Tyranny of Choice
by Antonio Dias
We are confronted by the seductive promise of endless choice. Not simply in the way Nixon wowed Khrushchev in a supermarket in the fifties. We now have this medium to toss us into an infinity of choices for our attention simply by rolling a mouse and clicking on icons.
The pressure of futility is strong here! The subject is so careworn and obvious, and writing about it here only adds another grain of sand to the desert. If it weren’t for desperation I wouldn’t have the strength to make the effort.
Key words: choice, icon, desperation; these lead me on. I have to write about the questions I come upon, and I might as well do it here! At least that’s been the working hypothesis.
How do these three terms come together and how do they illuminate something about our condition?
We are outdoing Tantalus when it comes to getting what we asked for when it comes to choice! Overwhelmed with the quantity, we remain starved for quality – at least that’s how I justify my continued search. Facing increasing constraints, impending and already here, I find myself hungry for what is still available and that seems to come down to someplace to attach my continued yearning for… completion?
As with all the shadowed yearnings we have that are somehow entangled with the particular traumas of our personal histories and the trajectory of our own conditioning; we find them elusive. They exist as in a dream. They are dreams, and they only cross-over into consciousness imperfectly, with great looming holes in their logic and gaps in our awareness. That’s the way this one is for me. I continue to have the imagery of a production line ending at a warehouse crammed full of product that never sees the light of day. That’s how I have seen my work for decades, and that’s how I continue to see it, when I allow myself the indulgence.
I say indulgence because it is one, to assume to step outside one’s life and make pronouncements about its value. Also the way this particular analysis, this imagery, makes me out as a semi-tragic figure. Even if the factory metaphor is a bit dated and makes the rest of me think, “It serves him right! That’s what he deserves for attempting to flood the world with product!” I mean, isn’t this a big part of the problem? Too much stuff? If we are flooded with false choice, why would increasing my efficiency at offloading my stuff upon the world mark an improvement?
It’s hard to answer these without falling back on “Fairness!” and getting “my due!”
Everything points to what I do being a compulsion. Single-minded effort that is not deterred by a lack of external reward is not a sign of great virtue, it’s a sign of madness! How is this not just a desperate attempt to find external justification? To find gratification in the gratitude of others? Isn’t this just a way for my Ego to double-down and maintain its sense of superiority?
This brings us to desperation, but we haven’t looked at icon yet.
An icon is a powerful image. It’s an image that is so compelling that it ends up not only standing in for what it represents, but replacing it in our consciousness. The icon becomes the object of our veneration. We are so susceptible to this! Our visual natures are wired to fall for this trick, combined with our yearning after short-cuts, anything to avoid having to think anew. It’s so much more efficient to fall back on something precooked, and icons are perfect for this. They come with readily recognizable names and taglines and short punchy stories. One needs only to invoke them and there is an immediate sense of being filled. Perhaps not with meaning, but at least with something that can easily pass for it, sort of….
Artists work in images. Icons are images that have caught on socially and grip our imaginations. Artists yearn to be seen. Icons are a ready path to attention. All this meta-analysis does get tiring! – Yes, even to me! – so why not just go for it?
Mental health and social, cultural health. We humans are incredibly adaptable. We can “fit-in” in such a broad array of cultures and social circumstances. Then, some of us are more adaptable than others. Some have been nurtured in ways that bolster their abilities in this regard and others have had their abilities strained or even stripped from them by circumstance. We tend to see mental health as a one way adjustment. Those who are unfit need to adjust so that they do fit. This has been as far as psychology has taken the question in most cases.
One of the seminal insights I’ve become aware of has come from a variety of sources who are now questioning whether this is right. Whether cultural sanity may be at stake, and the ways in which maladaptive personalities may give us a way into seeing the faults in a culture’s sanity that those who have adapted more smoothly may not be equipped to handle. This is a central concept of Derrick Jensen’s work and is there at least to some extent in the work of most people who are radically challenging the sanity of our broadest cultural assumptions.
I find that I take this concept as an opening for me personally. I find it carries me past the blocks that continue to resist my further integration within a system I find insane. I find that the same mechanisms and behavior chains I became sensitized to as a child are operating in the general culture to maintain its dominance over us. I find the same blindness to consequences, and refusal to admit anything’s wrong even as profound and horrific changes make those consequences more and more apparent. I find my obstinate resistance to bend to the weight of received common-sense to be an advantage when it comes to continuing to challenge what many just accept, because they see it projected at them from all sides.
All this is why I do what I do, but it doesn’t confront whether I am doing anything worthwhile, or of value. This is where we come to desperation. This is perhaps where the psycho-drama of my conditioning meets the continual blind spots in my awareness so as to keep me stuck reliving this image of an internal fecundity cut off at its outlet and jamming up within me unable to connect with those around me.
This is an accurate picture of where I stand on this solstice day. I am aware that much of my personal difficulty touches upon a wider difficulty we all face at this time of growing constraints and looming consequences beginning to fall due. I do not feel like a lone romantic figure in this. I don’t picture myself as a victim in any singular way to this. It does not at least directly feed my Ego to be such a figure. For good or ill, this knowledge sharpens my resolve to feel that my ultimate usefulness – That is my deepest yearning, to be of use to something worthwhile, to be connected, to reciprocate and feel integrated into a larger whole… – That my ultimate usefulness is in teasing out the tangles that reduce us to this state and look for ways to focus attention on these questions.
Questions, not answers. I do firmly believe that it is in living within the difficulty of questions, and gaining an acclimation to what can be the vertiginous condition of not having ready answers, that this is the most useful trait we can have, especially now. This connects with my sense of the way we have been disconnected from life by displacing our yearning to some utopia and wallowing in dread over some apocalypse. This connects with our predicament as we suffer from a surfeit of choice and hunger after a sufficiency that seems forever out of reach.
“There’s a fine line between clever and stupid.” So said the sage Nigel Tufnel. This applies here as it does in so many places. There is just enough space between the desperation of compulsion and the desperation of survival to what I find myself doing that holds me to this course even as I continue to monitor the dangers of following it too far, and too blindly.
Of course, wisdom is neither clever nor stupid, though it may appear closer to the latter when we don’t have its favor.
These continue to be my watchwords. All of my efforts are mediated by this admonition. Even when the way is less than clear and the waters are rough and our craft is leaky we need to continue to navigate. But there is more than just a premonition of the release of a sweet oblivion in a recurring yearning for the point where the illusions of choice fade away and there appears only one way forward, and we take it without struggle or doubt, not because we find it preferable to some hypothetical option out of an illusory cornucopia of choices, but because it is the only way forward.
We’ve each had some sense of this if we’ve ever been in a life-or death situation. It comes after, or instead of, fear. There is an inkling – one that cannot be confirmed or denied this side of death’s wall – that from that moment on the outcome, our outcome, our fate, is no longer the matter of a struggle, but the result of what happens, simply what happens. This includes what we do, but we don’t do what we do then in the common sense of trying, and striving, and betting on this or that favor, we just do. And it is either enough or it isn’t. But at that point we are just there and the reality, and our wonder at its fullness, and the exquisite satisfaction we feel just being is more than worth all the trouble.
I keep waiting for this opportunity to present itself. I keep thinking that the insanity of civilization stems from our cultural inability to see that this is what life is, and not recoil from it. Our stories, our icons, even our desperation stems from this unwillingness and an overwhelming desire to cheat life of its import, if only this will allow us a moment of ease that we are only due when we are ready to accept life for what it is; an immersion in what is, finding the joys and satisfactions – not in choice – but in necessity, and having this attitude open us to satisfaction and satiety.
We are early on in the disaster of looming consequences. There is almost too much time to consider. We are primed to see ourselves as victims. It’s funny how within the cornucopia of false choices we surround ourselves with, this appears to be the one place where choice is missing. But it is there. We are not victims of our lives we are the actors of our lives.
Ideally, and perhaps this has the fault of all ideals of being impossible by their very nature, we would live our entire lives this way in some balance of groundedness and awareness of our precarity. Satisfied and challenged in just the right proportions. But we don’t have that luxury. We are not heirs to that kind of culture, do not have that legacy behind us to nurture us and optimize our chances. What we do have is this moment of clarity in which to orient ourselves and prepare for what is coming. Not by dreading and planning and scheming and hedging our bets, but by adjusting ourselves so that we can salvage our birthright, as living aware beings to find at least a moment of presence where we simply are without concern over choice, not in thrall to any icon, and not blinded by desperation.