Scapegoating or “emissary victimage” is the defining operation of René Girard’s originary scene. The proto-human group, caught up in the violent chaos of “mimetic crisis,” finds unanimity by directing its aggression against a single, marginal individual; his death ends the crisis and he is subsequently venerated as the bringer of peace.

Although my own thinking is greatly in debt to this model, I do not think it can serve as the originary scene of human culture. The emissary murder does not constitute a true scene; it is all aggression and no contemplation. What corresponds more closely to GA’s notion of the scene of representation is rather the moment following the murder, when the members of the community, their aggression discharged against the victim, experience peace and solidarity as they contemplate his remains. But if the affect that inspired the murder has indeed been discharged, there is no clear motivation for collective veneration or, more crucially, for representation. Nothing at this moment would motivate the production of a sign, much less a minimal, linguistic sign.

The inadequacy of this model of human culture extends to its application to historical events. Scapegoating may be understood as a derivative of scenic activity, but to reduce the mediating locus of human communication to a lynching party is to deny the freedom acquired through representation that is the most important product of the scene. Humans may discharge their aggression in lynchings, but they also defer this aggression through the exchange of signs. If no ethical truth emerges from the scene of representation, then our ethical thought can only be that of Hegel’s schöne Seele who is somehow able to transcend–with or without divine intervention–the violence of our fallen human condition. Which leads us to the events of September 11.


Here is an excerpt from a recent email from a correspondent, whom I shall leave anonymous, who claims to be “applying Girard’s theory of the scapegoat to George W. Bush’s construction of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden”:

My thesis is that President Bush is creating a person whom he has named “Osama bin Laden”–a person that bares [sic] only minimal resemblance to the actual person Osama bin Laden.  If one looks at the things that bin Laden has said in the past, President Bush’s words do not make sense; Bush says that bin Laden wants to take over the world, etc.  Essentially, Bush has constructed a person who can be hated and eventually murdered in order to atone for mistakes in American foreign policy.

. . . before the tragedy Bush expressed concern over a “divided” America; a place where some citizens were not convinced of the “good” of America. Now, however, we are “united” and “one people” who represent “good” (as opposed to bin Laden representing “evil”).

These statements, which nowhere mention the September 11 attacks, are Chomskian in their demonization–dare I say scapegoating?–of the United States. Here is Chomsky’s own take on September 11: “The terrorist attacks were major atrocities. In scale they may not reach the level of many others, for example, Clinton’s bombing of the Sudan with no credible pretext, destroying half its pharmaceutical supplies and killing unknown numbers of people . . .” But Chomsky, at least, does not pretend to be a disciple of Girard. Although he believes world affairs to be a zero-sum game in which American prosperity can come only at the expense of other people’s sufferings, he does not add the Girardian refinement that we inflict these sufferings not simply out of greed but in order to project our own violence onto a surrogate victim.

Yet the author of the quoted text can claim in his defense that he is scrupulously following Girard’s model, of which designation of a victim and the consequent achievement of communal solidarity are indeed the primary components–even if, after the Christian revelation, the subsequent conversion of the victim into a god is presumably no longer a viable option. Thus the passages above point out (1) that President Bush has “arbitrarily” designated OBL as bearing primary responsibility for the terrorist attacks and consequently as the chief target of US efforts at retaliation, and (2) that this “scapegoating” operation has brought about a large degree of national unanimity and solidarity. PoorOsama is only the latest in a long line of arbitrarily designated victims, stretching back to the Athenian pharmakos and beyond, who have been sacrificed on the bloody altar ofDurkheimian solidarity. That, to quote a recent newsmagazine, “Bin Laden’s . . . is the first truly global terror operation,” that OBL has overtly claimed to be actively seeking the wherewithal to destroy the United States, that, as Tony Blair put it, no one can seriously maintain that on September 11 he would have hesitated to kill ten times, or, indeed, a thousand times as many Americans–these undisputed facts have no place in the epistemology of the scapegoat, where they are mere pretexts for the universally human, or, at any rate, American, need to commit emissary murder.

What is it in “mimetic theory” that lends itself to this folie épistémologique? The problem, it seems to me, is that the scapegoating model operates simultaneously on two incompatible planes.

On the one hand, as the description of an ethical act, “scapegoating” is a pejorative term. As Girard notes, implicit in this term is the revelation of the arbitrariness of the sacrificial act. To scapegoat is to do violence to someone who is, if not innocent, at any rate no guiltier than his fellows. More precisely, it is to treat someone whose guilt is at most quantitatively greater than the others’ as though it were transcendently greater, so that the violence that had been diffused over the entire community comes to be unanimously directed from the innocent collectivity to the one guilty victim. Such an act violates the moral model of universal reciprocity that is inherent in language and therefore in humanity itself. The Gospel demystifies and rejects the utilitarianism of High Priest Caiaphas’ declaration that “it is better for one man to die for the people, than for the whole nation to be destroyed” (John 11.50).

But, on the other hand, as an epistemological operation, scapegoating is the originary model of selection in general. Just as Durkheim posited a bit hastily, but with a profound anthropological intuition, that even categories like right and left were derived from systems of religious/social classification, in Girard’s system–although he never goes into detail on this point–scapegoating is the source of the scene of representation. The unconscious choice of the emissary victim as a solution to mimetic crisis is the source of all choices and designations, including the “choice” of the referent by the sign that creates the signifier-signified structure uniquely characteristic of human language. To decide, as Girard likes to remind us, comes from decido, to deal the death-blow to the sacrificial victim.

To deny to the first users of representation any awareness of the nature of what they are representing guarantees that any such awareness must be of miraculous origin. But inversely proportional to our originary ignorance is the Gnostic thrill of liberation from it. Girard’s claim to be only reiterating Jesus’ own understanding, both simply human and incomprehensibly divine, of the scapegoat mechanism at the basis of all human knowledge is put in doubt by the ease with which this reiteration is taken by some simples d’espritas a new mimetic Gospel granting a transcendent understanding of violent humanity. This phenomenon, a minor annoyance in normal times, reveals its full potential for perversity in moments such as the current crisis, when the voice of mimetic wisdom affirms in tones worthy of the God of wrath that “we” are no better, and perhaps far worse, than those who fly planes into skyscrapers. It is no trivial matter whether we define the human by an act of violent appropriation or by a minimal hesitation before it, whether humanity begins with a glimmer of ethical awareness or an act of original sin.

To this ethical difficulty corresponds the epistemological one of determining criteria by which to judge selection of any kind. In Girard’s anthropology, any “arbitrary” selection of an object of transcendental significance–kingship, election, designation for a suicide mission, winning the lottery–are all derivatives of scapegoating. Yet it is not the originary designation itself but the freedom it provides by deferring mimetic violence that permits the emergence of human consciousness. By separating designation (of the scapegoat) from deferral of violence (following his collective murder), Girard separates the content of this consciousness from the sign that brings it into being. And thus, ironically enough, Girard’s mimetic anthropology, by appearing to justify the Derridean critique of representation as violence, becomes involuntarily what deconstruction is deliberately: the foundation of a victimary politics.

To defer, however briefly, the gesture of appropriation is to open up a space for the facility language offers us for “off-line processing” (Bickerton). As Vico saw, the fear of the sacred center is the beginning of wisdom. It is this deferral that grounds Durkheim’s claim: animals can perceive regularities and act on them, but only creatures who have substituted signification for appropriation have the wherewithal to create systems of classification. By the same token, our capacity for moral stupidity derives from the misguided fetishism that seeks in signs themselves the knowledge that these signs allow us to achieve and preserve. Like the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the term “scapegoat” is merely a sign of wisdom, not wisdom itself; we can no more acquire the knowledge of good and evil through pronouncing the one than through ingesting the other. That Girard’s scene of emissary murder provides such good shelter for the Gnostic snake only demonstrates all the more the necessity of a minimalist model of humanity’s originary scene.