lds-herm blog

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

Finishing Off–Or Starting–Girard’s The Scapegoat

Posted by joespencer on January 22, 2008

I took the time, over the weekend, to finish Girard’s The Scapegoat, and I’d like to wrap things up with a final post, though, as my title above I hope makes clear, the second half of this book has convinced me to read a great deal more of Girard and to incorporate his ideas into my own work. What follows below, then, is less a commentary on or discussion of the last few chapters of The Scapegoat as it is a summary of Girard’s overall position, an analysis of its strongest points, and a kind of invitation to discuss his work at further length.

Let me begin by speaking with, or at least about, Cheryl. First: Cheryl, THANK YOU for introducing us to Girard. Very few times have I been so rewarded for pursuing another’s advice on whose books to read. That said, I’ll confess that I think you gave me the wrong impression in the beginning: I expected Girard to be saying something quite different from what, in the end, I’m convinced he’s saying. I’m not sure whether that wrong impression stems from a simple lack of comprehension on my part, a kind of complexity of communication that put some kind of a gap between us, or (if I won’t offend by suggesting it) a misunderstanding of Girard on your own part. What I’ll be doing, in part, then, in the following is asking you to let me know if we are reading Girard the same way. That is, when you read my summary of Girard’s approach to textuality below, could you provide some thoughts about whether you think Girard is saying what I think he’s saying, etc.? I’d much appreciate that.

Now, let me introduce my thoughts on Girard with a bit of narrative. I began reading The Scapegoat at about the same time I began reading John Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire. Of the two, I’ll confess that I was far more interested in Brooke’s book. That is, I was far more sympathetic, by nature, to the ideas I imagined would be presented in The Refiner’s Fire, mostly because I have had something of an abiding interest in the hermetic, and because I anticipated him outlining how the hermetic subculture of radical protestant belief opened the way for Mormonism’s remarkable success. On the other hand, I was almost hostile (as those participating early in the discussion will well remember!) to Girard from the beginning: I was, from the very start, made quite nervous by his explicit decision to do violence to texts, to transgress texts in the name of some kind of (essentially liberal) ethics. Thus I came to these projects with radically different expectations.

Because my little family moved from Washington to Oregon last August, both projects were disrupted for me, and both books sat on the shelf for a few months. I returned to The Scapegoat first, primarily because I had this blog hanging over my head. I only came back, in fact, to The Refiner’s Fire a month or so ago. Interestingly, as I’ve worked through both of these in greater detail and with more consistent attention over the past month or two, my expectations were frustrated on both accounts: whereas I expected Girard to work out a theory of transgressing scriptural texts, he turned out in the end to do precisely the opposite; and whereas I expected Brooke to lay out the possibility of thinking carefully about a “prepared people,” he rather filled three hundred pages with remarkably ignorant research and Brodie-like sensationalistic possibilities without ground. I finished reading both books yesterday, and my wife can tell you the difference in my final reactions: my frustration with Brooke made me swear off the New Mormon history for a few months, while my fascination with Girard was the subject of an hour and a half discussion while the kids played at the park.

Now, I bother to tell the above story for two reasons. First, I want to deter anyone and everyone from wasting their time with Brooke’s book. 🙂 Second, I really, really want to highlight how much Girard has overturned my expectations! Girard’s work here is remarkably promising. So… on to the actual work of summary!

Girard is essentially a literary critic, but of a radical nature… if not of a radically Lacanian nature. (I wondered–and doubted–all through reading this book that he had been influenced by Lacan, but he makes it as clear as can be that he was on page 196.) There are, in both Girard’s and Lacan’s language (and this is something I pointed out in my very first post on Girard!) a threefold structure underlying the theory: the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic. While the first of these three “categories” has reference to actual human interaction, the other two have reference to kinds of writing. That is, there are imaginary texts and symbolic texts. (Imaginary, here, does not at all mean something like “non-existent,” but something like “of or pertaining to images.”) Each of these kinds of texts is an inscription of the Real or of reality, but they differ precisely in the way they inscribe reality. For Girard, the imaginary text inscribes reality in a persecutory way, while the symbolic text inscribes reality in a revelatory way.

The difficulty is that these two kinds of texts are both… texts. That is, they are both written, often with the same words, etc. And hence they are too easily confused. In fact, it is the way one sees the relationship between these two kinds of texts that defines one’s place in the grand scheme of things: if one confuses the two kinds of texts, one remains, essentially, in sin (a persecutor); if one distinguishes between the two kinds of texts and adheres faithfully to the work of the symbolic text, one receives, essentially, grace (and becomes a witness/martyr). The first of these two ways of understanding texts–the one that does not distinguish the imaginary from the symbolic–is what Lacan calls neurosis: the neurotic (I’ll say: natural, psychical, man) cannot see what is actually at work in the texts. The second of these two ways of understanding texts–the one that distinguishes the imaginary from the symbolic–is that of the person beyond neurosis, what I will agree with Girard in calling the person under the influence of the Spirit, the person who interprets (and preaches!) texts by the power of the Spirit.

How nicely this matches up with psychoanalysis is astounding. The neurotic/natural/psychical reader is little more than an automaton, determined by the political necessities of the scapegoat mechanism, thus entirely ruled over by the will of–Girard does not hesitate to say it–Satan. The spiritual reader has all freedom in reading, all freedom in acting because she can be true to the text as it actually is: she binds herself only to Christ’s revelation through the Spirit. Note, then, that the neurotic reader is essentially unconscious of the symbolic text, that is, of the scriptures (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”), and one must come under the sway of the text and the Spirit in order to be distracted from his neurosis.

Lining the scriptures up with the unconscious is of some importance, it seems to me, because, as Ricoeur constantly points out in his work on Freud, the unconscious is timeless, while history, culture, time, politics, and the like, are all a function of consciousness. Indeed, as Ricoeur makes clear, psychoanalysis forces one to understand history itself to be a kind of sorting out the forces of o/re-pression. This point has a nice echo in Girard: there is no history, so to speak, in scripture, only in imaginary texts. Really, it is the burden of the first half of the book to work out this history of texts: the downplaying of real violence in textual evolution is the very fabric of history and time. History is thus the slow becoming conscious of the unconscious texts of scripture. This theory of history–which Girard sums up under the title “History and the Paraclete”–deserves further attention.

What all of this amounts to, then, is a kind of theory of texts that divides writings up into the books of the dead and the book of life: imaginary texts are filled with magic and superstition, are false writings of wizards that peep and mutter, of incantations seeking after the sacralized dead, while symbolic texts are filled with the promise of life, are given to the law and to the testimony/martyrdom, are sealed up in their parabolic structure.

This seems to me to be the most promising Continental project of all (though of course it spills over into everyone else I’m reading and studying): to think about two kinds of text and how the radically faithful are interpreting them, in such a way as to reveal all the hidden works of darkness, to call all to repentance.

Now, let me get on the table my only hesitance with Girard (though I at first believed he was going to call for a transgression of scriptural texts, he does not): his constantly putting this revelatory preaching of the symbolic/scriptural texts in terms of ethics. How can he not see that ethics are always imaginary rather than symbolic? And yet, it is perhaps Girard himself who provides the key to sorting out this difficulty: there is a vestige, even in this powerful revealer of the scapegoat mechanism, of mimeticism in his mentioning ethics. Ethics, of course, always ties back to political discourse, to mimeticism, etc., though Girard seems to miss this point. The radical fidelity to the symbolic/scriptural text for which Girard calls likewise calls one beyond ethics, unless we are radically to change the meaning of ethics (something well worth doing! cf. Badiou’s Ethics). But if it is possible to transgress this point in Girard in the very name of Girard, can I say I really have any hesitance about his project?

A marvelous project. What else by him should I read?


9 Responses to “Finishing Off–Or Starting–Girard’s The Scapegoat

  1. cherylem said

    I think a have to read The Scapegoat again.

    It is entirely possible that I have either misread Girard or misstated him, or both. You are light years ahead of me. You speak a language fluently that I can only barely comprehend. On the other hand, perhaps the way I think and write about Girard will become more clear as you read more of him. (or not – reading Girard, or the emails coming my way from LDS-herm, only reinforces that I have no background in philosophy, that I am left brained to the extreme, etc etc.). I do not think that I have totally misread him. But then again, . . . .

    And yet, in spite of all, you have come to a point of enthusiasm. I am so happy about this. I am happy in my stumbling way, I am a part of this, because you will do what I could never do – be one of those that brings Girard to an LDS audience. He will impact your writing and your thinking, and this is a very good thing.

    The next book you read should either be Deceit Desire and the Novel or . . . Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World.

  2. cherylem said

    By the way, I also own The Refiners Fire. I agree: a useless book.

  3. I would second “Things Hidden from the foundation”.


    I have to say Im not quite sure how you are reading Girard. I guess I dont read it quite on the philosophical level you do. I am a little more pedestrian I guess in my reading. On the other hand it seems to me you are inttigued by the process of what Girard is doing and in that I think you have some great insights. I love how Girard is at the same time challenging how we read the scriptures but at the same time extremely faithful to them.

    I find myself more interested in the ramifications of the scapegoat mechanism as they apply to soteriology, myself, and mostly modern scapegoating and conflict. It seems that Girard opens all sorts of new avenues for understanding who Christ is and his mission.

  4. joespencer said

    Thanks for the recommendations, Cheryl and Joshua. I’ll respond at a bit more length when I have some time. For now, just a quick question: what can anyone tell me about I See Satan Fall Like Lightning? Looking through the table of contents of it today, it looks like a kind of updated The Scapegoat. Is that accurate at all?

  5. I finished it two weeks ago and I personally love it. It is a very clear and concise and very accessible for folks like me. There are a few chapters in there I think are first rate.

  6. Cherylem said

    By the way, Girard turns up in interesting places, such as in this article that my son sent me just yesterday:

  7. joespencer said

    Bizarre! Does that mean that I should be using PayPal more often? 🙂

  8. Robert C. said

    Very interesting, Joe, I’ll be anxious to finish the book myself, and to discuss Girard more w/ you—though probably not for one more month….

  9. joespencer said

    Robert, we are all counting down the days till you are done. But, of course, take all the time you need! 🙂

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