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From Endless Choice to Social Change: Navigating through the Anxiety Traps

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The following is a transcript of a lecture delivered by Renata Salecl on How endless choices make us unhappy for The Conference 2015. Salel navigates the relationship between choice, anxiety, and loss and the implications they produce for social change.

How do we choose a meal in a restaurant? Especially in a Chinese restaurant it may be a nightmare, usually we ask our friends, what are you choosing. We may ask a waiter what do you recommend but quite often we don’t trust the waiter, thinking he may recommend the most expensive thing or what no one else is eating.

We prefer to go in restaurants where there is no choice, the most expensive ones are those where the chef decides. In London a few years ago, they opened a restaurant which only served one dish. The lines in front of this restaurant were enormous.

When I go to a Chinse restaurant, I always choose the same thinking I don’t want to be bothered by too much choice. Choice is very anxiety provoking

Famous Danish philosopher Kierkegaard already knew that hundreds of years ago, when he wrote on a book on anxiety that anxiety is always linked to freedom. He said that anxiety is so horrifying because it is leading to the possibility of possibility

Another famous philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre also dealt with the condition of choice and anxiety. In one of his texts, he mentions when a man is standing in front of the abyss, he is not afraid that he will fall but he is anxious that he has the power to throw himself into the abyss.

Albert Camus also dealt with a similar question, he said that many mornings he’s thinking whether he should have another cup of coffee or he should kill himself

Choice and anxiety are linked to loss. Now Sigmund Freud pointed out that behind every anxiety actually that there is the anxiety of our own loss of own life. Choice is such linked to this that when we choose one direction in life, we lose the possibility of choosing another. When we are making choices, we often don’t want to deal with this loss. Because, we do not want to deal with this loss nowadays, a lot of people cannot make any decision. Psychoanalysts are observing how people are becoming incredibly anxious in today’s time dominated by choice.

Freud already dealt with this issue. A friend came to him and asked him: Should I marry this particular woman? Freud answered that when it comes to small things in life, you should think long and hard but when it comes to big things like to marry or not, to have children or not, which profession you choose, you just do it. Now of course, Freud didn’t think in such a way that we can make rational choices. He knew that when we are making choices, our unconscious is very much at work. When people are making choices, they are not rational choices, they are thinking of society’s acceptable choice, what other people are choosing, and in many ways unconsciously, they are given to make one choice or another. Because they are afraid of loss, and because nowadays they feel that they are responsible for everything in lives, anxiety increases.

In today’s time, choice is not merely dealt with as a matter of consumption. Yes, we are choosing consumer objects but more and more, we are under the impression that we can choose our own life that we can choose the direction in which it will go… we can choose our body, our sort of happiness, emotions, etc. Love is supposed to be a matter of choice. Even anger is supposed to be a matter of choice. How our children will turn out- we’re supposed to be responsible and can make choices. This illusion that we are the masters in our own lives has created a lot of anxiety in people’s life.

Jaques Lacan, in the 70s gave a lecture in Milan where he pointed out how capitalism is a system that speeds up, we are produce more and more, we consume more and more. Suddenly we are under the impression that we are not proletarian slaves but we are the masters of our lives. We can choose the direction of our lives. We are self-makers of our lives. Now Lacan observed already then that capitalism creates new kinds of sufferings, symptoms that are linked to the speed of the system and the call to the subject to perceive himself as a master.

The new symptoms are anxiety, depression, addictions, self-consumption, self-cutting, anorexia, bulimia, are all on the rise. My friend from Japan, Daisuka Fukuda recently told me that he has, as a psychoanalyst a lot of women who have a problem observing themselves in the mirror. In Japan, there is a huge propaganda that one can choose how one is looking. There are many leaflets about plastic surgery, a lot of people internalize that there is a choice that what kind of a face they can have. As a result a symptom emerged where people cannot observe themselves in the mirror. One particular patient of Daisuka is breaking every mirror she comes across. She removed all mirrors in her house and cannot observe any reflection in any window because she is under the impression that she has not done the right thing about how she wants to look.

Of course, we know in psychoanalysis, that ideology does not directly influence people’s symptoms. People in some way are also making choices of their suffering. Freud did not want to perceive the subject as being a tool in the hands of external mechanisms- like family, society, even biology. He emphasized on the subject as an author of his suffering. He used the term choice because he wanted to point out that the subject has the possibility of change. Political choices are linked to the idea of freedom and the possibility of making decision.

What has happened today is that choice is glorified as an ideology which is actually passifying people from make social choices when choice is perceived mostly as something individuals do in regard to the direction of their life. We are often forgetting about social choices, the fact that choice can be something that we make collectively. We are forgetting the fact that we can make social changes.

When we are speaking of how choice is anxiety provoking, we should not forget that people become pacified because they feel guilty that they have not made the right choice. Many people who make long choices about what kind of consumer objects they will buy, when they buy that object, they try to exchange it. A lot of people who read online forums about which car to buy actually have already bought the car. After buying the car, they want to convince themselves that they have brought the right car.

In the domain of love, people have incredible anxiety regarding who to choose. With new technology like Tinder, they are not making any choice at all. They are choosing temporarily but no one for the long term. In some ways, the continuation of the ideology of choice is becoming a non-choice movement. A movement where people are procrastinating endlessly, never making decision with regard to the partner. We are constantly changing jobs, consumer objects, in a way that we can change our mobile providers and so, fill our days with endless research.

When we are doing this, we feel there is something behind the corner. There is something better, another better person, and so on. The solution to the tyranny of choice is that people should not take choice so seriously. We will always have to deal with loss, failure and dissatisfaction with the choices we make.

Capitalism thrives on dissatisfaction. If we were not dissatisfied, we would not be consuming more. Some years ago, a book has been published on the idea of happiness, in the future we will have a society that will be totally happy. This will happen when people finish reading a self-help book. When they finished reading the book, they abandoned their subscription to fitness clubs, stopped going for plastic surgeries, stopped buying clothes, and put on the doors of their offices- gone fishing. The capitalists were horrified, businesses started collapsing. The capitalists got together to convince the person who wrote the book on how to be miserable. When they met finally the author, a collage of existing self help books, they convinced him to write a sequel and capitalism thrived again.

If capitalism needs people to feel dissatisfied, today postindustrial capitalism needs people to fully identify with the idea that they are masters of their lives… that they can make it, and happiness is just around the corner. However, psychoanalysts observe a lot of symptoms coming out of the happiness industry too. Suzie Orbach, a psychoanalyst recently shared with me a story of her patient who had done all the right choices in her life- she went to right school, working with the right job, has her own apartment, earns a lot, and has a boyfriend. She calculated all this and asked, where is happiness? Suzie realized that all her choices were socially desirable, something that she thought will bring her to happiness. I think that happiness ideology has created vast amounts of misery in our lives. We can only temporarily have a moment of happiness in our lives but it is mostly misery which is driving us to do something in life, to create, compose, make a picture, give a talk. We have to be frustrated enough to move out of our path. If the ideology of choice has made people anxious, constantly feeling guilty about what is happening in their lives, one way is to stop thinking about choice in an individual manner.

In the 50s, comedian Steve Allen created the show The Question Man, his idea was that we live in a society with far too many answers, which is why, it is necessary for us to pose more questions. I think precisely in today’s times, it is necessary to revision what choice is really about? What is the social choice we should be engaged. Also, why is loss and failure which is necessarily linked to choice still so anxiety provoking?

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