In the developed world we have been told that we can customize our lives, making them exactly what we’d like them to be. But this promise is actualized by very few people, though is implicitly or explicitly promised to all. We feel that we are somehow owed opportunities for wealth and/or fame, that it is accessible to all because we have seen so many televised success stories. Those who strive to make choices that will improve their lives far more often than not fail to achieve what they set out for, and they wind up feeling worse about themselves than ever before. The choices that they feel they could, or should, have made to bring them success have remained elusive, and so they feel that they’ve made the wrong decisions, when in fact it was a million-to-one shot that they would end up like the new star they’ve admired on television. We are meant to think that choice is power, but in fact choice can provoke anxiety.
Such is the argument of the renowned Slovenian philosopher, Renata Salecl, in her latest book, The Tyranny of Choice. Salecl is a public thinker who wears a number of hats: she teaches law and psychology, sociology and philosophy, and she is a senior researcher at the Institute of Criminology in her native Ljubljana. She is also the ex-wife of the most famous Slovenian, and probably the most famous philosopher living today, Slavoj Žižek. One imagines that their breakfast table conversations were lively, to say the least.
Salecl’s views on choice take her from self-help books to having children, from choosing an ideal partner to choosing one’s cable provider, but her main thesis is that capitalist society (read as: American) encourages us to feel that we are owed a bounty of choices in all matters, from clothing to schools, from life partners to careers, from cell phone plans to brands of marmalade. Choice is what gives us power and, with that power, we can make of life anything we want it to be. This is a viewpoint based on economic theory; in capitalist economies diversity and competition are to the advantage of the consumer. But Salecl notes that we tend to borrow emotional theories from economic ones, and she confronts the concept of rational choice when it comes to emotions. In economics, rational choice theory dictates that individuals will make the most logical choice they can in any given situation in order to promote their own advantage, or the advantage of their group, business, organization, or collective family unit. This may be true with objective business decisions, but it is rarely the case in matters of the heart. And yet many “life coaches” and self-help books assume that love can be conquered by approaching the search for one’s partner in rational, economic-theory terms.
Salecl contrasts capitalist, choice-abundant society to her youth in former Yugoslavia, where choices were far narrower. Perhaps surprisingly, people from cultures with fewer choices seem more content—they know their options, they don’t aspire for things out of their reach, and therefore they are not disappointed by their failure to achieve out-of-sight goals. In turn, their quotidian choices cause them far less anxiety, and their lives are filled with more quiet contentment than can be found in the constant striving of capitalist westerners, which seems to advocate extreme happiness through self-actualization or a feeling of failure, with little in between. The mass of choice in Capitalist society makes every man think that he can become a millionaire who dates movie stars. Not achieving this goal is a major disappointment: we must have made the wrong choices if we do not achieve our dreams, and therefore each life choice is loaded with a huge weight of potential failure if it does not take us where we hope it will. Hence, the anxiety.
Salecl is at her best when pointing out eccentricities in American/capitalist society, from her perspective as a foreigner. She winds up hitting on things that most Americans (or any western, developed society for that matter) might not notice. Raised in a socialist country, Salecl is able to point out how capitalism plays on our feelings of inadequacy, and it is easy to see how that is so. By feeling as though we’re missing something (the goal of most commercials), we try to fill that hole, and the most common way is to buy things (which is what the commercials hope you will conclude). But we can also try to fill this void by striving for goals that the cultural oxygen of capitalism has, either overtly or indirectly, promised us.
I found myself thinking of the series X-Factor. Contestants come from humble origins and strive to better themselves by taking advantage of a talent they feel they have. Viewers of the show watch the candidates and cheer them on until one of them wins, actualizing the dream. Millions of viewers see the winner and think “Good for them,” but also “That could be me.” What the viewers do not see are the tens of thousands of contestants who had the same dreams but who did not win, or did not even make it onto the show. Or the tens of thousands of viewers at home who might have some talent but will either never try, or will try and fail and give up. That happens far more often, thousands of times more often, than the success stories we hear—we just don’t learn about the sad stories because it shatters our vision of infinite possibility. The tendency for those who dreamt and failed is to blame themselves: the choices they made, or did not make, are the reason for their failure. This is what Salecl feels is a problem—promising what may be all but impossible is a set-up for disappointment.
Salecl has taken the Malcolm Gladwell approach to complicated ideas: she breaks them down into anecdotes to which readers can relate, and expresses herself in conversational terms, allowing the anecdotes to illustrate her points for her rather than tangoing with prose in order to philosophize in the abstract. By contrast, her points are a mark of confidence and good writing, both of which Salecl thankfully possess, to be willing to engage with a wider readership in intelligent but non-elitist terms.
The translation, by the author (to be more precise, she wrote both the Slovenian and English versions herself), is fluid, and was edited by award-winning biographer John Stubbs. The only noticeable ticks in it are more about finding the right word across languages. The French word juissance is used abundantly (it appears five times over the course of a paragraph and a half at one point), with no explanation as to what is meant by it. The word is hard to translate: it combines the concepts of liveliness, joie de vivre (another tough one to translate), energy, and joy. But it is not universally used in English, and should really be defined for an Anglophone readership. It is a testament to the fine language of the book that this was one of the very few, and very minor, linguistic elements that stood out as odd.
Then there were the moments when Salecl turned to a philosopher she very much admires, Jacques Lacan. The French psychoanalytical thinker is hugely popular with a tiny, almost cult-like following, and draws a great deal of eyeball-rolling from everyone else. When Salecl brings in Lacanian ideas were the only times when the eyeball-rolling started again. Salecl writes many pages about the Lacanian concept of the Big Other, for instance, but I still do not know exactly what it means or why it is important. She also discusses Lacan’s idea that our learning to speak as children represents a “symbolic castration.” Huh? Thankfully one needn’t be a Lacanian in order to enjoy this book.
The Tyranny of Choice has chapters on love choices, the choice of whether to have children, choosing based on the anticipated opinion of others, and far more. Salecl is particularly outspoken against self-help books, which she says profit from our sense of inadequacy, never seem to work, and can even make us feel worse than ever before. For example, the power of positive thinking has been proven to help with some sorts of illness, but certainly not cancer. Readers of The Secret who have cancer may be left thinking that they are to blame for getting cancer because they were not thinking positively, and that it will be their own fault if they are not miraculously cured of it, because positive thinking can cure disease. This may result in someone who both has cancer and feels worse about it than ever before because they think it is their fault for getting it, and their weakness for being unable to cure themselves. Ironically, in this world of more-choices-the-better, self-help books are reassuring because they make it so we don’t have to choose: the book tells us what sort of choices to make, meaning that the book is held responsible for successes and failures.
The final irony is that while The Tyranny of Choice may be considered an anti-self-help book, it just might help readers by becoming a successful version of what it disdains. Readers might end up feeling more empowered, if not to make better choices, then to understand why they make the choices they do, and why choice in itself is not necessarily a good thing.