Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life
By Luke Burgis
St. Martin’s Press, 2021

In the Buddhist tradition, the source of suffering is desire — attachment to things, people, ways of being, etc. Understanding how attachment and wanting leads to suffering is the second of Four Noble Truths: axioms that lead toward liberation. The West is rediscovering what the East has long known: that most of us stumble through life unaware of the desires that drive us. Understanding our wants and attachments leads to a healthier relationship with reality.

Wanting is a new book about desire based on the work of French academic René Girard (1923-2015), who focused on how desires affect human relations. Girard came to my attention via Peter Thiel, who cites him as an important influence. Hearing Thiel discuss Girard in an interview made me want to read a primer on his work, which is what brought me to Wanting.

This is an example of what Girard called mimetic desire — a want that originates in trying to imitate a model. (Mimetic and mimicry share etymological roots.) Wanting explains mimetic desire — what it is, how it affects us (personally and at a societal level) and how we can foster healthier relationships with (and through) our desires. Burgis spells out the book’s agenda:

This is a book about why people want what they want. Why you want what you want. Each of us spends every moment of our life, from the moment we’re born to the moment we die, wanting something. We even want in our sleep. Yet few people ever take the time to understand how they come to want things in the first place. Wanting well, like thinking clearly, is not an ability we’re born with. It’s a freedom we have to earn.

If you understand the systems of desire that color the choices of people around you, you’re more likely to see emergent possibilities by daring to look in different directions. Make visible what is invisible. Mark the boundaries of your current world of wanting, and you’ll gain the ability—at least the possibility—to transcend it.

Understanding these “systems of desire” requires that we become aware of how we come to want the things we want. While some wants are innate, many (most?) are learned. Specifically, we learn desires from other people who “model” them:

Models are people or things that show us what is worth wanting. It is models—not our “objective” analysis or central nervous system—that shape our desires. With these models, people engage in a secret and sophisticated form of imitation…

We model both people we admire and those we despise. (“The more people fight, the more they come to resemble each other.” — which is why we must choose our enemies wisely.) Left unchecked, the models we imitate can integrate with our identities in unhealthy ways:

When a person’s identity becomes completely tied to a mimetic model, they can never truly escape that model because doing so would mean destroying their own reason for being.

I.e., we start to think of ourselves as a particular type of person, one who has and does certain things because that’s who we are. Contradictory ideas threaten our self-identity, so we delude ourselves and others to protect the wants we value. (Ironically, we value wants not because they have intrinsic value, but because others — our models — value them.)

Unchecked, these forces create social tension and often lead to violence. Over time, societies have developed means of dealing with such tensions. Some — such as scapegoating — sound shocking to our modern “civilized” ears, but societies that lack effective mechanisms for dealing with mimetic contagion are in for trouble.

The book highlights a distinction between two types of mimetic models. Some people — our relative peers, such as siblings and colleagues — compete directly with us for attention and resources. Others are relatively inaccessible, either because of their social status (e.g., Thiel) or because they’re no longer living (e.g., Girard himself.) Taking a cue from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Burgis labels the domain of these models as “Freshmanistan” and “Celebristan”:

Freshmanistan is the world of models who mediate desire from inside our world, which is why Girard calls them internal mediators of desire. There are no barriers preventing people from competing directly with one another for the same things.

Celebristan is where models live who mediate—or bring about changes in our desires—from somewhere outside our social sphere, and with whom we have no immediate and direct possibility of competing on the same basis.

We must be especially wary of models in Freshmanistan, which is the domain of “thin” desires — wants that come and go on whims as we seek to compete for status, attention, and resources in our given time. Burgis offers this concept in contrast to “thick” desires, which “are protected from the volatility of changing circumstances in our lives.”

Developing a healthy relationship with desires (and, frankly, leading a good life) requires that we become aware of these distinctions. We must learn to understand the thick desires that drive us and others, so we can connect more deeply and work towards common goals.

Reading Wanting reminded me of one of Nietzsche’s aphorisms in Beyond Good and Evil:

What? You seek something? You wish to multiply yourself tenfold, a hundredfold? You seek followers? Seek zeros!

Our social media age (literally) incentivizes multiplying ourselves hundredfold. If nothing else, Twitter, Facebook, et al. are engines of Freshmanistanization: online, we’re constantly performing for each other, imitating and being imitated at unprecedented scale. (Do you, reader of these notes, find yourself wanting to read Wanting? Revive your old blog? Cite Nietzsche? Etc.) Social media also bring previously inaccessible models perilously close.

The effects are destabilizing and unpredictable — socially and individually. As a result, it behooves us to understand how the forces of desire operate. I haven’t yet read more deeply on Girard, but Wanting seems like a good starting point for understanding mimetic desires and learning to manage our own.

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