Deleuze, Oughourlian, and Girard

In reading for my qualifying exams I’ve come across the Nietzschean concept of active and reactive forces–which are expounded by Gilles Deleuze in his essay, “Active and Reactive”. Briefly stated, active forces are the affirmation that wills the eternal return–wherein the subject accepts all that has happened and will happen by wishing it to happen repeatedly ad infinitum. Reactive forces are negative, as they express ressentiment (the will to revenge) and refuse to accept the superior power of the active forces. Reactive, vengeful forces are a will to nothingness.

Critiquing Deleuze and the other French Nietzscheans’ reading of the will to power in a comparison of Girard and Nietzsche’s treatment of desire, Tobin Siebers’s calls Deleuze’s opposition of forces within the will to power dangerously reductive. Siebers elaborates on Heidegger’s discussion of Nietzsche’s refusal of the impulse to be revenged on the past in order to illuminate the inevitability of mimetic contagion and eventual ressentiment. Ultimately, the vision of the eternally unresentful over-man is a utopian dream and the reactive will to revenge (nothingness) must be countered by submitting ressentiment and the will to power to an ethical critique.

How can mimetic theory shed further light on this “dangerous opposition between active and reactive often associated with the will to power” (The Ethics of Criticism, Siebers, p. 137)? How might mimetic theory expand on Siebers’s critique to engage with Deleuze and interpolate his categories in terms that are recognizable to theorists of mimetic desire?

In The Puppet of Desire (chapters 3 and 4), Jean-Michel Oughourlian distinguishes between obsession and adorcism as two manifestations of mimetic influence.

Obsession occurs when the desire of the other infects a subject through mimesis, but the subject–in order to preserve an autonomous self–will not admit her desire to be derived from the other. Oughourlian provides an historical example of supposed demonic possession–the mimetic crisis of a nun in a fifteenth-century convent–to illustrate how the obsessed subject displaces responsibility for the disturbing symptoms of her frustrated mimetic desire onto the malevolent, mythic other: the devil. She locates the devil in a visiting priest (the object of her obsession), whom she accuses of witchcraft–an accusation that precipitates the surrogate victimage of the priest via his subsequent execution.

Oughourlian compares the nun’s mimetic obsession with the practice of adorcism (or willing possession). Oughourlian draws an example of this practice from the anthropological fieldwork of Michel Leiris, who studied practitioners of traditional religious rites of adorcism in Northern Ethiopia. In his studies of these rites, Leiris encounters a woman named Malkam Ayyahu, who is renowned for her ability to submit to possession by the various deities of her culture’s pantheon. Rather than engaging in an inimical conflict with the cultural others by which all believers are liable to be inhabited, Ayyahu knowingly and intentionally accommodates herself to these entity’s mimetic influence. (In his preceding analysis, Oughourlian interpolates all cultures’ spiritualities as expressions of an intuitive understanding the contagiousness of mimetic desire, which determines the desires of subjects and subgroups within a given social order.) Unlike the nun, who refused to acknowledge the fact of mimetic desire operating upon her, Ayyahu accepts that her subjectivity is repeatedly reshaped by the cultural other and demonstrates her acceptance semantically by consistently referring to herself in the third person. Oughourlian asserts that recognizing the mimetic awareness illustrated by her advanced practice of adorcism, coupled with her mode of self-reflexive discourse, illustrates the principles of mimetic desire. He goes on to suggest that Ayyahu’s self-reflexivity forms a new anthropology, which takes the otherness–the mimetic nature–of desire as its foundational principle. Within her cultural frame of reference, the possibility of mimetic antagonism is low, since Ayyahu is never devoted to a particular self-of-desire that must be defended as an autonomous entity against the encroachments of an alien desire. Her openness to all possible desiring entities means she need not oppose any one desiring entity to another in a conflictual mimetic symmetry.

Applying this anthropology to Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche, I’d suggest that we should understand Deleuze reductive categorization of the will to power and ressentiment–active and reactive–in the more practical, sociocultural terms outlined by Oughourlian: obsession and adorcism.

Obsession corresponds to the reactive force, since to refuse to acknowledge that the self is shaped by the cultural other–to ignore the mimetic nature of desire–positions the subject in an antagonistic relation to the other, which will lead to a mutual confounding of desire in the destructive reciprocity of violence– a will to nothingness.

Adorcism corresponds to the active force, since to stand open to the cultural other, as Ayyahu does–with no fear of losing an identity, which is recognized to be a provisional manifestation of mimetic desire’s movement–is to avoid the reciprocity of violence in the affirmation of the will to power.

Any criticism or feedback is much appreciated.

I’m writing a new chapter about the Ang Lee film ‘The Ice Storm’, and its function as a tragedy. The film is an adaptation of a novel, but with quite a different aesthetic. Here is a brief extract of my paper, for your consideration:


The Ice Storm traces the dramatic events of a single winter’s weekend in the lives of a few Connecticut suburbanites, in particular the Hood family and their neighbours the Williamses. It is 1973, and the spirit of sexual adventure arrives in these suburbs with the advent of the ‘key party’, at which the men put their keys into a bowl, and their wives in turn pick out keys assigning them a sexual partner for the night. On the night of the key party, an extraordinary snowstorm sweeps through the town, wreaking environmental havoc that parallels the built-up social chaos reaching its climax at the key party.

The novel written by Rick Moody was published in 1994, and the film by director Ang Lee was released in 1997, with Moody’s involvement as consultant.

Moody has written about his experience of the film adaptation, and made this comment:

“When I saw the final cut… the story before me was so removed from my own imagining that it was no longer necessary to think of it as my own.”

While he praised Lee’s film highly, Moody considered the film a very separate, and different, work to his own novel. One of the key differences Moody noticed was an aesthetic difference between his imagined characters and the actors who played those roles in the film:

“What I took away… was how beautiful everyone in the movie was. Of course, this had nothing to do with the book. The characters in the book looked like real people. They had bad skin, multiple canker sores, glasses. They were puffy, they didn’t exercise enough. These actors, on the other hand, were beautiful… Sometimes I was irritated by all this beauty, since it didn’t seem to have anything to do with my vision…”

In this chapter I go on to argue that the story is a Girardian tragedy, with its inevitable scapegoats. But in the film, these potential victims are no longer ugly, but beautiful. A scapegoat, in myth, is often marked as ‘different’; often ugly or deformed. Can movie-land, with its population of uniformly beautiful people, give us suitable scapegoats?

Embarrassed Resentment

(I’ve been reflecting on this subject as I prepare for my next qualifying exam.)

It is often observed by thinkers informed by Girard’s work that, with the escalation of mimetic rivalry in modern market society, resentment too is on the rise. (My understanding of resentment derives from Girard’s definition of ressentiment as it draws on both Max Scheler’s and Nietzsche’s definitions.) Recognizing and discussing resentment is often offensive to those who theorizes–and advocate for–a more peaceful social order. In my experience, those sceptical of resentment’s origin in mimetic desire worry that any discourse foregrounding our propensity to resent will tend to essentialize violence as a constitutive element of the human. This anxiety regarding theories of resentment combined with the embarrassment caused by acknowledging impotent jealousy in the highly competitive modern marketplace (e.g. the University) may be the chief sources of reticence to serious discussions of resentment.

The contemporary thinker, striving to attain Nietzsche’s utopian freedom from the ressentiment of slave morality, disavows the sting accompanying her thwarted attempts to distinguish herself in the marketplace of ideas. The modern subject denies resentment with good reason, since acknowledging the sentiment is to betray, what Girard terms, a lack of being–a defeated admission that one’s desires are derivative instead of self-fulfilled. Because they appear to desire themselves alone, the self-fulfilled act as mimetic magnets for the desire of others. In doing so, the seemingly autonomous, unresentful subject wins the game of mimetic desire. Alternatively, to admit resentment is to own one’s failure to acquire the value bestowed by the mimetic desire of others. While the majority of contemporary researchers and intellectuals avoid the embarrassing scandal of discussing market society’s endemic resentment, its source–mimetic desire–goes unexamined.

I believe that at least some of the scepticism confronting mimetic theory derives from the anxieties aroused by its assertion of resentment’s pervasiveness, an assertion which points to the unsavoury subject of culture’s violent evolutionary history.

How does this assessment mesh with your experience? When discussing mimetic theory with sceptics, what’s the optimal way to broach the prickly issue of resentment?

Hello all!

I’ve been thinking about the use of Girard’s thought (both the mimetic and sacrificial aspects) around the world of pornography. The problem is very subtle and it will take time and care to address it properly. Below is a brief excerpt from a longer piece I wrote some time back. I realize, now, that it is difficult to think critically of pornography while also acknowledging and counting in its very complex and multiple facets. Perhaps one way out of this would be to ponder the presence of violence in human sexuality in general, before and beyond the particular case of pornography… Anyway, let us start a dialogue on this to see how Girard can help to understand porn…

Society cannot survive without the coming and going of increasing tensions and liberating accusations. This is the role played, according to Girard, by modern institutions. While assuming the effective performance of a set of functions in a certain socio-professional field of activity, our institutions – as ‘descendants’ of ancient rituals – also regulate the social worry inherent to human societies. They do so by being the playgrounds where tensions will grow, where arbitrary selections of culprits will take place, and where reactions or symbolic punishments will be held. The entertainment and leisure industry is one of such institutions. It is in this setting that we find pornography and the pornographic actress. More than another example of modern and allegedly mild scapegoating, the pornographic actress may actually represent the most efficient safety net of our social tension. Like other modern scapegoats, the actress (virtually) receives the remaining tension of the watcher’s day of labor, and pays the price of coming across his path through the rather inhumane treatment now boringly common in the sub-genre known as gonzo pornography. But when the scapegoat is a colleague at work or in another community, the confrontation happens in the public sphere, and if it goes out of hand, there is someone to notice the unacceptable nature of the punishment. With pornography, this is not the case. On the one side, the actress receives her treatment in the larger context of a professional sphere where it is more or less clear that it is precisely what she is there for. On the other side, the watcher enjoys a pornographic content that is increasingly violent, and since he watches it mostly alone, no external person is there to comment on what seems to be a progressive alliance of sexual excitement and pleasure with verbal and physical violence. Thus pornography could be seen as the modern exutoire par excellence, the strongest leftover of our ancient sacrifices and of their cruel ritual extension. And this, at the heart of a society that has, paradoxically, strongly rejected these very practices.