Are we honestly hungry for more content, or for something else?
This past week, interest has piqued around the idea of “life as game”—namely, life as a giant game of status and recognition. A depressing thought.
Ezra Klein interviewed C. Thi Nguyen on his podcast (episode title: “A Philosophy of Games That Is Really a Philosophy of Life”). And NYT columnist David Brooks also addressed the topic in his recent piece, “Is Life a Story or a Game?” A New York Times double whammy.
(Thank you to a reader of this newsletter for calling my attention to both.)
What’s going on here?
What Klein and Nguyen were really talking about (without using any of this language) are the mimetic games that people play. The games they refer to are the product of mimetic desire and the rituals that form in relationships and in cultures, often to keep conflict or violence at bay. These games are not mere trivialities; in some ways, the games are critical infrastructure.
Their solution, though, is unsatisfactory. What’s the way out for a person who is engaged in silly mimetic games? A person who is being made miserable by their engagement in those games? In the episode summary, Klein gives away his answer:
“We should be a little suspicious of things that give us pleasure and how to safeguard our own values in a world that wants us to care about winning the most points.”
‘Safeguard our own values’. What does that mean? What do ‘own values’ mean in this context, especially? If all of life is game-playing, couldn’t those values also be the product of game-playing?
And how do you know the difference?
My view is that the conversation lacked an adequate framework for escaping the game-playing—and I chalk that up partly to Klein completely dismissing René Girard as an interesting thinker a few months ago. And now he’s talking about mimesis without even realizing it.
I have also been thinking about games partly because—even before learning of Klein’s and Brook’s stuff—I found my old copy of Michael Novak’s book The Joy of Sports in a box in my garage. I flipped through it and remembered how much I enjoyed it the first time I read it about ten years ago. It explains just how deep our sporting rituals go (at the level of desire); and Novak talks about games ‘consecrating the American spirit.’
Okay, and one final reason why game-playing has been on my mind: I have been receiving (and turning down) quite a few invites to panels and lectures and speeches lately. That’s somewhat because my schedule is too overloaded, but it may secretly be that I am spending so much time thinking about them at some kind of philosophical level that I can’t bring myself to engage in them until I figure out what’s going on.
I sense that most seminars and conferences are examples of a particular form of elaborate game-playing—from the ‘panels’ and ‘keynotes’ and the contrived socialization to the way that guests are chosen and invited (often at different prices, by the way.) I often leave them thinking, “What in the hell just happened?”
I’ve had multiple men get drunk and cry on my shoulders in the early hours of the morning, give me their business card and promise to stay in touch, and then never heard from them again. It’s almost as if there is some kind of cathartic ritual taking place at these events, unbeknown to the attendees—kind of like a company Christmas party where (almost) everyone gets a hall pass.
Just to be clear: there’s anything wrong with like-minded people getting together in the same place, or with relationship building, or with discourse, or even with a nice happy hour or two or three or four. All that’s fine. But I can’t help but wonder why something always feels extremely off to me.
Maybe it’s just that I’m pretty introverted and I take a long time to think things through. It’s my nature when cornered for an answer to a complex question in a meeting for me to say “I’ll need to think about that for 3-4 days and get back to you.” I process slowly. (That could also explain the natural tension I feel on podcasts, where immediate takes are prized. There is rarely an instance where a host and a guest stand shoulder-to-shoulder carefully thinking through a question together in Socratic dialogue. They usually take the form of a Q&A volley; answer one question, and on to the next one.)
But back to conferences.
There’s something more going on. One hint to what it might be: they’re all the same. There is some institutional isomorphism driving their form—namely, they are entirely organized around content.
If there is no content, there is no event.
Is the concept of ‘the keynote’ some kind of important form of content delivery that is necessary to the ritual? Are panels?
The Institution of the Conference: what kind of conflict is the institution of designed to cover up or expel? What kind of truths does it obscure?
These are questions I need to understand.
The world was given form before it had any content; now it’s swimming in a sea of content.
Content is the new deluge, the new flood, wiping away our ability to see the forms.
We can not see the form of revelation, we cannot see the form of truth, and we cannot see the form of lies.
We sort of see the forms. We have some notion that the form of a cancellation apology is a particular form of content—it is designed to prevent further conflict. Its structure is tighter than a Pauline epistle. But because it is content—and because we read it as content—we are less likely to notice the form.
But the ancient forms are re-emerging. These new forms of content delivery will pass away, as anything transient does, and we will look back and wonder what it was we were really doing when we were gathered together to talk about X.
Perhaps the ‘X’ is an unknowable X which merely provided the pretext for gathering—to serve some much deeper need.
We don’t live in a contentless world, and I don’t want or expect to escape the one I live in. But it is possible to create forms, even contentless worlds, which will produce much more substantial content than the ones we have unconsciously accepted.
Thank you for reading.
There’s still time to sign-up for the next Anti-Mimetic Salon, for premium subscribers-only: a conversation with writer Thomas J. Bevan.