Note: This is a copy of a guest post I wrote for Luke Burgis‘ newsletter about mimetic desire. For everyone else reading this, I recommend checking out Luke’s work. His newsletter is solid, and, being about halfway into his book, I can already vouch for that too.
The first part of this post is Luke introducing my guest post, followed by the guest post itself. Enjoy.
Luke here. I’ve invited a special guest contributor to weigh in on NFT’s today, and you will find his fascinating piece below (Jacob spent $30,000 to earn his home-made “NFT MBA” in less than 4 weeks: that’s called skin in the game).
I’ve always indulged myself in a nerdy Girardian moment when I hear the term NFT (which stands for “Non-Fungible Token”) because it immediately calls to mind the idea of Fungible Desire—which isn’t a bad way to describe what mimetic desire is.
Most of our desires are not fixed and stable but rather completely fungible, affected by the models that we’ve allowed to take precedent in our lives.
Of course, if anyone actually thought that they were doing this then the whole game would breakdown into some highly advanced form of LARP’ing. And maybe that’s where we’re at right now. The Mimetic Desire Wars.
The word fungible, just in case anyone forgot by now, means “able to replace or be replaced by another identical item; mutually interchangeable.” Something non-fungible, then, is not able to be replaced by another identical item; it’s not interchangeable because it occupies a unique block on a blockchain.
The supreme irony here is that while individual NFT artwork is non-fungible, the desires that determine their worth are totally fungible. If they weren’t, nobody would be collecting portfolios of NFT’s.
This is a good reminder that one of the foundational principles of mimetic theory is that desire, by its very nature, is not object-oriented at all. It is not oriented toward any one particular object, or NFT. Rather, desire tends to be metaphysical: it is oriented at being. The desire for certain objects are simply situated in a larger ecosystem of desire in which the objects themselves are of no more than minor importance, if any importance at all.
The objects themselves would be worthless without the perception that other people who want them have something worth wanting.
Gotta love this line from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on René Girard, which has been on the internet for ages, referring to acquisitive desire as a “token.”
acquisitive desire leads to metaphysical desire, and the original object of desire becomes a token representing the “larger” desire of having the being of the model/rival.
If they only knew.
The question we all need to ask ourselves, in my view, is this: Are there such a thing as non-fungible desires? Clearly, I think the answer is yes. How we discover them is another question entirely. And that is a question I am going to continue to address. I hope you’ll join me.
What follows is a guest contribution from entrepreneur and NFT-aficionado Jacob Mørch, who is deeper into the NFT world than I am and who also understands mimetic desire well. He’s worth following for his insights, which—as you’ll see below—extend well beneath the surface of the base-layer NFT chat. I’m grateful for that, and for his contribution.
One note: I shouldn’t be considered to endorse any of the views of the interviewees or guest contributors that I choose to publish here. Obviously, though, I publish these because I think they have something worthwhile, and worth thinking about, to say. So without further ado, here’s Jacob.
NFT’s and Mimetic Desire: An Intro by Jacob Mørch
Hello fellow friend of Luke, great to meet you.
This means that a serious chunk of my net worth is now locked up in colourful penguins, bears, monkeys and hippos. Here they are, in all their glory:
Am I an idiot? A madman? Maybe. But save the judgment until the end of this post. Perhaps you’ll see it differently, or even be tempted to buy a picture or two for yourself?
Welcome To the Wild World of Non-Fungible Tokens
These pictures are so-called NFTs, Non-Fungible Tokens, and they are taking the internet by storm right now.
Think of NFTs as internet-native art, made by and for artists and buyers who have grown up online.Artists make stuff, for example JPG pictures of penguins or lamborghinis or paper clips or anything else (the weirder, the better). Then they encode the image files onto the Ethereum blockchain network, which turns the files into non-fungible tokens.
People like me can now find these tokens and buy them, by paying the creator the token price in ETH (the currency of the Ethereum blockchain network). If I buy an NFT, the ownership of the file is transferred from the creator to me. I now own the NFT, and can do what I want with it: sell it, print it out and hang it on my wall (if it is an image), use it as my profile picture on Twitter, lend it out (!), or even fractionalise it and sell a part of it to a bunch of other people.
The idea of buying expensive JPG files seemed utterly bizarre to me just a few weeks ago. But it was also curiosity-inducing. Smart people on Twitter were paying top dollar for these images, so there had to be something to this.
Therefore, I decided to pursue a home-made “NFT MBA” study programme, by spending $30,000 and 4 weeks to learn as much as possible about this weird phenomenon. It’s been interesting to say the least – but, you may wonder, why does this fit in here, in Luke’s newsletter? What has this got to do with mimetic desire?
NFTs – The World’s Purest Form of Mimetic Desire?
I’ve been learning about mimetic desire in parallel with my exploration of NFTs, and the former has been immensely helpful for understanding the latter.
Here is my conclusion so far: I believe non-fungible tokens are among the purest expressions of mimetic desire that exist.
Consider this: NFTs are digital status symbols. The decision to buy any status symbol is, as we know, usually the result of mimetic desire gone into overdrive.
But most physical status symbols have some (marginal) utilitarian value in addition to its show off-value; if you spend a fortune on an Hèrmes bag, at least you can use it to carry stuff in. A Rolex can tell you the time. A lambo can get you from A to B. This marginal utilitarian value often helps the buyer of these objects to rationalise his or her purchase decision, instead of acknowledging his fundamental desire to status signal – “I bought the Rolex Submariner because I need to know the time when I’m diving”.
Now, contrast that with this glorious picture of a rock:
This picture, EtherRock number 27, has zero utilitarian value. It doesn’t tell the time. You can’t drive it. You can’t actually do anything with it whatsoever. It just… sits there, on a blockchain network somewhere on the internet. Yet, it was recently sold for over $2,800,000. That’s right – almost 3 million dollars!
Here is the bottom line: because it is completely stripped of utilitarian value, practically 100% of the value of this rock, and all other NFTs, can be attributed to mimetic desire.
To put it simply – people value NFTs because other people value NFTs. Internet nerds want them because other internet nerds want them. Gary Vee fans want them because other Gary Vee fans want them. Art collectors want them because other art collectors want them. And so on. The flywheel effects have kicked in, so now more and more people discover NFTs every day – the power of mimetic desire has even catapulted the ridiculous penguin photos into the New York Times, CNBC and Bloomberg.
Take a Field Trip to Klondyke
NFTs are the closest we get to a Klondyke gold rush on the internet at the moment. It’s a complete wild west out there, and hopeful people are rushing in every day, trying to make a quick digital buck.
I am one of them. But I’ve not made my way into NFT land simply to get rich (although if that happens, I’ll gladly accept). I am here to learn, first and foremost. The reason is simple: I believe we are in the very early days of an NFT megatrend that will continue for a very long time. I believe it’s just a matter of time before anything and everything can and will become tokenized, and that JPG photos are just the very beginning of a new era for commerce, art, gaming, private ownership, incentive design, and much much more. If that turns out to be the case, it is worth spending some time and money to understand the phenomenon early.
For me, dabbling in NFTs has already caused serendipity to strike. I got to write this guest post for Luke, for example. Last week I got an email from a guy who is about to set up an NFT hedge fund (!) who wanted me involved. I’ve made a bunch of awesome, smart new Twitter friends. And, back to the Klondyke analogy, I might even strike gold with one of my NFT purchases if I’m lucky. And did I mention how much fun I’m having with these penguin pictures?
Let me wrap up with this obligatory disclaimer: this is absolutely not investment advice – I would never recommend anyone to risk their precious savings on speculative JPG photos. But I can wholeheartedly advise you to dip your toes into the NFT waters for learning purposes – to take a field trip to internet Kondyke, if you will. If you find mimetic desire interesting, you’ll love the NFT world – it’s mimesis all around.
See you around the metaverse,
Also published on Medium.