Monday, September 27, 2021

twobookcovers

The Mimetic Media was in full swing this past week with the release of Max Chafkin’s book, The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power. Every major media outlet was falling over the other to publish reviews or excerpts from it. It’s worth asking why.

Scapegoats sell. And, man: it’s not just that Chafkin scapegoats Thiel—it scapegoats the entire idea of Silicon Valley, which you can intuit from the title alone. And it takes aim at the heart of capitalism.

Which is interesting—because judging by the announcement of the book deal on Publisher’s Marketplace, Chafkin most likely received an advance of over $500,000 to write it.

Here’s my essay, hot off the press, on Peter Thiel’s “Girardian Moment.” It stems from a conversation that I had with him last week. I hope you enjoy.

Negative Mimesis

Much of what passes for truth in society is socially-constructed opinion or consensus, reinforced by narratives uncritically received. This is a core part of René Girard’s mimetic theory. New narratives develop which merely respond to others. Mythology develops that covers up some founding event.

These narratives form a mimetic cycle—a cyclone that swallows up or at least distorts our perception of the people and events at the origin.

The first narrative is the most important one because it gives birth to the rest. We could call the first one N; the narratives that follow are N1, N2, N3. They derive their significance from the original. (We go from narrative to narrative, from N to N+1. It’s rare, if not impossible, to go from 0 to N—unless you want to become the Count of Monte Cristo. This is also the attraction of the metaverse: it is not only a new world, but a world in which we can recreate ourselves and our narrative.)

Creation stories are important because the stories that follow have been shaped by them—consciously or not. This is why the founding stories of a culture are so critical. Rome’s founding story is built around warring twins, Romulus and Remus, descended from a god but unaware of their true identity until a feud breaks out in the city. Romulus ends up killing Remus in a dispute over the location of the new city they wanted to found together. And Rome was born—in some sense, from the blood of Remus. Every new story about Rome is essentially a story about primacy. Every new story about America is a story about freedom.

Every new story about Peter Thiel is now a story about politics and power. Or at least that’s how you frame the origin story as if you’re writing an unauthorized biography and you want to scare people.

I did notice something strange happen this past week after Chafkin’s book was released: it was like the fourth wall had been broken, and most people saw right through it. It’s easy to sniff out the agenda merely from reading half a chapter in the book—and actually, just by the cover and jacket alone. I was reminded that it’s important to be able to talk about books we’ve never read. It’s a critical cultural skill. Who has time to read every book? And who would even want it? It’s not healthy.

Positive Mimesis

More and more, you can glean everything you need to know about a book from the jacket alone. Books are extended treatises on a single page summary of an idea—mimetically propagated through podcast and podcast that highlights the same handful of talking points. It seems less important to read (most) books to me today than ever before.

That’s why one of my favorite books of all time is called How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read, by Pierre Bayard. And no, you don’t have to have read it to talk about it, or to understand what I am trying to say—and maybe saying poorly—right now. We can talk about books we haven’t read because each of us is responsible for creating the conditions in which we understand the meaning of people and events.

Bayard writes: “As cultivated people know (and, to their misfortune, uncultivated people do not), culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others.”

Some books you can “read” by simply looking at their title and subtitle, or the publishing house they came from, or the imagery on the cover. You can imagine yourself present at the book’s inception, when an executive editor got behind its narrative. You can even reasonably predict the unfolding of the narrative inside of it. Yes, you can talk about that book with complete confidence without having ever read it.

Non-reading, it turns out, is just as important as reading. Understanding where a book comes from and why it exists—locating that book—is even more important than its contents. “This distinction between the content of a book and its location is fundamental, for it is this that allows those unintimidated by culture to speak without trouble on any subject,” writes Bayard.

Unintimidated by the culture with the courage to speak without trouble on any subject—now there’s an idea.

Quote

“Every successful business person gets two magazine covers—one on the way up, one on the way down.” —Marc Andreessen

 


Have a beautiful week.
Luke

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