Protect Me From What I Want

A review of Luke Burgis's "Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life"

                    Wanting: the Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life
                                                         Luke Burgis
                                       St. Martin’s, 304 pages, 2021

Few thinkers have influenced the way I see the world more than René Girard. Interdisciplinary scholarship is difficult; and it is rare for a scholar to become sufficiently conversant in disparate fields for their work to transcend the dilettantish and achieve the genuinely synthetic. Girard, who was declared “the new Darwin of the human sciences” at his induction into the Académie Française, is the synthetic scholar par excellence, and, in my judgment, the most significant social theorist of the 20th century. What one sees through the lens of his theory of mimetic desire is impossible to unsee.

It should come as no wonder, then, that I am thrilled to see a book released that distills Girard’s insights for the non-specialist reader and explains their utility for understanding everything from romantic relationships to the workings of the stock market.

Luke Burgis’s Wanting: the Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life is, like Girard’s own writing, difficult to categorize. Applied social science? Theology? Positive psychology? Literary criticism? Memoir? Crash-course in entrepreneurship? Guide to spiritual awakening? Burgis’s book reflects the preoccupations of someone who has spent his adult life with one foot in the world of tech start-ups and the other in the world of humanistic inquiry. For all its idiosyncrasies, Wanting is a lucid exploration of the role imitation plays in the construction of self and society, suffused with the moral urgency of a writer who believes that living “anti-mimetically” can transform the world. 

Girard’s work can be daunting to the uninitiated. But Burgis is an effective guide, careful to ground abstract ideas in concrete illustrations, both narrative and visual, and memorable coinages (e.g., “Freshmanistan vs. Celebristan”). He elucidates Girard’s foundational observation that human desire is “mimetic” (imitative) by contrasting it with the Romantic Lie, the Enlightenment notion that we are autonomous individuals who generate our own desires. 

The Romantic Lie is self-delusion, the story people tell about why they make certain choices: because it fits their personal preferences, or because they see its objective qualities, or because they simply saw it and therefore wanted it.

They believe that there is a straight line between them and the things they want. That’s a lie. The truth is that the line is always curved.

None of us are genuinely autonomous. Our selves are always constituted in relation to other selves within an “ecology of desire.” None of our desires originate with us; they are always learned from models with whom we identify.

Throughout Wanting, Burgis provides tactics for living anti-mimetically, the first of which is, of necessity, instructions for how to “Name your models.” True autonomy is possible only once we recognize our mimetic predicament and begin consciously to choose our models of desire. This means not only choosing whom to model but recognizing whom to cease modeling. The latter can be hard to identify, so Burgis offers advice: “think seriously about the people you least want to see succeed.”

Mimetic desire is a morally neutral fact of human nature; but it turns dark when our relationship to a model becomes rivalrous. The closer we are to a model, and the scarcer the objects of the desires we imitate, the more likely a model is to become what Girard called a “model-obstacle.” At its deepest level, mimetic rivalry is metaphysical: the desire to possess the being of one’s model. This is why unrestrained rivalry so often leads to violence. It is also why we struggle so fiercely against recognizing that our rivals or enemies are actually models of desire. “When a person’s identity becomes completely tied to a mimetic model,” explains Burgis, “they can never truly escape that model, that Other, because doing so would mean destroying their own reason for existing.”

Just as we are subjects who imitate the desires of models, we are also models whom others imitate. Our desires are thus never our own in a double sense: we acquired them from models and we display them for others to imitate. There is no such thing as a “private desire.” 

This entails a moral duty on the part of the subject to model those desires he or she wishes to see reproduced in the world. Burgis summarizes this in his final anti-mimetic tactic: “Live as if you had a responsibility for what other people want.”

To do this requires, first, that one knows one’s own deepest desires—the enduring, “thick” desires as opposed to the effervescent, though often intense, “thin” desires learned from trivial or rivalrous models. Burgis advises reflecting on the most fulfilling actions one has performed in one’s life; these are nearly always done in pursuit of thick desires.

Secondly, living as if you’re responsible for what other people want requires a hierarchical value system. “It’s not enough to name values,” writes Burgis. “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.”

Living an anti-mimetic life requires seeing how you fit into a larger ecology of desire. Just as the health of a single species can disrupt an entire ecosystem, so our conflicts with model-obstacles can tip a community into “mimetic crisis.” Rivalry spreads like a contagion through a community, leading to undifferentiation and ultimately violence. Being anti-mimetic means refusing to contribute to the snowballing discord. It also means refusing to participate in a community’s violent resolution of a mimetic crisis. 

When the crisis of a human community reaches a boiling point and violence becomes widespread and indiscriminate, order (differentiation and hierarchy) is restored through what Girard called the “scapegoat mechanism” (or the “single-victim mechanism”). A person or group, usually occupying a liminal space in the community, is singled out as the source of the crisis and either executed or exiled. All that violent energy is displaced onto a single victim, in whose guilt the community believes with perfect unanimity (or else the sacrifice won’t be efficacious).

The anti-mimetic individual stands against the “lie of victimage”—even at the risk of becoming a scapegoat herself. To declare the innocence of the victim, and thereby expose the workings of the scapegoat mechanism, is to be a powerful counter-sign; it is perhaps the most individuating act imaginable. 

Being anti-mimetic is not like Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “anti-fragile”—it's not merely the opposite of being mimetic. Being anti-mimetic is having the ability, the freedom, to counteract the destructive forces of desire. Something mimetic is an accelerant; something anti-mimetic is a decelerant. An anti-mimetic action—or person—is a sign of contradiction to a culture that likes to float downstream.

Jesus remains the most anti-mimetic “sign of contradiction” in history. Christianity’s peaceful transformation of the world of antiquity, and its lasting claim on the moral imagination of the West (most manifest in its universal concern for victims), are the outcome of a single anti-mimetic life. The gospel narrative, according to Girard, fully exposed the scapegoat mechanism for the first time in history.

The Christian legacy of “concern for victims” has undergone a strange involution in our time. “Victimism,” wrote Girard, “uses the ideology of concern for victims to gain political or economic or spiritual power. One claims victim status as a way of gaining an advantage or justifying one’s behavior.” One need only look at the various expressions of “cancel culture” to see the truth of Burgis’s contention that “victims now have the power to make scapegoats of their own choosing.”

In our current, rather deplorable dispensation, being anti-mimetic means refusing to instrumentalize victimhood for political gain. This will often require foregoing political power in the present and instead living as a counter-sign that will shape the future. 

If that future turns out to be brighter than a mere proliferation of present pathologies, it will be because enough people choose to live anti-mimetic lives. However remote that brighter tomorrow may seem, Burgis’s contribution has made it more attainable.