also heard in some of the interviews I’ve done here in West Michigan: from medical cure-seeking to relational intervention-seeking, with stigma driving the whole thing. But connections to other parents help to make the shift into intervention-seeking. Traditional Chinese medicine, as I understand it, doesn’t see something like Down syndrome as genetic (a Western medicine concept) and therefore incurable. People in China who have more means could pursue treatment more often, but I heard parents describe the sorrow they felt for putting the children through often painful treatments that didn’t work. The parents who had fewer resources were able to get connected into the inter-vention process that has better outcomes because they didn’t have the option. If I’m poor, I can’t pursue treatment even if I would like to. So they actually got connected to the thing that has better outcomes more quickly. There was a flow from denial and cure-seeking in the context of heavy stigma through a process of intervention-seeking, relationship, connection, and a general acceptance—from a traditional exposure pattern to an emerging exposure pattern.
The key finding from the interviews with Chinese professionals and volunteers who provide services to people with disabilities and their families highlighted a process of how attitudes and behaviors are shaped by exposure (or lack thereof) to persons with disabilities, both among themselves and in the broader community. We identified two competing models: a baseline model that produces historically normative stigmatizing and discriminating patterns, and an emerging model that provides “mediated” exposure by one or more persons who have an accepting attitude and who demonstrate supporting behaviors. Thus, people who held to stigmatizing understanding (“knowledge” in the diagrams below), attitudes, and behaviors had these reinforced through incidental exposure to people with dis-abilities as undesirable in the community (the stereotypical example was seeing people with disabilities begging in the street). In this case, the mediator was the cultural/social constructions around disability that interact with social stigma of people with disabilities. In the emerging exposure pattern, members of the gen-eral population have an experience of people with disabilities and their families that is mediated by a more accepting attitude and a different set of assumptions about inherent worth that is modelled by a competent interlocutor. The status and power of this interlocutor helps allow a new pattern of interpretation to emerge as a result (especially among younger members of the community who may have less socialization/buy-in to traditional stigmatizing patterns). In these diagrams, the background shading indicates a constant level of stigma in the baseline pattern and a decreasing level in the emergent pattern:
Here are two quotations from interviews in China that show the typical ex-posure pattern: “I didn’t have any relationship with disabled people and I wasn’t aware of them. It just seems they are very far away from my life. I didn’t have a chance to meet them, so they never appear in my life, my world, so I never think about that.” “There was a person in the extended family who has some mental disability, his intelligence is not very high. The other people call him stupid or idiot…at that time, I didn’t think a lot about it.”
This quotation reflects the emerging exposure pattern:
Before I knew nothing about [disabilities]. But [a special education teacher from England] taught me a lot. She is such a nice lady; she just loves the kids and their parents so much, and the way that she showed to the parents that she loves them, that really touched my heart…[now] I do feel I have a burden for the kids. I do worry about them, their future—I do worry about that.
The traditional exposure pattern comes from a culture in which its religious traditions—Buddhism and Daoism—have reincarnation as an essential reality of life. This is amplified in Confucian thought, in which filial piety is a paramount social good. How do you understand life? Cause and effect, karma and dharma. So if somebody enters life with intellectual or developmental disability, then why? Expiation of previous karmic burden, incurred either by the individual or, worse, their parents. For the parents, the very presence of a child with a disability is an affront to filial piety.
G: Who sinned, this man or his parents? The man born blind (John chapter 9).
F: That’s actually the passage of scripture that my colleague Xu Bing used with these twelve parents of kids with disabilities that first changed things around for them. None of them were Christian, but she used that story to illustrate what’s going on, and it did induce some hope—anger and hope. That’s the traditional exposure: either this person is being punished now for something they’ve done before, or their parents screwed up and are being punished by their child’s presence in their life. But that exposure pattern typically happens without a relationship that exposes one to the actual person and not simply to the broad social phenomena of a person with a disability. In the emerging exposure pattern, people came into relationship more deeply and this changed their understanding of people with disabilities. So the traditional exposure pattern was seen as being very isolating, stigmatizing, while the emerging social pattern was more inclusive and offered ac-ceptance. And that happened through social models—it was contagious in a sense.
G: Mediated exposure.
F: That happens in the emerging exposure pattern.
G: In our US interviews, we found the same contrast of exposure models.
There was the basic contrast between stigma and acceptance, which we started to put in terms of mimetic theory as identification with the victim. In the parent interviews, there was a movement from cure-seeking to intervention-seeking, which we linked to the difference between medical and social conceptions of dis-ability. Cure-seeking looks like Girard’s interpretation of “scandal” in the Gospels as an obstacle to mimetic desire that increases desire and leads to fixation, whereas intervention-seeking enables exposure to a different model of desire, desire for a different notion of health as being a member of a community and compassion for the victim. In the interviews with US professionals we saw that, as in China, the movement from the culturally typical exclusion pattern to the emerging, socially inclusive pattern involved cultivating mutual support cycles, a priority on relationships over systems.
F: The process of entering into deep community with individuals or groups who have been historically “othered” was not reflected in the data sources as being a momentous, one-time conversion. Rather, it reflected cycles over time of increas-ing awareness of and identification with vulnerable groups. These cycles move from rejection to pity to empathy and ultimately to deep identification and com-munion. Building these cycles into practical service delivery and advocacy work may help to focus efforts and conserve scarce resources. We put all this together in a conceptual model of the “mimetic continuum” between a violence loop and a conversion spiral that suggests potential applications of mimetic theory in working with communities around the issue of disability and other marginalized groups:
From the Violence Loop to the Conversion Spiral
F: So at one end of the flow we connected the violence loop that is implicit in the traditional exposure pattern. It’s the traditional exposure pattern in terms of developmental disabilities in China, but it could also be the traditional exposure pattern in terms of Christianity and people who are LGBTQ here. We located that at one end of a spectrum from negative to positive and asked how it might fit a mimetic understanding of violence as a cycle. What would be at the most negative end of the spectrum is the threat of a mimetic frenzy, the threat of a social breakdown in anarchy and chaos…of violence between everyone. That can be solved by the scapegoating process to bring everyone back together, but it repeats in a loop. Once we had that, well what’s the other end of the spectrum? What does community look like? The idea of shalom and its central meaning of wholeness, being made whole, was present there in distinction to chaos at the other end of the spectrum.7 So how do we get from this violence loop and the threat of chaos with its short-term order (that’s always going to have to be reestablished at the expense of somebody else) to shalom, to wholeness, completeness? There had to be some sort of process between those two. Then we wrestled with what that looks like. Is that a loop? There was a linear piece there but we also saw a cyclical dimension to it that then suggests the spiral: a spiral moving from the violence loop to wholeness. But at any point in that spiral the threat of returning to the violence loop was also present.
G: Mimetic theory’s radically relational view of the human person, constantly prone to imitate all the models of desire we are exposed to, provides a framework for thinking more dynamically about relational processes. It provides a basis for understanding better why building strong relationships is the goal.
F: And social work doesn’t own that, but it’s where I learned it, the discipline I draw from, but it’s also something that as a profession we are really conscious of. My wife, who’s also a social worker, works with kids from birth to age five who experienced trauma or have some developmental challenges, and she works a lot with parenting. When parents get frustrated, the old model is, “Kid you’re frustrating me, you’re pissing me off, so I’m going to spank you.” The spanking is more of a release—it makes the parents feel better, but it doesn’t do much to correct the kid’s behavior. It’s not a very effective way to change the behavior. One of her mantras is “connection before correction.” There’s a reason the kid is doing this. All behavior is functional, someone’s trying to meet a need the best they can. So connect first, then correct, because part of that connection takes some of that energy out of parental frustration. Like me seeing my child as an impediment to the thing that I need to do right now, which may be something necessary, like getting ready for school. The parental need may be fine, but if I don’t refocus on my kid as my child, instead of the thing that’s standing between me and the thing I need to do, I miss it. It’s through focusing on the connection and the relationship that we can eventually get to work on some other necessary stuff.
G: Connection before correction fits right into the model of the violence loop and the conversion spiral. Particularly the sense that correction will reestablish control in a predictable, loop fashion. But connection—I don’t know what that’s going to look like.
F: So we have to give up some control for really connecting versus I’m simply exploiting a semblance of connection so I can better understand you and know where the handles are so that I can control you and control the situation. That’s maybe an insidious approach to it. But a true connection is organic. For the relationship to be alive requires giving up some control, which requires trust.
Maybe it’s that connection before correction that drives the conversion loop, that has to be operating on some level in order to move any farther. Maybe that’s one of the counter-currents that works against the gravity of human nature that continues to pull us down towards the violence loop.
G: The violence loop relates to Girard’s understanding of scapegoating vio-lence. Scapegoating is an effective way of controlling violence and preventing a runaway situation—the sort of runaway that we’re always liable to because of the proliferation of mimetic rivalry. So it’s always a sort of prophylactic in that sense.
F: Connection through correction.
G: It preserves something that could otherwise be lost to runaway violence and it has the virtue of being pretty predictable and repeatable. That’s what ancient religion is, and that’s where all of our other institutions and relational patterns come from—all that has shaped us as human communities. The alternative always opens us up to the risk of not having that stable loop in place. When things are dysfunctional I’m often hoping to set up a functional order that would be stable, but mimetic theory clarifies for me the ways in which dysfunctionality is always more stable and functionality requires a kind of continual improvisation and creativity.
F: Faith that if we invest in relationship over efficiency it’ll work out.
G: We’re not going to buy a system that’s going to provide this for you.
F: Social work is heavily invested in ecosystems theory, which looks at com-plex human structures and their functions and relationships in a given space. It’s one of the meta-theories that helps social work to organize its practice theories. I think that becomes its own danger because maybe it’s a refinement, a less brutal form of the violence loop. But it’s still a violent loop.
G: And the spiral captures the sense that the positive orders are dynamic. They don’t have the same kind of stability, they’re more open ended and require more creativity. They aren’t describable as fixed systems.
F: Yes, they are more like attitudes, or openness or willingness—the willingness to try and fail and try again to see what works in order to seek the benefit of another in some way.
G: Did we ever isolate the modeling of desire specifically, what showed in the first story about Rose as the model and her reaction to the kids? A loving reaction, but it seems like there’s a desire there, the imitation of desire that Girard talks about as the driver of other things like imagination and behavior.
F: This is one of the things that the scholar part of me doesn’t know what to do with. The social work part of me kind of cringes at this, but there’s the pragmatic me that just sees what I’m seeing, and that is the role of religion. So what my col-league Xu Bing told me was that Rose was a Christian. She came to China to help people who work with people with disabilities because people with disabilities were important to her because they were all children of God and everyone is cre-ated in the image of God. So that kid with cerebral palsy who is drooling, whose face hasn’t been washed in three days, who smells bad, is every bit the child of God that I am. Probably more so in some ways, because they’re (presumably) less bound by social constructions. So what Rose was reacting to was the image of the One she loved. And what Xu Bing was reacting to was Rose’s reaction to the image of the One that she loved. And Xu Bing had had her own conversion exposure; at that point she was a Christian. She had the language to understand what that was, and my guess is that the other three weren’t Christian and did not have that shared language.
G: It’s a tricky thing in mimetic theory. What Girard might say is that the alternative to all the violent patterns is imitating Christ. And to break that down in terms of unconscious imitation of desire, what is the desire that is being imitated in that model? With Christ there’s clearly a renunciation of rivalry and of acquisitive desire. But when we see Jesus say “Let the little children come to me,” welcoming the lepers and other outcasts, what desire is he modeling? It’s desire for shalom. It’s a desire for the kingdom of God in the sense of a community of shalom, which Jesus is teaching about and helping people to imagine through the parables.
F: The kingdom of Heaven is not a zero-sum game, and it’s much bigger than right here and right now. I don’t have to worry about getting mine because mine has been already provided for me. Instead I can focus on helping, and actually the more I focus on helping someone else the more it becomes mine. You can’t institutionalize love. If you do, you kill it. It stops being love and starts being something else. That cycle has to be fluid and organic and dynamic and open.
G: Is that partly how mimetic theory interfaces with what already goes on in social work and sociology, what it resonates with or clarifies in particular?
F: We don’t usually talk about love just because we define that so differently, and English is poor for expressions of love: I love my wife; I love my dog; I love pizza; I love my old shoes; I love the Cubs. Maybe one of the huge benefits of mimetic theory is it lets us see that if we really do want to get out of the violence loop, it’s love that moves us into deeper shalom. If God is God and he’s really big and he loves us, and the Good News is really good news, you kinda can’t screw up. You can make it harder, but the battle is won. Like C. S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, if a person is coming from another faith tradition but they’re focusing on compassion, they are focusing on giving voice to the other. I don’t have to get stuck on what pictures are hanging up in your house; I can focus rather on the shared value of compassion.
G: Mimetic theory seems like it provides a way of talking about love, conceiv-ing how that comes into play in relational dynamics. It gives you a somewhat scientific, functional language for talking about love.8
F: So those are all of the things we describe in the conversion spiral. When we look at the components that had to be present for it, there was openness, there was the deeply Girardian idea of identifying with the victim, all things that might be functional dimensions of love. And maybe one of the really important contributions that mimetic theory makes is that it’s describing love and how that actually shows up functionally. We’ll quibble about love, but when we talk about an open system, I can operationalize that pretty clearly. When we’re talking about the violence loop and the conversion spiral and we’re talking about the system—like the iterative, mechanical nature of the violence loop versus the spontaneous, organic nature of the conversion spiral—I think of Jesus and the disciples and the sort of spontaneity and the aliveness among them, and the same aliveness and lack of dogma that shows up in some of my favorite stories of Daoist saints. Or Zen masters. They’re wild, they’re out there, but they’re onto something. It’s that aliveness. It’s that I’m free from an essentially dead system and into life.
G: That’s like the difference between Dante’s Inferno and Paradiso, too. And one of the things that’s helpful to me about mimetic theory is dialogue with theology, such as thinking about original sin. In the model, the forces that pull toward the violence loop are always there, like this force of gravity, while inputs needed to keep the conversion spiral going require attention and creativity and a model of something else.
F: And a divine miracle maybe.
G: Yeah, grace for sure. The pull towards the violence loop comes from inside of us in ways that theology talks about as original sin, something we carry as indi-viduals, but the big piece that mimetic theory adds for me is this huge, historical understanding of how the origin of humanity in an anthropological sense comes out of violence loops essentially, through the scapegoating mechanism at the origin of culture, which thus shapes us all so deeply (see the introduction to this issue). And this understanding of sin is relational; it’s how we form community through the same violence. We see it in particularly egregious ways around the care for those with disabilities, but it’s the same thing.
F: That’s the unconsciousness part of the theory. I’m trying to remember how you described it to me…the fact that it operates because it’s unconscious and that ritual sort of pulls it into consciousness and it helps us—well, the Judeo-Christian story pulls that into consciousness and helps us to….
G: …choose something other than violence.
F: That’s interesting in terms of grace and the role of choice. If it becomes more conscious, then will we choose to participate in violence or will we choose to participate in conversion? We can’t “not imitate” but we are free to choose who we will imitate. Not who we are, but whose we are.
G: Who your master is in the sense of who is your model. And for Christians that model is Christ who rejects the violence loop and initiates the conversion spiral.
Cite this article
- See James Alison, Knowing Jesus (Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1994) and The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (New York: Crossroad, 1998).
- See James Alison, “Stretching Girard’s Hypothesis: Road Marks for a Long Term Perspec-tive,” in Violence and the Sacred in the Ancient Near East, ed. Ian Hodder (Cambridge: Cam-bridge University Press, 2019), 188-208.
- His magnum opus, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987) is a dialogue with Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort. See also, most recently, Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy, ed. Cynthia L. Haven (London: Bloomsbury, 2020).
- See Marie-Louis Martinez, “For a Non-violent Accord: Educating the Person,” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 6 (1999): 55-76.
- See M. Q. Patton, Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods, 4th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2014).
- Dennis Feaster and Aaron Franzen, “From Stigma to Acceptance: Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in Central China,” Journal of Intellectual Disabilities (2020): 1744629520923264. https://doi.org/10.1177/1744629520923264 (advance online publication).
- On shalom, see Nicholas Wolterstorff, Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).
- See Warren S. Brown, Scott R. Garrels & Kevin S. Reimer, “Mimesis and Compassion in Care for People with Disabilities,” Journal of Religion, Disability & Health 15.4 (2011): 377-394.