Among the anthropological philosopher Rene Girard’s greatest work, arguably, is his study of mimetic theory and scapegoating among humans. According to Girard, and attested throughout history, humans are a naturally violent species. As the centuries have passed however, we have attempted to civilize and socialize ourselves, stripping away, or at least covering up our violent natures. However, Girard points out that communities of humans still experience a buildup of tension and repressed violence. If no controlled outlet for violence is used, chaos can break out. The scapegoat theory, therefore, offers a violent outlet for a community, a way of releasing our violent natures in a ritualistic and traditional way that everyone can agree on. All the sins of a community, everything that is wrong with the world is placed on the scapegoat, so that scapegoat must be punished and expelled through death. Once blood has been shed, the community can return to normal. This scapegoating has changed throughout the years, from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice, to the sacrifice of wars and the scapegoating of religions or ethnicities or sexualities or genders.
In the last thirty years, theologians have been attempting to bring Girard’s mimetic theory alongside the biblical stories to find similarities. Indeed, even Girard himself does this in his groundbreaking book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, where he applies his theory of scapegoating to the life and death of Jesus, showing that Jesus, in a very real sense, became a scapegoat for the community. However, because of Jesus’ innocence, something new takes place. Jesus ends up victorious by revealing the mimetic cycle for what it is and therefore rendering it useless. Jesus literally saps the power from the scapegoating mechanism and destroys its significance.
For quite a while I have been interested in Girard’s theories and have tried to locate them in our modern mythologies. Girard revels in ancient mythologies and archetypes, but where can we locate his theories in today’s world? I was recently re-watching the TV show Community, and in its fifth season an episode jumped out at me. I found Girard’s mimetic theory throughout the storyline, and as it turns out, is the very thing that drives the story forward. In a very real sense, this episode is another perfect example of Girard’s theories playing out.
The episode I am referring to is the eighth episode in the fifth season of Community, “App Development and Condiments.” The general plot of the episode revolves around an app company using the student body at Greendale to test a new app called MeowMeowBeanz that allows users to rate each other on a scale of one to five. As usual, the campus quickly descends into chaos as students overcommit to the latest gimmick. However, what is meant to be a hilarious and over-exaggerated take on the dystopian genre actually fits quite nicely with Girard’s theories.
The app itself has jumpstarted the cycle of mimesis at Greendale Community College, and according to Girard, the mimetic cycle ultimately leads to a buildup of tension that culminates in a release of violence through the scapegoat mechanism. In order for the scapegoating mechanism to have its desired results, an appropriate scapegoat must be found and exiled or ritualistically killed. The Greendale community has now found itself locked into the mimetic cycle and therefore begins to experience a build-up of tension. The lower numbered communities begin to press against the higher numbered communities, and the whole foundation of the MeowMeowBeanz society becomes threatened with disorder and chaos. A proper scapegoat is needed to restore order.
Therefore, we see the community of 5’s enacting a festival of games to try and quell the lower numbers. They believe that because the games give the illusion of moving up in number, it will provide the appropriate amount of ritual and scapegoating required to restore order. The 5’s, however, are mistaken in their belief, as Jeff proves that one can actually circumvent the oppressive rule of the 5’s and move into their community. Jeff reveals the mimetic cycle and the scapegoating mechanism, and in doing so, threatens the accepted societal norms more so than before.
Only a minimal amount of tension has therefore been released from the games, and they ultimately prove to be an ineffective scapegoat. I believe this is because the scapegoat was not foreign enough to be considered “other,” nor were the games lethal enough in their ritualistic murder. In any case the society is still threatened with collapse, so the 5’s attempt to scapegoat Jeff and Shirley through a ritualistic dance.
This attempt at scapegoating is laughable at best, notably lacking in the majority of the markers which make scapegoats effective at restoring order and peace. For one thing, it takes place entirely within the community of the 5’s with none of the other numbered communities in attendance or allowed to participate in the ritual. Second, Jeff and Shirley’s expulsion from the 5’s only serves to restore balance within the 5’s; it does nothing to end or fulfill the violent cycle in the other communities.
At this point the scapegoat mechanism has been ineffectively employed twice with minimal to zero results, and the MeowMeowBeanz society has been pushed past its accepted levels of violence. Because a proper scapegoat has yet to be found, the violent tendencies of the community have grown out of control and the society collapses. The lower numbered communities rebel and overthrow the higher numbered communities, and Greendale Community College is thrown into chaos and disorder. Society, as MeowMeowBeanz knows it, has ended.
We next see the college entertaining a ritualistic trial where the higher numbered individuals are tried, convicted and sentenced to “murder” by dropping them down into the community of 1’s. This is, yet again, another attempt at scapegoating; this time the 4’s and 5’s are made scapegoats in an attempt to focus the community’s violence onto them. The problem with this, however, is that not all the scapegoats are accounted for, and the rituals that surround the new scapegoat mechanism are not set in stone but rather swayed by the whims of a violent crowd. Again, this scapegoat mechanism is doomed to fail by every standard, until Jeff is brought before the violent crowd.
Jeff, who has previously exposed the scapegoat mechanism and therefore neutralized its affects, this time refocuses the community’s violence on a proper scapegoat. He unveils an individual that not only exists outside of the titular community, but also the actual community known as Greendale Community College. He places all the blame on this individual, claiming they achieved the status of a 5, the very center of the mimetic cycle, through outside and “unethical” means. Jeff successful places the blame for the community’s problems, their anger and their hate and the fact that they are currently in school on a Saturday of their own volition on this outsider, furthering the distance between the community and their scapegoat. Finally, it is important to note that the outsider is never given a name, or any other marker of humanity. Jeff has successfully initiated the scapegoat mechanism, and the community has accepted the scapegoat. Their sins and violence have been placed perfectly on one individual, and all that is left is to kill, or expel that person.
Jeff offers a method of “killing” the person that maintains a ritualistic ethos. Everyone in the community takes part in the ritualistic killing by deleting the app from their phones. By doing so they have not only expelled the scapegoat, they have, in effect, all thrown stones to kill the individual. Everyone takes part and therefore the scapegoat mechanism ends the mimetic cycle and restores order and societal norms to the community. It is interesting to note that after the outsider is “killed” everyone leaves passively and without talking, everyone but Brita, who attempts to reinitiate the mimetic cycle but fails due to her low standing in the community.
As the episode ends we see the students of Greendale Community College going about their business on a normal school day. The dean is even heard over the intercom encouraging students to forget their violence and scapegoat, further cementing the power of the cycle. The scapegoat mechanism was successful and the school has returned to the start of the mimetic cycle, prepared for next week’s episode to reveal a new cycle and buildup of violence.
(Photo credit to NBC)