What you will learn from reading Wanting:
– How history is a long tale of human desires writ large.
– How Rene Girards’ idea of mimesis can explain why we can desire strange things.
– How to become aware and attempt to recreate your own desires with more intention.
Wanting Book Summary:
Wanting is a very accessible read and great introduction to Rene Girards’ ideas. This book will really make you rethink about the things you desire. With the ultimate aim to make you more aware of how we are all programmed to desire things through imitation. It also will allow you to understand modern day influencer culture using Girards idea of Mimetic Models.
If this interests you then read on!
Rene Girard and Mimetics:
With Girards’ lack of formal training and the need to read quickly, he started to look for patterns in the texts. He uncovered something perplexing, something which seemed to be present in nearly all of the most compelling novels ever written: characters in these novels rely on other characters to show them what is worth wanting. They don’t spontaneously desire anything. Instead, their desires are formed by interacting with other characters who alter their goals and their behavior—most of all, their desires.
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.
Desires vs Needs:
Movements of desire are what define our world. Economists measure them, politicians poll them, businesses feed them. History is the story of human desire.
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.
Girard opening the very first session of his class Literature, Myth, and Prophecy with these words: “Human beings fight not because they are different, but because they are the same, and in their attempts to distinguish themselves have made themselves into enemy twins, human doubles in reciprocal violence.”
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.
If individuals are naturally inclined to desire what their neighbours possess, or to desire what their neighbours 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
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.
Buried in a deeper layer of our psychology is the person or thing that caused us to want something in the first place. Desire requires models—people who endow things with value for us merely because they want the things. Models transfigure objects before our eyes.
The Bible contains a story about the Romantic Lie at the dawn of humanity. Eve originally had no desire to eat the fruit from the forbidden tree—until the serpent modeled it. The serpent suggested a desire. That’s what models do.
We are tantalised 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.
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.
The danger is not recognising models for what they are. When we don’t recognise them, we are easily drawn into unhealthy relationships with them. They begin to exert an outsize influence on us. We often become fixated on them without realising it. Models are, in many cases, a person’s secret idol.
More on Models:
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.
The world is full of models. The business world is particularly fond of them. There are financial models. There are best practices, guidebooks, templates, and daily blogs claiming to offer road maps to success. There are role models on the covers of magazines and in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. There are books. Everyone is either a model or signaling that they should be.
So stalk your highest and noblest desire, but you will have to find it in the form of a model. On this particular day, as you read these words, it might be a character from a book, a leader, an athlete, a saint, a sinner, a Medal of Honour winner, a love, a marriage, a heroic action, the greatest ideal you can possibly conceive.
Noticing Intentions and Desires:
We do the same thing. Meltzoff explains: “A mother looks at something. A baby takes that as a signal that the mother desires the object, or is at least paying attention to it because it must be important. The baby looks at the mother’s face, then at the object. She tries to understand the relationship between her mother and the object.” It’s not long before a baby can follow not just her mother’s eyes but even the intentions behind her actions.
When babies are pre-linguistic they track the desires of others without being able to understand or have words to describe them. They don’t know or care about why other people wanted something; they simply noticed what they wanted.
This natural and healthy concern in children about what other people want seems to morph in adulthood into an unhealthy concern about what other people want. It grows into mimesis. Adults do expertly what babies do clumsily. After all, each of us is a highly developed baby. Rather than learning what other people want so that we can help them get it, we secretly compete with them to possess it.
Advertising works by making you think you’re different:
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.
Steve Jobs and Modelling:
This is a story about an encounter that happened to Steve Jobs.
When he walked in, he was mortified by what he saw: Friedland was on the bed having sex with his girlfriend. Jobs tried to leave, but the stranger invited him to sit down until he was done. This is kind of far-out, Jobs thought.
Jobs had not realised it, but at the moment he walked into that room in college, Friedland had become a model to him. Jobs would later come to see through Friedland, but Friedland’s immediate impact on the young Jobs was formative. He taught Jobs that strange or shocking behaviour mesmerises people. People are drawn to others who seem to play by different rules.
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.
Hidden Imitation and Social Acceptability:
Nobody wants to be known as an imitator—except in very specific cases. We encourage children to imitate role models, and most artists generally recognise the value of imitating the masters. But imitation is totally taboo in other circumstances. Imagine if two friends started showing up at every social gathering wearing matching clothes; if a person who received a gift always reciprocated by giving the other person the same gift they were given; if someone constantly mimicked the accent or mannerisms of coworkers. These things would be considered strange, rude, or insulting, if not infuriating.
It’s as if everyone is saying, “Imitate me—but not too much,” because while everyone’s flattered by imitation, being copied too closely feels threatening.
Desire, rivalry and proximity:
Desire is affected differently by people who are at a great social distance from us (celebrities, fictional characters, historical figures, maybe even our boss) and those who are close (colleagues, friends, social media connections, neighbours, or people we meet at parties).
We’re more threatened by people who want the same things as us than by those who don’t. Ask yourself, honestly: whom are you more jealous of? Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world? Or someone in your field, maybe even in your office, who is as competent as you are and works the same amount of hours you do but who has a better title and makes an extra $10,000 per year? It’s probably the second person. That’s because rivalry is a function of proximity.
Celebristan and Freshmanistan:
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.
There is another world, though, where most of us live the majority of our lives. We’ll call it Freshmanistan. People are in close contact and unspoken rivalry is common. Tiny differences are amplified. Models who live in Freshmanistan occupy the same social space as their imitators.
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.
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).
This brings us to an important feature of Celebristan models: because there’s no threat of conflict, they are generally imitated freely and openly.
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.
In Celebristan, people don’t compete with their imitators. They may not even know they exist. This makes it a relatively peaceful place. In Freshmanistan, however, fierce competition can arise between any two people at any time.
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.
Mimetic desire is both the bond and the bane of many friendships. A common example: one friend introduces the other to baking; the desire to become a better baker is then shared by both friends, which leads them to spend more time together baking. But if the friendship becomes tinged with mimetic rivalry, it can lock them into a never-ending game of rivalrous tug-of-war that extends beyond baking to relationships, career success, fitness, and more. The same force that drew them together, mimetic desire, now pushes them apart as they try to differentiate themselves.
Liquid modernity and lack of clear role models:
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.
What is our basis for taking a source as authoritative? Is it because we checked all of the person’s credentials? Is it because the source was fact-checked by Peter Canby’s team at the New Yorker? Or is it because the person has the most followers on social media and a “Verified” sticker next to their name? Authority is more mimetic than we like to believe. The fastest way to become an expert is to convince a few of the right people to call you an expert.
It’s less likely that experts will be mimetically chosen in the hard sciences (physics, math, chemistry) because people have to show their work. But it’s easy for someone to become an overnight expert on “productivity” merely because they got published in the right place. Scientism fools people because it is a mimetic game dressed up as science.
The promise of models:
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.”
There’s a model for everyone—someone ready to impart the specific knowledge needed to be happy and make people feel that they have escaped the fate of the masses. But any model who bills themself as this kind of expert is a charlatan.
People always pursue happiness by looking for models of happiness—whether that is someone who has lived the American dream, a Silicon Valley CEO, or your next-door neighbour. But external hierarchies are merely the visible surface of a more personal system: the structure of desire that lives invisibly inside each one of us, and which is connected to other people through mimetic desire.
The Spiral of Silence:
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: people’s 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.
The Dream Machine:
The danger is not that we have a slot machine in our pockets. The danger is that we have a dream machine in our pockets. Smartphones project the desires of billions of people to us through social media, Google searches, and restaurant and hotel reviews. The neurological addictiveness of smartphones is real; but our addiction to the desires of others, which smartphones give us unfettered access to, is the metaphysical threat.
Positive Cyle Logic:
Giro followed this logic. If you make superior products, elite athletes can’t help but want to wear them. If you get elite athletes to use your product, you can’t help but attract the attention of mainstream consumers. And if you attract the attention of mainstream consumers, you can’t help but build brand power. And when you have brand power, you can’t help but increase your margins.
Start by thinking seriously about what a positive cycle of desire might look like for you. Start with a core desire. It might be spending more time with your kids, having more leisure time, or writing a book. Then map out a system of desire that makes it easier to bring that core desire to fulfillment. Write it out. I suggest that each step in the flywheel be one sentence, contain the word “want” (or “desire”), and link to the next step in the process with a connector like so that, or which leads to, or which makes.
Networks of desire and hierarchies:
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.
Whether we recognise it or not, our minds think in hierarchies all of the time—whether it’s related to our daily to-do list, the priority of issues in an election, or even a glance at a menu in a restaurant (appetisers, main course, dessert). Without a hierarchy of values, which helps form and direct desires, we can’t even begin to think about what to pay attention to and to what degree.
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.
René Girard saw that for thousands of years humans have had a specific way of protecting themselves in a mimetic crisis: they converge, mimetically, on one person or group, whom they expel or eliminate.
Girard found versions of scapegoating rituals in nearly every ancient culture. The scapegoat is often chosen randomly. But the scapegoat is always perceived to be different, marked with some distinguishing feature of an outsider—something to get them noticed.
In real life, scapegoats are usually singled out due to some combination of the following: they have extreme personalities or neurodiversity (such as autism) or physical abnormalities that make them noticeable; they’re on the margins of society in terms of status or markets (they are outside the system, like the Amish or people who have chosen to live off the grid); they’re considered deviants in some way (their behaviour falls outside societal norms, whether related to lifestyle, sexuality, or style of communication); or they appear as if by magic without society knowing where they came from or how they got there, which makes them easy to blame as the cause of social unrest (climate change activist Greta Thunberg’s arrival in New York to speak at the United Nations on a zero-carbon yacht marks her as a potential scapegoat).
Accusations are dangerously mimetic. The first accusation is the hardest. Why? Because there’s no model for it. Only in the light of overwhelming evidence would most of us accuse a person of something truly terrible. But in a situation of extreme fear or confusion, the standards change. A person can take on the appearance of an evil perpetrator more easily in a war zone than in a well-run classroom.
Jesus came upon a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery and who was about to be stoned by an angry mob. He intervened, saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The words threw everything off balance. The cycle of destructive violence was knocked off its course. One by one, the men standing around the woman began dropping their stones and walking away.
What happened? Why was throwing the first stone so hard? Because the first stone is the only stone without a mimetic model. The thrower of the first stone, often acting in a violent rage, gives the crowd a dangerous model to follow. As we saw earlier in the story of Apollonius and the Ephesians, once the first stone is thrown, the second stone becomes easier to throw. It is always easier to desire something—even, and maybe even especially,
The tactic Jesus used to prevent the stoning was depriving the crowd of a violent model and replacing it with a nonviolent model. Instead of a violent contagion taking hold, a nonviolent contagion happened instead. The first person dropped their stone. Then, one by one, the rest followed. Cycle 1, mimetic violence, was transformed into Cycle 2, a positive mimetic process.
Religious thinking and ‘the sacrifice’:
When Girard writes that “religious thinking” has the goal of practical action, he is not disparaging religious belief in any way—he is referring to the sacrificial mentality that people bring to problem solving. Nearly all people are religious in the sense that they subconsciously believe that sacrifice brings peace.
The discovery of the Scapegoat (the victim):
This is how the gospels worked. For the first time in history, the story was told from the standpoint of the victim. Girard sees this as a definitive turning point—the moment when the scapegoat mechanism began to lose its absolute power. The story forces people to come to grips with their own violence. A veil was lifted on the recurring cycle of violence in human history.
At the present time we have such a heightened sensitivity to innocent victims that we find new injustices to accuse ourselves of daily. We are made highly uncomfortable by the thought that someone being treated harshly might be innocent. Where did this passionate spirit of defending victims come from?
According to Girard, our cultural awareness comes from the biblical stories. The awareness couldn’t have come about by thinking about it hard enough. We had a blind spot because we were part of the crime. The events recounted in the Bible showed us something that no amount of reasoning had arrived or could arrive at: the innocence of victims.
One of the great ironies of the modern world is that Western democracies like the United States, in which there is a separation between church and state, have made the defense of victims an absolute moral imperative even as they have largely expunged religion from public life.
The development of human rights as we know it was born partly from the indirect acknowledgment that anyone can become a scapegoat under the right circumstances.
The recognition of the victim:
These developments have dramatically shifted the balance of power. Previously, most victims were totally powerless to defend themselves. Today, nobody has more cultural influence than someone who has been recognised as a victim. It’s as if the poles of the earth’s magnetic fields changed places, the way they do every few hundred thousand years. The scapegoat mechanism has been so thoroughly subverted that there is some semblance of a reverse scapegoating mechanism, whereby an innocent victim is recognised as having been treated brutally and then a wave of support swells up around that person.
James G. Williams, in his foreword to one of Girard’s most well-known works, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, attempted to sum up Girard’s thinking on this point: “Victimism uses the ideology of concern for victims to gain political or economic or spiritual power,” he wrote. “One claims victim status as a way of gaining an advantage or justifying one’s behaviour.” Victims now have the power to make new scapegoats of their own choosing.
Chaos from Order:
The original scapegoat mechanism brought order out of chaos—but the order depended on violence. The reverse process brings chaos out of order. The chaos is meant to shake up the “orderly” system, predicated on violence, until something serious is done to change it.
Signs of contradiction allow people to reflect:
As mentioned earlier, one of Jenny Holzer’s billboards in Times Square pleaded: “PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT.” It drew attention because it was a sign of contradiction. Through its stark contrast with its surroundings, Holzer’s art drew communal attention to its message. And through it, people were drawn toward a more honest examination of themselves. The message led not to rivalry and blame and violence but to self-reflection and maybe even transformation.
Empathy and Mimetic Cycles:
A negative mimetic cycle is disrupted when two people, through empathy, stop seeing each other as rivals. Dave changed my way of thinking and my reactionary impulses by modeling something different—a core desire that is common to every person, but which often goes unfulfilled: to know and be known by others.
Empathy is the ability to share in another person’s experience—but without imitating them (their speech, their beliefs, their actions, their feelings) and without identifying with them to the point that one’s own individuality and self-possession are lost. In this sense, empathy is anti-mimetic.
Understanding core motivational desires:
It seems simple, but nobody does it. Ask yourself: How many people do you work with who could name even one of your most meaningful achievements and explain why it was so meaningful to you?
A key goal of this exercise is identifying core motivational drives. A motivational drive is a specific and enduring behavioural energy that has oriented you throughout your life to achieve a distinct pattern of results.
Ideology and the good and bad:
The salient feature of any ideology is the violence that it both covers up and constrains. In other words, an ideology keeps a group “safe” from intruders who might bring with them an infectious strain of thought. There is no room for opposition. Girard once defined ideology as “the idea that everything is either good or bad.”
Calculating thought vs Meditative thought:
Calculating thought is constantly searching, seeking, plotting how to reach an objective: to get from Point A to Point B, to beat the stock market, to get good grades, to win an argument. According to psychiatrist Iain Mc-Gilchrist, it’s the dominant form of thought in our technological culture. It leads to the relentless pursuit of objectives—usually without having analyzed whether the objectives are worthy to begin with.
Meditative thought, on the other hand, is patient thought. It is not the same thing as meditation. Meditative thought is simply slow, nonproductive thought. It’s not reactionary. It’s the kind of thought that, upon hearing news or experiencing something surprising, doesn’t immediately look for solutions. Instead, it asks a series of questions that help the asker sink down further into the reality: What is this new situation? What is behind it? Meditative thought is patient enough to allow the truth to reveal itself.