Discover more from Cracks in Postmodernity
Escaping the Herd: The Novitate Conference Reviewed
on Girard, chain smoking, and mimetic desire
To celebrate the success of the Novitate Conference, we will be offering a special discount to new subscribers. Click here for more info. We especially invite Novitate attendees to sign up to read and listen to content from conference speakers including
As I swiftly walked through the brisk early November air across campus, I encountered the same sites I had become accustomed to seeing during my few previous visits to the Catholic University of America. Students with books in hand wearing outfits ranging from university gear to Fox News anchor-inspired suits, religious sisters with oversized rosaries dangling from their waists, and packs of Dominican friars rushing off to study medieval philosophical schema which would baffle most postmodernly minded scholars.
The scene was par for the course, as if they were characters following along a prefabricated script–that is, until I made my way upstairs to the Pryzbyla “Pryz” Campus Center. There was a smattering of those same two-piece suited-students and religious–though these ones’ habits were so traditional so as to make it seem like they had walked out of the Council of Trent. But amongst them were a star-studded crowd of the culturati and literati, hailing from a variety of disciplines and fields of expertise, from across ideological persuasions and ranging from numerous religious traditions to none at all.
Happening upon a truly diverse crowd such as this–among whom were novelists like Brandon G. Taylor, journalists like Ross Douthat, scientists like Maria Elena Monzani, internet historians like Katherine Dee, and none other than Peter Thiel–is not exactly something one expects to find in our times of both extreme polarization and predictability. What brought together such a peculiar and inimitable assortment of people was, ironically enough, the legacy of philosopher Rene Girard.
The Novitate Conference, hosted by Luke Burgis in honor of the centenary of Girard’s birth, aptly set out to explore the problem of mimesis and originality in our current cultural moment–fraught as it is by corrupt technocratic power and ideological confusion. The name “Novitate” is borrowed from the Latin rendering of Paul’s exhortation to the Romans–perhaps his most Girardian moment–to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
Burgis, the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at CUA and author of the best-selling book Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life, launched the conference in order to “bring together three metaphorical cities: Athens (reason), Jerusalem (faith Traditions), and Silicon Valley (innovators in business and beyond).”
After opening remarks by Burgis and CUA President Peter Kilpatrick, the first panel on “Race and Cultural Desire through a Girardian Lens” commenced, setting the tone for the day. The panelists–Thomas Chatterton Williams, Coleman Hughs, and Lester Spence–shared their unorthodox views on perhaps today’s most caustic cultural issue, while managing to steer clear of overplayed reactionary tropes–making, once again, for a truly novel moment.
They were followed by Thiel who made his way to the mainstage flanked by bodyguards to deliver his keynote address entitled “Nihilism is Not Enough.” Thiel recounted having recently asked a group of zoomers what they desire. Their answers amounted mainly to virtual or “interior” goods. When prodded as to why they didn’t long for tangible ones, they expressed that aspiring to things like owning property or an ideal relationship were “too dangerous and risky.” Thus, claimed Thiel, is the hold technocratic power has over “the herd,” who is easily controlled by narratives fed to them by hidden elites about societal conflict and its imminent collapse, and their subsequent promises of peace and safety. He compared such impositions of mass psyops to Vladimir Solvyev’s account of the anti-Christ.
Though many attendees grumbled at first about having to sit through two panels during lunch, their attention was seized toward the end of the second one on “The New Media Landscape.” The conversation between Renee DiResta, Walter Kirn, and Hamish McKenzie, and moderated by Douthat, started with standard fodder about the curveball that platforms like Substack have thrown at traditional media outlets.
But the conversation took a turn when it came to the platform formerly known as Twitter, as DiResta and Kirns exchanged blows over the Twitter Files–ending in the spewing of epithets like “censorious fed,” and Douthat attempting to diffuse the tension remarking that we haven’t seen public intellectual come to blows like this “since Sohrab Ahmari and David French.”
Between the mainstage panels were a series of breakout sessions. Perhaps the most enticing-and unsurprisingly, the best attended–featured Katherine Dee, writer Tara Isabella Burton, creative director Nathan Allebach, and COMPACT Magazine’s managing editor Geoff Shullenbeger on the topic of “Imitation, Innovation, and the Digital Public Square.”
Burton, who studied theology at Oxford, juxtaposed the modern conception of “creativity” and “originality” from earlier ones, pointing mainly to the way that secularization has contributed to these differences. Human creativity in pre-modern times–which was fostered “in dialogue with divine creation”–upheld imitation as an ideal; creativity implied “conforming ourselves imperfectly to some higher good.” Thus dissociating oneself from said higher goods in an effort to be “original” or “authentic” ultimately renders one less original. Yet such is the ideal in a “non God-centered world.” Burton pointed to figures like De Sade and Wilde whose originality took amoral and even destructive turns in their effort to “do anything” to distinguish themselves from the herd.
Allebach followed up by commenting on recent trends in advertising, pointing to sexed-up Wendy’s ads and Duolingo posting outrageous tweets about wanting to drink Dua Lipa’s piss as examples of companies doing anything to stand out in the hyper-competitive attention commons. He further observed that “people seem to want to be brands, and brands want to be people…companies want to sound more like people and young people want to sound like brands.”
Burton referenced Madonna’s autobiography which revealed the extremes she went to to get famous. Identity, for the likes of Madonna, has less to do with imitating a pre-existing ideal, and more so with one’s “unique” set of personal desires–in her case, the desire to be famous. Katherine Dee added that the “it factor” that launched Madonna and other pop icons to fame seems increasingly elusive, like it comes “out of thin air.”
Shullenberger remarked how easy it is in today’s pop landscape–devoid of commonly-held universal ideals to aspire to–for one’s followers to eventually become one’s rivals, calling to mind how Nietzsche told his followers not to imitate him. The panel closed off asking how–in the face of the “panoptic surveillance machine” which mobilizes everyday people to become enforcers of social norms–one can be “anti-mimetic,” a true original.
Part of what first drew me to the conference was the fact that I’ve been asking such questions from as far back as I can remember. Raised on platitudes about the joys of “being oneself” and not conforming to social expectations left me wondering who my “real self” actually was, and why my elders shut me down every time I asked such existential questions. My fears of being corralled into the herd and of groupthink were exacerbated during the COVID lockdown days, as I saw my students regurgitating slogans they heard on internet platforms like TikTok, seemingly incapable–or at least terrified–of developing an original thought.
The conference challenged attendees to rise above the standard discourse, to delve beyond conformist and simplistic reactionary rhetoric, and even to question our very selves, rather than jumping to point the finger at the prosaic-Girardian scapegoat outside of ourselves. Burgis warned that if we don’t seriously ask what we want and, further, what is even worth desiring in the first place, someone else in power will step in to do so for us. Though I can’t say I left the conference with explicit answers, the fact that Burgis created such a space for meta-questioning was surely the genesis of something substantial and–well–original.
Perhaps a less intellectually profound but equally important moment was when I asked a panelist who’s known to hold rather normie politically correct views about his take on the conference. “I’m like ‘did I just walk into a conference full of arch-Catholics and conservatives?!’ But I got to see a priest for the first time, so that’s pretty cool.”
The crowd was hardly monolithic, to say the least; none of the panelists can be said to have preached to the choir. Thiel garnered reactions varying from those deeming his words “prophetic” and fascinating, to those who called “bullshit,” accusing it of bordering on the satanic. To use internet parlance, this event was truly horseshoe-pilled, embodying the infamous “vibe shift” which fuels the pens of countless think-piece writers, who never seem to capture the actual vibe itself.
Encountering such a wide array of people–whose perceptions of and conclusions by the end of the conference surely differed from my own–contributed to the sensation that something novel was burgeoning in our midst. It staved off the temptation to think of myself as an innocent victim devoid of errors–thus empowering me to accomplish one of the first steps Girard recommends to free oneself from the herd. Meeting others who are tired of the flat anthropology of secular humanism, and who long for more than the drab monoculture produced by the internet and the empty visions of originality it fosters, was already an answer in itself.
The evening closed with a dinner gala at the glamorous Mayflower Hotel. After a few glasses of wine, I headed out for a smoke. Seeing me slip a carton of Luckies out of my pocket on the way out, several other attendees followed me outside the lobby, asking to bum a couple of cigs off of me. How ironic, I thought to myself, as I recalled the time Burgis once wrote about Lucky Strike being one of the first cigarette brands to capitalize on mimetic desire through their advertising.
As we began dishing out our hot takes on the conference, a hotel worker asked us ever so kindly to move away from the door, as the smoke was contaminating the pristine air of the hotel lobby. I thought of one of Girard’s quips about the deceptive brand of “kindness” that is legion in our modern era: “More and more, it seems to me, modern individualism assumes the form of a desperate denial of the fact that, through mimetic desire, each of us seeks to impose his will upon his fellow man, whom he professes to love but more often despises.”
“Neofascists…” I muttered as the hotel worker scurried back inside, much to the amusement of the others.
Please consider signing up for a paid subscription to this page for more riveting content. If you’re new to Cracks in Pomo, check out the About page or read up on our Essentials. Also check out our podcast on Spotify, Apple, and YouTube and follow us on Instagram and Twitter.
graphics by @revolvingstyle
Cracks in Postmodernity is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.