Confession of a postmodern child

This is an article I wrote for BLOGMA, the online presence of the Museum of Postmodern Art by the artist collective Oblivia of which I am a member. It is inspired by Oblivia's reflection on what kind of -ism do we live in now that the postmodern era has come to an end. But of course it is also connected to the trilogy of performances that I'm working on right now around the topic of decision taking. To read more about BLOGMA, click here.

I have to make a confession. I belief myself to be a true child of the postmodern era. I also have to admit that postmodernism was already over by the time I first heard its name and started to intellectually understand it, but it seems it seeped into my subconscious, my very being all throughout my life for I find it difficult to escape the postmodern view on the world. Nonetheless, I have come to accept that this era is over and not wanting to be held prisoner in its mausoleum, I hereby would like to proclaim a new era. I call it choicism.

Two authors who have recently influenced me are Hannah Arendt and Renata Salecl. In the following I'd like to use their help in an attempt to grasp some of the characteristics of our times and to formulate what I call choicism.

Reading Hannah Arendt's very inspiring Vita activa I got particularly interested in the idea of people becoming visible in a community through their actions and words. According to Arendt being seen means to create an identity for oneself, being a part of a group, becoming vulnerable - to exist in what she calls the Miteinander, human togetherness. The action of entering into the Miteinander presupposes an initiative, a decision. The decision to act in a certain way and not in another. 

In order to become visible as human beings, we have to let go of all the other options we have in becoming visible and choose just this one. However, the possibilities we are faced with seem endless. Whether we stand in front of a supermarket shelf full of an abundance of cheeses like Renata Salecl in her Tyranny of Choice or whether we stand at the crossroads of educational, professional or private paths, there is always a dilemma: how to decide? Brie or Cheddar? Study or work? Coffee or tea? Beach holiday or city trip? Bike or bus? Marry that one or wait for someone better? Every single moment of our lives we take a decision. Thousands of decisions every day... And no matter how big or small the impact of the decision on our lives, the act of deciding goes hand in hand with anxiety. We're afraid of taking the wrong decision. We're afraid of not getting it right. We're afraid that there's still something better, that we don't know all the consequences. The anxiety of taking the wrong decision can be so extreme that a person is totally unable to take a decision. But even if you don't suffer from this serious personality disorder, you might be familiar with the anxiety of taking a decision.

So let's try to break this down, in good old postmodern fashion. The anxiety of taking the wrong decision resides in the interdependence of choice and responsibility. Or at least the interdependence we have come to accept: Because we have a choice, we are also responsible for our destiny. This truly humanist thought for which I am grateful to Erasmus of Rotterdam has a philosophical appeal against all kinds of religious determinism. But the sword of the free will has turned against us in the age of choicism. 

We have not only come to accept that we have a choice in anything, we even demand it. Even in areas of our lives in which we have no expertise, we demand to have the last say. The expert's opinion is welcome as guidance, preferable still is a second opinion but the decision must be ours. Now, if we are so much in charge of our lives, and if we can choose ourselves from all the possibilities around us, then why aren't we happy? Why? Isn't it all our choice? the burnout and the depression? the status anxiety and the loneliness? Well yes, it is our choice and choicism tells us we made the wrong choice. Next time it'll have to be a better choice, the right decision. And how do we cope to get over these reoccurring disappointments of false decisions? We read self-help books and go to yoga classes. Here we learn to accept. Accept that it's difficult at work right now. Accept that we have to cope alone right now. Accept it all like we accept that it's difficult to stay in this shoulder stand. But by practicing we will accept the pain, and we accept our imperfect lives. It is interesting that a discipline like yoga - coming from a country which still has a rigid class system! - is so apt at making us functioning decision-makers in the mechanism of choicism: with its help the focus turns on us, the decision-makers, and helps us accept unfair behaviour of others as our own inaptitude, stress as our own weaknesses, and emotional distress as our own fault. The risk of choicism is this: it fills the world with self-criticism and empties it of social criticism. If you are forced to leave your home country Greece in search for work abroad, it is your own fault because poverty is not social injustice, it is the consequence of your choices. 

Freud wrote about Neurosenwahl. The unconscious choice of how we are reacting to the world, the choice of our neurosis. Like in Arendt there is an "other" of which we are part but also apart. This "other" can be many things, other people, the Miteinander or social constructs or put more poetically the "world". However we define it, it is something we can influence only modestly, even if we depend on it to become visible as human beings. This is one problem I see with choicism. It ignores the fact that there are things which we cannot influence. On the contrary, choicism gives the false impression that we can control all aspects of our lives. As a consequence we strive to optimise our careers, our relationships and our bodies. Fighting this "other" in cases where it seems unfair or unjust is maybe just an expression of anger and displeasure but it also means taking the risk to become visible again as human beings in a Miteinander. Riots, demonstrations, the occupy movements are expressions of that political act. At their basis are strong emotions, anger, dissatisfaction, aggression. Again, the mechanism of choicism tries to put the blame on us. We just have to learn to control (manage!) our negative feelings. We can choose not to be angry (again, yoga and anger management books can help us with this). It almost makes sense because after all, who wants to have negative feelings? Instead, we can choose to be happy! But in order to do that we have to ignore the fact that feelings are by their nature non-rational and uncontrollable.

Maybe we're all children of the postmodern era whether we want it or not. Tied up in the endless possibilities of relativism... But there is maybe also potential in choicism. Because also at the entrance of the human into the Miteinander is a decision. The paradox about choicism seems therefore that it is based on an unwillingness of changing the Miteinander and at the same time on the absolute need to constantly change on an individual level. Recreating ourselves to better fit the unchanging Miteinander. If we can channel some of that determination with which we reinvent ourselves with every decision to attempts at changing the world, choicism could be quite an -ism!

So, do we damn choicism or acclaim it? The choice, I guess, is ours.

Text & Photo Martina Marti

The author is a dedicated yoga practitioner.

The name "choicism" has nothing to do with the information portal for students of the University of Cape Coast in Ghana which comes up when you google the term.

Hannah Arendt: The Human Condition

Renata Salecl: Tyranny of Choice


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