“Choice” – RSAnimate with Renata Salecl

Just watched an interesting RSAnimate with Renata Salecl on the topic of the results of overwhelming choices in contemporary capitalism. My thoughts after the break…

Although I really agree with some of the conclusions and many of the premises of Salecl’s talk, I don’t agree with the interpretation of the state of western culture and the diagnosis she gives. She seems to be working from the point of Marxist and Freudian Psychoanalytic Theory. Of course, the example she uses is sex, which makes perfect sense to a freudian. I’m not sure the anxiety she describes necessarily defines our current culture and the relationship that anxiety has with capitalism seems to me to be a stretch. Certainly the market has given us choice in many domains, but since our capitalism is not pure, we often loose choice through the domination, aided by government de-regulation, of a domain by a bad-actor corporation or small set of colluding corporations; for example the media and telecommunications industries.

But it isn’t the overwhelming choices that lead to anxiety, it is a shallowness of character that seems to be so prevalent in western culture. Perhaps it has been that way in every culture, though. When our choices are driven not by our internal principles and beliefs, but by externally dominated deterministic structures, we are left with the anxiety Salecl describes. It seems to me that when we have a rich internal life of the mind, our choices are most obviously our own. In more developed psyches, that is, ones driven by internalized principles and beliefs, the kind of anxiety Salecl describes does not appear, or at the very least, does not seem debilitating.

So what does this mean for the point of the talk? Social Change is available as a choice only to those who are secure in their own beliefs. The loss that Salecl describes as one of the central factors in generating anxiety is only real loss in people whose beliefs are not secure. It is not a loss at all for individuals with deep characters, those whose beliefs are internally generated. How can we as a society aid in the process of creating more deeply grounded individuals? This question is central to any democracy. What we are describing is the ideal of democratic citizenry. One of the primary ways we can make better citizens is through education. But it is not education as many people see it currently. The debate right now regarding the role of higher education in the US is almost always centered on the idea of job preparation. But this is only one aspect of education, especially higher education. The rest of what we do when we teach students in colleges and universities includes teaching critical thinking and the development of aesthetic judgment in our students. The tools of analytic, synthetic, and evaluative thought are at the core of what a successful college student walks away with (consider Bloom’s Taxonomy). They are the tools of a rich internal life and good citizen. The question for me is, how can we push these skills down to the level of secondary education in the US? One thing I am certain will not lead to this is increased standardized testing. Unfortunately, looks like our politicians have not gotten the memo on that…


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