Posts Tagged ‘Peter Thiel’

“Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard” goes into its third printing – and sparks some reflections in Zürich’s “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”

Thursday, January 17th, 2019
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Some good news! Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is going into its third printing in its first year! Here’s some more good news: an article in Zürich’s Neue Zürich Zeitungone of Europe’s most highly regarded newspapers. The piece is by one of the continent’s leading intellectuals, Stanford’s own Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

The first few paragraphs in a rough, off-the-cuff translation by a German-speaking friend of ours. An excerpt from: “Equality, Desire, Violence and the Restrained Presence of René Girard”:

A few weeks ago the French magazine Le Point invited Peter Sloterdijk to a conversation about the protest movement of the yellow jackets and their relationship to President Macron. With his learned and yet very decisive point of view, the philosopher activated an unconventional line of intellectual positions: in addition to  Mikhail Bakhtin‘s thesis on the transformation of Carnival moments into violence, and to Alain Peyrefitte‘s identification of social immobility as the heritage of absolutism, and to Elias Canetti’s theory on the dynamics of people in masses, he also referenced–most of all–the vision of the French-American anthropologist René Girard, who is rarely cited in his own homeland, a vision of working out  collective tensions through the attack and murder of a “scape goat.” Sloterkijk’s interlocutor could only with difficulty hide his outrage over this application of an analysis of the present situation.

Sepp Gumbrecht (Photo: Reto Klar)

With his left-liberal aligned reaction, the news would have no doubt fit well, to hear that the Silicon Valley billionaire and original Facebook investor Peter Thiel offered, for the coming Winter quarter at Stanford, a seminar on the conflict between “Statehood and Global Technology,” a course that was supposed to be derived from Girard’s theory and a course with such unusual resonance among the students that the university had to implement conditions for acceptance into the class.  Around 1990 Thiel had in fact taken several Girard Seminars, and to this day Thiel likes to amaze his interlocutors with the comment that he owes his life-changing engagement with  Facebook to these Girard seminars. In view of Sloterdijk, Thiel and their antagonists, it is  increasingly evident that there is a  pattern of tension between the way eccentric thinkers trust Girard’s intuitions and a mostly unfounded refusal to even acknowledge them. Against this blockade, in a new biography which is widely celebrated in many websites in Silicon Valley, Cynthia Haven has described how Girard distanced himself from all political positions, and described his shock at his own insights, a shock he shared with his most vehement opponents.

Haven’s conclusions and the peculiar ambivalence that she references confirm my memories from the 1990s, when I met with René Girard as a colleague at Stanford almost daily. Despite the warning brought from Germany by an eminent literary scholar that Girard’s dark theory corresponds to a powerful sense of character engraved in his face, I learned to know a professor who fascinated the youngest students in particular, and who consistently avoided competitive situations. Not from a feeling of uncertainty or self-doubt at all, but rather because as a prophet he was convinced of the truth of his insights. He in fact felt called to point out these insights repeatedly, and yet expected no personal admiration, never courted agreement, and never held it against me for instance, when I reacted with skeptical commentary. Already in 2005, when he was accepted into the forty “Immortals” of the Académie Française, Girard heard from afar the powerful encomium of his friend Michel Serres and reacted to our congratulations with a rumpled brow. Nonetheless, he seemed to want to say, no one could avoid the evidence of what he had to say.

The articles goes on to discuss Robert Pogue Harrison’s “Prophet of Envy” in the New York Review of Books (“the central organ of the American East Coast intellectuals”), the intensification of internet envy with FaceBook, and more. Read it here.

Not enough good news for you? The Claremont Review of Books article is up. Did we mention we’re getting lovely letters? Enough! We’ll share more tomorrow.
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René Girard, meet the techies: Evolution of Desire climbs the charts at Hacker News.

Saturday, November 10th, 2018
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Even though the Book Haven lives in the heart of Silicon Valley, we generally avoid the sphere of computer nerds and techies, except when we need our Macbook Pro repaired or have to figure out why we are getting spammed. But every so often, we get something that sends us into this brave new world.  So it was with yesterday’s news on Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.

Artur gave me the heads-up.

It began when I received a Facebook message from Artur Rosman at 6 a.m.: “Happy news, a techie link picked up your book excerpt that we ran earlier this year. It has 1,700 hits today so far. You’re going to crash our site!”

He was referring to the introduction to Evolution of Desire, which was excerpted on a Notre Dame University journal as “Golden Thoughts from a Nuclear Age” here. The techie link was an unknown website to both of us, but that’s what Wikipedia is for. I looked up Hacker News there:

Hacker News is a social news website focusing on computer science and entrepreneurship. It is run by Paul Graham‘s investment fund and startup incubator, Y Combinator. In general, content that can be submitted is defined as “anything that gratifies one’s intellectual curiosity”.

The site was created by Paul Graham in February 2007. Initially it was called Startup News or occasionally News.YC. On August 14, 2007, it became known by its current name. It developed as a project of his company Y Combinator, functioning as a real-world application of the Arc programming language which Graham co-developed.

Paul Graham turns out to be kind of a big deal. Computer scientist, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, author and essayist.

But meanwhile, back in Indiana, Artur was beginning to panic. The numbers kept climbing minute by minute. He was pondering whether he should take the page down quickly so the server wouldn’t go boom. It didn’t, but meanwhile it quickly racked up 2,700 visits in a few short hours.

Paul gave us the lift-off.

Faithful Book Haven reader George Jansen, who runs a terrific blog 20011 (we’ve added it to our blogroll), also saw us on Hacker News. “I was going to post about this on my own blog, but then figured that you should get first dibs.” We let him go first.

From his blogpost: “I often check the Hacker News to see what topics interest the tech world. Perhaps 60% of the linked items have to do with computing, science, or mathematics, another 20% to do with politics or economics, and the remainder can be curiously assorted. Over the last couple of days a link to an article about whether Nero killed Agrippina has been in the first few pages.

“Though I do now and then see them, I don’t go to Hacker News looking for links to pieces about the humanities. I was surprised, then, today to see what was evidently an item by Cynthia Haven about René Girard on the first page… A sometime co-worker has made it to the first page of Hacker News a few times. However, his blog mostly has to do with old computer hardware, which suits what I take to be the interests of most of the Hacker News readership. I am interested to see that the techies find mimetic desire so well worth reading and arguing about.”

In the Hacker News comment section, Oliver Jones urged people to read the article over at Notre Dame: “Our trade is strongly influenced by René Girard’s understanding of competitive mimetic desire and its violence. Why? The people who organize the ad-driven internet know all about Girard. Peter Thiel invested in Facebook because he saw its potential for harnessing mimetic desire to drive engagement. (reference: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n16/john-lanchester/you-are-the-pr…)

“Facebook-style social media is addictive precisely because of the fear of not being as good as ‘friends.’ Mimetic desire is the the human yearning behind the Fear of Missing Out. Driving engagement is most effective when it exploits that fear. It works very well indeed. Other attempts at building social media networks (Stack Overflow, Linked In, Slack, for example) try to avoid that exploitation. They try to use other motivators than FOMO [“Fear of Missing Out” to the rest of us. – CH] to drive engagement. Can they be successful without overusing mimetic desire? It’s the key question they must answer to be successful. The obligatory panel of customer logos just below the fold on SaaS landing pages engages mimetic desire in IT buyers. ‘Wow! Schwab uses this! I want to be like Schwab!’ It’s benign in these cases.

“Girard offers a good unifying framework for understanding the human nature behind all sorts of marketing work. Convincing people their hair is ablaze and offering them ways to put it out is the heart of building new businesses. Getting people to set each others’ hair on fire, then putting it out, is the holy grail of new businesses.

“It’s no accident that Silicon Valley employs that framework in lots of ways: he was a scholar at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. [He wasn’t – CH.] It can be a hard slog to learn about him. But it’s worth your trouble.”

I hope I’ve made the job a little easier for Oliver and the others with Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. Meanwhile, read the whole discussion here. It includes the best quote ever from Peter Thiel, who studied with René at Stanford: “To believe yourself invested with divine self-sufficiency is not the mark of a strong individual, but of a person who has mistaken the crowd’s worship – or jeering – for the truth. The single greatest danger for a founder is to become so certain of his own myth that he loses his mind. But an equally insidious danger for every business is to lose all sense of myth and mistake disenchantment for wisdom.”

The excerpted introduction to Evolution of Desire, “Golden Thoughts for a Nuclear Age” is here.

Postscript: Speaking of signal honors, I received this Facebook comment, from another gentle reader, Marianne Bacon: “Cynthia, we are re-reading your book. Aloud. I am absorbing much more deeply and we are both loving it!”

Memorial service and reception for René Girard on Tuesday, Jan. 19. Be there.

Saturday, January 16th, 2016
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Martha and René Girard in 2008. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A memorial service will be held Tuesday, Jan. 19, at 2 p.m. in Stanford Memorial Church for the renowned French theorist René Girard, who died in November at age 91. We have written about him so many places on the Book Haven, it is hard to know where to begin, but you might try here and here and here and here. We’ve even written about the memorial service before, a month ago here. Consider this a final reminder.

Prof. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Peter Thiel, and René’s son Martin Girard will be among those speaking at the service.

A reception will follow at the McCaw Hall at Arrillaga Alumni Center at 326 Galvez on the Stanford campus, from 3 to 5:30 p.m.

The renowned Stanford French professor was one of the 40 immortels of the prestigious Académie Française. René Girard joined the Stanford faculty in 1981.

He is the author of nearly thirty acclaimed books, including the provocative and seminal Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961), Violence and the Sacred (1972), and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978). His last major work was Battling to the End (2007).

He died at his Stanford home on Nov. 4 at the age of 91, after long illness.

Read the full obituary here.

arrillaga

Reception at the Alumni Center (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The Stanford Memorial Church is one of the easiest places to find on the Stanford campus – you can see it as you drive down the campus’s landmark Palm Drive. The century-old building has been called “the University’s architectural crown jewel.” The Arrillaga Alumni Center is a few minutes away on foot, and I’ve been promised there will be signage (plus a lot of other people heading in the same direction).

Arrive early to find parking. And bring an umbrella. It looks like rain.