Simon Simonse

* Teaching on Monday 19th and Tuesday 20th.

I am a Dutch anthropologist working as a conflict transformation expert in the Horn and Great Lakes of Africa. From 1970-1993, I taught anthropology in different schools and universities in Europe, Asia and Africa. 

I discovered the work of René Girard as a student when writing a Master's Thesis on the sociology of literature. I applied mimetic theory in the analysis of his field work data on kingship in Southern Sudan confirming the fruitfulness of Girard’s idea that the scapegoat mechanism is at the origin of institutions of kingship and statehood (Kings of Disaster, Brill 1992).

Here are Simon's answers to some further questions.

What is the first book by René Girard you read, and what impression did it make on you?
I superficially read Mensonge romantique in 1968 as a sideline to Goldmann's marxist Sociologie du roman. Goldmann comments favourably on Girard's insights. I was highly intrigued but did not,  at that time, grasp the existential and theoretical implications. These implications struck as lightning when I read La violence et le sacré in 1976. Girard's approach to what I then called the 'symbolic level' or the 'social superstructure' opened a perspective where the subject was not kept dangling. It offered a key to the motivational dynamics of real life actors including the knowing subject. What was more, it was able to connect these motivational dynamisms to the architecture of culture.

Could you briefly say something more about Kings of Disaster?
In Kings of Disaster I have shown how institutions of traditional governance in South Sudan are based on interpretations of the scapegoat mechanism as identified by René Girard. In times of crisis the king becomes the target of an escalation of communal hostility that results in a new sense of consensus. The book also argues that enemies play the same role. Kingship however is a safer insitution. Compared to war, kingship is more easily controllable and therefore a comparatively safe way of revitalising consensus. The societies in the area of study proved to have a history of shifting between kingship and war as levers of group unity. When kings succeed in taking the lead in this initially volatile dynamic, state formation -with its monopoly of the use of violence etc. - becomes an option.
The reproach of reductionism is often levelled against mimetic theory. What’s your view?
The challenge for science is to reduce a variety of phenomena to as few explanatory principles as possible. With the two principles of mimesis and the scapegoat-mechanism, mimetic theory is very successful in meeting this challenge. It is childish to just grumble that the theory is reductionist. Show the fields where it does not apply, and offer alternative hypotheses that are open to debate with the mimeticists! What is missing in my view is an interface between the dynamics following from mimesis and the slow historical processes that marxism claims to give the key to.
Can you actually use mimetic theory in you work for Pax Christi?
Pax Christi's work revolves around victims of war and persecution, key concepts in mimetic theory. We should, however, not underestimate the amount of practical wisdom that is available within the movement, which is not necessarily articulated in mimetic terms. Mimetic theory often helps me to more sharply articulate dilemmas of action.
How do you see the future of mimetic theory?
As a contribution to the science of mankind, I guess, the future is very bright. Yet, the dissolution of the age-old religious cover-up of our self-destructive tendencies – to which mimetic theory contributes – also means a major risk to our common survival.

> Nature, human nature and the mimetic theory

> Review of Girard, Les origines de la culture