More Zombie Theory – David Brooks: Peter Thiel on Creativity and Competition
New York Times columnist David Brooks published “The Creative Monopoly” this week. It doesn’t use the word zombie but it really should have. The op-ed starts with Peter Thiel (well known for his anti-college, bubble theory, related to Zombie Education System), discusses competition and creativity and concludes by connecting Thiel’s argument about non-competition niche markets to Brooks’ experience in politics. The theme of competitiveness seems well-timed to the current popular success of the book/movie “Hunger Games” but the rhetoric is also remarkably similar to zombies.
For example, note the similarity in Brooks’ description of the competitive path and zombies described in articles cited at ZombieLaw post on Social Media (part 2 of Zombie Education) Brooks writes:
think about the competitive environment that confronts the most fortunate people today and how it undermines..
students have to jump through ever-more demanding, preassigned academic hoops. Instead of developing a passion for one subject, they’re rewarded for becoming professional students, getting great grades across all subjects, regardless of their intrinsic interests. Instead of wandering across strange domains, they have to prudentially apportion their time, making productive use of each hour.
The hegemony continues:
they move into businesses in which the main point is to beat the competition, in which the competitive juices take control and gradually obliterate other goals.
They (the students) want to “wander across strange domains” but instead are trained to “obliterate”
Brooks continues and makes the metaphor political:
I see this in politics all the time. Candidates enter politics wanting to be authentic and change things. But once the candidates enter the campaign, they stop focusing on how to be change-agents. They and their staff spend all their time focusing on beating the other guy. They hone the skills of one-upsmanship. They get engulfed in a tit-for-tat competition to win the news cycle. Instead of being new and authentic, they become artificial mirror opposites of their opponents.
“artificial mirror opposites of their opponents” Is that like paired opposites? Is the zombie, dualism? Are all dualisms, “artificial”; functions of language-symbol manipulation? (See Bruno Latour, We’ve Never Been Modern exposing underlying contradictions of the Moderns). In this way perhaps the zombie is Hegel and his Logic synthesized with specters of Marx? Where the “mirror” functions as per Freud, Lacan, or Alice, a social-constructed world of meaning matrices.
Continuing “to confuse capitalism with competition” Brooks argues that
Competition has trumped value-creation. In this and other ways, the competitive arena undermines innovation.
You don’t have to compete; you can invent.
It is interesting how Brooks opens the piece with an introduction of Peter Thiel’s academic path, training as a lawyer and a distinguished federal clerkship. It sets an ironic beginning in which Thiel, product of an extremely competitive developmental track, seems like maybe he has forgotten how valuable that competition was to his own development. When Brooks writes:
Creative people don’t follow the crowds; they seek out the blank spots on the map. Creative people wander through faraway and forgotten traditions and then integrate marginal perspectives back to the mainstream. Instead of being fastest around the tracks everybody knows, creative people move adaptively through wildernesses nobody knows.
Brooks falls into the dualisms. Dualist ideas of creative vs non-creative, human vs animal, free will vs neurological causality – these are zombies of modern thought and because of rapid technological change in the means of production (global interconnectedness through computers, currency exchanges, international credit and shipping routes) there is fear of creativity in our current culture. This zombie metaphor for creative action is a parody of the powerlessness individuals feel caught up in dualistic competitions. Brooks refers to sports and wars.
I would also consider the entire American legal system. Recall that “zombi” first entered the Federal Court lexicon through a case about antitrust law regarding free agency in Major League Baseball. And recall more recently the “unstoppable zombie” of a legal case with no possible settlement negotiation where Judge Chesler refers to Court resolution of a case as “lethal force”.
Or is the zombie, language itself (at least English). Zombies to the virus, language. Or is it Capitalism with it’s need to fetishize differences and assess value. Or are they one in the same, a language-based psychoanalytic drive to define self and other in object relations and at as many levels as possible. An Adam-instinct to name things. And if the Order of Things is at least somewhat culturally constructed, then we are creating the dualisms we perceive (at least in part). How we understand the difference of zombies and creatives is a narrative choice related to Latour’s terms “mediators” and “intermediaries” about how to account for agency in a system. And as with the Pasteurization of France, the narrative choices are significant to the development of the cultural knowledge and practices, almost moreso than the scientific advances themselves.
Rhetoric about the valuation of education, causality in neuroscience, and the effect our cultural understandings – these are staple topics for social science politicos like David Brooks and they are highly zombie related.
Finally, note Thiel’s argument that there is a lot of lying and that the monopolists will say they are not monopolists while non-monopolists will say they are. This is intuitively obvious in that the monopolists don’t want attention from antitrust regulation and the non-monopolists want to attract market share. I think this is probably similar with creativity and zombies in that we see a lot of highly creative people self-identifying themselves as zombie, while a lot of really run of the mill bureaucracy calls itself creative.