choice, Ida Hiršenfelder

narrator Ida Hiršenfelder
term choice
affiliated institution MG+MSUM

I think of choice on the premises of three instances. One is the multiplication of choices by the emancipatory movements. The next is the choice as a smokescreen in late capitalism that uses the imperative of choosing your own identity to conceal the inability to have any impact on mitigating systemic violence. The other is the choice the computer system makes for you when delegating information on the premises of previous search queries. The first, according to Salecl, produces a deep sense of inadequacy and anxiety as the social situation of a person cannot change the political structure or the social context. I'd like to think about how these two instances inform the radicalisation of beliefs at present and induce a particular mass hysteria that is contrary to the historical cases (witch-hunt, Nacizm, the great Chinese cultural revolution). The current mass hysteria is fragmented but no less detrimental as it produces echo chambers that have just as strong a delusional impact on a person's sense of reality as the historic examples. It is to be expected that the present delusions will be more difficult to unravel as we cannot expect redemption (such as denazification or Socialism with Chinese characteristics) in the aftermath unless the whole information system is radically restructured.


From the perspective of politics before social media, the policies that enable conditions that support multiple choices are the pinnacle of political evolution and a great civilisational achievement. At the core of the project of emancipatory movements has been the question of freedom (of the non-normative body: the female body, the body of colour, the body with a disability, the ungendered body, …). And this in practice plays out as a multiplication of choices. That is, you are not given only a limited number of choices but the liberty to think and conceive a choice not existing before like Maja has displayed nicely yesterday, it is not the choice to be a mother or not, but to think motherness in a completely different way, or Khyam Allami in the interview that it is not the choices you make in the creative process but the choice to create a new tool with which you can make choices that did not exist before. And this emancipatory projects however conflictual, violent, painful they are (for example the pro-choice fight in Poland or the LGBT struggle in Uganda), belong to the logical political processes that are based on historical precedences and evolve, despite the twists and setbacks, in a rather linear way toward legislative changes that multiply the existing limited choices. At the same time, we cannot neglect that the idea of a self-made individual, who is allowed to see one’s own life as a series of options and possible transformations is placed in a consumer capitalist backdrop. 


So the choices are never free but conditioned by a sociopolitical situation. Exactly 10 years ago Renata Salecl in her book on Choice pointed out that the idea of choosing who we want to be and the imperative to 'become yourself' have begun to work against us, making us more anxious rather than giving us more freedom. She also points out that the process of choosing is not rational but more often than not an emotional process. For example, human beings don't always act in their interest even when they know what that is. An irrational decision is for example an act of charity, altruism, compassion that is not based on self-interest. However, this emotional aspect of choosing becomes twisted when infused by consumerism. Choice brings a sense of overwhelming responsibility into play, and this induces fear of failure, a feeling of guilt, and anxiety that regret will follow if we have made the wrong choice.


What has changed since Salecl has written on Choice in 2010 is the emergence of hyper-irrationality and the unconscious reign of artificial intelligence that stirs our decision making and it has twisted all the achievements of the emancipatory movement in the most shocking way to the so-called “normies”, as Angela Nagle calls the traditional, rational, moderate political subjects from the left political spectrum. She points out examples of identity fluidity that exercise the right to fragility and vulnerability proposed by the LGBTQ movement. Only that, some members of the young generation have shifted fragility from empathetic to the pathetic. For years, the microblogging site filled up with stories of young people explaining and discussing the entirely socially constructed nature of gender and potentially limitless choice of genders that an individual can identify as or move between. To this point, all seems in place but a peek into a specific identity can become an imaginary slippery slope. Nagel copies a list of genders identified in Tumblr subcultures such as "cadensgender" – a gender that is easily influenced by music; aimogender – a gender closely related to demons and the supernatural; genderale – a gender that is mainly associated with plants, herbs and liquids. And while we are making kin with other-than-human in an attempt to promote an open and non-restrictive cohabitation, the trouble with such gender fluidities is that they are being anything but fluid, they are essentialist with the same zealous rigour that one would find in alt-right online discussions. The awareness of intersecting marginalizations and oppressions promoted the discussions about safe spaces, the me too, the use of suitable gender pronouns but at the same time, the recognition of diversity overshadowed economic inequalities. Also, in reverse, the alt-right has in the past 10 years adopted the strategies of the emancipatory movements (for example a right-wing politician referencing their freedom of speech when using racist remarks). I still find it baffling how acute the irrationality of some of the online subcultures can be but what is downright frightening is that the subcultures are no longer hidden in some obscure corner of the Internets but have emerged into the mainstream political currents, most obviously with the riot in the US capital in January this year. 


The problem is the virus. Not the one that dictates our lives in the past year but the one that has been dictating most of our decisions on information about the world since the coding of the semantic web 2.0. It is the viral process that is inscribed in social media. The virality hailed by the Arab revolutions resulting in war and unrest. Any query we make online is informed by our past searches and this results in an information echo chamber that is responsible for the radicalisation of beliefs on all political spectrums. It results in tribalism in more or less mystical rites, in that safe feeling of belonging, in the warm accepting embrace of coherence, in the mutual concurrence. But when this soft tribal bubble faces another tribe one has to defend it with all belligerent force. We would all like to have the feeling of control over the choices we are making the sense of autonomy. Unfortunately, the way the code is written is informed by the use of manipulative consumer market strategies that spilled from the economic sphere to the sphere of ideology. What is to be done is to decolonise AI not only in the sense of reprogramming the algorithmic biases based on the racial injustice but also to propose another non-viral form of information rhizomatic structures that do not single out preference according to habits. The way to do this now is not what the traditional media is trying to do to reference truth and correct controlled information but on the contrary to introduce in the code a lot more randomness and unpredictability that would offer a lot more open and versatile information stream.

Salecl, Renata. 2010. Choice. London: Profile Books.

Nagle, Angela. 2017. Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right. Winchester, Washington: Zero Books.