This is a guest post by Sasha Klein, who took part in my recent course, “The Philosophy of René Girard,” hosted by IndieThinkers.org. At the end of the course, course participants delivered presentations in the concluding proseminar, viewable here. What follows is a lightly revised text version of Sasha’s presentation. This is the first in a series of guest posts.
The later work of social theorist René Girard centered around the dynamics of communal human crisis. Plunged into uncertainty and threat, human societies fracture and dissolve, a circumstance which drives their members to create new coherence and order, often through violence. Girard’s 1989 book The Scapegoat explores these dynamics in anthropology and myth. One particular reference from the book, a 17th century monk’s account of a town beset by a plague, is particularly evocative of the nature of such a crisis:
As soon as this violent and tempestuous spark is lit in a kingdom or a republic, magistrates are bewildered, people are terrified, the government thrown into disarray. Laws are no longer obeyed; business comes to a halt; families lose coherence, and the streets their lively atmosphere. Everything is reduced to extreme confusion. Everything goes to ruin. For everything is touched and overwhelmed by the weight and magnitude of such a horrible calamity. People regardless of position or wealth are drowning in mortal sadness… All the laws of love and nature are drowned or forgotten in the midst of the horrors of such great confusion; children are suddenly separated from their parents, wives from their husbands, brothers and friends from each other… Men lose their natural courage and, not knowing any longer what advice to follow, act like desperate blind men, who encounter fear and contradictions at every step.
This, for Girard, is the evocative context of what he termed a “sacrificial crisis.” A calamity — generally external in origin, but almost instantaneously social in nature — befalls a community. The social nature of the crisis becomes dominant, as it disintegrates family structures, destroys hierarchical relationships, and plunges the community into abject chaos.
Girard referred to this implosion of societal structure as a loss of differentiation, and one of his key insights was that this mounting “undifferentiation” was at once effect and cause of the crisis. The contagion is both biological and social, but the social aspect comes to predominate.
The true chaos — what requires the most urgent remedy — is not the “plague” itself, but the precipitous loss of social structure and cohesion.
For this reason, perhaps, human societies thrown into such undifferentiated chaos developed what Girard termed the “scapegoating mechanism,” identifying and punishing a social cause of the phenomenon — usually some marginal individual or group whose perceived moral failings relate to the abrogation of rules of social differentiation. This inherently different “scapegoat” is expelled or murdered. This process reintroduces unity and, over time, creates rituals of sacrifice which form the foundation of new institutions and social order. The predominantly social “sacrificial crisis” is resolved.
For Girard the myth of Oedipus exemplifies this phenomenon. A societal outsider, a prototypical scapegoat with a limp, Oedipus introduces a crisis — a plague — by violating the bounds of familial differentiation: He kills his father and sleeps with his mother. This moral pollution causes the crisis, which only his self-sacrificial blinding and exile can resolve.
As Girard explores in depth, many ancient societies built rituals around such myths, involving the strict avoidance of anything undifferentiated — twins or close brothers, for example. (Note the mythic recurrence of fraternal murder — say Cain of Abel or Romulus of Remus — which serves as the explicit foundation for a post-crisis culture.) These rituals, and the institutions built upon them, aim to instill and maintain differentiation — hierarchy, social structure, rules, and boundaries — based upon the intuition that the loss of such differentiation both results from and causes, in fact, defines, the societal crisis and collapse itself.
In this light, it is both interesting and unsettling to witness a modern crisis of undifferentiation — a societal confusion around boundaries, rules, hierarchies, and definitions.
We generally conceive of the United States as a highly civilized and stable society, with clear political — and often social — hierarchies and systems of justice. But this veneer of differentiation — perhaps another term for stable social structure and “civilization” itself — seems increasingly thin. Trust in shared institutions is dissolving in the acid of political discord.
The nearly universal loss of faith in institutions of social order typifies this dissolution. On one “side,” Black Lives Matter, a largely leftist movement, advances an underlying thesis that what was once called our “criminal justice” system — idealized as external and above factional conflict — is, in fact, a largely race-motivated entity divorced from any attempt at equal application of law. More threat than defender. A separate movement on the right (and once on the left) increasingly sees our federal “intelligence” institutions as similar threats to, rather than defenders of, the people they are meant to serve. Both developments suggest that society is losing faith that our institutions are not, in fact, their opposites.
Simultaneously, our most traditional social norms and boundaries are eroding. Cultural institutions of nearly all scales seem in decline. Marriage, once a core societal institution, continues its decline as divorce and out-of-wedlock birth rates mount. Modern work and educational demands incentivize early and consistent geographic transplantation, prying the young from their parents and the places they were born, causing families to “lose coherence,” as in the monk’s account. Within at least my own social circle, to live near where one is born (or where one was 5 years ago), embedded within a strong and hierarchical family or social structure, is a mark of narrow parochialism.
Sex, a biological distinction once held to be foundational to most human societies (and certainly our own), is increasingly characterized as a social confabulation, a thing without clear boundary, to be adopted or discarded at will.
The basic boundaries of our society — which define its membership — have also become increasingly muddy, as political debates frequently conflate legal and illegal immigration, and legislative changes obscure which rights or services are due to citizens or non-citizens. At the height of the concern following the January 6th capitol riots, we now see our institutions of power, along with our core institutions of information, characterizing a large swath of the country — perhaps a majority of one half of the voting populace — as, if not terrorists, then terrorism-adjacent. Similarly, following 2016, it was common among major news outlets to assert that our leader was, in effect, the agent of a rival country. That leader — equally accessible to the derision and trolling of the masses as all the other users of the social media which constitute our newly flattened “public squares” — was abruptly ejected from one core such forum, a sharp inversion of several hierarchies at once. Amidst all this, it is hard to know what constitutes a shared sense of society, or its structure or membership.
You may land on one side or another of any of these debates, but their general trend seems towards a breakdown of once-shared social boundaries, institutions, and norms — a rise in undifferentiation.
As today’s “plague” continues to rage, this undifferentiation has crescendoed, and now seeps into and undermines our shared epistemological processes. A furious debate rages about who is scientist and who pseudo-scientist, what is information and what is “misinformation.” As our government seeks to stop such “misinformation,” it more and more explicitly effaces the boundary between itself and our “private” institutions of information. Knowledge itself is increasingly balkanized, consequently degrading our ability to communicate and find consensus. We are a modern Tower of Babel. “Everything is reduced to extreme confusion.”
Covid has cost many lives, but it seems to me that this last year’s crisis, like the 17th century monk’s, is predominately a crisis of social cohesion, chiefly characterized by a breakdown in our capacity for communal action, communal sense-making, or shared community at all. In turn, this social crisis fuels the biological crisis, hampering our ability to arrive at an effective and acceptable response.
Note, as in “primitive” myth, the uncertainty regarding the underlying cause of this plague itself. Is it purely natural in origin? Or is it human and moral in cause, like the plague of Thebes — the result of hubristic researchers crossing the boundaries between god and man? Is this virus Trump’s fault (for undifferentiating politics and celebrity)? Fauci’s (for hubristically exceeding man’s limitations)? Cuomo’s (for wearing nipple rings)?
Wherever you stand on all of this, we are entering an era of disappearing differentiation, where the lines which delineate society seem to be wearing thin. As in the quotation opening this essay, this wave of undifferentiation is lockstep with the crisis it at once follows and causes. Witness, for example, the social breakdown in South Africa a few weeks ago. Amidst the pandemic, the former president was jailed for corruption charges — a sharp inversion of social hierarchies that set society ablaze. Rampant looting, arson, and vandalism seems to have gripped much of the nation, turning police into armed terrorists, gutting social structures, destroying economic capital, and plunging society into Hobbesian chaos. The pandemic mounts unabated.
In the myths Girard excavates, the crisis is generally resolved through the expulsion or collective murder of a scapegoat — a mechanism which he argues has been eroded through the Christian revelation. If his thesis is true — if undifferentiation presages societal crisis, and the mechanism for its relief is now outside our grasp — we face an uncertain and chaotic future. Yet more “great confusion” may lie ahead.
Sasha Klein is a computer programmer, and a food, idea, and Bitcoin enthusiast. His Substack is Out of My Element, where this essay was first published.