The Imitation Game: US-Iran Relations

We now have an agreement with Iran to restrain their pursuit of nuclear weapons, but just how good a deal is it? President Obama, congress, presidential contenders, and political commentators are debating that right now. Sojourners offers clear-eyed support for the deal as “better than the alternatives” and clearly better than military strikes which “would be, at best, premature, as well as highly unpredictable and morally irresponsible in creating yet another U.S. war with a Muslim country.”

Even so, Sojourner’s President Jim Wallis has written that he has no doubt that Iran is “an enemy of America, an enemy of Israel, and an enemy of peace.” But as a Christian, he also believes that “you need to find ways to make peace with your enemies.” This deal, for Jim Wallis anyway, seems to be a way to do that. But how do you make peace with a nation that is not just our enemy, but an enemy of peace itself?

Just what is an enemy? We don’t often ask that question because we think the answer is obvious: enemies are bad guys who hate us for no good reason. An enemy is so unlike us that we compare ourselves to them in terms of opposites: rational/ irrational, nonviolent/ violent, law abiding/ criminal, and just/ unjust. We believe that we and our enemy have absolutely nothing in common except perhaps a shared desire to defeat the other.

The Terrible Twos: A Parable

But I think that way of thinking about enemies is just plain wrong. The cause of the mistake is a basic misunderstanding of human psychology, specifically the psychology of desire. Our enemies are not our opposites; they are the mirror image of our desires. In this way, “an enemy” is not someone separate and distinct from us, rather they are a product of our relationship with them. The best way I know of illustrating this is with a story about desire in my 2-year-old granddaughter, Grace.

Grace is at that “terrible” age when her desires often seem at odds with the adults around her. But mostly she’s not as terrible as just annoying. Like when she won’t eat her own food but devours what’s on her mom’s plate or when she wants to “help” fold the clothes. Like all terrible twos, Grace is an imitator on steroids. Whatever we do, that’s what she wants to do, too. Which is how she learns to do things, of course. Grace is learning how to be a grown-up by imitating grown-ups. Which is natural and good, not terrible at all.

The terrible kicks in when Grace seems to be determined to do the opposite of what we want. For example, when we try to do something we think she needs help with, like pour her milk, she screams, which is her wordless version of, “You’re not the boss of me!” If we insist on pouring the milk for her, it leads to the dreaded power struggle. Hey, what parent hasn’t gotten into a tug of war over pouring milk or bedtime or what to wear to school, and lost?! Our kids seem determined to defy us just for the sport of it and it’s hard not to feel that our sweet two-year-old has turned into a demon child.

But here’s the catch: Grace’s defiance is also an act of imitation except that she’s imitating something we want to keep sole possession of: the power to decide things for ourselves. Get it? When mom displays her own ability to make decisions and impose her will on Grace, Grace will have none of it. She wants to be just like mommy in everything, including being the boss of herself! In fact, the more we refuse to share the privilege of being her boss, the more desirable it becomes to her. We would never call Grace our enemy, but boy oh boy, it sure does feel like it sometimes!

The Psychology of Desire

This is just basic desire psychology. The thing we won’t share is the thing we most value and that will provoke desire in others. So what does this have to do with Iran, the so-called enemy of the U.S.? Iran may be our enemy, but her desire for nuclear weapons is, in fact, a perfect imitation of our own. I am not discounting the dangers to U.S. security if nuclear weapons get into the wrong hands. No hands could be more wrong than those of an enemy, especially one that is also an “enemy of peace”. But the U.S. may risk becoming an enemy of peace as well when it blames others for desires they learned from us.

Let me be clear: Iran is no more a child than we are. We are equals, mirror images of each other’s desires for nuclear weapons and global respect. I’m no expert in diplomacy or nuclear policy, but I do know that conflict begins with shared desires. Ironically, so does friendship. The difference between enemies and friends is that friends enjoying sharing desires and enemies deny it’s happening. Remember, if Iran refuses to relinquish their desire for nuclear weapons, it’s not defiance; it’s imitation. And yet it may be easier than we think to follow Jim Wallis’ advice to find a way to make peace with this particular enemy. The path is obvious and available to us: we can renounce our desire for a nuclear arsenal. That’s a desire worth sharing and enjoying with friends.


Image: Copyright: David Carillet via

Dancing with Mimetic Theory

martha grahamThere are two related misconceptions about what mimetic theory says about being human: that (1) we are inherently violent and (2) unavoidably slavish imitators, incapable of individual or original expression. Mimetic theory, a theory of violence and imitation, says nothing of the sort, in fact it leads to the opposite conclusions. The problems arise because of misconceptions about violence and imitation that most of us bring with us, clouding our ability to see the ways in our preconceptions are being undone.

Mimetic theory is the brainchild of René Girard who chose to use the Greek word “mimetic” rather than imitation to name his theory in large part to head off the misconceptions that we are talking about today. For Girard, human mimeticism is our defining characteristic, the thing that separates us from other animals and which makes possible the amazing diversity and flourishing of human culture. Without our ability to imitate, in other words, to learn from one another, we would have remained bound by instinct, as unable as a horse to create French cuisine or a mouse to speak Chinese. Freed from instinctual behavior we became tool makers and artists, musicians and storytellers. Able to pass on our knowledge to the next generation because of our mimetic abilities, each generation has built on the success of what has come before it.

Does this mean that human beings are therefore incapable of original thinking or individual expression? To the contrary, and this is the second reason Girard chose the word mimetic over imitation. Imitation implies carbon copying, which is precisely not what mimetic behavior is about. Each of us brings something to the mimetic process, our own genetic makeup and unique experiences, through which all of what we absorb and learn from others is filtered, sifted and made new. You may detect hints of the nature/ nurture debate here, which, from Girard’s perspective is not a divide but a dance. Martha Graham, the mother of modern dance, was well aware of this interplay between us and the world, and this quote is one of the best expressions I have ever read of what our mimetic natures make possible.

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU. Keep the channel open… No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others. [As quoted in “Dance to the Piper and Promenade Home” (1982) by Agnes de Mille]

Theologians working with Girard’s theory would approve of Graham’s acknowledging the presence of a “divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest” in all of us. Girard’s insight that desire itself is mimetic, that we learn what to love and hate, bless and curse through the mimetic process leads to a profound theological insight. All the things our culture teaches us to desire, all the objects, the people, the experiences, the admiration and prestige, all these things are but attempts to satisfy our desire for a source of being where we can rest safely and be held securely. For Christians, this source of being is God. The Christian life, then, is the process of learning to let go of our culture’s claim that we can satisfy our desire for being in worldly things in order to receive our desires from God who loves us beyond imagining. Receiving desires from God does not remove us from the world, but returns us to the world imbued with God’s love and forgiveness for all of Creation, including ourselves. As Graham so beautifully put it, to fully unleash our creative potential we must keep the channel to the divine open without judgment as to our own contributions.

Girard recognized that there is an inevitable but not necessary outcome of learning what to desire from others, which is that we will come into conflict for things we have learned to desire together. Violence flows from this conflict over shared desires, what Girard calls mimetic rivalry, but violence and even rivalry are not necessary or essential human qualities. Our mimeticism is our defining human characteristic. That it can lead to either the powerful and unique expression of a Martha Graham or the self-destructive violence of feuds and warfare is our blessing and our curse. Therein also lies our choice, as the ancient wisdom found in the book of Deuteronomy 30:19:

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.

Being mimetic means that we are unique among the creatures of the world, blessed or perhaps burdened by choice. Whether we express ourselves through violence or dance is up to us.

Iraq and North Korea: The Lies We All Believe

Today, March 19, 2013, is the tenth anniversary of the Shock and Awe campaign that was intended to rid the world of the threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. As it turned out, the threat was a lie. There was ample evidence at the time to prove that the WMDs didn’t really exist, but were manufactured in Saddam’s imagination for political gain.

Morpheus meme -- the lies that lead us to violence

Morpheus drops a truth bomb about the lies that lead us to violence.

So why did we fall so easily for his lie? Answers to this question often come via an analysis of the particulars of the Iraqi situation and include discourse about oil fields, geopolitical calculations, even psychological analysis of the relationship of Father and Son Bush. These are good discussions to have. We can learn a great deal from them about our thirst for security and insatiable appetite for oil, political power, and revenge.

But there is another layer of analysis we need to include or we will be unable to see through similar lies when they come our way again. As peace journalist Bob Koehler wrote in a recent article, “No matter how many lies are at the foundation of a given war, no matter how disastrously unnecessary and destructive — oops — it turns out to be in retrospect, the myth of war is ever-unsullied: This time the danger is really there. This time it’s crucial that we carpet bomb civilians, then send in our boys and girls to clean out the enemy insurgents. This time it’s really for democracy and the American Dream and a good night’s sleep.”

The question has particular urgency now because we are falling hard for another liar, Kim Jong-un of North Korea. With the gullibility of a child who cannot learn from his mistakes, the United States is bolstering our missile defenses along our western shoreline, convinced that the threat of an attack by Kim’s intercontinental missiles is real. Like Saddam’s lie, Kim’s is characterized by a belief that all liars and their victims share: that violence is the singular method by which we gain respect, power, security and peace.

The lie that no other method comes close to matching violence’s efficacy in achieving these four most desirable objectives is accepted as unequivocally true. In fact, our pursuit of these aims through violence offers a powerful confirmation to the also-rans in world domination (everyone else) that if they want American success and power (and of course, we want them to want it as a confirmation that we are as desirable as we think we are), they would do wise to observe and imitate us. And when we are imitated, our imitators speak our language. Why wouldn’t we believe them? Here’s how our shared belief in violence plays out and why we believe the lie:

  • Our stockpiles of nuclear weapons and the variety of ways we have to deliver those weapons provides us with our greatest sense of security. We cannot imagine why Kim wouldn’t want the same thing, and so we believe his lies.
  • We are not only #1 in the world, but we will not accept second place. We cannot imagine why Kim wouldn’t want the same thing, and so we believe his lies.
  • Having the capacity to attack anyone, anywhere within minutes is the crowning achievement of our defense shield. We cannot imagine why Kim wouldn’t want the same thing as urgently as we do, devoting the lion’s share of his country’s resources to accomplish his goal, and so we believe his lies.

Because Saddam, Kim, Bush and Obama — in fact, all world leaders — and so many of us, their followers, believe in the legitimacy and efficacy of violence; we believe each other’s lies. Because the world is governed by power gained and defended violently, we are paralyzed into a lockstep of mindless imitation as we share one another’s faith in a lie. This is what Jesus meant when he identified the Satanic force among us as the Father of Lies. (John 8:44)

When we believe the First Lie, we succumb to the infinitely long chain of lies that descend from it. Faith in violence begets more violence and dulls the imagination. Is there another way to gain respect, power, security and peace? Of course there is but our imagination has been so dulled that we cannot see what is right in front of our faces: peace and security can only be achieved and sustained through non-violent means. Period. True.

We are faced with a choice to believe in the Father of Lies or in the Son whose passion we will soon commemorate. We will not find shock and awe at the cross, only the humility of one who suffers torture and death to dispel our faith in it.

Jesus saved the world not by inflicting violence, but by suffering it. The Father of Lies endorses violence; the Son reveals it for a lie. Can a nation choose the path of Christ and survive in this world of violence? I don’t know for sure, because I can’t think of an example of a nation that has tried. But I also cannot think of a nation that has endured. That thought could be a starting place for a healthy and redemptive exercise in doubt.

Romney and Obama Agree: Peace and a Culture of Violence

What I believe is we have to … change the culture of violence that we have. – Mitt Romney

We’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime. – Barack Obama

The definitive renunciation of violence, without any second thoughts, will become for us the condition … for the survival of humanity itself and for each one of us. – René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, 137.

AP Photo

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will duke it out in another debate tonight, this time on foreign policy. Each candidate will attempt to make distinctions between his foreign policy and his opponent’s, and each will accuse the other of being a threat to our national security. Each will claim that his foreign policy is uniquely capable of make the world more peaceful. But don’t be fooled by their claims to be distinct or their claims to peace. The fact is that both Romney and Obama fundamentally agree on foreign policy. And, tragically, they are both a threat to our national security.

Mitt Romney used a phrase in last week’s presidential debate that is central to our pursuit peace both in the United States and in the world. That phrase was “culture of violence.” Romney and Obama, along with the vast majority of Americans, agree that we have to “change the culture of violence that we have.” The goal, of course, is to change our culture of violence into its opposite – a culture of peace. But there is a crucial component to making this change that neither candidate will debate tonight: Our methods for changing our culture of violence.

There are primarily two methods that people use to change a culture of violence into a culture of peace. Romney and Obama believe in the same method – there is no distinction between them. They believe that to change a culture of violence into a culture of peace we must use violence. Paul Ryan summed up this belief during the Vice Presidential debate when he said, “Look. Do we believe in peace through strength? You bet we do.” The “strength” Ryan was referring to was strength in military violence. Obama agrees with Romney and Ryan, and he continues to remind us about his violent strength in hunting down our enemies.

If using violent methods with the hope of changing a culture of violence seems like an absurd contradiction to you, that’s because it is. As the anthropologist René Girard has warned, violence is supremely imitative. This is why Romney and Obama are threats to our own national security. Violence as a means to achieve peace will only lead to cycles of violence with our enemies. And we will each commit acts of violence in the name of peace. Humans, whether on a national or individual level, always think that the “other” is the violent aggressor who made the first blow and that peace can only be achieved if we rid ourselves of our enemies. “No one ever feels they are the aggressor,” Girard stated, “people always have the impression that the other is the first to attack” (Battling to the End, 18).

Adding to the problem of a foreign policy that is based on peace through violence is our violence at home. Violence is interconnected. Our violent foreign policy infects our national identity with violence. The belief that violence can defeat a culture of violence has infected our nation. We are taught that if someone uses verbal, physical, or emotional violence against you, peace requires that you use violence in return. We are thus infected by a culture of violence on a national and global scale. The infection of violence will continue to have disastrous consequences unless we find alternatives. Girard warns that the imitative “character of violence is so intense that once violence is installed in a community, it cannot burn itself out” (Violence and the Sacred, 81). Violence cannot burn itself out, and so everyone near violence will get burned. Unfortunately, neither presidential candidate is serious about offering an alternative means to peace. Until they do, we will all continue to get burned.

Fortunately, there are alternative means to peace. Ryan is correct that peace will come through strength, but it will never come through a violent strength. True peace requires the strength to renounce all forms of violence. We must have the courage to become anti-violent – not in a way that leads us violently over and against others we think are violent. Rather, we need to become anti-violent in a way that fosters a new identity within ourselves, within our communities, and within our world. This new identity has the courage to recognize that the only way to transform cultures of violence into cultures of peace is to use peaceful means. This new identity doesn’t seek to hunt our violent enemies down. Instead, it takes responsibility for our own violence and seeks to change our ways of violence into ways of peace. Many will accuse the “peaceful means” method as a sign weakness. That accusation is false. Confronting violence with imaginative forms of nonviolence takes great courage and strength. And it’s the only hope for our future. We are coming to a crossroads in human history – the point where violence will burn us all in a hell of our own making if we don’t find alternative, peaceful means of creating cultures of peace. Those alternatives involve forgiveness, reconciliation, and love.

But, tonight you won’t hear our presidential candidates inspiring us to create peace through peaceful means. Tragically, our candidates are enslaved to a culture of violence that attempts to use violence to create peace. It’s time we offered a different vision – the vision of peace through the strength of peaceful means.

AP Photos

Political Debates: Addicted to Zingers

I’m looking forward to the debates. Let’s put it that way. – Mitt Romney

I know folks are speculating already on who’s going to have the best zingers. Who is going to put the most points on the board? – Barack Obama

I’m looking forward to the debates next week! Are you? – My Wife

AP Photos

I’ve discovered a bit of wisdom during the last nine-and-a-half-years-of-my-blessed-married-life: Do not argue with the wife. Because I’m usually wrong. I mean, Obama and Romney have nothing on Carrie; my wife is a good debater.

But last week, I did argue. And, actually, it wasn’t much of a debate. I was so thoroughly logical, so thoroughly correct in my reasoning that she didn’t stand a chance. It was over in the 15 seconds it took to say 5 sentences. No zingers. No points to put on the board. Just the solid, honest, with a capitol T, Truth. And so last week when she asked, “I’m looking forward to the debates next week! Are you?” I replied:

No. I hate these debates. There is no point. Everyone knows who they are going to vote for anyway and these debates aren’t about policy. We only watch because we want to see our guy humiliate our opponent.

To which Carrie responded, “That was a buzz kill. Sorry I asked.”

But we already see this dynamic happening. Each candidate is imitating the other with pre-debate “zingers.” The New York Times reported on Friday that “Mr. Romney’s team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August.” The Romney team has taken some heat from conservative and liberal media outlets, but Romney’s team is right. I mean, who cares about debating policy! We look forward to these debates for one reason: The zingers! We are addicted to zingers. We want to witness another zinger like the one Senator Bentson gave to Senator Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential debate, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy!” We want our guy to look smart and polished, which means we also want our guy to make our opponent look stupid.

In response to Romney’s “zinger” preparation, the Obama team attempted to take the high road. But instead they simply imitated their rival by providing a zinger of their own. Politico reports that Jen Psaki, Obama campaign spokeswoman, mocked Romney for their prepared “zingers and special lines” and then stated, “That is not what the president’s focus is on. He wants to speak directly to the families of people who are on their couches at home.” At a recent campaign rally reported by the LA Times, Obama himself made a pre-debate zinger by promising “not zingers but ‘a serious discussion [because] that’s the debate you deserve.’” The Obama team wants us to know that while Romney is churlishly focused on “zingers,” the president is focused on what really matters: the American people.


I don’t want to get sucked into the drama of the debates, so I’m not going to watch. No matter which side you are on, it’s pretty obvious that Obama is right. Politics is a game of zingers and points. So I’m not going to watch as each candidate attempts a verbal beat down of his opponent. I’m not going to watch as Romney plays the game by attempting to force “Obama to come across as condescending or smug.” And I’m not going to watch Obama play the game as he attempts “to show that Mr. Romney would drive the country in an extreme ideological direction at odds with the interests of the middle class.” I’m not going to be fooled into believing this is anything like a true “debate.”

It’s a game. And we deserve better. I don’t only blame the politicians. I blame us, too.  But until we take responsibility by weaning ourselves away from our addiction to “zingers,” that’s exactly what we’ll get.

Military Terror Plot: Are You Shocked?

The Huffington Post thinks we should be shocked. But I’m not.

The story’s headline on the front page of Huffington Post Crime section reads “SHOCK: Serving Soldiers Planned To Bring Down U.S. Government.” That’s the headline, but the title of the article reveals a bit more: “Military Terror Plot: Murder Case Uncovers Terror Plot By ‘Militia’ Within U.S. Military.” The Huffington Post reports that an anarchist militia group from within the U.S. military had very ambitious plans:

It plotted to take over Fort Stewart by seizing its ammunition control point and talked of bombing the Forsyth Park fountain in nearby Savannah … In Washington state … the group plotted to bomb a dam and poison the state’s apple crop. Ultimately, prosecutors said, the militia’s goal was to overthrow the government and assassinate the president.

The members of the group were composed of active-duty and former members of the military. They purchased $87,000 worth of guns, including semi-automatic rifles, and bomb components. The leaders of the militia recruited troubled soldiers who were disillusioned. They did more than just plan their violent coup’ they had already taken action. They murdered two people who left the militia, calling them “loose ends.” Prosecutor Isabel Pauly stated yesterday to the Superior Court Judged that they had done even more. “The domestic terrorist organization did not simply plan and talk. Prior to the murders in this case, the group took action. Evidence shows the group possessed the knowledge, means and motive to carry out their plans.” Prosecutors also stated that they don’t know how many members the terrorist militia had recruited.

It’s a troubling story of violence, but the story doesn’t shock me. We want to be shocked. We want to think that a terrorist militia group within the military is aberrant. We want to think it’s a small group of crazy, disillusioned soldiers. We want to think that they are the problem. But the problem is much bigger than them. The cause of their violent plans is directly related to the cause of the violence that has plagued the United States during the last three months. There is one thing that connects the violence within the military to the violence at schools to violence at a movie theater to violence at a house of worship. That connection is revealed by mimetic theory.

René Girard, the father of mimetic theory, claims that “Humans relations are essentially relations of imitation” (Evolution and Conversion, 238). Throughout our lives we have a profound capacity to absorb and mimic our cultural environment. As we absorb that spirit, we mimic (imitate) the actions of those around us. Here is the mimetic connection to the events of the summer: those tragic acts of violence are committed by people who have absorbed our culture of violence – a culture that claims the way to defeat violence is with our own violence.

Some people will claim that I’m letting these people off the hook by blaming a “culture of violence.” I’m not. I’m putting us all on the hook. If we really want an end to violence, we all need to take responsibility for the violence in our culture. We must admit that we are all infected by a culture of physical, emotional, and verbal violence. It’s in our politics, in our military, in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our music, and on our television and movie theater screens.

We are all part in our mimetic culture of violence, but none of us is enslaved to it. There is a mimetic alternative to the absorption of violence that has run amuck in our culture. Girard states that from within our mimetic nature we have options. “We will always be mimetic,” wrote Girard, “but we do not have to engage automatically in mimetic rivalries [violence]. We do not have to accuse our neighbor, we can learn to forgive him instead” (Evolution and Conversion, 262.) That’s the only alternative to the mimetic violence running rampant in our world: mimetic forgiveness.

Imitation, Violence and the Body in The Dark Knight Rises

“What is the meaning of it Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”[1]

1. Holmes’ Two Bodies

With the Aurora shooting casting a dark shadow over the film, no discussion of The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) can avoid addressing James Holmes’ act of meaningless, horrific violence. It is not the kind of critique the movie deserves but one that it needs right now. Many critics have raised the question whether Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise in particular and Hollywood’s culture of stylized violence is at least partly to blame for the shooting. Oliver Gettell summarizes the varying opinions of six critics on the subject.[2] While all the critics given voice in this article agree that there is no straight-forward connection between TDKR and the shooting, there remains an uneasiness as to the question why such a thing happened at a premiere of this particular film. Dana Stevens expresses this uneasiness adequately:

I can’t stop asking … why there? I can’t get away from the fact that this act of violence took place — with, from the look of it, considerable advance planning — at an opening-night midnight showing of ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ a movie that (like the rest of the trilogy it concludes) envisions modernity as a lawless dystopia where just such a thing might happen.

Ty Burr from the Boston Globe comes closer towards an explanation by pointing out that

“[h]is [Nolan’s] movies don’t explain our confused world, but they mirror that confusion with cathartic skill, in a way that can feel absolutely right if you don’t know how to find the words for yourself. They’re hardly political, but they reflect a helplessness we feel about politics and society — about our lives — that resonates with force.[3]

Burr seems to suggest that Holmes found this reflection of his own helplessness in the character of The Joker in The Dark Knight (TDK), one of the darkest and most destructive characters on the big screen in recent years. This is corroborated by the fact that Holmes dyed his hair to resemble the Joker and allegedly identified himself to the police as the Joker just prior to his arrest.

Does this mean that The Dark Knight franchise is to blame after all? I would like to suggest that the answer is an emphatic no, because, unlike Burr, I strongly believe that Nolan’s trilogy actually explains our confused world. The Joker’s and possibly Holmes’ nihilist world view, captured adequately by Alfred in TDK by the phrase “some men just want to watch the world burn”, is not the film’s world view. Rather, the trilogy’s ethical framework qualifies the destructive nature of The Joker. I will argue in the following that René Girard’s anthropological mimetic theory has the power to reveal the authoritative moral voice in The Dark Knight movies and thus also helps us in coming to terms with the role of the Joker.

But before we can turn our attention to such a reading of the films, one final point about Holmes must be mentioned. If there is a connection between TDK and the shooting it is one of misreading. No author, be it of books, films, songs etc., has control over the way his or her work is being read. The most prominent example is probably the case of The Christian Bible: a text whose authorial intention has been generally understood as one of peace, has been forced into violent moulds over the two millennia of its existence. Mark Twain at the very beginning of Huckleberry Finn also describes the problem adequately. Tom Sawyer wants to form a gang of robbers with the intent to kill people because he has read it in books. The children are then harmlessly playing at being robbers with only Huck Finn being disappointed that they are not really killing anyone. This type of misreading is however probably most famously the premise of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The madness of Don Quixote is to believe that the books of chivalry are real and to enact the deeds of fictive knights. In general authors can suggest authoritative readings but are never in full control of their works. As good art depicts human realities from its loftiest heights to its darkest abysses, there is always the possibility of a wilful misidentification with the destructive forces critically examined.

Whatever the reasons for Holmes’ rampage may be, it is likely that in his horrific enactment of his “god fantasy” common to all homicidal maniacs, he envisioned himself as the nihilistic, glamorous screen Joker. This was the symbolic body he chose for himself to transcend the miserable limits of his own real body in his shooting rampage. His confusion of the imaginary and the real had horrific consequences for his victims. Holmes’ symbolic body has been shattered to bits by the harsh realities of his act, reducing him to the scared, lonely, apathetic and insecure person the court cameras showed us earlier in the week.

2. Batman’s Two Bodies

As I have pointed out elsewhere with respect to TDK[4] René Girard’s mimetic theory can enrich our understanding of the trilogy’s ethics. Before turning to the films, therefore, I shall provide a brief introduction to the theory.[5]

According to Girard desire is imitative (mimetic). In plain words, I want something because someone else also wants it. Imitative desire can lead to friendship due to shared interests but also to conflict – just think of the classic love triangle for example. At the very dawn of its existence, humanity faced a conflict of all against all due to an escalation of conflictive imitative desire. The result would have been a struggle of all against all with the possible result of the extinction of humanity in its very cradle. At this moment, however, the very first enactment of the scapegoat mechanism occurred. The violent, unanimous mob unleashed all their violence onto one single victim. The latter was made responsible for the crisis in society. With the death of the victim peace returned to society because all the violence was exhausted. This for Girard marks the beginning of archaic religion. The victim, because it restored peace to society, was subsequently recognized as a god in disguise and divinized. The process was repeated in rituals throughout the centuries with the continued expulsion of ritual or real scapegoats.

The Gospels, so Girard, uncover this mechanism and reveal the structural innocence of the victim. The expulsion can only take place as long as the crowds believe in the guilt of their victim. Jesus is portrayed as innocent in the Gospels and it is clear that the crowd wrongfully tries to expel him. Violence as cultural renewal is identified with Satan and the demonic itself. As an effect of the Gospels, violence throughout the centuries has gradually lost its power to restore peace. Modernity is for Girard a crisis of imitative desire out of control, where our choice lies between violence without end, or the complete renunciation of violence – precisely because we can no longer believe that violent expulsion leads to cultural renewal.

The Dark Knight trilogy can be read as a filmic representation of Girard’s theory. Already in Batman Begins Ra’s Al Ghul explains to Bruce Wayne the function of the league of shadows in the terms of cyclical expulsion: culture is renewed through the violent expulsion of Gotham as a collective scapegoat. At the end of Batman Begins Jim Gordon introduces conflictive imitation as a dark premonition to TDK, when he confronts Batman with the fact that the Joker is imitating his penchant for the theatrical.

The Joker is thus portrayed as the mirror image of Batman’s own vigilante justice. On one of the Joker’s trucks we can read that “Slaughter is the best medicine” but in the world drenched with the Gospel revelation of the inefficiency of cultural renewal through violence, all that remains is the Joker’s nihilistic slaughter. The shooting rampages of both Breivik and Holmes can be viewed in this context, with the difference that Breivik still believed in the power of violence to bring about his deranged right-wing utopia, whereas for Holmes, imitating the Joker, violence has become its own goal. In a sense the cycle stops at the stage of violence. Gotham is only saved at the end of TDK through the scapegoating of Batman and the deification of Harvey Dent which follows to the last detail the script of the scapegoat mechanism.

The final instalment of the trilogy continues to struggle with the paradoxes of violent expulsion. But whereas in Batman Begins the legend of the Dark Knight is founded on Bruce becoming more than a man, in TDKR the inverse is the case: it is about the hominization of Bruce Wayne. In TDKR Bruce Wayne is portrayed as suffering from the bodily strains of trying to be more than a man. It is to be remembered that the myth of Batman too is portrayed as being generated by the scapegoat mechanism – the first time the bat symbol is projected into the Gotham sky, it is generated by a mafia thug strapped to the flood light.

At the beginning of TDKR Gotham is basking in the peace brought by the scapegoat mechanism. But since that peace is based on an illusion, the victims are multiplying at the margins of Gotham’s structural violence, both in Blackgate Penitentiary (a jab at America’s overcrowded prisons) and literally underground in the sewers. Bane too is the product of the scapegoat mechanism as he emerges from the prison based in a more ancient part of the world, where a dog-eat-dog, all against all atmosphere of violence shapes his destructive world view.

It is Bane who reveals the secret of Gordon’s lie to the people. Robbed of their pseudo-peace of the scapegoat mechanism, Gotham is returned to the anarchic state of all against all preceding the scapegoat expulsion. The nuclear bomb, which gradually disintegrates, serves as a metaphor for the violent disintegration of society in its all against all state. It also forms the film’s criticism of the “occupy” movement. While recognizing its legitimate denunciation of an unjust system, the revolutionary alternative is portrayed as anarchically destructive in TDKR.

While Gotham is thus nearing its demise, Wayne’s hominization continues in prison where he has to learn to become afraid of death again, i.e. to accept his very human limitations again. The fear of death is represented as the highest motivation for the human spirit, much in line with what Martin Heidegger called the “being unto death”.

The ambivalent ending of TDKR, however, counterbalances the being unto death with the “being unto life”. By apparently fixing the autopilot of “the Bat” and ejecting himself from it, Batman refuses to sacrifice himself for a decadent city but instead chooses to become human again and reach out to other human beings. As is revealed in a conversation with John Blake, his inability for real human contact plays an important role in the genesis of batman. The real triumph of the trilogy is this humanizing event of Bruce Wayne, of his entering into a genuine relation with another human being.

The alternative reading is that Batman dies in his act of saving Gotham. That’s what its citizens certainly believe. By commemorating Batman with a monument they show that they have learnt nothing about their own conflictive nature. What they have done is simply having exchanged one expelled and deified victim (Harvey Dent) with another (Batman). This also allows the Batman myth to continue with John Robin Blake following in Wayne’s footsteps. The structures of the police force have become too confining for him as he confesses to Gordon. He will become the next boundless vigilante bringing forth the next evil imitative double – just as Talia had been Wayne’s last imitative double, driven only by revenge for her father’s death whom she didn’t even like.

With this beautifully ambiguous ending Nolan hands over the responsibility to the audience and asks us to rise to the challenge between the cycle of violence and a fragile humanness in need of other fragile humans. It is indeed rare to find such a nuanced presentation of the human condition in today’s Hollywood mainstream cinema. Despite participating in the Hollywood-culture of hyper-violence, The Dark Knight trilogy also shows us a way out of it.


[1] “The Cardboard Box”, The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes, Ware: Wordsworth Editions, p. 1130.



[5] For a more detailed overview of the theory go to:

Tebowing, Cruzing, and Bradying – The Admiration of a Football Fan

That’s mimetic.

The “Tebowing” and now “Cruzing” and “Bradying” phenomena are evidence of humanity’s mimetic nature.  As René Girard has put forth in developing the “mimetic theory,” humans are the best imitators on the planet.  We are so good at imitating, most of the time we don’t even know we are doing it.  This non-conscious imitation is how we learn from others.  Girard calls the “others” we imitate our models – we admire our models and want to be like them.  We want their success, fame, prestige, or fortune.  For example, as the above video shows, our culture has begun to dance the salsa in imitation of Victor Cruz’s celebrations after scoring a touchdown.  As the announcer in the video says, “The salsa is spreading like an internet virus.”  Babies, teenagers, and adults (even a dog!) are imitating Cruz’s victory dance.  Not only are we imitating Cruz, but we are imitating others who are imitating Cruz – hence the baby and the dog.

Even Madonna isn’t immune from imitating Cruz.

According to Girard, this imitation is a positive thing because it’s how we learn, but he also claims there is a dark side to this imitation.  It can turn very negative.  As we imitate one another in the desire for success, fame prestige, or fortune, we can easily fall into rivalry with one another because we desire the same things.  Two football teams, let’s take the Giants and the Patriots for example, want the same thing – to win the Super Bowl.  After winning, the Giants can celebrate by dancing the salsa, but how do the Patriots feel?  Envious.  Why?  Because they want what the Giants have – success.  And here’s the scandal: If you are a Patriots fan, you have a secret admiration for Giants fans.  You admire them because they have what you want.  Sure you feel a sense of hatred, but behind every hatred is a sense of admiration.

When the other team has what we want, we get frustrated.  And frustration always finds an outlet.  If we don’t deal with frustration in a positive way, the need for an outlet will either cause internal strife within our community as we blame one another for a loss, or we will find an external outlet.  As the video shows, a group of frustrated Patriots’ fans were congregating in Boston after the game.  A Giants fan did a little salsa dance, and the group turned into a mob.  Its frustrations coalesced on the man and “as he continued to taunt the crowd, he got sucker punched.”

Yes.  It was a stupid thing to do.  But he was imitating his model, Victor Cruz.  Every celebration after a touchdown will be interpreted by the other team as a taunt.  As a bit of mockery.  In essence we’re saying, “I have what you want.”

And then the ultimate taunt – “Nananananana!”

We imitate winners, but we can also imitate “losers.”  Imitating losers can be a positive thing, if we imitate them in order to share in their pain.  But it can also be a negative thing, as I think is the case with the “Bradying” phenomenon.  Imitating losers is often a way of mocking them – but we only mock those we secretly admire.  We admire our models and our rivals.  In fact, our rival is also our model, for we want what our rival has.  Football fans admire Tom Brady because he has the success we all want.  Playing in five Super Bowls and winning three of them is an amazing career.  We envy Brady because we want the success he’s had.  And so when he fails we mock him.  We imitate one another in mocking him in order to keep him down.  For when our rival is down, we are up.

We admire both our models and our rivals.  We want what they have, which can lead to rivalry, and even to violence.  Now, you may be searching for an answer to all of this negative imitation that’s going on.  Fortunately, there is an answer – but, I’ll tell you up front, few people like it.  It’s not glamorous.  And it’s hard work.  If you want to transform this negative imitation into a positive imitation, the answer is in identifying with cultural “losers” in a way that feels their pain.  Few people want to do that.  We’d rather do a salsa dance – and keep others from dancing with us.

Giants and Patriots fans, after all, don’t dance together.


That Billboard Had No Effect On Me!

Most of us buy into a mistaken understanding of human desire which makes it hard to explain some everyday phenomenon. Like why do we all want the latest high tech gizmo or this season’s fashion must-have item. It’s not because these things have some intrinsic value or because the desire for them just happened to arise spontaneously within millions of people at the same time. I know iphones are cool, but do you really believe you would want one if no one else had one? Aren’t they cool because everyone around you thinks they are cool? If I’m not convincing you to see it my way, I think I’ll let the writers of the Simpsons give it a try. They agree with me and they are so much funnier than I am.

In Season 6, episode 15, we meet Homer on new billboard day. He’s very excited to see what’s being advertised and as he drives by each one on his way home, we see them go by: English Muffins; Best in the West Barbecue Sauce; and Clown College. At work the next day, we see that Homer has on his desk the English muffins and the barbecue sauce. Surveying the stuff, he says, “Well, I got everything I was supposed to get. I’m not going to enroll in that clown college, though…that advertisement had absolutely no effect on me whatsoever.”

Like the rest of us, Homer realizes that advertisements do affect him and while he surrenders willingly to the first two billboards, he is in denial about the effect of the third. But denial is not enough to undermine the power of the billboard. At dinner that night, Homer begins shaping his mashed potatoes into a circus tent and hallucinates his family dancing to clown music holding up billboards for the clown college.

Finally, in a fit of righteous anger, he says, “That’s it! You people have stood in my way long enough. I’m going to clown college!” As he storms from the table, his son Bart says, “I don’t think any of us expected him to say that.”

The reason that’s funny is because we all know that Homer’s desire to be a clown did not arise from deep within him. Even Homer knows that he was manipulated by the billboard, and yet he defends his desire to be a clown as if it were some essential and undeniable part of who he has always been. What we see in this exaggerated way in Homer is something that is true about all of us: all our desires are suggested to us from outside of ourselves, but like Homer we often deny that truth.

So what’s the harm with a little bit of denial? So what if we are manipulated by advertising – iphones are fun and Homer would have a great time at clown college, right? Here’s the problem: Homer got into conflict with his family because he believed his desire for clown college was some essential part of himself and the only reason he hadn’t fulfilled his dream is because his family stood in his way. When we deny the source of our desires we fall into delusional thinking just like Homer did. So your objection is not entirely off base. The problem is not that we are influenced by others – heck, that’s just being human (or cartoon-human as the case may be). The problem is when we DENY the truth about ourselves. That’s when we fall into blame, like Homer, or envy of others who have the things we say we want.

The Simpsons scene could have been extended a little further if Homer had run into Krusty the Clown after his outburst at dinner. You can imagine Homer’s reaction – he would have been angry and resentful that Krusty was a Clown and Homer was not. Why? Because seeing Krusty would enflame his desire to be a clown, but Homer wouldn’t admit that. He’d think Krusty was rubbing his failure to be a clown in his face. See how it works? Denial of borrowed desire leads to false blame, to envy and resentment. What a mess!

So the next time you feel a twinge of envy or a rush of resentment for the guy with the latest gizmo, remember that the person you think is so awful is actually the one you secretly want to be like. It’s as if they were a model on a billboard and so you have two choices: you can either joyfully run out and get the gizmo or you can pretend they have no effect on you whatsoever. If you choose to pretend, don’t be surprised if your mashed potatoes start taking on weird shapes. There is a third choice, of course, which is to be as mature as Marge Simpson, and love the Homer in ourselves no matter how crazy we get. Haven’t you always secretly wanted to be Marge anyway? That tower of blue hair is to die for!