Future Feelings: Part 3

A funny thing happened on the way to mimetic desire.

This is the third part of an ongoing series. Read part one. Read part two.

Onstage to honor Dave Chappelle at the 2019 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Sarah Silverman did what really only comedy allows a person to do: she got us to look at a truth about ourselves by making the lie we tell ourselves funny. A funny lie is an approachable lie. And an approachable lie is just a thing you pass on your way to the truth, assuming you choose to go that way.

Partway through a night of good comedy, which also inherently means a night of skillfully constructed tension, Silverman said, "If you're at home watching, not knowing what to make of this because you haven't checked Twitter yet to see how you feel..." This was followed by laughter, which was followed by cheering and applause. As far as the joke goes, it doesn't matter what Silverman said next. Because she wasn't interrupted by laughter. She paused for it. The joke was finished. It was subtle, but it hit on something big and got a proportional reaction.

On its face, the joke is a playful jab at groupthink, Twitter mobs, cancel culture, and other comparable human activity. Part of the reason it works is that most of us hear it and know exactly what she's talking about. People do that. We've seen it. She just showed it to us from a very particular angle (which is one of the things she’d just saluted Chappelle for doing so well).

Another part of the reason it works is that most of us don't think of ourselves as one of "those people." She's not implicating us. She's implicating them. And by at least this one metric, we get to feel a little superior. Because we think for ourselves. We don't just follow the crowd. We go our own way. And to some extent, most of us probably do. But those of us who really do will continue to probe that thought. We will ask, "To what extent do I think for myself? To what extent are my thoughts and feelings steered by other people’s thoughts and feelings?" We will question why it's so easy for us to see this unflattering characteristic in others if we don't also have at least a hint of it in us. We will have learned to question the stories in our heads that too quickly and easily allow us to be the hero, elevated somewhere above the rabble, which remember, is exactly where natural selection is guiding us to want to be.

The French social scientist René Girard developed a theory called the mimetic theory of desire. I learned about it a few months back via Luke Burgis's writing, and I'm still in the very early stages of learning about it. But as I currently understand it, mimetic desire, in a nutshell, posits that people determine what is desirable by looking to other people for cues.

Those other people (or groups or things) are our models of desire. They show us what is or is not worth wanting. This could apply to an object or a way of being, an identity. Models can be external: e.g., celebrities, people who have died, people who are separated from us by social class, or, as Burgis puts it, all people whose "desires cannot be directly challenged by their imitator because they seem to occupy a different plane of existence.” Models can also be internal: e.g., our peers, social media followers, and all people who occupy our same plane of existence. Burgis calls the external group “Celbristan” and the internal one “Freshmanistan.”

In a Substack post titled "Mimetic Desire 101: A short introduction to why we want the things we want," Burgis writes, "In Freshmanistan, things can get messy very fast. And all social media is Freshmanistan—we are surrounded by models of desire at all times."

He continues:

In a way, we’re all Freshmen again. Freshmanistan is characterized by a dangerous level of sameness, which leads to a crisis of undifferentiation—even as everyone is imitating their secret models, whom they profess to love (but secretly hate), they are desperately trying to carve out their own identities on a tiny raft, in the middle of stormy waters that threaten to swallow them up in a sea of sameness.

In a more recent post, this one titled "The Real Social Dilemma: Why the materialist view of technology's power leaves me wanting," Burgis wrote something related that has stayed with me: "It’s the people on the other side of social media that really interest us. The technology is merely a conduit."

All of this is in Silverman's joke. It's another part of the reason it works as well as it does. We all see the imitation happening, because we all do it, at least a little. We started doing it when we were babies. And we’ve been doing it for so long now that we don’t even see it. But we can see it. And we should see it. And the best way to see it is to look right at it, to study it, to factor its presence into our ideas and decisions, and to at least attempt to make more genuine and considered ones.

More on that and mimetic desire in part four.