Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Devil's Desire (The Genealogy of Desire)

On the flight home from Amsterdam, I was able to enjoy several in-flight movies. The first movie I selected was the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada. I’d seen parts of the movie before but hadn’t watched it in its entirety, so I figured this was as good a time as any to watch it.

The plot of the movie is simple: An idealistic woman comes to New York hoping to find a job as a journalist. She gets a job at Runway, a prestigious fashion magazine, working as the assistant to Miranda Priestly. Andrea, played by Anne Hathaway, is slowly seduced by the riches and honors of the world she once detested: the former “free spirit” becomes, literally and figuratively, a slave to fashion.

One scene that struck me, in light of my recent immersion in the thought of René Girard, occurs during a run-through of clothing that is to be featured in an upcoming issue. One of the designers holds up two seemingly identical belts – both of an identical bluish hue with slightly different buckles – and proclaims that choosing between the two is difficult because they are “so different.” When Andrea snorts in unbelief at this dilemma, Miranda (brilliantly played by Meryl Streep) launches into arguably the best summary of the thought of René Girard I have ever heard:

This...stuff? Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blindly unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St. Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.

It is the profound insight of René Girard that “we desire according to the desire of another.” Think about this by way of an example: if you set out an array of toys before two children and allow one child to choose, what are the odds that of all those toys that the first will choose the very toy that the second child wanted? Even if the stuffed animals, for instance, were identical, there is a strong probability that “THAT’S the one I wanted.” This insight is one well understood by marketing executives who peddle goods using celebrities. If Sarah Jessica Parker wants it, so do I.

While I am not a full-fledged “Girardian,” I do think this central insight is fundamentally correct. So many of us live with the delusion that we are fully autonomous, that the sovereign “I” picks and chooses independent of all others. What Miranda Priestly recalls for us, however, is that behind every one of our choices is the action and work of a Social Other that is crafting and shaping our decisions. The desire and decision of Miranda Priestly and her fashion disciples exerts a powerful, yet silent, influence. Andrea is a true Romantic, one who thinks herself immune to the influences of others. It is this naivety that enables her to be seduced so thoroughly into the cult of the Miranda, the High Priestess of fashion.

As a Catholic, I cannot help but see the parallel between this insight and the doctrine of Original Sin. This latter tenet of Christianity holds that all humans are born with the stain of sin on them. Rather than thinking of this as a metaphysical stain, a curse thrust on us by God, we can see it at an anthropological level: each one of us is influenced and shaped by the decisions and desires of others who have come before us. We are naïve to think that we are wholly independent of the Social Other – each one of us is etched and marked permanently by those who have come before us. Our desires are shaped and corrupted by the desires of others.

Later on, I’d like to reflect further on this insight. But take a moment to think on this and I suspect it will resonate with you that our desires really are shaped by others. For both good and ill, just what it is that we desire is contoured by the influence of others. This offers a very fecund vision of human nature, one that is ripe for theological reflection.


Anonymous said...

Ryan, this was a great reflection. I've been following your blog for years, thanks so much and please keep up the good work! - New Orleans Province novice

Ryan Duns, SJ said...

Thanks a lot!

Rebecca Randall said...

So if you watch my 14-month old son at play with other toddlers, you'll find that he ONLY wants the toys that are being used by other tots. Say that the other tot gives up the toy that my son desired so fervently and moves to another toy; sure enough, Aidan will want that one too! Without fail....

Ryan Duns, SJ said...

Hey Rebecca,

Thanks for the comment. I know Girard isn't always looked well upon by the academy, but I think this insight - that we desire according to the desire of another - is true. It's funny how toddlers manifest this behavior and we can laugh about it...but we, as adults, succumb to the same temptations, although we camouflage it!

synge lucia said...

Many thanks for that remark. I understand Girard is not usually appeared nicely on through the academy, however I believe this particular understanding -- that people wish based on the wish associated with an additional -- holds true. It is humorous exactly how small children show itself this particular conduct as well as we are able to chuckle about this... however all of us, because grown ups, give in towards the exact same lure, even though all of us hide this!

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