Results for “rene girard”
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*The Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard*

That is the new book by Cynthia L. Haven, which I was very enthusiastic about.  I find about half of it to be a revelation, and the other half to be perfectly fine, though material I largely had seen before (but still useful to most readers).  Here are a few of the things I learned:

1. As a child, “…his favorite game was a solitary one: with toy soldiers, he reenacted France’s major battles, taking all the roles himself.”

2. In 1944, at the age of 21, he saw many French collaborators killed or put on trial, and from that time started to develop some of his major ideas.

3. When he migrated to America, he associated the country with grandness and Avignon with petiteness.  He was at that time “adamantly atheistic.”

4. He wrote his dissertation on “American Opinions on France, 1940-1943,” which at 418 pp. contained some early versions of his later ideas.

5. He was turned down for tenure at Indiana University, claiming he spent several years “devoted essentially to female students and cars.”

6. He insisted that he witnessed a lynching (likely in North Carolina) in the early 1950s, although after reading Haven’s discussion I suspect this was a fabrication.

7. He was significantly influenced by the Dante circle at Johns Hopkins where he ended up teaching, including by Charles Singleton.

8. Like myself, Haven considers Theater of Envy to be his most underrated book.

9. His work day typically started at 3:30 a.m.

10. Peter Thiel, as an undergraduate, actually took a class from Girard.

Definitely recommended to anyone with an interest in Girard.  Here is my recent summary post on Girard.

The contributions of Rene Girard

Carl L asks: Address the scapegoating theory of René Girard in general, and its possible application to economics. Peter Thiel has repeatedly cited Girard as an important influence and has even said his theory was partly the reason he invested in Facebook.

From my idiosyncratic point of view, here are a few of Girard’s major contributions, noting that I am putting them into “stupid simple” language, rather than trying to communicate his nuances:

1. His understanding of Christianity as fundamentally and radically different from earlier religions, as it exalts the individual victim rather than the conqueror.  Here is one point from a summarizer: “Christianity is the revelation (the unveiling) of what the myths want to veil; it is the deconstruction of the mono-myth, not a reiteration of it—which is exactly why so many within academe want to domesticate and de-fang it.”

2. Seeing violence as a chronic problem of human societies, rather than as the result of a bug in rational choice or the collapse into a bad game-theoretic solution.

3. Understanding the import of “mimetic desire,” namely the desire to copy others, and also why this is not always an entirely peaceful process, due to scarcity.  The tech world, by the way, at least pretends to have found a solution to this in its extreme scalability of product; we’ll see how that pans out.

4. A theory of mediated and triangulated desire, not yet absorbed by behavioral economics, and partly summarized here: “Whereas external mediation does not lead to rivalries, internal mediation does lead to rivalries. But, metaphysical desire leads a person not just to rivalry with her mediator; actually, it leads to total obsession with and resentment of the mediator. For, the mediator becomes the main obstacle in the satisfaction of the person’s metaphysical desire. Inasmuch as the person desires to be his mediator, such desire will never be satisfied. For nobody can be someone else. Eventually, the person developing a metaphysical desire comes to appreciate that the main obstacle to be the mediator is the mediator himself.”

5. First and foremost approaching societies from an anthropological point of view, prior to the economic method.

6. Understanding various social situations in terms of the need of finding a scapegoat to sacrifice, if not violently with some kind of resolution and catharsis.  These days one of those victims would be the big tech companies, as it is remarkable how many weakly-argued critiques of them make the paper every day.  You’ll understand these writings through the eyes of Girard, not economic theory.  Girard is also one of the best lenses for understanding the writings of bad and manipulative pundits.

7. Girard is of great use for understanding literature.  Try any Shakespearean play with “doubles,” Merchant of Venice, Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge (an all-time favorite), or Coetzee’s Disgrace, all Girardian to the core and very much illuminated by familiarity with his key ideas.  These are perhaps his most underrated contributions.  Shakespeare, by the way, is Girard’s most important precursor, also throw in the New Testament, Hobbes, Tocqueville, and maybe Montaigne.

What should you read by him?: Violence and the Sacred, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Theatre of Envy.

Where is Girard weakest: His theory of language, his overemphasis on the destructive nature of mimesis, excess claims to have discovered universal mechanisms, just making lots of stuff up, and not knowing enough economics or empirical anthropology.

How important is he?: If you had to pick twenty thinkers from the latter half of the 20th century, he is definitely one of them.  By the way, Foucault and Baudrillard might be the other French writers on that list.

My Conversation with Cynthia L. Haven

Here is the audio and transcript, here is part of the summary:

…those two interests converged as they led her to interview and write books about three writers and thinkers whom she also came to call mentors: René Girard, Czeslaw Milosz, and Joseph Brodsky.

Cynthia joined Tyler to discuss what she’s gleaned from each of the three, including what traits they have in common, why her biography of Girard had to come from outside academia, Milosz’s reaction to the Berkley Free Speech Movement, Girard’s greatest talent — and flaw — as a thinker, whether Brodsky will fall down the memory hole, why he was so terrible on Ukraine, why Cynthia’s early career was much like The Devil Wears Prada, the failings of Twitter, and more.

And one excerpt:

COWEN: What is your philosophy of what is missing in most other people’s interviews?

HAVEN: I don’t know that it’s a philosophy.

COWEN: You must think you’re adding something, right?

HAVEN: I’m interested in big questions. I think a lot of people aren’t. A lot of interviewers aren’t. It’s not an era for big questions, is it?

COWEN: 2022? I’m not sure.

HAVEN: Really?

COWEN: Maybe the questions are either too big or too small and not enough in between.

HAVEN: That’s an interesting point of view.

COWEN: There’s plenty of ideology in the world and in this country. It doesn’t have to be a good thing, but —

HAVEN: Ideology is different than big questions, I think.

Interesting throughout.

Sunday assorted links

1. My conversation with High Alpha about Talent, and other matters.

2. David Perell and Johnathan Bi present Rene Girard, transcript here.

3. How cockroach sex is evolving (NYT).

4. Contra an earlier report, there are still payphones in NYC (New Yorker).

5. “The analysis shows that gold rush counties indeed have higher entrepreneurship rates from 1910, when records began, until the present as well as a higher prevalence of entrepreneurial traits in the populace.

6. Your periodic reminder that Germany has betrayed the Western alliance and is doing almost nothing for Ukraine.

7. Ezra on state capacity and the left (NYT).

What should I ask Cynthia Haven?

She is Rene Girard’s biographer, and has other interesting books as well, including on Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky, and she is an expert in poetry and the humanities more broadly.  Here is one biography (how can she not have her own Wikipedia page?).  Here is her blog.  Here is Cynthia on Twitter.  To her credit, she has done all this without the benefit of a formal, tenured university post.  She also runs her own “conversations,” and is working further on Girard.  So what should I ask her?

 

Why will the important thinkers of the future be religious ones?

Tony O’Connor requests I cover this:

A few times you have said that the important thinkers of the future will be the religious ones. It would be interesting to hear more about what led you to this conclusion.

Concretely, I wonder if this would arise because religious populations within liberal polities are expanding over time (due to higher birth rates), or because there could be a shift from the non-religious population into religion. The potential causes of the latter would be interesting to hear about, if that is your belief.

First of all, I was led to the point by example. For instance, Ross Douthat and Peter Thiel are two of the most interesting thinkers as of late and they are both religious and Christian.  I am also struck by the enduring influence of Rene Girard.  I am never quite sure “how intellectually Jewish” are our leading Jewish intellectuals, but somewhat to be sure.  Even if they are atheists, they are usually strongly influenced by Jewish intellectual and theological traditions, which indicates a certain power to those traditions.  In fiction, Orson Scott Card is one of the intellectually most influential writers in the last few decades and he is a Mormon.  Knausgaard is drenched in the tradition of the Christian confessional memoir, and Ferrante is about as Catholic a writer as you will find, again even if “the real Ferrante” is a skeptic.  Houellebecq I don’t even need to get into.

Second, I see that both secular “left progressive” and “libertarian” traditions — both highly secular in their current forms — are not so innovative right now.  I don’t intend that as criticism, as you might think they are not innovative because they are already essentially correct.  Still, there is lots of recycling going on and their most important thinkers probably lie in the past, not the future.  That opens up room for religious thinkers to have more of an impact.

Third, religious thinkers arguably have more degrees of freedom.  I don’t mean to hurt anybody’s feelings here, but…how shall I put it?  The claims of the religions are not so closely tied to the experimental method and the randomized control trial.  (Narrator: “Neither are the secular claims!”)  It would be too harsh to say “they can just make stuff up,” but…arguably there are fewer constraints.  That might lead to more gross errors and fabrications in the distribution as a whole, but also more creativity in the positive direction.  And right now we seem pretty hungry for some breaks in the previous debates, even if not all of those breaks will be for the better.

Fourth, if you live amongst the intelligentsia, being religious is one active form of rebellion.  Rebelliousness is grossly correlated with intellectual innovation, again even if the variance of quality increases.

Fifth, I have the general impression that religious idea rise in importance during unstable and chaotic times.  Probably the current period is less stable than say 1980-2001 or so, and that will increase the focality of religious ideas, thereby making religious thinkers more important.

Sixth, religious and semi-religious memes are stickier than secular ones.  Maybe not on average, but the most influential religions have shown an incredible reach and endurance.

If you are reading a secular thinker, always ask yourself: “what is this person’s implicit theology?”  No matter who it is.  There are few more useful questions at your disposal.

Gabriel Tarde’s *On Communication and Social Influence*

This 19th century French sociologist is worth reading, as he is somehow the way station between Pascal and Rene Girard, with an influence on Bruno Latour as well.  Tarde focuses on how copying helps to explain social order and also how it drives innovation.  For Tarde, copying, innovation, and ethos are all part of an integrated vision.  He covers polarization and globalization as well and at times it feels like he has spent time on Twitter.

It is hard to pull his sentences out of their broader context but here is one:

We have seen that the true, basic sources of power are propagated discoveries or inventions.

And:

The role of impulse and chance in the direction of inventive activity will cease to amaze us if we recall that such genius almost always begins in the service of a game or is dependent on a religious idea or superstition.

Or:

…contrary to the normal state of affairs, images in the inventor’s hallucinatory reverie tend to become strong states while sensations become weak states.

…When the self is absorbed in a goal for a long time, it is rare that the sub-self, incorrectly called the unconscious, does not participate in this obsession, conspiring with our consciousness and collaborating in our mental effort.  This conspiracy, this collaboration whose service is faithful yet hidden, is inspiration

He argues that societies in their uninventive phase are also largely uncritical, and for that reason.  (Doesn’t that sound like a point from a Peter Thiel talk?)

He explicitly considers the possibility that the rate of scientific innovation may decline, in part because the austere and moral mentality of semi-rural family life, which is most favorable for creativity in his view, may be replaced by the whirlpool of distractions associated with the urban lifestyles of the modern age.

And:

Attentive crowds are those who crowd around the pulpit of a preacher or lecturer, a lectern, a platform, or in front of the stage where a moving drama is being performed.  Their attention — and inattention — is always stronger and more constant than would be that of the individual in the group if he were alone.

Tarde argues that desires are intrinsically heterogeneous, and economics makes the mistake of reducing them to a near-tautologous “desire for wealth.”

Not all of it hangs together, but I would rather read Tarde than Durkheim or Comte, the other two renowned French sociologists of the 19th century.

You can buy the book here, here is Wikipedia on Tarde.

The sixth and final volume of Knausgaard’s *My Struggle*

Remember when Ortega y Gasset wrote: “Within the novel almost anything fits…”?  Well, Karl Ove Knausgaard has proven him right in this improbably wonderful conclusion to his ongoing semi-fictionalized autobiographical series My Struggle, the first two volumes of which stand as literary masterworks.  It’s not every day that a 1153 pp. rant, outside the author’s main fields of expertise, turns out to be so compelling.  But wait…I guess those are his main fields of expertise.

Maybe a third of this book is an intellectual biography of Hitler and an analysis of how the proper readings of Mein Kampf change over the years and decades.  “Mein Kampf received terrible reviews,” writes K., and then we learn why they matter.  I found that segment to be a masterful take on liberalism and its potential for decline, as Knausgaard tries harder than most to make us understand how Hitler got anywhere at all.  Underneath it all is a Vico-esque message of all eras converging, and the past not being so far away from the present as it might seem.

Another third of the book covers various writers, including Dostoyevsky, Handke, Celan, Joyce, Hamsun, and Olav Duun, and why they matter to Knausgaard, and is interesting throughout.  There are detailed brilliant takes on Herman Broch’s The Death of Virgil and Rene Girard on Hamlet and then desultory remarks on William Petty’s Political Arithmetick.  For those sufficiently familiar with the underlying sources, it absolutely comes off.

The other third of the book, most prominent at the beginning, is a mostly failed and meandering fictional narrative of the author’s own life, unsatisfying if read “straight up” but in context a reminder that all thought processes degenerate, and an account of how and why they do so, and in that regard an ideal introduction to the rest of the work and a meta-move which ties together all six volumes of the series, including the often-unsatisfying volumes 3-5.  But it will try your patience.

As for what went wrong with liberalism, here is one relevant bit:

Charisma is one of the two great transcendental forces in the social world: beauty is the other.  They are forces seldom talked about, since both issue from the individual, neither may be learned or acquired, and in a democracy, where everyone is meant to be considered equal and where all relationships are meant to be just, such properties cannot be accorded value, though all of us are aware of them and of how much they mean…beauty eclipses everything, bedims all else, it is what we see first and what we consciously or unconsciously seek.  Yet this phenomenon is shrouded in silence…driving it out instead by our social mechanisms of expulsion, calling it stupid, immature, or unsophisticated, perhaps even primitive, at the same time as we allow it to flourish in the commercial domain, where it quietly surrounds us whichever way we turn…

I do “get” why the reviews have been so mixed, but I think someone has to have the stones to stand up and call this a masterpiece and that someone is me.  With it, Karl Ove Knausgaard has cemented his claim to have produced something truly creative and new, and now instructive as well.

You can pre-order it here, or if you were in a rush as I was, order from the UK.

Monday assorted links

1. “With my neuromuscular disability, plastic straws are necessary tools for my hydration and nutrition.

2. “In effect, Medicaid expansion coverage is acting as an employment incentive program for people with disabilities.

3. “Getayawkal Ayele had tried to revive the corpse of Belay Biftu by lying on top of him and repeatedly yelling “Belay, wake up”.”

4. NGDP futures market on Augur.

5. Trump tariffs will hurt newspapers.

6. Summary of some aspects of Rene Girard.

My Conversation with Chris Blattman

The very very highly rated but still underrated Chris Blattman was in top form, here is the transcript and audio.  We had a chance to do this one when he was in town for a week.  We talked about the problem with cash transfers, violence, child soldiers, charter cities, Rene Girard, how to do an Africa trip, Battlestar Galactica, why Ethiopia is growing rapidly, why civil war has become less common, why Colombia and the New World have been so violent, the mysteries of Botswana, and Chris’s favorite Australian TV show, among other topics, including of course the Chris Blattman production function.  Here is one excerpt:

BLATTMAN: There’s this famous paper on Vietnam veterans in the US where they find that being conscripted into fighting in Vietnam had positive effects on the wages of blacks and negative effects on the wages of whites. The reason was, it was really down to, what was your alternative labor market and training experience in the absence of this war?

We found something similar in Uganda, something eerily familiar, which is that the women economically weren’t so worse off. I wouldn’t say they were better off, but they weren’t necessarily affected adversely in an economic sense — they were adversely affected in other ways 5 or 10 or 15 years down the road — while the men were.

It spoke to just how terrible women’s options were. Being conscripted and abducted to be a rebel wife, to some degree, wasn’t that different than what your marriage opportunities looked like if there wasn’t a war.

For men, it just meant that you were out of the civilian labor market, getting a bunch of skills that had turned out not to be very useful. It was bad for them. A different war, a different context, and a different labor market, and that can switch.

COWEN: How many northern Ugandan child soldiers have you interviewed?

BLATTMAN: A few hundred. At least a couple hundred, maybe more. It depends if you count someone who’s involved for a month versus two years. Certainly, the long, long-term soldiers who were there for many, many years are few, maybe only a couple dozen.

COWEN: Those contacts, those conversations, how have they changed your outlook on life emotionally, intellectually, otherwise?

And:

COWEN: True or false, most humans are bad at violence?

BLATTMAN: I think they learn quickly. Probably they’re bad at first.

COWEN: In the micro evidence on violence, and the more individual-level evidence, and then finally macro evidence — like will there be a civil war? — do you think there’s ultimately an overarching theory that ties these all together? Or are they just separate levels of investigation, where you have empirical results, and they stand somewhat separate, and they’ll always be distinct areas?

How optimistic are you about a grand unified theory of violence?

BLATTMAN: I think these individual, how I react in the moment, fight-or-flight-type mechanisms are quite distinct from the way that small groups or large groups or nations go to war. But once you get beyond that to the level of small groups and larger groups and nations, I see a lot of unity in the theory.

Do read or listen to the whole thing.  By the way, he says the Canadian political system is overrated.

Monday assorted links

1. Excerpt from forthcoming biography of Rene Girard.

2. Politico update on anti-aging drugs (caveat emptor).

3. Norway decriminalizes drugs.

4. Appreciation of Calestous Juma.  And another tribute.

5. Are early stage investors biased against women?  And the gender wage gap in the U.S. government.  And The Economist on women in economics.  It is good to read this trio together.  And some South Korean data.

6. Another argument for religion, it relates to #5 as well.

7. Josh Barro on the final tax bill.

Wednesday assorted links

1. Chess players’ fame versus their merit.

2. Haggis recipe could be tweaked to beat U.S. ban.

3. Who has the edge in getting organs for transplant? (guess)

4. Sumner on Bernanke, more here.  And it is scary that Bernanke feels the need to write a blog post opposing the notion that Congress raid the capital of the Fed.  It gets sent to the Treasury anyway.

5. NYT obituary of Rene Girard, with lots on Peter Thiel too.  It is also odd what this piece leaves out.

6. More from Gelman on mortality rates.

My Product Hunt dialogue

I very much enjoyed this Live Chat, and I thank the participants for all of their stimulating questions and remarks.  Here is one excerpt:

Ben Casnocha:

How do you think your career and life would have been different if blogging, twitter, and digital media had be ubiquitous in your teens and 20’s? Would you have still pursued an academic path or would you have become a full-time columnist/commentator/speaker earlier on? I seem to recall you saying at one point that you’re glad the internet didn’t exist early on in your life as it gave you the time to read the classics and develop a substantive base of knowledge.

Tyler Cowen:

I am glad I was forced to live in “book culture” and “meat space’ for my first forty years. Or maybe thirty-five years would have been enough. People these days have lost the sense of information being scarce, and counterintuitively that makes it harder for them to develop profound thoughts. It’s like practicing chess by asking the computer right away, all the time, what the right move is.

[and later] …contemporary academic is overly bureaucratized and there is a very good chance I would [if I were starting today] look for another model of success and contentment. It is an open question whether or not I could find one. Whatever its limitations, there is still a followable formula for academic success, which of course is part of the problem.

Other topics include when is the best age to live in various parts of the world, Alban Berg and Rilke, Marc Andreessen, my one hidden talent, Rene Girard, labor market networks, optimal travel into the past, and which is the most underrated or overrated wisdom tradition.  Do read the whole thing.

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