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Durkheim (¡®On Suicide¡¯)




Introduction: ¡®mimesis¡¯/¡¯recognition¡¯. The crisis of self-image or self-identity, is often characterized as ¡®mimetic¡¯ (when it is the ¡®other¡¯s¡¯ view that is copied, even where no such view exists¡­) or as ¡®recognition¡¯ (when denied by real or imaginary others, the ¡®significant¡¯ others of group identification, so, in ones¡¯ mind, denied by self¡­ denied self¡­). Furthermore, the picturing of self (the mimesis, or recognition) is imaginary and so often does not accord with social economic position as in fact or as desired or feared¡­ This imaginary construct may then be challenged by events in reality and the perceived challenge reacted against in a variety of ways. Theories of mimetic exchange begin here, with self-image as related to others, as a copy¡­ (Girard). But we must know who to copy¡­and when¡­ However, ¡®mimesis¡¯ is a dead end in Girard¡¯s take on sacrifice, not only because inadequately situated in an overall theory of identity, but mainly not being able to explain adequately its major designated aims - the variety of sacrificial violence (Durkheim too has this problem, from ¡®On Suicide¡¯, to the more comprehensive, ¡®The Elementary Forms of Religious Life¡¯). The issue is that the same model must be able to explain the varieties of identity crisis, the categories of suicide as described by Durkheim and the violence of Girard¡¯s notion of ¡®sacrificial crisis¡¯, as well as the modalities of ¡®the gift¡¯ and its relation to ritual through to the pogrom, mass terror and the suicide bomber. If we take the path of ¡®recognition¡¯, rather than ¡®mimesis¡¯, as key category then we are lead to the concept of ¡®identity exchange¡¯ as key to conceptualizing the gift or sacrificial relation. Indeed, ¡®mimesis¡¯ needs to be linked, via (self-)recognition, to the theory of identity exchange in order to work (that is, it cannot function as a primary concept or foundation). Recognition requires no copying: only assertion (so a failed copy or assertion would have the same result). When we imagine ones¡¯ self as we would like others to see one ¨C then there is no problem (until, if the balloon was over- inflated, it bursts¡­). When one imagines ones¡¯ self as one fears others see one, as one would see, and judge ones¡¯ self (if one was another) then a crisis is evoked¡­ The turning of the energies released, individually or collectively, back on the self or onto the other, are the topic of this reconsideration of Emile Durkheim¡¯s categories from ¡®On Suicide¡¯ (a reconsideration which I believe is implied by the development of these ideas in ¡®The Elementary Forms of Religious Life¡¯).



There are three kinds of suicide in Durkheim¡¯s conception: ¡®ego¡¯; ¡®anomie¡¯; ¡®altruistic¡¯ (actually, four, but the fourth is less based upon identity and its vicissitudes rather than the sense -and fact- of physical or social incarceration). These three types may be linked to three kinds of situation, or mode of identification with others¡­ respectively: membership; position; role - so all basically variations on one theme. I would suggest the order of relation as: ¡®group¡¯ (membership), ¡®position¡¯ (in group), ¡®role¡¯ (as key to position or membership of group) as the best way of relating the three¡­ Otherwise, in each one self-image and relation to others, ¡®(self)recognition¡¯, all play the fundamentally same basic constitutional and crisis-prone role. I will explain why I exchange two of Durkheim¡¯s terms (¡®ego¡¯ and ¡®anomie¡¯) below.


Durkheim first dismisses the purely economic level, or the struggle for survival as consistent hardship as a key variable (otherwise the further back in history we go, and the further down the social ladder we go, the more suicide we would find as the conditions of life worsen). Although a change down often is¡­(this is the difference of given situation and the ¡®change down¡¯ of a situation). Moreover, we might note that the Romans accepted suicide as right and proper for the highest level of citizen, when faced with a fall, a loss of face, or just a decline in powers due to aging.


It seems ¡®face¡¯, ¡®honour¡¯, social or peer group standing, ones¡¯ adequacy before ones¡¯ ego ideal (real or imaginary) provide the key; a matter of our ¡®recognition organ¡¯, ¡®evolved¡¯ throughout our life, the history of our interaction with others, from (M)Other onwards; it is our sense of self as interpersonal that is in play - and it is not happy.


Face or honour, identity or recognition, social position or belonging, map out in three forms: (i) the desire for sacrifice for the group, the desire for a role, so realizing training and ambition¡­ (¡®altruistic¡¯); (ii) the loss of membership of the group (real or imaginary) Durkheim uses ¡®ego¡¯ but it would perhaps be better to use ¡®anomie¡¯, as the later has come to be read as meaning the more general condition of lack of belonging; (iii) a loss of position (nominated ¡®anomie¡¯ by Durkheim), but I would suggest that it is better to use ¡®ego¡¯ as operating in relation to other egos, our peers on the minuscule gradations of the ladder of distinction and differentiation. All three involve groups as key background or larger set, with (ii) superimposing grade or position, on membership (i), with (iii) as a special case of ambition or need for a ¡®special¡¯ role¡­ within the group, and as part of the war of position, as the key to recognition.




Group     Position    Role

Anomie    Ego        Altruistic


Or: loss of membership, loss of position, loss of role.


So recognition (¡®mimesis¡¯ in other models, ones¡¯ self-image as others might see one) is seen as the key factor (belonging and being seen to belong and feeling as belonging in ones¡¯ rightful place¡­). With loss also as the key, crisis inspiring, common factor (whether by a change brought about in actuality or by fear ¨C an imaginary event). Gradations range from: (a) (loss of) basic belonging, the basic desire to belong ¨C whose general absence is now usually described as ¡®anomie¡¯ (part loses whole)) the key role of identification and acceptance, real or imaginary, to human identity (recognition in general); to (b) (loss of) position within the group, resulting in a ¡®blow to ones ego¡¯ , (Durkheim¡¯s ¡®anomie¡¯, Hobbes¡¯ ¡®distinction¡¯, hierarchy-seeking desire of identity) self and important others¡­ (recognition as particular position) the desired position not gained or worse lost (part is devalued within the whole); with (c) as either a special form of a desired position which has been sensed as forever lost or foreclosed: or, more deeply, (c) as the desire for self-sacrifice, glory, or less dramatically, service and recognition due¡­ (Even if only by the self? Sometimes initially. Then usually public, and/or peer recognition is desired¡­). So (c) is a case of a loss of role as yet unattained. We might further note the temporalities involved: the latter is future-based (intention/subjunctive wish/will); the other two are past-based, a case of previous (or previously imagined) position lost¡­ A mixed case may be found in a desired position never attained (marriage), also future-based but not quite the same as the desire for self-sacrifice not attained. A temporal distinction which crosses the distinction between, the role desired and that role as self-sacrifice, as giving the ultimate meaning of a life, as giving the ultimate meaning to life¡­ This later also has the ¡®rhetoric of eternity¡¯ in the background as the reference to first and last things¡­ as in belief and religious systems¡­ a role including death as necessary. So, from basic belonging and position, we move to special duty, a heroic role as extra-distinction (extra-position), as ultimate recognition (self and others) the ultimate form of giving (self-sacrifice).


Regarding the loss of actual group or position (past to present), this loss is more likely to present a crisis, than the loss of un-attained membership or position (present to future). With respect to this latter case (but also in the case of the first two cases of loss), suicide as a response to the lack of role may take the form of addiction, or alcoholism or indirect death, all the way to direct death as part of the said role (mercenaries, causes, terrorism) and so finally to suicide, with death as a key aspect of the role (suicide bombers). Loss due to the past position fallen, and the inability to envisage a way to ones¡¯ desired future may anyway combine to provoke a suicidal or destructive motion (individually or collectively, from narcotics or other ¡®passive¡¯ forms of self-destruction, to scapegoating or rioting, to politics or war).



Identity exchange is a crucial part of the recognition process (and the mimetic nexus). Rituals which fill the gaps, and repair the work of loss and entropy through a network of ritual ¡®loss¡¯, sacrifice, destruction, up to self-destruction (¡®altruistic¡¯, suicide bombers). An exchange is made in identity such that materiality and time are exchanged for self-image or identity and belonging or recognition; from handshake to festival a continuum of identity exchange underpins our connections to others; in effect matter and time are exchanged for spirit (¡®disjunctive reciprocity¡¯). Ritual bridges the metaphysical divide of things and ideas, spirit and matter, material and spiritual culture, body and mind. Either the rituals are fixed as in traditional societies or become a less visible part of the mass commodity market or modern societies, as gift and commodity merge (the exchange value is material, the use value is ¡®spiritual¡¯, identity based, whatever the ostensible function of the commodity bought). These provide the individual supports for identity and its needs in modern societies. National rituals and national identity (the new ¡®metaset of belonging¡¯) evolve to replace and complement older, collective, religious ritual and identity in mass market capitalist societies (¡®modernity¡¯). These all provide the ritual glue with degrees of what is ¡®payed for¡¯ to ¡®belong¡¯, to obtain that key sense of belonging¡­ So in reverse order, in the ¡®fame¡¯, ¡®glory¡¯, ¡¯altruistic¡¯ category, the exchange is clear; of self, offered up in total. In the ¡®position¡¯ category (Durkheim¡¯s ¡®anomie¡¯, for which I have suggested ¡®ego¡¯) an exchange of time for training as for goods and services (¡®favours¡¯) offered for post or position ¨C with peer-related sacrifices, activities (marriage). In the ¡®group¡¯ category (Durkheim¡¯s ¡®ego¡¯, but I suggest it would be more precise to use the more general term, ¡®anomie¡¯) similarly, an exchange of time, for training (if appropriate) or time for meetings, reunions, religious observance, rituals, and so offerings of goods and services (¡®presents¡¯, favours, etc.). Note how people ¡®buy back¡¯ their connection, their position or group belonging, after a loss of face (or honour, or ¡®cred¡¯, esteem, fame or celebrity). Or repair the entropy of being absent from family and friends for some time¡­ In many cases the suicide has already lost these connections or cannot repair them¡­ or they may be irreparable (criminal disgrace, socio-economic fall, divorce), and require a drastic life change as a solution (people move, change their job, get divorced, get re-educated, or get religion¡­).


This article is concerned with the coherence of conceptualization ¨C the application of Durkheim¡¯s ideas and pre-conceptions on suicide to statistics and society (modernity, women, attempted suicide, post-industrialisation, etc.) is another issue.







Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2018