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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 4 (March 1993)


Frank Graziano, Divine Violence: Spec tacle, Psychosexuality, and Radical Christianity in the Argentine "Dirty War." Boulder, San Francisco, Oxford: Westview Press, 1992. 328 pp. Hdb. $49.95. Pb. $18.95.

In Argentina's "dirty war" (1976-1983), thousands of innocent victims--men, women, and children--were noisily abducted, elaborately tortured and then unceremoniously dispatched by agents of its military Junta, all in the name of "'Western and Christian civilization.'" Frank Graziano undertakes to ask why in a manner that far surpasses the usual critique of right-wing ideology. His answer ranges over virtually the entire corpus of contemporary French theory. Foucault, Lyotard, Lacan, de Certeau, Derrida, and Girard all have a role in producing a kind of deep archeology of state terror. That is a mixed bag and the results are commensura tely discomfiting, perturbing. But the endeavor is commendable if the theoretical imperative which engrosses us today has any practical merit.

Graziano is scrupulous in reporting repulsive details, not for their sensational effects, but in a conscientious effort to bring out the deepest significance one can hope to extract from this grisly material for understanding the nexus binding power, fear, and desire.

The Junta's real impotence to govern issued in a "mythologics, or "mythologized reality," requiring the invention of a demonized Enemy whose imaginary menace was sustained, rather than brutally suppressed, by stylized, ritually theatricalized torture. While availing itself of Christian eschatological and apocalyptic tradition, the Junta constructed its own salvific identity on those whom it demonized and destroyed.

A perverse strategy of clandestine and subtly broadcast violence, publicly denied and spectacularly deployed, held public protest in check via an amalgam of fear and suspicion which rendered the citizenry accomplice by its passivity. The result was a veritable deconstruction of the difference between doers of dirty deeds and those who at all times feared being done in: "In a closed system without exits, public knowledge terrorizes as much as public ignorance. The boundaries between knowing and supposing, between knowing and denying, fade" (82).

Graziano's argumentation is lucid and perceptive throughout, especially where he makes use of Foucault. Where this reader demurs is on the final sense the author makes of this hideous episode. Chapter IV, "In the Name of the Father," uncovers "an Oedipal structure of 'dirty war' violence," where Oedipal is unders tood as "Lacanian in essence" (164), though on the other hand Graziano's point is to articulate this psychosexual drama with the Girardian thematics of mimetic rivalry and sacrificial substitution.

It appears that these hoodlums were engaged in a self-defeating struggle for phallocentric domination, of which the picana, a torture instrument, functioned as the preferred signifier: "The picanauk-phallus metonymically represented the Junta's desire for the power it lacked, a desire that was ritually satisfied through the repetitive enactment of a psychosexual drama during torture" (161). My summary and quotes do not do justice to the author's careful articulation of Lacan with Girard, but they do, I hope, capture its implausibility. Despite the Girardian provenance of its final chapter, entitled "Sacrifice and the Surrogate Victim," the book tilts fully towards a psychoanalysis of the "dirty war": "Consolidating the sacrificial model with the Oedipal drama as these pertain to torture/execution in the Argentine detention centers, one may posit the following: The son/Sacrificer (Junta), victimized by a lack (ultimately of power-phallus), mimed the behavior of the Fat her/Deity (Enemy) who caused and represented the threatening deficiency " (200). Refinements of this consolidation only enhance its incongruity, not to say its grotesquerie: "The sacrificial victim, the overdetermined desaparecido, was a surrogate repre senting first the Oedipal Father but then also the murdered Father's menacing absence, his symbolic presence, the function that the Father fulfilled as the Law insofar as he was dead" (200).

One does not get to the bottom of things by substituting one mythic explanation, that of Freud or Lacan, for another, that of neo-Christian eschatology. It inevitably yields this kind of inter pretive enormity (the brackets are the author's interpolations): "In the beginning was the Word [phallus-power/Law], and the Word was with God [Name-of-the-Father], and the word was God [Law = Name of the Father]" (204). Such contortions are only conceivable if we leave Girard (and his interpretation of Scripture) far behind, having decided at the outset on the authority of post-Freudian schemata. Thus Freud's (and Guy Rosolato's) reading of the crucifixion, as displacing father-religion by son-religion, is accepted at face value (206); Christian Communion, "the regularly performed sacrificial ritual of Christianity, the mass," (208) is assimilated, via some Aztec lore, to cannibalism; and "the body and blood of Christ" are conflated, via an assist from Northrop Frye, with the destiny of Osiris, Orpheus, and Pentheus (210).

This kind of confusion is perhaps inevitable, once psychoanalysis, with its genius for signifier substitutions, displacements and contortions where concrete evidence is lacking, is elected as the word on the Word, as the oracle of interpretation. The "dirty war" lamentably invites this choice by so much evidence of its horrific mix of sex and pain, but its interpretation does not come to rest in the map charted by Freud and Lacan. Back to the drawing board then, but with Graziano's grimly important book in hand, a deft and well researched argument in service to a futile, even at times trivial, line of reasoning.

Andrew J. McKenna