One thing demonstrated by the reactions to the previous Chronicle is the classical lesson that rigorous thinking is incompatible with the “passions” of political rhetoric. The most egregious use of such rhetoric is surely in the camp of Clinton’s defenders, who make the hostility of his “right-wing” enemies rather than his own conduct the real source of the crisis, as though lying under oath under any circumstances is not, at the very least, a serious matter. Yet my criticism of the “French” position did not prevent one subscriber from accusing me of excessive indulgence for French cultural values.
The rhetoric that flows so naturally in such cases reflects the fact that political situations require real decisions in the absence of objectively decisive criteria. The “passions” are not mere emanations of undisciplined minds; they are decision-making mechanisms indissociable from the political rhetoric that justifies them. The “passionate” nature of this language is the direct reflection of the sacrificial nature of the crisis; the raising of voices is the clearest sign of sacrality. When they are raised sufficiently, there is only name-calling, finger-pointing, “scapegoating” on both sides. In Girard’s schema, this is called a “sacrificial crisis.” It is at this point, when it is no longer clear who or what is to be sacrificed, that the “emissary mechanism” intervenes and the “scapegoat” is found. But this schema cannot be applied transparently to historical phenomena. We can claim neither that Clinton “is” a scapegoat nor that he “is not,” because the modern world of Judeo-Christian self-consciousness is founded on an awareness of scapegoating that makes us henceforth incapable of carrying it out. How then can we clarify the specific mode of the “sacrificial” that the Clinton-Lewinsky affair–now the basis of an impeachment hearing–exemplifies? This crisis, both serious and ridiculous, provides a timely opportunity to put our political passions in brackets and examine the sacrificial paradigm itself.
At the COV&R meeting in Chicago in 1995, I discovered that Girard’s work, which had always been reviled by the Left, had been adapted to PC. Since Girard attributes the moral and epistemological benefit of the Judeo-Christian tradition to “taking the side of the victim,” it requires only a simple extrapolation to define his own theory in the same manner, even after the demystification of the sacrificial model has eliminated the objective criterion of victimage. Girard’s model of modernity as the deconstruction of the sacrificial fails to include the indispensable compensatory force of the economic exchange system, lacking which the model tyrannically reduces all human relations and even our relation to “nature” to that between persecutors and victims.. Scapegoating is always an etic category; it is always the other guy who seeks scapegoats, not we. The Nazis, Hitler above all, hotly denied scapegoating; they justified their genocidal violence by the claim that the Jews were on the brink of destroying Western civilization. The Holocaust marks a historical watershed because its enormity provides an existential proof that in the agon of sacrificial rhetoric there may be a true victim who is telling the truth. But such a “proof” is soon discounted by anticipation and dissipates its effect.
The weakness of the Girardian paradigm is that it makes no allowance for its own accessibility to the scene of consciousness. The scene of revelation, even of Christian revelation, does not remain invulnerable to the significances it reveals. The sign, not the scapegoat, is the fundamental characteristic of the human because the sign both designates and articulates the structure of sacrificial victimage from the beginning throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition, including Generative Anthropology. Even in tribal societies, the sacralization of the emissary victim precedes through the mediation of the sign, which must be a gesture of deferral before it can become a gesture of accusation. Hence the task of cultural reflection is not to decide whether the Clinton-figure at the center of such an event is or is not a scapegoat, but to unravel the threads of filiation that link current sacrificial forms to simpler ones and ultimately to the minimal scene of origin.
Clinton’s “scapegoating” is understandable in terms of the resentful postmodern rejection of the heroic to which I have often alluded in these columns. In an egalitarian exchange-system, the holders of central power are more or less openly resented and a public figure’s discomfiture is a source of resentment-deferring Schadenfreude. The deep explanation of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair is not that Clinton cannot control his sexual appetites but that Clinton’s sexual escapades and his lies about them are crucial to his attractiveness to the public. Beyond the voyeurism of witnessing the confession of vices and misdeeds, we take pleasure in the unpredictable interplay between being caught and getting away with it that has characterized the whole of Clinton’s career. We appreciate the value of knowing what kind of underwear he prefers only because we are confronted with a compensating impenetrability in his capacity for denial of even the most obvious facts. In 1992, Clinton denied having relations with Gennifer Flowers; his admission of it in court six years later arouses no interest because we always knew he was lying and he has since moved on to other denials. The paradox that has caught up with Clinton now–but only to the extent of enabling a cumbersome impeachment procedure that its proponents will never dare carry to its end and that may diminish their political effectiveness–is that in order for a denial to be sufficiently brazen to satisfy our resentment, it risks running afoul of the law. Although we have digested the Flowers admission because Clinton was under oath, we secretly hope for another lie that will breach even this barrier. And although there is little risk of Clinton’s being thrown out of office, the impeachment machinery has now been contaminated by the resentful game we and Clinton play. The greatest corruption of the body politic in this affair lies in the public’s complicity with a game of abjection and defiance being played at the highest levels of institutional democracy.
The complex interaction of the “victim” with his “persecutors” of which Clinton’s career is so rich in examples cannot be found preformed in the hypothetical originary scene. But the historical nuances of Clinton’s situation are variants of the same paradoxical structure that underlies and undermines all constructions of meaning. Rather than succumbing to the sacrificial satisfactions of defining a scapegoat and persecutors of our own, whether it be Clinton or Starr, a “right-wing” or a “left-wing” conspiracy, our task is to seek the paradoxical dynamic that stands above and controls all such definitions.
No doubt I have my own “passions” invested in this affair, however little I rejoice to see the impeachment mechanism set into movement by the president’s actions. (Nor do I think that the Supreme Court was right to let Paula Jones’s case against Clinton proceed, however much her accusations deserve legal redress and respectful attention. Our already-proven fascination with the Clinton game was reason enough to postpone the trial before its contents infected the presidency itself.) But the minimal human unity posited in the originary hypothesis protects us from the temptation to reduce this complex situation to the simplicity of “scapegoating.” Sacred significance is not generated by the mindless repetition of a “mechanism,” as a facile reading of Girard might lead one to assume. The paradoxical locus in which significance is generated is continually resituated. If we are to examine this or any crisis with as much calm as our passions permit us, we must strain our minds to the point at which our model of the crisis encompasses the necessary but impossible contradiction that permits it to generate meaning–the point at which it becomes impossible to say who is the victim and who the executioner. We must bracket the objectivity and rationality of the procedures whose anticipated effects we include in the equation. This does not mean that we need deny the possibility of subsequently choosing between the two sides or that we should assimilate our judicial system to a sacrificial ordeal.
The applicability of a sacrificial vocabulary to the present crisis is not a sign that the president is being “sacrificed,” but it does point to a particular tension inherent in the American presidency. The more central a political figure, the more his role must incorporate sacrificial elements in order to ward off the resentment focused on him. If we have now reached the point where this “prehumiliation” comes to imperil the institution of the presidency itself, we may wonder whether the all-powerful centrality of the American president, anomalous in contemporary democracies, is still compatible with our society’s need for the free circulation of desire. That Nixon in 1972 and Clinton less than thirty years later have thrown the presidency into crisis over minor illegalities reflects the increasing fragility of their office rather than their idiosyncratic failings; that Clinton’s illegalities are even more trivial than Nixon’s only confirms this historical trend. Thus the weakening of the presidency bewailed by all parties to the current debate may well be the “socially intended” effect of the crisis. Whether this weakening is fully compatible with the president’s key role as Commander in Chief is an ominous but not yet really compelling question.
The originary scene becomes a scene of sacrifice, but it is in the first place a scene of the paradoxical creation of significance where the object of desire becomes the meaning of a sign that defers desire. This scene is relevant to Clinton’s current situation not because he is a victim caught in the mindless mechanism of emissary sacrifice but because his effort to remain in the center and defer its violence requires the continual regeneration of this originary paradox. What Clinton has in common with the originary central figure is not his status as innocent victim but his ability to arouse in us a new resentment whose fulfillment is incompatible with the endurance of the scene that makes it possible. The best that we can hope for is that the American electorate and the presidents it elects will react to the current crisis by returning to a less intensely mimetic conception of the presidency.