Resolutions / Wellbeing

‘The White Lotus’ introduced me to mimetic desire – here’s what it means

what is mimetic desire

All morning we've been discussing the latest episode of The White Lotus. The memes, the outfits, the way this season simmers over the economy of sex – it's all pitch perfect. We've learnt a lot along the way too; about Taormina and the legend of the Testa di Moro, that you should never date a man from Essex, and as of episode five, mimetic desire.

If you've been watching along as doggedly as myself, you'll remember that Ethan accused Cameron of suffering from a bad case of something called mimetic desire as things got heated after their joint night of debauchery. Having attended college together and experiencing Cameron's crap habit of sleeping with the women he liked immediately after expressing his feelings for them, Ethan is wary of his frenemies intentions, especially toward his wife Harper. However, things are rocky with Harper too. Throw in some jealousy, miscommunication and paranoia, and there's trouble in paradise.

Anyway, back to the whole mimetic desire thing. In spirit, Ethan described it somewhat correctly when he said, "if someone with higher status than you wants something, it's likely that you want it too". But to put it simply, mimetic desire was coined by French social scientist and historian, René Girard, and is a theory used to describe how we conceive of our desires.

Our body is biologically motivated to fulfil our most basic needs like shelter, food, water and human connection – those kinds of things. On the other hand, a desire is something we pursue that is not motivated by instinct, contrary to what many would like to believe. Mimetic desire stipulates that we frame our desires around the wants of others, that we're always looking to models of desire (people who we respect, admire, wish to emulate) to show us the right things to want. Basically it's a social thing.

In the case of Ethan and Cameron for example, Cameron fails to see the value of a woman as a romantic partner, until their worth is affirmed by Ethan. This then signals to Cameron that he should seek the person in question, as they are covetable and will lead him to a place where he has the same qualities (as Ethan pointed out, intelligence) as his friend.

Models can also be institutions, parents, mentors, and we look to them as the yardstick, or at times the canary in the coal mine, for how to lead a rich and fulfilling life. Say you admire a writer and decide to mimic their career path by attending the same university or competing for the same internships as they did, all in the hope of becoming a successful author. Or imagine walking into a bakery, and not seeing any pastry you like until your friend who happens to be a lauded chef picks out a plain croissant, deeming it valuable, and suddenly you have the desire to do the same.

Even if we look at the model of the influencer, a person whose job by definition is founded upon the illusion of leading an aspirational life, we can tie it to mimetic desire. Across social media, influencers are there to look successful and occupy space as a tastemaker, their appetites and interests grant our desires' direction. It's for this reason that it's also difficult to choose something no one else wants, even if we desperately do, because we also seek validation in our desires.

This get much more difficult when there's a scarcity of the thing we desire. There's no better example of that than the American Dream, or say ahem, billionaire status.

Luke Burgis, founder of three startups in Silicon Valley and author of Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Modern Life  wrote about how social media inflames mimetic rivalry, a state that's always existed but is exacerbated by the compulsion to compete and compare with others on the internet. Which just shows how brilliant The White Lotus truly is, because this sounds like just the thing someone like Ethan would read.

"I absolutely think social media is exacerbating a lot of the social anxiety that was already there," Burgis tells Psychology Today, "It's not like mimetic rivalry didn't exist before – it's at the heart of human relations, according to Girard. Social media has accelerated it." What's worse is that social media flattens and homogenizes, meaning people are desperately attempting to differentiate themselves, but the models of desire remain the same.

In any case, that's a lot to draw from a humble fifty-minute episode of The White Lotus. We hope it's been just as insightful for you.


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