I’ve attended two large social gatherings (sometimes called “conferences”) these past couple of weeks. I’ve been struck by how many times some strange, non-sequitur thing would be said during the course of a conversation—or sometimes even by way of introduction. I am surely guilty of it myself. A few examples that come quickly to mind:
“I don’t know your politics, but it’s just nasty out there, and we all know the ____*!&?____ started it. They clearly started the arms race.” (Spoken by someone who announced he was running for congress in 2022 within 60-seconds of meeting me. Nevermind the Girardian humor embedded within it.)
“No offense, no judgment, but I stopped drinking after college because I had to, and I deserve more credit for it.” (Spoken by someone within the first 30-seconds of meeting, staring at the glass of Pinot Noir in my hand, eyes darting in all directions, looking for a getaway.)
“I hate these things. I hate them severely. I don’t know why I’m here, but it’s really good to find you.” (Someone interrupting me 15-20-seconds after asking me to describe how I met my wife.)
Maybe it’s just nerves, or post-pandemic social awkwardness. I suspect it has something to do with (in the words of my friend Tom Bevan)—Twitter Brain: we learn to think in “content.”
We’re so used to writing 280-character ‘takes’—which we unreflectively put out into the void without being able to see immediate facial reactions or hear any responses (strange, if you think about it)—that we’re simply forgotten how to enter into the flow of a conversation organically and let it unfold according to its inner logic and dynamic.
I’ve been reading the great philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand during our trip to the Russian River Valley these past couple of days. He describes the modern man’s constant need to take shortcuts in the development of relationships. I’m going to quote him at length here a couple of times because I believe it’s vital.
Von Hildebrand is talking here about the classic virtue of discretio—discretion, or discrimination—which he says is the mark of a mature personality.
Note he’s writing in the 1930’s. Emphasis mine.
The fading of this sense is one of the most serious signs of the decay of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is closely related to the technicalization, instrumentalization, and leveling of our world. In the eyes of a great number of people, the mechanical world of technique has become the model for all vital situations and all spheres of being. Men went to reach their goal as soon as possible, and “by the shortest way”—as it is reached in building a machine. They want to leave aside all the so-called superfluous bywork. This activist, irreverent attitude results in the dying out of the rhythmical law of the being’s inner unfolding, especially in the vital, intellectual, and spiritual spheres. Men have ceased to understand what an indispensable function the so-called superfluous bywork possesses; they have ceased to conspire with the objective logos of things; they want to fabricate things brutally, from the outside, without any sense of the dramatic character of the being’s unfolding itself in time. They continually make shortcuts.
Von Hildebrand’s continual use of the word “unfolding” to describe an organic relationship has continued to provide me food for thought (and relationships) ever since I first read these passages about 10 years ago.
I’m a fairly visual thinker, so I have always envisioned someone unfolding a piece of origami to reveal some beautiful writing or image on the inside. An inner piece cannot be unfolded unless the right outer piece is unfolded first. If you just grab it and start pulling, you rip the whole damn thing apart.
Here is Von Hildebrand in the very next paragraph. This one resonates even more deeply with me for reasons that I will explain below.
That man, who is indiscriminate in the sense described above, understands nothing of the inner structure of a relationship of communion, especially of a communion of love, such as friendship or marriage. He does not understand the inner stages which must be traversed organically in the formation of an “I-Thou” communion; he does not understand that an inner law must be observed in progressing along the path leading from a reserved attitude toward another person to love interpenetration. He does not realize the arrival of the moment which marks the passing from the more general “you” to the more intimate “thou”; he does not let himself be guided by the objective logos of the relationship, but blindly seeks to skip all the inner degrees of the formation of a deep relationship. But he skips them only in imagination, for in reality they cannot be skipped.
(The reference to an "I-Thou” relationships is draw, of course, from the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber.)
While Von Hildebrand’s early twentieth-century writing style can seem a little harsh—one long series of rebukes—he is lamenting the tearing apart of relationships that he already saw happening at the dawn of the modern technological age. His warnings to us to heed an inner law of relationships—a kind of vital energy and communication that must be unfolded organically—seem more relevant to me than ever.
There is a natural order to things. But that order is easily interrupted or hijacked.
There are now strong mimetic processes that govern the way conversations and relationships happen, both in form and content. These mimetic processes are like riptides. Once you get caught in them, they’re hard to get out of.
Because we’re such extremely mimetic creatures, we tend to unintentionally imitate both the form and style of others. (YouTuber voice is one example).
Podcasts are another. On most of the larger podcasts, you’ll hear a guest be asked something like “So tell me, who is René Girard, what is ‘mimetic theory’, and why does it matter?” right out of the gate. Expecting a 2-minute answer.
What some listeners may not know is that there was likely a grand total of two-minutes of interaction between guest and host prior to that (“How’s the sound? Good. Cool. Where are you at? Washington, DC. I’ve been there once. Great, let’s go. Okay, I’m hitting record.”)
Imagine meeting someone at a party, or at a friend’s house, or any flesh-and-blood human for that matter, with whom you are expected to have such an inorganic conversation.
Yet the mimetically-driven podcast-mania has normalized them. I think that a form of discourse is being modeled to us—not only on social media, but now on podcasts—that does violence to the kind of inner-logic that Von Hildebrand is describing. We risk losing sight of the kind of dialogue that we need but perhaps have forgotten how to want.
Maybe there’s a huge gap to fill in the podcast market, or perhaps in the market for better cocktail-reception-conversation. If you can fill it, I suspect you’ll be popular.
Then again, filling gaps in markets does not a good life make.
I’m typing this from a little cabin in the Russian River Valley (photo below) with cold mountain air hitting my face and my new-found obsession with bird-watching growing more dire by the hour, and I am lucky to have been able to have some rambling, anti-mimetic conversations with winemakers, servers, and neighbors that I didn’t even know I had been longing for.