Book Notes from Wanting by Luke Burgis
Girard discovered that most of what we desire is mimetic (mi-met-ik) or imitative, not intrinsic. Humans learn—through imitation—to want the same things other people want, just as they learn how to speak the same language and play by the same cultural rules. Imitation plays a far more pervasive role in our society than anyone had ever openly acknowledged.
Girard’s discovery was like the Newtonian revolution in physics, in which the forces governing the movement of objects can only be understood in a relational context. Desire, like gravity, does not reside autonomously in any one thing or person. It lives in the space between them.
Girard’s distance from the subject matter, combined with his penetrating intellect, enabled him to recognize the pattern. The characters in the great novels are so realistic because they want things the way that we do—not spontaneously, not out of an inner chamber of authentic desire, not randomly, but through the imitation of someone else: their secret model.
Girard discovered that we come to desire many things not through biological drives or pure reason, nor as a decree of our illusory and sovereign self, but through imitation.
Desire, as Girard used the word, does not mean the drive for food or sex or shelter or security. Those things are better called needs—they’re hardwired into our bodies. Biological needs don’t rely on imitation. If I’m dying of thirst in the desert, I don’t need anyone to show me that water is desirable. But after meeting our basic needs as creatures, we enter into the human universe of desire. And knowing what to want is much harder than knowing what to need.
In the universe of desire, there is no clear hierarchy. People don’t choose objects of desire the way they choose to wear a coat in the winter. Instead of internal biological signals, we have a different kind of external signal that motivates these choices: models. 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 that Girard termed mimesis (mi-mee-sis), from the Greek word mimesthai (meaning “to imitate”). Models are the gravitational centers around which our social lives turn.
Gravity causes people to fall physically to the ground. Mimetic desire causes people to fall in or out of love, or debt, or friendships, or business partnerships. Or it may subject them to the degrading slavery of being merely a product of their milieu.
Mimetic desire, because it is social, spreads from person to person and through a culture. It results in two different movements—two cycles—of desire. The first cycle leads to tension, conflict, and volatility, breaking down relationships and causing instability and confusion as competing desires interact in volatile ways. This is the default cycle that has been most prevalent in human history. It is accelerating today. It’s possible to transcend that default cycle, though. It’s possible to initiate a different cycle that channels energy into creative and productive pursuits that serve the common good.
We live at a time of hyper-imitation. Fascination with what is trending and going viral is symptomatic of our predicament. So is political polarization. It stems in part from mimetic behavior that destroys nuance and poisons even our most honorable goals: to develop friendships, to fight for important causes, to build healthy communities. When mimesis takes over, we become obsessed with vanquishing some Other, and we measure ourselves according to them. 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.
People don’t fight because they want different things; they fight because mimetic desire causes them to want the same things.
The mysterium iniquitatis (the mystery of evil) remains just that: mysterious. But mimetic theory reveals something important about it. The more people fight, the more they come to resemble each other. We should choose our enemies wisely, because we become like them.
Each one of us has a responsibility to shape the desires of others, just as they shape ours. Each encounter we have with another person enables them, and us, to want more, to want less, or to want differently. In the final analysis, two questions are critical. What do you want? What have you helped others want? One question helps answer the other. And if you’re not satisfied with the answers you find today, that’s okay. The most important questions concern what we will want tomorrow.
The greatest developments in history are the result of someone wanting something that did not yet exist—and helping others to want more than they thought was wantable.
Desire requires models—people who endow things with value for us merely because they want the things. Models transfigure objects before our eyes. You walk into a consignment store with a friend and see racks filled with hundreds of shirts. Nothing jumps out at you. But the moment your friend becomes enamored with one specific shirt, it’s no longer a shirt on a rack. It’s the shirt that your friend Molly chose—the Molly who, by the way, is an assistant costume designer on major films. The moment she starts ogling the shirt, she sets it apart. It’s a different shirt than it was five seconds ago, before she started wanting it.
There are always models of desire. If you don’t know yours, they are probably wreaking havoc in your life.
We are tantalized by models who suggest a desire for things that we don’t currently have, especially things that appear just out of reach. The greater the obstacle, the greater the attraction. Isn’t that curious? We don’t want things that are too easily possessed or that are readily within reach. Desire leads us beyond where we currently are. Models are like people standing a hundred yards up the road who can see something around the corner that we can’t yet see. So the way that a model describes something or suggests something to us makes all the difference. We never see the things we want directly; we see them indirectly, like refracted light. We are attracted to things when they are modeled to us in an attractive way, by the right model. Our universe of desire is as big or as small as our models.”
Desire is our primordial concern. Long before people can articulate why they want something, they start wanting it. The motivational speaker Simon Sinek advises organizations and people to “start with why” (the title of one of his books), finding and communicating one’s purpose before anything else. But that is usually a post hoc rationalization of whatever it is we already wanted. Desire is the better place to start.
We’re so sensitive to imitation that we notice the slightest deviance from what we could call acceptable imitation. If we receive a response to an email or text that doesn’t sufficiently tone-match, we can go into a mini-crisis (Does she not like me? Does he think he’s superior to me? Did I do something wrong?). Communication practically runs on mimesis. In a study published in 2008 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, sixty-two students were assigned to negotiate with other students. Those who mirrored others’ posture and speech reached a settlement 67 percent of the time, while those who didn’t reached a settlement 12.5 percent of the time.
“Bernays’s plan was to convince a carefully selected group of these women to light up Lucky Strike cigarettes defiantly during the parade, the world’s largest stage. It would be equivalent to a modern influencer campaign of epic proportions: imagine if Beyoncé stopped her Super Bowl halftime performance midsong, pulled out a Juul, and puffed away, with the cameras zooming in on the brand and flavor.
Bernays orchestrated the entire Easter Day stunt to make it look like the women spontaneously started smoking, and that Hunt spontaneously desired to push through that crowd in front of the cathedral. He used the Romantic Lie against people. He gave the illusion of autonomy—because that’s how people think desire works. Models are most powerful when they are hidden. If you want to make someone passionate about something, they have to believe the desire is their own.
Naming anything—whether it’s emotions, problems, or talents—gives us more control.
Tactic 1: Name your models
A friend and collaborator of Girard’s, the psychoanalyst Jean-Michel Oughourlian, recommended a shocking tactic to people who came to him in his clinical practice complaining that their spouse no longer seemed interested in them: he would suggest they find someone to compete with the spouse for their time and attention. Even the remote suspicion that someone else might be competing for a spouse’s time can be enough to arouse and intensify desire. (I’m not suggesting that anyone intentionally try to make their spouse jealous—although it seems to be a tactic that many people already use, quite naturally.)
Elite colleges don’t keep their admissions rates low because they have to; they keep them low to protect the value of their brands.
The goal is getting people to think, “Oh, those lemming-like, silly people in the commercial.” The moment a person exempts themselves in their own mind from the very thing they see all around them is the moment when they are most vulnerable. As David Foster Wallace pointed out, “Joe Briefcase,” sitting on his couch watching the Pepsi commercial alone, thinks he has transcended the mass of plebeians that Pepsi must be advertising to—and then he goes out and buys more Pepsi, for reasons that he thinks are different. And if he doesn’t drink more Pepsi, then he will be more likely to drink something else that he feels separates himself from the masses—maybe kombucha. The consumption can also be of something besides a soft drink, something quite different in type: the latest Netflix Original documentary, say, or podcasts that make him feel smarter than his friends. The pride that makes a person believe they are unaffected by or inoculated against biases, weaknesses, or mimesis blinds them to their complicity in the game.
“Here we go again. Perception trumping reality once more.” —Dick Fuld, former CEO of Lehman Brothers, while watching breaking news about the firm’s impending demise
We are generally fascinated with people who have a different relationship to desire, real or perceived. When people don’t seem to care what other people want or don’t want the same things, they seem otherworldly. They appear less affected by mimesis—anti-mimetic, even. And that’s fascinating, because most of us aren’t.
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’re more threatened by people who want the same things as us than by those who don’t.
René Girard calls models in Celebristan external mediators of desire. They influence desire from outside of a person’s immediate world. From the perspective of their imitators, these models possess a special quality of being. Dream dates live in Celebristan so long as you’ve never even met the person you dream of dating, or if the dream date lives in an untouchable social sphere that puts them out of reach. Celebrities who agree to attend a high school prom are sweet—but everyone understands that the high school kid isn’t going to take them away from their A-list suitors. The phrase “out of your league” hints at this strange, unattainable world.
In Celebristan, there is always a barrier that separates the models from their imitators.5 They might be separated from us by time (because dead), space (because they live in a different country or aren’t on social media), or social status (a billionaire, rock star, or member of a privileged class).
Some models use a trick to cement their Celebristan citizenship: they guard their identities to heighten our sense of intrigue. Banksy, J. D. Salinger, Stanley Kubrick, Elena Ferrante, Terrence Malick, and Daft Punk all have hidden themselves from view, which makes them appear to exist in a different plane.
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 vs Freshmanistan
- World of External Mediation vs World of Internal Mediation
- Models are distant in time, space, or social status vs Models are close in time, space, or social status
- Difference vs sameness
- Models are easy to identify vs Models are hard to identify
- Open imitation vs Secret imitation
- Models acknowledged vs Models unrecognized
- Relatively stable, fixed models vs Unstable, constantly changing models
- No possibility of conflict between models and imitators vs Conflict between models and imitators is normal
- Positive mimesis is possible vs negative nemesis is the norm
- The misappropriation of wonder
- The cult of experts
The metaphysical nature of desire leads to strange distortions in the way that we see other people. Girard sees this happening in the tragic case of anorexia nervosa and bulimia. The desire to be like a model who represents an ideal body image is stronger than the need for basic sustenance. These are obviously psychological diseases, but Girard doesn’t think we’ve properly accounted for the role of mimetic desire in their etiology. In his view, they are cases of metaphysical desire overpowering physical needs.10 We all suffer from this problem in our own way—we are all, in some way, anorexic, looking for models who can satisfy a nonphysical hunger, a metaphysical desire.
People are desperate to find something solid to hold on to in today’s “liquid modernity” (to borrow a term from sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman). Liquid modernity is a chaotic phase of history in which there are no culturally agreed-upon models to follow, no fixed points of reference. They have melted like glaciers and plunged us into a stormy sea with limited visibility. Celebristan is collapsing into it.
The cult of saints has become the cult of experts. That doesn’t mean we no longer rely on models to figure out what to want. It means that in a post-Enlightenment world, the preferred models are often those who seem most enlightened: the experts. Models promise a kind of secret, salvific wisdom reminiscent of the early religious sect of gnosticism, which held the belief that one could be saved from predominating ignorance through an evolution in consciousness provided by “Messengers of Light.”
Tactic 2: Find sources of wisdom that withstand mimesis
Tactic 3: create boundaries with unhealthy models
What we commonly call “social media” is more than media—it’s mediation: thousands of people showing us what to want and coloring our perception of those things.
“If individuals are naturally inclined to desire what their neighbors possess, or to desire what their neighbors even simply desire, this means that rivalry exists at the very heart of human social relations. This rivalry, if not thwarted, would permanently endanger harmony and even the survival of all human communities. —René Girard”
Tactic 4: use imitation to drive innovation
“According to Girard’s mimetic theory, culture is formed primarily through the imitation of desires, not things. And desires are not discrete, static, and fixed; they are open-ended, dynamic, and volatile.”
People are not insignificant carriers of information; they are highly significant models of desire. We don’t care about what is being modeled as much as we care about who is modeling it. We imitate not for the sake of imitation itself but for the sake of differentiating ourselves—to try to forge an identity relative to other people.
“If you pick a spot on the outer edge of the flywheel and trace its movement from stage to stage, you are naturally pulled around the loop. Each step isn’t merely the next step in a sequence; it’s the logical consequence of the step that came before it. According to Collins, the movement of a flywheel works due to a cannot help but logic: you can’t help but take the next step.”
“Aristotle invented the word “entelechy” to refer to a thing that has its own principle of development within it, a vital force that propels it forward to become fully what it is.”
Tactic 5: start positive flywheels of desire
“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.”
“Marketing, money, and models distort desire for people if there is no clear hierarchy of values.”
Tactic 6: establish and communicate a clear hierarchy of values
“A hierarchy of values is an antidote to mimetic conformity. If all values are treated as equal, then the one that wins out—especially at a time of crisis—is the one that is most mimetic.”
“It’s not enough to name values. They need to be ranked. When all values are the same, nothing is being valued at all. It’s like highlighting every single word in a book.”
“Girard found that humans time and time again turned to sacrifice in order to stop the spread of mimetic conflict.5 When societies were threatened with disorder, they used violence to drive out violence. They would expel or destroy a chosen person or group, and this action would have the effect of preventing more widespread violence. Girard called the process by which this happens the scapegoat mechanism. The scapegoat mechanism, he found, turns a war of all against all into a war of all against one. It brings temporary peace as people forget their mimetic conflicts for a while, having just discharged all of their anger onto a scapegoat. This process, Girard believed, was the foundation of all culture. The institutions and cultural norms that we find around us, especially sacred rituals like elections and capital punishment, as well as many taboos, are mechanisms that were developed to contain violence.”
“The people often tortured and humiliated the pharmakós in a public place.8 By way of the ritual, they experienced what Aristotle called catharsis: the process of releasing strong emotions or impulses through participation in some external event. Aristotle thought catharsis was the purpose of tragic drama. Through it, audience members could release some of their sorrow and pain, thus giving those emotions a safe outlet.”
“Every company needs its own form of cathartic rituals—something more effective than drunken holiday parties. But few companies today are as open about their need for catharsis as the Greeks were.”
“The scapegoating mechanism does not hinge on the guilt or innocence of the scapegoat. It hinges on the ability of a community to use a scapegoat to accomplish their desired outcome: unification, healing, purgation, expiation. The scapegoat serves a religious function.”
“As strange as the ritual was, it functioned to protect the community from an even bigger social crisis—the further breakdown of relationships.”
Tactic 7: arrive at judgements in anti-memetic ways
“the scapegoat mechanism happened spontaneously in ancient societies. Eventually, these societies began ritually reenacting the process that led to the scapegoat mechanism—creating disorder, allowing mimetic tension to reach a peak, then expelling or sacrificing something symbolic. (This is the formula of reality television today.) They found that catharsis flowed to everyone. These rituals worked due to sacrificial substitution. Humans realized they could substitute an animal for a human. The sacrifice of animals has gradually been replaced by the termination of executives, mass incarceration, and social media cancellations. There seems to be no limit to human ingenuity when it comes to satiating our hunger for sacrifice. Substitute sacrifices permeate our culture. They have seeped into sports, organizational life, universities, and literature.
“A scapegoat remains effective as long as we believe in its guilt,” wrote Girard in his final book, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre. “Having a scapegoat means not knowing that we have one.”
“Nearly all people are religious in the sense that they subconsciously believe that sacrifice brings peace. Consider how ingrained sacrificial thinking is in our psyche. If only we could destroy that other political party, that other company, those terrorists, that troublemaker, that fast-food joint next door that has caused me to gain ten pounds, everything would be better.32 The sacrifice always seems right and proper. Our violence is good violence; the violence of the other side is always bad.”
Tactic 8: map out the systems of desire in your world
Tactic 9 put desires to the test
Tactic 10: share stories of deeply fulfilling action
“The lesson made them feel “compensated for past humiliations,” she said, “and their applause indicated I had not only treated them with justice but had enabled them to get a new standing in society.”
Tactic 11: increase the speed of truth
Tactic 12: invest in deep silence
“My definition of an entrepreneur is simple. One hundred people look at the same herd of goats. Ninety-nine see goats. One sees a cashmere sweater. And the alertness of the one isn’t due to data analytics. It stems from a willingness and ability to look beyond and to see something more than meets the eye, and then to do something about it”
|Immanent Leadership||Transcendent Leadership|
|Must eventually become subject to destructive desires (Cycle 1)||Able to transcend the mimetic process of Cycle 1 and break free|
|Closed, fixed loop of desire (bureaucrats in the economy)||Open, dynamic system of desire (entrepreneurs in the economy)|
|Garbage in, garbage out||Garbage in, garbage dies|
|Artists who are wholly products of their time||Artists who develop a style that transcends their time and space|
|Fictional limited to irony and cynicism||Fiction written in a style that tries to redeem what’s wrong|
|Google Search||Alphabet X|
|Marriot’s corporate chef||Chef Dominique Crenn|
|Descartes||The world beyond your head|
|Reality TV||Virtual reality|
“The uncanny valley fits with mimetic theory: it is not difference, but sameness, that terrifies us. No similarity is more dangerous than the similarity of desire.”
“Technology companies have the power to engineer desire because they increasingly stand as mediators between people and the things they want. That is the definition of a mimetic model. Amazon mediates desire for things. Google mediates desire for information itself.”
Tactic 13: look for the coexistence of opposites
Tactic 14: Practice meditative thought
“Education has shifted away from the liberal arts and toward increasingly specialized, technical knowledge—calculating thought. How will this affect the formation of desire in future generations? We don’t know. But we should think seriously about how our systems of education are shaping students’ imaginations, and therefore desires.”
“Mimetic desire manifests itself as the constant yearning to be someone or something else (what we called metaphysical desire). People select models because they think the models hold the key to a door that just might lead to the thing they have been looking for. But as we’ve seen, this metaphysical desire is a never-ending game. We cycle through models faster than we cycle through clothes. The act of winning, of gaining possession of the thing that the model made us want, convinces us that we chose the wrong model in the first place. And so we go in search of another one. Mimetic desire is a paradoxical game. Winning is how you lose. Every victory is Pyrrhic.”
“Stalk your greatest desire. When you find it, let all of your lesser desires be transformed so that they serve the greatest one. “Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even,” writes Dillard, “till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.”39”
Tactic 15: live as if you have responsibility for what other people want
“APPENDIX B: MIMETIC THEORY READING LIST I believe that a person’s intellectual journey is relatively path dependent. There’s a progression of books that I recommend for mimetic theory. With that said, different people should start in different places and progress according to their interests and motivation. Some people will want to jump directly to Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, arguably Girard’s magnum opus. The list below is in rough sequential order and simulates the progression that I would probably use if I were to design a year-long mimetic theory seminar.
- Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, René Girard (1961)
- I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, René Girard (1999)
- René Girard’s Mimetic Theory, Wolfgang Palaver (2013)
- Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, René Girard (1978)
- Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, Cynthia L. Haven (2018)
- Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads, Gil Bailie (1995)
- Mimesis and Science: Empirical Research on Imitation and the Mimetic Theory of Culture and Religion, Scott R. Garrels, editor (2011)
- Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture, René Girard (2000)
- Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky, René Girard (1989)
- Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre, René Girard (2009)
APPENDIX C: MOTIVATIONAL THEMES The following are themes of the twenty-seven motivational patterns identified in the System for Identifying Motivated Abilities (SIMA). The MCODE (Motivation Code) is an online assessment that draws on the underlying discoveries of SIMA. It uses a narrative, storytelling process and takes around forty-five minutes to complete. If you’d like to take the assessment, visit lukeburgis.com/motivation for guidance and a reader discount.
- Achieve Potential: Identifying and realizing potential is a constant focus of your activities.
- Advance: You love the experience of making progress as you accomplish a series of goals.
- Be Unique: You seek to distinguish yourself by displaying some talent, quality, or aspect that is distinctive and special.
- Be Central: You are motivated to be a key person who holds things together and gives them meaning and/or direction.
- Bring Control: You want to be in charge and in control of your own destiny.
- Bring to Completion: Your motivation is satisfied when you can look at a finished product or final result and know that your work is done and that you have met the objective you set out to accomplish.
- Comprehend and Express: Your motivation focuses on understanding, defining, and then communicating your insights.
- Collaborate: You enjoy being involved in efforts in which people work together for a common purpose.
- Demonstrate New Learning: You are motivated to learn how to do something new and show that you can do it.
- Develop: You are motivated by the process of building and developing from start to finish.
- Evoke Recognition: You are motivated to capture the interest and attention of others.
- Experience the Ideal: You are motivated to give concrete expression to certain concepts, visions, or values that are important to you.
- Establish: You are motivated to lay secure foundations and to be established.
- Explore: Pressing beyond the existing limits of your knowledge and/or experience, you explore what is unknown or mysterious to you.
- Excel: You want to excel or at least to do your absolute best as you exceed the performance or expectations of those around you.
- Gain Ownership: The nature of your motivation is expressed through efforts to acquire what you want and to exercise ownership or control over what is yours.
- Improve: You are happiest when you are using your abilities to make things better.
- Influence Behavior: You are motivated to gain a reaction or response from people that indicates you have influenced their thinking, feelings, and behavior.
- Make an Impact: You seek to make an impact or personal mark upon the world around you.
- Make It Right: You consistently set up or follow standards, procedures, and principles that you believe are “right.”
- Make It Work: Your motivation focuses on fixing something that has broken down or is functioning poorly.
- Make the Grade: You are motivated to make the grade and gain acceptance into a group in which you want to be a member or participant.
- Master: Your motivation is satisfied when you are able to gain complete command of a skill, subject, procedure, technique, or process.
- Meet the Challenge: Your sense of achievement comes in looking back over a challenge you have met or a test you have passed.
- Organize: You want to set up and maintain a smooth-running operation.
- Overcome: Your motivation focuses on overcoming and winning out over difficulties, disadvantages, or opposition.
- Serve: You are motivated to identify and fulfill needs, requirements, and expectations.
Top three motivational themes: