Monday, January 21, 2013

Culture of choices and the distortion of Reality


The freedom of choice in our culture is best exemplified in today's typical supermarket. The myriad of products and brands are a true testament to the diversity of human needs. Even though it represents, in its most radical, the ideals of a democratic, progressive and free society, Benjamin Scheibehenne, a consumer research at the University of Basel in Switzerland, claims that this overload of information can be paralyzing. The branding, logos, slogans and catch phrases directly draw into attention the differential void that exists in seemingly similar products. Each of whom develop a sort of a personality of its own, calling out to us as we walk through the aisles. In this chaotic space one finds it very easy to be overwhelmed by number of choices one sees. Try to buy a pain killer and you are faced with the behemoth task of traversing these differential voids in deciding on how to get rid of that headache. Do you want "fast acting" or "long lasting"? Do you want "gel caps" or "pills"? Do you want "Advil" or "Tylenol"? And if you go to an earth friendly you want "organic" or one with "natural ingredients"? Now interpolate this to an entire grocery list and you can see the level of tension that may develop in the simple act of choosing.  
This tension of course functions outside the modern supermarket as well. The deep immersion of our culture in mass media enables the paralysis of these choices to penetrate the very fabric of our daily lives. We are constantly bombarded with images and sounds of not only products to consume but also identities to assume. In out post-modern culture we can literally become anything that we want to. These choices can be found everywhere, from a higher level world view philosophy (i.e. the hundreds of religious, spiritual, new age philosophies that one can prescribe to so that "I may truly find myself") to the everyday mundane dietary practice (i.e. vegetarianism, veganism, fruitarism, Lacto/Ovo/Lact-ovo vegetarianism, macrobiotic diet, Paleo diet...etc). Even Nike has embraced this concept and through their NikeID service allows customers to design their own shoes.  In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz, takes aim at the central tenet of our western societies i.e. Freedom of Choice. He claims that these paralyzing choices are in fact not making us happier but they are rather leading to more dissatisfaction.  

"Infinite choices [are] paralyzing, Schwartz argues, and exhausting to the human psyche. It leads us to set unreasonably high expectations, question our choices before we even make them and blame our failures entirely on ourselves." [1]

But beyond the tension and anxiety that these choices create, these choices also function as a way to distort our discourse on ideas like freedom and liberty. These cornucopias of choices inherently create an illusion of freedom. This is best illustrated by the following joke from old communist USSR, as told by Zizek:

"A guy was sent from East Germany to work in Siberia. He knew his mail would be read by censors, so he told his friends: “Let’s establish a code. If a letter you get from me is written in blue ink, it is true what I say. If it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter. Everything is in blue. It says, this letter: “Everything is wonderful here. Stores are full of good food. Movie theaters show good films from the west. Apartments are large and luxurious. The only thing you cannot buy is red ink."[2]

This is how we live today. We have all the freedoms we want, but what we are lacking is the language to articulate our unfreedom (the red ink). These free choices mask a deeper void that exists in our understanding of freedom and liberty. In a way we are way too distracted by deciding between the 21 different flavors of ice to even consider what it truly means to be free. This sort of distortion has a significant impact on the way we function as society, but on a more practical side it also shapes governmental policies. The pretext of our 'War against Terrorism' is based deeply on a universalized concept of freedom, and if that very concept itself is distorted, it is hard not to wonder what we are really fighting for (or against).

Jean Baudrillard, a French sociologist (also sometimes called the high priest of postmodernism), wrote a book called 'Simulacra and Simulation' in which he claims that this distortion has taken on a new meaning. According to him our reality is not really distorted, but it is the distortion that has become the new reality. Our modernism has generated so many different choices that is it becoming harder and harder to distinguish the fact from the fiction. Mass media and culture, according to him, construct our perception of reality from which we acquire a sense of understanding of our lives and being. The buffet of these constructs is what renders reality as an illusion. From this distortion simulacra are generated, which are things (or concepts) that have been copied and twisted so many times and they lack the original content of their formulation. Our society has been highly saturated with this simulacrum that we find ourselves in a state of simulation. Here the human experience is merely simulated devoid of its meaning. According to Baudrillard, this simulation does not hide any latent truth but rather that the simulation itself is not based in reality. The excess of the simulacra renders our reality meaningless. He says: 

“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.” [3] 
“Hell of simulation, which is no longer one of torture, but of subtle, maleficent, elusive twisting of meaning..."[4]

The point here is of course not to be blatantly against having choices or dismissing the multitude of options, but one should resist the temptation of positing the idea that having choices leads to freedom or liberty. Or even that having even more options leads to having even more freedom. There is a darker underside to the excesses that surround us and as attractive as they seem, we should nonetheless sum up the courage to question the very foundation on which this diversity seemingly appears.

"The price we pay for the complexity of life is too high. When you think of all the effort you have to put in--telephonic, technological and relational--to alter even the slightest bit of behavior in this strange world we call social life, you are left pining for the straightforwardness of primitive peoples and their physical work"[5]


1 comment:

  1. It took me forever to figure out how to leave comments...why does Google want to have and display all of my presonal information?! So annoying...anywho, these are great! I just read the latest entry...don't quit!!!! You have a lot to say and I, for one, would like to read it! I hope to see more...and maybe next time I will be brave enough to share my opinion (lol)