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Renata Salecl

Choosing a mate like choosing a car

Some time ago, I remember reading an article in The New York Times about the anxiety American’s experience when they need to choose their electricity provider. The article explained how the last 20 years were dominated by ideology that people would be happier and better off if they were constantly shopping for the best deals. On the one hand we thus got a huge emergence of new products, manufacturers and providers to choose from, but on the other hand the idea of choice also became an end in itself. Some social scientists started to talk about the “tyranny of freedom” in today’s world, since consumers are forced to make choice even on things they never envisioned they can have any power over (and did not even want to have) – an example here is the choice of the electricity provider. As the New York Times article claims, this choice has incited quite an anxiety on the side of the consumers. However, it is crucial that “the anxiety over energy is exposing something even deeper in human wiring”. It is not only that people do not want to constantly be perceived as autonomous, rational consumers, “when it comes to electricity, a mysterious and dangerous thing that is also the foundation of modern living, Americans are just a little afraid to be alone.” People are supposedly anxious for two reasons, first, it seems that no one seems to be in charge in society anymore, and, second, the freedom of choice actually does not give more power to the consumers, but to corporations. A person shopping around on the Internet for the best price of a product, for example, gives corporations a chance to collect valuable data about consumer’s desires and spending habits. Anxiety provoking for people therefore seems to be both that no one seems to be in control, and that someone (the corporations) is in charge in a hidden way.
When people speak about anxiety today, they also invoke the idea that they are now asked to make choices in regard to their sexuality, marriage, childbearing that did not used to be regarded as choices in the past. But the more choices there are, the more it can seem possible to achieve an ideal result in every case. This seems to be the case not only for people who are continually changing their long-distance telephone service in hope that they will find the best deal, but also for those that are searching for the love partner. That is why some claim that love is especially anxiety provoking today. When dominant ideology promotes that even love is a matter of choice, one gets impression that one can either incite passions on the side of another (if one closely follows the step-by-step guide how to “light his or her fire”) or prevent falling out of love with someone (probably by using some other techniques on how to douse the fire). People often perceive their love partner to be just another commodity they need to carefully select. Choosing a partner looks similar to buying a car: the person is supposed to check the qualities of the desired object, get professional advice, insure him or herself with prenuptial agreement, search for repair-help in marriage counseling, replace old with new, or instead of bothering with “buying” the object just go for temporary leasing.