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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 2 (March 1992)

Andrew J. McKenna, Violence and Difference: Girard, Derrida, and Deconstruction. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992. Pp. 233*; hardbound, no price available.

It is something of a scandal that the work of René Girard is largely ignored by most of the critics influenced by JacquesDerrida and is passed over in silence by Derrida himself. Andrew McKenna's study is the first to bring the thought of these two enormously important thinkers into positive contact. Although they are something like "enemy brothers" to each other, McKenna shows how Derrida's deconstruction of texts and language leads logically, indeed ineluctably, to Girard's victimary hypothesis, while Girard's model of mimetic desire, victimization, and sacrifice is explicated and amplified by Derrida's analysis of texts and deconstruction of philosophy in terms of writing as trace, erasure, supplement -- indeed, as pharmakon or poison/remedy.

McKenna's writing is lucid and his analysis superb. Beginning with the famous scene in Molière's Le Bourgeois gentilhomme where the bourgeois merchant, M. Jourdain, calls on the Philosopher to adjudicate the fierce quarrel among the Fencing Master, the Music Master, and the Dance Master over the value of their respective professions, McKenna moves on in the introduction, "Philosophy in Spite of Itself," to articulate the general thesis of the book: "only a fundamental anthropology, rooted in the violent origin of the sacred, can think through the paradoxes evoked everywhere by Derrida when he challenges our conceptions of origins" (18). Just as the Philosopher in Molière's play soon abuses his mediating role by asserting his superiority over the other three and is then physically attacked by them, ending up as the scapegoat, so the current fate of philosophy. It has tried to assert its superiority in ways that camouflage violence and sacrifice and now it has been exposed. McKenna shows that Derrida is right about philosophy's bankruptcy in the form of "logocentrism" and modern rationalism.

The argument proceeds through chapters on philosophy and sacrifice in Plato and Descartes, violence and the origin of language, postmodernism as the victim age (whose paradigm is the Holocaust), state secrets (whose paradigm is the Greenpeace affair in 1985), and a concluding chapter on representation and decidability. The author has also attached an appendix on biblical theory and the victimary hypothesis.

Space permits only a sampling of significant facets of McKenna's argument. In his discussion of institutions and the trace he contends that the letter, the fold (le pli), is analogous to a community's dissimulation of its own violence. "For Girard this is the very function of sacrifice: erasing the human origin of violence in the expulsion of the victim, in the sacralization of the victim" (90). "The victim is the origin of an indecision," an indecision born of desire. It is desire that "is the origin of the sacred, which is only the erasure of the mimetic (non)origin of desire" (97).

As for dissemination -- or différance -- it "is the name for the indirection of truth," and this means truth's "infinite substitutionability, which begins with the victim" (164). Derridean analysis illuminates nearness and distance, before and after, presence and absence in Girard's exposition of the sacred, whereas a Girardian analysis protects against the delusion of "complacency about our temporal or spatial finitude or that it destines us to infinite meaninglessness" (103).

As McKenna says in his conclusion, "Deconstruction . . . is historicized rather than invalidated once its attention to the uncanny is shown to reflect 'the crisis of all cultural signs' [Girard]" (176). But for me a question remains, a question that may be relevant both to the master-thinkers and to the scholar-doubles that represent Derridean deconstruction and Girardian poststructuralism. From the Girardian side of this rivalry, I would ask whether the relation McKenna shows so well between the violence of the trace, erasure, or supplement and the violence done to the victim who is represented in (and as) the sacred is simultaneously a barrier. Can those focusing on gramms and letters and texts and those focusing on real victims enter into creative conversation with one another? I wonder. Is there an analogue between Derrida's mode of thought and his silence on Girard's mimetic model of violence and the sacred? Silence may also be a dismissal, an expulsion.

*The reviewer read the book in page proofs. The page numbers cited are from the proofs.

James G. Williams