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  • Mimesis as ScandalRousseau and Derrida
  • Jeremiah L. Alberg (bio)

R. Girard, J.J. Rousseau, J. Derrida, Mimesis, Scandal

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus blesses those who “find no scandal” in him (Luke 7:23 [NRSV, modified translation]). Whatever the word “scandal” might mean in this beatitude, it cannot simply denote our usual sense of shock at flagrantly bad behavior. The scandal that one takes in Christ is the scandal of the Cross and, as such, it has to do with the crucial issues of evil, violence, and suffering, as well as redemption and salvation. The kind of scandal experienced in different ways by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and by Jacques Derrida reading Rousseau.

It might come as a surprise to learn that these two thinkers had some important things to say about scandal, but it should come as no surprise that they were drawn to the scandalous. One only has to think of Rousseau’s Confessions with their intimate revelations, the shock caused by some of the statements by Derrida to the effect that there is “nothing outside the text.” Although they each pursued what is properly referred to as “the scandal of reason,” they were aware of this notion’s biblical origin. It is this aspect I wish to highlight.

Rousseau, and Derrida in his interpretation of Rousseau, chose to probe precisely at the point where others had chosen to avoid scandal by looking away. As we shall see, each also reached his own point of looking away. I [End Page 31] want to follow their thought to that point. In this essay I not only examine in detail Derrida’s use of the concept of scandal in his interpretation of Rousseau, I also express what Derrida implied but left unsaid: that ultimately Rousseau’s thought is inscribed within the logic of scripture.

In a justly famous reading of Rousseau in Of Grammatology (1967), Derrida took as his starting point a statement that many critics preferred to pass over in silence: Rousseau’s remarks in the Confessions on his habit of masturbation. Rousseau identifies masturbation as the “dangerous supplement,” and Derrida gives this text and the concept of the supplement “a paradigmatic value.”1 He carefully reads the texts and shows that Rousseau inscribed his writings, especially the Essay on the Origin of Languages as exemplary of those writings, within the logic of the supplement. Important for my interpretation, he subordinates the concept of the supplement to that of scandal, when he tells us that the dangerous supplement is a kind of “scandal” (OG, 151). I want to follow Derrida, as far as he allows, in discovering the way that the supplement is a scandal and how its logic unfolds. He leads us quite far, but there does seem to be something left unsaid. Finally, I also hope to show that there is a price to be paid by ignoring the scandalous aspect of both Rousseau’s thought and Derrida’s reading of this thought.


On the one hand, Derrida analyzes the supplement in Rousseau’s text because it represents a particularly clear example of a movement of thought, in which the very thought erases the distinction upon which it depends. I will have more to say about this below. On the other hand, Derrida is drawn to the supplement because it is not overtly the object of systematic consideration by Rousseau: “Indeed it is this difference between implication, nominal presence, and thematic exposition [of the notion of supplement] that interests us here” (OG, 213). In a similar fashion I also share this concern by looking for what Paul de Man calls “the mode of knowledge governing the implicit as opposed to the explicit statement.”2

For, although Derrida does not ever explicitly state that Rousseau’s writings are inscribed in the logic of scandal, I hold that he did mean it. Thus, it might appear that I am trying to “out-Derrida” Derrida. But that is not the case. I accept as correct Robert Bernasconi’s summary of Derrida’s method in “The Exorbitant: Questions of Method”: “Derrida describes how a writer writes in a language and logic which his discourse cannot dominate...


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