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Sacrifice and sexual difference: Insights and challenges in the work of René Girard

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For René Girard: Essays in Friendship and in Truth

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The groundwork for my encounter with the work of René Girard was laid early in my life. I grew up in a tumultuous era that sensitized me to violence. Trips with my parents through the U.S. South enabled me to observe the persistence of Jim Crow in "colored" and "white" schools. Even as a child, I saw and felt that race-based disparities in educational opportunity constituted a reprehensible act of violence. The Vietnam War shaped my experience in high school and college. Especially in college, I brought the resources of my liberal education to bear upon the violence around me. Social justice issues shaped my learning then and continue to inform it today. My awareness of violence against women came later. Privy to the successes of feminism, especially in education and employment, I confronted violence as a persistent and serious problem for women only after I began teaching. Women students whose lives were traumatized by abusive partners or acquaintances made the issue a compelling concern for me. Wanting to make a difference in my students' lives and in the lives of women I would never meet, I focused my scholarship on gendered violence: acts of abuse by men against women that occur within structures of power and male domination. I wanted my critical efforts to contribute to feminist interventions to end gendered violence. My encounter with Girard in the 1980s decisively influenced my pursuit of this goal. Prior to my discovery of his work, I found myself increasingly stymied by feminist scholarship on violence against women because I did not see that feminist scholarship grappled sufficiently with the intractability of this violence. Moreover, when feminist scholars attempted to do this, their reflections featured problematic assumptions about the origins of violence against women. Even though gendered violence is pervasive across cultures and time, most feminist scholars did not explore whether and how violence against women might be endemic in human society. Addressing economic constraints on women, deficiencies in childrearing techniques, and the socialization of females and males in educational and cultural institutions, they signaled that an altered environment would reduce the number of perpetrators and empower women to leave abusive settings.1 Violence against women would end because the specific social conditions that had fostered its growth would change. I wanted to support this argument; however, my nagging doubts persisted. What if the roots of violence were not encased within the social structures on which feminist scholars had focused? Their proposed solutions to violence would fall short of success. As I probed more deeply, my frustration mounted. Feminist scholars in the 1980s who did attempt to hone in on a substructure of gendered violence turned to the concept of patriarchy. These scholars traced the source of gendered violence to a dualistic construct in which men are assigned to superior, controlling, and powerful roles, while women are assigned to inferior, dependent, and powerless roles.2 Gendered violence and other forms of gender-specific oppression would end if patriarchy were to be dismantled. By the late 1980s, however, theories of patriarchy were under severe challenge. Increasingly attuned to the complex interactions of class, race, and gender in a multicultural world, feminist critics suggested that patriarchy was an essentialist construct that falsely universalized culturally varied male/female experiences. 3 Noting the individualizing factors of location, class, age, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, these critics threw into disarray any feminist theory that tried to make sense of gendered violence through reference to a global system of male/female dualism or gender asymmetry. For my part, I continued to believe that gendered violence called for a theory that directly and systematically addressed women's unique vulnerability to violence. In 1989 in Montreal, Marc Lepine's massacre of fourteen female engineering students, whom he separated from their male peers before killing them, dominated the headlines. That event confirmed for me again that I should sustain my efforts to understand gendered violence, notwithstanding a paucity of support in feminist scholarship for my efforts. Searching for resources with which to move forward, I encountered The Scapegoat. In the midst of examining stereotypes of persecution, I read the following words: "persecutors are never obsessed by difference but rather by its unutterable contrary, the lack of difference." 4 Girard's assertion turned my world upside down, propelling my inquiry into gendered violence in an entirely new direction. At first, Girard's claim seemed counterintuitive. I had thought that difference fuels anti-Semitism (Jews are not Christian) and racism (blacks are not white). So, also, had I thought that gendered violence occurs because women differ from men. Indeed, since the 1949 publication of de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, leading feminist theorists had argued that women are oppressed because they are "other" to men and, in their difference, at odds with a masculine norm. Intrigued but doubtful, I pondered the example Girard offers in The Scapegoat of a physically disabled person. Girard suggests that disability is disturbing to others, not because of its difference but because of its impression of disturbing dynamism.5 Life goes on, in difference, giving the lie to able-bodied persons' claims to exclusive truth about their lives. Extrapolating from Girard's example, I explored a new idea. What if gendered violence does not turn on women's difference from men? What if it turns instead on the implosive potential of the relation between women and men? Perhaps violence occurs when perpetrators discover that the system can "differ from its own difference, in other words not to be different at all, to cease to exist as a system."6 My reading of Girard suggested to me that because those who are different throw the relativity, fragility, and mortality of a given world into relief, they are reproached for being not as different as expected or, in the end, for differing not at all.7 Electrified by my first encounter with Girard, I saw unfolding before me an entirely new perspective on violence. No longer focusing on violence as an issue of confl icting identity claims among men and women, I would use mimetic theory to consider violence in terms of conflicts associated with a lack of being. Exploring that possibility brought to an end the impasse at which I had found myself, and the insights gained from that possibility galvanized my scholarship. In what follows, I review key features of my transforming encounter with Girard. I appeal to Julia Kristeva as well, because she too uses mimetic analysis in her theory of sacrifice. In addition, I explain how Girard informs my work as a dissenting voice. The fact that Girard contends that gender is ultimately not a critical factor in the work of sacrifice-whereas I contend that it is-has forced me to discipline my reflections as I would not have disciplined them if a different interlocutor had been the inspiration for my research.


Department of Philosophy and World Religions

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