In Search of the Middle Path : The Ethics of Distance

AFTER ANATTA : TOWARDS A GIRARDIAN ETHICS

Part 3.3

Is the ethical life thus in fact essentially the deep awareness of the universalism of interdependence and mimesis? Caution: such realisations, while potentially liberating, could also backfire. One could believe so much in one’s profound connection with a mimetic model, or in her profound interdependence with another human being, to the point of fully ‘surrendering’ to this other. An awareness of interdependence, that is, of the illusion of one’s independence, should not fall into one’s capitulation, in reaction, towards a thorough dependence on the other. A familiar scenario: a lover feels so deeply connected and correlated with his partner, that he leaves her with all powers of decision on both of their lives. Here, mimetic knowledge becomes a mimetic escape. Interdependence becomes utter dependence, and agency becomes passivity. What differentiates interdependence from dependence is in fact the remainder of a simple subtraction: interdependence is the combination of my dependence on the other with her dependence on me. The mutual character of the dependence transcends the very dependence of one member onto the other, by transforming it into a mutual, and balanced interdependence.

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Distance is the differing factor between the two extremes: the illusion of a fulfilling dependence (superimposition of myself onto the other) and the fantasy of a complete independence (ignorance of the other and indifference about him; the absolute lack of contact). The challenge is to find the ‘right distance’.

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In other words, the challenge is to find the right distance between myself and the other: it is the matter of an ethics of distance. Distance is the differing factor between the two extremes: the illusion of a fulfilling dependence (superimposition of myself onto the other) and the fantasy of a complete independence (ignorance of the other and indifference about him; the absolute lack of contact). The challenge is to find the ‘right distance’. In his latest work, Battling to the End, Girard addresses the question of distance. And he, too, seems to understand distance as a major criterion for the possibility of positive imitation.

“We now have to go further and say two things: one can enter into relations with the divine only from a distance and through a mediator: Jesus Christ. This contains the whole paradox that we have to deal with. It contains the new rationality that mimetic theory seeks to promote. It proclaims itself to be apocalyptic reasoning because it takes the divine seriously. In order to escape negative imitation, the reciprocity that brought people closer to the sacred, we have to accept the idea that only positive imitation will place us at the correct distance from the divine.” 1

One cannot miss the theological tone of the passage, witness of the general incorporation of Girard’s (potentially) ethical considerations within the larger Christian eschatological scenario. This would call for its own careful interpretations, but such a passage already invites to another tangent of reflection. It may trigger more secular hypotheses as to the value of distance as a means to the attainment of positive mimesis. Benoît Chantre, who co-wrote Battling to the End with Girard, is probably inspired by the explorations of their discussion when he offers elsewhere his own view of what would be the right distance. In “D’un « désir métaphysique » à l’autre : Levinas et Girard” [“From a ‘metaphysical desire’ to the next: Levinas and Girard”], Chantre argues that the right distance takes the form of charity:

“Proximity and remoteness [éloignement] (to things and to beings) are two symmetrical deadlocks. Only the presence of things and of beings is redeeming [rédemptrice], as much on the anthropological level as on the phenomenological level: it is together that it matters to us to look at the world. A thing or a being can be seen as phenomena only when others are distant enough, but also present enough, so that this thing or this being may appear. This way, enjoyment [jouissance] and rivalry are two forms of proximity that are excessive to the thing and to the targeted being. Charity implies, in contrast, a just distance vis-à-vis this being or this thing. This distance confers to the relation its disinterested character.” 2

Here, Chantre attempts to ‘translate’ Girard’s intuitions into more classical and explicit formulations for ethics and the definition of a just relation to the Other. Unsurprisingly, Chantre goes to Levinas to explore this new path. Chantre’s account is rather convincing: charity could indeed appear as the further step after non-violence, a complexified and more pragmatic direction after what was only a dry and naïve concept. It is specifically this sort of creative interpretation and interpolation of Girard’s ‘pre-ethical’ statements, which other scholars ought to attempt today.

An applied Ethics of Distance: Temporal Delay

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Violence is often understood as indifference and ignorance — a state or an elite ignoring the life of its subalterns — but violence is also reduction and assimilation — the forceful assimilation and the risks of indifferentiation, as discussed by Girard. Too close, or too far: violence is the denial of the right distance.

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Girard does not partake in this creative process, but he continues to deepen his reflection on a more factual plane. Again, in Battling to the End, he observes one anthropological application of the value of distance. Girard argues that, for instance, the slowness of justice is not the unfortunate consequence of the amount of cases faced by the institution, but rather an unsaid wisdom followed across cultures to avoid the immediate reciprocity of deed and punishment. Similarly, commercial transactions are also generally slow in order to avoid the impression of a gift/counter-gift exchange that would, too often, ensure an unequal result. 3 “Life is liveable only if reciprocity does not appear.” 4 One could extrapolate and hypothesise that the event of violence, debated at length by Girard, is precisely the disruption of a certain, safe distance from the other. Violence is often understood as indifference and ignorance — a state or an elite ignoring the life of its subalterns — but violence is also reduction and assimilation — the forceful assimilation and the risks of indifferentiation, as discussed by Girard. Too close, or too far: violence is the denial of the right distance.

Here again, a connection with Buddhism could be established. A large portion of the Buddhist learning, through the practice of meditation, is the discovery and exploration of one’s one interaction with one’s feelings. Buddhism incorporated the unsaid anthropological structures of slowness as seen in these concrete instances of justice or commerce, within the very spiritual journey. To lead a life in peace, one must confront and recognise one’s emotions, but ultimately step away from them to see them, slowly, dissolving into impermanence and emptiness. First, connecting with the emotions, and then only, taking distance from them. The avoidance of reciprocity, as discussed by Girard, would be an example of an emotion for which Buddhists specifically recommend the establishing of a certain distance. 5 The “applied ethics” of distance is also found in the social and political considerations of Buddhist ethics. Ricard confirms for instance that Buddhism too believes that punishment should never be established as vengeance. 6

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References

Image courtesy: Michelangelo

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Footnotes

  1. Girard, Battling to the End, 119-120.
  2. My own translation. Benoît Chantre, “D’un « désir métaphysique » à l’autre : Levinas et Girard,” in Cahier de l’Herne Girard, ed. Anspach (Paris: Editions de l’Herne, 2008), 221.
  3. Girard, Battling to the End, 60-61.
  4. Girard, Battling to the End, 61.
  5. Many Buddhist authors would certainly argue that numbers of the emotions to which we react are mimetic emotions — at least inasmuch they are conditioned, that is, interdependent with the world.
  6. Ricard, Happiness, 247.