On Desire and The Good Life

When I began to draft this piece, a viral article titled “The 20 Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make in Your 20′s” was blowing up my newsfeed. It was published by Elite Daily, a blog that markets itself as “The Voice of Generation Y” and produces content that I think of as digital vomit. The list is prefaced: “Your 20s compose undoubtedly the most pivotal time in your life. While there are plenty of temptations and distractions, the decisions you make here are truly what dictate your future, as the weak fail and only the strong survive.” The “mistakes” that it cautions 20-something year olds against making include “thinking that this is the right time to fall in love” (number 19) and “holding on to friends that waste your time and add no value to your life” (number 5). Each of these dictums is accompanied by a paternalistic elaboration admonishing the pitfalls of the mistake that it tells us to avoid.

While some are relatively vanilla aphorisms that even the contrarians among us can only concede as unequivocally stupid moves (e.g. “not wrapping it before tapping it”), most of them are ideological constructions passed off as self-evident truths. In prescribing how we should go about pursuing a good life, they take one contingent paradigm of personal success for granted as The Good Life, foreclosing the infinite multiplicity of forms that our individual desires can take. These rules presuppose that investing in our human capital is our raison d’etre and bid us to pursue this secular end with a pseudo-religious spirit of discipline and self-denial. Seizing our twenties as the decade to “hustle, scrap, and fight” in order to “cash out big” in the future is a viable way to make the most of these years, but under what discursive regime is it intelligible as the only way to do so? And in what discourse is the uninterrogated presupposition that we have to “make the most” of our twenties grounded?

The Elite Daily’s financial terminology infused language is symptomatic of the means through which market ideology governs our self-relation. We have been so thoroughly steeped in the logic of neoliberal capitalism that we have come to accept the excessive demands that it makes of us as inexorable facts of life. In framing “your love life” as “an investment” which “should have a solid ROI,” Elite Daily takes the premise of human capital to its logical limit. The obscene notion that the most human aspect of our lives—one whose irrationality renders it impervious to the market’s modus operandi—can and should be functionalized into yet another process of capital accumulation is the degree zero of neoliberalism. With much ado over corporations being granted the legal status of persons in recent years, the converse should alarm us just as much, if not more.

When we pursue even our deepest personal connections based on their potential for generating future returns, we become entrepreneurs of our selves. Understanding and relating to the self as enterprise is the paradigmatic mode of existence under the neoliberal system. Formulated as a categorical imperative, making the most of the self is justified as an end in itself. What is so perverse about this form of subjectification is not just that it obliges the subject to devote her time and energy to fueling the machinery of capital accumulation, but that it makes her believe that she wants to do so. Neoliberalism conflates the pursuit of her individual self-interest with the market’s demand for her to compete, to the effect that doing her duty becomes virtually indistinguishable from following her desire.

Like the majority of Amherst students whose high school lives revolved around gaining­ admission to an “elite” undergraduate institution, I went through my teenage years subscribing to the pay-your-dues rhetoric of the Elite Daily post. What was important to me wasn’t so much what I wanted to achieve or why I wanted it (who had time to think about that?), but that I get ahead in pursuit of the abstract, homogeneous notion of success that I had internalized as my own desire. I had some undeveloped notion that I wanted to work in public interest in law, either as a criminal prosecutor or, if I dared to get really fanciful, an international human rights lawyer. In truth, however, the material difference that my prospective career would make to the world was secondary to its signification of my optimized potential.

My relationship to time was such that I sacrificed enjoyment of the present in the name of some elusive redemption that continuously receded into the horizon. I partitioned my days into exacting increments, leaving little unstructured time for leisure and personal fulfillment. Though my exhaustion and stress sent me spiraling into a vicious cycle of chronic insomnia and anxiety, I believed that my self-imposed regimen was doing me good because my discipline would eventually “pay off.” But what do we work for, if not for the very leisure and fulfillment that I was forgoing in the name of this infinitely deferred payoff? Had I taken the time to self-reflect, I might have intuited that the movement between pay-your-dues and reap-the-returns is not forward, but in a loop that perpetuates and negates itself in one and the same motion.

In hindsight, my college application decisions make it clear that I had no idea what I was pushing myself to work so hard for. I applied to programs as pre-professional as Wharton and campuses as urban as Columbia. Amherst was the only liberal arts school on my list and it was only on my radar because of its U.S. News ranking. I am the last to say that “everything happens for a reason,” but I do feel very fortunate and grateful that I emerged from the crapshoot of the college admissions and selection process at an institution that gave me access to educators who have profoundly influenced not only the way I think, but the way I live.

It’s easy to become disillusioned with liberal arts institutions’ (over)use of “critical thinking” as a catch-all phrase for the nebulous skills that their programs supposedly equip us with when the job market demands increasing specialization and technical proficiency. In my experience, however, this invaluable capacity is truly there for our taking–and it does not have to be reserved for the academic exercise of analyzing far-off objects and phenomena that have little relevance to our day-to-day lives. It’s inconceivable that we spend four years developing our capacity to think critically just to become expert at deconstructing the gendered structure of kinship in the indigenous population of Papua New Guinea. At their best, the modes of thinking that we adopt at Amherst are not “lenses” that we shed upon exiting the classroom, but motors that continuously drive us to question and challenge the assumptions that comprise, and circumscribe, our lived reality. With our extensive training in the critical practice of foregrounding projects by justifying their “relevance” and “urgency,” we leave low-hanging fruit to rot if we allow the most relevant and urgent of questions to go unexamined.

Hardly the type of matter that can be resolved once and for all, what we want in life is a question that requires our sustained attention. Seldom is it more pressing, however, than during the transitional period when our nascent ability to think critically aligns with the anticipation of our imminent departure from all that we’ve ever known. What we think we want as we venture out of the structured yet autonomous realm of student life can have irrevocable implications on the direction that our adult lives will take. Why should we treat this all-important question with any less diligence than we do those to which we’ve devoted countless hours of rigorous analysis for our coursework? Following Second Wave Feminism, we can hardly divorce the personal from the political in good conscience. It is impossible to pose the question of personal desire without simultaneously invoking its ethical subtext: what does it mean to lead a good life?

If we keep our own lives cordoned off from critical inquiry, we betray the ideas to which we paid lip service in the ivory tower. Once we leave academia, we are no longer affirmed for our ability to wield these ideas in an intellectual vacuum, but they continue to inform us if we muster the audacity and the imagination to marshal them in pursuit of a good life. My claim that it takes audacity to do something that seems so banal and even self-centered undoubtedly reads more than a little melodramatic. However, it takes a great deal of irreverence to say fuck that to all of the superegoic voices enjoining us to conform our desires to the instrumental logic of neoliberalism. It takes a great deal of courage to think clearly and critically through moments of fear and crisis, and it takes a great deal of audacity to define and pursue a good life on our own terms.

The Good Life, as defined on the Elite Daily’s terms, is off-limits to our generation for the duration of our twenties. It is dangled before us as an illusory carrot that we are supposed to chase with an intensity that redoubles the purifying energy of the Protestant work ethic that originally fueled the rise of capitalism. The Elite Daily list’s moral framework conflates labor with virtue, recapitulating the narrative that eternal salvation can be attained through hard work in a contemporary register that disavows its archaic origin and renders it tenable to us: a generation that is identified–and identifies itself–with the profaning thrust of modernism. If we are truly as modern as we would like to think ourselves, then the notion that labor is a transcendent good in and of itself should strike us as anachronistic and even reactionary.

Work is only good for us insofar as what we work for is good. If alienation ensues when we feel foreign to the products of our own labor, then perhaps its antithesis is a mode of labor that reconciles our selves by serving as a means through which we can (re)claim our capacity to desire. Following Lacan’s reading of Antigone, the capacity to desire and to persist in our desire, even when doing so goes beyond the pleasure principle (i.e. comes at the cost of what is known as “rational self-interest” under market liberalism), is the essence of being human. It goes without saying that outside the diegesis of Greek tragedy, transgressing all of civilization’s constraints and forsaking life itself in fidelity to a singular desire is not perceived as ethical, but monomaniacal. However, we do not have to shoulder the impossible burden of embodying radical resistance to the entire system as such for this allegory to inform our pursuit of a good life. If our definitions of a good life include any semblance of material security and comfort, then pursuing them will inevitably require us to, at times, yield our desires to rational self-interest. Without holding ourselves to the poetic ideal of pure desire, we can still channel it in the humble project of developing a livable relationship to our selves and our given circumstances. Even when these circumstances compel us to do work that wears us down and gives us little to no joy, we do not have to take the Elite Daily’s word that such drudgery is in accordance with our desires. If we interrogate the neoliberal injunction to understand and relate to ourselves as interchangeable enterprises that only exist to compete in the playing field of the market, and think soberly and critically about what we desire, then we empower ourselves to claim what makes us essentially and indispensably human.

“On Desire and The Good Life,” written by Alice Wang ’13, was originally published to two split subjects on February 9, 2014.