Monthly Archives: July 2009

Idioms of Inquiry

The originary hypothesis creates a “new way of thinking,” as Eric Gans has so often said.  A way of thinking involves a new vocabulary and grammar; it puts words to new use, generates new questions and imperatives.  Any new way of thinking would do this; all the more so must one founded upon an account of the origin of language; all the more so an account of the origin of language that sees language as constitutive of the human.  It seems worth trying to generate such a vocabulary and grammar through linguistic terms themselves—all discourse must be conducted through ostensives, imperatives, interrogatives and declaratives, so the way these utterances work in relation to each other must provide us with an exhaustive account of any discourse; and if of any discourse, of all human activity.  That we can do it does not necessarily we that we should—but I’m going to proceed on the assumption that it’s worth the effort.


Let’s start with a simple observation:  it must be possible to read any sentence as an answer to a question.  This is the case insofar as the first predication, the negative ostensive posited by Gans in The Origin of Language, is itself a response to a question.  Questions, moreover, are “softened” imperatives, or imperatives cognizant of the possibility that they won’t be obeyed.  Think of how far just these observations would already take us:  if the sentence is designed so as to answer questions (I don’t think “answer” is quite originary enough for our purposes here, but we can leave that aside for now), then any sentence might be answering more than one—each word in the sentence could be read in terms of the question it is answering, of the anticipated follow up question it is answering; word placement could be read in terms of answers to questions regarding how to answer the question, which would in turn reveal something of the relation between the interlocutors.  Which imperatives get obeyed, which get resisted, which get mistaken, deliberately or accidentally, and so on; which imperatives get prolonged into the uncertainty of the question?  I would suggest that focusing on such questions would teach us far more than all the speculations and accusations regarding “power relations” occupying so much of postmodern discourse.


Imperatives, in turn, can be grounded in ostensives:  following the cry of “Fire!” (one of Gans’ most used examples) we would expect “Follow me!,” “Head for the exit!,” “Stay close to the ground!,” “Call 911!,” etc.  Even more commonplace imperatives (to take another of Gans’ privileged examples:  the surgeon requesting “Scalpel!”) could be understood in these terms:  if the surgeon needs a scalpel it’s because he realize that “it’s time!” (to start cutting).  Moreover, the boundaries between these modes of utterance are fluid, with one mode often “presenting” as another, as with the rhetorical question.  If declaratives can be read as, let’s say, presenting a reality (in which other imperatives might be obeyed) in exchange for the desire involved in the question, they can also be read as embedding imperatives.  If someone says, “The door is open,” maybe they want me to close the door, maybe they want me to leave, maybe they want me to look over in that direction, but the sentence is telling me to do something.  Any sentence is—or, if one likes, any sentence can productively and revealingly be analyzed as doing so; such commands, on one level, are those which any sign puts forth, which is to iterate the sign itself, to operate within the space it opens.  Aside from the kind of practical imperatives I just suggested, iterating the sign might involve adding an adjective to the noun, suggesting an ostensive that might confirm the subject-predicate relation articulated by the sentence, along with, perhaps, attending to the next sentence, etc.—these are acts the sentence might be “telling” us to perform.


I consider imperatives to be central here because only imperatives can make anything happen beyond the centered attention effected by the ostensive—indeed, we could say that even the ostensive put forth on the originary scene might be considered unique and expansive enough to imply an imperative like “Stop!”  I think that the hypothesis that verbs are originally imperatives is an extremely fruitful one, but leave that aside.  More pragmatically, I would propose that the world appears to us as the effect of (indeed, created by) imperatives, with things and people telling each other and themselves what to do all the time.  If you start paying attention, you can start noticing how deeply embedded imperatives are in ordinary language—it is imperative that, our imperative here is…., etc.  So, if someone does or attempts something, we can analyze it as obedience to some imperative, regarding the source, aim and force of which we could hypothesize.  We could also re-conceptualize our fundamental categories of thought and action, including those constitutive of GA, in these terms. 


So, to get started, thinking is obeying the imperative to suspend all imperatives:  in this suspension, imperatives approach or occur to one, appearing as possibilities which the thinker in his/her detachment follows; ultimately, the emergence of one imperative after another leads us to the founding imperative of thought, to cease obeying commands directing us to efface the ostensive sign.  Politics, we might say, is obedience to the imperative to generate declaratives that can harmonize the incommensurable commands with claims upon us—what we might also discuss as the convertibility of imperatives and declaratives.  Morality follows the command to map imperatives onto declaratives—every imperative, to pass the test of morality, must be seen as derived from some declarative (the “thou shalts” rely on “I am the Lord thy God,” or more recently, “x is wrong”).  Ethics, meanwhile, follows the imperative to align imperatives with ostensives (treat others fairly is a moral imperatives, but what counts as fair in a given situation—what we will point to, authenticate, as an instance of unfair treatment, belongs to ethics); we are engaged esthetically when we obey the command to attend from one element of a sign to another, indefinitely; and so on.


We can analyze the most fundamental concepts of GA in grammatical terms.  Desire involves taking a command from the object, a command to model one’s activity on the possession of that object; resentment, that refusal to accept one’s barred access to the object, might be seen as taking a command to superintend the object (if one can’t have it, one can keep one’s eyes on it; if it’s going to be distributed, one can make sure that it is done under the authority of the sign).  Imitation takes the command from the model to treat that model as a source of imperatives—the model tells me what to do, and the more it tells me the more commands I demand.  Indeed, we can describe the mimetic crisis in these terms:  I must command the model to give me commands that would let me bridge the gap between his commanding being and the consequences of my compliance.  Such commands to the source of commands create contending imperatives and turn the commanding gestures into an ostensive one indicating a common source of imperatives.  Imitation is thereby converted into iteration, as the model is seen to share the same relation to its model as one has just constructed with it.


Such grammatical analyses could never be exhaustive as it is impossible to describe ostensives, imperatives, interrogatives and declaratives without orienting oneself towards the world they constitutive—indeed, even in the definitions I have just offered, a whole series of terms, like “object,” “model” and “source” could only be defined circularly, as the origin of imperatives.  This circularity would remain even were we to go on and specify the object and model, but this is the point of a conceptual vocabulary—a conceptual vocabulary derived from the originary hypothesis just needs to be aware that if the world appears to us as result and source of imperatives it is because we are commanding and commanded by it to do so.  Since commands are both circumscribed and fallible, this circularity is a constant source of idioms.  The same is true for these descriptions I am offering, all of which aim at minimality and for that reason require (command) quite a bit of surrounding discussion. 


My argument here for the generation of linguistically and semiotically grounded idioms of inquiry is part of my argument in my previous post for the sanctification of language in the post-millennial era.  Using grammatical terms in this expanded way simultaneously places those terms within language, making them generative rather than descriptive.  I am proposing a practice of deliberately putting language to work so as to produce novel idioms that are both means and objects of inquiry.  Anyone can conduct the kind of analysis I am outlining—anyone could tell you whether the question they have just asked is really meant to function more like a command, or what they would have to see, hear or experience to better understand what you just said, or what they would like someone to do as a response to something they said, etc.  And once one’s attention is directed in this way, there is always something to talk about with others, and it may become very interesting.  Language itself, after all, is in the end a mode of inquiry into the kinds of representations that might defer violence.


Finally, it seems to me that such an idiom of inquiry helps us to formulate what might be an enlightening way of thinking about the political condition of postmodernity, which we might define in terms of a crisis in the imperative.  One of the most significant consequences of victimary modernity, and its intensification under postmodernity, has been a continual shrinking of the sphere of operative (uncontested, understood, grounded in our tacit knowledge of others, immediately complied with) imperatives.  To put it simply, no one is sure enough about whom they should listen to.  The task of modernity has been to enhance the imperative force of declaratives, but the same assumptions that led “reason” to attack rather than complement “faith” set declaratives at odds with imperatives, compliance with which must contain a substantial “irrational” element.  Events are always a sure source of imperatives, upon which victimary discourse relies heavily and has come to produce rather than discover, but that can never be enough.  The Left is bossy enough, to be sure, but their imperatives are generated by ostensives on one side (“racist!”; “fascist!”, “homophobe!,” etc.) and formulaic declaratives on the other.  “Gay marriage is a human right” is a declarative, and a very characteristic one—it presents itself, grammatically, more as a statement of fact than of opinion; it is a declarative that depends upon a long sequence of previous ones of exactly the same type (“gay marriage” simply filling a slot previously filled by other substantives), creating the reality which provides the effect of “facticity”; and its imperative force is absolute for anyone situated within that “reality” (the human rights world picture), while anyone outside of that reality is irrevocably demonized.  The fetish the Left has come to make of “lying” (as a strategic accusation, at least) makes sense in these terms as well:  distinguishing between truth and lies places politics completely on declarative terrain, while charging the declarative with imperative force.


In that case, the post-victimary imperative would be to create and obey together the imperatives out of which new declaratives might emerge.  I don’t know what those imperatives might be or how we will come to obey them—indeed, how could any of us?  The absolute and ultimately arbitrary adherence to some irresistible model which I understand Raoul Eshelman’s notion of “performatism” to be identifying as a “post-postmodernism” seems to me one productive line of inquiry.  It might also help to inscribe imperatives within freedom, which we might consider obedience to the imperative to prolong the distance between the imperative and its ostensive authentification.  Freedom, in other words, is not the opposite of obedience—it is obedience to an imperative to honor the imperative order by embedding single imperatives in prior, more inclusive ones and making one’s own obedience into a sign that is never completely formed.  I have previously defined freedom as nobody, including yourself, knowing what you are going to do next—and isn’t that exactly what is happening as one follows an increasingly impersonal imperative through ever wider circles of consequences?

Between knowledge and sacrifice: what to do with Michael Jackson?

I wrote this review essay over a year ago, in hopes of landing a quick publication. The trajectory of my argument was crystal clear to me. I tried Contagion and a few others, but no bites. Among the criticisms was that Jefferson’s book, On Michael Jackson, did not warrant the Girardian analysis I subjected it to. Perhaps. This analysis may be too academic for my blog, and not academic enough for a journal. I thought it might work here. Since MJ has been in the news of late, why not consider his legacy in Girardian terms? To me, MJ is a post-modern sacrificial lamb.


It was during an undergraduate seminar on Shakespeare and the Renaissance (of all things!) that I was first introduced to the work of Eric Gans, who arranges all manner of human relationships in a centre-peripheral configuration, where a central god is simultaneously a central victim—the object of both our envy and scorn. Indeed, Gans’ centre-periphery heuristic is useful in understanding, say, the resentments that fuel the mimetic violence behind Rene Girard’s “sacrificial crisis” —whereby a designated (central) victim is sacrificed to the bloodlusts of the (peripheral) mob.

As I was beginning to get my feet wet, then, with the work of both Girard and Gans, I remember, quite distinctly, being asked in seminar who, if anyone, occupies central (sacred) status in today’s godless world—what sort of figure, that is, is both the object of our admiration and resentment simultaneously? I also remember searching the annals of my mind, voraciously, for an answer—one that was both obvious and pertinent. With all the gusto of a convert, I aimed to make an inner understanding (that is, a then nascent and inner understanding of sacrificial violence) outer. Yet, as often happens in times of extreme metaphysical duress, I balked. The class discussion veered off to the obvious, though not terribly electrifying, example of Queen Elizabeth II, whose formal institutional status can, in a very perfunctory sense, be considered central—worthy of both our scorn and envy.

Of course, when the more obvious and electrifying example finally did come to mind, I spent more time than I should have ruminating over the fantastic but missed opportunity to spearhead a different sort of discussion altogether—one more capable of capturing a greater sampling of the “popular” imagination and contemporary tastes of my peers. Indeed, in thinking about the central object as one of envy, upon whom “all desires on the periphery converge,” who else could we say occupies a status more central in today’s decentralized market society than Michael Jackson?

Margo Jefferson, noted New York Times cultural critic and Pulitzer Prize winning author, puts Michael Jackson squarely at the centre of her careful and admirable cultural critique entitled On Michael Jackson (2006). Rather than rehash or retell new versions of old gossip, Jefferson here attempts to highlight Michael Jackson’s oddities in context of an American public imagination and consumer culture both horrified at freaks and which, simultaneously, promotes freakishness as a legitimate stepping stone in pursuit of the American dream.

In the Girardian sense, two terms immediately come to mind in light of Jefferson’s essay, and then, specifically in regards to Michael Jackson: differentiation and (monstrous) doubling. Certainly we have, at times, a crisis of differentiation, what Girard articulates as an individual’s “tendency to think of himself not only as different from others but as extremely different,” for the sake, say, of staking his claim in the community.

A young Michael Jackson, that is, had to make his mark in order to stand apart not only from his brothers, but from the other acts Motown was propagating in the sixties. In such a context, the uniqueness any child star takes for granted begins to wane until the child no longer feels special or different at all. Of course, in lacking such differences, says Girard, comes the trauma of similarity, which carries with it the capacity to wipe out an individual’s sense of identity altogether.

Michael Jackson’s need to disassociate himself from his brothers, and then, not by disowning them, but by refusing to be sexualized the way Motown sought to sexualize them, is a point of departure for Jefferson. Focusing for a time on the sexual, she suggests that Michael, in seeking to carve out his place among the original Jackson 5, could only harbour misgivings about sex. She describes how older brothers “Jackie, Tito and Jermaine flirted and fucked to their hearts content in plain sight of [a young] Michael[,] [a]nd [that] he had no way to hold his own.” Hence, Michael’s reasoning being that his salvation could only lie as far away as possible not from a filial loyalty to his brothers per se, but from an imitation of their conventional transfiguration into sexually consumable objects.

So in fighting to avoid conventional (sexual) pitfalls, Michael was destined to rebel unconventionally, in ways that leave us mystified as to how to categorize this new sort of rebellion (for certainly, which former child star has turned out anything like Michael Jackson?). Indeed, Jackson’s current image projects an

impression of a disturbing dynamism. It seems to threaten the very system. Efforts to limit it are unsuccessful; it disturbs the differences that surround it. These in turn become monstrous, rush together, are compressed and blended together to the point of destruction. Difference that exists outside the system is terrifying precisely because it reveals the truth of the system, its relativity, its fragility, its morality. (Girard Reader, 116)

We might say that in choosing to forgo his own personal crisis of differentiation, Michael instead initiated a communal crisis, moving himself away from his brothers, but instead ending up on the very fringes of what we take human society to be in the process. Nor does Jefferson suggest that Michael Jackson sought to defer (sexual) desire away from himself entirely. On the contrary, she has it that due to the extraordinariness of the person and his situation, desire could only be deferred in equally extraordinary (even bizarre) ways.

[T]he crotch clutch seems at once desperate and abstract. It is as if her were telling us, “Fine, you need to know I’m a man, a black man? Here’s my dick: I’ll thrust my dick at you! Isn’t that what a black man’s supposed to do? But I’m Michael Jackson, so just look but you can’t touch.”

Avoiding explicit and brazen sexual acts was a means for Michael Jackson not only to stake his own claim against his brothers, but also, to defer the violence he could only associate with sex—as if carrying on in the same fashion as his brothers would encompass the threat (or the possibility) of a conventional monstrousness. Had a later (say adolescent) Michael Jackson chosen to take out his frustrations in a sexual manner, we would be given clearer currency against which to assess his legacy.

Sexual failure, or, even, rabid sexual activity, may constitute an altogether conventional form of monstrosity, one in which the line dividing humane versus cruel acts are more readily drawn (as Girard would say, such differences exist within the system itself). However, in choosing to forgo the explicitly sexual, we are free to speculate that the nature of, say, Jackson’s obsession with children must, at the very least, be implicitly sexual. Here precisely is where our fascination with Michael Jackson takes root, for in introducing to society such “unconventions,” the human population is forced to reexamine and redefine the limits of its existing conventions.

In fact, Jefferson suggests that such bizarre deferral tactics displayed by Michael Jackson (beginning in his late teen years) could only have resulted from an extraordinary resentment, as she reminds us that Michael “has been a sexual impersonator since the age of five,” singing in the 1960s about desire in the manner more reminiscent of a sexually charged adolescent, which served to turn him into “a national sex object—a sex toy, really.”

Furthermore, in growing up around adults he could only mistrust, i.e., where “some of [his] fans [were] old enough to be [his] parents or grandparents,” in “[f]eeling used by every adult [he] knew,” and, in being “blessed” with a mimetic model of masculinity at best disappointing (his father), it really becomes something not so farfetched that Michael Jackson, in choosing to turn away from violence and hatred, had to love the world, and then not all of it, but only a certain segment of it—that is, the segment encompassed by the innocence of children. Here is a particularly perceptive passage of Jefferson’s:

We’ve all heard the explanations for why Michael is at ease only when he is with children. His reasons make a kind of psychological sense … You can capture your lost childhood in the company of children.
Michael never admits that he is angry as well as lonely and sad. And yet, what better reproach to all grown-ups—family, siblings, fans—than to have nothing to do with them except as businesspeople you can hire and fire. Or as wives you can marry and divorce. Or as surrogate mothers you can pay and dismiss.

Jefferson, then, deftly looks at Michael Jackson as a study in the sublimation of “extraordinary” resentment, subtlety addressing those who would attack monstrous ends without a clear and discernible understanding of monstrous origins. Not that this book is an apologia for Michael Jackson (by any stretch). In fact, Jefferson, in carefully choosing how to line up her rhetorical ducks, begins by empathizing first with our resentments of the man, for the sake (obviously enough) of bringing naysayers and fence-sitters along for the ride. Her rhetorical comeuppance is worth the wait, however. The concluding three chapters are both profound and prescient, discussing broader social themes of child celebrity, the subsequent strain on filial bonds, as well as relevant issues of gender and race.

In the book’s final chapter, Jefferson carefully articulates her unique and convincing understanding of Michael Jackson against an entirely surreal and bizarre social backdrop of the 2003 police raids of the Neverland Ranch, the deleterious Martin Bashir documentary, and the subsequent trial and eventual acquittal of Jackson in 2005. Though it would be tempting to rail on Jackson for having had the audacity to be caught in the middle of one aberrant scandal after another (going back, it could be argued, well into the early 1990s), Jefferson’s critique of events are fierce yet subtle, compassionate yet firm.

In terms of resentment, any thorough understanding of Michael Jackson inevitably leads to a fork in the road, leading us down two equally productive paths in our examination of this remarkable human being. One forces us to analyze the nature of our own resentments toward him, while the other asks us to understand his resentment, that is, how (or if) we can go about accommodating it, in the name either of accepting Michael Jackson as a productive member of the human community, or of expelling him from the realm of human society altogether, thereby taking his resentment and the ostensible behaviors and images which can only signify them as a genuine testament to monstrosity.

Though Jefferson does not explicitly formulate her analysis in terms of resentment, she does effectively convey to the reader the uniqueness of Michael’s resentments—both those felt by him and those directed at him. Jefferson’s book is fascinating in and of itself for its courageous attempt at proposing the sort of criteria that could be (though, perhaps, are not definitively) motivating Michael Jackson, his career, and our subsequent resentment of him.

Despite the seeming circumstantial nature of her arguments, the rigour of Jefferson’s claims comes in her ability to paint a convincing panorama of American pop culture, from the time of P.T. Barnum, up to and including our more recent fascinations with reality television. She routinely uses the art and design of Michael’s clothes and music videos as suitable points of entry (without relying on them too heavily), while avoiding lengthy quotes from other authors or Jackson himself (she uses these sparingly).

Against this backdrop, then, are we invited to engage with Michael Jackson, away from the usual tabloid gossip which often finds itself on either side of the divide, lauding the sorrows of Michael’s childhood when publicly expedient or crucifying him to no end and in equal measure— selling us commercially estheticized versions of either his resentment or ours.

Once again, in a Girardian light, the most obvious term applicable is one of scapegoating, as though any discussion of Michael Jackson could not help but elicit a discussion of it, especially in thinking about how or why popular society at large is continually pushed to the brink of tolerance in its ability (perhaps inability) to deal, once and for all, with Michael Jackson. Girard, of course, talks about scapegoating in two distinct ways.

First of all, in the classical sense, whereby the choice of sacrificial victim goes largely undisputed by the chorus, versus the “counter-mythical thrust” of Bible narratives, which “espouse the perspective of the victim rather than the mythical perspective of the persecutors.” In terms of a Gansian centre-periphery orientation, we could say, analogously, that Oedipus’ guilt is never questioned; hubris is the cost of his centrality. Job’s centrality, on the other hand, as a character in Biblical literature, is predicated on his peripheral position—that is, as the victim of oppression rather than its instigator.

Classical hubris is the result of the central protagonist vying for godlike status. In today’s secular and ultimately decentralized world, we cannot say that any central victim (even Michael Jackson) is blithe enough to assert a claim to divinity. So how are we to say that Michael Jackson occupies a central (if not divine) role in society? If he cannot be a god, then, it seems, he can only be a victim (if only commercially), subject to ceaseless and arbitrary persecution, as if his perpetual ability to land inside a courtroom and our subsequent cultural obsession with the proceedings that follow are themselves the only two adequate criteria attesting to his central (though “non-Classical” and essentially secular) value.

Moreover, it is a position we can choose to resent outright, in true mythical/sacrificial manner, or which we can identify and empathize with, in a more of a Biblical and victimary manner. But must it necessarily be either/or? What would it mean to suggest that if only popular audiences were familiar with the tenets of Girard, Michael-Jackson-like spectacles would somehow dissipate? If we could no longer resent or empathize with Michael Jackson, what else can we (ought we to) do?

Girard himself sheds light on the trickiness of knowledge in regards to mimesis and sacrifice. Commenting on the (decreasing) effectiveness of ritual sacrificial mechanisms, Girard says that “[t]he amazing thing about us is not that so many are still fooled but that many are not and that suspicion, as a whole is on the increase.” I take this to mean that given the current trajectory of knowledge, our grandchildren ought to be spared the spectacle of any future Michael Jacksons.

Yet how are we to reconcile this statement with this one that follows: “Victimage is still present among us, of course, but in degenerate forms that do not produce the type of mythical reconciliation and ritual practice exemplified by primitive cults. This lack of efficiency often means that there are more rather than fewer victims”?

Perhaps an answer of sorts lies preciesly in Girard’s espousal of two types of religion (noted earlier), the one more mythical in nature, where we are to identify with the victimizer, versus one more literary, where we are invited to identify with the victim; such a stratification of religion stratifies along with it two types of tragedy. What was once considered tragic about human existence—that mimetic violence had the ability to turn against arbitrary and ultimately innocent victims for the sake of preserving the collectivity—nowadays, gives way to an awareness of the arbitrariness of such mechanisms.

This tends to entail justifying our predilection to engage in sacrificial crises, as though we rationally “consent” in choosing “legitimate” scapegoat victims (thereby dissolving the terms “scapegoat” and “arbitrary” altogether). Yet, strangely, it does not entail that we overcome or sublimate our human need to engage in sacrificial crisis in the first place. Hence, our consensual agreements become somewhat disappointing rationalizations (encompassing something of, we might say, the “tragedy” of the modern).

That is, although a single victim is no longer made to bear the full brunt of sacrificial violence, our resentments are now free to designate a plurality of sacrificial victims (thereby disseminating the full brunt of sacrifice amongst an array of victims). The succeeding violence, then, does not call for their mortal sacrifice outright, but certainly, some measure of public sacrifice (in the form, say, of a loss of privacy, of being made rapidly consumable). Occasionally, certain victims come to the fore whose strangeness is so stark that arriving at a consensus over his/her “worthiness” as scapegoat is taken as a foregone conclusion. Yet even if a unanimous consensus is reached, such consensus does not justify or redeem the fact that we are engaging in irrational sacrificial behavior. Here is Girard:

Let’s look at another example of a condemned person, someone who has actually committed the deed that brings down on him the crowd’s violence: a black male who actually rapes a white female. The collective violence is no longer arbitrary in the most obvious sense of the term. It is actually sanctioning the deed it purports to sanction. Under such circumstances the distortions of persecution might be supposed to play no role and the existence of the stereotypes of persecution might no longer bear the significance I give it. Actually, these distortions of persecution are present and are not incompatible with the literal truth of the accusation … The persecutor’s mentality moves in the reverse direction. Instead of seeing in the microcosm a reflection or imitation of the global level, it seeks in the individual the origin and cause of all that is harmful.

Our knowledge of the arbitrary selection of sacrificial victim does not do away with mimetic violence. Furthermore, our present consumer (ritual) culture offers no social mechanism with which to deal with “popular” resentments in any sort of resolute fashion—at best, we can only focus our attention on more “suitable” victims, ever-ready, nonetheless, to return to our original scapegoat model.

The arbitrariness, then, is no longer in who we choose to signify as a monstrous, but rather, when and why we choose him, and then, to what degree. Michael Jackson, and those who consume him, are hence whim to the instability and fluctuations of the market’s internal ethical system, one which provides no definitive means of dealing with the victim toward whom our resentments are attuned. Which leads us once again to the perennial ethical question: what, if anything, are we to do with (or about) Michael Jackson?

We begin to see how and why a faithful dealing of Michael Jackson is difficult to come by; disentangling resentments (his and ours) is tricky business. Although she manages to avoid any formal introduction of Girardian mimesis, I find Jefferson’s critique to be quite effective wholly in Girardian terms. For example, the above quoted Girardian sentiment captures the kernel of truth behind Jefferson’s apt critique of Santa Monica District Attorney Thomas Sneddon Jr., and his somewhat disturbing prosecutorial fixation on Michael Jackson.

Moreover, Sneddon’s self-justifying prosecutorial bloodlust is made evident as Jefferson notes that Sneddon and his office faced eleven lawsuits in 2003 alone: “[t]he best known case involved Efren Cruz, a man accused of robbery who served eleven years in prison before an appeals court ordered his release on the grounds that Sneddon’s office had withheld evidence—a full confession by two other men—that proved his innocence.” Jefferson further documents what Girard calls the “persecutor’s mentality” and tunnel vision when discussing CNN anchorwoman Nancy Grace’s “impartial” handing of the Jackson trial:

Grace treats crime like small-town gossip. She is the last word on everybody’s wrongdoings, an approach heightened by her southern twang, poufed hair and vehemently plucked eyebrows. Grace declares Jackson guilty from the start and shapes all news to that opinion. She scolds and interrupts CNN reporters at the trial. She commiserates with the psychologist who explains why Michael Jackson is a pedophile. The night of the verdict, she interviews one of the jurors, questions his claims to rational judgment and ends by sneering, “How are you going to feel the next time you see him with his new little friend.” She rarely fails to begin sentences with “I know when I was prosecutor…” Unmentioned is the fact that when she was a prosecutor, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit censured her on grounds that she knowingly withheld evidence that was favorable to a defendant.

Though Jefferson concedes that Michael’s strange behavior may be the result of “mental illness,” she is rather unwilling to take the easy sacrificial bait. Here talking about the trial, Jefferson scolds:

There was no narrative space for real talk about mental illness: what it looked like or feels like; its symptoms and causes; its many shades and consequences. The trial revealed an almost primitive refusal to examine any of this. The defense wanted to call a psychiatrist who would explain to the court why Jackson’s book collection showed he did not fit the profile of a pedophile. But the prosecution threatened to call a psychiatrist who would study the same books and explain why he did. Both sides retreated … There was no reasonable discussion of how Jackson might be innocent of molestation, though not of gross emotional improprieties; how he might not be able to stop himself or take in how he was viewed by the rest of the world. Mental illness distorts and maims, but it does not have to be criminal.

Rather than build a case from his possible innocence, Jackson’s defense merely tried to discredit the prosecution’s offence. Both sides acknowledged (whether explicitly or implicitly) that Michael’s behavior could only encompass something of the strange, the monstrous, even the taboo—though Jefferson reminds us that these “improprieties” need not necessarily be “criminal.”

Jackson’s defense team, however, was not willing to gamble on the jury’s ability to see past or beyond its own sacrificial tendencies. Though any sensible defense ought to point out holes in the prosecution’s version of events, Jackson’s defense, as some manner of public ritual, did more to conceal taboos out of respect for the sacrificial predilections of juries than it did to expose those taboos in the hope that a jury would not necessarily view them as apriori criminal (i.e., would overcome “irrational” thought). A sensible (and perhaps called for) “gamble” in the heat of the moment (in which both the defense and Jackson found themselves in), but certainly not one worth asserting in cold contemplation of events after the fact.

I appreciate Jefferson’s ability to forgo criminal accusation of Jackson while simultaneously and forthrightly assessing his very real oddities—something of a sterling example of rational hindsight, and a model example of how one ought to go about negotiating through a “postmodern” mimetic double-bind, with an awareness of sacrificial mechanisms and how they operate on the one hand, versus a need to assess the humanity (or monstrousness) of human behaviors which cannot so clearly be assigned “criminal” currency on the other. Jefferson’s refusal to take sides is evident in passages like this:

Is it possible that Michael Jackson sexually engages children? Yes. He compulsively reimagines the violation of his own innocence, then purifies himself with kind, caring acts. Isn’t it just as possible that he is asexual? That he basks in that innocence and shelters it just as compulsively—that he is tempted but resists time and again? He sets the scene of his own violation, repeats the scenario but rewrites the ending. He rescues himself and the child. And yet, he experiences the excitement—the eros—of being tempted.

Whether or not we are scandalized by the above passage or by Michael Jackson in general, this book challenges us to face, and even articulate (rather than blandly descry), what it is we are most thrilled and terrified by about ourselves—our own individual propensities to monstrousness, even if (especially if) such propensities are initiated by a desire to transcend monstrosity in the first place.