Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life (Luke Burgis book)

Published 2021-12-27.

This book offers a theory of desire. When I first read the title, I thought the book would take a psychological approach that would be familiar to me from books like Daniel Pink’s Drive. I was pleasantly surprised to see that this book took a much more philosophical approach, and is almost entirely focused on the concept of ‘mimetic desire’, which was first theorized by the French historian/critic/polymath René Girard.

Mimetic desire is any desire that we acquire through imitation. Girard believed that most of the desires that determine people’s life courses are mimetic. People don’t spontaneously want to own a Tesla, or become a doctor, or read Shakespeare. They acquire these desires after seeing that others have them.

Luke Burgis became interested in Girard after noticing that his own desires frequently fluctuated for reasons he couldn’t make sense of. Once he understood the concept of mimetic desire, he felt he could more clearly pinpoint his ‘models’ of desire—the people in his life or in society more broadly whose desires he had unknowingly come to imitate.

Burgis started to characterize his desires as either ‘thin’ or ‘thick’. Thin desires are those that seem to flare up and die off quickly, often because there is nothing meaningful underneath them other than a feeling of competitiveness or ego. Thick desires are more long-lasting, and are underpinned by greater contextual richness: they are closer to the desires of one’s ‘inner child’, or the desires that one sees modeled by respected elders in one’s family or community.

Burgis thinks the implication of mimetic theory is that we should try to be aware of our own mimetic models. The value of this awareness is not that we can better steer clear of mimetic desires, but that we can better discern which ones are thin and which ones are thick. An unstated premise here is that some desires are better for us than others, so we should be careful about which ones we cultivate.

I thought this book was great. I would recommend it to anyone who sometimes feels confused about why they want what they want, or feels confused about what they even do want. I’m not sure that mimetic theory is ‘true’ in any rigorous sense, but it’s certainly thought-provoking.

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