Decisions, decisions

Too many cheeses can drive society crackers. Slovenian scholar Renata Salecl tells Matthew Reisz about the paralysing effects of the Western ideology du jour: the 'tyranny of choice'

August 19, 2010

Whenever a big idea is held up for admiration, argues Renata Salecl, we ought to be wary. Growing up in communist Slovenia, she was sceptical of all the talk of workers' rights and the classless society. Today, she argues in her new book, Choice, we should be equally concerned to expose and explode what she describes as the "tyranny of choice".

"We're all pretty much hooked on the idea that we must engage with choices and that everything is in our hands," she says. "Yet the price we pay for individualism pushed so far is that we endlessly criticise ourselves."

Salecl began her academic career in 1986 at the Institute of Criminology in Ljubljana, and she still has a research post there. However, she now spends about a third of her time in Britain as a visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics' BIOS Centre and a visiting professor at Birkbeck School of Law. For the past 15 years she has also taught a course on psychoanalysis and law at the Cardozo School of Law in New York.

Even as a student, Salecl says, she was part of "a group of young intellectuals who organised a series of round-table discussions - called Free Cathedra - that opened up debates about social, political and theoretical issues. From then on, I was involved in youth and feminist movements that opposed the regime. I also attended demonstrations."

Such activism in Slovenia was far less dangerous than in other parts of the Eastern Bloc, and the 1991 war that led to the country's independence from Yugoslavia lasted only 10 days. Yet it was still a very frightening episode and, like a true European intellectual, Salecl recalls that she consciously sought refuge in challenging but unrelated brain work: "a group of Lacanian theorists came together to write a book about Hitchcock in order to survive the anxiety".

Later, when the Slovenian Liberal Democrats were in power around the turn of the millennium, she was given "many options to join politics and was often asked to take on various ministerial posts". Yet she decided to remain aloof.

"When the term of office finishes," Salecl reflects, "there's an enormous feeling of loss and often an addiction to power. You are on top of the world for your five minutes of fame, so that's seductive, but then it is absolutely impossible to re-enter academic life. As long as I have curiosity and a drive to write, I thought, I should follow that curiosity."

Her main contribution to Slovenian public life nowadays is a monthly column in a leading newspaper, Delo, although she sometimes intervenes more actively on issues such as the right of gay couples to adopt children.

Her first book, The Spoils of Freedom: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and Ideology After the Fall of Socialism, appeared in 1994. Salecl wrote in English from the start, claiming that "it condenses my thought. In my native language I say more than is necessary. It's good to write in a foreign language - you can say things quicker, even if somebody has to correct it a little."

An additional factor in her next book, (Per)versions of Love and Hate (1998), was a concern that she was getting "typecast as an Eastern European feminist, invited to conferences to talk about rapes in Bosnia and so on, whereas I wanted to write about a universal problem: how we switch from love to hate and back." Such overarching themes, and an approach that segues between anecdote, academic research, psychoanalysis, politics and popular culture, remain characteristic of her work.

Like most of her research, Choice is concerned with a set of themes that Salecl defines as "ideology, social control, how people identify with particular regimes (or not) and can help them continue, even if they don't believe in them. Being raised in a communist country was very helpful."

The book opens with an amusing, "rather bourgeois little vignette" of the author in Manhattan buying cheese for a dinner party. Paralysed by the sheer variety available, she is terrified that by making the wrong purchase she will show herself up to her guests or even the cheese expert behind the counter.

Yet this is just a trivial example of a far deeper and more universal problem. Shopping isn't the half of it. "Consumer choice" confronts us on every side: (real or ostensible) choices of electricity provider, medical treatment, sexual partner, whether or not to have children ... the list goes on.

"We set out to find the 'right' life as we would to find the right kind of wallpaper or hair conditioner," Salecl writes in an incisively pessimistic passage that puts many native academic writers of English to shame.

"Today's advice culture presents the search for a spouse as not all that different from the search for a car: first we need to weigh up all the advantages and disadvantages, then we need to secure a prenuptial agreement, mend things if they go wrong and eventually trade in the old model for a new one, before finally getting tired of all the hassle of commitment and deciding to go for a temporary lease agreement."

The unexamined ideal of "choice" plays itself differently in different domains. Since there have always been doctors who are arrogant, callous or incompetent, the idea of "choice" in medicine sounds as if it has something to be said for it. But Salecl argues that it also has many downsides.

"Doctors are no longer in positions of authority," she says, "yet such authority has a huge impact on how patients respond to medical interventions. In California, doctors themselves voted for shamans to come in to treat members of the Hmong tribal community (from Thailand and Laos), because they proved more effective as healers.

"Most people don't want to be offered all the options, but would prefer their doctors to make the decisions for them. Doctors, meanwhile, have become pretty paranoid. They don't ask: 'How can I help the person who comes to me with an illness?' but 'How can that person damage me?', or: 'How can I ensure they don't sue me?' As a result, many practise what is known as 'defensive medicine', overprescribing drugs and tests."

Asked to unpack her worries about the "tyranny of choice" in more detail, Salecl points out that all important choices bring risk, uncertainty and a sense of loss for what we have given up or "the road not taken". Yet today's ideology of choice, she claims, "wants to eliminate them and keep control over the outcome. That is why so many people are frozen in their inability to make any choices, because of this utter responsibility. It didn't work out too well when we tried to eliminate risk in the realm of economics!"

In our romantic lives, for example, Salecl fears that many people carry out "an endless search, going from one object to another and assessing whether that person might complement you, not allowing the uncontrollable to happen, though love often happens when you don't expect it".

We are only deluding and short-changing ourselves when we try to ignore the unconscious factors at work in love and desire, she adds. The result is a bleak world where efforts to find a perfect partner or to be a perfect parent lead to constant self-flagellation and disappointment.

In her native Slovenia, Salecl observes, "you have these enormous strollers that look like tanks, as well as cars that look like tanks. People are totally secure in their SUVs, but you obviously don't need them on Slovenian roads."

She continues: "Instead of aiming to be 'good enough' parents, there is endless anxiety: 'Did we buy the right thing?' 'Did we enrol the child in the best preschool?'

"I wasn't surprised when I recently gave a talk to master's students in law, and five women said their best friend was their dog - the only being you can trust to love you unconditionally. Isn't that sad?"

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