Against Satanic Panics > Recent scaremongers > Dawn Perlmutter > René Girard

René Girard, "sacred violence," Christianity, and "anthropology"

Dawn Perlmutter's philosophical background, as best I can figure it out

by Diane Vera

Copyright © 2006 by Diane Vera. All rights reserved.

Dawn Perlmutter is not your typical anti-Satanist scaremonger. She does not come across as being a fundamentalist or evangelical Christian. Nor does she seem to be a fanatical feminist, nor a recovered-memory therapist or client. It is likely that she is some kind of Christian, though I'm not yet sure what kind. (Offhand, I would guess she's probably Catholic.) She has participated in an academic tradition ("Girardian") which, though based primarily at secular universities, is definitely Christian-oriented and appears to be (as far as I can tell so far) dominated by theologically liberal yet culturally conservative-leaning Christians.

She seems to have quite an ax to grind against all "dark" subcultures - not just Satanism but also the Goth scene, the Vampire scene, the fetish scene, the BDSM scene,and the body art scene. Indeed it appears that her beefs against these other "dark" subcultures preceeded and gave birth to her worries about Satanism, rather than vice versa. On the website of her Institute for the Research of Organized and Ritual Violence, there are links to several "Internet publications," of which the oldest is an academic paper titled The Sacrificial Aesthetic: Blood Rituals from Art to Murder (Fall 1999), which focusses not on Satanism but on the other "dark" subcultures. Based on some arcane theoretical alleged reasons which I discuss in my comments on her paper, Perlmutter claims that all these scenes are "violent" subcultures that will inevitably and necessarily escalate into ritual murder.

To understand her alleged reasons, I had to do a little web research on the theories of René Girard, a philosopher whom Dawn Perlmutter quotes a lot and seems to admire. Ironically, it turns out that Perlmutter's anti-Satanist scaremongering is in fact very contrary to René Girard's ideals. As we'll see below, her own writings are an excellent example of what Girard would call "the falseness of mimetic contagion" - not just succumbing to but eagerly embracing a popular scapegoating myth, apparently without having given any serious attention to questions about the validity of the alleged evidence. Even more ironically, she uses Girardian theory itself to justify her belief in the guilt of many probably-innocent people who were accused of "Satanic ritual abuse" in the 1980's and early 1990's. Moreover, she uses Girardian theory to support her accusations against whole categories of people (e.g. BDSMers and sexual fetishists) who are, in fact, glaring exceptions to some of the most basic tenets of Girardian theory. More about this later.

What, exactly, is Dawn Perlmutter's ideological stance? Below is my attempt to find out.

On the website of Perlmutter's Institute for the Research of Organized and Ritual Violence, there are links to four papers by Dawn Permutter in the online academic journal Anthropoetics, devoted to a new academic specialty called "generative anthropology" (GA). I soon discovered that GA is not "anthropology" in the usual sense of that word. GA has little or nothing to do with the social science known as anthropology, which is taught by departments of anthropology at most colleges. Instead, it appears to be an "anthropology" in a sense closer to the religious sense of that term - a system of ideas about humans, in much the same way that a theology is a system of ideas about God or the gods. Moreover, although this isn't immediately apparent, GA has a strong Christian religious aspect - as does Girardian philosophy in general, from which GA is derived - even though the Anthropoetics website is hosted at a secular university (UCLA).

On the Anthropoetics website, there's a Statement of Purpose and A Brief Introduction to Generative Anthropology by Eric Gans. If I understand correctly, GA is a body of speculation about the origin of human language and other aspects of human culture such as art, religion, economics, and politics. Supposedly, all these things had their origin as solutions to something called "mimetic rivalry," a concept I'll explain later.

Right off the bat, I see a few big problems with the entire field of generative anthropology. It seems to me that the actual origin of human language, art, religion, etc. would be extremely difficult to determine, since these things all began in the remote prehistoric past. Furthermore, glancing at the Article index of Anthropoetics, I find no articles that appear to deal with things like fossil evidence or prehistoric archeology, or any attempt to pin down when or where the various aspects of human culture originated. Instead, nearly all the articles focus on historical and contemporary examples of human language, art, religion, etc., interpreting them all in terms of the "originary hypothesis." Big problem with this approach: The origin of a thing does not, by any means, completely determine its subsequent evolution. So, we can't necessarily extrapolate from contemporary and historical eras back to prehistory. Furthermore, none of the articles in Anthropoetics seem to be attempting any systematic, wide-ranging cross-cultural comparisons for the purpose of determining which cultural traits are in fact truly universal and thus possible keys to the origin of all human culture. So, none of these authors' speculations really constitute evidence for the "originary hypothesis." Thus, GA at this point is nothing more than a hypothesis. Then again, GA is not "anthropology" in the social science sense, so I guess it isn't obliged to be scientific. Perhaps Eric Gans just means to provoke thought and discussion, leaving it up to people in the social sciences to find actual evidence for or against his ideas? For more about GA, see also A Dialogue on the Middle East and Other Subjects by Ammar Abdulhamid & Eric Gans.

On the Anthropoetics website, Eric Gans's introduction to GA contains a lot of references to the work of one René Girard, whom Dawn Perlmutter also quotes a lot in her Anthropoetics articles. The Anthropoetics site's links page prominently features the Colloquium on Violence & Religion (COV&R), which describes itself as "an international association of scholars founded in 1990. It is dedicated to the exploration, criticism, and development of René Girard‘s mimetic model of the relationship between violence and religion in the genesis and maintenance of culture." What does all that gobbledygook mean? Don't worry, I'll explain soon.

Who is René Girard, and what is his "mimetic model"?

To summarize his basic ideas: (1) People compete over objects of desire which they want only because other people want them too, in the first place. Thus, "mimetic desire" (people desiring the same things, having imitated each other's desires) leads to "mimetic rivalry." (2) "Mimetic rivalry," in turn, leads to quarrels and a cycle of revenge and feuding, which lead eventually to a "war of all against all." (3) Then, peace and order are temporarily restored when one person is singled out as a scapegoat and the "war of all against all" becomes a "war of all against one," resulting in human sacrifice. (4) Just as people imitate other people's desires, so too they also imitate other people's hatreds and violence against a particular person or group. Thus, scapegoating and the resulting human sacrifice happen largely via "mimetic violence." (5) Because of the role of human sacrifice in bringing about the peace that makes a human community possible, Girard believes that human sacrifice is the foundation of all human societies and all of human culture, including our sense of the sacred. (6) The ideal of most Girardians is for society to outgrow the need for "human sacrifice" of any kind, including modern secular forms (death penalty, war, and bigotry). (7) To that end, Christianity is believed to play an indispensible role.

Looking around on the web for some easy-to-read introductions to Girard's ideas, I found the following:

The above pages gave me useful background in understanding some of what Dawn Perlmutter says in her Anthropoetics papers.

The Colloquium on Violence & Religion (COV&R) publishes a journal called Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture. The COV&R website is on a server belonging to the Katholisch-Theologische Fakultät der Universität Innsbruck - evidently a Catholic university in Austria. Girard himself is Catholic.

According to Girard, human society has long been trapped in a cycle of "mimetic rivalry" leading to social breakdown, leading to human sacrifice, which results in temporary peace and order, which eventually breaks down again due to "mimetic rivalry." Girard believes that the only way out of this nasty cycle can be found in Christianity - or, at least, Girard's own brand of Christianity. He does acknowledge that plenty of "sacred violence" has been committed in the name of Christianity too.

I definitely do not agree with the idea that we should all become Christians. This page is not the place to go into my complete critique of Christianity, but for now I'll just mention a few issues relevant to the claim that Christianity, and only Christianity, can put an end to all violence and scapegoating:

On the COV&R website, there's a page on René Girard: A Biographical Sketch by James G. Williams, originally published in a book by Williams, The Girard Reader. The fifth paragraph says:

It was early in this first Johns Hopkins period that he underwent a momentous spiritual change. In the winter of 1959 he experienced a conversion to Christian faith which had been preceded by a kind of intellectual conversion while he was working on his first book. These two conversions are described in the interview at the end of the Reader!

Well, I thought he was Christian. Why the exclamation point? "The Reader" is James G. Williams' book The Girard Reader, in which his bio of Girard was first published.

Now for something really weird:

He analyzed the work of Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoyevsky in terms of "triangular" or "mimetic" desire: our desires are copied from models or mediators whose objects of desire become our objects of desire. But the model or mediator we imitate can become our rival if we desire precisely the object he is imagined to have. Or other imitators of the same model may compete with us for the same objects. Jealousy and envy are inevitably aroused in this mimetic situation. The romantic concept of a spontaneous desire is illusory.


If I understand correctly, he's saying that we humans don't have any desires of our own; all our desires are copied from other people. Is that what he really means???

Most people are indeed slaves to fashion, to a large extent - and, most likely, to a much larger extent than they themselves realize. But the idea that we don't have any "spontaneous desires" of our own is just nuts.

An obvious counter-example can be found in the BDSM and fetish scenes. The idea that all our desires are acquired by imitating other people's desires is, most definitely, not a good starting point for trying to understand these subcultures, which were built by people who had unusual desires, utterly unlike the desires of anyone else they knew, and who built these subcultures for the express purpose of finding likeminded people. One can nevertheless find examples of mimetic desire within these subcultures, but what draws them together in the first place is desires that are clearly non-mimetic. There simply aren't any popular role models for sexual masochism (especially in men) or for most forms of sexual fetishism.

Ditto for other modern subcultures such as the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender movement. Gays do imitate heterosexuals in various ways, but gayness itself is not acquired via imitation - far from it. And many gays are aware of their orientation before meeting any other gays or being exposed to the gay community in any way, so they aren't just imitating other gays either.

Anyhow, back to James G. Williams's brief bio of Girard on the COV&R website:

As he began to study primitive religions from the standpoint of the mimetic concept, he saw that mimesis usually led to collective violence against a single victim.

Yep, people do love to find somebody to blame and to gang up on, and not just in a religious context. And many people are way too quick to believe other people's accusations against alleged malefactors who are then punished.

Below, "pharmakos" refers to the scapegoat concept, according to an earlier paragraph I didn't quote.

He turned to the great Greek tragedians. Once the pharmakos idea took hold in his thinking, he became more and more convinced of the power and relevance of these dramatists, particularly Sophocles' Oedipus cycle and Euripides with his stunning exposure of mimetic violence in The Bacchae. He found fascinating Freud's insight in Totem and Taboo, although Freud turned violent origins into a once-and-for-all myth rather than understanding the scapegoat mechanism as a constant factor in human culture and human relations. The mimetic concept, extended to include the scapegoat mechanism and refined by the explication of The Bacchae and the critique of Freud: to grasp these developments in his thinking is to grasp the essential argument of Violence and the Sacred.

So, he has read The Bacchae after all? In that case, how could he have missed the fact that it portrays the scapegoating of a scapegoater? Note: In the Bacchae, King Pentheus gets punished for his persecution of the worshipers of Dionysius for breaking mainstream taboos, such as a taboo on women going out at night.

Back to Williams's bio of Girard:

The most important book Girard has produced appeared in French in 1978, Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde (Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World). In the form of a dialogue with two psychiatrists, Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort, its format is a triptych: (1) Fundamental Anthropology, (2) The Judeo-Christian Scriptures, (3) Interdividual Psychology. In this book Girard declared himself, in effect, as a Christian and advocated a nonsacrificial reading of the Gospels and the divinity of Christ. In France he was a cause célèbre or a bête noire, because his argument for a universal anthropological theory, combined with the position that the deepest insights of Western culture stem from biblical revelation, shocked and alienated those who held to the assumption of the all-encompassing nature of language and who tended to ignore Christianity or view it with contempt. However, for many who were seeking a way to affirm the reality of human experience as a referent outside of language or for those who were searching for a way of talking about the biblical God of history, his clear concepts and outspoken positioning of himself against fashionable intellectual modes came across as the discovery of treasure hidden in a field.

A "nonsacrificial reading of the Gospels" makes Girard a heretic in the eyes of many conservative Christians, or at least most conservative Protestants. However, judging by the article on the Doctrine of the Atonement in the online Catholic Encyclopedia, the Catholic Church seems to favor a sacrificial view but not as dogmatically as many conservative Protestants do; the Catholic Encyclopedia article seems to regard the idea of sacrificial atonement as just a good metaphor for a deeper spiritual mystery. So, Girard might not be considered a heretic in the eyes of the Catholic Church - I'm not sure about this. Offhand, I would guess that the Catholic Church most likely considers him to be orthodox, even if a bit unusual. (If he were considered a heretic, I doubt that the COV&R website would be hosted on a server belonging to a Catholic university.) This means Girard's followers are very unlikely to be Protestant fundies, but might include conservative Catholics as well as liberal Catholics and liberal Protestants. My impression so far (which may be wrong) is that most Girardians are likely to be theologically liberal, but culturally and socially conservative-leaning, though not ultra-conservative.

Anyhow, according to Williams's bio of Girard:

One of the most important events of this period from the standpoint of Girard's lifetime of work and his intellectual and religious commitments was the formation of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R) in 1990.


From that first meeting of no more than twenty-five people, there are now more than two hundred members, who are located primarily in the United States and Europe. An annual symposium is held in middle to late spring, and a shorter meeting takes place each year in conjunction with the convention of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature.


The great majority are academics, many of whom are dissatisfied with the conditions and attitudes they find in academe. They represent not only the usual complaints of lack of interest in humanistic and interdisciplinary studies and the greater support of disciplines which are more closely connected to what is popular and demanded in the marketplace. The deeper dimension of their reaction is a refusal of that very political correctness which pretends to uphold the rights of victims and minorities, but ends by affirming a helter-skelter hodge-podge which undercuts a consistent moral vision and tends to give the upper hand to those who exalt individual self-fulfillment at the one extreme and, at the other extreme, to those who are able to take advantage of the politics of victimization to gain power over others.

Does this mean they think society as a whole needs to have just one single "consistent moral vision"? If so, what is that moral vision? On these questions, I haven't yet located a clear and complete statement of Girard's position. At least some Girardians are pacifists; I'm not yet sure whether Girard himself is a full-fledged pacifist, or whether the majority of his followers are. (Total world peace is certainly their longterm ideal, but I'm not sure whether most Girardians believe that all wars are necessarily unjustified now, until such time as their ideal is reached.) At least Girard seems to have championed the principle of "innocent until proven guilty," which I do agree with. But Girard seems to regard Christianity as the solution to all the world's problems, which I definitely do not agree with. And it seems to me that the idea that society needs to have one single "consistent moral vision" could lead easily to scapegoating of people who don't share that particular vision. In my opinion, we live in a pluralistic society quite capable of accommodating a variety of visions, within reasonable limits.

"Generative anthropology" (GA) was founded not by Girard himself but by Eric Gans, whose views are based on but by no means identical to Girard's. In a 1996 Interview with René Girard in Anthropoetics, Girard talks about the similarities and differences between his own approach and Gans's. This interview also contains further evidence that Girard is Christian, but definitely not a fundie.

Dawn Perlmutter begins her paper on The Sacrificial Aesthetic by referring us to Chronicle No. 184: Sacrificing Culture by Eric Gans, who uses the term "sacrificial aesthetic" to refer to the good-guys-vs.-bad-guys theme of popular culture, which scapegoats (and thereby sacrifices) the alleged "bad guys." For example, he writes (although Perlmutter doesn't quote this):

The ethical weakness of popular culture is that it reverts to a de facto pre-Christian sense of the sacred. On the one hand, there is an unhealthy relish in dispatching the "bad guys" whose evil deeds are transparent pretexts for our participation in their downfall. On the other, the "good guys" are suspiciously sacralized. In Girardian terms, if high culture participates in the Judeo-Christian deconstruction of sacrifice, popular culture remains sacrificial in the pagan sense, naively accepting the premises of scapegoating accusations.

Hmmm. I don't quite see why Gans equates a good-guys-vs.-bad-guys theme with sacrifice "in the pagan sense." This makes sense for only a small subset of ancient sacrifices, namely human sacrifices where the victims were condemned criminals or war captives. But a good-guys-vs.-bad-guys theme was not at all relevant to most forms of non-human animal sacrifice, and it wasn't even necessarily relevant to all human sacrifice. René Girard, a philosopher whom both Dawn Perlmutter and Eric Gans quote a lot, assumes that animal sacrifice is just a substitute for human sacrifice; but it doesn't seem to me that this is necessarily the case. Until as recently as a century ago, most people routinely killed animals for food. And, to many people in pre-Christian cultures, it seemed only natural to share some of their food with the gods as an act of thanksgiving or in an attempt to bargain with the gods.

On the other hand, it doesn't seem to me that most forms of Christianity have transcended scapegoating or the good-guys-vs.-bad-guys theme. Some forms of theologically liberal Christianity do make a real effort to transcend the good-guys-vs.-bad-guys theme, but conservative Christianity, on the whole, does not. As I mentioned earlier, Christians traditionally believe in an all-evil Devil - the ultimate bad guy - which in turn makes it all too easy to scapegoat people too. And Christians traditionally believe in the idea of eternal punishment. Admittedly even conservative Christians are supposed to "hate the sin but love the sinner"; thus vengeful gloating is considered by many to be bad form. Nevertheless, in most forms of Christianity, there's still a very strong concept of bad guys who must be punished.

On the COV&R site there's an Interview with René Girard by Henri Tincq in the French newspaper Le Monde, written shortly after September 11, 2001. The interview begins:

Can your theory of "mimetic rivalry" be applied to the current international crisis?

The error is always to reason within categories of "difference" when the root of all conflicts is rather "competition," mimetic rivalry between persons, countries, cultures. Competition is the desire to imitate the other in order to obtain the same thing he or she has, by violence if need be. No doubt terrorism is bound to a world "different" from ours, but what gives rise to terrorism does not lie in that "difference" that removes it further from us and makes it inconceivable to us. To the contrary, it lies in an exacerbated desire for convergence and resemblance. Human relations are essentially relations of imitation, of rivalry. What is experienced now is a form of mimetic rivalry on a planetary scale.

In my opinion, the above is a vastly oversimplified way of looking at the world. It's true that imitation and rivaly both do play a big role in human affairs, and probably a bigger role than is commonly realized. But they aren't the be-all and end-all. Differences between people are important too, both in conflicts and in life in general.

Despite the many flaws I see in Girard's thinking, he does have some worthwhile insights. Alas, as we'll see below, one of his most truly useful insights is one that Dawn Perlmutter has chosen to ignore.

In 1999, Dawn Perlmutter tried to apply Girard's ideas to various "dark" subcultures, such as the Goth, Vampire, Fetish, and BDSM scenes, in her Anthropoetics paper The Sacrificial Aesthetic: Blood Rituals from Art to Murder. She then tried to apply it to Satanism in her Fall 2001 paper The Religious Practices of Modern Satanists and Terrorists and again in her Fall 2003 paper The Forensics of Sacrifice: A Symbolic Analysis of Ritualistic Crime. In both cases, she has woefully mis-applied Girard's ideas. She has tried to apply his overall framework in ways that are clearly not valid, while, at the same time, she has failed to apply some aspects of his thought that are applicable.

As I've already explained, the core essence of some of today's dissident subcultures cannot be accurately understood in terms of concepts like "mimetic desire" and "mimetic rivalry." No doubt some aspects of these subcultures can be fruitfully analyzed in these terms, but Girard's ideas are completely irrelevant to these subcultures' core essence. To reduce the "dark" subcultures to "living examples of Girardian theory" is to deny the real human differences and the genuinely spontaneous desires that are these subcultures' real roots. It assumes that we humans are fundamentally all alike, which we aren't. Yes, we humans all do have a lot in common, but we are unique individuals too.

For more about the "dark" subcultures and how Perlmutter misunderstands them, see my Comments on Dawn Perlmutter's claims about various "dark" subcultures (Goth, Vampire, Fetish, BDSM, Body Art). Among other things, my commentary explains how the BDSM, fetish, and Vampire scenes are not particularly "sacrificial" (in a Girardian sense), as Perlmutter wrongly assumes that they are.

Regarding Perlmutter's misunderstandings of Satanism in terms of Girardian theory, see my Comments on "The Religious Practices of Modern Satanists and Terrorists" (Fall 2001) and my Comments on "The Forensics of Sacrifice: A Symbolic Analysis of Ritualistic Crime" (Fall 2003).

On the other hand, there are other aspects of Girard's thinking that Perlmutter should apply but doesn't. In Violence and the Kingdom of God: Introducing the Anthropology of René Girard, Andrew Marr writes:

When we are presented with a victim, he [Girard] says, we must ask the question, are the accusations true? Yes or No. Girard often brings up the infamous Dreyfus Case to prove his point. The imbroglio of that affair confronted the people of Girard’s native France with the question of truth over against the falsehood of mimetic contagion.


Unfortunately, the notorious examples of sacred violence committed by Christians are too many and too well known to need enumerating in this book. As an example, Girard begins his book The Scapegoat with an analysis of a document by the 14th-century poet Guillaume de Machaut, which explains why the Jews are entirely to blame for the Black Death plague and, on that account, were worthy of the collective violence that was inflicted upon them. Footnote Such examples should caution us against being too quick to assume that possession of the Gospel saves us from perpetrating sacred violence.

When faced with allegations of "Satanic ritual abuse," the question Dawn Perlmutter conspicuously does not ask is, "Are the accusations true?" In what I've seen of her writings so far, I find no serious consideration of the reasons why many people consider the accusations to have been false. Instead, she just dismisses the skeptics as too "Western" and "rational." (See my Comments on "The Forensics of Sacrifice: A Symbolic Analysis of Ritualistic Crime" (Fall 2003).)

Why does she believe in their guilt? Apparently, not because of any facts or evidence, which she doesn't delve into either. Her justification seems to be that, according to Girardian theory, the threat of "sacred violence" looms everywhere. From this, she apparently concludes that anyone accused of "sacred violence" is most likely guilty, and that anyone who disagrees is just underestimating the threat of "sacred violence."

But, according to Girard, such blind "mimetic" acceptance of the truth of accusations is precisely what causes "sacred violence" in the first place!

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