Why do we want the things we want? While we’ll offer up plenty of reasons to explain our choices, my guest today says the real reason we want what we want is this: other people in our lives want those same things.
His name is Luke Burgis and he’s studied philosophy, theology, and classical literature, works as a business entrepreneur, investor, and educator, and is the author of Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life. Luke and I discuss how our desires are strongly mimetic, that is, imitative, and how there are two groups of people that act as models of desire for us: celebrities and public figures who are distant from us, and friends, family, and colleagues who are close to us. Luke explains why it’s actually that latter group where we experience the most rivalry and conflict, because the more similar we are, the more we end up competing for the same things, the more envy we experience, and the more we want to differentiate ourselves from the crowd, even though the areas in which to do so can be increasingly small. In fact, someone can be a model of desire, not only in influencing us to imitate them, but in motivating us to act in the opposite way. Luke shares how mimetic desire can be both a negative and destructive or a positive and productive force, and offers advice on how to harness it for the latter purpose by humbly recognizing the way other people are influencing our wants, and using that knowledge to opt out of games we don’t want to play, utilize the healthy aspects of competition without allowing it to get us off track, and intentionally choose worthy, even transcendent, models of desire to emulate.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- What is mimetic theory?
- How great literature holds up a great mirror regarding human behavior
- What great philosophers have discovered about imitation
- Celebristan, freshmanistan, and where our mimetic desires come from
- When comparisons and rivalries impact the lives of people around us
- How does social media exacerbate mimetic rivalries?
- What’s a destructive mimetic cycle? What about a positive cycle?
- Zappos’ mimetic crisis, which led to their sale to Amazon (instead being successful on their own)
- The role of envy in mimetic desire
- Why being wealthy is different in 2021 than it was decades ago
- Is competition always a positive thing?
- What do you do, then, with this information about mimetic desire?
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast
- Rene Girard
- What Do You Want to Want?
- Men and Status
- The Science of Competition
- Competition: The Fuel for Greatness
- The Insidious Disguises of Jealousy
- Tony Hsieh’s Fatal Night
- Notes from Underground by Dostoyevsky
- The Autobiography of Gucci Mane
- The Epic Story Behind the Lamborghini-Ferrari Competition
Connect With Luke
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Read the Transcript
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now, why do we want the things we want? Well, we’ll offer up plenty of reasons to explain our choices, my guest today says the real reason we want the things we want is this: Other people in our lives want those same things. His name is Luke Burgis and he’s studied philosophy, theology, and classical literature, works as an entrepreneur, investor, and educator, and is the author of the book, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life. Luke and I discuss how our desires are strongly mimetic, that is, imitative, and how there are two groups of people that act as models of desire for us: First you have your celebrities and public figures who are distant from us, and then you have friends, family, and colleagues who are close to us.
Luke then explains why it’s actually the latter group where we experience the most rivalry and conflict, because the more similar we are to somebody, the more we end up competing for the same things, the more envy we experience, and the more we want to differentiate ourselves from the crowd, even though at the areas in which to do so can be increasingly small. In fact, as Luke will explain, someone can be a model of desire, not only in influencing us to imitate them, but in motivating us to act in the opposite way. Luke shares how mimetic desire can be both a negative and destructive for us a positive and productive one, and offers advice to how to harness it for the latter purpose by humbly recognizing the way other people are influencing our wants, and using that knowledge to opt out of games we don’t want to play, utilize the healthy aspects of competition without allowing it to get us off track, and intentionally choose worthy, even transcendent models of desire to emulate.
After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/wanting.
Brett McKay: All right, Luke Burgis, welcome to the show.
Luke Burgis: Hey, Brett. Thanks for having me on.
Brett McKay: You got a new book out called Wanting: The Power of Memetic Desire in Everyday Life. And this book is about why we want the things we want, and something you don’t think about. It’s like, “Why do I want that thing? Why do I like this thing?” When people offer an explanation of why they want a job, why they want a specific person as a partner, what’s the typical explanation for why we want things?
Luke Burgis: Yeah, I mean, what’s most typical is that we don’t have any explanation at all and we just take it for granted. We take our desires for granted and we assume that we want things because we just know that they’re good for us. There’s some perceived good that we determine and that we arrive at the pursuit of things totally independently. For instance, I wanna go to Thailand because it just has the best beaches and the best food, and I name all of these objective qualities. So, we think that there’s a one-to-one relationship between ourselves and the thing we want, as if we kind of generate the objects of our desire or choose the objects of our desire just through our imperial autonomous self. And the short coming of this way of thinking is that we’re incredibly social creatures. And this explanation of desire doesn’t take into account the way that a desire is generated and shaped and formed by other people in our lives.
Brett McKay: And this is where mimetic theory comes in, so what is sort of the big picture overview of mimetic theory and who came up with it?
Luke Burgis: Sure, so mimetic just comes from the Greek word meaning to imitate, so the fundamental idea of all of mimetic theory is this concept of mimetic desire. And that’s just to say that desire, human desire, especially abstract desires, not needs, but the more abstract our desires are, the more they need to be mediated to us or shaped by a third-party or a third person. Some hidden influence that helps determine why we choose to pursue one thing rather than another. So, rather than thinking of a one-to-one relationship or a straight line between me and the things that I want, there’s this other kind of hidden factor and those are the people or groups of things that are models of desire for me.
Luke Burgis: And I just wanna be very clear. I mean, there’s no doubt there’s a biological basis for all kinds of basic needs. If I’m hungry, I wanna eat. If I’m cold, I wanna be warm, but me being thirsty and wanting to drink because of my instincts, right? That if I see water in the desert, I don’t need a model to show me that I wanna drink that water. But it doesn’t explain why if I see somebody at a bar drinking a really cold gin martini, slightly dirty, with three olives in it, why I all of a sudden wanna drink that specific drink when 30 seconds ago, I just wanted a beer. There’s models of desire around us all the time, and the more we get into abstract thing, and that’s kind of a superficial example, but careers or forms of fitness, we always like to believe that there’s a real just objective explanation. We don’t always account for the models.
Luke Burgis: So this, where does this come from? Sometimes, this seems kind of obvious, right? Like aren’t we affected by people around us? But if you go deeper with mimetic theory, you begin to realize that it’s not so obvious. So this theory came from a French social theorist named René Girard. He came to the States shortly after World War II, ended up staying in the States for the rest of his life. He landed at Stanford where he was a professor for a long time. Peter Thiel was one of his favorite students, co-founder of PayPal. And Girard had had this insight into mimetic desire in the late ’50s by reading classic literature. And he noticed that some of the best most enduring books in kind of The Western Canon, Don Quixote, Brothers Karamazov, Virginia Woolf, the Red and the Black, the characters in these books always have models of desire for what they want. They don’t just spontaneously desire anything.
Luke Burgis: And he realized this was a reflection of reality, but we’re just too close to see it, so in a way, literature held up this mirror to human nature. And these authors were geniuses because they wrote this aspect of human desire into their stories. And then Girard started looking everywhere else to verify it, so he looked in history, he looked at business, he looked at the way that relationships actually work in the world. He looked in the Social Sciences. We’re even finding neuroscience now kind of backing up this mimetic part of human nature. This imitative brain that we seem to have where we’re realizing that babies get really, really good at reading the desires of other people from practically the first couple of years of their life.
Brett McKay: Well, this idea of mimetic theory and how it goes back, way far back in literature. You even see it in the Book of Genesis in the Garden of Eden. Eve didn’t want the forbidden fruit, and yet, she had to have a model, she had to have the serpent say, “Hey, that looks pretty good, you should try that.” Before that, she had no desire. It wasn’t even on her radar.
Luke Burgis: Wasn’t even on her radar, so that’s a suggested desire, and that happens all the time. Clearly, this is just kind of the way that advertising works. People subtly suggest different desires to us. And part of understanding mimetic desire and mimetic theory is getting to the origin of our desires. So a lot of people just overlook that fact and what you just said. It seems obvious, but without the serpent, there would have been no desire for the apple. And we almost have to work backwards with our desires, go back to the beginning, go back to the beginning of our lives, understanding the models for most of us. For almost everybody, it’s the mother, is the first model of desire. And then as we get older, we have different wants.
Brett McKay: Well, this idea of mimesis, isn’t new. The Greeks understood it, Plato, Aristotle wrote about how humans are imitating animals, and the things we consume, the media we consume can influence attraction. That’s why Plato, in his republic, he wanted to ban poetry because he thought it would just give people corrupt desires. Any other philosophers stand out in history that kind of understood that this idea that we are imitating animals when it comes to our desires?
Luke Burgis: Yeah. Imitation plays a pretty important role in the philosophy of memis. It’s always been around. Oscar Wilde, imitation is just a serious form of flattery. Aristotle, 2500 years ago said that humans are by far the most imitative creatures in the world. But Plato and Aristotle tended to talk about the role of imitation in terms of surface level things, not so much on the level of desire. They talked about imitation in art, so this is what Girard would call sort of imitation in representation, surface level things. So the imitation’s how we learn language, it’s how we learn cultural norms, it’s how we learn how to dress. So this is tremendously positive force. You wouldn’t have culture at all if we weren’t so good at imitation. But I think Gerard’s discovery is that it goes deeper down to the very level of desire itself, and it’s tricky. So you look at two men for instance, where on the surface level, they don’t imitate each other at all. They dress in totally different ways, they speak in totally different ways, nothing about them seems imitative. But under the surface of all of that, they have a desire for the same quality of being. Maybe they work at the same company and they want the same position, they want power, they want something, and it’s kind of buried or hidden beneath the surface level forms of differentiation that we all engage in.
Brett McKay: Our desires, our wants, they come from models, and these models are social, they’re from other people. And Girard says there’s two potential sources for our social models for mimetic desire. The one is… You call it Celebristan, and the other one is Freshmanistan. What did Gerard call these, and what’s the difference between the two?
Luke Burgis: So what I call Celebristan, that’s just my easy-to-remember phrase for what Girard called external mediators of desire. So these are people that we have no possibility of coming into serious contact with, we can’t compete with them for the same things, we can’t be their rivals. Now, that could be because they’re dead, they’re a historical figure, it could be because they’re fictional, a fictional character. So fictional characters can become models of desire to us just like real people can. In Don Quixote, he read a fictional story and caused him to go and change his whole life and become a knight errant. Or it can just be because there’s such a social gap between us that there’s really no possibility of us competing seriously for the same things, right? Jeff Bezos for me is in Celebristan, he’s a total external mediator of desire for me, there’s no possibility of us competing. So Elon Musk might be the other kind of model to Jeff Bezos, and the other kind of model he calls an internal mediator of desire. And these are people that are inside of our worlds, they’re close to us, they’re the people that we normally don’t recognize as models of desire for us, and we have the possibility of coming into contact with them, competing with them, becoming rivals to them, and I call this in the book Freshmanistan because it’s similar to the experience of being a freshman all over again.
Luke Burgis: You all have a lot in common, you’re more alike than you’re different, you’re all the same age, most of the kids don’t have a lot of money, they’re all kind of in the same boat, taking the same classes, and that’s a situation where everybody is an internal mediator of desire to pretty much everybody else.
Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s break this down a little. So our desires can be influenced by celebrities and public figures who are distant from us or they could be influenced by people who are close to us and like us. But in that first category, people who are out of our league, it seems to be less fraught, there’s less conflict there. Why is that? And why is it that if I decide to copy something Elon Musk does, like his morning routine, I’m gonna do exactly what he does for his morning routine, that’s okay. But if I decide to copy something my brother does exactly like he does, he might be a little bothered by that.
Luke Burgis: Right. So the simplest explanation is that there’s no possibility of serious conflict arising from imitating models that are outside of our world, that are transcendent to the world that we live in. We’re never going to come into serious conflict with them because we can’t. So in other words, the other person’s not gonna imitate back. There’s no reflexivity in that situation, which means it’s less dynamic. I have no idea what Elon Musk’s morning routine is. It might be good, it might be stupid, I don’t know. But you’re not going to… That’s a perfectly fine thing to imitate. Or the aspirations of people in history. People that we aspire to emulate, whether it’s Martin Luther King or some famous athlete, this is how we grow. Most people start out playing sports by emulating a great, like you watched Michael Jordan and you emulate his style and the way that he plays. I think Kobe Bryan told this story. Until a certain point, if that person is sort of in your world, and by the way, people can move between these two worlds. Michael Jordan started out as an external mediator to him, but he became an internal mediator when they both played in the NBA.
Luke Burgis: And that competition and rivalry can be an incredibly positive thing. It can drive innovation. It can push people to be better. But in many cases, like in workplaces, in families, it’s the aspect of internal rivalry where people are really close to each other that we often don’t recognize the potential for serious conflict, for misery. And just getting caught in these cycles of never-ending comparison games, which we can’t really do with these sort of people that are in Celebristan.
Brett McKay: And I think that it’s counter-intuitive because then you’d have more rivalry with people who are more like you. You’d think it’d be the opposite, but when you stop and think about it, it’s like, “Yeah, I don’t really care, I don’t really compare myself to some billionaire.” But if there’s some podcaster, sort of the same size, I’m focusing on that person, like, “What are they doing? I need to do what they’re doing.” The Joe Rogan’s not even on my radar ’cause he just, he’s way bigger than I’ll ever be, probably. But I’m keyed in more to people who are like me.
Luke Burgis: Right, yeah. If you ask most people who they’re more jealous of or something or who they’re paying attention to more, is it Jeff Bezos, billionaire with a yacht or is it the person that went to the same college as they did and works in the same industry and makes an extra 5000 bucks a year, or seems to vacation to nice spots and post it on their Instagram? For everybody, it’s the second person. There’s just more in common with them. We pay attention to them more, so in a sense, jealousy or you could even say envy, is kind of a function of proximity and similarity.
Brett McKay: So this, okay, most of the conflict then when we’re starting to look for models on how to behave or how to have certain desires, most of the conflict happens when there’s people who are like us. You also argue or make this case that the models within Freshmanistan, they end up distorting reality. Even though they are more like us, if we just focus on that, it can tend to distort reality. How so?
Luke Burgis: It can distort reality because for one, we project all kinds of things on people without really knowing much about them at all. So Girard said that all human desire is fundamentally not a desire for things, it’s a desire for being itself. He calls it metaphysical desire, so we think that we lack something, and we all do. And we think that this other person. And this is all, we never usually think of this consciously, but the reason why we would adopt somebody else as a model of desire at all is because at some pre-conscious or subconscious level, we think that they just have some quality of being that we don’t. And that if maybe we wanted some of the same things or if we acquired some of the same things, that it would turn us more into the kind of person that we want to be. And because we’re kind of just playing a guessing game like we know, we really don’t know. We’re projecting all of these illusions on people around us, it leads to incredible distortions.
Luke Burgis: And this is… I talk a lot about this in the book, sort of… People that are extremely confident, to give you an example, are typically incredibly attractive. People of the opposite sex that are incredibly confident. People that… And what is confidence? It’s like knowing what you want and projecting that you know what you want. And why is that so powerful from the standpoint of mimesis and mimetic desire? Well most people, if they’re really honest with themselves, are super confused about what they want. So, when there’s somebody that really seems like they know, that’s incredibly attractive. They make a really powerful model of desire for us, whether it’s a man or a woman, whatever, and we have to be aware of that. And some people play games with that. It’s kind of people play hard to get, people project all kinds of things, because it’s almost wired into us. We’re looking for that. We’re looking for people that can help show us what to want, and those people are powerful.
Brett McKay: And why does Freshmanistan cause mimetic rivalries? Why do we suddenly see the world as sort of a zero-sum game whenever we’re looking at other people and what they’re doing. And we start doing what they’re doing and we’re thinking, “Well, man, if he gets it, then I’m not gonna get anything,” when that really might not be the case.
Luke Burgis: Yeah, a zero-sum game is a great word to describe Freshmanistan. Why do we do that? Our world becomes very small in Freshmanistan. And this is one of the reasons why I think what I call in the book transcendent models of desire. Models of desire, not all of our models have to be sort of transcendent models. But some of them have to be because in a complete absence of any kind of transcendent model, they all have to come from inside the system that we’re already in. Whether that’s your company, whether it’s your school, whether it’s your little industry that you work in. And that’s dangerous. It becomes like a pot, like a pressure cooker, because there’s nothing outside of it to kind of make us turn away from each other and look at something beyond.
Luke Burgis: And when I say transcendent models, I mean virtues are transcendent models… Religions have transcendent models. It could even just be as simple as just outside of your own industry or something like that… Or from the past, or just some aspiration in the future, so that we’re not turned inwards. So, Freshmanistan has the effect of turning everybody inwards on each other, sort of navel-gazing and comparing. And it escalates the nature of mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry is always to escalate, and that can create a pretty dangerous situation.
Brett McKay: How has social media exacerbated Freshmanistan mimetic rivalry?
Luke Burgis: My opinion is that social media has basically turned the world into a Freshmanistan. The… My dad grew up in the 50s in Detroit, in this little high school with a couple of hundred kids in it, and that was like… That was his universe of models. He probably had four or five that were super cool, that were real models of desire for him. But now… I can’t really even imagine. Now, from the age of eight, nine, 10 years old, you have a little device in your pocket that projects the desires of quite literally billions of people from every corner of the globe into a child’s brain and heart and mind. And I don’t think that we quite know what that’s doing to us. And one of the things about social media… And this goes back to when somebody is similar to us that we’re more likely to take them as a rival.
Luke Burgis: And so, the whole premise of social media is really… It’s made us more alike… We all have the same profile constraints. And in the case of Twitter, we can only use the same number of characters. It’s sort of forced us all into very similar boxes. It’s almost like taking the world and trying to fit us all, socially speaking, under the head of a pin. We’re all incredibly close together, we’re more alike. So it sets off this crisis of sameness where everybody’s trying to differentiate themselves from everybody else in this sea of mediocrity, this sea of sameness.
Luke Burgis: And I actually think that’s why people… And studies have shown this. People basically say more provocative and extremist things online beyond what they even believe, beyond what they would tell you in private because it’s the only way to stand out in this crowd. So I think social media, from the standpoint of mimetic theory, is incredibly dangerous. And I think we’re gonna have to evolve and find ways to allow people to… I don’t have the answer. If I’d had it I’d start the company, but I’m working on it. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Well, and the other thing social media has done is, it’s taken models from Celebristan and moved them to Freshmanistan. Now, you can… In your Instagram feed, you have your siblings, your mom and dad, their dog, the pictures they’re posting, but then you’re also seeing personal pictures from sports athletes you follow, politicians. It’s all in the same… It’s all the same.
Luke Burgis: Right. And that’s an incredibly important thing. So if it’s true that we’re more captivated by the models that seem more like us, then the best thing that a celebrity could do is make themselves appear to be more like us. And I think that’s what we do see. We see them in their home, we see them lounging around and it’s like, “Oh, they’re just like me.” So it’s… That illusion is… That’s an important part of the marketing strategy to show that. And then, now we have YouTube stars that are just blowing up overnight seemingly, and that’s even more seductive because it’s like, “Well, that could be me.” So I think there’s definitely… Social media is blurring the lines between Celebristan and Freshmanistan, and that’s part of its allure.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
Brett McKay: And now, back to the show. And so, in mimetic theory, you describe there’s two cycles to it. The first one is destructive, the second is positive. What does a destructive mimetic cycle look like?
Luke Burgis: So these cycles… I don’t know if Girard ever used these terms. So these are my terms to describe two different ways of looking at mimetic desire because it’s important to realize that mimetic desire is not just this dark negative thing. Although, Girard tended to focus on the negative side because cycle 1 is the destructive cycle. It’s kind of the default cycle, where if we don’t know that we’re these mimetic creatures and we’re imitating the desires of others, we’re entering into rivalries and competition… We might not even know that we are, and it eventually leads to conflict, which Girard says, that conflict spreads by contagion because desires are contagious… They spread.
Luke Burgis: And rivalry is also contagious. And people get… More and more, people get drawn into it. So when you have a closed system or a closed society that this cycle of destructive mimetic desire where nobody realizes that they’re kind of caught up in a mimetic escalating crisis, these have typically been resolved in history through this… What he calls the scapegoat mechanism. And let me give you one example of how a negative cycle was immediately transformed into a positive cycle. And if I can use a biblical example… I find it to be the most powerful one.
Brett McKay: Sure, go for it.
Luke Burgis: Yeah. So in the Gospel of John, you have a stoning, which… A stoning of a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. And she’s brought into the square and the men are picking up the stones ready to stone her. And Jesus enters the scene… And this is the very famous story where he challenges them, “You who is without sin throw the first stone.” And immediately, one drops the stone and the next person drops the stone and they all eventually walk away. This story is incredibly powerful to read through the lens of mimetic theory because what had been happening was a negative cycle of mimetic escalation.
Luke Burgis: So what’s the power of the first stone? Well, the first stone is the hardest one to throw because there’s no model. The second stone is so much easier to throw once there’s been a model, and the third is even easier and the fourth is even easier. So through this contagion of mimetic desire, all of these people had these stones ready to go. And once the first one had been thrown, you can guarantee that a thousand or however many people were there, stones would have been thrown.
Luke Burgis: And the cycle was diffused and it was literally transformed into a positive one where now, the first model is not the stone thrown, it’s the stone dropped on the ground and the man walking away. Now, that’s a positive model to follow, and a second and a third and fourth person did it. So it was instantly subverted. And this… You can transpose this story, I think, to a lot of things in life.
Luke Burgis: To cancel culture… You don’t see what happened in that story happening very often. More often than not… I think 99% of the time, it escalates until somebody gets hurt. And that was a total transformation. I think it’s very illustrative of these two different cycles of desire.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think that idea… It helps explain the internet pile-ons. I think… I’ve actually seen studies where sociologists or psychologists… Whoever does this, would look at the stuff on the internet… With internet comments. They would do things where they would moderate comments and not polish them right away. They’d only… They’d have to approve them first. And what they’d notice is that if they approved a negative comment first, then the rest of the comments that came in after that would be all negative. But if they approved the positive comment first, the negative comments would go down and it’d all be positive… It just goes to show… We often think that we’re independent, rational thinking people… And we are, but we’re also… We imitate. We’re very influenced by our models around us.
Luke Burgis: Yeah, absolutely. We’re mimetic, and it takes a certain amount of humility to realize that. It’s not something that a lot of people wanna talk about in a culture where we really prize innovation and we juxtapose it to imitation… Like one thing can’t exist without the other. And that’s just false. There’s a continuum. I’ve heard some people say that maybe the solution, or a way to slow down some of the more nasty aspects of cancel culture would just be that we all are pseudo-anonymous or something like that. So that you yourself can’t become victim of a cancellation.
Luke Burgis: But I think that’s wrong because if you look at studies when people are anonymous or pseudo-anonymous, it’s been shown that they’re much more likely just to be the first one to comment in a very negative way on a thread, on an article. We know that. And when people have to take responsibility for it, they’re a little more careful about what they have to say.
Brett McKay: Well, you give an example in the book… And we don’t have to get into the details of it, but maybe the highlights of it… Of a destructive mimetic cycle that happened at Zappos. And I think if you’ve been paying attention to the business media, people have read about Zappos. It was sort of like this darling of the startup world. It was implementing all these radical ideas about management that were different from traditional management theories. What happened there? How did those ideas that looked like people thought were pretty cool, actually ended up maybe leading to Zappos kind of… Not… Floundering a bit?
Luke Burgis: I have a bit of a contrarian take on what happened at Zappos because I was around at that time, and was a good friend of Tony Hsieh… Rest in peace. And what I saw happening was what I would describe as kind of a meta-crisis. So Zappos, very successful, it was kind of a darling of the startup world, they’d surpassed a billion dollars in sales. Tony was always a very innovative thinker, and launched a project called the Downtown Project that really wanted to remake all of downtown Las Vegas, where I lived at the time, into a start-up community.
Luke Burgis: And kind of, you could think of it like extend the campus of Zappos to encompass all of Downtown Vegas and then propagate the culture out to the city… Like the city as a start-up, essentially. And what they did is they adopted some management philosophies that were extremely non-hierarchal, like holacracy. They basically got rid of their visible management structure overnight. So Tony was no longer the CEO. Nobody actually even had titles anymore. And there are systems in place… So it wasn’t like a free for all. There was actually incredibly disciplined procedures for making decisions in groups. But what I saw happen is that desires and mimetic desire and the hierarchies basically just went underground. So what had been visible in the light was now totally underground.
Luke Burgis: Dostoyevsky wrote this really important book, kind of the first modern novel, ‘Notes from the Underground’ about this underground man whose desires were all underground. And I saw everybody in the company basically did that. And all these little rivalries formed… Things were spread by contagion, rumors, gossip. I’d never seen so much in my life. I’d been around Zappos for a few years, and it was… Essentially, it was a mimetic crisis.
Luke Burgis: And some people were hurt, and I think some scapegoats were made. So we’re still learning more about what happened down there, but when I was in the midst of it, that’s kind of my take on it. And especially now that I’ve had a chance to think about it through the lens of mimetic desire and theory.
Brett McKay: Before I’d read your book, I’d been doing my own personal deep dive into envy. So I just picked up a bunch of books about envy, and a lot of philosophers and anthropologists… Tocqueville noticed this, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard… A lot of the 19th century existentialists noticed this… That envy… So envy is… You feel like… You see… Somebody has something that you want and you don’t want them to have it… It makes you feel resentful and bitter. They’d noticed that envy increases as societies become more egalitarian and that envy increases… Conflict increases… Did Girard make a distinction between mimetic desire and envy?
Luke Burgis: I think Girard would just say that envy is a form of mimetic desire, and that mimetic desire manifests itself often as envy. And perhaps even, envy might be the predominant form of mimetic desire and rivalry in today’s world. That’s how I would explain it. So mimetic desire is kind of a layer deeper, and envy is the way that it’s kind of rearing its ugly head.
Luke Burgis: I think Girard said something to the effect of, “Nobody can talk about envy.” I think the reason that we talk about sex so much is that nobody dares talk about their envy. The real repression, in the Freudian sense, is the repression of envy and that’s a serious problem. Nobody talks about it publicly, which probably means it’s pretty prevalent. And I find it interesting… And I’ve read Tocqueville and Michael Novak… Is a thinker that I like a lot.
Luke Burgis: And they noted that in earlier times in history, there were times when people would rejoice at the success of others, because it meant… In their town or in their village, because it would… It meant that there was commune prosperity to their area, or to their nation, or to their city, or something. It seems a bit different now, and I don’t know what’s changed. It’s not like… Envy’s always been with us, it’s not like envy wasn’t around or people weren’t envious then, but it seems like it has become stronger and just more of the ethos. And I don’t know, maybe it’s just because we don’t… We’re not willing to openly acknowledge it.
Brett McKay: Yeah… Tocqueville said that’s the biggest problem in the democratic spirit, the democratic age, is that envy. And everyone is just gonna kinda play it safe, ’cause they don’t wanna lift their head up too much, ’cause they know if they do they’re gonna get hammered down. And it causes a whole bunch of problems. And there’s been like… People have proposed solutions for envy. At the extreme end, it would be like… Well, Marx would be like, “We’ll just make everyone the same… ” We’ll get rid of social classes, through this sort of utopianism. But the interesting thing though is, according to mimetic desire theory and even some theories of envy, as you do that, you’ll just increase conflicts. So like the solution actually might make things worse.
Luke Burgis: Yeah, I think that it would absolutely increase conflict. And one of the interesting things is that wealth has traditionally been fairly hidden and mysterious. You see, wealth… It’s not like there weren’t wealthy people, but we didn’t sort of… We didn’t have social media, so people weren’t sort of showing their loss porn and their gains on Reddit forums and stuff like that, and tweeting about how much they just made in crypto for the day. So what’s gonna happen when everybody knows how much everybody else is making in the stock market? It’s just a totally different world. So it seems like the kind of world that’s ripe for fueling envy, in my opinion.
Brett McKay: Another interesting point you make is that… Okay, people might hear this theory of… This idea of mimetic theory, and mimetic desire, and they think, “Well, I’m not a sheep. I make my own decisions.” Girard, and you also flesh this out some more, is that once you do that, you’re probably the most susceptible to mimetic rivalry and mimetic desires. Why is it that when you think, I’m… I’ve escaped the sheepdom, why are you more prone to fall into mimetic rivals?
Luke Burgis: Girard said the effort to leave the beaten paths forces everyone inevitably into the same ditch, or something like that. And in the book, I joke around about… Why do all hipsters look the same? Well, part of it might be because they don’t realize that they’re also still mimetic. So they’ve rejected the popular culture only to adopt a new model that are in the subculture. So it’s this funny thing that we joke about, but it’s like… Normally, the less mimetic you’re convinced you are… Like the more that you have that conceit, the more mimetic you may be… Because you’re not even aware of it.
Luke Burgis: So it’s kind of like every scam artist kind of knows, the first step is just to get people as comfortable as possible and to develop a certain level of trust. So I guess the lesson here is having a certain sense of humility and awareness of who we are as creatures, and that we are mimetic, and we all have models, probably, whether we know it or not. Models of manliness, models of lifestyles… Of who we wanna be as a father or something… And I think just being able to have open conversations about that, being able to recognize who our models are, is an important part in the process.
Brett McKay: Oh yeah. That’s an interesting point. So we wanna flesh that out and make… So even when you… You can have a mimetic rivalry with somebody, even when you’re not imitating, but you’re doing the opposite of what they do.
Luke Burgis: Yeah, so that’s… We can call that mirrored imitation.
Brett McKay: Okay.
Luke Burgis: So that means that the person is still very much a model to us, but the way that we’re… And so, basically… We’re taking action based on what they do. So in politics, you can sometimes… You could refer to this as negative partisanship. It’s like, “Well, if that side is doing that, we’d be mortified if we ever wanted to pass the same bill, so we better go do something different.”… It’s like… The irony is that the other side is still very much a model of desire, because our desires are being shaped by their desires and influenced by their desires.
Luke Burgis: One of the funny stories… One of the funnier stories about this is the rapper, Gucci Mane… He actually wrote a pretty good autobiography. He tells a story of how there was a rival rap group in Atlanta that put out a song called White Tee… A pretty tame song, but it had a lot of success. And they were a rival to him, they were a model, and he put out a song called Black Tee, which is a little bit edgier, took things to the next level, and that song blew up too.
Luke Burgis: So… Sure, it’s not one for one, it’s not positive imitation. It’s imitation that’s just negatively correlated with whatever the model is doing. So our attempts to differentiate ourselves is a form of… You could call it negative or mirrored imitation. It’s like we’re still taking that person as a model. Siblings do this all the time… Like, my big brother is wearing that, then I’ll never wear that. If he’s buying this kind of a car, then I have to buy this kind of a car. Those people are super important for us, and they’re forms of mimetic rivals. We’re just imitating them or reacting to them a little bit differently.
Brett McKay: So what do you do with this information? Once you learn this stuff, you start seeing like, “Oh man, the things I want… ” You can start seeing where you got those models from. Or even the things you don’t want, you realize, “Oh, I don’t want it, because this model… ” What do you do with this information? Are you able to sort of escape the cycle of mimetic desire, sort of like reach mimetic nirvana, where you… It’s no longer… Holds any sway on you?
Luke Burgis: Yeah, [chuckle] I certainly haven’t yet, Brett. I will say that I have a level of freedom that I didn’t have in my 20s, for sure. I’m able to see when I’m being hyper-mimetic, when I’m getting caught up in a crowd, when I have a tendency to scapegoat other people. I can sort of diffuse my mimetic tendencies in myself, and sometimes in others, and just focus a little bit more on what’s important. I choose my goals more carefully. I check myself when I’m getting overly concerned with what somebody else is doing, somebody that I might not even recognize as a rival, that’s really important.
Luke Burgis: And then, we can… We have intentionality. We have the freedom to… At the very least, to choose our models. So I try to cultivate positive models and positive mimetic desire with all of my work, with all of my projects and ventures… Kind of about creating or generating positive mimetic desire. And frankly, I’ve followed, The Art of Manliness for a long time, and I think that’s what you’re doing. And it’s like… There’s a mimetic desire to be better men. And my desire to do that is kindled when I see other men wanting to be better men, and we can emulate in positive ways.
Luke Burgis: So once we have a certain awareness that this is real, this is part of human nature, this is deep-seated stuff, we can just begin to make choices about who we surround ourselves by the kind of models that we adopt, the positive ones, putting some boundaries between us and negative models. And then when we find ourselves reacting or just getting caught up in stupid things that are taking our eye off the ball, taking us away from our purpose, our vocation, whatever it is we wanna do in life, because we’re looking to our right and our left… We’re hyper-mimetic, we just begin to notice ourselves doing that and we can develop some muscles to help us to get a little bit better at extracting ourselves from that stuff.
Brett McKay: And also your keen on those transcendent desires that Girard talked about, those virtues… Make that your focus, instead of social models.
Luke Burgis: And that was the key for me. Yeah, I was in the start-up world, I was in the Silicon Valley scene, and I was looking around for a model that I couldn’t find there. And the only way that I was able to escape with my soul was to find transcendent models that were outside of the world that I was so caught up in. And I don’t know what would have happened to me if I hadn’t done that, but I was lucky enough to have some great models of desire in my life that modeled what it means to be a man, and a husband, and a father, to develop virtues. I saw virtue with my own eyes and I wanted to emulate that. And that was… That pulled me out of a Freshmanistan [chuckle], so to speak. And so the transcendent models are critical.
Brett McKay: And I think… The point you make though is that these mimetic rivalries, they can be productive, ’cause… You push yourself. And you give… But the trick is to not let it consume you and switch over that destructive rivalry. And you had this great story about the competition between Lamborghini and Ferrari, and how Lamborghini kind of… He figured out a way to get the benefits of that mimetic rivalry. But then, I guess pulled out before it became destructive.
Luke Burgis: Yeah, so Lamborghini was a tractor maker before he ever got into cars. And I won’t tell the whole story, it’s pretty widely known. But I found some details that I put into the book. ‘Cause I found this obscure book in Italy and translated a lot of the stories in it into English for the first time. So there’s a bit of the back story to this rivalry between Ferrari and Lamborghini. But Lamborghini got into the car business because Enzo Ferrari was a model for him, and he humiliated him.
Luke Burgis: He told him he didn’t know how to drive a Ferrari, and the reason that he kept breaking his clutch was because he just didn’t know how to drive and he pissed Lamborghini off. And Lamborghini took him as a rival and said, “Dammit, I’m gonna make a better car than you make with a clutch that doesn’t break,” and he did. He put one of his tractor clutches in it, and he ended up… Within two years, he’d produced the first Lamborghini. But he knew when to stop. He didn’t let the personal rivalry with Enzo Ferrari determine the future of his business and the future of his life and just totally consume him.
Luke Burgis: So he reached a fork in the road with that business after he now had a successful car company. He could have taken the competition with Ferrari to the extreme. He could have entered the racing business… He could have just lived the rest of his life miserable, basically. Consumed by constantly measuring himself according to Ferrari, but he didn’t do that. He was incredibly mature… He reached a point where he ended up retiring and basically starting a vineyard. And the cars are more popular than ever, but he was able to save himself from the more destructive aspects of that rivalry. So he used it for innovation, he used it to start a new company and he… But he didn’t let it take him off track. He took the focus off of the personal rivalry.
Brett McKay: And that could be hard or scary to do once… You decide you’re not gonna play the game anymore. You decide you’re just gonna opt-out. And people are like, “What are you doing?” You’re not… You’re supposed to be paying attention to this stuff. And you’re just like, “Ah, I just don’t care.” And they’re like “You’re, a crazy person.” [chuckle]
Luke Burgis: Yeah.
Brett McKay: That can be risky.
Luke Burgis: Well, we have a cult of competition. I think competition is pretty positive. I think it’s great in sports, I think it’s good in business, but we have a cult of… It’s become an ideology, where if you don’t compete, you’re a quitter or something. There’s a lot of negative baggage attached to people that opt-out of some of those things even when it’s the right thing to do. So I think we can’t fall into that trap of thinking that competition is always a positive thing. Sometimes it is, sometimes it’s not. And that was the wisdom of Lamborghini, was to know the difference between the two. Knowing the difference is half the battle in life, and he certainly was able to recognize that.
Brett McKay: Well, Luke where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Luke Burgis: They can buy the book now as of June 1st, anywhere they like to buy books and at lukeburgis.com. I’ve got a website, I publish a Substack where I go a lot deeper into these topics that are things that I just never end up going into in a book.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Luke Burgis, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Luke Burgis: Thanks so much Brett. It’s been great.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Luke Burgis, he’s the author of the book, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire. And it’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, lukeburgis.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/wanting. Where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.
Brett McKay: Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Check out our website, artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives. Where there’s thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so at Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign-up, use code “Manliness” at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast.
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