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Mimesis, Violence, and Facebook: Peter Thiel’s French Connection (Full Essay)

Geoff Shullenberger on August 13, 2016

During the week of July 12, 2004, a group of scholars
gathered at Stanford University, as one participant reported,
“to discuss current affairs in a leisurely way with [Stanford
emeritus professor] René Girard.” The proceedings were later
published as the book Politics and Apocalypse. At first
glance, the symposium resembled many others held at American
universities in the early 2000s: the talks proceeded from the
premise that “the events of Sept. 11, 2001 demand a
reexamination of the foundations of modern politics.” The
speakers enlisted various theoretical perspectives to
facilitate that reexamination, with a focus on how the
religious concept of apocalypse might illuminate the secular
crisis of the post-9/11 world.

As one examines the list of participants, one name stands
out: Peter Thiel, not, like the rest, a university professor,
but (at the time) the President of Clarium Capital. In 2011,
the New Yorker called Thiel “the world’s most successful
technology investor”; he has also been described, admiringly,
as a “philosopher-CEO.” More recently, Thiel has been at the
center of a media firestorm for his role in bankrolling Hulk
Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, which outed Thiel as gay in
2007 and whose journalists he has described as “terrorists.”
He has also garnered some headlines for standing as a
delegate for Donald Trump, whose strongman populism seems an
odd fit for Thiel’s highbrow libertarianism; he recently
reinforced his support for Trump with a speech at the
Republican National Convention. Both episodes reflect Thiel’s
longstanding conviction that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs
should use their wealth to exercise power and reshape
society. But to what ends? Thiel’s participation in the 2004
Stanford symposium offers some clues. Thiel’s connection to
the late René Girard, his former teacher at Stanford, is well
known but poorly understood. Most accounts of the
Girard-Thiel connection have described the common ground
between them as “conservatism,” but this oversimplifies the
matter. Girard, a French Catholic pacifist, would have likely
found little common ground with most Trump delegates. While
aspects of his thinking could be described as conservative,
he also described himself as an advocate of “a more
reasonable, renewed ideology of liberalism and progress.”
Nevertheless, as the Politics and Apocalypse symposium
reveals, Thiel and Girard both believe that “Western
political philosophy can no longer cope with our world of
global violence.” “The Straussian Moment,” Thiel’s
contribution to the conference, seeks common ground between
Girard’s mimetic theory of human social life – to which I
will return shortly – and the work of two right-wing,
anti-democratic political philosophers who were in vogue in
the years following 9/11: Leo Strauss, a cult figure in some
conservative circles, and a guru to some members of the Bush
administration; and Carl Schmitt, a onetime Nazi who has
nevertheless been influential among academics of both the
right and the left. Thiel notes that Girard, Strauss, and
Schmitt, despite various differences, share a conviction that
“the whole issue of human violence has been whitewashed away
by the Enlightenment.” His dense and wide-ranging essay draws
from their writings an analysis of the failure of modern
secular politics to contend with the foundational role of
violence in the social order.

Thiel’s intellectual debt to Girard’s theories has a
surprising relevance to some of his most prominent
investments. For anyone who has followed Thiel’s career, the
summer of 2004 – the summer when the “Politics and
Apocalypse” symposium at Stanford took place – should be a
familiar period. About a month afterward, in August, Thiel
made his crucial $500,000 angel investment in Facebook, the
first outside funding for what was then a little-known
startup. In most accounts of Facebook’s breakthrough from
dormroom project to social media empire (including that
offered by the film The Social Network), Thiel plays a
decisive role: a well-connected tech industry figure, he
provided Zuckerberg et al, then Silicon Valley newcomers,
with credibility as well as cash at a key juncture. What made
Thiel see the potential of Facebook before anyone else? We
find his answer in an obituary for René Girard (who died in
November 2015), which reports that Thiel “credits Girard with
inspiring him to switch careers and become an early, and
well-rewarded, investor in Facebook.” It was the French
academic’s mimetic theory, he claims, that allowed him to
foresee the company’s success: “[Thiel] gave Facebook its
first $500,000 investment, he said, because he saw Professor
Girard’s theories being validated in the concept of social
media. ‘Facebook first spread by word of mouth, and it’s
about word of mouth, so it’s doubly mimetic,’ he said.
‘Social media proved to be more important than it looked,
because it’s about our natures.'” On the basis of such
statements, business analyst and Thiel admirer Arnaud Auger
has gone so far as to call Girard “the godfather of the
‘like’ button.”

In order to make sense of how Girard informed Thiel’s
investment in Facebook, but also how he has shaped Thiel’s
ideas about violence, we need to examine the basic tenets of
Girard’s thought. Mimetic theory has not been widely applied
in social analyses of the internet, perhaps in part because
Girard himself had essentially nothing to say about
technology in his published oeuvre. Yet the omission is
surprising given mimetic theory’s superficial resemblance to
the more often discussed “meme theory,” which similarly
posits imitation as the basis of culture. Meme theory began
with Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, was codified in
Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine, and has been applied
broadly, in popular and scholarly contexts, to varied
internet phenomena. Indeed, the traction achieved by the term
“meme” has made most of us witting or unwitting adopters of
meme theory. Yet as Matthew Taylor has argued, Girard’s
account of mimeticism has significant theoretical advantages
over Dawkins-derived meme theory, at least for anyone
interested in making sense of the socio-political dimensions
of technology. Meme theory tends to reify memes, separating
them from the social contexts in which their circulation is
embedded. Girard, in contrast, situates imitative behaviors
within a general social theory of desire.

Girard’s theory of mimetic desire is simple in its basic
framework but has permitted complex, detailed analyses of a
wide range of cultural and social phenomena. For Girard, what
distinguishes desire from instinct is its mediated form: put
simply, we desire things because others desire them. There is
some continuity with familiar strands of psychoanalytic
theory here. I quote, for example, from Slavoj Žižek: “The
problem is, how do we know what we desire? There is nothing
spontaneous, nothing natural, about human desires. Our
desires are artificial. We have to be taught to desire.”
Compare this with Girard’s statement: “Man is the creature
who does not know what to desire, and who turns to others in
order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire
because we imitate their desires.” For Girard (and here he
differs from psychoanalysis), mimesis is the process by which
we learn how and what to desire. Any subject’s desire, he
argues, is based on that of another subject who functions as
a model, or “mediator.” Hence, as he first asserted in his
book Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, the structure of desire
is triangular, incorporating not only a subject and an
object, but also, and more crucially, another subject who
models any subject’s desire. Moreover, for Girard, the
relation to the object of desire is secondary to the relation
between the two desiring subjects – which can eclipse the
object, reducing it to the status of a prop or pretext.

The possible applications of this thinking to social media in
particular should be relatively obvious. The structures of
social platforms mediate the presentation of objects: that
is, all “objects” appear embedded in, and placed in relation
to, visible signals of the other’s desire (likes, up-votes,
reblogs, retweets, comments, etc.). The accumulation of such
signals, in turn, renders objects more visible: the more
mediated through the other’s desire (that is, the more liked,
retweeted, reblogged, etc.), the more prominent a post or
tweet becomes on one’s feed, and hence the more desirable.
Desire begets desire, much in the manner that Girard
describes. Moreover, social media platforms perpetually
enjoin users, through various means, to enter the iterative
chain of mimesis: to signal their desires to other users,
eliciting further desires in the process. The algorithms
driving social media, as it turns out, are programmed on
mimetic principles.

Yet it is not simply that the signaling of desire (for
example, by liking a post) happens to produce relations with
others, but that the true aim of the signaling of desire
through posting, liking, commenting, etc. is to produce
relations with others. This is what meme theory obscures and
mimetic theory makes clear: memes, far from being autonomous
replicators, as meme theory would have it, function entirely
as mediators of social relations; their replication relies
entirely on those relations. Recall that for Girard, the
desire for any object is always enmeshed in social linkages,
insofar as the desire only comes about in the first place
through the mediation of the other. A reading of Girard’s
analyses of nineteenth-century fiction or of ancient myth
suggests that none of this is at all new. Social media have
not, as the popular hype sometimes implies, altered the
structures that underlie social relations. They merely render
certain aspects of them more obvious. According to Girard,
what stands in the way of the discovery of mimetic desire is
not its obscurity or complexity, but the seeming triviality
of the behaviors that reveal it: envy, jealousy, snobbery,
copycat behavior. All are too embarrassing to seem socially,
much less politically, significant. For similar reasons, to
revisit Thiel’s remark, “social media proved to be more
important than it looked.”

But so far, I have been expanding on what Thiel himself has
said, which others have echoed. However, what accounts of
Girard’s role in Thiel’s Facebook investment never mention is
the other half of Girard’s theory, the half that Thiel was at
Stanford to discuss in 2004: mimetic violence, which, for
Girard, is the necessary corollary of mimetic desire.

Thiel invested in and promoted Facebook not simply because
Girard’s theories led him to foresee the future profitability
of the company, but because he saw social media as a
mechanism for the containment and channeling of mimetic
violence in the face of an ineffectual state. Facebook, then,
was not simply a prescient and well-rewarded investment for
Thiel, but a political act closely connected to other
well-known actions, from founding the national
security-oriented startup Palantir Technologies to suing
Gawker and supporting Trump.

According to Girard’s mimetic theory, humans choose objects
of desire through contagious imitation: we desire things
because others desire them, and we model our desires on
others’ desires. As a result, desires converge on the same
objects, and selves become rivals and doubles, struggling for
the same sense of full being, which each subject suspects the
other of possessing. The resulting conflicts cascade across
societies because the mimetic structure of behavior also
means that violence replicates itself rapidly. The entire
community becomes mired in reciprocal aggression. The ancient
solution to such a “mimetic crisis,” according to Girard, was
sacrifice, which channeled collective violence into the
murder of scapegoats, thus purging it, temporarily, from the
community. While these cathartic acts of mob violence
initially occurred spontaneously, as Girard argues in his
book Violence and the Sacred, they later became codified in
ritual, which reenacts collective violence in a controlled
manner, and in myth, which recounts it in veiled forms.
Religion, the sacred, and the state, for Girard, emerged out
of this violent purgation of violence from the community.
However, he argues, the modern era is characterized by a
discrediting of the scapegoat mechanism, and therefore of
sacrificial ritual, which creates a perennial problem of how
to contain violence.

For Girard, to wield power is to control the mechanisms by
which the mimetic violence that threatens the social order is
contained, channeled, and expelled. Girard’s politics, as
mentioned above, are ambiguous: he criticizes conservatism
for wishing to preserve the sacrificial logic of ancient
theocracies, and liberalism for believing that by dissolving
religion it can eradicate the potential for violence.
However, Girard’s religious commitment to a somewhat
heterodox Christianity is clear, and controversial: he
regards the non-violence of the Jesus of the gospel texts as
a powerful exception to the violence that has been in the DNA
of all human cultures, and an antidote to mimetic conflict.
It is unclear to what degree Girard regards this conviction
as reconcilable with an acceptance of modern secular
governance, founded as it is by the state monopoly on
violence. Peter Thiel, for his part, has stated that he is a
Christian, but his large contributions to hawkish politicians
suggest he does not share Girard’s pacifist interpretation of
the Bible. His sympathetic account, in “The Straussian
Moment,” of the ideas of Carl Schmitt offers further evidence
of his ambivalence about Girard’s pacifism. For Schmitt, a
society cannot achieve any meaningful cohesion without an
“enemy” to define itself against. Schmitt and Girard both see
violence as fundamental to the social order, but they draw
opposite conclusions from that finding: Schmitt wants to
resuscitate the scapegoat in order to maintain the state’s
cohesion, while Girard wants (somehow) to put a final end to
scapegoating and sacrifice. In his 2004 essay, Thiel seems
torn between Girard’s pacifism and Schmitt’s bellicosity.

The tensions between Girard’s and Thiel’s worldviews run
deeper, as a brief overview of Thiel’s politics reveals. As a
libertarian, he has donated to both Ron and Rand Paul, and he
has also supported Tea Party stalwarts including Ted Cruz.
George Packer, in a 2011 profile of Thiel, reports that his
chief influence in his youth was Ayn Rand, and that in
political arguments in college, Thiel fondly quoted Margaret
Thatcher’s claim that “there is no such thing as society.” As
George Packer notes in his New Yorker profile of Thiel, few
claims could be more alien to his mentor, Girard, who insists
on the primacy of the collective over the individual and
dedicated several books to debunking modern myths of
individualism. Indeed, Thiel’s libertarian vision of the
heroic entrepreneur standing apart from society closely
resembles what Girard derided in his work as “the romantic
lie”: the fantasy of the autonomous, self-directed individual
that emerged out of European Romanticism. Girard went so far
as to suggest replacing the term “individual” with the
neologism “interdividual,” which better conveys the way that
identity is always constructed in relation to others.

In a seemingly Ayn-Randian vein, Thiel likes to call tech
entrepreneurs “founders,” and in lectures and seminars has
compared startups to monarchies. He envisions “founders” in
mythical terms, citing Romulus, Remus, Oedipus, and Cain,
figures discussed at length in Girard’s analyses of myth.
Thiel’s pro-monarchist statements have been parsed in the
media (and linked to his support for the would-be autocrat
Trump), but without noting that for a self-proclaimed devotee
of René Girard to advocate for monarchy carries striking
ambiguities. According to Girard’s counterintuitive analysis,
monarchical power is the obverse side of scapegoating.
Monarchy, he hypothesizes, has its origins in the role of the
sacrificed scapegoat as the unifier and redeemer of the
community; it developed when scapegoats managed to delay
their own ritual murder and secured a fixed place at the
center of a society. A king is a living scapegoat who has
been deified, and can become a scapegoat again, as Girard
illustrates in his reading of the myth of Oedipus (Oedipus
begins as an outsider, goes on to become king, and is
ultimately punished for the community’s ills, channeling
collective violence toward himself, and returned to his
outsider status).

If Thiel, as he reveals in a 2012 seminar, views the
“founder” as both potentially a “God” and a “victim,” then he
regards the broad societal influence wielded by the tech
élite as a source of risk: a king can always become a
scapegoat. On these grounds, it seems reasonable to conclude
that Thiel’s animus against Gawker, which he has repeatedly
accused of “bullying” him and other Silicon Valley power
players, is closely connected to his core concern with
scapegoating, derived from his longstanding engagement with
Girard’s ideas. Thiel’s preoccupation with the risks faced by
the “founder” also has a close connection to his hostility
toward democratic politics, which he regards as placing power
in the hands of a mob that will victimize those it chooses to
play the role of scapegoat. Or as he states: “the 99% vs. the
1% is the modern articulation of [the] classic scapegoating
mechanism: it is all minus one versus the one.”

No serious reader of Girard can regard a simple return to
monarchical rule – which Thiel has sometimes seemed to favor
– as plausible: the ritual underpinnings that were necessary
to maintain its credibility, Girard insists, have been
irreversibly demystified. Perhaps on the basis of this
recognition, and even while hedging his bets through his
involvement in Republican politics, Thiel has focused instead
on the new possibilities offered by network technologies for
the exercise of power. A Thiel text published on the website
of the libertarian Cato Institute is suggestive in this
context: “In the 2000s, companies like Facebook create . . .
new ways to form communities not bounded by historical
nation-states. By starting a new Internet business, an
entrepreneur may create a new world. The hope of the Internet
is that these new worlds will impact and force change on the
existing social and political order.” Although Thiel does not
say so here, from a Girardian point of view, a “founder” of a
community does so by bringing mimetic violence under
institutional control – precisely what the application of
mimetic theory to Facebook would suggest that it does.

As we saw previously, Thiel was ruminating on Strauss,
Schmitt, and Girard in the summer of 2004, but also on the
future of social media platforms, which he found himself in a
position to help shape. It is worth adding that around the
same time, Thiel was involved in the founding of Palantir
Technologies, a data analysis company whose main clients are
the US Intelligence Community and Department of Defense – a
company explicitly founded, according to Thiel, to forestall
acts of destabilizing violence like 9/11. One may speculate
that Thiel understood Facebook to serve a parallel function.
According to his own account, he identified the new platform
as a powerful conduit of mimetic desire. In Girard’s account,
the original conduits of mimetic desire were religions, which
channeled socially destructive, “profane” violence into
sanctioned forms of socially consolidating violence. If the
sacrificial and juridical superstructures designed to contain
violence had reached their limits, Thiel seemed to understand
social media as a new, technological means to achieving
comparable ends.

If we take Girard’s mimetic theory seriously, the
consequences for the way we think about social media are
potentially profound. For one, it would lead us to conclude
that social media platforms, by channeling mimetic desire,
also serve as conduits of the violence that goes along with
it. That, in turn, would suggest that abuse, harassment, and
bullying – the various forms of scapegoating that have become
depressing constants of online behavior – are features, not
bugs: the platforms’ basic social architecture, by
concentrating mimetic behavior, also stokes the tendencies
toward envy, rivalry, and hatred of the Other that feed
online violence. From Thiel’s perspective, we may speculate,
this means that those who operate those platforms are in the
position to harness and manipulate the most powerful and
potentially destabilizing forces in human social life – and
most remarkably, to derive profits from them. For someone
overtly concerned about the threat posed by such forces to
those in positions of power, a crucial advantage would seem
to lie in the possibility of deflecting violence away from
the prominent figures who are the most obvious potential
targets of popular ressentiment, and into internecine
conflict with other users.

Girard’s mimetic theory can help illuminate what social media
does, and why it has become so central to our lives so
quickly – yet it can lead to insights at odds with those
drawn by Thiel. From Thiel’s perspective, it would seem,
mimetic theory provides him and those of his class with an
account of how and to what ends power can be exercised
through technology. Thiel has made this clear enough: mimetic
violence threatens the powerful; it needs to be contained for
their – his – protection; as quasi-monarchs, “founders” run
the risk of becoming scapegoats; the solution is to use
technologies to control violence – this is explicit in the
case of Palantir, implicit in the case of Facebook. But there
is another way of reading social media through Girard. By
revealing that the management of desire confers power,
mimetic theory can help us make sense of how platforms
administer our desires, and to whose benefit. For Girard,
modernity is the prolonged demystification of the basis of
power in violence. Unveiling the ways that power operates
through social media can continue that process.

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     W.W. Norton & Company

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