We all desire something. More money, more security, more love, more friendship. We all imitate each other. Ideas, perspectives, thoughts, processes. This is mimesis, the fuel that powers a system of desire that’s been around since the earliest days of mankind.
Author Luke Burgis is fascinated with mimesis and he breaks down this universal concept in Wanting: The Power Of Mimetic Desire In Everyday Life. In the book, Burgis explains how to identify mimetic desire, when it’s negative and positive and how to develop tactics for promoting healthy desires.
The book opens with a clear definition of mimesis, as developed by the philosopher Rene Girard:
“Models are people or things that show us what is worth wanting. It is models not our objective analysis or central nervous system – that shapes 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 centres around which our social lives turn. It’s more important to understand this now than at any other time in history.”
Burgis then demonstrates how mimetic desire comes in two cycles. One is destructive, eating up our noblest ambitions and causing conflict within ourselves and the communities we’re a part of.
The other is transformative. It moves beyond shallow wants (thin desires as Burgis calls them) and sets up thick desires. These types of desires have been formed over many years and have meaning.
Negative and positive mimesis
Burgis offers up various examples across history of when mimetic desire is both destructive and transformative. On the negative side, an intriguing concept is that of The Romantic Lie, embodied by people like Julius Caesar. He famously declared veni, vedi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered) after the battle of Zela.
This line creates the expectation that Caesar literally saw a place and decided to conquer it. It’s far more accurate to reframe Caesar’s claim as ‘I came, I saw, I desired.’
Caesar desired to imitate his model Alexander The Great. At the time, Caesar’s rival, Pharnaces II had attacked him and Caesar responded by desiring to conquer like his great hero. So, Caesar deluded himself with a story about why he made certain choices because it fit his personal preferences.
A better form of mimetic desire is the Fulfilment Story that helps to bond a storyteller and the listener. Burgis breaks down a Fulfilment Story into three essential ingredients:
1. “It’s an action: You took some concrete action and you were the main protagonist, as opposed to passively taking in an experience. As life-changing as a Springsteen concert at the Stone Pony might have been for you, it’s not a Fulfilment Story. It might be for Bruce, but not for you. Dedicating yourself to learning everything about an artist and their work, on the other hand, could be.
2. You believe you did well: You did it with excellence, you did it well – by your estimation and nobody else’s. You are looking for an achievement that matters to you. If you grilled what you think is a perfect rib-eye steak the other night, then you did something well and achieved something. Don’t worry about how big or small the achievement might seem to anyone.
3. It brought you a sense of fulfilment: Your action brought you a deep sense of fulfilment, maybe even joy. Not the fleeting, temporary kind, like an endorphin rush. Fulfilment: you woke up the next morning and felt a sense of satisfaction about it. You still do. Just thinking about it brings it back.”
15 tactics for harnessing mimetic desire in the positive way
Another great part of the book is the actionable tips Burgis suggests for recognising and using mimetic desire to fit the second cycle. The cycle of transformation for yourself, for others and the world.
· Name your models
· Find sources of wisdom that withstand mimesis
· Create boundaries with unhealthy models
· Use imitation to drive innovation
· Start positive flywheels of desire
· Establish and communicate a clear hierarchy of values
· Arrive at judgements in anti-mimetic ways
· Map out the systems of desire in your world
· Put desires to the test
· Share stories of deeply fulfilling action
· Increase the speed of truth
· Invest in deep silence
· Look for the coexistence of opposites
· Practice meditative thoughts
· Live as if you have a responsibility for what other people want
Through a mixture of philosophy, history, failures and successes, Burgis homes in on what desire truly is. Wanting is a book you’ll want to read.