Thursday, May 04, 2006

Desire and Happiness

Freud’s pessimism about happiness may be viewed in the context of a tradition, especially among Continental thinkers, that expresses reservations about, and even hostility towards, the concept of happiness. Zizek argues that happiness in political discourse is ‘inherently hypocritical’. The demand to fulfil numerous social rights is not only an impossible one, but those who demand them do not really wish them to be realized. The power to make such demands assuages the social conscience of those who make them and exposes the impotence of ‘the Master’; whereas, the meeting of such political demands would confront privileged intellectuals and critics with the threat of genuine popular liberty and equality, and thus undermine their positions of privilege. But his analysis of ‘happiness’ seems inconsistent, as he also says: ‘[in countries] like Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s and 1980s, people actually were in a way happy’, in part because they were dreaming of things they could not have (1) – revealing perhaps a nostalgia for the period prior to the transformation to capitalism.

Zizek’s thoughts derive from the psychoanalytical tradition of Freud and Lacan, and hence this introduces the theory of desire, which is pertinent to understanding happiness. As Lacan (2) described it, desire emerges with our entry into the symbolic order. While all organisms have unconditional needs for various objects as a matter of survival and reproduction, humans acquire the necessary skill of asking for what is needed. Speech thus creates an unbridgeable gap between a pre-existing network of signifiers (by means of which we negotiate the terms of our relations with others) and inner drives and needs. In humans, then, satiable need re-presents itself as open-ended desire.

In thinking, then, of relations between people and commodities, happiness as ‘good feelings’ that arise from the ‘satisfaction of needs and wants’ is insufficient in the light of a theory of desire. The goal of marketing, for instance, is to make of the mundane ‘need-satisfying’ commodity an object-cause of desire, a condition of access to enjoyment (sex, status, etc.). It must have that X-factor, ‘the Real Thing’ that constitutes ‘something in it more than itself’. Production and consumption under advanced capitalism are premised upon the ceaseless and unbalanced search for growth, innovation and ever-new objects of desire that serve to incite Desire per se. Capitalism’s reigning discourse, in Lacanian terms, is that of the hysteric: ‘this vicious circle of a desire, whose apparent satisfaction widens the gap of dissatisfaction . . . [or] as in capitalism, where a growth of production to fill out the lack, only increases the lack’. (3)

Capitalism, rather than providing for happiness and satisfaction, manufactures an ever-widening field of desire, and innovative ways in which commodities create invidious distinctions, and hence ever-widening gulfs of resentment, dissatisfaction and anxiety. While happiness blandly evokes the pleasure principle, the ‘organization of enjoyment’ (jouissance) underlying the injunction ‘consume!’ (or ‘desire more!’) cannot be equated with unalloyed pleasure. Instead, it is predicated upon envy and upon the anxiety that accompanies not having something. The fantasy of happiness may help to sustain our desire in a capitalist economy, but it is in the very nature of the desiring subject not to satisfy desire. (As Proust puts it: ‘every paradise is a paradise lost’.)

A Lacanian psychoanalytical account of the politics of happiness would base itself on the notion of the constitutive role of ‘lack’: the idea that existence and identity are founded upon a negativity that cannot be represented symbolically, and that must be repressed in the interests of the coherence of the symbolic order and of the imaginary constructs of self and community. Symbolic systems of identity formation, including broader social institutions such as political ideologies, seek to construct an illusion of completeness or universality, focused upon a ‘master-signifier’, such as Liberty or Equality, that acts like a ‘quilting-point’ in the field of discourse. This serves to exclude elements that may erupt to disturb the impression of universality – but this exclusion is violent in origin and must be disavowed or repressed. From this kind of theory, Happiness would simply be viewed as another master-signifier, necessarily masking the foundational violent act. It would not be hard to identify retrospectively what was excluded through a political discourse of Happiness in an affluent society, by pointing to phenomena like depression and addiction, or by balancing the wealth of the North against the poverty of the South. For social critics who argue that the affluent society has failed to maximize human happiness, the most disturbing revelation would be that there is really no ‘obstacle’ to a happier society – because there is no such thing to aim for. The enjoyment of these critics is thus invested in their identification of these very ‘obstacles’ (materialism, competitiveness, SUV owners, etc.) because these are the images that sustain the fantasy of a happiness-to-come.

1. Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real (London: Verso, 2002), pp. 58–60.

2. J. Lacan, Écrits: A Selection (London: Routledge, 2001).

3. S. Zizek, ‘Eastern Europe’s Republics of Gilead’, New Left Review, 1/183 (1990), pp. 50–62, p. 60.


Anonymous Amanda said...

I am unconvinced with the regard to the linkages sought - in any society, whether socialist (where the foundational desire is "social"), or capitalist (where the foundational desire is "capital") - between happiness and desire. Rather, my reflections tend toward the relationship of satisfaction of need (warmth, shelter, nutritious food, clean water, companionship) with moderation or absence of threat. The "politics of happiness" appear to reflect the "politics of safety" - our fears are manipulated, with both society, and/or goods & services becoming tools. Those who "hang with the crowd" feel safer (perpetuating the dominant culture), those in the SUV feel safer than those in the Smart Car (alas, short term personal safety exceeds reason with regard to long term endangerment). Those with friends in high places feel safer than Marx's proletariat ever could (except as a social mass; large, revolutionary and thus gaining power); and those with enough money to push the masses away feel safer than the child dwelling under a bridge in Sao Paulo (who has not the money or mass to be safe). I would argue that "happiness" speaks to the fulfilment of needs, not desires - with the need to feel/be safe accounted for. Desire is, in itself, the politic in the equation - perhaps Comte would remark, that it is a technology - socially constructed - for political and moral purposes.

1:42 pm  
Blogger Grant Duncan said...

Good thought, A man da. You may also like to see the essay After Happiness, which you can find on my massey profile.

10:41 pm  

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