Nowadays, we are faced with so many options that it overwhelms us on many issues. Difficult choices await us in all consumer products, from cheese and detergent aisles in the market to household goods and telephone and internet services. Yes, we are free –within certain limits– to choose the products we consume. What about more vital matters? This post reveals how the capitalist order leads individuals to the illusion that they can shape their lives as they wish, with the empty options offered. According to it, life choices and consumer preferences are treated the same in modern capitalist society: “We try to find the ‘right’ life as if we were trying to find the right wallpaper or conditioner.” Not to mention the constant anxiety and dissatisfaction we experience. I wanted to write this post in order to understand and summarize the chapters of The Tyranny of Choice by Renata Salecl. Why do we worry about choosing? Choosing through the eyes of others, choices of love, having or not having children, forced-choice. The conclusion is that it consists of parts such as shame and lack of social change. I’d like to criticize the effect of the modern capitalist society we live in on the act of choosing, and dealing with the problematic choices encountered in life, starting with consumer preferences, in a rational and irrational way.
While people want to make ideal choices, they wonder what others think about these choices, and they are concerned about whether they are actually making a free choice when making these choices. Although people are free within certain limits in choosing the products they will consume, they may not even have the opportunity to choose, let alone be free to choose the system they are a part of. Apart from the many possibilities to choose from, the fear of losing also complicates the act of choosing.
With so many options to choose from, so overwhelming to choose, and so worrying about the responsibility of making the wrong choice, it seems as if lingering on indecision guards against the potential regret and disappointment that choice can bring.
Capitalism frees the slaves and makes them a consumer, but the end of unlimited consumption is the consumer’s self-consumption. Are we truly free in all our choices, from our love life to our work life? Despite the obsession with evaluation and rational choice that dominates today, can we make the “best” choice independently of external factors? What are the benefits or harms of having too many options in every aspect of our lives? The individual, who is shown as the absolute master of his life, does not realize that he can only get rid of the fact that the choice turns into a burden in the face of the endless options offered, but with the infinite encouragement and guidance offered by the system. It makes clear how the idea of choosing who we want to be and the imperative to “be yourself” come to work against us by making us more anxious and insatiable rather than bringing a lot of freedom. We always aim to go towards the “best” or “ideal” in our own way. Aside from the mind-blowing tension, this creates, do we really choose?
Freedom of Choice in Slovenia
Formerly bereaved family members would often go to a state funeral home, where they would choose one of several basic funeral services and one of several different caskets. Today, this ceremony is more like a shopping experience and an embarrassment. Family members who come to the funeral home are asked to decide on a thousand details about how the service will be performed. They also have to choose the size of vases, flower arrangements, musicians, and even the ad to be placed in the newspaper.
So why is this embarrassing? People who make a choice in front of a salesperson in the exhibition hall of the funeral home are exposed to two types of gaze: the gaze of the person selling the services, and the gaze of the disembodied other, who appears as an abstract authority-looking from above. Embarrassment and shame are often linked to a sense of who we are. We may feel ashamed of being poor, of being a ‘non-masculine’ man or a ‘non-feminine’ woman, or of being a member of a particular nation. In the face of the choices presented to us at the funeral home, we will fail no matter what we do. We would feel stingy in the eyes of the salesperson if we didn’t buy the flashy vase. Even if we choose the most expensive option, we feel that we are showing off and such extravagance is excessive. There is no escape from failure. In such cases, we often blame ourselves. However, we look for different ways to combat this feeling.
To Sum Up
I just gave an example from a simple funeral ceremony. You can adapt this situation to any important or unimportant situation in your life. We can choose our identity, sexual orientation, and religion. We can choose whether to have children or not. We can shape our bodies and even change gender. But once we surrender ourselves to all these contingencies, is there anything left to determine our choices? Who are we when everything about ourselves is optional?