Megamen, Weak Mimesis, Jokers Wild
How the crisis of lame mimesis creates characters we can hardly believe are real.
They promised us flying cars and we got a Barbie movie, six Twitter clones, and pickleball.1 ChatGPT, for all of the wild mythologizing about it, is still, for many people, just a really good Chatbot.
René Girard explained that part of the problem is that we are weak subjects, dominated by weak mimesis.
“Contemporary individuals aren’t strong enough to have mimetic desire. They aren’t passionate about anything,” he said in Evolution & Conversion. “Consumption society, which was ‘invented’ partially to cope with mimetic aggressive behaviour, has eventually created these socially indifferent human beings unable to communicate with each other and mainly concerned with what is strictly accountable in their life, in the sense of self-interest. This is a radical form of nihilism.”
The problem is not that we are too mimetic, but that we are not mimetic enough. Or better: our mimesis is too often directed at lame, pathetic, things—we exhaust our energy, our mimetic rivalries, on Twitter, so that we scarcely have anything left in the tank when it comes to the more important things in life.
I like to joke about the lack of technological innovation and artistic decadence with different variations on the “they promised us flying cars” meme, but anyone who reads this newsletter knows that I believe the problem is far more profound, and better articulated by C.S. Lewis than by Peter Thiel:
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
We live in an age which seems unable to produce a great saint—it’s nearly impossible to imagine what one would even be like, in our technological world. Even if a heroic model were to appear in the world, right next to us, he or she would probably only hold our attention for a day or two. In other words, we would not be strong enough, mimetically speaking, to prevent our desires from being pulled away and dissipated by childish things. We could not be properly captivated.
Thin desires are the stuff of weak mimesis. Thick desires are shaped by strong mimesis. Strong mimesis is the kind that has staying power, which exercises a power over us that cannot so easily be forgotten or tamed.
I hope that this does not seem paradoxical to anyone given the name of this newsletter. The Anti-Mimetic exhortation is and always has been a call to reject the weak, silly, negative mimetic traps that prevent us from flourishing. It’s hard to even begin until we cut ourselves loose from the hundreds of tiny threads around our hearts and our minds which constrain us and prevent our full-bodied response to the best stuff of life.
If I can’t become lost in the wonder of my daughter’s eyes because my neck and my back hurt from staring at my phone several hours a day for the past fifteen years, then it will have been better for me to cut off my hand and go forward into life maimed than to have squandered the opportunity for joy. The spiritual analogies here are legion: the envy, the anxiety, the fear that holds us back from being truly excited and embracing life in a way that not only brings us joy, but is also exhaustive in a good way.
I want to go to bed exhausted at the end of every day because I poured myself out for great things; not because I’m tired from having done busy work all day.
All of this is background for my theory of the New Strongmen.
Of Men and Mice and Nice
Part of the appeal of the Joker is that he’s weak. You almost feel bad when Batman is kicking his ass, pummeling him, at the end of every movie.
And it’s the weakness of the Joker that makes him so dangerous—like every great villain, he is an archetypical anti-mimetic figure who has extracted himself from the games that everyone else is playing….yet who devises his own games, ridiculous and absurd, through which to exact his revenge.
His weakness is but a cloak for his intentions. Every great villain is some version of Dostoevsky’s underground man, whose attempt to extract himself catches him ever deeper in the mimetic web of the very society he hates and wishes to reject, but is bound to with the most grotesque of bond: the existential weight of being that he wishes to shed.
We could no doubt have a rigorous debate about who the truth-telling court jesters are in our society today—and we do still have them, in various forms—but one salient feature that I think is worth noting is just how serious people have become, which I think “the new” Jordan Peterson has embodied in his recent evolution. The same can be said of every “cultural critic” and politico who gains “respect” because they “say what nobody else will say” and they are willing to pick public fights and take the gloves off, since this masquerades as courage.
They have one thing in common: they are proudly, strongly mimetic—and in a voyeuristic way. A way which allows the people who feel weakly mimetic to sit back and watch, and feel the catharsis of strong mimesis they wished that they themselves could feel, or exercise, or act on. It feels good to watch other people beat up your enemies.
Hell, it feels good to watch them beat up anyone whatsoever—and the rise of the UFC is emblematic of what has taken over the entire public square, as each new combatant in the Discourse must learn a whole series of tactics and train at various schools in order to compete well: get yourself some Rufoian mimetic jiu-jitsu, some Trumpian posturing (cobra hands), the love-bombing of Lex Fridman, the school of sexuality grappling, the raised-voice incredulity of Stephen A. Smith. What new warriors will be created in 2023?