27 May 2011 - 28 May 2011 All day St John's College, Cambridge



Dr Pierpaolo Antonello  (Italian, University of Cambridge)
Professor Paul Gifford (French, University of St Andrews)


Conference Summary


René Girard’s ‘mimetic theory’, insofar as it addresses the role of mimesis and violence in the constitution of human culture and social order, has been increasingly acknowledged as one of the most striking break-through contributions to 20th century critical thinking. In particular, its power to model and explain violent sacralities, ancient and modern, is cogent and insightful: from Crusade and pogrom to Dreyfus and the Holocaust; from gospel apocalyptic and environmental crisis to the religious wars, suicide bombers and culture clashes of our fast-globalising world. 


The present conference sets this power of explanation to work in a Darwinian and evolutionary framework, to observe and explore how it modifies our understanding of evolution, both at a human and cultural level, and as a total process, while projecting itself in historical time. How and how well do we ‘survive our origins’, and how far do the symbolic and sacralising mechanisms of controlling violence,  which allowed humankind to survive and develop in evolutionary terms,  still represent a ‘default setting’ that threatens to destroy us? 


Relevant questions addressed in the conference are: how far is violence biologically rooted in our human mimetic fabric; how far it  is socially shaped and determined?  By which control mechanisms has it been kept at bay in pre-historical and historical times; how far has violence  been part of our institutional structures, and how did proto-institutions emerge as regulatory principles of violence, both internal and external?  A concept that has had a great currency in political philosophy in recent decades is Giorgio Agamben’s notion of homo sacer, and a specific panel will be devoted to the victimizing logic of politics and its rational ‘administration’ of scapegoating. One the issues which has been less explored in reference to Girard’s mimetic theory is the role of compassion and empathy, and how this has interacted with the propensity for conflict in humans. 


Recent world events reopen the question of the link between religion and violence, and a crucial role in its understanding has given, according to Girard, by Judeo-Christian scriptures. Is there a clear divide between Christian and pre-Christian traditions in relation to violence and sacrifice? In which respects is  our moral thinking, are our democratic institutions,  a product of Athens or Jerusalem respectively? Are religions intrinsically violent or, as Girard argues, have they been ‘rational’ instruments to cope with the intrinsically violent runaway dynamic that characterizes human social organizations? 


A subsidiary, but crucial aim of the conference is to bring fresh light to the current controversial debate about the relationship between science and religion. The Dawkins-Dennet cartel is buying into argument of the intrinsic irrationality and violence of religion to discredit the true historical significance of world religions. Showing ‘the archaic sacred’ (or natural religion) to be the original matrix of culture, Girard deciphers what violence has to do with ‘the sacred’ in general, and with Christianity in particular; and why it has remained central to identity politics with or without ‘religion’. His fundamental anthropology brings a new and challenging perspective integrating supposed opposites and transcending traditional dichotomies.  

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. TM & Copyright Turner Entertainment Co.






The conference organisers are grateful for the generous support provided by CRASSH and Imitatio.




Accommodation for non-paper giving participants




Conference participants can find information about accommodation in Cambridge at the following URLs:
NB. CRASSH is not able to help with the booking of accommodation. 




Administrative assistance: Helga Brandt (Conference Programme Manager, CRASSH)


Tel: +44 1223 766886
Email enquiries@crassh.cam.ac.uk