For Hegel there’s the master, the bondsman, and the thing — the object of desire that passes back and forth between master and bondsman, promising plenitude of being on its owner but always slipping out of reach, the promise remaining unfulfilled, the self always dependent on the other for autonomy. In Lacan the object is the phallus, passing back and forth between child, mother, and father yet never really existing anywhere: a thing defined by its absence. In Girard the object of desire is identified not in itself but in the desire of the other. I don’t desire anything in particular; I desire what the other desires. The other desires something because it bestows plenitude of being, so I should desire it too. Mimetic desire turns into mimetic rivalry.
It seems like the obvious place to go next is the marketplace. The idea is this: what I desire is defined by the other’s desire; the other’s desire is defined by mine. An escalation of desire lands on some object, imbuing it with value that exceeds its use, or even its exchange value. It doesn’t just meet needs; it is a carrier of desire. The excess of desire over use and exchange value, the excess of demand value over supply value, defines the surplus value of a commodity. This surplus value can be equated with its value as an object of mimetic desire, bestowed upon it by mutual imitation and envy and rivalry for securing whatever bestows fulness of being on its possessor.
The problem is that the object of desire never fulfills its promise: it never bestows plenitude on whoever controls it. When you obtain it you experience a sudden thrill: I’m becoming whole at last. But once the moment of acquisition passes, the self recedes back into its former incomplete status. Somehow the promise has slipped away; the object seems to have lost its ability to fulfill desire. Exposed again as incomplete, the person starts looking around again. Desire has slipped off the acquired object and transported itself elsewhere, landing on some other object that is now the focus of mimetic desire. Now the effort to fulfill desire shifts to this new object. Every time desire lands on something new, surplus market value accrues to that object. And the demand for personal fulfillment, rather than being satisfied by acquiring the object, merely increases through the frustration and failure. An ever-increasing intensification of desire ensues, rippling across the marketplace, increasing the overall value of commodities distributed across the marketplace.
Value in this sort of calculation isn’t defined by labor or capital but by the sign value of objects as carriers of personal plenitude, as carriers of desire that is really a lack in every self, a lack that pulls to itself an ever-increasing stream of money. This is why economies can continue to grow even after everyone’s needs are met. The desire for autonomy of being is never fulfilled, and every failed effort to acquire it just jacks up the price of trying again next time. The object of desire is a desire for the desire of the other, which stimulates price competition. And the object is the presence of absence, which means it can continue to suck money into itself without end. And the object is not tangible: it’s a non-object, something that attaches itself like holiness or sin to one thing after another, only to slip away as soon as it’s in your grasp. The futility of pursuing an unfulfillable desire fuels the engine that drives the continual expansion of the economy.
Whose elaboration on Hegel’s master-bondsman discourse is this? Marx coined the term “commodity fetishism,” but he didn’t mean what we’re talking about here. Bataille talks about excess value, but he’s interested more in extravagant expenditure as fulfillment than in the continual pursuit of desire. Debord identifies the commodity as spectacle, but his is a discourse about appearances.
Deleuze and Guattari? From the moment that we place desire on the side of acquisition, we make desire an idealistic (dialectical, nihilistic) conception, which causes us to look on it primarily as a lack; a lack of an object, a lack of a real object (Anti-Oedipus, 1972). That’s the trajectory we’re interested in: desire as lack, as incurable insufficiency of being, as an inability-to-be that is life itself. Deleuze and Guattari explore this idea in the context of psychoanalytic theory, where the “fantasized object” becomes for Lacan the phallus, the object defined by its absence. Desire does not lack anything; it does not lack its object. It is, rather, the subject that is missing in desire.
Then there’s Baudrillard in his post-Marxist, pre-simulacrum phase. I don’t have these earlier books, but I think he elaborates the idea of tying a commodity’s value to its being the repository of imitative desire among consumers. Baudrillard deals more in sign values, like a linguist, rather than in desire and master-bondsman, like Hegel. So maybe it is Deleuze and Guattari, though they seem stuck in Freud and Lacan. Perhaps it’s an idea that never originated anywhere in particular; it’s always imitated but there never was an originator. So Baudrillard wins again with his simulacrum and hyperreality paradigms.