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Wisdom of Crowds

Feb 10, 2023

This week, we were excited to have author Luke Burgis on the pod, to talk about a hot topic: desire. Specifically, mimetic desire-- the idea that desires are often generated through our human propensity to copy each other. He's written an excellent book, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Lifethat affected both of us deeply.

First theorized by the French philosopher Rene Girard, and present in everything from The White Lotus to the writings of Peter Thiel, mimetic desire is everywhere around us.

We talked about how to identify the power of mimetic desire in our society: in ever more adversarial politics, in an economy increasingly focused on attention, and especially in social-media-mediated quests for collective scapegoats (Shadi shares how he became a scapegoat for Philadelphia sports fans last week).

We discussed if it was possible to ever break the cycle of scapegoating, and how knowledge of this dynamic should change how we view politics. What does it mean to be a "political atheist," as Girard, a Catholic, called himself? And is Damir going to Hell?

In Part 2 (available here for subscribers) we pondered what the more pessimistic conclusions of the theory of mimetic desire might be. What does it mean that societies are to some extent bound to engage in cycles of mimetic imitation, rivalry, and scapegoating? Do citizens in democracies really deliberate rationally, or are they just following the leader? Is Shadi's insistence that democracy is an end in itself in peril?

We closed by asking what implications this could all have for our personal livees? How can we determine which of our desires are "thin"-- mimetically taken from others-- or "thick"-- coming from a deep sense of self? Do we have to consciously restrain our own choices? And what might our lives look like if we regain our sense of self-possession?

Required Reading:

  • Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life, by Luke Burgis (Amazon).
  • Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, by Rene Girard (Amazon).
  • Shadi's bad sports tweet.