lds-herm blog

Discussion of hermeneutics, esp. as it pertains to LDS scripture

The Scapegoat, chapter 5: “Teotihuacan”

Posted by joespencer on August 21, 2007

I’m glad I had to write this post this week because it impelled me to dig back into Girard, whose work (as far as this book goes) I almost had begun to feel like I had decently compassed. But there is something of a big shift in this chapter, and I hope that it yields a great deal more fruit.

Let me first be clear, however, that much of this chapter follows in the spirit of its predecessors: Girard is proposing and continuing to take up an almost universal demystification, from an unapologetically Western ethnocentrism. I am never sure whether to be suspicious or fascinated by this pose: is Girard quite consciously, though perhaps not so loquaciously, rejecting the very idea of ethnocentrism, or is he simply a naive bungler whose ideas have, for whatever reason, caught on in certain academic circles? This chapter, I think, does a good job at moving Girard somewhat beyond this ambiguity, a point that is intertwined, I think, with the big shift that marks it. Let me explain.

The chapter begins with what is now a familiar figure: “My critics constantly accuse me of switching back and forth between the representation and the reality of what is being represented… if I [deserve the reproach], we all deserve it equally because we affirm the existence of real victims behind the almost mythological texts of medieval persecutors.” (p. 57) Here, as elsewhere, Girard relies on all of his Western readers’ “automatic” approach to texts like de Machaut’s from chapter 1; and this reliance allows him to answer the postmodern call for justice without really having heard it… so to speak.

In this chapter, Girard turns to what he considers a challenge: the myth that presents the willing victim, the self-sacrificed victim. The challenge: if the dying figure offers her/himself, then there could not have been any real event of collective violence, right? He takes up an ancient Aztec myth as his text, and he nicely demystifies it, primarily (at least at first) by focusing on the ambivalence (slight, but quite significant) of the two sacrificed figures: the sun and moon gods both hesitate in their own separate ways before willingly sacrificing themselves. This allows Girard to conclude the chapter with this two-sentence declaration of war: “The myth’s disturbing beauty cannot be separated from the kind of tremulousness that takes possession of it. We must expand on this tremulousness to rock the structure and bring it crashing down.” (p. 65)

Well and good, right? I mean, this follows Girard’s pattern to this point in the book. He even emphasizes it with a far more explicit condemnation of postmodern-ish studies of myth: “That terrible sin of ethnocentrism is lying in wait for us and, no matter what exotic societies do, we must guard against the slightest negative judgment.” (p. 65) This is confirmed by an explicit condemnation of two pivotal figures at the very foundation of Continental thought: “Despite its sacrifical ideology, this atrocious and magnificent myth of Teotihuacan is a powerful witness against the vision of mystification. If anything can humanize this text it is not the false idyll victims and executioners in our post-war era patterned on Rousseau and Nietzsche.” This are sharp criticisms. Are they at all justified (even if Girard does not at all attempt to justify them)?

But perhaps his claims are stronger than I seem to be letting on. Once before, Girard suddenly came out with something rather shocking, revealing only in retrospect what he has been trying to do all along. Before this was when he announced that he had begun with “historical” texts only so that we could all agree before he turned to mythology, where we inevitably would not. His roadmap, revealed after the fact, let us in on the fact that he was more clearly cognizant of things than we are. And in this chapter 5, Girard does it again: he lets us know that he is the master of this situation, that he has got tricks up his sleeve, and that we are being led by the nose because we are all still far too mystical. (Again, is this justified? I can only think of Lacan’s “master discourse” as I go along… but I’ll go along for now.)

Girard’s new trick: mimesis. Fascinating move, this: mimesis, the very foundation of Girardian theory, does not come out until chapter 5, and he does this, as he says, because “I wanted to demonstrate in the simplest possible way the relevance of collective murder for the interpretation of mythology; I wanted to introduce only those details that were strictly indispensable, which cannot be said of mimesis. I will now indicate the truly remarkable role it plays in our myths.” (p. 63) What follows is, to use an increasingly tired phrase, a tour de force: he first opens up the Teotihuacan myth one way with mimesis, then a second, still more surprising way, and then applies it briefly to our own era. It is quite a remarkable passage (it is all of p. 64, and it spills over a line or two onto pages 63 and 65).

Now, my time, for the moment, is up, but this is a topic to come back to: Girard’s introduction of mimesis, since this runs deeper in his thought than might at first appear. In fact, it is mimesis that has drawn the most attention to him, that he is always being cited for in other texts (as I’ve experienced at least: everyone’s excited about the triangular implications of mimesis). What, then, are we to make of this move, and does it begin to work out a justification of Girard’s full-blown rejection of everything non-Enlightenment, of everything non-Western, of everything non-Cartesian? How do we approach this question?

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7 Responses to “The Scapegoat, chapter 5: “Teotihuacan””

  1. Robert C. said

    Joe, I’m too obsessed with finishing your book to take up Girard right now, but I’m already starting ch. 6 of your book, so I should be able to get back to Girard in a few more days, at least by this weekend (I haven’t received Patocka in the mail yet, but I’ll let you know when I do—but feel free to write up an intro post, and ask if anyone else wants to join us; if not, I would say it’s not worth setting up a reading schedule, we’ll just move along as we have time…).

  2. Nanette said

    Ha! I finally got around to finding ya’ll. Boy…am I late for the party, or what!!

  3. joespencer said

    Welcome at last, Nanette! I hope you become a major contributor. Feel quite free to look back at the past posts/discussions and make comments there as well.

  4. Robert C. said

    Finally, I got around to reading this chapter. Unfortunately, I’m running out the door for a department retreat. Joe, can you unpack for us the following sentence you quoted, “If anything can humanize this text it is not the false idyll victims and executioners in our post-war era patterned on Rousseau and Nietzsche”?

    I too found the passages on mimesis very interesting. Got me thinking about new ways to think about being an example and what it means to plan things out in advance (e.g. the two creations in the PoGP), and the way in which the word might function in terms of showing the way for us to follow/copy.

    More later (when I’ve actually had a chance to think about these issues before rambling on!)….

  5. Robert C. said

    Hello, anybody still out there? I know Joe’s in the process of moving, Cheryl’s globe-trotting, Rob’s focused on his dissertation, Nanette just barely found us, and I’m frantic trying to finish some research projects as school starts. Such is life.

    I’ll post “this week’s” reading later today or tomorrow. I think we have two weeks to cover the next chapter, so maybe we can sort of catch up over the next couple weeks. Also, it looks like we’ll be getting into scriptural discussion again soon, which should inject some life into discussion.

  6. joespencer said

    Sorry, everyone. Robert is right. I’m moving. And I don’t know how soon I’ll be again free to get back to serious work here (it shouldn’t be more than another week or so, but still…). Thanks for the patience.

  7. Cherylem said

    I am back. I’ve been back for a week but I’ve just begun to think about Girard again. I just taught SS and didn’t get my notes in final form or get them posted on Feast.

    I need to read the Girard posts. I’ll try to post this week. I was going to try to keep up during my trip but it was impossible – internet access was spotty, very spotty, and after a while if I managed to email home every couple of days I thought it was a huge success.

    Thanks for keeping on keeping on.

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