Vengeance in Reverse

The Tangled Loops of Violence, Myth, and Madness

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Mark Anspach
  • Easting Lansing, MI: 
    Michigan State University Press
    , June
     136 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For decades, American anthropologist Mark Anspach has had a foot in two influential academic worlds: the illustrious Écoles des Hautes Études en Sciences Politiques in Paris (lately, at the Institute Marcel Mauss there), and Stanford’s Department of French Language, Literature, and Civilization, where René Girard lately held court. As such, Anspach has been loosely associated with a trans-Atlantic community of scholars, who have tried to draw out the implications of Girard’s massive oeuvre. Here, notably, are the “Sciences Po’s” Jean-Pierre Dupuy and Stanford’s Robert Hammerton-Kelly. American Academy of Religion members will know the American peace movement’s take on Girard and this community largely from the activities of COVR – The Colloquium on Violence and Religion, founded in 1990.

Vengeance in Reverse’s six short but intense chapters fall into two parts. The first three pick up the classic Girardian themes of violence, sacrifice, and war, but also notably the systematic, “double bind” difficulties of overcoming them. These themes are immeasurably enriched by Anspach’s original attempt to put them into conversation with the inexhaustibly fertile ideas of Marcel Mauss on the gift. Anspach’s pithy analyses in these three chapters on violence, gift, sacrifice, and exchange need to be sipped like Courvoisier, not tossed back like Miller Lite. The same goes for the thought-provoking and compassionate final two chapters on madness. Anspach’s formulae for escaping from madness warrant the same slow “sipping” and reflection as his earlier meditations on escaping violence.

That said, taken as an ensemble, the final three chapters—one on myth and two on madness—leave me less happy. While the final two chapters on madness nicely bookend the first three on violence, the chapter on myth seems oddly sandwiched in between. Doubtless this is because the existential problem of achieving self-transcendence links the first three chapters on overcoming violence with the final two on extricating oneself from madness in a way that seem to leave myth something of an orphan. This general reservation notwithstanding, the spare ninety-nine pages of this slim volume deliver a more consequential intellectual clout than many a book many times its size.

The joy of reading Anspach’s book is the continuous encounter with thought-provoking points of brilliance that in turn make for page after page of ideas to ponder. First to violence: Anyone who has found himself or herself in pitched and aggravated argument, knows how the resultant violence can feel “almost like an autonomous force” (17). Things may get so heated that combatants may not even be able to recall the reason for the argument, leaving only the violence to consume them both. Or, say, in a common exchange situation, violence may inexplicably “break out,” as some infraction is committed or offense given. But, by the same token and in the same context, one wouldn’t ordinarily expect a spontaneous outbreak of gift giving between exchange partners (16).

Girard’s deeper concerns have always been with the seemingly irrational force of violence, propelling all combatants toward their mutual destruction. Violence is not exchange; it is pure reciprocity. Further, no society can long tolerate an outbreak of spontaneous uncontrolled violence (6). That problem, too, grabs Anspach. But, the virtue of this book is that Anspach delivers a series of refined answers to what turn out to be several questions. Can violence be deflected, transformed, overcome? Where do cultural curiosities like “vendetta” fit in? And what about violent blood sacrifice? Consider how Anspach handles seppuku. There, Anspach says that vengeance can be turned against itself. Thus an aggrieved party would demonstrate the depth of their rage by committing seppuku, however, dying in full knowledge that the offender would need to likewise commit seppuku in order not to lose face. Reciprocal self-sacrifice here substitutes for reciprocal murder (11). All blows are struck inside; they do not break out into social unrest. In another place, Anspach ransacks the ethnographic literature to show how societies have managed to “deceive” this violent force, thus sparing themselves harm, even though they cannot defeat violence directly. The sacrificial victim is, in effect, a piece of deceit, sparing a technically guilty party, since it is substituted for the guilty party.

Finally, the chapters on madness bookend those on violence by developing the ways madness can be transcended, jus, as violence has been overcome through the ingenious devices Anspach has fashioned with the help of Girard and Mauss. Echoing Girard’s indictment of the power and blindness of the crowd against the lone individual that readers may recall from his treatment of the “scapegoat,” Anspach adopts the same template to comprehend the isolated situation of the madman over against the larger community. Like the victim, the mad man is all alone. There is a trick, however, that Anspach devises so that the mad man may emerge from madness. That trick requires the mad man to break out of the double binds, the loops and tangles imprisoning him, even though escape may seem impossible.

Full disclosure: I say this as someone who has tended to be—and still is—an unsympathetic critic of Girardian thought. I am additionally suspicious of the sometimes cult-like status Girard and his oeuvre seem to have attained in this country, especially among religious studies folk inclined toward the peace movement. But Anspach’s book is not for cultists. It is critical of Girard, while reaping the benefit of long acquaintance with his thinking. Yet one would like to see things pushed along a little further and out of the domain of ideology. Thus, if I were to level one general criticism of Girardian theory and Anspach’s book in the process, it would be that too much time is spent piling up endless numbers of confirmations of Girardian ideas, but never, as far as my admittedly limited experience tells me, are key theoretical notions and applications submitted to falsification. Although there may be other ways to demarcate “knowledge” from dogma, ideology, belief, and so forth, the test of the falsifiability of claims cannot be totally ruled out. Was Jesus’s death on the cross meant to end sacrifice, as Girard claims in Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (Stanford University Press, 1987)? Girard says a lot to make impressive confirmation of this claim. But unless one can lay out the conditions under which this claim could be falisfied, how can we call that claim “knowledge”? What would have to be the case in order for Girard’s claim here to be shown false? In the present, where a real crisis of truth poisons public discourse, perhaps reviving older, admittedly severe practices of sorting out “real news” from the “fake” might be a good idea?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ivan Strenski is distinguished professor and Holstein Endowed Chair Holder Emeritus at the University of California, Riverside.

Date of Review: 
December 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark R. Anspach is an American anthropologist and social theorist whose writings have appeared in nine languages. He is affiliated with the LIAS research team at the Institut Marcel Mauss, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.