Wanting Summary (8/10) — Unearned Wisdom
Wanting by Luke Burgis is about mimetic desire. Burgis was an entrepreneur who was on course to living out the Silicon Valley myth, before he experienced a change of heart. He realized that his desire to be an entrepreneur was highly influenced by the people around him, and that his thick desires (more authentic) took a backseat to his thin desires (resulting from trends). The book attempts to unravel Girard’s mimetic theory, why it is true, and what one can do to avoid the pitfalls of human nature.
Girard identified a fundamental truth about desire that connected the seemingly unconnected: linking biblical stories with volatility in the stock market, the collapse of ancient civilizations with workplace dysfunction, career paths with diet trends. He explained, well before they existed, why Facebook, Instagram, and their progeny have been so wildly popular and effective in selling people both stuff and dreams.
Models of desire are what make Facebook such a potent drug. Before Facebook, a person’s models came from a small set of people: friends, family, work, magazines, and maybe TV. After Facebook, everyone in the world is a potential model. Facebook isn’t filled with just any kind of model-most people we follow aren’t movie stars, pro athletes, or celebrities. Facebook is full of models who are inside our world, socially speaking. They are close enough for us to compare ourselves to them. They are the most influential models of all, and there are billions of them.
Thiel quickly grasped Facebook’s potential power and became its first outside investor. “I bet on mimesis,” he told me. His $500,000 investment eventually yielded him over $1 billion.
Movements of desire are what define our world. Economists measure them, politicians poll them, businesses feed them. History is the story of human desire.
Mimesis can hijack our noblest ambitions.
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.
Goodness and truth need to be attractive-in other words, desirable. If people don’t find positive outlets for their desires, they will find destructive ones.
People don’t fight because they want different things; they fight because mimetic desire causes them to want the same things. The terrorists would not have been driven to destroy symbols of the West’s wealth and culture if, at some deep level, they had not secretly desired some of the same things. That’s why the Florida bars and video game-playing are an important piece of the puzzle. 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.
There is a deeper point to be made here. It is not exactly that people fight because they want the same things (physically). It’s true that since objects are scarce (money, food, etc…) and if several people want these objects, conflict is inevitable. But the point that Girard made which is far more illuminating is that conflict emerges because there is disagreement about the model. And the desire is often metaphysical rather than physical.
In the case of terrorists, it is not that conflict exists because they want to have vegan food, hip hop, and the superbowl — it is that they have not accepted that the U.S is superior to them. For global cooperation to be possible, there is a certain hierarchy that needs to be respected. Countries that do not respect this hierarchy are considered outsiders or outlaws.
Terrorists are that, they are outlaws, because they have chosen not to accept the nature of the hierarchy. They believe that their way of life is superior to those of Americans, that their beliefs are more true, and that their cause is more holy. In short, they believe that they should be the models, not the U.S.
The “same desire” that Burgis is talking about is “global dominance.” It is a metaphysical desire, and conflict exists precisely because one side doesn’t accept that the other side has won.
We can understand our mimetic nature by seeing babies as teachers. “Babies hold a secret about the human mind that has been hidden for millennia,” Meltzoff wrote. “They are our double. They have a primordial drive to understand us that advances their development; we have a desire to understand them that propels social science and philosophy. By examining the minds and hearts of children, we illuminate ourselves.”
The Romantic lie is the idea that we are the sole owners of our desires. People who fall into this lie believe that they are uninfluenced by the trends around them, that their ideas are the results of their own intellect and understanding, and never the result of imitation.
One version of the Romantic Lie in finance is the “efficient market” hypothesis (closely related to “rational expectations,” another hypothesis). Efficient market theory is the belief that asset prices are functions of all available information. Company news, investor expectations, current events, political news, and everything else that might affect a company’s valuation are all assumed to be perfectly reflected in the stock price. The price changes as a function of time, as new information becomes available. But there is more to understanding markets, and people, than information.
Ever wonder why Tesla’s stock is so overvalued? So much so that Elon Musk himself agreed?
A couple of pieces of data should have alerted investors in Tesla stock that more than information was driving the stock price. On February 4, the second day of the rally, more than $55 billion of Tesla stock changed hands-more than any stock in history at the time. On the same day, people who started searching Google with the words “Should I” received an auto-suggested completion of their question: “Should I buy Tesla stock?”
Millions of people were searching Google to find out whether they should buy Tesla based on whether other people wanted to buy Tesla. This, in my view, is not merely information. It’s mimetic desire. Desire is not a function of data. It’s a function of other people’s desires. What stock market analysts referred to as “mass psychosis” was not so psychotic after all. It was the phenomenon of mimetic desire that Girard had discovered more than fifty years earlier.
Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com on February 18, 2022.