The Paradox of Choice

Dear CF,

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.

Fondly,

M

PS–Here’s what Agatha Christie had to say on choice and the makings of a happy life.

2 Responses to The Paradox of Choice

  1. Pingback: Agatha Christie on the Paradox of Choice « Millicent and Carla Fran

  2. Carla Fran says:

    Let’s tie this one to even more of our conversations, both involving veils. Weddings: absolutely…I feel like most engaged folks have a moment where they realize that if they had to marry their partner as a form of arranged marriage, it would be the love story of the century (we are attracted to each other! He’s young! She’s pretty! He likes watching TV as much as I do!), and they would be grateful for every moment. But, in the world of choice, they instead have to face down every quiver of doubt and worry that they are they are making the wrong choice, settling, or somehow missing the next giant fabulous boat that might come their way. Love is great, but the damn possibility of better love (as mentioned in your post, something that the so-called “priv-lit” heavily leans on) is a ferocious, suffocating mirage…that if we suggest doesn’t exist, we are also admitting to our own failure at actualization…

    This also reminds me of Jessica Valenti’s post about her wedding, and the conversation we had here, about the choices of wedding planning, and the public announcement of a couple’s adult form: these are our colors, our food, our ideal setting, etc.

    And, the other veil, the veiled face, the veiled body: the power in not having to delineate your identity through a thousand fractional choices of clothing and accessory to satellite what you hope others see in you.

    Now less veils, and more on buying shit:
    I was in France these past few weeks. As a teenager, I was overwhelmed by the grand consumerism of France. Gorgeous clothes, beautiful vials of cosmetics, gold boxes of chocolate and delicately wrapped cheese. I couldn’t wait to try and fit in as consumeristically as possible. This time, all the goodies seemed a little less magical, and I think it might be because the same shopping has come stateside. Sephora is no longer a France only venture, the internet makes all specialty foods gettable, and even the divine yogurt ice-cream has become blase’ due to the inundation of Pinkberry. The access to have it whenever I wanted it made it overall much less essential…it took the fate out of the equation and left me with a strange paralysis of not this, not now. Thus, the great question of free will, “then, when?”

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