The Paradox of Choice
August 4, 2010 2 Comments
I stumbled on this crazily helpful animation of Slavoj Zizek’s talk, “The Crisis of Capitalism” on how “cultural capitalism”—buying organic food, fair trade coffee, etc.—actually perpetuates the worst of capitalism by paradoxically making the “anticonsumerist” (e.g. Berkeley) consumer feel that his purchase of organic apples absolves him of abetting the system to which he nominally objects. Buying an organic apple becomes a kind of exercise in “good works,” a sort of charitable exercise that cements the patterns that made assistance to the apple-farmer voluntary, a matter of charity rather than a matter of policy or government.
I’m actually less interested in the argument than in how it was animated—if the RSA could do what they did for Zizek’s talk for every lecture, I might actually retain everything I try to learn. It’s like having someone else take notes for you—without losing the benefit of taking them yourself.
Another talk, by London School of Economics Professor Renata Salecl, was more interesting to me, both for how she seems to experience choice and for how she talks about it. Her argument isn’t quite as cohesive as it could be in this segment, but for a good reason: she’s thinking through how “choice” affects people who grew up outside a system that privileges it (she grew up in Yugoslavia). For citizens of formerly communist nations, she says the abundance of “choice” was paralyzing, disconcerting, and a recipe for mountainous anxiety since it contained both a tacit injunction to fashion a happy life and an even more tacit corollary: if you fail, it’s your fault. She spends some time talking about what a frame-shift it is to have your idea of life change so that it becomes a series of choices and, by extension, a series of losses, of choices not taken. Suddenly loss is everywhere, and it looms large.
Much of what she says obviously applies to all the choice-addled capitalists who might be on the opposite side of that anxiety, convinced that—despite the marketing that for years informed us that this toothbrush and that mayonnaise will make us the happiest creatures on earth—we are likely to choose wrongly. And spend our lives paradoxically both full of regret at having chosen badly and full of doubt that there was ever actually a right choice. This is particularly true of marriage, no? (See how I’m tying in to your take on Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, and weddings generally?)
I’d never thought of capitalism as the death of fate, or recognized how comforting fate really is in (for example) all of Shakespeare.
PS–Here’s what Agatha Christie had to say on choice and the makings of a happy life.