People in capitalist (and possibly other?) societies confuse feelings of necessity with desire. They think: “I want to do this thing” when, in reality, what they feel is closer to “I have to do these things in order to move towards what I want.” This distinction between the ways of living that may suffuse us with a sense of fulfillment and actions that move us towards some chimeric, perpetually delayed fulfillment is key. It’s the distinction between the economy of desire that we want and the economy of instrumental action which we mistake for desire. Instrumental actions are a matter of complexity—we have incidental needs or cravings, which are not immediately attainable. We strategically forebear from grappling with desire as extraneous concerns proliferate in our lives. Getting past this mass of incidental concerns masquerades for the real work of our lives.
Consumption is a metaphor for this state of affairs. Ownership is a personal way to feeling that we are moving towards the fulfillment of our desires, because consumption does not require ongoing engagement with other people or the world. Possessions are instruments for purging our cravings. The economy of consumption does not ask that I interrogate my notion of self through my relationship to everything else. It’s a tautology: “I want this device because I want it.” I buy this object in order to extinguish my desire for it, to let something (what is this something?) consume my desire. I want in order to not want. But then I want again. So, where does it end? We think that the satisfaction of craving should also yield a sense that our desires have been fulfilled. We never stop desiring. Status seeking takes on an inordinate role in social relationships. Through status, we make the people around us instruments towards a personal “fulfillment” centered on the alleviation of short-term needs and cravings. At the very least, we make sure they won’t stand in our way.
Notions of “personal fulfillment” are near the root of the problem. Our ideas of fulfillment always feed back into our notions of the autonomous subject. When I take a shit job as a “first step” down my “career path,” I mistake structure for choice. I tell myself that I have dived willfully into a stream that, I believe, will draw me ineluctably towards the fulfillment of my desires. But at that moment, I am not fulfilled—in the proper sense of the word, which connotes completeness, fullness, a sense of having attained the heights of my life. I have not satisfied my deeper desires, which I am not even capable of pinpointing because fulfillment is “personal”—it’s not something that I can satisfy through my engagement with the world and the activities of living socially. Fulfillment is a private activity. It’s not a thing that I can point to. It’s something that exists through its participation in some being that I am told I already possess. “I”consume. But “I” can’t be satisfied with consumption because I desire. Consumption beclouds desire by temporarily extinguishing cravings and incidental, contingent, short-term needs.
Nowadays, you hear a lot of talk about how technology and other forces have to engendered an unprecedented level of choice in partnering that hasn’t been matched by progress in relational living. I think this seeming paradox is a misinterpretation of the problem. We feel that we live in a world of relational possibility. We can move to new places. Daily life is less formal than it once was, and people can express themselves publicly in ways that were inconceivable fifty years ago. Queer people can meet more easily. The emergence of frank, public discussions of sexuality is one example of this phenomenon. But we model our approach to enhanced possibilities for living together on instrumental choice. We have more potential partners, but the idea that we “choose” our partners and social circles often frustrates the actual crystallization of new relationships by depriving the process of spontaneity, attraction, and eroticism. This is why Internet dating sites can be problematic. Relationships develop spontaneously. We are born without any self-consciousness into relationships with our parents and family. Choice undermines the foundations of preexisting relationships by making it thinkable that the people in our lives are dispensable. Forming a relationship becomes a process of making other people “choose” us while we “choose” other people. We may choose partners without the emotions and desires to back up our choices.
Consumption—not just of things, but of people and experiences—makes us believe that craving is desire, and this desire for a thing is sufficient to satisfy us. All I have to do is to capture the object of my craving and to insert it into my life or remold it as an instrument of fulfillment. These assumptions are central to modern romantic relationships, which, like objects, become vehicles for a fulfillment that is felt to be hidden inside of ourselves. But conflicts between relationships as instruments and other objects of incidental craving often develop. If my personal fulfillment is what’s at stake in the world, then I am justified in doing whatever I need to move towards an unattainable regime of perpetually satisfied desire. I can leave my parents, my friends, my partner because I must invest myself in my career, which promises a greater chance at personal fulfillment than any relationship. The idea of a generalized “personal fulfillment” based on a notion of the self as the central actor in a drama of autonomous interiority allows us to trivialize relationships.
Everyone is doing this at the same time, which reinforces the calculus of instrumental action geared towards a personal cremation of craving. Is it possible to reorient notions of fulfillment on institutions and ideas that are properly social or relational? Can we say what exactly we all desire?
"Life’s too short to drink crappy coffee and cry over boys who don’t care."
Matty Healy (the 1975)
Wish I could take this advice to heart.
The world doesn’t feel like enough to me, which is silly because I’ve had so little of it.
Black people sold drugs and went to jail. Now, white people are selling drugs and getting rich.
The US is taking a more lenient stance on drugs these days, especially marijuana, and that’s wonderful for recreational users, non-violent criminals, and taxpayers. I don’t know many people who want their tax dollars wasted to fight an unwinnable war on drugs when that money could go toward other issues. Still, enforcement of drug legislation has laid waste to two generations of black men — shouldn’t the government recognize that?