Monday, December 13, 2021


The Mimetic, the Anti-Mimetic, and a Question

The Mimetic

In the summer of 2020, the food writer and media personality Alison Roman got canceled. “What Chrissy Teigen has done is so crazy to me,” Roman said in an interview at the time. “She had a successful cookbook. And then it was like: Boom, line at Target.” It seems like she was genuinely marveling at the mimesis (I’ve done the same thing over Chip and Joanna Gaines—boom! They’re all over Target.). Roman went on to imply that Teigen had become a sellout, and then criticized Marie Kondo in the same interview. Bad move. Teigen, who would later get quasi-cancelled herself for online bullying, quickly made up with Roman. But the damage had already been done by the (social) media.

Roman had to enter the ‘cancellation protocol.’ She went through The Series of Formulaic Statements acknowledging her privilege, apologizing, stating her commitment to educate herself, you know the rest. (If you compare cancellation rituals side-by-side, they start to look eerily similar—and that’s because they are. The mimetic scapegoat mechanism is the form; the offense is merely the content.)

So why I am re-hashing all of this? Well, a New Yorker profile was just published about life after cancellation for Alison Roman. It contains gems like this: “Roman’s studied imperfectionism lowers the threshold for emulation, creating a strong sense of intimacy with her fans.” Roman has worked hard to appear as if she lives in Freshmanistan, not Celebristan—and by all accounts she actually does.

Roman is one of numerous victims of cancellation that I’ve written letters to over the past couple of years. I don’t think it necessarily makes it any easier to deal with being scapegoated if you’re aware of the mimetic mechanism—if anything, it might make it harder to accept the sheer mimicry of it all—but part of what I’m trying to do is start honest conversations about what’s going on rather than revert to the knee-jerk ritualistic process that requires an infinite number of victims, and one of them might eventually be you.

Here’s an interview that I did with the Big Think about the scapegoat mechanism. Now that Wanting has been out for an entire 6 months, and the mimetic desire to learn about mimetic desire is working, I’m going to be turning more and more of my attention and writing to what I consider the most important chapter in the book, Chapter 4 (The Invention of Blame), even if it’s less immediately palatable.

The Anti-Mimetic

I’ve been thinking seriously about an anti-mimetic technology, system, person, or process that might act as a braking mechanism for the cancellation process—a process which happens outside of any form of due process, of course. Remember that something anti-mimetic is something anything that acts as a decelerant to potentially destructive forms of mimesis (like the kind that leads to the scapegoat mechanism).

Right now, the process of Cancelling a person is almost entirely frictionless. There is little price to pay for people who pile on and inflict harm on another person. But what if that changed? I’ve stated many times before (and trie to make clear in Wanting) that a scapegoat can be guilty. So the goal here is not simply to defend innocent people; the goal would be to stop the mimetic process period—until calmer heads prevail, until facts came out, until people have had a chance to defend themselves before submitting to the mimetic mob. In essence: before the mimesis has distorted the truth beyond repair.

This cancel cure could come in many different forms: for instance, victims could crowd-source funding for a potential libel case in court; an independent group, outside of the mimetic process, could act as mediator and advocate (like a defense attorney); a website could track the media organizations that propagate the mimetic headlines the most, and people could punish them by voting with their dollars and subscription cancellations; and the list goes on. I’ve seen dozens of ideas and proposals so far, including a mix of all of the things above. One thing I know: it will take a multi-disciplinary approach and collaboration from many different stakeholders—and it won’t be done well if the people building it don’t understand how the scapegoat mechanism works in the first place. There can be no solutions to the wrong question. And the right question is not “Does this person deserve this kind of treatment?” or even “Are they guilty as charged?” but what is the process that is behind all of these cases—how does it start, what fuels it, and how can we stop it or at least slow it down and hold people accountable?

Quote of the Week

“Jeff Koons had just got up from a chair, enthusiastically throwing his arms out in front of him. Sitting opposite him, slightly hunched up, on a white leather sofa partly draped with silks, Damien Hirst seemed to be about to express an objection; his face was flushed, morose. Both of them were wearing black suits—Koon’s had fine pinstripes—and white shirts and black ties. Between them, on the coffee table, was a basket of candied fruits that neither paid any attention to. Hirst was drinking a Bud Light.” — Opening paragraph of “The Map and the Territory” by Michel Houellebecq



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