Friday, January 24, 2014

Are we Happy, Yet?

In psychoanalysis, the betrayal of desire has a precise name: happiness. When, exactly, can people be said to be happy? In a country like Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s and 1980s, people actually were in a way happy: three fundamental conditions of happiness were fullfilled there.
1. Their material needs were basically satisfied - not too well satisfied, since the excess of consumption can in itself generate unhappiness. It is good to experience a brief shortage of some goods on the market from time to time (no coffee for a couple of days, then no beef, then no TV sets): these brief periods of shortage functioned as exceptions which reminded the people that they should be glad that such goods were generally available - if everything is available all the time, people take this availability as an evident fact of life, and no longer appreciate their luck. This life went on in a regular and predictable way, without any great efforts or shocks; one was allowed to withdraw into one's own private world.

2. A Second - extremely important - feature: there was the Other (the Party) to be blamed for everything that went wrong, so that one did not feel truly responsible - if there was a temporary shortage of some goods, even if a storm caused great damage, it was 'their' fault.

3. And - last, but not least - there was an Other Place (the Consumerist West) which one was allowed to dream about, and even visit sometimes - this place was just at the right distance: not too far away, not too near.
This fragile balance was disturbed - by what? By desire, precisely. Desire was the force which compelled the people to go further - and end up in a system in which the vast majority are definitely less happy.

Happiness is thus - to put it in Alain Badiou's terms - not a category of truth, but a category of mere Being, and, as such, confused, indeterminate, inconsistent (take the proverbial answer of a German Immigrant to the USA who, asked: 'Are you happy?', answered: 'Yes, yes I am very happy, aber glucklich bin ich nicht...). It is a pagan concept: for pagans, the goal of life is to be happy (the idea of living 'happily ever after' is a Christianized version of paganism), and religious experience and political activity are considered the highest forms of happiness (see Aristotle) - no wonder the Dalai Lama has had such success recently preaching the gospel of happiness around the world, and no wonder he is finding the greatest response precisely in the USA, the ultimate empire of the (pursuit of) happiness... In short, 'happiness' belongs to the pleasure principle, and what undermines it is the insistence of a Beyond of the pleasure principle.
- Slavok Zizek, "Welcome to the Desert of the Real"

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