Who Is René Girard? And Why Does Silicon Valley Care?
by Justin E. H. Smith
Although the literary theorist and anthropologist René Girard has many Silicon Valley disciples, surely the most notable of them is the German-born venture capitalist and founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel. A student of Girard’s while at Stanford in the late 1980s, Thiel would go on to report, in several interviews, and somewhat more sub-rosa in his 2014 book, From Zero to One, that Girard is his greatest intellectual inspiration. He is in the habit of recommending Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978) to others in the tech industry.
Girard has two big ideas, each intertwined with the other: the theory of mimesis, and the theory of the scapegoat. Michel Serres, another French theorist long resident at Stanford, and a strong advocate for Girard’s ideas, has described Girard as the “Darwin of the human sciences”, and has identified the mimetic theory as the relevant analog in the humanities of the Darwinian theory of natural selection.
For Girard, everything is imitation. Or rather, every human action that rises above “merely” biological appetite and that is experienced as desire for a given object, in fact is not a desire for that object itself, but a desire to have the object that somebody else already has. This makes obvious sense, in a Veblenian key — plainly, indisputably, nobody wants a Rolex simply in order to be able to keep track of the passage of time with greater precision. Girard notes that the Old Testament authors were lucid enough about human motivation to tackle mimetic desire explicitly in at least four of the Ten Commandments, most notably in the prohibition on coveting, specifically, your neighbor’s goods. The great problem of our shared social existence is not wanting things, it’s wanting things because they are someone else’s.
Of course, the problem did not go away with the prohibition, and for Girard this can only be because it is the universal basis of all human culture. Desire for what the other person has brings about a situation in which individuals in a community grow more similar to one another over time in a process of competition-cum-emulation. Such dual-natured social encounters, more precisely, are typical of people who are socially more or less equal. In relation to a movie star who does not even know some average schlub exists, that schlub can experience only emulation (this is what Girard calls “external mediation”), but in relation to a fellow schlub down the street (a “neighbor” in the Girardian-Biblical sense), emulation is a much more intimate affair (“internal mediation”, Girard calls it), which necessarily carries with it a simultaneous negative charge of desire to annihilate the person we seek to resemble. Among neighbors, the object of desire itself is eventually forgotten in the course of this process, and at the end the competitors stand in relation to one another as “doubles”: neither recalls what that thing is that the other had and that he or she wanted, and each has become undifferentiable from the other.
This is the moment of what Girard calls “mimetic crisis”, which is resolved by the selection of a scapegoat, whose casting-out from the community has the salvific effect of unifying the opposed but undifferentiated doubles. The scapegoat occupies a liminal status between the sacred and the despised (compare Giorgio Agamben’s analysis of the dual meaning of the sacred as exemplified by the figure of the Homo sacer), and is in many cultures someone with a notable physical and mental disability — people with albinism, for example, are a common target in much of sub-Saharan Africa. In a community in which the mimetic mechanism has led to widespread non-differentiation, or in other words to a high degree of conformity, it can however happen that scapegoating approaches something like the horror scenario in Shirley Jackson’s 1948 tale, “The Lottery”. As Girard explains in an interview, published in 2004 under the title Les origines de la culture, “The more undifferentiated people become, the easier it is to decide that any one of them whatsoever is guilty” [plus les gens deviennent indifférenciés, plus il est facile de décider que n’importe lequel d’entre eux est coupable] (82).
As a modest theory of the anthropology of punishment, these observations have some promise. As a general theory of human culture, one feels bound to raise some objections.
It has been compellingly said of Jordan B. Peterson that he is a dumb person’s idea of what a smart person is like. I would not say the same of René Girard, at least not without modifying the formula: he is a practically-minded person’s idea of what a theorist is like. Girard himself appears to share in this idea: a theorist for him is someone who comes up with a simple, elegant account of how everything works, and spends a whole career driving that account home. A theorist spends all of their time on the positive construction of a case, and none of their time on skeptical doubts or objections, and least of all on the nagging call of humility that pipes back up again whenever a philosophically minded person starts to feel as if they’ve got something right — the call that says, “Why should I, of all people, be the one to have got things right? It seems so improbable.”
Girard’s answer to this question would probably be as straightforward as his theory: because I’ve read a lot, and because I am smart. Although he passed through credentialing institutions, Girard’s education resembles more that of some used-book-store owner who will talk your ear off about Schopenhauer or H. L. Mencken while his cat purrs happily on an otherwise unwanted stack of Will and Ariel Durant volumes. This is a species of learnedness that I associate with the United States (the model of the bookseller I have in mind is one I knew in Cincinnati) —improvisational, superficial, Whitmanian, free—, and it is indeed to the US that Girard went to get his reading done. He had already completed his studies at the prestigious École des chartes, in the peculiarly French field of paleography and “archivistics”, which ordinarily would have destined him to some sort of quiet career as a civil servant tending to old papers.
No graduate of such a program can have failed to acquire a good deal of old-world erudition; but in a milieu where everyone is erudite, there’s no one to impress. He disappointed his associates, notably the surrealist poet and résistant René Char (Girard himself seems mostly to have experienced the war and the Nazi occupation as an inconvenient obstacle to his studies), by striking out for the US in the immediate post-war years, landing somehow in Bloomington, Indiana. There he concocted what to all appearances was a very hasty Ph.D. thesis in history, on American Opinion of France, 1940-43. Girard himself boasts about throwing this work together by summarizing the documents in a box of newspaper clippings the French embassy in Washington DC had sent to him, all the while spending the better part of his days in the IU library reading widely in comparative religion, mythology, and anthropology, above all the great British social anthropologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Tylor, Morgan, Frazer, and (par courtoisie) Bronisław Malinowski.
One cannot help but be touched by Girard’s desultory, go-it-alone method. He seems to have sought to stay on at Indiana after his Ph.D., but was driven away after failing to publish anything at all — he is consistently reproached by his American colleagues “spreading himself too thin” (“C’est vous comparer à un trop petit morceau de beurre pour une trop grande tartine,” he will later explain for a French audience unfamiliar with the idiom). He somehow ends up next in Baltimore, where he has a hand in organizing the infamous meeting at Johns Hopkins that brought Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, et al., to America in 1966 — recalling this event, Girard will later riff on Freud’s arrival in the US three decades earlier, when, coming into New York Harbor for his first visit, the psychoanalyst reportedly declared: “I have brought the plague”. Lacan played the clown, insisting on giving his talk in English even though he readily admitted he had basically zero knowledge of the language. Derrida mesmerized. Girard seems to have been there in a mostly organizational capacity — organizing the bringing of the plague, that is. In any case he does not seem to have met any truly like-minded people at this superspreader event. French theory on American shores has always been a dialogue des sourds, and Girard was already playing the American, which is to say enjoying the spectacle of all those puffed-up mandarins.
Circumstances would soon bring Girard from Hopkins to SUNY Buffalo, where he developed a life-long interest in Shakespeare. He recalls, in the interview already quoted, having discovered the Bard while watching a theater production on TV. Now your typical high-mandarin French intellectual is not likely admit that his knowledge of Shakespeare comes from solitary evenings watching the Buffalo PBS affiliate (presumably). But Girard is not your typical French intellectual. He is a would-be French civil-servant archivist gone rogue, via Bloomington, Baltimore, Buffalo, and finally at Stanford, where his individual brand of New World self-reinvention would be well-received by some in the Silicon Valley subculture of, let us say, hyper-Whitmanian intellectual invention and reinvention.
As far as I can tell, the idea that anything Girard has to say might be particularly well-suited to adaptation as a “business philosophy” is entirely without merit.
In a 2014 interview with Business Insider, Thiel is confronted directly with the question as to how, concretely, his former professor inspires his understanding of the workings of the tech industry. The venture capitalist attempts to illustrate with an example of the theory of mimetic desire at work in Silicon Valley: “When the payments company Square came out with its flagship credit card reader, competitors jumped in one after the other to do the same thing with triangles or half-moons instead of squares.”
It is assuredly true that start-ups imitate one another, but I do not see anything more powerfully explanatory of this phenomenon in the work of Girard than in, say, Roland Barthes’s analysis of haute-couture in his ingenious 1967 System of Fashion, or for that matter Thorstein Veblen on conspicuous consumption, or indeed any number of other authors who have noticed that indubitable truth of human existence: that we copy each other. This hardly counts as a theoretical insight at all, so much as one of the given features of all human cultural life that presents itself at the outset as in need of theoretical explanation. Girard does, to be fair, offer some such explanation, but Thiel does not seem to have retained any of this. For him “Girard” stands mostly as a shorthand name for this pretheoretical fact, instances of which are of course multiplied in Silicon Valley life, as everywhere else.
What about the other element of Girard’s theory, the scapegoat mechanism? Here Thiel’s preferred instance is particularly flat-footed: “As for scapegoating,” he says, “what happened to Bill Gates during the antitrust prosecution of Microsoft is a great example of the tendency to gang up and blame one person.” If you thought antitrust cases were about maintaining a rationally regulated system of moderate free-market capitalism that encourages competition and innovation, think again: go back to Girard, with his faithful student as guide, and find the primordial origins of the Microsoft lawsuit in the Vedic sacrifice of the cosmic horse.
Thiel’s demoticized Girard would over the next years become a thoroughly vulgarized Girard, so that by 2018 there were online articles being generated —perhaps by bots, perhaps in offshore content-factories— with titles like “How the Idea of a French Philosopher Can Save Your E-Commerce Business”. “Rene Girad [sic, sic], a French Philosopher,” this particular article tells us, “has given a solid theory of human desire that can save anyone’s E-commerce.”
Again, it is not that one wants to discourage a struggling Amazon-partnered retailer from reading French philosophy, but only that it is not at all clear that Girard is any better placed than any number of other theorists to provide any practical tools to help an e-merchant along towards his or her narrow goals — let alone to provide anything like a critique of the ideological structures that have imposed these goals.
But whatever has money behind it will inevitably have intelligent-looking people at least pretending to take it seriously, and with the foundation of the Imitatio Project by the Thiel Foundation (executive director Jimmy Kaltreider, a principal at Thiel Capital), the study and promotion of Girardian mimetic theory is by now a solid edifice in the intellectual landscape of California.
For Girard, there is at least some desire that falls outside of the logic of mimesis, but only because it is a sort of proto-desire, a merely biological drive. I am naturally wary of human-scientists who seek to contain the biological with modifiers such as “merely”, but with Girard what frustrates me even more is that he does not seem to detect the non-mimetic varieties of desire that would seem to await us beyond, rather than before, desire that is coupled with imitation.
For the sake of an example, let us return to that old, discomforting observation from Claude Lévi-Strauss according to which the “exchange” of women is the foundation of traditional societies, manifesting itself as “kinship”, and that therefore women are a good comparable to cattle (Françoise Héritier compellingly critiques this element of her teacher’s theory). Whether this is a correct account of society in general, it is at least true that some men seek out young, attractive, glamorous women in the aim of enhancing their own social status — the pure delectation in the other’s beauty may be at least part of the man’s satisfaction in the pairing, but it seems fair to say that this delectation is often inseparable from the self-contentment he feels at the status-enhancement she confers to him, and that achieving this status is in turn inseparable from depriving other men of the opportunity to achieve it. This is certainly the subtext of countless commercial-rap-music videos (or Romanian manele, or Serbian turbofolk, or any number of other analogous musical forms in the Balkans or elsewhere), which do not seem anthropologically far, in their smooth blending of the iconic images of luxury products with images of beautiful women, from a pastoralist society’s ceremonial display of prize cattle.
But, pace Girard, we must admit that at least on occasion it happens that a vain and foolish man falls sincerely in love with his trophy wife. That is, at least sometimes a man “acquires” a woman by the logic of neighborly competition and status anxiety, but then discovers that she has a soul too, and is worthy of love just like any human being, quite apart from her significance for his social status. Such love strikes me as an instance of post-mimetic desire, just as we might say that “mere” appetite is pre-mimetic desire. Girard does not seem prepared to acknowledge it, at least not in a theoretical vein (though he seems to have been happily married). And come to think of it, nor is it inconceivable that some status-obsessed fellow should buy a Rolex, only to find that his early tutorials in its proper care and maintenance draw him into a world of sincere and nerdy love of Swiss precision chronometry. I confess many of my own interests have followed such an evolution, even if they seem far away from the logic of material acquisitiveness: I start doing something because I think it will make me look cool, and I keep doing it because I discover it is itself cool.
Perhaps even more worrisome for Girard’s mimetic theory is that it appears to leave out all those instances in which imitation serves as a force for social cohesion and cannot plausibly be said to involve any process of “internal mediation” leading to a culmination in scapegoating. In this respect, we might adapt Michel Serres’s comment and say not so much that Girard is the human-scientists’ Darwin, as that he is their Herbert Spencer, and just as the nineteenth century’s idea of evolution as ruthless competition needed to be supplemented by rigorous accounts of the evolutionary role of altruism in the twentieth century, so too might we say that Girard is missing at least half the story.
Most ritual, in fact, strikes me as characterized by imitation without internal mediation or scapegoating. Indeed, still in infancy, before we have any idea of ourselves as occupying any social node at all, we respond to music with rhythmic motions of the body, feeling ourselves taken up in a sort of cosmic repetition of something, be it only a sequence of drumbeats, that somehow expresses the true nature of our existence. Eventually, this repetition develops into dancing with others, and this dancing may be given ritual meaning — a social significance encoded by human bodies doing the same thing simultaneously, and therefore in some sense becoming identical, but without any underlying desire at all to annihilate one another. It is this significance that the Australian poet Les Murray sees as constituting the essence of both poetry and religion: both are performed, as he puts it, “in loving repetition”.
I often think of a video I saw, and cannot now locate, of Cameroonian Baka hunters performing a dance that is a reenactment of their most recent hunt. In a sort of conga-line formation, they weave up and down, imitating the motion of an animal through the forest, but also becoming, relative to one another, like the metameric segments of a millipede. This is pure imitation, without internal mediation, and it seems to me fair to say that it is indeed the foundation of human society.
Nor is it irrelevant that the Baka organize this foundational ritual around a reenactment of the hunt. Contrary to Girard’s theory of the scapegoat, a promising alternative account of sacrifice has been defended by such thinkers as the pioneering classicist Walter Burkert, for whom the origins of culture lie in a recognition of the transgressive nature of the killing of animals — even if it is necessary for human life, the spilling of animal blood is a sufficiently powerful action to knock the cosmos out of alignment, and it is only by rituals of atonement that it may be set right again. To kill an animal is not merely to satisfy an appetite, but to enter into sociocosmic relations with the natural world, and, by offering a sacrificed portion of it to the gods, to enter also into relation with the supernatural.
On such an account, it is only with the rise of states over the past few thousand years that ritual slaughter and sacrifice turned on occasion to human targets, and in this light the scapegoating of humans may be seen as an attenuated instance of what in the most extreme cases may be enacted by a high priest pulling out another man’s beating heart. Rather than seeing scapegoating as laying a load on a chosen individual human and punishing him or her, for reasons that cannot possibly be articulated in the terms of any modern liberal theory of justice, thereby canceling out the desire among individuals in a community to annihilate one another, we might do better to see it within the larger frame of the ecology of human communities, and the role of ritual in the adaptation of these communities to their ecological niches.
At the basis of ritual, as Les Murray understood, there lies repetition. It is significant that in French the verb répéter is used to mean both “to repeat” but also “to practice” (for example, to practice a musical instrument or a dance routine, or to rehearse for a play). At one moment in the 2004 interview already cited, Girard seems to come around to the sort of view of ritual that I have been attempting to sketch, on which it is a communal processing of the inevitabilities of our existence in nature. “Primitive societies,” he writes, using an outmoded term evocative of the era of pith-helmeted British colonial anthropologists who so influenced him, “do not repeat [ne répètent pas] in order to learn, like schoolchildren, they repeat in order not to have any more violence, but in the end these come out to the same thing” [les sociétés primitives ne répètent pas pour apprendre comme les petits écoliers, elles répètent pour ne plus avoir de violence, mais, en fin de compte, cela revient au même] (49).
The Baka sublimation of the hunt and the Eliasian “civilizing process” as two instances of the same general phenomenon of becoming human: this is an explanation I could get behind. But in such repetitions there is no (human) scapegoat to dwell on, so soon enough Girard leaves this promising line of thinking behind and returns to his pair of treasured hobby-horses, like Uncle Toby forever reliving the same old battles.
On my understanding, the human sciences differ from the natural sciences primarily to the extent that we humanists are not looking for fundamental mechanisms that explain everything. We are rather interested in surveying the diversity of the expressions of humanity, cataloguing them, and waiting, but not impatiently, for patterns to appear. There are different kinds of theorist, of course, and there is plenty of room for all of us. It is however somewhat a shame that the everything-explainers, the hammerers for whom all is nail, should be the ones so consistently to capture the popular imagination. How refreshing it is when we come across a footnote in Girard’s work to the infinitely curious and suitably modest Carlo Ginzburg! What an attractive alternative model of the intellectual!
Part of Girard’s appeal in the Silicon Valley setting lies not only in his totalizing urge, but also in his embrace of a certain interpretation of Catholicism that stresses the naturalness of hierarchy, all the way up to the archangels, rather than the radical egalitarianism of other tendencies within this faith. At one amusing point in the interview from which I have been liberally citing, Girard explains that the positive reception in France of his On Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World had to do with the widespread misreading of it as a work of anti-Christian theory. “If they had known that there is no hostility in me towards the Church, they would have dismissed me. I appeared as the heretic, the revolted person that one has to be in order to reassure the media. If they had known that I do not feel oppressed by western phallocracy, or even by the pope, they would have dropped me real quick [on m’aurait laissé royalement tomber]” (52).
Peter Thiel, for his part, certainly does not seem to feel oppressed by western phallocracy either — in fact he appears intent on coming out somewhere at the top of the phallocratic order, and in any case has explicitly stated that the aspirations of liberal democracy towards freedom and equality for all should rightly be seen as a thing of the past. In his demotic glosses on Girard, the venture capitalist also seems happy to promote the Girardian version of Catholicism as a clerical institution ideally suited to the newly emerging techno-feudalist order.
René Girard, in sum, is not a particularly great theorist — it is easy on even a casual study of his work to spot the weaknesses and lacunae. But he may well be the theorist our era deserves.
First published in Justin E. H. Smith’s Hinternet. Republished here with permission.