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The Violence of Institutions, or Girard avec Foucault

René Girard and Michel Foucault shared an abiding interest in the violence embedded in institutions.

René Girard and Michel Foucault, two of the most ambitious interdisciplinary thinkers of the twentieth century, shared an abiding interest in the violence embedded in institutions, but their names are rarely mentioned together. My modest goal here is to outline a few intellectual convergences between them and to consider what we might learn from this theoretical encounter, with a view to developing a more extensive comparison of their bodies of work. 

To begin, a few biographical observations. They were born three years apart (Girard in 1923, Foucault in 1926) in mid-sized provincial French cities known for their medieval architecture (Avignon and Poitiers, respectively). Their intellectual trajectories were parallel at several key points. Girard’s breakthrough book, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, appeared in France in the same year (1961) as Foucault’s: Folie et déraison. Both were published in English, to considerable acclaim, in 1965 and 1964, respectively. The next decade, the first volume of Foucault’s most ambitious work, The History of Sexuality, appeared in 1976, two years before Girard’s magnum opus, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. By the early 1980s, they were teaching on opposite sides of the San Francisco Bay, at Stanford and Berkeley; though Girard, unlike Foucault, had spent nearly his entire career in US academia.   

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that Girard and Foucault appear to have crossed paths a few times, although the details of how and when are fuzzy. David Macey’s Lives of Michel Foucault makes no mention of Girard, and Cynthia Haven’s biography of Girard offers no concrete indication of how the two first met. She quotes Girard’s onetime colleague Richard Macksey recalling that Girard ran into Foucault in a Paris café sometime in the year or two prior to the watershed 1966 Johns Hopkins symposium on “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man.” Girard, who helped organize this event, invited Foucault to attend. It seems they may have been acquainted before this point. Foucault, in any case, reportedly told Girard he would attend the Hopkins conference, but in the end he was “notoriously absent,” in Jean-Michel Rabaté’s words, from the explosive event that first introduced “French Theory” to the US.

Despite his failure to attend the Hopkins symposium, Foucault became, along with Jacques Derrida, a synecdoche for the “French Theory” trend that swept across the humanities and social sciences. Girard, having played a role in initiating this trend, soon became a detractor. He seemed to regard it as a tedious academic fashion that exemplified intellectuals’ vulnerability to what he called “mimetic contagion”: a slavish imitation of the idols of the day. Another anecdote illustrates his indifference to prominent “avant-garde players” like Foucault: the anthropologist Mark Anspach told Haven that Girard had once told him that “he had a letter once from Foucault but he doesn’t know what happened to it.” (Girard’s indifference might be read, in Girardian terms, as a resistance to the lure of prestige – or else as an instance of his cultivation of it.) 

Girard evidently never replied to Foucault’s letter and never responded at length to the latter’s work, but he was by no means indifferent to Foucault’s ideas. In When These Things Begin, a series of conversations with Girard first published in French in 1996, he identifies explicitly what he regards as “the value of Foucault’s work”: his “having shown that . . . [i]f you stamp [sacrificial mechanisms] out here, they pop up again over there.” He goes on to say: “Foucault understood the very thing that optimistic rationalism didn’t foresee: new forms of ‘victimization’ are constantly emerging from the instruments that were intended to do away with them.”      

Again, the key shared interest of Girard and Foucault, as this passage makes clear, is the violence hidden within institutions. Girard’s writing from Violence and the Sacred (1972) onward made the case that all human institutions had their root in the sacrificial violence that archaic societies used as a technique of social pacification. This violence, he argued, was based on the scapegoat mechanism, whereby the killing or expulsion of a single victim could offer a means of expelling destabilizing violence outside of the community. Foucault, for his part, focused much of his writing on the founding exclusions of modern liberal societies: the way that certain groups – the insane, prisoners, sexual deviants – functioned as permanent exceptions to the rights and freedoms these societies granted to citizens. In Girardian terms, these marginal groups persistently functioned as modern society’s scapegoats. His work exposed the violence secreted within ostensibly humane institutions such as the asylum, the hospital, and the prison.

Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, which appeared in 1975, might be fruitfully read alongside Girard’s Violence and the Sacred, published three years earlier. The celebrated opening chapter of Discipline and Punish, “The Body of the Condemned,” recounts the gruesome public execution of the regicide Damiens in 1757, and shows that it marked a late manifestation of a mode of punishment that subsequently fell into disrepute: the public torture and execution of criminals. In the following decades, amidst “innumerable projects of reform,” such practices came to be regarded as a barbaric relic: they were rapidly abandoned and replaced with a dramatically different “penal style” which concealed the workings of punishment in new rationally planned prisons, and focused on reforming the soul rather than torturing and killing the body. 

Foucault, then, points us to the persistence of the violence inflicted by power, as it evolved from the spectacular violence still practiced openly by early modern states to the more subtle forms in which it was exercised in modern times. Girard, on the other hand, looks backwards to the primordial roots of the mode of public brutality that persisted into eighteenth-century France. Such practices, his work would suggest, have their roots in a near universal form of ritual that has become scandalous to modern people: sacrificial killing, which in Girard’s reading enabled the periodic discharge of violence that threatened the community. Because its efficacy as a social technology depended on the participation of the collective, it took a public form. The shift towards modern punishment obscures this logic of unanimous violence, but secretly maintains it. For example, those executed quietly in modern prisons are officially not the victims of their individual executioners; these representatives of the state merely embody the general will.      

The sacrificial cults of archaic societies, in Girard’s account, offered a brutal but effective means of regulating violence by regularly purging it from the collective. In Violence and the Sacred, he suggests at various points that these practices have been replaced by the mechanisms of the judicial system. The argument of Discipline and Punish, along with other works by Foucault, complements this account by showing the persistence of sacrificial victimization in the more humane apparatuses of modern societies. If we accept Girard’s claim that all institutions evolve directly or indirectly from sacrificial cults, this is not a surprising conclusion: perhaps, like evolved organisms, they carry over the vestigial traces of the entities that preceded them.    

Yet particularly in their later work, Girard and Foucault both offer a more complex account of this continuity. Whereas Violence and the Sacred arguably understated the persistence of sacrificial scapegoating in modern societies, in his subsequent work Girard frequently noted that, paradoxically, it is the accusation of scapegoating that now offers the best alibi for scapegoating. Hence the contemporary potency of charges like racism and transphobia: accusing the target of scapegoating some vulnerable group seems to mitigate most qualms about subjecting them to a brutal digital auto-da-fé. In a more Foucaldian vein, we might more broadly observe that the very institutions that endeavor to suppress scapegoating often end up perpetuating it.    

In the History of Sexuality and his late lectures at the Collège de France, Foucault advanced a related argument: the state’s power to end life, which it once deployed proudly at the center of public life against regicides like Damiens, fell into disrepute in modern times (Girard might add here that this occurred as an effect of the gradual discrediting of sacrificial violence). For Foucault, power has shifted its emphasis from raining down death on its proclaimed enemies to preserving the life of the population under its care. This latter regime is the one he called “biopolitical.” However, just as in post-sacrificial societies, an accusation of scapegoating can now only be legitimately deployed against those accused of scapegoating, under the sign of biopower, violence can be legitimately exercised only against those construed as a threat to life. 

This, in turn, would suggest that we should trace the rise of biopolitics – of a mode of power that primarily legitimates itself as a force for protecting and preserving life – to the Christian concern for victims, which Girard sees as the cultural force that undermined the functioning of sacrifice. 

In this sense, bringing together Girardian and Foucauldian analysis might offer something largely missing from Girard’s work: a more granular account of the post-Christian evolution of power away from its foundation in sacrificial violence and towards institutional forms and social practices that attempt to manage violence in different ways. But like sacrifice, this new regime contains violence in both senses of the word: it holds violence back, but also relies upon it. 

In his response to my recent essay “How We Forgot Foucault,” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat proposed that we view Foucault as a Satanic figure, specifically in the sense of a “skeptical accuser, like the Satan who appears in the Book of Job, ready to point the finger at the cracks, cruelties and hypocrisies in any righteous order, to deconstruct any system of power that claims to have truth and virtue on its side.” We should recall here that Girard interprets Satan as a personification of the impersonal force driving human collectives towards mimetic contagion: in biblical narratives, he is the figure who incites the scapegoating mob by attributing the guilt that enables the victim to be the object of collective opprobrium. Those on the political right and center who view Foucault as the progenitor of contemporary social justice ideology see him in more or less this manner: as the Satanic ringleader who first incited the mob that they now fear is tearing down all of Western civilization on the basis of his accusations.

The comparison between Foucault and Girard that I have offered here complicates this view. Foucault’s specific accuser role, as Douthat notes, is to identify the scapegoating and victimization still embedded in the activities of the very institutions that posit themselves as the humane successors of the barbaric sacrificial regimes of the past. In this sense, Foucault is pursuing an ultimately Christian-derived project of exposing and uprooting the scapegoat mechanism that persists even in a culture that claims to repudiate it. To the extent that his accusations themselves incite forms of scapegoating, this is of a piece with the tendency observed by Girard where scapegoating is now justified by accusations of scapegoating.

2 replies on “The Violence of Institutions, or Girard avec Foucault”

It is highly astonishing – even if I know the way you wrote for example “How we forgot Foucault” from many examples – that you seem to think Foucault had to be defended against a seemingly large group, differing in many aspects? This nearly makes me shake my head endlessly.
In Europe at least – and you describe it in the “how we forgot” article, something the thousands of admirers who worship Foucault like a God never do – it is simply the other way round.

But I know lots of people who claim, since around 1998, that post-structuralism, and Derrida, and Foucault were “the past”. ( They never explain the differences between them, being one point; rejecting each and any name (postmodernism, post-structuralism etc) is another matter – of “always being right” in discussions)

In many parts of our universities, in the arts, in literature, even questioning maybe a simple idea the Foucault-lovers tell is seen as – well, names change – homophobia (?), Kant-lover (?) etc.

Foucault was very much alive in theory via Agamben during Covid. I don’t know if you are aware of it, but in Europe groups spread papers with Agamben’s name on it (apart from theater people from Berlin etc) with “Masks off!” as title. Agamben, as you say, based his ideas on Foucault. He did not simply “question” things, he ridiculed all who saw Covid as a huge danger – which it is.

These problems exist – how to cope with a pandemic flown all around the world by the few % of people on earth who fly often luxurious flights? But you seem to simplify it – with Foucault in mind. I am not aware if it is true that Foucault should have said “I don’t believe in it” (suffering from HIV Aids) around 1983. But if true it would lead to questions – can the fight against new forms of control make you blind?

Well, this is certainly no topic for one comment. But to me it seems you are mightily wrong assuming “we forgot Foucault”. Not only all those – alas, one finally writes about it! – many neoliberals, conservatives and more who are really the majority in cultural and social sciences since 30 years now, always saying how “subversive, but now in the system” they are…
Our media did never forget Foucault. A fake-resistance which sits and lives well in a society of the west where huge luxuries and emissions are endangering the climate for precisely the continents the intellectuals pretend to defend (“climatology is just another means to power, or – “just another construction”) – they all read their Foucault very well.

I am much interested in finding out more about what this legend and maybe really “God” of the intellectual majorities of the last 30 capitalist years has to offer for the future. But up to now you find a rather small minority accusing Foucault, of what ever, and a huge group of professors, intellectuals, art scene people of all genders and writers who cannot accept the slightest criticism. So they say Foucault was harshly criticized. I think it would be more accurate to say: Who read Girard?

Foucault, in countless congresses where a lot of Foucault-alikes tried to look precisely like their God, was so much admired that there are so many we never heard of?

The basic statement, the need to defend Foucault sounds so wrong, can you see that?

1. I never said Foucault was attacked (except by conservatives over the pedophilia accusations, which he obviously was, but that’s not the main issue I’m discussing), or that he needs to be defended from anyone. Frankly I don’t think you read my piece thoroughly. As an aside, your comment has nothing to do with the post above, instead it’s related to my American Affairs article, so I’m not sure why you posted it here.

2. I would be interested to know more about the European situation. However, as you might have gathered, my article for *American* Affairs was focused on the US context, which is the one I’m writing in and am familiar with. There might have been a way to point out the differences in the European response that was not framed as an attack, as this comment is. I’d be curious to discuss these differences if you’re willing to do so in a spirit of open-minded inquiry, rather than hostility.

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