The Girard-Schmitt-Freud Triad as a Mirror to the Imaginary-Symbolic-Real Framework

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You can see this in MAGA nationalist doctrine (which targets foreign elements). In BLM/Antifa sloganeering (which targets essentially anyone who doesn’t agree with them). In religious fundamentalism (which targets liberals) and liberalism (which targets fundamentalists).

It’s all about what an ‘other’ has taken away from us, the losses inflicted upon us and how we must fight back, and even sacrifice, to regain that which was lost.

A world predicated and sustained by sacrifice is a world which manipulates the loss experienced by its inhabitants.

Such a world wants its people to desire sacrifice and thus to perpetuate the violence of a system devoted towards exploiting the jouissance of subjects (Žižek 2006, p. 313; Vighi 2010, pp. 12–13) by offering them a fundamental delusion of the desired object. This is to say that as loss was the originating force of society, society will constantly seek to reenact it in the form of sacrifice.

McGowan (2013) puts it well, ‘(These) sacrificial rituals…allow subjects to experience and enjoy the social bond through an encounter with the nothing that they hold in common’ (p. 149).

Society compels subjects to engage in shared sacrifices─for example, war, sport, activism, etc.─that provides something in common which, in fact, is nothing but the act of sacrifice itself (McGowan 2013, p. 147). Sacrifice allows subjects to return to an original blissful genesis and for the social community to return to the point at which social order constituted itself (McGowan 2013, p. 147).

To reiterate, loss creates society.

Girard & Mimetic Violence

This is dramatically enacted in Rene Girard’s (1972) notion of the sacrificial carthasis in which a scapegoat or sacrificial victim is targeted to clean communities of the mimetic violence which threatens to annihilate it from within (pp. 30–31).

Mimesis is that particular quality of human being which allows us to imitate the behaviour of others and shape our consciousness and inner lives based on what we ‘read’ other minds to be thinking and planning. This creates the dangerous potential of exponentially replicating violence among members of any community in the face of even suspected negative intentions, let alone real offenses.

As such, communities easily become fragile loci of retaliatory violence in which murderous acts take on the power of contagion. In order to prevent all-out destruction, a person or minority group is singled out to suffer the consequences of all the irrational violence thus discharging the retribution among members of the entire group (Heim 2006, pp. 42–43). The violence visited upon these scapegoats are redemptive, it ‘clears the air’ and reestablishes peace. Where previously there was discord among all, now there is unity because the sacrificial victim provides the focal point for the community’s hatred; the tribe is reconciled with each other precisely by retaliating against one of its own (Girard 1972, pp. 78–80).

It is insightful that Girard (1972) elaborates the ‘sacrificial crisis’ as a crisis of distinction between pure and impure; the containment of contagion violence depends on separating those who must be accused of the worst crimes of the group and those who would be saved by such accusations (pp. 49–50).

Schmitt and the Enemy

The above uncannily echoes the friend-enemy distinction which German political theorist Carl Schmitt (2007) asserted was at the heart of political action and motives (pp. 33–34). The concept of the enemy must always be potentially available to ground political sovereignty which, according to Schmitt, is the right to decide on an exception (Kahn 2011, p. 11).

The political sovereign is he who decides and thus sustains the borders of political imagination that reestablishes the norms in the act of going beyond them; it is the sovereign who takes the process from abstract norms to an actual ordering of events (Kahn 2011, p. 76). As with the sacrificial motif, the very idea of a constituted nation at peace requires imagining (if not actualising) a threat. Without deciding who one’s enemy is, one cannot call anybody a friend and, most critically, one has no target to focus on in defense of the nation. Sacrifice requires a scapegoat, sovereignty an enemy. The former is the sacred exception whose destruction will bring peace to the community, the latter embodies the point of exception which simultaneously founds and sustains a nation-state; there is a logic of exceptionality at work in both.

Freud and the Tribal Horde

The sacrificial motif also resonates with the Freudian motif of the tribal horde which murders its leader or common all-powerful father, only to be haunted by the guilt of their deeds which in turn result in a taboo against incest (Freud 2001, pp. 136–140; Reinhard 2005, p. 53). This myth proffers an explanation of the founding event in society, one characterised by repressive violence and, once again, an exceptional or exclusive figure who (whilst alive but especially in death) pronounces his will on the community via self-censorship and prohibition. One could even make the case that the spiralling cycle of violence which requires sacrifice is itself predicated on the symbolic murder of the primal father which brought society from an order of unmediated enjoyment to a system based on entitlement, authority, repression and envy (Santner 2011, pp. 25–26). Eric Santner (2011) asserts that the Schmittian state of exception is a proxy for the super-ego and its indistinction between the law and its dissolution; the state of exception marks, ‘the space where the primal father refuses to be refused and returns in all his fleshy excess and overproximity’ (p. 26, emphasis in the original).

The Lacanian Triad

It is tempting to read the Freud-Girard-Schmitt triad along the lines of the Lacanian Imaginary-Symbolic-Real order. The primal horde misrecognizes the tribal father as the source of boundless enjoyment, vainly and impossibly seeking to emulate him (McGowan 2013, pp. 154–155). This Imaginary phase is violently surpassed by the Symbolic one upon the murder of the father which not only installs guilt and lack into the members, it paradoxically serves to strengthen the symbolic presence of the father (Reinhard 2005, p. 41) and with murder, guilt, envy and repression embedded at the heart of society it is only a matter of time before a sacrificial cleansing or purge is needed.

Naming the outsider or enemy to be targeted, then, requires a political sovereign whose powers, not unlike those of the primal father, are used to pronounce a state of exception, one which is grounded in nothing other pure injunction (Dolar 2006, p. 170), that is, the Real in the guise of the superego. If the Girardian sacrificial motif appeases the wrath of the community by victimising innocents, and the Schmittian sovereign exception aims for definition and redefinition (of a particularly community or nation-state) by victimising an outsider, the Freudian myth of the tribal horde paradoxically victimises society itself by invoking complicity and guilt in some founding crime.

In all these cases, violence is constitutive, entrenched, repetitive and strangely enjoyed.

Society, viewed under these three frameworks, requires for its creation and continuance the systemic targeting of innocents and the marginalised, and the inflicting (a’la Freud) and deflecting (a’la Girard) of guilt upon its own members. At the heart of all three motifs, there is sacrifice as a repeated act which channels and masks the human propensity for violence.


Dolar, M. (2006). Voice and Nothing More. London: Verso.

Freud, S. (2001). Totem & Taboo. London: Routledge Classics.

Girard, R. (1972). Violence and the Sacred (trans. Patrick Gregory). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kahn, P. (2011). Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignity. New York: Columbia University Press.

McGowan, T. (2013). Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

Santner, E. (2011). The Royal Remains: The People’s Two Bodies and the Endgames of Sovereignity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schmitt, C. (2007). The Concept of the Political (trans. by George Schwab) (2007th ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Vighi, F. (2010). Žižek’s Dialectics: Surplus, Subtraction, Sublimation. London: Continuum Books.

Žižek, S. (2006). The Parallax View. Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Edu-trainer, Žižek studies, amateur theologian, columnist.