Some recent discussion on the GAlist has prompted me to attempt to clarify my position through an anthropological reading of the fundamental text of originary Christian theology–and of originary Christian anthropology.
Here is John I, 1-5, in the Jerusalem Bible translation:
1 In the beginning was the Word [logos]; the Word was with God and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things came to be, not one thing had its being but through him. 4 All that came to be had life in him and that life was the light of men, 5 A light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower / understand / “grasp” [katelaben]
The reading of logos not as “word” but as “victim” is the key to René Girard’s interpretation of the Christian revelation: in the beginning was not the “word” of language but the chosen collective victim–the original sense of lego appears to be “to select”–on the basis of whose “lynching” human culture is constituted. Girard does not conceive this lynching as a single event; there is no primordial scene of origin, but a gradually emerging model of crisis-resolution furnished by the “emissary mechanism”–the discharge of collective aggression onto a scapegoat. As mimetic tensions accumulate in the (proto)human group, the breakdown of the community is averted by the inherent tendency of mimetic desire, whether attractive or repulsive, “erotic” or “thanatic,” to focus on a common object: as each imitates his neighbor, the hostility of the group as a whole tends to become concentrated on its most marginal member, the one least able to meet aggression with counter-aggression. Language plays no generative role in this scenario: only after death do the remains of the victim become a funerary sign. In this view, from the “infrastructural” emissary mechanism, repeated and elaborated, there emerge as a “superstructure” the representational elaborations of culture.
The unique privileged moment in Girard’s anthropology is not the scene of origin but the Crucifixion in which is revealed the equivalence of the sacred with victimary violence. It is this revelation that Girard would have us read in the passage from John. The logos is the victim whom sacrifice transforms into God but who as victim is also “with God,” as Christ is God the son and is with God the Father. The life of “all that came to be” through this sacrifice, which we may take to mean the human world in the broadest sense, was “the light of men” in the victim-logos whose expulsion provides the community with peace. This victimary reading is guaranteed by the fifth verse: the “light of men” shines in the dark and the darkness cannot “grasp” it, whether to understand and thereby enlighten itself by it or to overpower and thereby extinguish it. In either case, the darkness figures a (human) violence that opposes and rejects the light.
To read the word logos as “victim” is a gesture of radical anthropological insight. But this reading is subject to two caveats, which I would address not so much to Girard himself as to his readers. In the first place, the Greek word logos, even if the original meaning of lego be taken to be “to choose [the victim],” has always been attached, like the parallel Hebrew term davar, to ideas of language: word, sentence, thought, discourse, speech. To translate logos exclusively as “victim” is to engage in a sacrificial choice of one’s own, and thereby to renounce the anthropological knowledge congealed in the totality of the word’s related meanings. The logos may be the victim, but it is also the sign; the word reveals a fundamental connection between the two phenomena anterior to the metaphysical differentiation of concepts.
This leads me to my second caveat. The connection between the ideas of sign and victim is not one that must be imposed by philology or by an independently evolved anthropological model; it is drawn by the Johannine text itself. The logos that was with God is the source of the light that shines in the darkness. Girard takes this light-darkness opposition as a metaphor of victimage, using the translation of katelaben as “understood,” so that the final sense is that the darkness did not “grasp” the light, failed to be illuminated by it, remained dark in spite of it, and, presumably swallowed it up and destroyed it. But the opposite, “optimistic” reading of “grasp” as “overcome” (in which the import of verse 5 is that the light survived and was not swallowed up by the darkness) leads to the same conclusion; it merely focuses on a different moment of the process–in the Christian case, the Resurrection following the Crucifixion.
The Johannine text makes a narrative connection between the logos and the metaphorically violent scene created by the opposition between the mass of darkness and the single, central light. In the course of these verses, the choice of the logos-sign generates the world, at first as a totality without opposition (“all things,” “all that came to be”), then as illuminated by the logos for man, and finally as structured by the opposition between this source of illumination and the surrounding darkness. The light of men that illuminates what appears to be a peaceful human community is immediately opposed by a darkness that can only be understood as a figure for a negative force emerging within this same community.
This reading, which reduces the cosmology of the text to the anthropology that it metaphorizes, reveals a scene of origin that poses the prior existence of God only to suspend it in the last clause of verse 1 (“and the Word was God”), which affirms the temporal coevality of the Word-victim-logos and God. At this moment, when the logos is at peace with God, the logos and God are equivalent. But the logos as the light of men is subsequently surrounded by the dark of men. From a locus of unperturbed centrality the center becomes an isolated point surrounded by a vast, hostile periphery. As a narrative of the originary scene, the Johannine text expands from the center outward, thereby inverting the anthropological genesis of the center from the periphery inward. But this expansion can itself be understood in originary terms as the path of the attention–no longer purely appetitive–of the peripheral community that was focused at the outset exclusively on the “chosen” logos-victim. So long as they see it alone in the center, it is in its substantiality the incarnation of its sign, guaranteed by God who is the permanent Being of the sign, and itself constituting this Being. But as the life of all things and the light of man, it becomes part of the context of the world it generates, and thereupon becomes subject to a desacralized view of the human scene as a whole in which the light is no longer an uncontested source of Being but a lone hope of peace in a world of chaos.
This reading of John I 1-5–which discussion of the passage’s Old Testament references would only reinforce–is not meant to demonstrate the chronological priority of language over Girard’s “emissary mechanism.” Its point is rather to show that this “mechanism,” insofar as it is a human phenomenon, cannot be separated from the generation of the sign. If it is necessary to remind the vast majority of social scientists that human language could not have emerged without the sacred, to the enlightened minority who are readers of Girard it bears repeating that the sacred cannot reveal itself to humanity without language. If the designation of the logos-victim were nothing but a mimetic mechanism, this opening passage of John, and human culture in general, would be not merely inexplicable but unnecessary. However the center of the originary scene is constituted, the designation of its central object cannot be reduced to a release of aggressive tension. The moment in which the logos is with God and is God is not a moment of animal aggression but of human deferral of aggression, however violently–and “violence” is only this–this aggression may subsequently have been released. To claim that the logos is “nothing but” the victim is to cut oneself off from the anthropological insight that nourishes this scene and Christianity itself.