lds-herm blog

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

The Scapegoat, chapter 10

Posted by joespencer on December 15, 2007

I’ve finally gotten around to reading another chapter of Girard. And I’d like first to mention three very interesting R-words in the first part of the chapter: revelation, revolution, and radicalism.

The first of these is straightforward enough: Girard equates “revelation” with the message of the gospels. But then it is a revelation that purely textual and thus handed over to the whole world: “This is proof that revelation is making its way among us.” (p. 114) Very interesting. This is all the more important in that Girard sees revelation as provoking a crisis of interpretation: “From the anthropological perspective the essential characteristic of the revelation is the crisis it provokes in every representation of persecution from the standpoint of the persecutor.” (p. 114)

“Revolution” is used in two different ways that are fundamentally at odds. He refers to his own work as a revolution on page 114: “The experts see none of what we have been discussing . . . . This is always the case at the beginning of great revolutions.” But then he goes on to speak of “revolutionary” as the structural opposite of “conservative,” thus as meaning essentially “liberal.” (p. 115) That this is just an unfortunate equivocation is a real possibility, and one I’ll grant him in the name of the use he gives to the third term.

“Radicalism” appears as a feature of the evangelical message: “This is what constitutes the unparalleled radicalism of the revelation.” (p. 115) But this situates—or at least, ought to situate—Girard’s project in a diagonal (sorry, Robert) position to the dialectic of the world of politics (which he explicitly cites on that same page, in fact, in the very next sentence: “To understand it we must briefly evoke, in contrast, the political thought of the modern Western world”).

Hence, the three terms in relation to one another: the revelation of the gospels cuts across the dialectics of political economy, and it does so, as it inevitably it must, in a radical or revolutionary way. But then I’m still disturbed by the pairing up of liberalism with revolutionary thought: though the equation of terms occurs precisely when Girard is rejecting “revolutionary” politics right along with “conservative” politics, does it not signal that he somehow (unconsciously?) equates liberalism and his own project? In the end, I think this will be the inevitable conclusion to be drawn…

But let me get on with the text. The picture Girard presents in this chapter is actually quite straightforward. He divides all texts up into two groups, both with a particular relation to the scapegoat: either a text presents us the “scapegoat of the text” or it presents us the “scapegoat in the text.” (p. 119) The former category presents the scapegoat as guilty, hence, not as a scapegoat; the latter presents the scapegoat as innocent, hence, as a scapegoat. And this simple dichotomy covers the entire ground: “it provides me with a marvelous counterproof, the quickest, most intelligible, and surest means of sweeping away all the false ideas that are so abundant today, not only in the areas of mythology and religion but also in everything that involves interpretation.” (p. 124)

Girard is thus developing a full-blown hermeneutics, one that “provides” the critic with a taxonomy that totally represents the entirety of texts: all texts are generated by the crisis provoked by the real event of persecution. Hence, two provocations: first, the real persecution event provokes the writing of a text, from one of the two standpoints provided by Girard’s basic typology; second, the mere existence of the second of the two possible kinds of texts provokes the work of interpretation by conflicting fundamentally with the essential dissimulation that is at work in the first of the two possible kinds of texts. Two provocations, but a single dialectic: the real gives itself to two interweavings, one simply imaginary (the persecution text) and the other fully symbolic (the revelatory text). It is the conflation of these two types of text that is our “general cultural schizophrenia,” as Girard says. (p.121)

Now, I’ve begun to put this all in terms of Lacan (and I’m beginning to be convinced that Girard was versed in Lacan… I’ll have to look into that). But it seems to me that it comes shy of Lacan in a number of ways, though that is something I need to think about at much greater length. In the end, though, I think this will be the most fruitful way of approaching Girard.

In the meanwhile, there is something I’m not quite settled about here. There is something that just doesn’t seem right, though I can’t yet put my finger on it. Soon enough…


6 Responses to “The Scapegoat, chapter 10”

  1. cherylem said

    Just letting you know I’m reading along with you, Joe. Sorry not to converse more. But please, keep it going.

  2. following along as well.

  3. Robert C. said

    Joe, I’m not sure what’s unsettling you, but let me use your expression as an excuse to think once again my motivating interest in Girard which is to think theologically about atonement and violence. The development that seems most interesting in Girard’s thought to me is this notion of euphoria that comes from the sins of a community being released onto a scapegoat—and it seems this release is more effective if the scapegoat is not guilty (and even more effective if the scapegoat is willingly sacrificed). So, I’m not sure if this is something better addressed directly via Lacan, but I’m also quite interested in this Lacan-Girard intersection: what is it, esp. from a psycho-analytic perspective, that makes the Atonement psychologically and spiritually effective? And is it vicarious suffering, which is innocent and willing, in general that is at work here, or is there something more specific about Christ’s Atonement suffering that calls on a different mechanism at work? Or should be rethinking Christ’s Atonement in an entirely different way? I’ll also confess that part of my initial interest in Girard was simply that he is thinking about atonement in a non-penal-substitutionary way, which is a good way to shake up my traditionally-based thinking and to unearth my hidden presuppositions about all of this, if nothing else….

    (I’m hoping to do some Girard reading this week after which I might actually have a substantive comment to make!)

  4. Robert C,

    why do you feel that scapegoating is more effective if the victim is innocent or even more so if the victim is willing. It seems to me a large part of Girard’s argument is that we make up lies about the victim in order to justify our scapegoating. In other words it seems that the scapegoat need represent the ills being expiated. Part of the reason Christ was accused of crimes, both religious and national, is that he would thereby make a better scapegoat and bring unity whereas in the alternative the people would have to be introspective and change, perhaps even follow the sermon on the mount, or at least this is how I understand Girard’s approach. I think he would argue Christ’s innocence and resurrection undermined the scapegoat phenomenon in that the people killed an innocent and willing victim.

  5. Robert C. said

    Joshua, I’m entirely wrapped up in my own thoughts here, not Girard’s, with a sort of Moral Influence theory of atonement in mind: if we come to recognize that the victim is innocent, then it humbles us much more radically than a guilty victim would.

    A quick Google search turned up this quote that gets at the kind of thought I was trying to think (from here—I have no idea if this is a misappropriation of Girard or not…):

    Boersma maintains that the subjective dimension unique to the moral influence model secures it as ‘an indispensable anchor for the hospitality of God’ – God’s hospitality takes the human response seriously, persuading rather than violently forcing people to love him by the example of Christ (p. 132).

    Boersma perceives René Girard’s influential theory of mimetic violence and the death of Jesus to fall within the moral influence category. Against a traditional Abelardian understanding, rather than display God’s love, Christ’s death exposes and hence nullifies mimetic violence within our culture.

  6. Yes I see what you mean. From our perspective, Christ being innocent and willing are necessary for the “Atonement” effect. I think the resurrection plays into this as well. Making sure we know this was an innocent victim whom God approves and sides with.

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