Secrets about People: an introduction to Rene Girard
|Apr 21 at 2:00 pm||Public post|| 38|
Welcome to the inaugural issue of Snippets 2.0! (Submissions for a new name remain open; please send me your ideas.)
For our first inaugural issue, we’re going to start right off the bat with something that might get me cancelled; my best attempt to explain Rene Girard and the secret that he understood about human nature.
René Girard has always had a bit of an underground cult following in Silicon Valley, partly by proximity due to his appointment as a Stanford professor, and his name began circulating more widely when Peter Thiel shared that his trademark contrarian style (which, unlike the imitators, is actually contrarian) was in part based on Girard’s philosophy. When you read Girard, you'll understand why. To use Thiel’s line, there is an important Secret About People that most people don’t know, but Girard does. This secret, once you understand it, will challenge you.
This won’t be an easy post: it’ll cover some challenging topics that aren’t typical tech blog post material; we’ll spend some time talking about religion, Christianity in particular; and at the end we’ll talk about perhaps the most Girardian public figure in the world today: Donald Trump. Since it’s a lot of material, I’m going to split it over two emails. This week, we’re going to cover the first half, which is all about individual people. Next week, we’ll do the second half, which is about group behaviour. Following next week’s email I’ll publish the whole thing as a blog post.
A short and dangerous introduction to René Girard, Part 1
Triangular Desire: We don’t want things; we want to be things
Human beings are creatures of mimicry. We are evolutionarily supercharged to do one thing better than anyone else: learn by watching and copying others. And the most important thing we learn is how to want.
As we grow up and live our lives, we watch others and learn what it is we ought to want. Aside from the basics, like food, water, shelter and sex, our desire for any particular object or experience is not hard-coded into our DNA; we’ve learned to want it by watching other people. But what is hard-coded into our DNA and hard-wired into our brains is the desire to be; and to belong. The true root of all desire, Girard and others argue, is never in the objects or the experience we pursue; it’s really about the other person from whom we’ve learned to want these things.
Girard calls these people the “mediators” or the “models” for our desire: at a deep neurological level, when we watch other people and pattern our desires off theirs, we are not so much acquiring a desire for that object so much as learning to mimic somebody, and striving to become them or become like them. Girard calls this phenomenon mimetic desire. We don’t want; we want to be.
One way we continually give this away is through our language and word choices. There’s a reason why Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront doesn’t lament “I coulda contended!”; the line is "I coulda been a contender.". Venture Capitalist thought leaders in Silicon Valley don’t want to think contrarily; the want to be contrarian. Advertisers understand this principle really well: you’re not trying to convince somebody that they want Bud Light or a Ford F150; you’re telling them they ought to desire membership to a particular peer set, and the way to become a part of that group is to drink Bud Light and drive an F150. It’s why Abercrombie can advertise their clothes with models that aren't actually wearing any of those clothes; the clothes aren’t the point.
The objects themselves form the bulk of our day to day activities and concerns, but they’re transient; what matters is other people. The way we perceive those objects and the degree to which we care about them is overwhelmingly coloured by the opinion of the role models we care about. Anyone who’s ever been a susceptible teenager has experienced this. If you care a lot about joining the group of cool kids, and you also like listening to Green Day, what happens one day when the cool kids say “actually Green Day sucks”? Not only will you keep quiet about liking Green Day; in fact, you’ll probably convince yourself in short order that, actually, Green Day is bad and you’ve never liked them.
Marcel Proust’s masterpiece A La Recherche du Temps Perdu is all about this phenomenon: how our memory of objects and experiences is powerfully and retroactively shaped by the opinions of people who we aspire to imitate. In the book, Proust’s character is on a literal and metaphorical search to rediscover his initial impressions of experiences as he actually perceived them, before those memories became coloured by the mediating influence of others.
One of the tragic elements of mimetic desire is that it induces a lot of self-deception: lying to yourself in order to reshape your perceptions, your experience and your identity to be consistent with who you feel you ought to be. When teenage you convinces yourself that you actually hate Green Day, not only are you rejecting something that you love, which is sad enough in itself, you’re going to experience shame: the feeling that you are not living up to the kind of person that you want to be. You want to be someone who hates Green Day, because that’s who the cool kids are. To rediscover past impressions is a kind of humility: it’s accepting that you may not actually be like those role models. But it frees you to perceive things as they actually are, and enjoy them as your genuine self. Humility and shame, when viewed through a mimetic lens, are opposites.
Whereas some people experience mimetic desire explicitly as a desire to imitate other people, other people experience it in a different form: narcissism. Narcissists are often described as people who are in love with themselves; when we look at it through a lens of mimetic desire, we can see clearly what’s going on. For narcissists, the model that we watch and copy and strive to become is ourselves - or, really, an idealistic version of ourselves that we aspire to project. You might ask,”if narcissists want to be themselves, then aren’t they happy?” No; quite the opposite: narcissists are usually deeply unhappy, because the person they strive to imitate and impress most is themselves; the harder they try, the less they’ll succeed.
Two-dimensional versus three-dimensional conflict
The next important piece of the Girardian worldview concerns the nature of human conflict. In children’s stories and other simplistic storylines, we frequently see a kind of Hero’s Journey narrative manifest itself as a sort of ’two-dimensional’ plot: the Hero (good!) wants the Object (their goal), and there’s an Obstacle (bad!). In order to succeed, the Hero must overcome the Obstacle in order to reach their Goal. The central relationship in this story is between the Hero and the Object; she will fight through any kind of Obstacle in between. These storylines can be entertaining, but they’re not how human conflict usually presents itself in the world.
In more realistic “three-dimensional” or human conflict, the central relationship that matters isn’t between a Hero and an Object. It’s been the Hero and their ideal, the Model. The Hero wants to become the ideal, and the way that he expresses this desire is by mimicking the model: wanting what the model wants and has. Sometimes this can be a literal object, sometimes it’s a love interest, but usually what the Hero wants is something more ephemeral: status, significance, respect; to be seen as a particular kind of person, and to feel like that person.
Realistic human conflict doesn’t involve an unshakeable relationship between a Hero and an Object, with transient Obstacles thrown in its way. It's inverted: the critical relationship is between the Hero and the Model, with transient Objects that bubble up as today’s pursuit and tomorrow’s obsession. Girard has written on several occasions that the great novelists - Proust, Dostoevsky, along with Shakespeare - are the true expert authorities here. He wrote two books on this: Deceit, Desire and the Novel and Theatre of Envy, both of which are great books to start out with if you’re looking to tackle Girard for the first time.
Out in the world, this kind of conflict often manifests itself as the pursuit of status. Status, in mimetic terms, just means being; pure and simple. It can sometimes mean equivalency and inclusion (for someone who’s on the outside trying to get in), or it could mean non-equivalency and exclusion (for someone who’s on the inside and trying to level up to a higher social group and leave behind the rest.) Anyone who’s been a part of a “scene” of some sort will recognize these dynamics really well: a local music scene, where bands are all hanging out with one another and jockeying to hang out with the cooler, bigger band and the gatekeeper record label, is pretty indistinguishable from a local startup scene, where prospective entrepreneurs all jockey to hang out with the successful founders and the gatekeeper VCs. Every scene ultimately comes to resemble the fashion industry: it’s a ritualized, interactive structure for creating and navigating status difference.
Status, like with many things, is ultimately zero-sum in nature. Models and their admirers eventually and inevitably become rivals. Mutual desire will inevitably turn them into competitors, and the intensity of competition has little to do with the value of the object itself. What matters, again, is the interpersonal relationship. We admire our models for being our inspiration, and we simultaneously come to resent them and hate them for being our obstacle and rival.
Modern status forums like Instagram are designed explicitly to bring out this dual admiration/resentment emotion within us. Instagram’s real product isn’t photos; it’s likes. The photos and the events they depict are just the transient objects that bubble up to the surface; what really matters is the relationship between the people. But the fact that Instagram’s product is built around the objects and not the models isn’t an accident: it’s sneaky. It creates way more space and oxygen for resentment and desperation to grow beneath the surface. It’s not about the photo or what it depicts; it’s always about the other person.
There are two ways that a person might handle this conflict. The first way is to direct the conflict outward: to actively go pursue those objects or experiences that will turn you into the kind of person you want to be; your frustration will be directed towards your mediator and rival, and they will become your enemy. You’ll be motivated by a feeling along the lines of “the reason why I’m not X person or have X is their fault.” The second and more narcissistic way is to direct the conflict inward, and blame yourself for not being the kind of person you aspire to be. “The reason why I’m not X person or have X is my fault.”
In Dostoevsky’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri the oldest brother (the temperamental sensualist) is the first kind: his desires and insecurities are angrily directed outward at other people, particularly his father. For Dmitri, the three-dimensional conflict plays out in the open. Ivan the next brother (the narcissist) is the second kind. He’s the most educated and the most intellectual, and also the one who’s the most tortured. He obsesses over being a particular kind of person, same as Dmitri, but he handles it in the opposite way: because his internal model is himself (or, specifically, an idealized version of himself), he continually torments and blames himself for not being that person; the harder he tries, the more shame he feels for trying. For Ivan, the three-dimensional conflict is fully internal; he is the one we pity most, for he has become his own worst enemy.
We do not fight because we’re different; we fight because we are the same
Now, here's the next key thing to understand, and this is really the anchor for the entire Girardian worldview: The amount of distance between the subject and the model matters a great deal.
Girard outlines a spectrum between two kinds of models: models who are far from you, and models who are close to you. Models who are far from you, which Girard calls “external mediators”, are like God, heroic figures in culture or history like Raskolnikov’s desire to be seen as an important figure like Napoleon in Crime and Punishment, Don Quixote’s desire to become an “ideally chivalrous” model knight, or a commanding hierarchical figure like a general leading an army: they are not the subject’s peer in any way whatsoever. This distance is important: the subject can strive as much as she likes to become like the model, yet the relationship between the two of them is unlikely to change. The model will never become an obstacle to the hero, because the model is simply too far away; they may not even be a real person. In Girard’s view, these tend to be the good kind of role models.
Models who are close to the subject, which Girard calls “internal mediators”, are a different story. The subject’s efforts to become more like the role model transforms the relationship between the two of them. If someone close to you like your smart coworker, your successful neighbour, or some other kind of peer becomes a model for you, then it will have a powerful effect on a) what you subsequently desire, in your effort to become more like them, and b) your relationship with that person as they progressively become your competitor, obstacle and rival. Your role model torments you, pulling you in two directions simultaneously: “Be like me, because that is what you desire; but also don’t be like me, because to try would expose you as an imitator and embarrass you in front of everybody.” Narcissists, whose role model is themselves, feel a cruel twist: “the harder you try, the more you’re embarrassing to yourself."
The most intense and personal form of mimetic conflict is when it is internal to your own family. Freud talks a lot about the conflicting roles of the parents as a model for the child’s learning and development, while simultaneously acting as a barrier to the child (through prohibitions and punishments). Freud believed that this internal conflict that develops in the mind of a child (between the parents’ conflicting roles as a model and as a barrier) was the root of neuroses and mental illnesses that manifest in adult behaviour, years later.
Here’s where Girard’s powers of observation begin to uncover the non-obvious and important. When our role model is far away, we continually praise them and draw comparisons between ourselves and them whenever possible. But when our model is close - if they’re our peer, or coworker, our neighbour, or even a family member - we do the opposite. We desperately hide the fact that they are the model for our admiration and jealousy. As our mimicry intensifies, we will progressively go to greater lengths in order to disguise our feelings, and what initially was a feeling of admiration will mutate into envy that we desperately try to hide. We begin to do all sorts of things that seem out of character - attack our model for all various reasons; slander them, sabotage them, do our best to ruin them. (I had a boss once who compulsively took positions, both personally and professionally, that were the exact opposite of one of his peers that was seen in the community as more successful than he was.) Furthermore, because they’re our peer, odds are that they will symmetrically feel the same things towards us: an initial desire to imitate and impress, which yields to envy and descends into symmetric hostility that mirrors and amplifies itself. We don’t fight because we’re different; we fight because we’re the same.
One particularly human feeling along these lines is a certain kind of anxiety: the need to make sure your peers recognize that you have obtained something, or have accomplished something, or in some other way have become a particular type of person; while simultaneously needing to make sure they don’t catch you trying to make sure they see it. To get exposed as a striver is the worst thing that can happen to you, because it basically confirms to everyone else that you’re not that particular person you’re trying to project; we can’t both be X and also be actively striving to become X. (Once again, narcissists experience this in a particularly tormenting way, because the person they’re lying to and are ashamed in front of is themselves.) The closer the role model is to the subject, the more shame we feel as we flip back and forth between adoringly imitating them and performatively distancing ourselves from them.
The fight was so fierce because the stakes were so small
There are definitely people out there who intuitively get the idea that “we don’t fight because we’re different; we fight because we are the same”. But they make a key error in understanding why that is the case: they’re stuck thinking in terms of the object being fought over, rather than the relationship between the rivals. They’re still thinking of similarity as “We’re the same because we both want X.” If the conflict was genuinely over an object, we’d expect that the more valuable or precious the object, the more intense the fighting should be. But instead, the opposite is usually more true: the smaller the stakes, the more intense and the more personally ugly the fight.
Now why is this? There are two reasons; one categorical, the other causative. First, small stakes imply similar participants. It’s hard to imagine a situation where two people very far apart from one another might come into conflict over an inconsequential object. So the smaller the stakes, the closer the participants are likely to be to one another off the bat. Second: the smaller the stakes involved, the more urgently you will be compelled to hide the fact that the root of the fighting is your admiration and jealousy of your peer. If you’re fighting over something big, then your fight is plenty justified in the eyes of others. But the smaller the stakes, the harder you are going to have to work in order to justify your conflict. The way you’re going to do that, in all likelihood, is by fighting dirty: smearing your opponent’s reputation, and waging a campaign to delegitimize him in an effort to draw eyes away from your secret admiration and jealousy.
As Henry Kissinger (who, whatever you think of him, undeniably saw his fair share of large conflicts) once put it, describing his time in academia: “The battles were so fierce because the stakes were so small.” The initial stakes being fought over - some trivial object, like desirable desk space in an office or a lawn care dispute among neighbours - are like the tiny grain of sand at the centre of a pearl. Which particular grain of sand seeds the pearl isn’t important. If the conditions for pearl formation are there, sand will be found.
Ultimately, these kinds of conflicts threaten to spiral out of control because they’re not over anything; so there’s no possible resolution or compromise that can be made; at least, not concerning the object being allegedly fought over. These fights are strictly symmetric in character; Girard calls them mimetic violence. Historically, mimetic violence between two individuals would often boil over and conclude the only way possible: in a duel to the death. Duels are the inevitable conclusion when neither party will back down, and no compromise is possible because there is no object being fought over that could legitimately coax either party into a truce. More dangerous still, if we keep going back in history, are blood feuds: “You killed someone in my family? I’ll kill someone in your family” becomes such a catastrophically dangerous form of tit for tat violence that it could mortally threaten the survival of entire communities. Without safeguard systems in place, like a formal justice system, runaway mimetic violence is a terrifying prospect.
Girard’s answer is, essentially, distance and differentiation. A relationship between subject and model that is differentiated, in terms of rank or distance or some other real factor, will be safe; whereas a relationship that is undifferentiated, because the subject and the model are peers, is dangerous. The Girardian mindset basically says, “Lasting peace and harmony inherently requires differentiation. A stable society is a differentiated one.” (If you just had alarm bells go off at that sentence, which you should have, hold on; we’ll get there next week.)
That’s all for this week; thanks for reading and I hope this was interesting. Next week we’ll turn towards the group, and we’ll cover some controversial issues: violence, Christianity, Trump, the internet, outrage culture, and other click worthy things.
One thing for New Snippets: I’m leaning towards fewer, but better links (since who honestly has the time to read that many things? I’d be much happier if you just read one or two out of my three recommended links and really enjoyed them. That’s fine.) What I’d like to do, though, is actually get to talk about these links with people. So if you want to chat about this, drop a comment either in the Substack or, once I figure out how to actually sync this up correctly, on the newsletter section of alexdanco.com which I will get working at some point.
When ML and Data Science are the death of a good company: a cautionary tale | r/MachineLearning: An interesting and tragic story (well, not tragic tragic, but like, an unfortunate thing that could have been avoided): what happens when stable, incumbent, profitable companies get FOMO over AI and Machine Learning. There are a whole bunch of classic characters in this story: the grizzled veterans who learned how to build and maintain production code at scale the hard way; the bright-eyed academic types who know how to write R; the savvy, politics-master manager who knows how to extract FOMO out of his bosses, the outside contractors who show up and immediately make enemies, and a panicky C-suite that feels a need to do something - anything - to create an “AI Story” for the shareholders. Read it, it’s good.
Google Maps is ready to transform the world of Superapps: a Skift deep dive | Dennis School, Skift: Skift has always been one of my favourite publications to follow, because they aren’t tech-centric at all. Travel is a huge and very interesting business, and it encompasses a lot: flights and logistics, real estate and hospitality, events and entertainment, and all kinds of huge markets that are in the middle of rapidly being shaped and reshaped by the mobile internet. What I like about reading these kinds of publications is that, whereas lots of tech thinkers and builders will approach a problem from the “how might people possibly want to apply this new technology” angle, the industry insiders know exactly how the current landscape works, how it got there, and where all the bodies are buried.
So when they pick out an existing tech product with tons of momentum and say, This, it’s likely a good idea to listen. In this case, Skift looks at Google Maps, arguably Google’s most powerful sleeping giant. The United States has yet to ever see a genuine “Superapp” like WeChat has become in China, and while most of the attention here is on the question “Can Facebook build one?” I tend to agree with Skift that the most likely candidate is indeed Google Maps. Let me know if you agree or not.
Jeffrey Williams Ubben: active management, green investing and more | CNBC Squawk Alley: Normally I don’t link to these kinds of quick FinTV shorts, but there were two things in here that caught my interest and I’d love to get your thoughts about. The first is around algorithmic trading and how it affects (or doesn’t affect?) the practice of active management. I still have not heard an explanation that I’m satisfied with of what, exactly all of this low-latency algorithmic trading actually means for plain old selling and buying stocks with intent to hold. Yeah, I’ve read Flash Boys and that story is pretty cool but beyond the how-many-miles-from-Chicago-is-your-data-center stuff, what does it actually mean for the majority of trading volume and for the majority of the depth of the market to be… this… new thing? Does it mean anything? How much does it matter if you have no idea what the buyer or seller on the other side is trying to accomplish? If you know of any good pieces on this, please send them my way.
The second interesting thing he talks about is the rise of hydrogen trucking. He talks about an investment of theirs, Nikola Motor (which seems pretty clearly to be a swipe at Tesla to me, but what do I know) that is building autonomous hydrogen fuel cell electric semi trucks. I’m not sure how much actual progress Nikola in particular has made in the real world, but I have heard some pretty convincing explanations that the larger the vehicle, the less that batteries make sense (which I’m pretty willing to accept) and the more that hydrogen fuel cells emerge as a perfect technology to fill that gap. The refuelling station problem isn’t that big of an issue for trucks, because as Ubben points out, you can just stack refuelling stations all the way down I-80 and solve a pretty substantial chunk of your problem right off the bat - your feeling station infrastructure problem is massively easier than, say, Tesla’s. (Furthermore, the charging time for one of these things is much closer to refuelling a gas-powered car than recharging a Tesla). Does anyone know about this? Please let me me know if you do because I have questions.
And finally, an interesting history Tweetstorm on the French billionaire Bernard Arnault and the founding of LVMH out of many different pieces.
That’s all for this week; thanks for subscribing and have a good Easter weekend,