Renata Salecl has robbed Oslo airport of a sliver of my income. I waited for a flight while reading her book about the "tyranny of choice" in consumer society – and vaguely wondering which half-litre bottle of Norwegian aquavit to buy. The likelihood was that such a purchase would – like others - gather dust in a cupboard for aeons. Salecl reminded me that my options included "none of the above". Which I duly took.
Her book, an addition to the invaluable "Big Ideas" series, by and large addresses choices far less trivial than that: over reproduction, parenthood, relationships, careers and so forth. Yet the supermarket-shelf model of selection among numerous varieties of goods or service has embedded itself deep in our collective imagination. Even in a time of recesssion-era policies, an ideal of ever-wider choice persists. In last week's Budget, amid the financial pain, it emerged that at least £50 million of extra funding would flow in the direction of the "New Schools Network", which encourages parents to opt out of local-authority education. That, even under a Conservative-led coalition, these "free schools" will not operate for commercial gain indicates that choice can trump profit as an article of modern faith.
Salecl's engaging critique of life as a supermarket sweep should fall on fertile ground. For her, "the ideology of late capitalism" loudly insists that we should pick lifestyles, lovers and destinies in an impossible dream of total "self-mastery". So we may set out "to find the 'right' life as we would find the right kind of wallpaper or hair conditioner". However, such an unattainable autonomy – a duty-free being – will trail in its wake acute feelings of "guilt" and "anxiety". Meanwhile, collective action fades as "we avert our gaze from society at large and focus on ourselves".
In this era, a white French family may turn into "Indians" - down to speaking English "with a Hindi accent" - out of a felt affinity with another culture. So "Who do we become when everything about us is optional?" Mostly, we stay at home with our old selves. We fail to choose buffed bodies or serene souls. If in the fantasy-land of ads, mags and self-help manuals, our toned, tanned and trained lives should be "a kind of artwork", then most of us would clearly never pass muster on the Bayswater Road railings, let alone at the Venice Biennale. And we worry ourselves sick about it.
Now the choice-cult, with its "obsessive need for control and predictability", faces crisis. As boom-time psychology has evaporated, "the difficult logic of loss" strikes home. If, as Salecl argues, "something is always lost when we choose", then the reduction of choice might, conversely, confer advantages. Less could be more. Of course, this argument applies to the relatively rich of "the developed world". Choice does not really discuss the billions for whom only more options – political, economic, social – might give them an entry-ticket into the problems of affluence. This is a book about the survivable anxieties of surplus, not the deadly stress of dearth.
Salecl might have approached her subject from any number of angles. But, as she argues, our sense of self will in the end rest on choices firmly made - or accepted - rather than on options endlessly deferred. And she nails her colours very visibly to the mast. Although Salecl now also teaches in London and New York, she hails from Slovenia and comes from the same particular (even peculiar) philosophical background as her ex-collaborator – indeed, former husband - Slavoj Zizek.
Quite why their sassy, high-spirited blend of neo-Marxist radicalism, pop-culture observation and and psychoanalytic – to be precise, Lacanian - theory first ignited in this corner of post-Communist Europe, then spread like brushfire around the campuses and studios of Europe and the Americas, remains a question for another day. In practice, the result here is a book full of brisk, pertinent analysis, telling anecdotes – and sudden lurches into lecture-room exposition. So smart accounts of the pitfalls of internet dating, feng-shui furnishing or pre-wedding diets will segue into pay-attention-kids synopses of Lacan's idea of the "Big Other" or "object small a", and assertions along the lines of: "The agent of castration is language itself."
Whether this mesh of the wittily concrete and fiercely abstract seduces, amuses or annoys, no reader could accuse Salecl of failing to obey her own rule (or Law?). Rather than ape consumer-culture in its "neurotic celebration of the undecided", she chooses a source of intellectual authority and sticks with it. She stands by her man: Lacan.
To be fair, psychoanalyis proves a sharper instrument than most when it comes to the agonies of decision-making. The "rational choice" theories beloved of economists largely ignore the unconscious drives and desires preyed on in every TV commercial break. Salecl underscores the ancient wisdom – which predates Freud by millennia – that we are not masters in our own house. Our passions stem from origins far deeper than an accountant's calculus of benefits and costs.
Moreover, her grasp of the snares and decoys of desire helps illuminate the way that today's austerity chic - lower consumption, frugal living and the rest – acts as the flip-side of the choice-cult rather than a true alternative. After all, "Desire always involves certain prohibitions. We are quick to invent new obstacles when the old ones cease to exist." You don't have to cancel that low-carbon rough-camping holiday in Scotland. But at least be aware that it may unconsciously represent as much of a feast of bliss (jouissance, the Lacanians might say) as a foregone fortnight on a Thai beach.
As this book tells us, to choose – as we must - is to lose. And its choice of a Lacanian lens, polished at the edges by dogged new-leftism, does bring areas of myopia. The book has a rudimentary approach to the history of ideas: at one point, "capitalism" and "the Enlightenment project" even merge. Its critique of me-first consumerism overlooks all movements – from anti-apartheid boycotts to Fairtrade and "green" shopping – that aim to bring social activism back into selection.
Salecl scolds the "lack of commitment" of the footloose young in a manner that will comfort conservatives. And the book can sound parochial. She will summarise (say) Lacan's account of "forced choice" via the analogy of prisoners having to work out the colour of discs worn by other inmates - but without a word on how this model might relate to the vast literature on the "prisoner's dilemma" elsewhere.
That said, the best sections here invite assent from readers of all persuasions. A fine chapter on reproductive "choices" examines – with insight and compassion – the emotional outcomes of IVF, surrogacy and other hi-tech interventions for the children as well as the parents. With every sort of family, as with lovers and careers, "people confront loss". Always have, always will.
Salecl, in common with writers from other traditions, accepts that freedom must include some notion of fate - of individual mortality, and of social solidarity. Whether or not you follow her in taking Lacan's "Big Other" and the "Name-of-the-Father" along the road to understanding self and society will be a matter of judgement, or belief. Here, at least, we do have a choice.