Desire and Happiness
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.