Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Imitation of the Cellular & Violence Toward the Neighbor

In this paper, I would like to examine Girardian theory concerning scapegoating and the mimetic, and its potential application to the science behind human, cellular construction. I would like to then relate the Girardian model and human, cellular construction to a progressive socio-cultural articulation, within a theological scope, or frame.

Mimetic violence, according to a Girardian understanding of desire and culpability, is commensurate with a Christian theology of “virtue” and “vice.” But the position of the mimetic as a model, where one’s passions can never be one's own, is also an operative on the cellular and molecular levels of the human and animal corpus. In other words, mimesis is embedded within violence and within the control of violence, and suggestively, human cells reflect this behavior.

Furthermore, I would like to suggest that a survey of the dialogues that align science and cultural anthropology and religious, intellectual history converge within this aforementioned framework of imitation. Moreover, the energies, discussed as transgressive behavior(s) stem not from mere mechanical motions governed by faulty cognition, but from the workings of the sacrificial and the surrogate victim within the interstitial spaces of human beginnings, on the cellular level(s). It is precisely these scapegoat behaviors, when placed alongside the contrasting practices described in religious myth and ritual, as “virtue” and “vice,” that a more full understanding of the mimetic cycle can be attained.

For instance, the proliferation of cancer cells, immuno-deficient viruses, and other irregular eryhtrocytic cells affect tissues that govern systems and ultimately the corpus. Such cellular violence exists to spoil or corrupt the good of other potential behaviors. Such behaviors stem from what might be called a crisis of conversion, whereby myth and ritual are reduced to their skeletal frames of competing discourses within and without the corpus. The corpus, in its defense, also supports the notion of the violence contagion, and as such good cells must be produced to balance the mimetic cycle toward a healthy corpus. The benefits to the body here include, but do not exhaust in any way, the potential for “proper,” “decent,” and “virtuous” social and cultural change. Moreover, because this change is not in tension, though it is in constant flux, consistency in behavior exists but is never finalized.

Utilizing selected readings from René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning and Violence and the Sacred, Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained, Leu D. Lefebure’s Revelation, the Religions, and Violence, and Hent De Vries’ Religion and Violence: Philosophical Perspectives from Kant to Derrida, as well as Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and his philosophical construction on the memetic, I will cater to the various voices and disciplines at large.

Human culpability, about which Girard speaks, begins on the cellular level and that mimetic violence transfers from the molecular to the social level of human existence, thereby suggesting mimetic violence exists within the interstitial walls of the human cell; ipso facto, the parallel of a tainted and violent society stems from the cellular crisis within, toward the outer progression of our world, and ultimately with whom we consider our mimetic neighbor.

Humble Beginnings: A Cell by any Other Name is…

It will be determined that within my paper the term neighbor will include everyone and anyone we, as the other, may come in contact with in our everyday occurrence(s). Moreover, I will be utilizing E.O. Wilson and “altruistic” behaviors of ants as well as suicide cells and mimetic neurons.

The Human Cell is an animal cell comprised of multiple organelles protected and encased within a thick, outer peptidoglycan cellular wall and an inner cytoplasm medium. At the risk of sounding like a scientist, the reader should note that I have degrees in both Biology and Chemistry and as a former validation scientist- I feel adequate to express the basic make-up of the human cell. Within the cytoplasm reside the nucleus and the nucleolus which encases DNA, a poly-protein chain molecule that contains our genetic code. For our purposes in this paper it is vital to give a brief definition, and then apply such a definition to the importance of inherited genetic traits; the carriers of such traits are called genes. According to scientist and apologist Alister McGrath, in his seminal work Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life, he defines and asserts:

DNA deoxyribonucleic acid, the molecule that contains the genetic code. It
consists of two long, twisted chains (a “double helix”) made up of nucleotides. Each nucleotide contains one base, one phosphate molecule, and the sugar deoxyribose. The bases in DNA nucleotides are adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine.

This basic definition will serve our purposes and is taken from McGrath’s response to Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and to a lesser extent Dawkins’ revision, The Extended Phenotype. What exactly tells the cell what to do, where to replicate, and how to get rid of unwanted “cellular debris”? These answers all point to, more or less, the gene, the basic unit of hereditary information that transmits our make up through chromosomal sharing.

In other words genes are found on chromosomes, and chromosomes come from sex cells, a sperm and an egg cell, and thus provide the necessary twenty-three pairs forming the humane genome (or offspring). These types of cells multiply, divide, and lead to the formation of other cells. It is not within the scope of this paper to discuss or exhaust all the variant possible cells that can be formed within the human body, though we will look at specific cells that do replicate uncontrollably and provides, what I argue to be parallels, within our social world with regards to imitation, sacrifice, and violence.

Recently, such explorations have taken this type of dialogue from the science lab into the cultural Darwinian studies open forum; i.e. where biological evolution requires a replicator, known as the gene, hence by analogy, cultural evolution also requires a replicator, which has been hypothesized as the meme. So, to borrow from McGrath’s inquiry, “why is this so important for an understanding of evolutionary biology?”

Meme for Gene: A Misaligned Identity:

Ed Sexton, Biologist and Philosopher of Science journalist, in his book Dawkins and the Selfish Gene, attempts to understand and humanize the zoologist’s negative term regarding genes as “selfish,” or existing under conscious negative behavior. As we shall soon note Sexton is not alone in this discursive practice regarding validating the Dawkins’ “selfish gene” theory. But first, what exactly is “selfish gene theory,” and how does it apply exactly, if at all, to cultural evolution and/or biological evolution?
Sexton provides us with a basic overview of the issue of selfish gene from his chapter “Selfish genes in a nutshell.” He asserts:

The fundamental unit of evolution is the replicator. A replicator is anything which
can be copied under certain circumstances; so, in a sense, a salt crystal could be a replicator […] some mutations, however, will increase the replicator’s chances of replicating […] This population of replicators working together for mutual benefit may, in time, give rise to ‘vehicles’: physical entities in which many replicators co-exist. In biological evolution, the replicators are genes and the vehicles are organisms, like us.

This notion directly posits the equality of genes to memes because both models apparently contain replicators and vehicles according to Sexton, and if Sexton is reading Dawkins correctly, according to Dawkins himself. We shall note that McGrath has much to say on the validity of memes, and their quasi-link to genes. This is taken from Ed Sexton’s Dawkins and the Selfish Gene (Icon Books, UK 2001). p. 8-11.

The assumptions are many, if we are to take Sexton’s reading of Dawkins correctly. However, Alister McGrath, in quoting Simon Conway Morris, states:

Memes are trivial, to be banished by simple mental exercises. In any wider
context, they are hopelessly, if not hilariously, simplistic. To conjure up memes
not only reveals a strange imprecision of thought, but as Anthony O’Hear has remarked, if memes really existed they would ultimately deny the reality of reflective thought.

Now, how are we to understand such a direct attack on Dawkins’ popularization of the term meme, and what after all is a meme?

“In The Selfish Gene,” asserts McGrath, “Dawkins explains…might not Darwinian theory be applied to human culture, as much as to the world of biology? This intellectual move lays the ground for converting Darwinism from a scientific theory to a worldview, a metanarrative, an overarching view of reality” (Dawkins’ God 119). The implications of Dawkins’ conception of having science enter the cultural arena as it were would mean that a cultural replicator of some magnitude would need to exist; this replicator as we have noted earlier is the meme. McGrath in his response to Dawkins states that “the meme was proposed as a hypothetical replicator-‘a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation’ (taken from Gr. mimesis) to explain the process of the development of culture within a Darwinian framework” (122). Dawkins in search of examples of memes turns to such an array as musical tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, fashions, songs-and God. From the Selfish Gene Dawkins proposes or rather asserts:

Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body
via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain by a process which, in the broad sense of the term, can be called imitation.

McGrath, however, challenges Dawkins’ proposed analogy between the gene and the meme because the gene instructs and is selected, but the meme could not both instruct and give causality. McGrath states that “he [Dawkins] appeared to imply that it was phenotypes that were inherited. This new definition of the meme identifies it as the fundamental unit of information or instruction which gives rise to cultural artifacts and ideas” (Dawkins’ God 122-23). What then are we to do with this notion of cultural identification and the meme as replicator? The problem exists within the idea itself. In other words if Dawkins is stating that even ideas hold their existence to cultural replicators such as memes, then are not memes to be included in this notion of ideas? McGrath puts it best:

If all ideas are memes, or effects of memes, Dawkins is left in the decidedly
uncomfortable position of having to accept that his own ideas must also be recognized as the effects of memes. Scientific ideas would then become yet another example of memes replicating within the human mind.

To debate the matter whether memes are useful or actually exist is not the sole purpose of this paper, but it is relevant to the cultural views that can be acquired from such parallels that Dawkins proposes. McGrath continues to respond to Dawkins with chapters like “Do Memes Actually Exist” and “Flawed Analogies of Memes and Genes.” The former concerns the validity of the gene as initially a theoretical necessity that became fact under rigorous scientific proofs, however, the meme is deficient and supported in three criteria: first, it is a hypothetical construct; second, it is unobservable; and third, it is more or less useless at the explanatory level.

McGrath in making his challenge cites even a disturbed Dawkins privileging the notion that science is to be excluded in some way. Dawkins states from his Selfish Gene: “Scientific ideas, like all memes, are subject to a kind of natural selection, and this might look superficially virus-like. But the selective forces that scrutinize scientific ideas are not arbitrary or capricious. They are exacting, well-honed rules, and they do not favor pointless self-serving behavior.” Unfortunately for Dawkins, if I may also have an educated opinion, this statement sounds a lot like: “Everyone’s dogma is wrong except mine.”

McGrath is adamant here because Science demands proofs and reproducible results, and if the meme is to be compared with an observable entity such as the gene, then it too had better undergo like experimentation. Moreover, a “gene is an observable entity that is well defined at the biological, chemical, and physical levels. Biologically, the gene is a distinct portion of a chromosome; chemically, it consists of DNA; physically, it consists of a double-helix,

question of memes still plagues the curious scientist and the layman alike. For example: “What are memes? Where are they located? How are they to be described biologically, chemically, physically”? According to McGrath, “the meme is simply an optional extra, an unnecessary addition to the range of theoretical mechanisms proposed to explain the development of culture. It can be abandoned without difficulty by cultural theorists” (Dawkins’ God 129). Moreover, McGrath, in a rather light exchange of hubris asks the question, “And since the meme is not warranted scientifically, are we to conclude that there is a meme for belief in memes themselves?” (130). It has already been warranted that “Dawkins’ argument for both the existence and function of the meme is based on a proposed analogy between biological and cultural evolution,” (130) yet one might still enquire as to what end the science of memetics has produced a viable scientific or socially intellectual history. In quoting Martin Gardner from the Los Angeles Times, he insists that:

A meme is so broadly defined by its proponents as to be a useless concept,
creating more confusion than light, and I predict that the concept will soon be forgotten as a curious linguistic quirk of little value. To critics, who at the moment far outnumber true believers, memetics is no more than a cumbersome terminology for saying what everybody knows and that can be more usefully said in the dull terminology of information transfer.

Again, this is not solely our scope, but just a part of the building material, the brick and cement mix, if you will, for establishing the semblance of ground and foundation toward our original premise. After all Dawkins in lieu of his famous “selfish gene” theory has retracted somewhat because the meme and its traffickers and/or critics have labeled him a socio-biologist rather than as a pure scientist. A label I might add that Dawkins is not ready to assume willingly. McGrath adds-“Dawkins has recently drawn in his horns slightly […] He has retreated from his early with a sequence of nucleotides which represent a “genetic code” that can be read and interpreted” (Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life Blackwell Publishing, UK 2005) p.128-29.

In short then, the meme could possibly be looked at as a failed approach to cultural evolution or even ethnological thinking, but perhaps more examples from the cellular side may provide a bit more illumination before we re-attempt to wed the two ideas together; i.e. cellular mimetic violence exists in the same frame as does cultural violence, and perhaps the two can be cooperatively observed; culture for one has similar application in the other; where science begins and cells proliferate in the Petri dish and mimic one another in specific environments, so to does this occur in or social sphere. At both ends of the spectrum, albeit one side is for the micro-scale and the other for the social sphere, a common thread is differentiation.

Examples in Cytoplasm:

In a collaborative effort regarding imitation and mirrored neurons and autism three scientists set out to research the role of imitation in these mirrored neurons and declared the following, and I quote their scope in full:

Various deficits in the cognitive functioning of people with autism have been
documented in recent years but these provide only partial explanations for the condition. We focus instead on an imitative disturbance involving difficulties both in copying actions and in inhibiting more stereotyped mimicking, such as echolalia. A candidate for the neural basis of this disturbance may be found in a recently discovered class of neurons in frontal cortex, `mirror neurons' (MNs). These neurons show activity in relation both to specific actions performed by self and matching actions performed by others, providing a potential bridge between
6 This of course can be best observed in tandem from Girard’s two volume set-Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP 1972) and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (Stanford: Stanford UP 1987)-respectively.

MN systems exist in primates without imitative and `theory of mind' abilities and we suggest that in order for them to have become utilized to perform social cognitive functions, sophisticated cortical neuronal systems have evolved in which MNs function as key elements. Early developmental failures of MN systems are likely to result in a consequent cascade of developmental impairments characterised by the clinical syndrome of autism.

How does this information assist us, the social observer or the non-scientist, and still yield some understanding of what cells are capable of doing as they translate into the social realm, or sphere?

J.H.G. Williams with regards to autism suggests a specific role of imitation exists. He asserts:

Of special relevance to our model is a subset of such action-coding neurons identified in the prefrontal cortex (area F5) in monkeys. Such neurons will fire when the monkey performs a specific action, such as a precision
grip, but also when an equivalent action (a precision grip, in this example) is performed by an individual the monkey is watching. These have been called `mirror neurons' (MNs). Their potential relevance to imitation is signalled by
another label: `monkey see, monkey do' neurons. F5 cell activity, however, does not automatically lead to motor responses and action performance, otherwise seeing actions performed would lead to obligatory copying (echopraxia).

What interests us here is the last line of Williams’ claim that “F5 cell activity, however, does not automatically lead to motor responses and action performance, otherwise seeing actions performed would lead to obligatory copying” (“Neuroscience and Behavioral Review” 290). Though mirrored neurons are still being examined they have provided a wealth of new ideas and intriguing notions surrounding the mimetic cycle; in this regard we are concerned with imitation and the way of the cell’s recognition. Williams further purports:

This is taken from “Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews” 25 (2001) PERGAMON 287±295. Moreover, the article is authored by the following: J.H.G. Williams,*, A. Whiten, T. Suddendorf, D.I. Perrett department of Child Health, University of Aberdeen, Foresterhill, Aberdeen AB25 2ZD, UK Department of Psychology, School of Psychology, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Fife KY16 9JU, UK
School of Psychology, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Old 4072, Australia.

In discussing the possible role of MNs in each of the above capacities, some references to imitative-like phenomena (`standing in the others shoes') have been made. It might be thought that the obvious functional role of MNs would
indeed lie in imitation (in which case MN outputs would not be inhibited). However, noting that there is little evidence of imitation in monkeys Gallese and Goldman suggested that in the monkeys in which they have been identified, MNs are functioning to facilitate social understanding of others (to the extent the monkey `stands in the same `mental shoes' as the other, as Gallese and Goldman put it). This is not argued to amount to ToM (for which there is also little evidence in monkeys, but it may nevertheless represent the kind of foundation which permitted the evolution of ToM in humans. However, we note there is better evidence for imitation in apes than in monkeys, and of course imitation is both evident and functionally important in our own species. We suggest that the evolution of imitation in humans is likely to have utilised an existing MN system,
even if its prior uses lay in more generalised kinds of social understanding.

The Theory of Mind or ToM Williams is referring to, I suggest, can gravitate back to our earlier discussion concerning cultural evolution or Dawkins’ model, though imperfect, of the “selfish gene” theory; cultural Darwinism does not need to pay homage to the meme, but it sure does provide a starting point, or reference point for a better model. In tracking biological evolution in the early religions Walter Burkert, in his seminal work-Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions, provides a sound board to after-Socratic thinking. He asserts, “The study of nature and human self-knowledge should no longer be separated, even if Socrates long ago insisted it was right to do so” (Preface x). Burkert is clear that:

Those who cling to a hard core of reality may still claim company with science,
which in its most abstract constructs remains ties to empirical data […] Biology is exploring the ‘reality’ of living organisms with growing success, from self-replicating molecules to human consciousness.8
Humans everywhere are comprised of cells, and these cells are equipped with specific machinery that enables replication and association amongst other cells. Moreover, cells are non-biased...

[This can easily tie into the dialogue we have seen stemming between McGrath, Sexton, Dawkins, Williams, and now Burkert; the Petri dish is now filled with its zoologist and scientists and social critic, etc.; i.e. the pool here is quite rich. The aforementioned quote and further reading can be found in Burkert’s Creation of the Sacred (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP 1996). Xii.]

...toward favoring a specific race over another; culture cannot remain enclosed within specific signifying systems by themselves. Here Burkert asserts:

There are common phenomena to all human civilizations, universalia of
anthropology; they may be but need not be called characteristics of human nature. Religion belongs with them. Cultures interact; there are exchanges and conflicts, breaks but also continuities even within historical change. Above all there are basic similarities in all forms of human culture, inasmuch as everywhere people eat, drink, and defecate, work and sleep, enjoy sex and procreate, get sick and die.
This commonality of human being (not to be noted as human-being) in lieu of cellular similarities is where the cultural anthropologist may lend his/her insight to the dynamic dialogue we have been following in this paper.

The New Synthesis, Sociobiology, & Self Sacrifice:

We begin with a new wave of ideas converging at the epicenter of what Walter Burkert considers to be the hypostasized process of “Nature,” or the “vast process of human evolution” whereby “cultural studies must merge with general anthropology, which is ultimately integrated into biology.”9 Such a demand would continue to fuel the controversy that stems from the myriad camps; i.e. philosophers, historians, sociologists, and anthropologists would still be at odds.

Arguably, as Burkert suggests, “the most complicated issue is still how to verify the connection between cultural phenomena and biological preconditions” (Creation of the Sacred 11). The ethologist would suggest that even at the primate level this level of observation is complex, difficult, and simply neither plausible nor possible from an experimental point of view. We turn to Burkert’s argument here as follows:

Even primitive functions of life and simple processes of growth depend upon the...

[Burkert asserts this point much like Dawkins has attempted to endorse, albeit his earlier models, of the meme-tic. Nonetheless like Burkert asserts, “to introduce biology into cultural studies is to enter a battlefield […] with the refinement of evolution theory, sociobiology was proclaimed as ‘the new synthesis’ by E. O. Wilson” (Creation of the Sacred Harvard UP 1996) p.8-9.]

...interaction of many genes and numerous intermediate stages and agents that make up the phenotype. Behavior is hopelessly complex already at the level of primates […] at the human level experimentation is not possible […] in addition, in human social life quite different levels and criteria of success come to the fore; these cannot be represented by a single set of numbers…

The success of Sociobiology is not a meager one and in fact, like Burkert sounding off as a Dawkinsian, states that “sociobiology has had some success in interpreting rules of marriage and sexual taboos in relation to the probabilities of genetic relationship and hence to the spread of selfish genes” (Creation of the Sacred 11). If Burkert is correct then, in assuming that “all humans henceforth are linked to an uninterrupted chain of tradition, taking over the mental worlds of their elders, working on them and passing them on,” then the language of the zoologist might claim them as genes, the Dawkinsian as memes, and the cultural anthropologist, at least in mechanism nomenclature, ritual via sacrifice and violence.

Rene Girard in his seminal work Violence and the Sacred asserts that “because the victim is sacred, it is criminal to kill him-but the victim is sacred only because he is to be killed” (1). Moreover, his reference to Greek tragedy regarding sacrifice suggests that “sacrifice resembles criminal violence” and of course what ensues according to Girard is the notion that “hardly any form of violence…cannot be described in terms of sacrifice” (1). If we are to read Girard sacrificially, which is to read him honestly, then we, the critic, must take him at his word; i.e. we must then recognize that “violence is not to be denied,” (4-5) and that “only violence can put an end to violence, and that is why violence is self-propagating” (26). Finally, if the king is to exist as king, then we must believe that “the sacred king is also a monster” (252). This notion of the king exists in a myriad formulation which includes, but does not exhaust, his position as “god, man, and savage beast” (252). Yet, what does all this talk regarding Girardian sacrifice and violence have to do with our earlier focus on the cell and its parallels to social behavior? Well, everything. What is the ultimate violence ipso facto? What is the extreme malfeasance? And what within the community provides such an act of sacrifice of the self? The answer that Girard provides is death and that it “contains the germ of life” (255).

Moreover, “with death a contagious sort of violence is let loose on the community” (255). Death then proves to be a passageway, but that is not our interest at this time. What is apparent is the notion of death as a germ, a contagion of a sub-unit wherein the machinery of the germ itself provides replication and imitative behavior. This is suggested and noted in highly proliferating cells that divide uncontrollably. Their existence is birthed in violence and a violent-like turn-around of the body’s “natural” machinery for blood vessel flow, etc. These cells are known as cancer, and the body’s defenses, though existent, are in no way able to combat such a foe. These cells provide a community of death leaving behind them a wake of mutated and weakened cells, tissues, organs, organ systems, etc. Yet are there such things as suicide cells, or sacrificial cells?

Cancer Cells & Mimetic Violence:

As we have observed thus far the cell and its components have issued forth a wealth of competing discourses that contribute to the more general pool of inquiry regarding this paper’s scope: “Can the discourse of cellular, mimetic machinery parallel into the discursive praxis involving cultural or socio-religio communities that support the scapegoat model and the sacrificial victim?” But first we revisit the construction of our cell and its derivative forms in detail.
The cell is the fundamental unit of life and cellular division stems from a highly regulated process; the division of “normal” cell growth, inheritance, and containment is controlled by its DNA (as we have noted elsewhere in this paper). The gene, a segment of DNA, determines the structure of a protein for body development via chemical functions, or biochemical steps. What concerns us regarding cellular division is the notion that this can only occur when the cell receives the proper signals to divide from growth factors that circulate in the bloodstream. This level of control necessitates order and regulation from the cell’s machinery, and when such machinery is aberrant in its regulatory processes and signaling, cancer ensues. What then are cancer cells exactly?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH):

A cancer cell is a cell that grows out of control. Unlike normal cells, cancer cells
ignore signals to stop dividing, to specialize, or to die and be shed, Growing in an uncontrollable manner and unable to recognize its own natural boundary, the cancer cells may spread to areas of the body where they do not belong.

One might think such proliferation of “bad” cells in its various progressive stages of mutation and the role of the gene mechanism, now mapped by research accorded to both Ventner and Collins (Time 2000), should allow us, that is the onco-scientist community to participate in more than just a discursive praxis on delivering the body from such a strong and detrimental invader. Recall, the body faces multiple pathogenic (invaders) cells that it can handle, surrounding the foreign cell and destroying it; this is part of the body’s defense mechanism. Yet, what is different or difficult about cancer? In a cancer cell, several gene changes or mutations allows for a defective cell, and the cell feeds off, mimetically altering the blood vessels fit for oxygen transfer to other tissue/organ parts of the body.10 The take home message regarding cancer cells can be summed as follows:

The NIH is a good resource for further readings involving cancer cells and their mutagenic properties. For example, “there are two types of gene mutations. One type, dominant mutation, is caused by an abnormality in one gene in a pair […] the result is that the cell receives a constant message to divide. This dominant “gain of function gene” is often called an oncogene (onco=cancer). Of course, recessive mutation is the second type of gene mutation “characterized by both genes in the pair being damaged.”

Cancer cells have defects in normal cellular functions that allow them to divide,
invade the surrounding tissue, and spread by way of vascular and/or lymphatic systems. These defects are the result of gene mutations sometimes caused by infectious viruses.

If cancer cells are cells that behave abnormally due to runaway mimetic failure within their machinery as we have previously noted, are there any “good” examples of cells wherein differentiation and mimetic properties provide a positive existence?
In the human body there are special cells that maintain three general properties: they are capable of dividing and renewing themselves for an extended period of time; they are unspecialized; and they can give rise to specialized cell types (via mimetic alignment, or neighboring).

The NIH suggests that these special cells (stem cells), though unspecialized, “can give rise to specialized cells, including heart muscle cells, blood cells, or nerve cells.” The implications are grand, but how do these cells, or for that matter their negative counterparts, namely oncocytes (cancer cells), relate back toward an anthropological notion of sacrifice and death and violence? The answer suggested by scientists at the NIH is a simple one: signals, the encoded directives within cellular machinery; when disrupted within its cytoplasmic community inclusive of its organelles and such, violence ensues. Hence, there is too much difference within the mechanism, a difference called mutation of the genic. Yet, only specific targets of the machinery are attacked. The purpose? Perhaps, turning to Girard, the social anthropologist can assist us here. He asserts, “the surrogate victim dies so that the entire community, threatened by the same fate [death], can be reborn in a new or renewed cultural order” (Violence and the Sacred 255). Perhaps, this is noticed in stem cells, but what about the cancer cells? Well, cancer cells utilize the body’s existent vascular machinery (capillaries, veins, arteries, etc.) to feed itself and thereby killing off where the natural blood flow toward a healthy oxygen-rich tissue/organ.

Through the death of surrounding, or neighboring tissue/organs the cancer lives, grows, and chooses other cells for its existence. Again, Girard with regards to social community relates:

Having sown the seeds of death, the god, ancestor, or mythic hero then dies himself or selects a victim to die in his stead. In so doing he bestows a new life on men. Understanding this process, we can also understand why death should be regarded as the elder sister, not to say the mother and ultimate source, of life itself.12
With the role of stem cells being undifferentiated one cannot ignore the fact that these cells do give rise toward differentiation, and that depending on which cell types emerge, they may or may not hinder cellular community; hence, there is the notion of cellular neighboring for the promotion of “good” community, or healthy cellular body as well as the need to expel certain cells due to their difference and incompatibility within the community. This is why cancer cells must establish their dominance, and then, to borrow from Girard, “generative violence” ensues.

The Surrogate Victim & the Uninterrupted Chain:

We have been surveying and privileging the discourse[s] of both science and culture in hopes to provide a bridge of the two disciplines under the architecture of the Girardian mimetic model. To further assist in our elaborate construction I would like to rely on Burkert’s the Creation of the Sacred once more.

Burkert suggests that “all humans henceforth are linked to an uninterrupted chain of tradition, taking over the mental worlds of their elders, working on them and passing them on” (Creation of the Sacred 24). Dawkins saw this as a Darwinian world-view as the meme and Girard, if I am reading him correctly, views this “passing on of themselves” notion as mimetic and ritualistic. The sacred therefore does not only belong to, or is only imbued with, the primitive. He asserts:

This quote taken from Violence and the Sacred suggests the Girardian notion of death as passageway toward life, and beyond. He ends with the point, “Death, then, contains the germ of life” (255).

Each community sees itself as a lonely vessel adrift in a fast ocean whose seas are
sometimes calm and friendly, sometimes rough and menacing. The first requirement for staying afloat is to obey the rules of navigation dictated by the ocean itself. But the most diligent attention to these rules is the guarantee of permanent safety […] only a constant repetition of rites seems to keep it from sinking.

The main difference between our reference to cancer cells and social community with regards to the Girardian model of the surrogate victim rests in the following notion: “The surrogate victim is generally destroyed and always expelled from the community” (Violence and the Sacred 266). Cancer cells are attacked, but to no avail, and can therefore be considered an anti-surrogate victim; i.e. the expulsion from community is that cell within a cancer community that is not of its make-up becoming in turn the scapegoat for the remaining mutated cells. The cancer cell and its metastasis are at fault. Put in Girardian terms then, one can state that “the act of generative violence that created the community is attributed not to men, but to the sacred itself” (267).

Again, the cancer cell is like the sacred, but unlike the surrogate victim, and the community it creates not anti-sacred, but becomes “it” because of the cancer cell’s proliferation in the first place. Technically, the neighboring cells that receive this attack on their cellular machinery as they become mutated, or rather differentiated into cancer cells suggests another Girardian model, namely the victim and not the surrogate victim. The difference can be explained as follows:

All sacrificial rites are based on two substitutions. The first is provided by
generative violence, which substitutes a single victim for all the members of the community. The second, the only strictly ritualistic substitution, is that of a victim for the surrogate victim […] it is essential that the victim be drawn from outside the community. Ritual sacrifice is defined as an inexact imitation of the generative act.

What then can be gathered by tethering these notions of the sacrificial victim, the surrogate victim, cancer cells and to lesser extent stem cells? What can such variant elements suggest about violence toward the neighbor? Again, we turn back to Girard for some direction.

As we bring together the various elements the various elements of our discussion, only one conclusion seems plausible:

There is a unity that underlies not only all mythologies and rituals but the whole
of human culture, and this unity of unities depends on a single mechanism, continually functioning because perpetually misunderstood-the mechanism that assures the community’s spontaneous and unanimous outburst of opposition to the surrogate victim.

If “sacrifice then is the most crucial and fundamental of rites,” (300) is it a static practice, or does it too, like cancer and stem cells, evolve, adapt, mutate, or simply “change”? In the context of ceremony Girard suggests that sacrifice “changes form or disappears in the course of evolution” (300). Still, violence within communities that privilege difference, and most of them do, enact such an activity toward those they are responsible to. For Girard this entails the tribal groups of the Tupinamba, the Aztec, and the African king-these are the neighbors of which generative violence makes them her mistress; in the context of the cellular, stem cells associate with other cell cultures, thereby dying to their undifferentiated machinery for the betterment of a “living” community; lastly, cancer cells also share somewhat in this model.

For instance, their ability to re-wire the normal, vascular machinery to suit their needs and destroy their neighbor, those cells anteriorly positioned. This positioning of violence from the cellular exists within the framework of the cultural and socio-religio realm; Richard Dawkins has called it Cultural Darwinism and popularized the term meme-tic, McGrath has argued against such a hypothesis, and Girard in his chapter "Victimage Mechanism as the Basis of Religion" from his second volume companion to Violence and the Sacred, Things Hidden From Since the Foundation of the World, suggests:

If imitation does indeed play the fundamental role for man, as everything seems to
indicate, there must certainly exist an acquisitive imitation, or, if one prefers, a possessive mimesis whose effects and consequences should be carefully studied and considered.

This noted mimetic rivalry toward the neighbor in any capacity exists on all the levels discussed in this paper as problematic and disturbing on the surface, but as Girard asserts in Things Hidden, “instead of seeing imitation as a threat to social cohesion or as a danger to community, we view it as a cause of conformity and gregariousness.” Such a view still provides at some level a hope beyond apodictic dialogue[s] as well as further, discursive reimbursements of invested intellectual curiosity; i.e. one could learn much from our nano-make up in lieu of our socio-cultural macrosphere regarding community and violence toward our “others,” the neighbor.

References (Selected):

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans, Annette Lavers. Hill and Wang: New York 1965.

Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books 2001.

Burkert, Walter. Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology In Early Religions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP 1996.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford UP 1989.

DeVries, Hent. Religion and Violence: Philosophical Perspectives from Kant to Derrida. Maryland: Johns Hopkins UP 2002.

Girard, Rene. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Trans, James G. Williams. New York: Orbis Books 2001.

--.Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Trans, Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer. California: Stanford UP 1987.

--.Violence and the Sacred. Trans, Patrick Gregory. Maryland: Johns Hopkins UP 1977.

Lefebure, Leo D. Revelation, the Relations, and Violence. New York: Orbis Books 2000.

McGrath, Alister. Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life. Malden, MA:
Blackwell Publishing 2005.

Sexton, Ed. Dawkins and the Selfish Gene. UK: Icon Books 2001.

Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon Press 1996.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Pagans, Tartars and a Frank Review

Francis Tobienne, Jr.
Purdue Doctoral Fellow
Adjunct Professor, University of South Florida--St. Petersburg
26 May 2009

Schildgen, Brenda Deen. Pagans, Tartars, and Jews in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Gainesville: University of Florida, 2001. Pp. xiv, 184. $59.95. ISBN-10: 0—8130—2107—3.

Reviewed by Francis Tobienne, Jr.
Purdue University

Adding to the on-going and provocative discussion of the “other” in Chaucer Studies, Brenda Deen Schildgen’s Pagan’s, Tartars, and Jews in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales supports the idea that Geoffrey Chaucer is better suited as an interpreter of “the ancient world,” than simply acting as a Christian writer imprinting his Canterbury Tales (Tales) “with a mere Christian ethos” (emphasis my own, 1). Citing support for Chaucer’s classicism, in support of the roman antique, Schildgen examines select stories from the Tales “outside a Christian-dominated world” (2). The eight tales she traces (the Knight’s, Squire’s, Man of Law’s, Franklin’s, Wife of Bath’s, Prioress’s, Monk’s and the Second Nun’s tales) reflect “Chaucer’s expansive narrative interest in the intellectual and cultural worlds outside Christianity” (2). In short, this book examines, via pagan philosophy from both the schools of Epicurean and Stoic tradition, as well as close readings, inter alia, of the eight tales, to suggest Chaucer’s awareness of a pan-European “contemporary cultural and social world” yielding an awareness of an “other” alongside English-speaking “palmeres” who “seken straunge strondes”.

Schildgen’s book consists of eight chapters, the first of which is an “Introduction” (pp. 1-12) in which she argues for an expanded reading of the Tales using “pagan philosophies or narratives” in addition to Augustinian theology (1). These narratives would have influenced Chaucer and, according to Schildgen, they give the Tales a “range of ethical and philosophical viewpoints” (4). What is at stake then, as Schildgen points out, is a “discursive ethical discovery” (4). She contends that Chaucer was an intellectual inheritor of the twelfth century activity of exploring “secular philosophy, history, and narratives,” which positioned the poet “in the pan-continental cultural context of the fourteenth century” (11). Second, she argues that in this time period, people adhered to non-normative Christian idealism, and thus that “these tales probe alternative value systems that are distinct from contemporary Christian practice” (12).

Chapters 2 and 3, respectively, “Pagan Philosophical Perspectives: A Knight and a Squire” and “Fortune, the Stars, and the Pagan Gods in the Knight’s and Squire’s Tales,” (13-47) can be read as Schildgen’s focus on the Knight’s Stoicism as well as the Squire’s Epicurean value(s) of pleasure. Moreover, this section supports Chaucer’s use of pagan philosophy and alterity amidst varied pilgrims (young, old, devout, et cetera), showing not only that Chaucer’s “openness to alterity is intergenerational” (13), but that Chaucer “endorses” a Knight whose tale “explores […] the values and attitudes of a pagan philosophy—Stoicism,” as well as a Squire who deals indirectly with “hethenesse” (21). By examining tales where contrasting, non-Orthodox ideologies are offered alongside Christian ones, ethical discovery is not only privileged, it is made possible and further “feature alternate systems of morality while they explore secular history” (21).

Leaving the Stoic behaviors of the Knight and his “busy gods” (38), Schildgen challenges scholarship that focuses on the Squire’s tale as a view into the exotic realm, arguing in favor of an “Epicurean ethos and emphasis on pleasure,” which best registers an “actual setting, not only in a non-Christian realm, but more importantly in a culture that was contemporaneous with Chaucer’s own and that did not share his own assumed Latin worldview” (39). Chaucer identifies with his audience in the fiction created by the Squire. In a third sub-section, Empirical Truth, or, What Exactly Was Known About the Tartars? Schildgen opens with: “The contrast between the Squire’s version of Tartary and the historical realities […] glosses over contradictions that Chaucer’s fourteenth century audience could well have recognized” (43). Giving a brief historical backdrop to the Tartars and their conversion via Franciscan missionaries as told in the Speculum Historiale, she offers both the “medieval ethnographer’s” travel narrative depiction in two frames: the monastic approach and the mercantile ethos. Completing the circuit then, Schildgen returns to the “Squire’s Tale” suggesting that Chaucer may have benefitted from such source materials, giving to the Squire a “pluralist attitude” (45). In her final sub-section, “Conclusion” (46), which sums up both Chapters 2 and 3, respectively, Schildgen examines the Knight/Squire with reference to their respective narrative control over historical realities. Moreover, in terms of these two characters and their tales, she reminds her readers of both a Stoic and an Epicurean idealism which “refuses to impose Christian norms on their narrative materials” (47).

In her fourth Chapter, “‘Hethenesse’ in the Canterbury Tales: Christian versus Islamic and Pagan Space in the ‘Man of Law’s Tale’” (48-69), Schildgen continues her reading of the Tales through the Man of Law which “incorporates merchants, Moslems, and pre-Christian Britons into its telling, to create insiders, outsiders, and mediators between the two” (49). In this particular chapter then, Schildgen seeks to further distinguish East from West (the latter existing as the idealized Roman church/emperor; and the former a possible idealized, Islamic state). Schildgen presents “five dimensions” which appear in the tale in support of the Islamic effect “on European cultural development” (51). Briefly, these are: the negative views of Moslems and prejudice during Crusading in light of the chansons de geste; Islamic learning alongside medieval, Latin culture; the viability of marketing and trade agreements between Christian Europe and Islam; the threat of Islam based on perceived religious and political ideologies; and finally, “’les musulmans fictifs,’ the hermeneutic of exoticism and difference conferred on the Moslems” (51). The author suggests that Chaucer, who “respects Islamic learning” (52), makes the Man of Law the appropriator of Islamic knowledge, turned classical knowledge. Schildgen ends this particular chapter discussing Chaucer’s use of allegoresis in Political Allegory (53), asserting Chaucer’s use of allegory was a political device whose authority worked to counter Christian Rome.

Taking up the notion of a pre-Christian Britain, Schildgen continues her exploration of suspended Christian teleologies, moving into the arena of ancient folklore and faerie. In Chapter 5, “Rash Promises, Oaths, and Pre-Christian Britain in the Wife of Bath’s and the Franklin’s Tales” (69-92), Epicureanism links the tales, which take their narrative landscape from Britain/Brittany. Moreover, Schildgen offers her readers a possible reading of Chaucer’s Franklin and Wife who, in their tales, maintain “the deliberate inclusion of other worldviews” beyond the Christian ideal.
In Chapter 6, “A Prioress and a Monk: Providential History on Trial” (93-108), Schildgen argues that history, according to Christian teleology, “separate[s] Christian thought from pagan, Stoic, or Epicurean thought” (93). In terms of Christian and non-Christian readings of history, the Prioress and the Monk, according to Schildgen, offer a syncretic reading of history. Her method in this section, a compare-and-contrast approach, covers the anti-Semitic polemics of the Prioress as well as the pluralistic and inclusive tragic histories of both Christian and pagan worldview vis-à-vis the Monk. Schildgen argues that Chaucer creates the “Jews” by pitting Christian ideology against Jewish “diabolic imaginings” while the Monk moves beyond such absolutism of good versus evil “in favor of a more murky view of history” (108).

In Chapter 7, “The ‘Second Nun’s Tale: Christians as a Persecuted Minority’” (109-20), Schildgen examines the subject of martyrdom as a reversal of values. Moreover, the author asserts, “the ‘Second Nun’s Tale’ draws up sides that divide the world into those who conform to temporal codes […] and those who reject these worldly structures as ‘folye’” (117). Further, she argues that in the fourteenth century Christians were not always in the majority and that their minority status, in terms of ideological preference (i.e. belief and practice), could prove a “potentially life-threatening choice” (110). This placed Christianity itself as an “othering” identification.

Quite possibly the weakest part of her text, Schildgen, in her eighth chapter, concludes with generalizations and disclaimers in support of a “Chaucerian, transitional time” (123). Arguably, it is a time where fictional pilgrims exist as “equals,” telling stories which function as narrative vehicles for ethical discovery and the appropriations of pagan and Christian idealism alike. Moreover, the stories even become a “means for aesthetic speculation about ethics and identities within a posttradtional political rather than metaphysical framework in which absolute conclusions are elusive” (123). Still, such “neutrality of worldviews” (125) in light of the varied tales collected here gives rise to a greater appreciation, a greater reading of Chaucer’s poetics and of a better understanding of both the known and unknown cultural make-up of the fourteenth century and beyond. This author, on the whole, addresses such matters admirably.