No choice

Over the holidays I read Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice, which aptly summarizes alot of decision science but wraps it in a weird therapeutical package, so that it reads like a self-help book (or worse, a management book), with lots of bullet-pointed advice. The upshot of it is that the amount of choices in contemporary American society make more of us into “maximizers” — shopping perfectionists — when we should be content to be “satisficers” or people content with something that adequately fulfills our perceived needs. Having more options in our lives leads us to believe that we should never be content with something that doesn’t suit us perfectly, since it is so much more likely that the perfect thing is out there. We now have the means to be more discriminating, and this is leading only to more regret and dissatisfaction rather than more optimal satisfaction of our desires. A lot of it seemed common-sensical to me, but apparently many Americans are so brainwashed by the joys and alleged “freedoms” of consumer choice that they need to be reminded that the more time you spend shopping, the more likely you’ll be full of unfullfillable desires and a chronic sense of dissatisfaction. The consumer marketplace functions by leaving you chronicallly wanting; if you could actually fulfill yourself you (and the rest of us) wouldn’t be constantly buying more crap and the engine of economic growth would suddenly be stunted. The advertising industry thrives because we need to have our desires perpetually stoked — we enjoy this; we’re thankful for ads in giving us a purpose, now that sustanence needs are fulfilled. So we happily mount the so-called hedonic treadmill, as it gives us something to do. But the shallownesss and passivity of such a life purpose inevitably leads to depression, which Schwartz documents. It’s not merely the overwhelming number of choices and the sense of crushing responsibility that attends them (and the inevitable failure of these choices to really satisfy that is cloaked from us, mainly by the consumer optimism that is drummed into us by every kind of ad, whether we pay attention to it or not) that makes us depressed; it’s that we remain dimly aware that our energy might have been invested in more significant ways than picking between colas or between suburban tract homes. We crave meaningful work and tight-knit communities and friends (At least according to Robert Lane’s throughly convincing The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, which Schwartz cites) but we get sidetracked into collecting more goods that promise to attenuate our indviduality, extend our autonomy in the guise of convenience, or allow us to wield the mighty sword of modern technology in the form of an iPod. So we prioritize all wrong.

The same misprioritizing may have happened to the working class in general in post-WWII America, when it accepted expanded consumer choice and “freedom of choice” in the marketplace instead of extending political reforms and preserving union power. Beguiled by commoditites, working class families bought in to the ideology implicit in most consumer goods, that is, they see isolation and interclass competition as “individualism” and “convenience.” Consumer goods always imply the dignity of individual ownership over the satsifaction of sharing and cooperation. Not to sound like a utopian dreamer, but this anti-community ideology that’s built in to the marketplace (with its need to individuate in order to sell the same thing to more people and keep growing profits) seems to lead to much unnecessary misery. Sold on consumer choice as freedom, the working class exchange dignified work for a choice of shoddy clothes at Conway or Wal-Mart or Old Navy, or among knockoff of luxury items, and they don’t worry about whether it’s a fair disitribution of society’s wealth to see all the real luxuries they’re not privy to. And embracing consumer choice as the core of what they’ve achieved as a class, they are forced to put even more weight on the kind of paralyzing, depression inducing decisions Schwartz talks about. And the enrgy that might have been revolutionary is frittered away as anxiety over shades of makeup and kitchen appliances. It’s the kitchen debate, all over again, I guess: entree into consumerism and its world of fantasy saps any enthusiasm one might have for political organization. Snce much of the pleasure of consumerism is relative, comparative; it sets you in competition not with the consumers out of your league, but with the ones most like you and thus breeds division.

One of Schwartz’s most interesting points was how difficult decision making becomes when each decision is held to be revealing of your true self, a phenomenon that sets in when the number of choices would seem to be able to accomodate it. You can’t pick something to exemplify your true self, because it is the cumulative decisions over time that make yourself known to you; you know yourself through the act of deciding, over and over again, but consumerism leads us to expect to know ourselves beforehand, in order to decide. This creates anxiety because we suddenly feel like we don’t know ourselves in some absolute ontologcal way that we ought to. But of course, identity is a process, not a reified thing; it’s not like a commodity itself though we are encouraged to think of it that way, as something we passively possess and can flaunt rather than as something through which we live. The need to display one’s authentic self through consumer choices seems related to the disappearance of public personae that Sennett charted in The Fall of Public Man — we are expected to be impossibly, intimately, spontaneously authentic in public, because we’ve collectively rejected public role playing. Public and private sphere distinctions have eroded — technology like cell phones have contributed mightliy to this — so that there’s no space in which to develop a “true” self not subject to the vagaries of public opinion. A continuity is expected between public and private selves that’s impossible to maintain; we end up being too intimate with strangers, who listen to our conversations with doctors on the bus or in the grocery-store line; and strangers to our families, who can’t identify the side of you that is reserved for them, that marks them as insiders. But I’m rambling here —

Increasingly, our social self is defined by these consumer choices, so we have no choice about choosing; our failure to choose will be as much of a choice we must take responsibility for as our actually deliberating long and hard. And the pain of these trivial choices gives the lie to the “active consumerism” strategy sometimes proferred by pop-culture enthusiasts who want to argue that consumers are “users of culture” rather than passive victims of it. Those who use the culture for self-definition find themselves assenting to the basic premise that consumerism (and not meaningful work) is the route to selfhood. They try to redefine consumer coice as meaningful work itself, but it fails beacuse the labor of choice produces the alienation and misery that Schwartz details. “Active” consumers still adhere to and replicate what Baudrillard calls the code, the matrix of associations that reify identity and make a moveable feast of the concept of utility. When we accept that we can purchase meaningfulness, real meaning is sucked into the vacuum of the marketplace and becomes subjecct to its arbitrary whims, its manufactured cycles.

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