“History is a test for mankind, but we know very well that mankind is failing that test.” – René Girard

The tables are turned on Entitled Opinions‘ Robert Pogue Harrison: public radio show host Christopher Lydon recently interviewed the interviewer for Open Source in Boston. The wide-ranging conversation considered the French theorist René Girard’s mimetic theory, the nature of warfare, the dangers of biotechnology, and the social media.

Mankind is an imitative species “with a terrible envy built into it, a competitive desire to be like some ideal of the other person,” Harrison said, citing the work of Girard. Facebook is the “perfect mechanical vehicle” of such envy. Facebook services mimetic needs with “a prosthetic self and a prosthetic social life and prosthetic friends.”

“We have this illusion that there’s nothing more proper to my inner self than my own desires,” said  Harrison – but Girard challenges that assumption, showing that our desires are the result of imitation. No coincidence, then, that Facebook was “a worldwide theater of imitated desire on people’s personal computers,” he said. Certainly his former Stanford pupil Peter Thiel, an early investor in Facebook, understood the importance of Girard’s legacy when he said: “I suspect that when the history of the 20th century is written circa 2100, he will be seen as truly one of the great intellectuals, but it may still be a long time till it’s fully understood.”

Imitation leads to violence, and Harrison noted that Girard is “more compelling in his diagnosis of the problem of violence rather than what he offers as an alternative.” Girard’s solution? “The refusal to retaliate he believed was the only sane recommendation in the face of this vortex that international violence could create,” said Harrison. 

Harrison also took on the gene-editing boom: “In the name of doing good, you can license a lot of harm,” he said. “Mengele in Auschwitz will eventually be recognized as a visionary of the 20th century, although his methods will be condemned and his Nazi affiliations never endorsed.” Harrison, a Dante scholar, pointed out that the Inferno’s portrayal of sea-faring Ulysses was the “archetype of scientific discovery,” always heading to new frontiers of exploration and knowledge, which ultimately led to his death. “The line that’s being crossed today is taking the role of creation into our own hands and presuming to know better than nature.” He asked what the motivations behind biotechnology are. Dante’s Geryon, the furry monster who represents fraud in the Inferno, “has the face of a gentle, kind, smiling man, and the tail of a scorpion,” he said. “I want to know where the scorpion tail is hiding in this new explosion of biotech.”

“The one who believes he can control violence by setting up defenses is in fact controlled by violence.” – Robert Harrison