Book Notes: Wanting

Wanting: the Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life was one of those books that I enjoyed reading, had lots to ponder in it but I still expected more out of it. I was initially drawn to the author because he has the rare gift of actually being erudite on the internet (examples: The Noonday Demon—Our Metaphysical Laziness or The Three-City Problem of Modern Life). But the book Wanting is written like an airport business book crossed with self help.

But first the good. This is an accessible introduction to Girard and mimetic theory. You’ll walk away with a deeper and more contextual understanding than skimming the wikipedia articles would give you.

An incredibly brief summary is that all human desire is based on wanting what others want instead of the myth of autonomous persons wanting things independently of the outside world. When we model our desires off of those out of reach, saints, great artists and the like, things remain calm. Problems arise when everyone starts modeling their peers. A cutthroat mimetic crisis arises that requires a scapegoat to placate the masses.

I was hoping for more material about that actual crisis and how to get out of it. There were a lot of one liners along the lines of “Homogenizing forces are creating a crisis of desire” and “Ideological monopolies are the worst monopolies” without much that was concrete.

One of the more interesting concepts is the mirror model, which is like a regular model but with a twist of teenage rebellion. Whatever the model does, you want to do the exact opposite. This model explains much of US politics and the world wide covid response. If a politician you despise orders schools to remain open, then you will do everything possible to close them while operating under the delusion that this is an independent desire of yours.

A few other gems:

…Girard in his book Resurrection from the Underground Foodor Dostoevsky: “He no longer relies on priests and philosophers, of course, but he must rely on people nevertheless, more than ever, as a matter of fact.”

And who are these people? “They are the experts, continues Girard “the people more competent than we are in innumerable fields of endeavor.”

What seems an increasingly potent threat to free speech in the West:

The German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann coined the term “spiral of silence” in 1974 to refer to a phenomenon that we see often today: peoples willingness to speak freely depends upon their unconscious perceptions of how popular their opinions are. People who believe their opinions are not shared by anyone else are more likely to remain quiet; their silence itself increases the impression that no one else thinks as they do; this increases their feelings of isolation and artificially inflates the confidence of those with the majority opinion.

My experience of companies with “no hierarchy” has always been miserable, turns out Girard has an explanation:

A human-centered approach to business involves grappling with the messiness of human interactions—with human nature. To introduce something foreign to human nature, which doesn’t complement it—like an organizational “operating system” that doesn’t account for mimetic desire—is to open up a Pandora’s box.

Zappos had eliminated the management hierarchy, but they couldn’t eliminate the network of desire and the need that people have to be in relationship to models. There is always a hierarchy of desire from the perspective of an individual: some models are worth following more than others, and some things are worth wanting more than others. We are hierarchical creatures. This is why we like listicles and ratings so much. We have a need to know how things stack up, how things fit together. To remove all semblance of hierarchy is detrimental to this fundamental need.

When Zappos moved to holacracy, what disappeared aboveground—the visible roles and titles—reappeared in different ways underground. “The environment became more political,” journalist Aimee Groth, who wrote about holacracy for Quartz, told me. “People were less secure in their jobs… less clear on how they could hold on to their roles and their jobs.” However, you still had a few people who had infinite power because they had a strong relationship with Tony. There was a hidden web of desire that nobody could decipher.

I really would have like to see more on this point:

In much ancient literature, the line between biological epidemics and psychological epidemics is fuzzy. Girard thought that stories of physical disasters, like plagues, were probably mythologized versions of what really happened: a social crisis, fractured relationships, mimetic contagion.

When historians look at the corona “pandemic”, it will almost certainly be seen a mass mental health and social crisis. Not that there wasn’t a respiratory virus that killed many. There was. But the societal reactions had no relationship to that virus.

Silicon Valley has used mimetic theory to engineer an entire economy of desire, but little thought is given to the opportunity cost of this:

The extraordinary success of a few internet companies has masked the embarrassing lack of major breakthroughs in other domains.

There has been little improvement in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, which affect nearly a third of all Americans over the age of eighty-five. There is still no cure for cancer. Life expectancy is declining in many parts of the world. So is quality of life.

This is a sample of some of the interesting ideas that Burgis brings up, but I was always left with the feeling that he didn’t flesh them out. Most authors churn out internet posts and podcasts appearances to hawk their book, which is their most refined thinking. Here it feels like the opposite is going on: the book is a fluffy intro to Burgis’ substack, which is far better written than his book.