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Step 69: Memetic Desire

Memetic Desire

Wanting what others want is normal. Competition to differentiate yourself leads to violence.

Discovering the hidden models driving us reveals our motivations, but more importantly, Rene Girard‘s theory accounts for civilizations cybernetic energies and release valves.

Drawing from Luke Burgis’s “Wanting: Memetic Desire in Everyday Life” we look at the basics of memetic rivalry, hidden models, and mediators before jumping into scapegoating and sacrifice in our next episode.

Note: there are references to earlier podcasts on Cybernetics and Accelerationism.

  • 0:00 Intro
  • 1:22 What is mimetic rivalry? memtic desire.
  • 2:48 Mimicry as an internal set of neurosis.
  • 5:05 What we want is the attention and control that someone else wanted first.
  • 7:14 If somebody else wants something, our survival depends on us getting to it first.
  • 9:47 Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
  • 11:28 Accelerationism is a means to break out of the deadlock of capitalism.
  • 12:56 All of our focus is now embodied in winning the object.
  • 14:46 If the system is good enough, it will disperse the energies.
  • 16:37 How capitalism fits into all of this.
Step 69: Memetic Desire


Today we get to talk about memetic desire, which is how your desire mimics other people’s desire. (Jealousy / Rivalry / Competition)

I picked up a book by Luke Burgis called “Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in everyday life.” Coincidentally, I was reading Peter Thiel’s “zero to one” simultaneously. Both of these books are inspired by the thoughts of René Girard.

rene girard
rene girard

Girard taught at Stanford for a little while but is primarily a French anthropologist, academic and autodidact. When he was told he needed to teach classes on literature, he was often reading classic novels right before he was supposed to present them to his class. He was reading quickly with an eye for structure, which led him to discover most characters in the stories can be quite similar and are introduced to I desire that they want to fulfill, which leads to wanting, competition, inevitable conflict, and tragedy.

The ramifications of what this means for people go doubly for society, as it moves beyond a basic “wanting” into a motivating cultural and social phenomenon and economic system. Mimetic Desire explains why we are so competitive and violent. In a time of divisiveness, the discontent of mimetic rivalry explains why they choose sides, even though there may not be much difference between the oppositional parties, and maybe the chooser doesn’t care for their side.

So let’s jump into it and see why we fight so hard for things we think we desire, but we didn’t even know it existed six months ago.

Step 69: Memetic Desire

 PART 1: mirroring others’ desires

mimetic desire

To mimic something is to act like it. To behave as it behaves, look to it for cues on how you should behave. Because from childhood you don’t really know how to behave until you watch something else behave, and your parody finally can become a mask you can put on, a personae.

Of course, you think it is “you,” but you are just a natural mimic.

It is interesting to consider at what point your external mimicry somehow becomes an internal set of neuroses or desires: when did you understand the motivations of the external acts, to make you entirely” what you “yourself” without mimickry? Did mimicking the desires of others make them your motivations?

Mimesis is mimicry, or memes, and comes from the Greek mimesthai, which is to imitate.

To want what another wants (the same object or status) creates an amplification of desire and blindness to options.

If we learn how to behave by watching the actions of another, and we watch this person reach for the television remote and they won’t give it up, then we find the television remote is the “Lor of the Flies” Conch Shell, the ability to wield power. The shell itself (in the book) is meaningless, but it symbolically represents the right to assert yourself.

Somehow we know as a child that even if we get a hold of the remote we will not have the power, but we definitely all stole it from the other person (parent or sibling), which creates a game of keep-away and dominance battling, followed by sulking. Not even that we wanted the remote per se, it’s that we want the attention and control that somebody else wanted, and we mostly just wanted to spite them. We will rationalize that we’re pretty sure we want to watch something different than them, but of course, if you consider old-school television no matter what you turned on you mostly watched commercials that made you want more stuff you didn’t need. ~ We wanted to control the desiring machine.

According to mimetic theory: How this plays out might be that we have forgotten about the remote, so we have no wanting or desire, but as soon as we see Roger’s eyes cut towards the remote or his grimy hand reaching for it, it triggers the impulse in us to also want that thing. Now this could be the last cookie, the girl or guy at the dance, or proclaiming ourselves more accomplished or more victimized than another. Depends on the setting.

As soon as they reach, we want. This is a competitive impulse.

And one thing we know about athletes is they visually fixate on a goal to achieve it. There is a new episode on The Knowledge Project ( #154 Emily Balcetis — Setting and Achieving Goals ) all about goal-setting and perceptual focus, the “perception gap.” This also ties into Dr. Andrew Huberman’s podcast (Huberman Labs) on hacking your biological functions. By staring intensely, you can increase your motivation and drive.

So maybe consider it this way, as their eyes cut towards the remote, or the girl, or the trophy, we tracked their eyes, and almost like this is the last fruit on the savannah and we are going to starve without it, we both rush towards it. This is a conditioned evolutionary response: if somebody else wants something, our survival might depend on us getting it first.

And as we know from Focus, once the Left side of your brain kicks in and your focus narrows, you no longer can perceive the wider world. The flashlight of our awareness goes from wide-beam to laser.

And now that we desire that object, that person, or that status amongst peers, we rushed towards it, trying harder and harder to get it, only amplifying our desire to get it more and more. And if we don’t get it we are enraged, thwarted, yet 10 minutes ago we didn’t know we even wanted the remote, we had never seen this girl before, and there was no way we were going to play the victim.

Step 69: Memetic Desire

Part 2: introduced by a mediator (third-party)

The most direct example of a third party introducing us to the thing we desire is the serpent introducing Eve to the apple, or the forbidden fruit. Who knew if it was really an apple, it might have been a kumquat, since this is episode 69.

This once normal fruit, now sexualized into a kumquat, becomes desirable. This is primarily because it’s now made rare special or taboo: you should not do what you want, which makes you want it more.

adam and eve expulsion michelangelo

You might say then our contentment ends when we desire. And possessing the taboo object leads to our expulsion.

This is a strange logic, because if we desire, we are forbidden to act, which only amplifies our desire more, and in so doing we end up with excessive desire. We can loop back to this later, but if you consider cybernetic theory in capitalism and the libidinal economy, excess has to go somewhere: it has to be diffused or the system will explode.

As a side-note: considering sexual or Freudian Oedipal psychology the “wanting of that which you cannot have” is the father modeling your mother as desirable, but you cannot have your mother, from whom you were expulsed initially. To possess her again is to be expulsed once more by society.

romeo and juliet

EXAMPLE from Romeo and Juliet

In Shakespeare‘s Romeo and Juliet, the Capulets and Montagues are both “houses of dignity”: they are very much alike, and because of their similarity they despise each other. This is another key of mimetic Desire: you tend to compete (rivalry) with those the most similar to you.

Mercutio and Benvolio help their boy Romeo get over a girl by sneaking him into the Capulet’s party, after which he spies Juliette and instant infatuation engulfs him and her.

My only love sprung from my only hate! blah blah blah… That I must love a loathed enemy.


The unattainability creates the rose that “smells as sweet,” and the “sweet sorrow of parting” is the fire of desire.

We become blind with amplified desire and fixation upon this object, person, or status. Our desire and focus empower each other, creating a feedback loop of more focus, hence more desire.

So, Romeo was not blatantly introduced by a person to Juliet, but by the memetic rivalry model of the city itself. Society (and the parent’s rivalry) made her unattainable. This is key, because no one expected or saw the city as the mediator. The serpent is too easy to blame for his temptations, but the hidden model that creates our desire means we cannot see our own folly.

Step 69: Memetic Desire

Part 3: mimetic acceleration

Mimesis tends towards confrontational violence.

If we take some of the lessons from cybernetic Theory, primarily that there are energies within a system that have to be stabilized, less the system explodes or implodes. We are looking to steer a steady course reacting to variables as they arise.

Accelerationism says that amplifying some of these desires (surplus or excess desires) is a means to break out of the deadlock of capitalism.

As our desire is amplified, this is energy in the system winding up. This is Cain and Abel fighting for god’s attention, two brothers fighting over the remote control, two grown men fighting over who has the best mullet, or two political parties clashing in the streets. This wind-up happens step by step: as Roger reaches for the remote, I react and reach, almost instantaneously, and as our hands collide, the remote is forgotten, and fisticuffs ensue.

All of our focus and who we are is now embodied in winning.

The object may still be important, but only as a proxy for winning, which is what we truly desire. In this silly, stupid moment we can no longer see the bigger picture because we want dominance.

This is how mimesis creates confrontational violence.

Remember, we didn’t even want that hair gel, that espresso machine, or our ex-girl back until somebody else modeled wanting it or her. We saw them seeing, and our model of having what others want launches us into desiring motion to possess the object.

Amp this up a notch and the hidden modeling mechanism means our entire society goes to war, supposedly for peace or Helen of Troy, but really it is a modeled mechanism of persuasion: we either want to be the right type of person, or to crush the wrong type of person. Probably both.

Capitalism, in terms of cybernetic systems theory, reterritorializes the positive energies.

All of this flexing, all of this dominance, in wanting what somebody else wanted, and in our desperate rush to get there first, there is a kind of blindness or myopia. Along the way, we shed a lot of who we are, and a lot of morals, in the pursuit of our desires.

This is accelerationist, and in our focus, we generate excessive desires or positive energies. Not positive as in good you were having them, but in cybernetic terms as extra energy flooding the system, like heat that must be diffused or re-routed before the meltdown.

If the system is good, it will disperse them, and if the system is really good, it will utilize these re-dispersed energies to power itself. Yet, when the energy is too excessive, first from Cain and Abel, then to the Crips and the Bloods, and onto World War’s: violent death is the result.

Another Romeo and Juliet example:

Tybalt in “Romeo and Juliet” stirs up the energies of Mercutio by insulting Romeo: it is not his fight, but he wants justice for insults to another, much as Tybalt wants justice for Romeo’s insult of his family’s dignity by crashing the party. Each party has reputational honor that will not allow besmirching.

The real object of desire is reputation, the real problem is their similarity. Both lead each house to hate and work to outdo the other. They work to establish differences between each other, but in a reverse (or 69) style they do it by wanting the same thing, and mirroring each other: If he gets a moat, I get boiling oil; if he gets a rooster, I get a cock-er spaniel.

These excessive and blind energies pumped into a silly feud threaten a city-wide explosion, which means the Prince coming in and decapitating them all. The energies in this micro-system must be diffused, lest the Prince loses his control of the macro-system.

You may begin to wonder, how capitalism fits into all this, but simply consider the war machine, secrets and spies and bribes, security, and you can begin to see how these competitions create economies thriving on discord.

Our next episode will be about how, amongst all this violence amidst excess and surplus wanting, we balance the scales through scapegoating and sacrifice.

Thank you

 Up next we will look at Girard’s notions of “scapegoating” to deal with excessive energies. I will compare it a bit to Bataille’s notion of “sacrifice” as a means to deal with the excesses of the “general economy.” I am sure someone else has made that connection and written beautifully on it, so I need to do some research first.

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“Wanting: Memetic desire in everyday life” by Luke Burgis

Freud, Rene Girard, Shakespeare

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