Posts Tagged ‘Chris Fleming’

Conversations with René Girard in the LARB: “Girard at both his most typical and his most surprising.”

Thursday, August 27th, 2020

Philosopher Down Under

Chris Fleming has written a witty and lively review of my Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy for the The Los Angeles Review of Books. (We’ve written about him here and here.) The Australian professor has written widely on issues of culture, philosophy, and literature, both in academic journals and in mainstream publications such as The Guardian, LitHub, The Chronicle Review, and The Sydney Review of Books. His debut on the West Coast is titled “The Last of the Hedgehogs” … well you see where that’s going:

IN 1953, Isaiah Berlin published his long essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” outlining his now-famous Oxbridge variant on there are two kinds of people in this world. He drew the title from an ambiguous fragment attributed to the ancient lyric poet Archilochus of Paros: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.” Written with the aim of pointing out tensions between Tolstoy’s grand view of history and the artistic temperament that saw such a view as untenable, Berlin’s essay became an unlikely hit, although less for its argument about Russian literature than for its contention that two antithetical personae govern the world of ideas: hedgehogs, who view the world in terms of some all-embracing system, seeing all facts as fitting into a grand pattern; and foxes, those pluralists or particularists who refuse “big theory” for reasons either intellectual or temperamental.

Berlin’s typology is beautifully blunt: perhaps more a serious game than a scientific typology, it works wonderfully only when it does. With the French American literary and cultural theorist René Girard, it works very well. As Roberto Calasso suggested, Girard was almost the Platonic ideal of a hedgehog: he belongs to that lineage of 19th- and 20th-century thinkers whose vast synthetic ambition is now seen by many in the academy as not simply wrongheaded but almost impolite. Sweeping intellectual projects such as his come across today as naïve and even oppressive, animated by the most obnoxious nostalgias for the Enlightenment. Of course, the academics who offer such judgments are typically those whose own work is parasitical upon grand synthesizing theorists like Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche.

Like these older thinkers, although distinct from them in important ways, Girard was disinclined toward mere taxonomic labor, such as structuralist classification or the identification of linguistic “themes” and “figures,” but was interested rather in asking large questions about origins — the origin of religion, of language, of culture, of violence, of human psychic life. And although such explanatory ambition is hard to find in humanities academics these days, it is surprisingly common among contemporary scientists, who suffer far fewer anxieties — one might argue, insufficient anxieties — about their own capacities to address the big questions that interest them most. And so, physicists and biologists continue to write magnificently incoherent, best-selling books addressing large questions about human nature and culture on behalf of those of us who, some time ago, politely vacated the field. Whether this is because we in the humanities no longer find such all-encompassing theorizing intellectually tenable, or whether (less flatteringly) we have been conditioned by those institutional and funding frameworks that render such projects nonviable, a generation devoid of Freuds or Nietzsches or Marxes of its own might turn out to be something we will one day regret. (Unless, of course, we are now content to have Yuval Noah Harari carry the banner for us all.)

The upshot:

“Cynthia Haven’s fascinating new collection, Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy, showcases Girard at both his most typical and his most surprising. Like many intellectuals, and not just hedgehogs, Girard returned repeatedly to the same themes throughout his career — what he called with self-mocking charm, in one exchange included here, his “monomania.” Of course, as one would hope, the reader will find in this book explications of the standard Girardian theses about imitative desire, scapegoating, and religion. And yet, throughout the volume, Girard also turns his attention to topics rarely if ever broached in his body of work: opera, eating disorders, Husserlian phenomenology, literary modernism. … Haven’s book is a welcome tonic for those of us for whom universalist theories are liable to provoke an outbreak of hives. As Adam Phillips once said about psychoanalysis: “like all essentialist theories,” it “makes a cult out of what could be just good company.” Regardless of how one evaluates Girard’s overarching intellectual project, there is little doubt that he was often excellent company indeed, as this collection amply attests.

Read the whole thing here. Many people did – it was picked up by 3quarksdaily, Books Inc. and Daily Nous, among others. A week after its publication it was still the best read piece at LARB. See the screenshot below for proof:


My new book (briefly) tops Ross Douthat’s latest – if you blinked, you missed it.

Sunday, February 16th, 2020


My moment in the sun was brief, but at least one voter gave me a thumbs up over the New York Times‘s Ross Douthat, whose book The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success (Simon & Schuster), is currently making waves. (See tweets below.)

The triumph couldn’t be smaller, nevertheless … not bad, considering my book, Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy (Bloomsbury) won’t be out till May 14. You can preorder at discount via the Bloomsbury website here.

From the flap:

French theorist René Girard was one of the major thinkers of the twentieth century. Read by international leaders, quoted by the French media, Girard influenced such writers as J.M. Coetzee and Milan Kundera. Dubbed “the new Darwin of the human sciences” and one of the most compelling thinkers of the age, Girard spent nearly four decades at Stanford exploring what it means to be human and making major contributions to philosophy, literary criticism, psychology and theology with his mimetic theory.

This is the first collection of interviews with Girard, one that brings together discussions on Cervantes, Dostoevsky, and Proust alongside the causes of conflict and violence and the role of imitation in human behavior. Granting important insights into Girard’s life and thought, these provocative and lively conversations underline Girard’s place as leading public intellectual and profound theorist.

And the blurbs:

“’A vital book. It gave me René Girard as I’ve never before encountered him in a text: like looking at a diamond from eighteen different sides. Each interview reveals the fecundity of his thought and the brilliance of a mind that was able to probe the human condition in a singular way. It’s full of fire.’” – Luke Burgis, author of Wanting: Our Secret Economy of Desire (St. Martin’s Press)

“Rene Girard was one of the most influential and important thinkers of the 20th century, much of his wisdom was dialogic in nature, and this volume brings together an excellent collection of conversations with him.” – Tyler Cowen, economist, blogs at Marginal Revolution.

““Covering the full scope of his thinking, from his reflections on desire and rivalry, right through to his final thoughts about modern warfare this really is a singularly valuable collection.”” – Chris Fleming, essayist and author of On Drugs 

“Conversations with René Girard is sure to become an indispensable reference for readers interested in Girard’s views on a wide range of topics, including such hot button issues as abortion, eugenics, same-sex marriage, anorexia, Islam, and Europe’s demographic crisis. Cynthia Haven deserves tremendous credit for bringing these interviews, some of them hard to find, together in one volume.” – George A. Dunn, Centre for Globalizing Civilization, Hangzhou, China


Chris Fleming on the tyranny of trendy ideas

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019

A few months ago Chris Fleming expounded on “cool” here. Now the Western Sydney University professor has an article in the current Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Tyranny of Trendy Ideas.” Chris, a former fellow beneath our palms, cites Stanford’s own “rich history of chasing trendy, meaningless causes.” Who can forget, he asked, our fling with MOOCs, the brief rise of the micro-Master’s degree, or farther afield, the University of Texas at Austin’s infamous “Project 2021”? “The susceptibility to fashionableness is revealed by a single oft-heard campus word: innovation.’ It’s a word we need to at least be wary of; it may one day be proved that even uttering it shuts down those parts of the brain responsible for impulse control and rational deliberation.”

A few excerpts:

Those of us who work in higher education consider ourselves above anything as ostensibly “cheap” and trivial as the whims of fashion. Our labor, including our research and contributions to university governance, is a serious endeavor marked by painfully obvious similarities to, say, those solemn 13th-century monks grinding out transcriptions of Aristotle’s Poetics at the University of Paris. … Behold our integrity to those who doubt it: We hath Latin mottos, Greek fraternities, and convocations that resembleth wizard conventions. (Not that we aren’t amenable to change: The maces carried by presidents and chancellors, for instance, are now purely symbolic; we have opted for other, more effective weapons, like restructures.) But by and large, we believe ourselves to be beyond the ephemeral. As every freshman course in “critical thinking” reminds us, the dull, unhappy burden of the rational mind is to follow the evidence where it leads, not the bandwagon.

And yet not. While we do understand this as an ideal, most of us know — at least during broken sleep or after the fourth beer — that ideals are unreliable witnesses. In fact, it may well be the university’s self-serious insistence on being above the whims of fashion that makes it so vulnerable to it. Like anti-vaxxers, we become entirely more susceptible to something precisely because we think we’re not.


Fleming demonstrates fashion…

Your choice of theorist was to be German, French, or Italian, not Spanish, Iranian, or Turkish. (Spanish, Turkish, or Iranian novels were great, though. If you wanted to stay with English you needed to look at either Dallas, soft porn, or the oeuvre of Roger Hargreaves.) You should have been familiar enough in the language of your favored theorists to be able to say “world-historical import,” “discursive formation,” and “being-toward-death,” but incapable of “My name is Simone,” “I’d like a cheese sandwich,” or “Which way to the Louvre?”

But to say that “fashion” influences us might seem to offer us little — even if true, it’s not particularly helpful. Maybe we can be clearer by saying that academics need to balance two opposing imperatives: the implicit demand to follow a herd and the requirement to appear trailblazing. Like all moderns, we disdain slavish imitation at the same time as desiring the security of the crowd. Fashion exists, if nothing else, to allow for precisely that possibility; it permits us to speak out of both sides of that consummately modern mouth.

In this context, one version of a good article — one that has a good chance of getting published — is one that implicitly spouts an orthodoxy at the same time as screaming about something minor. You agree, for instance, with everything Foucault says, except for the fact that he continually ignores Brazil, or the periodic table, or your supervisor’s criminally unsung trilogy. It’s a sure-fire formula in which much of the paper is able to write itself. All disciplines are, to a greater or lesser extent, faddish, even if any particular fad is later shown to be inadequate or myopic, or perhaps — as my undergraduate students might put it — just really lame.


This is not to say that the way fashion operates within the university is identical to any form outside of it. Unlike the fickle — and, from the outside, reassuringly absurd — shifts seen on the catwalk, fashion inside the university appeals to more than just a change in aesthetic allegiance — it invariably invokes images of rationality and progress. (Of course, the mere fact that rationality and progress are invoked doesn’t mean they manifest themselves any more than invoking a dead aunt will result in her attending Thanksgiving.)

Read the whole thing here.

On being cool, or, “I Hope You Don’t Know That I Hope You Care That I Don’t Care What You Think About Me”

Friday, February 8th, 2019

The Doors … does cool stay cool?

“Hot is momentary. It quickly turns to ashes. But cool stays cool,” said Robert Pogue Harrison, discussing Jim Morrison, the Doors, and the “ethos of cool” last year. He saw it as the triumph of Apollo over Dionysus.

Former Stanford fellow Chris Fleming has undertaken a study of  “Theoretical Cool,” in the current Sydney Review of Books. As an associate professor of philosophy at the Western Sydney University, he had “a dawning realization that would take many years to coalesce: cool in the humanities isn’t that different from cool in other areas of cultural life, like planking, hotdog-legs photography, mason jar rehabilitation, and novels whose main character is a city.” It’s funny … and deadly serious, too, and surfaced in my Facebook feed. As he explained, “I wrote this, using only words.”

As for the photos below from his Facebook page, the author takes a shot at “cool” himself, in its various guises, some we might recognize.

In his words, then:

“The great Romantic injunction offered by the Aspiring Cool of Instagram to their potential audience is watch me not caring about whether or not you watch me (but please do watch me). The double imperative isn’t just a product of social media; the mating call of almost every VCP (Very Cool Person) – and every aspiring rebel – walking the street is: Look at me – I’m amazing! / Don’t you look at me – I don’t fucking care what you think! Which brings us necessarily to Andy Warhol, that erstwhile king of Union Square Weltschmerz, who gave us one of the clearest renderings of this double injunction. As far as I can recall, the only time Warhol ever looked like he had an elevated heartrate was when an interviewer suggested that he courted attention. In 1980 Warhol toured Miami Beach for his exhibition ‘Jews of the 20th Century’ at the Lowe Art Museum, when a reporter makes this statement:

Interviewer: Your work tends to be … I don’t want to use the word ‘sensational,’ because that connotes something bad, but you want attention…

WarholOh noNo, that’s not true! I just work most of the time and … well, they make me do this … so …

The story of “Maurice Wu” demonstrates the perils and micromeasurements of cool. The lad  arrived in Sydney via Hong Kong and was introduced to Fleming’s high school class. In the parochial school, “Brother Anianus put his arm around the new boy and announced to all of us: ‘This is Maurice Wu – and I bet he can breakdance better than any of you!'”

“The problem was that breakdancing had been very popular at our school, like that groovy Saturday Night Fever dancing before it (or so my older brother swears, although one can never tell with him), but that time had passed and breakdancing was now something of a joke. Unaware, Brother Anianus pushed on: ‘Go on, Maurice, show them your moves!’ Maurice stepped to the side of the podium and proceeded to chainwave, robot, and donkey – all a capella – for about a minute. At the conclusion there was just the creak and whoosh of the fans above our heads – and then the whole year erupted in hysterical, ironic cheers, clapping, whooping, screaming ersatz approval. The year meeting ended. Unaware, Brother Anianus and Maurice Wu thought they’d done very well. It was, in fact, catastrophic (which is why I’ve used the pseudonym ‘Maurice Wu’).”

“Brother Anianus was really saying to us ‘Hey, listen up, funky town inhabitants – this guy is cool to the max.’ But it could only have the opposite effect – for a number of reasons. One is temporal. The historical miss here was very small; it had probably only been about one or two years since break dancing was at peak cool, at least at my Sydney suburban Catholic (ie. uncool) school. But something having-been-recently-cool is often not a mere approximation of being cool, only slightly less so. Despite the resurgence of vinyl, cool’s movement is often digital, not analogue. Although there are gradations of cool, at its peak, a near miss of cool is not like a near miss of a hole in golf or a near miss in a game of darts, where points decrease relative to the distance of the miss. No. In certain very delicate situations, trying to hit cool and missing it by a little is like hitting the wrong note on piano by a semi-tone: the smallest error will affect the biggest dissonance. (It didn’t help in this instance, of course, that the advocate here was a middle-aged man in a long white robe with a huge crucifix hanging from his neck – and whose name was pronounced, at least by us, as ‘any anus.’)”

Fleming describes “normcore” as “a cyborg word combining ‘normal’ and ‘hardcore.’” He continues, “Apart from being It, what exactly was normcore? To the outsider, normcore basically looks like what your uncle might wear to an engagement party at Sizzler: white Reeboks, a polo shirt, and Lowes sourced, bad-fitting jeans. Except, of course, it’s not like that at all; that’s just your uncle. Normcore only looks like that to, well, almost everyone. But ‘radical’ culture is often just like that.”

As he explains, “a music video director wearing Hush Puppies and mum jeans in a Manhattan bar isn’t the same as … someone who isn’t a music video director wearing Hush Puppies and mum jeans in … a bar somewhere else. Again, normcore only looks like a loaned collection from Jerry Seinfeld’s wardrobe. To those in the know, it’s nothing of the sort. Just as an airport beagle can tell the difference between bowel cancer, a land mine, and MDMA residue at 100 metres, the truly cool can tell the difference between, say, K-Mart’s ‘Active’ running shoe line and Cristóbal Balenciaga’s Triple S trainers. (Apparently such a distinction exists, although it is lost on me.)”

King of Cool … for awhile.

He concludes: “Cool, of course, is one of taste’s dynamics, a silent, unavowable face of fashion. We can’t reliably predict its path because it never announces its itinerary. Its minimal requirement is simply to not be where it has just been; as such, the only rigorous science we can apply to it is hindsight. As Walter Benjamin reminded us many years ago, fashion more generally, articulates ‘the eternal recurrence of the new’.  Cool is one antidote to the tendency for people’s taste to reify at a particular historical moment. We are familiar enough with the opposite: we see a person sitting on a train wrapped in a stonewash denim jacket, fluorescent parachute pants, and a hairspray-frozen bouffant which looks like a half-deflated basketball, and think quietly to ourselves ‘1983 was a pretty big year for you, huh?’ The idea is that at some point in our lives, for whatever reason, we became incredibly sensitive to the world around us; we might have had – to paraphrase lyrics from Dirty Dancing – the time of our lives – and as a result, we were dropped into a kind of temporal amber which preserved us like some insect from the Cretaceous period. 1983 passed but the uniform remained. This isn’t cool; the only amber the truly cool person is interested in is craft beer. They will not be frozen. (Of course, if the person on the train is 23, then all bets are off; along with the stonewash, this person is also sporting invisible inverted commas: they are quoting the 80s. To confuse this with the genuinely uncool is like believing, on the basis of her name and plethora of crucifixes, that Madonna was a nun.)”

Read the whole thing here.