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Flesh Becomes Word
A Lexicography of the Scapegoat or, the History of an Idea
Though its coinage can be traced back to a sixteenth-century translation of Leviticus, the term “scapegoat” has enjoyed a long and varied history of both scholarly and everyday uses. While WilliamTyndale employed it to describe one of two goats chosen by lot to escape the Day of Atonement sacrifices with its life, the expression was soon far more widely used to name victims of false accusation and unwarranted punishment. As such, the scapegoat figures prominently in contemporary theories of violence, from its elevation by Frazer to a ritual category in his ethnological opus The Golden Bough to its pivotal roles in projects as seemingly at odds as Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of Western metaphysics and René Girard’s theory of cultural origins. A copiously researched and groundbreaking investigation of the expression in such wide use today, Flesh Becomes Word follows the scapegoat from its origins in Mesopotamian ritual across centuries of typological reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ death, to its first informal uses in the pornographic and plague literature of the 1600s, and finally into the modern era, where the word takes recognizable shape in the context of the New English Quaker persecution and proto-feminist diatribe at the close of the seventeenth century. The historical circumstances of its lexical formation prove rich in implications for current theories of the scapegoat and the making of the modern world alike.
Subjects: Religion | Philosophy
Publication Date: January 1st, 2013
220 pages| 6 in x 9 in
David Dawson teaches at the University of Costa Rica in San Jos\u00e9. He wrote Flesh Becomes Word while a Visiting Scholar at Stanford’s Department of French and Italian.

Early Praise

"Not since Erich Auerbach’s magisterial “Figura” has an original philological study doubled so effectively as a theory of history or demonstrated so clear an understanding of history as the invention of acts of signification. The single English term Dawson traces . . . is “scapegoat,” a word whose changing history of material and immaterial meanings, he demonstrates, has “delimited the worlds” in which it is used. . . . Exceeding the work of important “scapegoat” theorists before him (James Frazer and René Girard foremost among these), Dawson’s first-rate study demonstrates with new evidence not only the significance of the term but the central truth of Auerbach’s more general, philological observation that “history is a text in need of interpretation.” An extraordinarily thorough work of textual research and thoughtful analysis, Flesh Becomes Word is a powerful contribution to religious, anthropological, political, and social theory; to philology; and to theory of history. Moreover, it demonstrates all these to be interdependent—evidence, at any historical moment, of “theory” at its best."
Claudia Brodsky, Professor of Comparative Literature, Princeton University
"In  Leviticus, the scapegoat is the goat that got away, symbolically carrying the sins of the people, but neither harmed nor shamed. In its popular usage today, the same word refers to the innocent victim of collective persecution and has become the signifier of vicarious punishment. How did this semantic evolution occur and what does it reveal about what we call Modernity? In 1972, René Girard proposed a bold hypothesis in his book Violence and the Sacred, which reversed the literal and the derivative meanings of the word. . . . When he wrote, Girard didn’t have at his disposal the necessary data to fully ground his hypothesis. David Dawson has done the hard work. The result is stunning. Never has a philological work been so essential for anthropological research. Reading this book has sent chills down my spine in the same way as when I discovered Girard’s masterpiece some thirty years ago."
Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy, École Polytechnique, Paris

"Dawson traces meticulously the varying meanings of the term 'scapegoat' in English literature from William Tyndale on. The way he links anthropology to theology is superb, and his book is written with verve and passion."
Robert A. Segal, Chair in Religious Studies, University of Aberdeen


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