Book review: The Tyranny of Choice by Renata Salecl
Nina Power appreciates a sharp critique of consumerism
The Tyranny of Choice by Renata Salecl (Profile Books)
Renata Salecl’s topic is a timely one, even if economic “choice” for many currently seems like a distant illusion. But to some extent this is Salecl’s point: “When an economic crisis compels people to save, they are also being forced to consider their desires … until recently, the society of choice encouraged immediate gratification and taught us not to defer anything.” The “tyranny” of choice, then, is partly historically specific – this is what consumerism presents us with, calls it freedom, though it actually generates new anxieties – but also, and this is where Salecl excels as a pop psychoanalyst, points towards deeper, darker structures of desire.
While some of the territory of this short, accessible book is not exactly new – think of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders or the documentaries of Adam Curtis, for example – Salecl’s alertness to what might be different in an analysis of consumerist capitalism in more recent years marks this book out, not only in relation to the crisis, but also because of what Salecl highlights as a possible decline in the “master narratives” of the past few decades. Rather than engaging in a bout of nostalgic hand-wringing, Salecl presents us instead with an interesting pair of related questions – “Do people in capitalist societies experience new psychological symptoms? Has the radical change in the very nature of social prohibition and in our perception of the symbolic order contributed to an increase in levels of psychosis in developed capitalist societies?” So while the anxious might scurry to the bookshop to pick up some self-help books or employ a life coach to deal with decision-making, the psychotic becomes convinced that he or she has worked out a way to live without doubt, either through mimicry or by feeling that he or she is somebody he or she is not. Salecl illustrates this well with reference to the cult of celebrity and the fantasy role they can come to play in terms of sexual fixation or over-identification – and she does this without judgement, preferring to explain these phenomena in terms of psychological structures, rather than blame the culture itself.
Salecl’s examples are occasionally self-confessedly “bourgeois” – the section “Why Choice Makes us Anxious” begins with the author recounting her own visit to a posh Manhattan grocer’s to pick out some cheese – but her strengths really lie in her more serious, though admirably clear, accounts of the fundamental paradoxes of human subjectivity when confronted with choice her enemy here is any attempt to deal in a rational or calculated manner with decisions (or the lack of them) that require a more complex analysis. Here Salecl invokes Freud, Camus, Lacan and others to explain why, for example, we might be unable to make a decision in one context and opt for something immediately in another. Salecl’s topics – love, marriage, whether to have children – may be obvious examples of big choices, but her adroit handling of them makes reading The Tyranny of Choice an easy decision to make.