René Girard's Mimetic Theory, Part 1
Really fascinating glance at a thinker I knew nothing about, thanks John.
There's a parallel I think between monopolistic capitalism in the economic sphere and a disdain for constitutionalism and republicanism in the political one. There's a kind of folk wisdom in the sense of "really we just need to overcome all of this petty competitive squabbling and have some kind of monopolistic power so we can focus on actually getting things done."
That reasonably holds up to scrutiny as long as we begin with the premise that your desires are base, self-destructive and ill-informed, while mine are rational, forward looking and designed to create a better tomorrow.
Really interesting! Not sure this is particularly germane, but it seems that the advocacy of monopoly capitalism reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the economic theory. First, the theory of perfect competition states that in equilibrium "economic profits" are driven to zero - which is confusing since it does not mean that the return on capital is zero - capital earns the minimum necessary return to justify its use in a given activity. Economic profits are called "rents" to distinguish them from "normal" profit. Second, under almost any economic theory monopoly diminishes welfare - to sidestep this is just willful distortion. Third, these advocates ignore or reject the logic and consequences of market failure, even though it is embedded in the theory of perfect competition itself. I've always found it bizarre that so many on the right claim to take their cues from economic theory, while wilfully ignoring its logical consequences.
This genealogy is very illuminating, thanks. As a young grad student what seemed exciting about the (limited amount of) Girard I read was how elegantly it punctured the "just so" stories about rational market actors that mainstream media and politics seemed to consider gospel in the 80s. All the Ayn Rand plots, Milton Friedman models, "law and economics" dictates begin to sound like risible self-delusion. So it has always seemed weird to me that someone like Thiel embraces Girard––doubly so given Eve Sedgwick's use of Girard in Between Men to uncover how an astonishing range of literary texts and genres use love triangles to displace/express desire between men who find it too excruciating to fully experience it.
If anyone seems oblivious to circuitous paths of desire, it seems like Peter Thiel. The interview he did with Barton Gellman in the Atlantic had some remarkable moments. Like when a question from Gellman made Thiel realize, apparently for the first time, that he had not told his husband about how to enact the contracts for the cryogenic freezing process he purchased, nor considered whether he wanted his husband to undergo the process, too. It's like he uses a rough and ready notion of Girardian desire to explain how every other actor––mere humans––have a fractured will except him––the more-than-human titan.
Looking forward to future posts on this.
Very interesting, thank you. I am struck that the triangle was also one of the foundational notions of a traditionally democratic and egalitarian philosophy: American pragmatism, specifically C. S. Peirce's original formulation of it.
Peirce presents three categories as the limits of abstraction: Firstness, or quality of experience and possibility; Secondness, or resistance and actuality; and Thirdness, or mediation and its attendant habits or symbolic patterns. Basically, "how things initially feel," "how things turn out to differ from how they initially feel," and "what goes on in between." William James would develop this claim for the essential role of mediation in experience into a concept of "fringes," where what is experienced as in the foreground of attention depends on an unattended background, which would inspire the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, and his central concept of "horizons." So there some shared historical lineage.
To insist on Thirdness in whatever form is to argue for the impossibility of individual direct access to reality or truth. But the pragmatists develop this view into an optimistic claim for infinite revisibility and the importance of collective and egalitarian deliberation. As goes the Peircean slogan: truth is the end of inquiry. The closest we get to truth is wherever we end up at the long end of history, having collaborated and reflexively revised to the best of our ability. It is a progressive view without, to my mind, an inkling of despair or decadence.
I wonder: setting political temperaments aside, what is the essential philosophical difference between the egalitarian and the reactionary when it comes to Thirdness? Maybe it is just a question of whether Thirdness seems like a possibility or a problem, exciting or suffocating, a good thing or a bad thing. If one cannot accept a world without a direct relation to *something* -- truth, the beloved, power, God -- maybe then one falls into despair.
This is fascinating and really well done. I was a fellow traveler in some of these circles and these types of people have been touting Girard for years; I never got around to reading him because I suspected he was a bit of a charlatan. However, I think you pretty much nailed why Girard’s ideas are appealing, especially to the crew that put on the Novitate conference - they allow the expression of discomfort with the market economy without the requirement to change anything about the existing political and economic order. This kind of thinking is catnip to upper middle class Catholic professionals have had to deal with all sorts of economic tumult and social change over the last 40 years but want nothing more than to be told they’re ok and that their prerogatives are definitely not part of the problem. These are the kind of people organizing and staffing things like the Novitate conference. If you want more from Luke Burgis (if only for KYE episode fodder), then check out “Wanting,” his book that boils Girard down to self help vignettes for Catholic upper middle class professionals. I had multiple family members push it on me last holiday season. It’s execrable stuff, but helps complete the picture of how Girard’s ideas get used and appropriated in less high brow settings.
This is a banger which promises further bangers and I can't wait to read more.
That said, I think squaring the circle between Girard's actual philosophy and the simplified and convenient version being peddled by Thiel is pretty simple. Of course Thiel believes HIS college professor holds the totalizing explanation of all things, even by the standards of these sorts of guys his self-absorption and self-regard is genuinely psychotic.
As he looks upstream to Girard, so he looks downstream to Blake Masters. It's not good enough to read a bit of Nietzsche and build some hazy self-serving politics like Marc Andreesen. All the mirrors have to show his face. It's Special Petey Is The Center of the Universe all the way down.
Not coincidentally, all he talks about and does is attempts to forestall and defeat his own death.
Thank you very much for this--it's fascinating and teaches much I did not know at all, esp. Girard's setting in French intellectual history, and the cult of him among such as Thiel. I look forward to future installments.
Perhaps this is something you'll deal with in those future installments, or perhaps I'm just harping on something not very important, but my impression is that the capitalist/Thiel cult of Girard seems to ignore both the setting of his most famous works--mythic, primordial, very pre- or non-capitalist--and his deep retro-Catholicism. On the latter, it seems to me that Girard sees mimetic desire as a curse of our fallen, post-original sin condition, and something to which all humans are thus ineluctably subject. Thus there's no way in his view to construct some sort of ruling class, by monopoly or anything other means, that could escape mimetic desire and violence. But perhaps I'm missing a passage where he explicitly proposes the existence of such a class (based on what I know about Girard, which let's call a semi-respectable modicum, I don't think he could be accurately said to imply such a program, unless we're talking about the apostles or something like the medieval Church, which Thiel seems quite far from).
Or perhaps I'm simply restating the obvious, but, I think, profound and not-commented-on-enough contradictions between capitalism and Christianity. These contradictions seem to me a rift straight down the middle of the rightist coalition. Sadly, it's not fatal, or even apparently very damaging.
I think that "Deceit, Desire, and the Novel" holds up well as a reading of the authors Girard focuses on. He has interesting things to say in later works, above all, I think, about the role of the scapegoat, sacrifice, and violence. But I think one of Girard's central goals is to construct a theory of desire that by-passes Freud and his own tripartite model of the psyche. This, as you note, is fully in keeping with French intellectual fashions of the 1960s. Even Lacan basically tried to construct a psyche devoid of subjectivity. As you note, Girard also wants to construct a model of social conflict devoid of class domination. I look forward to reading future installments.
I'm with Teucrian and delighted to have you clue me in on René Girard. And "Ah yes, I remember it well." As a beginning teacher, I remember telling one of my first classes about Michel Foucault. Intellectual fads are no less attractive when the attraction is only to a few who can do philosophy. A small number of people who are very good at thinking find some thinking that suits them very well because it's both polyvalent (bringing in a cohort), and simple (or seems simple because its fundamental shallowness does not appear in the fog). I cut my intellectual teeth on French thought, but I wish the French weren't quite so good at doing this.
Interesting to read about this. Thank you for writing about it. In the era of social media, AI and algorithms guided society there’s high risk of manipulation of desires and creating more greedy prone generations. Young generation using instagram are already struggling difficulty to choose one partner because algorithms are guiding them to read & follow more partners. Jealousy will become very common behavior in social media era. We need to teach & train young generation about these risk.
Interesting side note: the Catholic University of America is the institution that awarded Greg Johnson—who runs the most prominent white nationalist publishing house in the United States, if not the world—his doctorate in philosophy.
The neoliberal re-writing of history gives us a neat story that is simple, neat and wrong (h/t Mencken) of Victorian classical "laissez fair" liberalism, interrupted by the protectionism of the inter-war years and Great Depression and then the post-war hiatus of Keynesianism, before returning to the "natural" laissez faire market fundamentalism of neoliberalism. What gets lost in this fairy tale MCU re-writing of history is that capitalists being against competition is not exactly a new thing. It became the dominant position of the Railway Barons and other great industrialists of the Gilded Age. The leading economist apologists of the time said that competition was an evil thing that would destroy capitalism without the firm hand of the trusts and cartels. The anti-trust struggle took 30 years to get to the symbolic turning point of the breakup of Standard Oil. In fact the whole so-called "Progressive Era" is basically defined by this struggle by the state against the then capitalist orthodoxy. There's a reason neoliberals don't want to talk about this - i.e. the role of their most hated bugbear, state regulation, in breaking up monopolies. And, conversely, that their whole policy agenda leads inevitably to monopoly and the breakdown of the market competition forces that they supposedly worship. It's no surprise as we see the rise of the New Gilded Age, that the tech oligarchs, the Thiels, Musks, et al, start to publicly muse whether competition is such a necessary thing after all, and if market forces produce monopolies, then surely the monopolists have been anointed by Providence for their dominance over society, unshackled by any notions of democracy or liberalism?
Many people forget that Leo Strauss actually codified the ternary of Athens/Jerusalem/Silicon Valley in his writings on Maimonides. He observed that, when faced with the choice of Aristotelian rationalism or the Jewish tradition, Maimonides instead used his connections to the Sultan to get some sick Fatimid VC money so he could create a biohacking startup.
Appreciate this overview.
Capitalists hate capitalism in proportion to their success. We should value ability to cerate something consumers value more than other options, and an organization to deliver it.
And then, understand those who achieve it spend the rest of their days trying to keep other innovators from leapfrogging them. and relieve the stress of serving fickle customers.
Dictators, Politicians, Regulators, and their lackeys are delighted to help for the right price. Government educated fools think the answer to the resulting crony cesspool is ceding more power to that collection of Goons.
The fundamental flaw with any desire-based social theory is that desire, unlike need, is insatiable. When you're hungry, you eat and then you are no longer hungry. But when you desire something, the obtainment doesn't make that desire disappear. If you want power, money or fame, getting it just makes you want more of it. From a capitalistic perspective that sounds great -- if you can make people constantly desire the latest accoutrements for life, you'll always have customers for those accoutrements -- but the reality is that while the world may not be a zero-sum game, there are limits. The economy only grows so fast, and past a certain point the only way for billionaires to get richer is to take a bigger slice of the pie. And more significantly for Thiel, the amount of power afforded to billionaires under our current system is limited, and the only way for him to surpass that is to overturn everything.
I think you might find some interest in Russell Jacoby's "Blood Lust," his study of (both figurative and literal) fratricide. Jacoby's point of departure is Freud's passing comment about the "narcissism of small differences," but he makes interesting use of Girard as well. I think there is a valuable critique of identity politics to be found there.