René Girard and Bruno Latour: An Intellectual Kinship?

I don’t know if Bruno will write a few words of reflection following the sad news of the passing of René Girard last week. He has done so before for those he has considered intellectual companions of one sort or another. Perhaps he will do so again

At any rate, we might take the opportunity to consider for a moment the extent of the potential cross-pollination between their two bodies of work—these two quintessentially French thinkers whose oeuvres seem, in many ways, more at home in an Anglophone register.

Rene

As it happens, I’ve raised the subject of Girard with Bruno during interview—his response has bespoken both personal respect and more than a passing scholarly interest in mimetic theory, albeit that he has always chosen to interact with it somewhat from afar. In addition, on an intellectual biographical note, it’s interesting to note the triangle that encompasses these two with Michel Serres (although it should be remembered that Girard was a generational peer of Serres in a way that Latour, being the ‘next generation down’, wasn’t; see Latour’s reminiscence of attending Serres’ seminars as a beguiled student here, p.10; or James Williams’ fascinating reminiscences of Stanford life in the shadow of Girard and Serres as collaborative intellectual titans here).

Of course, the primary reference to Girard in Latour’s work is found in the second chapter of We Have Never Been Modern (1991, 1993), where it crops up in the context of a discussion of Modernity and its capacity to sanction critique.

But first, a brief digression to another text entirely … Latour’s wonderful discussion with Michel Serres entitled Eclaircissements (1995). There, the following comment is made about the ‘sanctioning’ of critique:

Have you noticed that the term ‘sanctioned’ comes both from the law and from religion, to reaffirm the ‘sanctified’? (Eclaircissements, p.53).

In considering this matter of Modern critique, then (that is, the capacity of the Modern constitution to sanction critique against itself, against others, or whatever), we immediately find ourselves in the somewhat Girardian register of the ‘sacred’.

Well then, turning back to We Have Never Been Modern, we can now see that it is within the framework of the Girardian ‘sacred’—this quasi-religious pharmakon mechanism of humanity, both fully operative and fully concealed to the self-consciousness of those practising it—that the Moderns’ capacity for critique must be understood. Modern critique, in Latour’s terms, most certainly is a sacred phenomenon:

  • On the one hand, the Moderns use ‘the power of critique’ to barefacedly assert their transcendence and finality over other collectives: in this sense, critique is a tool, it has provided them with ‘justification for their attacks and for their operations of unveiling’ (We Have Never Been Modern, p.43, and all subsequent references).
  • And yet, on the other hand, the Moderns have simultaneously closed down and concealed the functioning of critique. It is that ‘thing hidden before the beginning of the world’. We’ve already seen some of this in our study of the various ‘locks’ enacted in the Modern constitution. As with the entire epistemology of the Moderns, its functioning is hidden to themselves, and thus sacred: ‘the very foundation of the modern critique […] turns out to be ill-assured’; ‘the upper ground for taking a critical stance seems to have escaped us’ (We Have Neverp.43). As a result, the practise of critique is really wielded as a weapon in order to scapegoat others: ‘critical unmasking […] was only a matter of choosing a cause for indignation and opposing false denunciations with as much passion as possible. To unmask: that was our sacred task, the task of us moderns’ (We Have Neverp.44).

Pace Boltanski and Thévenot (2006, 1991), then, Latour sees his task in the Girardian register as one of revealing, unveiling, laying bare, disclosing, publicising, exposing, ‘debunking’ the power of critique—or better, getting alongside a dispensation of history that is doing that work anyway (the Anthropocene). The ‘scapegoating mechanism’ (We Have Neverp.44) of Modern critique ‘no longer has the privilege of rising above the actor by discerning, beneath his unconscious actions, the reality that is to be brought to light’ (We Have Neverp.44). This has eerie resonance with the late-Girardian (by which I mean Achever Clausewitz, 2007) diagnostic of secular modernity as characterised by a progressive draining-away of the protection that was previously offered by the sacred against the inevitable escalation of mimetic contagion, and indeed by an increasing disregard for the katéchon potential of the Gospel itself.

For both Latour and Girard, then, the simple fact is that the Moderns can no longer make sincere accusations—the very ground on which they have done so up to now has been eroded from under them. That particular arrow of ‘progress’ has turned around (as Latour demonstrates via the choric movements of dancer, Stephanie Ganachaud).

STEPHANIE GANACHAUD JOUE L’ANGE DE LA GEOHISTOIRE from Bruno Latour on Vimeo.

Or, to put it another way, we might say that both Latour and Girard are apocalyptic in their commitment to ‘unveil’ (We Have Never, p.43) the chimera of a supervenient, sacred power that humanity has claimed to itself as a function of its own putative hegemony over a scapegoated other.

It is a little unfortunate that in We Have Never Been Modern Latour then slips into accusatory mode against Girard: the accusation he advances is that, according to Girard’s formulation, the object of Modern critique is faceless and arbitrary: it doesn’t really matter who or what the victim of the group lynching is, only that he/ it is available to be used for the scapegoat mechanism. Latour condemns Girard in this way for overloading the theatre of the human subject. Subsequent analysis (remember, Latour’s text is over 25 years old now) has shown that mimetic theory has a far greater role for the nonhuman object than this (see, for example, Girard’s own response in the excellent Evolution and Conversion, 2007). But this shouldn’t conceal the schematic synergies of their concepts of Modernity at large.

Requiescat in pace.

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