“The enemy is the external form of our own question”: Four Notes on the Mimetic Roots of Political Identities


Even in the natural biological environment, where imitation has its real begin ning, we find not only a subject and an object, but also a third element: René  Girard calls it “the model of desire.” The subject desires the object insofar as the model is imagined to want the same object. Therefore, mankind’s dependence on the model is, as it always was, the modus operandi of hyper-mimetic beings. It is not solely a distorted compulsion (affectus) that transforms the model into a “material” obstacle to obtaining the object. 

As for mimetism, it must be underlined that rivalry is not simply a result of an accidental convergence of two desires on the same object. If it were, we would welcome the return of a hypothetical and original autonomy of desire, leading to mankind’s freedom from his first imitative guilt. But, from the origin and, hopefully, until the end, felix culpa leads the imitator to confront the model! 

The imitator’s negative/positive dependence on his model shows the prevailing affection within the process of imitative acquisition. Such dependence explains the large variety of the attitudes of human desire; it also explains the reason why imitation can arouse radical and extreme feelings of both jealousy and aversion towards the model. Moreover, it can drive the imitator to a  pathological relapse. But, in order not to be trapped into a cross-mechanism of mimetic-rivalitarian desire, we ought to avoid immediately thinking of the model as a rival and instead to recognize the imitation of the model as man kind’s way of taking possession of and acquainting himself with the world. 


In short, we can say that the same affective relationship: a. Mediates the appropriation of the “object.” The relation to the model allows one to approach such appropriation in an emotional and cognitive way. b. Transforms the model into an “obstacle,” carrying out the double binding command. The unavoidable obstacle affects the imitator definitely.  However, these psychological effects are secondary. What is primary is the indication of the object of appropriation led by the desire of the model. 

Most of the literature developing the Mimetic theory focuses on the “inner”  relationship of the imitator to the model-obstacle, which René Girard calls  “internal mediation” due to the effects on the psychological sphere of the imitator. Under this aspect, the relationship is metaphysically transformed into a deification of the model. On the other hand, sometimes these studies have disregarded the manner in which the model, acting as mediator, produces real and  manifest changes. Hence, “external mediation” has been confined, first, within  the domain of religious institutions, and second, within that of juridical and  political ones. On the contrary, the two aspects, model as an “inner” obstacle  and model as an “external” mediator, constantly overlap, as it is easy to observe in  cultural history. Thus, we should focus on the conflicting effects of the meeting with a model in order to achieve a more global vision of the creative relations of humans.


For the imitator, the model-obstacle is a scandal. In fact, double-binding desire  contains all the features of scandal. Whoever is affected by scandal is confused;  on the one hand, the scandal astonishes him, and on the other hand, it deprives  him of what leads to the object of desire. The imitator loses sight of his aim. To  put it more tangibly, confusion toward the model is a scandal to the eye that is  transmitted to the hands and feet, thus hindering movement. Girard’s image  of hobbling along evokes the visible effect of this impediment. The contradictory movement forward always halts at the same point. This makes a cripple of  whoever looks at a cripple! However, in this way, the neurotic movement of the  one who repeats obstacles never becomes too widespread. 

In the Gospels we find many bad masters who provoke scandal and are then severely condemned: We read in Matthew 18.7, “Woe unto the world  because of offenses! For it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that  man by whom the offense cometh!” (see also Luke 17.1). But many times in  the Gospels, Jesus provokes scandal by presenting himself as the only “guide,”  and as a consequence nominates himself to take the position of the victim. This is the old scandal of sacrificing the prophets; this is the scandal that Pharisees  attempt to conceal with “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23.1–38) and that Jesus uncovers, because he is the scandal that cannot be hidden. In the logoi (words) of Jesus, to be a scandal and to be scandalized primarily mean the lack of faith that prevents one from receiving him as the Christ. 

The rejection of the “unique mediator” is the obstacle on which the unfaithful  imitators will be shattered. “The stone the builders rejected, has become the  cornerstone, and a stumbling stone, and a rock of offense, even to them who stumble at the word” (1 Peter 2.6–7). Nevertheless, this is a paradoxical fall,  since the lack of faith irreversibly legitimizes the event of the crucifixion—a  cause of the fall for many within the Jewish world, which then produces fruits within another nation (Matthew 21.43)—and it will be “the riches of the world”  (Romans 11.11). First through Peter’s words and then through Paul’s, we may  

recognize the twofold movement of rejection-fall and falling-resurrection that  is the real scandal of the Cross (Luke 2.34). The idea that faith comes into the world through scandal seems to hint at  “the double binding” desire. The scandal of the “double bind” is just a mirror,  though a misleading one, to the scandal of the Cross.


Without scandal, imitation wouldn’t be authentic imitation, but only compulsion (conatus, affectus) or, at most, moral edification. Faith is the biggest scandal  we can’t get rid of. It is the “sign of contradiction” which we always shrink from and trip over in search of autonomy.7 Of course, as an alternative to the scandal,  we may rely upon cultural emancipation (individual or collective) as an obvious  escape from the rivalries of human desire and from genealogically elaborated  morality and politics. In his well-known work The Legitimacy of Modern Age, Hans Blumenberg  elaborates on this theme when he writes that men inflict awful punishment on  one another, justifying “today’s fault with yesterday’s.”8 Blumenberg thinks that  the Modern Age goes beyond this genealogical injustice by finding legitimization in and of itself, as a rational self-assertion, rather than being legitimized  by external elements. As we know, Girard believes that such a claim to self legitimization is the last step of “internal mediation,” which confirms the  evolutionary progression of desire towards its destruction. At the same time,  Girard prophesies an apocalyptic conclusion to the conflict between rivals  when such a conflict is no longer ruled by the scapegoat mechanism. Thus, the  role reversal between the model of desire and his imitator cannot be stopped.  In fact, mimetic theory emphasizes the negative or unrealistic consequences of  the “double bind” in many different ways. In contrast to both Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, and  to Girard’s conclusions of Battling to the End, I think it is better to accept the  challenges of the aforementioned “double bind” of desire, and to use them  as a key for a more positive and realistic comprehension of problems that are  not only psychological but also political and juridical. Autonomy, it must be  said, is not simply a romantic lie; it is also canceled by what Carl Schmitt calls  “the ineradicable need for legitimization that every man and every community  has.” I think we can gain some insight into the imitative and conflicting nature  of identities in politics and history if we look at this need for legitimization. 


Now, let’s go back to the sentence that I have chosen as the title of this paper:  “the enemy is the external form of our own personal question. He will pursue  us and we will pursue him to the same end.” Schmitt’s quotation has provoked  several interpretations by scholars. For our purpose it is sufficient to say that in contradiction to formal logic (i.e., both the law of identity and the law of  sufficient reason), Schmitt contends that we can’t define ourselves. Using the  symbols of logic, he denies that A is the same as A. He also denies that A (our selves) can be reduced to B (the enemy), or, to put it in another way, he denies  that the enemy is a sufficient reason to provide evidence of the existence of A.  Furthermore, he excludes the idea that B can be reduced to the further previous  B as an endless regression whose origin can’t be traced back. So, if A is not A,  and B is not A, not even in our perturbing reality, we thus face the “question”  that the enemy provides in its external form. The “question” we are speaking  about, which is always made up of a material and spiritual history, connects A to  B or enemies to each other. “Our own personal question” is neither completely  internal to the relationship, nor external. It is our own question understood  through the enemy. But we understand it only because the enemy gives it a  historical significance. Now we must ask: “Who is this enemy pursuing us and being pursued by  us to the same end, and to what end are we driven by him?” To reply we must  discover—according to Schmitt—who is the one offering himself for a historical succession. At the beginning of the Christian era, the significance of imperial political power was to hold back the destruction of the earth. In the present, in  many different, contradictory and concealed ways, it is still the historical succession that hints at the real objective and at the task of political power. This task justifies the power as being sacrificial and reparative—in a word, katechontic in  the meaning of Saint Paul and Schmitt (as the force that holds back the end).  Nevertheless, according to Girard, at the end of this era, the increase of mutual  violence, never focusing on an object, leaves us no other choice but to abandon  the mimetic way of living or suffer the Apocalypse. In Battling to the End, the aforementioned situation is the theme of Girard’s  historical inquiry. The tragic, inescapable double bind in the relationship of  Clausewitz to Napoleon demonstrates that the enemy is at the same time an  obstacle and an attractive model. Thus, in this exemplary case the imitative  desire leads to its own acceleration, always trailing its model, rapidly propagating the scandal of rivalry’s imitation. In this way Girard interprets the European  passage from traditional war (“war within forms”) to the “escalation of war,”  which follows what he calls the “law of the duel,”13 the internal metaphysical law  determining both military strategy as well as mimetic strategies of desire. 

Both before and after Napoleon, however, there are many instances of  “every man and every community’s ineradicable need for legitimization.”  This is the authentic medium of succession in the authority and inheritance  of individuals, communities, and states.14 Consequently, we should consider the “need for legitimization” as the real domain or the existential basis, which  always exists whenever rivalries mature, even the most foolish ones—and also  whenever deification of the model or mortal fighting against the rival becomes  an essential part of political relations. In conclusion, while trying to obtain the answer to our own question from the enemy, two more critical questions emerge. Is the “double bind of desire”  creative or destructive to political identities? And, can we think of imitation as  being separate from “every man and every community’s ineradicable need for legitimization,” or is this need precisely our own personal question?

The Enemy

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