Mimetic Theory

The Sacrificial Logic of Vaccination

@fitnessfeelingz on the deep connection between vaccination and human sacrifice.

A guest post by @fitnessfeelingz.

René Girard is among the greatest theorists of contagion. His mimetic theory is thus a natural, though underutilized, starting point for understanding the social dimensions of the Covid-19 pandemic. Astonishingly, Girard even preempts the most controversial aspect of the pandemic, the vaccination campaign. Through Girard, we will confirm something the “anonymous right” has long intuited: there is a deep connection between vaccination and human sacrifice.

Girard lays this out explicitly in Violence and the Sacred

“The physician inoculates the patient with a minute amount of the disease, just as, in the course of the rites, the community is injected with a minute amount of violence, enabling it to ward off an of full-fledged violence…Booster shots…correspond to the repetition of sacrificial rites…in all varieties of ‘sacrificial’ protection there is always the danger of a catastrophic inversion; a too virulent vaccine, a too powerful pharmakon, can promote the illness it was supposed to prevent….Now we can see that vaccination, like so many other human institutions, really amounts to a metaphorical displacement of sacrifice.”

Girard is not attacking vaccination here. On the contrary, he thinks the social logic of sacrifice and the medical logic of vaccination are sound. Vaccination is a real discovery, empirically verified in his view, but one whose logic is rooted in human sacrifice. To understand this provocative claim about the connection between vaccination and sacrifice, it is necessary to first address the institution of sacrifice in its proper context, the problem of human violence. In René Girard’s Mimetic Theory, Wolfgang Palaver poses the question of violence and summarizes Girard’s answer:

“Why are human relations so prone to conflict and violence? Among living species, why is the human being the most violent? A short sentence summarizes Girard’s position: ‘The principal source of violence between human beings is mimetic rivalry, the rivalry resulting from imitation of a model who becomes a rival or of a rival who becomes a model.'”

Desire is imitative, and necessarily produces rivalry. Thus rivalry, and eventually violence, are contagious. This similarity between violence and disease has not gone unnoticed, but modern thought reverses the true relationship between them. Mark Crispin Miller, for example, explains that wartime propaganda always presents the external enemy, whether it be Germans, communists, or terrorists, as a kind of disease, a virus in human form. The Covid pandemic represents the final and most advanced stage of wartime propaganda, dispensing with the human enemy in favor of the threat of pure contagion. Wartime propaganda narratives understand violence through the metaphor of disease. Insteadt, we should understand our understanding of disease through the metaphor of violence, which, for Girard, is the original contagion registered by symbolic thought. Our biological concept of disease is built atop our concept of violence, and not the other way around.

The spread of violence represented an existential threat to early humans. As modern people, used to living under a judicial system, it is hard to appreciate how dangerous and destabilizing outbreaks of violence were to archaic communities. There were no independent institutions capable of intervening in conflicts, which occurred primarily between kinship groups. Any attempt to stop the fighting threatened to expand its scope. One side might accuse the peacemakers of unfairly playing favorites. Long cycles of retaliation and revenge were common, and wreaked havoc on all connected to the ever-expanding conflict. There were injuries and deaths, of course, but also famine and other second-level impacts of constant fighting. There might not be enough healthy people to hunt, gather food, care for children, etc. Preventing the contagion of violence was not merely ideal or desirable, it was the most basic necessity of human existence.

In a cruel yet effective move, humans, unable to eliminate violence, accidentally discovered violence’s power to transcend itself i.e. to make violence generate peace. This feat was accomplished by channeling the rivalry and conflict of the entire community onto a single person, who, just as the violence and chaos reached its peak, suddenly appeared as the source of all the community’s woes. The group would discharge its violence in a brutal swarm, descending on the scapegoat and lynching them. This victimage was so successful at restoring peace, it was repeated in ritual form as sacrifice, first of humans, and then later of animal substitutes. During times of change or instability, coronations, seasonal festivals, etc., violent impulses would be channeled into sacrificial rites, creating a sense of reconciliation and togetherness, catharsis, before conflict could begin. This is why these rites universally include a phase prior to the victim’s death, where chaos and disorder are represented through dance, theatrical fighting or reenactments, and so on. Using ritual, these societies would substitute a simulated crisis, one they controlled, for real upheaval. In another passage from Violence and the Sacred, Girard explicitly draws on the metaphor of disease to understand this process: “If sacrificial catharsis actually succeeds in preventing the unlimited propagation of violence, a sort of infection is in fact being checked.” Sacrificial rituals inject a small amount of the danger, violence, in the form of the murder of a victim, into the social system, to ward off the greater evil of social collapse. These rituals were carefully choreographed, and handled with the utmost caution. There was always the possibility that the community could lose control of the rite, unleashing the violence it was meant to prevent.

The transformation of violence into peace, of evil into good via evil, is, in Girard’s account, the beginning of the “sacred,” of all ritual, the practice of which creates human religion. Religion, then, is both the practice of ritual, and also the first technology, a social technology developed to solve the problem of violence. At our origin there was no distinction between these institutions. Religion, in the form of sacrificial ritual, and technology shared the same identity. Over thousands of years we have developed the distinction between them, but certain technologies contain what Jean-Pierre Dupuy called a “trace of the sacred,” vaccination among them. Inherent in these technologies is the paradoxical duality of sacred, a combination of the “very good” and “very bad” into a single, polyvalent structure.

This “trace of the sacred” does much to explain the intense religiosity that has accompanied the Covid-19 vaccination programs. Mary Harrington describes the obsession with vaccination as a kind of a purity ritual preventing “metaphysical contagion” or “spiritual taint.” Harrington is correct in her characterization of the liberal-left’s relationship to vaccines. But she leaves open the question of why this religious attitude attaches itself to vaccination, and not say, initiatives to prevent death from fentanyl overdose. Why would liberals become obsessed with forcing, in their view, beneficent injections onto people, as opposed to preventing maleficent ones? Looking at Girard’s account of vaccination, we can now answer.

Vaccination now symbolizes science. The arguments in its favor are many and varied. But a common theme is to stress how utterly mundane the practice is, to position vaccination as basic precaution or maintenance procedure, akin to wearing a seatbelt or getting an oil change, something so basic and so self-evidently rational that only the most foolish would refuse.

It is now clear that vaccination cannot have the same cultural status as a maintenance procedure or simple precaution. Unlike vaccination, seatbelts, helmets, oil changes, and so on do not contain this trace of the sacred. They cannot be metaphors for vaccination, because they do not use a small evil to purify a system of a greater one. 

Vaccination purifies on two levels. First, the immune system of the individual is inoculated against the virus, and then second the mass application of the practice renders the entire community immune. There is no way to understand wearing a seat belt, for example, in these terms. A seat belt poses no danger to anyone. It does not affect any systemic change, either in the individual user or in the broader community. An oil change poses no risk to any person, nor to the machinery to which it is applied. Preventing fentanyl overdoses might save lives, but recreational fentanyl lacks the sacred duality of a vaccine.

Why would such an inappropriate metaphor be deployed? Ritual aims at unity in two respects, process and result. All must participate in the sacrifice for collective violence to become collective peace. This is why ritual violence is always collective: stoning, mass stabbing or beating, collectively driving the victim off of a cliff, or investing a single priest with authority to strike on behalf of the whole polity. This unanimous act of violence generates the second moment of ritual unity, the post-sacrificial reconciliation, where peace and togetherness are totally restored throughout the community.

But to understand this social and sacrificial logic of vaccination, to see it for what it is, would sabotage it. Presented so openly, some people would refuse vaccination, and the ritual would fail. Thus the religious logic of the vaccination movement expresses itself both openly and in an inversion, that vaccination is a mundane practice of self-care or maintenance, because such basic procedures of bare life are all that’s left with the potential to unify. We believe in nothing else.

@fitnessfeelingz is a marketer, photographer and friend to all who resist the bio-security state of exception.