The Orthodoxy of Heterodoxy
René Girard, mimesis, and the clustering of ideas.
Even heterodox thinkers have become predictable in their heterodoxy. There are exclusive clubs to join, like the Heterodox Academy or the Heriticon conference. And one can embark on a particular podcast circuit that is likely to get them branded as a member of the “Intellectual Dark Web.” There is an orthodoxy to this new heterodoxy.
Recently I’ve realized how much I crave hearing from anyone whose opinions are not entirely predictable—some enfant terrible like Edward Luttwak, whose recent profile by The Tablet’s David Samuels opens with the author’s awe at how well Luttwak has avoided the dulling of the mind that comes with age.
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Being an enfant terrible at the age of 79 is not a task that can be undertaken lightly. Most men are simple conformists from childhood on. For those with more adventuresome temperaments, a flurry of rebellion in their teens or 20s is usually the prelude to a failure of imagination or will that in turn precedes some kind of domestic establishment. There are children and careers to consider. Who has time to go running off to Ladakh to get shot at?
Each point that Luttwak made about a variety of geopolitical situations was fresh—even if I disagreed with some of them (but what the hell do I know?). As I read deeper into the piece, I experienced a growing sense of wonder, what the Greeks called téras: ‘something beyond all expectation.’
I like to wonder. But sometimes I feel there is little left to wonder about. There is little left ‘beyond all expectation.’
Major media institutions, along with many independent content-creators, have entered into a mimetic, or imitative, relationship with their own audiences. They’ve become a parody of themselves.
Twitter reflects back to the Times a desire for a certain type of story angle or opinion, which leads to a never-ending (and closed) feedback loop and an increasingly homogenous reader base. We become like that which we imitate. But in this case, the imitation is internal to our own psyche, our own world.
The social theorist René Girard, the subject of my book, Wanting, gives a major clue as to why: mimesis, or the human propensity for imitation—a form of imitation that is nearly always hidden and unconscious—happens most profoundly at the level of desire.
People think the same things because they want the same things—and they learn to want the same things because they think the same things.
But which comes first?
The answer, in most cases, is the wanting. Long before we realize and rationalize that we want something, we’ve been wanting it already. Our reasons don’t usually produce the desire, but our desire may well produce the reasoning.
Consider the recent Ivy League-grad-turned-management-consultant who wakes up one day and begins to see just how much his “choices”—choices which he previously thought to be entirely his own, and choices he probably assumed were “common sense” (if you can go to Yale, why wouldn’t you?)—were in fact driven very little by rationality and mostly, if not entirely, by mimetic desire.
There were perennial forces at work on him from the time he was a child. There were people who showed him what was worth wanting and what was not. And those models of desire played a critical role in sending him down his hypermimetic track. There had been no conscious reflection about who had been influencing his goals. And that is the case for most of us: we take our goals for granted because we take our desires for granted.
And while he was traveling down that hypermimetic track, he developed an entire set of ideas about everything from politics to the superiority of New Haven-style pizza to why we’re becoming so polarized. But now he begins to wonder. He looks around to find that the same ideas are shared by nearly everyone he knows.
He has read Harari’s Sapiens and thinks it’s the most important book of the past decade.
But now he realizes that he wouldn’t have touched the book if every Serious Person he follows hadn’t called it “fascinating.” (He received three separate gift copies of it for Christmas in 2016, and pretended that he was surprised each time. His uncle Fat Tony is the only one who wasn’t talking about it).
So in an effort to free himself from being the puppet of desire that he has discovered himself to be, he begins to listen to new podcasts and watch YouTube videos until he becomes some-kind-of-pilled and vacillates between moving to Austin or Miami to pursue a life of crypto investing and hot Twitter takes.
“The effort to leave the beaten path forces everyone into the same ditch,” Girard once wrote about the lengths that people go to in order to think of themselves as Independent, Autonomous Desirers only to adopt new, and predictably contrarian, models to follow.
It is better for us to accept that we’re social creatures, open and vulnerable to suggestion, and to make a conscious choice about our models of desire.
You have no doubt heard the term ‘mental models’—the intellectual frameworks that people adopt to make better sense of the world. According to René Girard, though, it’s more important to think seriously about our ‘models of desire’—the people, or reward systems, which define and draw our roadmap of wanting.
These models of desire can either be given to us, or we can intentionally choose them.
I was inspired by the story of Chef Sébastien Bras, who owns the restaurant Le Suquet in the Aubrac region of France. He grew up in the system of desire known as the Michelin Star system. The Michelin Guide, which rates the world’s best restaurants using a three-star scale, is something that nearly all French chefs use to organize their entire lives from the earliest stages of their careers. They dream of acquiring stars; then they dream of keeping them. Hand in hand are the nightmares about losing one.
Bras is one of the few to realize his predicament. He saw that he had become a slave to that system of desire, and he became the first chef to tell Michelin not to come back to his restaurant and to leave him out of its guide so that he could focus on his mission rather than the preferences of the Michelin inspectors.
The Michelin leadership agreed. The next year, they came back and gave him two stars.
But when I interviewed Bras shortly after this happened, he just laughed. He didn’t care. He was free.
In place of that insatiable and insecure system of desire, which had been the cause of his never-satisfied striving, he adopted new models of desire: ones that led him to spend more time with his family and to create new dishes according to a different set of incentives.
But I must close with a warning. There are an increasing number of actors in the public square who are now weaponizing mimesis in what seems like an intentional way—whose sole tactic for gaining authority and attention and followers is stoking mimetic rage. This is my main reason for writing, because I am watching it tear our society apart. It causes us to forget those things we individually/communally love and focus on those we collectively hate.