The central Girardian critique of generative anthropology is that it fails to account for scapegoating. If we claim that the originary sign embodies an agreement to defer violence, how can we explain the cultural universality of emissary victimage, with its ambivalent attribution to the victim of beneficent and maleficent powers?

What most readers retain of Girard’s conceptual scheme is indeed the centrality of the scapegoat. For Girard, the scapegoat is implicit in all cultural phenomena, from cannibalistic sacrifice to Symbolist poetry. In Girardian anthropology, the discharge of mimetic violence takes precedence over the appetite for life-sustaining objects. The originary model of the human community is the all-against-one configuration of scapegoating rather than the equal division of the sacrificial feast, the configuration of maximal injustice rather than the originary model of fairness. Where GA hypothesizes that human culture comes into being to defer violence, Girard’s mimetic theory sees its mission as deflecting violence from the community and its institutions onto a victim who by definition cannot be altogether deserving of it. In Girard’s Christocentric view of history, outside the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, sacrificial violence was unproblematic; humanity lived in méconnaissance of the arbitrariness of its choice of scapegoats. But once Jesus came into the world and was crucified, the cat was out of the bag, and the méconnaissance that continued to reign on earth became one of bad faith; however one tried to put the Christian revelation out of one’s mind, one could no longer live in blissful ignorance of the murderous mechanism at the heart of human society.

The term “scapegoat” as Girard uses it is fundamentally ambivalent. We must distinguish between the scapegoat’s role as aphysical object of communal violence and its role as a mental object of communal ideation, whether positive or negative. The object that plays the first role can range from a mere punching bag to the arch-criminal whose real or imagined crimes make him the object of communal opprobrium. But in Girard’s anthropology, whether we hit the punching bag, execute the mass murderer, or choose as our victim a marginal, seemingly accursed figure, we are “scapegoating” because we have put ourselves in the configuration of the originary sparagmos, and from this physical configuration, presumably the ideational one will follow. Both the strength and weakness of Girard’s concept of the scapegoat come from the fact that, in the absence of a theory of the sign, the constituents of this polarity can never be articulated. The scapegoat concept is eminently generalizable; its functionality as a notion of everyday victimary thinking is demonstrated by the “vulgar Girardianism” that labels every conflict as scapegoating. But what is gained in applicability is lost in anthropological rigor. A key sign of this is that Girard’s scapegoat scene never achieves the status of singularity; despite a few evocative references to la première foisin La violence et le sacré, it remains a mechanism repeated on the occasion of each new “mimetic crisis,” and out of whose repetition the specific phenomena of representational culture, including language, presumably emerge. The specificity of the scene only reaches the status of uniqueness with the Crucifixion, which effects the revelation of the mechanism, however little this revelation itself is understood.

What this suggests is not that the Girardian system is incompatible with the originary hypothesis but that it is a partial version of it, in which the focus of aggression against the central figure leads directly to the sparagmos without the mediating intervention of a sign. No system of representations is required to unite the group of lynchers; they are wholly motivated by mimetic desire, which is in turn fueled by appetite. This appetite is, however, exclusively aggressive; in itself, the scene furnishes no appetitive satisfaction beyond the discharge of aggression. Once this discharge has occurred, the community presumably operates as before the crisis to obtain food and other necessities of life, but there is no direct relationship between the scapegoating action and the provision of these necessities. Thus Girard interprets the Tikopia myth cited in Des choses cachées…, where Tikarau, the scapegoat-god, “flies away” with most elements of the feast but leaving behind (vegetable) foods important to the Tikopia, as a cause-and-effect relationship between (1) the “radical elimination” of the scapegoat and (2) the subsequent alimentary (and classificatory) well-being of the people, rather than as a representation of the sparagmos itself with the subsequent feasting on the food it provides. The fact that the foods left behind are all vegetal suggests nonetheless that the god-victim was not merely “eliminated” (perhaps by driving him off a cliff) but provided the meat for the feast.


From the generative perspective, the prevalence in major cultural works of figures of sacrifice in which, following the example of Oedipus, the tragic hero takes upon himself the sins of his community, may be discussed in two ways. The simpler answer to the Girardian claim of the universality of the scapegoat is that the sparagmos is indeed a moment of the originary hypothesis; the aggressive concentration on the central figure is less uniquely emphasized but no less present in the generative scenario than in Girard’s. But there is a stronger answer: the centrality of the human figure in the scapegoating/tragic scenario is not merely a late development of the originary scene but bears this lateness on its face as a feature of hierarchical society.

Although the classical esthetic does not thematize the sacrificial scene in the manner of neo-classical tragedy, it does thematize individual significance or fame, “making a name for oneself.” Achilles, the first hero of Western epic, has chosen a short glorious life over a long anonymous one. The names of the protagonists of tragedy or epic are in principle already known to the audience. Aristotle’s admonition that the tragic hero be “better than we” boils down to this: we are all expected to know his name but others need not know ours. This is the most fundamental asymmetry that emerges in the use of language in hierarchical societies: we all know the name of whatever is significant, but only some are worthy of having their names known to all. Today’s celebrity culture puts the emphasis of fame where it belongs, simply in being known by name. The tragic protagonist, before being sacrificed, is already invested with significance; the tragic narrative traces his fame to the sacred center of the originary scene. The sacrificial king, in Girard’s analysis, usurps the central role by emphasizing the positive moment of the ambivalent good/bad peace/war-bringing emissary victim. (Cf. my analysis of the “big-man” in The End of Culture.) But it is this “origin of inequality” as the usurpation of the center by a human that makes the king vulnerable to communal violence; there is no reason to assume the humanity of the victim or victims in pre-hierarchical societies. Placing a human at the center is not the beginning of human society but the end of the primordial form of this society. Ethnology has never to my knowledge found a hunter-gatherer society with a social hierarchy that grants a central individual power over others and their goods. It would be in these societies that we would need to find traces of the Girardian emissary victim, not in the hierarchical societies that hold a central figure hostage to communal resentment. Tikarau in the Tikopia myth represents not an arbitrary scapegoat but a big-man, a provider of the feast, as are in different ways the sacrificial figures in the Bible and in Greek literature. If the originary emissary victims were human, how do we explain that the gods of all pre-hierarchical peoples are (almost always meat-providing) animals, or that the members of various tribes identify with them as “totems”? The nutritive value of the central being/victim is more fundamental than the attribution to this figure of human identity.

As Chris Morrissey astutely pointed out in his (as yet unpublished) doctoral dissertation, the scapegoat concept has its roots in postmodern victimary thinking. Girardian anthropology imposes a moral valence on the human scene of representation itself by making the configuration of all-against-one the originary form of the scenic periphery-center relationship. Because the term “scapegoating” presupposes a higher level of consciousness on the part of its user than in those engaged in the act it describes, it forecloses ethical reasoning; any pretext furnished by the participants is invalid on its face, an example of bad faith or méconnaissance. It is the postmodern, post-Holocaust intuition of the inherent violence of the scenic configuration that permits Girard to go beyond Durkheim in grasping the centrality of (the deferral of) violence to religious ritual. The scapegoat theory is a constructive as opposed to the usual deconstructive form of victimary thinking, whose moral limitations it avoids by affirming that the méconnaissance can indeed be lifted by genuine attentiveness to the Christian revelation of the scenic mechanism.

As Girard himself would be the first to point out, the notions of “guilt” and “blame” can only be formulated in the context of moral norms (not to speak of language) inconceivable in the first stages of hominization. But in the absence of these norms, the most parsimonious originary hypothesis can dispense with the assumption that the drive to discharge aggression is so powerful as to render moot the need for appetitive satisfaction. The desirability of the originary central being, which is a sufficient condition for a linguistic or “symbolic” sign to represent it, also suffices to attract potential aggression and the need for its deferral without it being necessary to hypothesize that this aggression becomes wholly independent of appetite-based desire.


The model of scapegoating is the model of attention in general. Any common attention directed to a center is a concentration of desire that is potentially a concentration of violence. A crowd of hungry people may collect around a source of food and fight over it just as a crowd of angry people may collect around someone they consider guilty of a crime and beat or even lynch him. In some cases, no doubt, the guilt may be manufactured for the sake of the lynching. But the appetitive value of a food-source, however supplemented by mimesis, does not have to be invented. A means must be found to distribute this source in such a way that it adds more energy to the community than internal conflict subtracts. Pecking-order hierarchy suffices for higher animals, but not for humans. This is the life and death issue of the protohuman community. The fact that internal conflict becomes more of a danger than external nature to the stability of this community by no means implies that the resolution of internal conflict is independent of the acquisition of nourishment; on the contrary, the crucial necessity of this acquisition makes it the most likely source of mimetic crisis.

What is at stake here is not limited to the relatively narrow matter of the role of hunger in the originary event. The objects of appetite, whether alimentary, sexual, or cognitive, have content or differential meaningfulness; one is not identical to another, and the history of human culture is one of their at first gradual and then increasingly rapid differentiation. In contrast, the objects of aggression, in Girard’s own terms, are all functionally equivalent. The choice of a scapegoat is aleatory; one is as good as another. The same can be said for the object of the “metaphysical” desire described in Mensonge romantique; its specific identity is unimportant, provided that it be designated by the “mediator.” An anthropology that begins with indifferentiation rather than différance has no way of valorizing the content of desire. In La violence et le sacré, the differentiation of meaning in this punning Derridean concept is ignored, leaving only deferral as postponement of violence:

. . . le retour de la violence à son point de départ, dans les rapports humains, n’a rien d’imaginaire. Si nous n’en savons rien encore ce n’est peut-être pas parce que nous avons échappé définitivement à cette loi, parce que nous l’avons “dépassée” mais parce que son application, dans le monde moderne, a été longuement différée, pour des raisons qui nous échappent. (p. 360 – italics the author’s)

[. . . the return of violence to its starting point in human relationships is in no way imaginary. If as yet we know nothing of this, it is perhaps not because we have definitively escaped this law, because we have “transcended” it, but because its application, in the modern world, has been long deferred, for reasons that escape us.]

This univocal emphasis on violence deferred over what defers it explains the unsatisfactory nature of attempts to apply mimetic theory to the modern economy. Aglietta and Orléan’s La violence de la monnaie (1982) is a noble effort, but its vision of market society is limited to such things as panics and crises. Mimetic desire explains why we all desire the “same” things, but not what those things might be and certainly not how they contribute to the mutual differentiation that makes us all uniquely precious human selves and souls. In the passage above, Girard appears to forget that the very purpose of the 360 pages we have just read is to provide “reasons” for why culture defers the application of “the law” of the return of violence. What motivates this rhetorical gesture is that in Girard’s view the modern world, freed by Christianity from its slavery to the emissary mechanism, has itself forgotten the centrality of this mechanism, believing it has finally done away with the danger of violence rather than being obliged continually to defer it.

Whether or not the mutual deterrence of the Cold War constituted a forgetting of the necessity of deferring violence is by now a moot point, but certainly since 9/11 we are all too aware that the “end of (violent) history” is a chimera. Yet as we contemplate the ever-present danger of mimetic violence, we should not forget what protects many of us from it so well in our everyday lives that we are tempted to relegate it to John Kerry’s hopeful category of “nuisance.” Fukuyama’s liberal market democracy may not achieve the end of history, but it offers our species its only chance to survive in large numbers, or perhaps at all, through the remainder of the new century.