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Being Good at Being Oneself: Renata Salecl and the Ontology of Anxiety

Review of Renata Salecl, On Anxiety (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 172 pp., ISBN-10: 0415312760 [ISBN-13: 978-0415312769].

David B. Olsen

Renata Salecl, On Anxiety, cover image
Other Voices, 4.1 Aesthetic Violence
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To say that we live in an “age of anxiety” is simply to say that we are living. Although this epochal designation is often reserved for periods following international crises or after the advent of new and brutal technologies, the condition of anxiety is much more fundamentally and interminably human—akin, in some respects, to both awaiting and unknowing. For many, anxiety is often experienced as a looming something that has no thing: fear without object. In turn, this fear engenders the interrogation of itself as such; we become anxious when we are afraid of our fear, inasmuch as we don’t quite know why we are afraid. I may be afraid, for example, of a future terrorist attack, but I am anxious about the current threat level, which vacillates between unspeaking shades of yellow, orange, and red. At what color should I begin being afraid, and of what? Curiously—yet in much the same way—I also become anxious when I order books online; I’m never afraid that they won’t arrive, but I tend to agonize over the precise temporal location of “7-14 business days.” I end up worrying about when this is, exactly, and then I worry about why I’m so worried about this.

It is in the spirit of these disparate instantiations of anxiety that Renata Salecl has composed On Anxiety, her contribution to Routledge’s celebrated Thinking in Action series. By addressing the anxiety that attends everything from motherhood to love to war, On Anxiety reveals intersections which prove that anxiety knows no age. Salecl maintains, however, that it is not the lack of an object that induces anxiety, but the intrusion of an object where one has come to expect a lack itself: “Anxiety emerges when at the place of the lack one encounters a certain object, which perturbs the fantasy frame through which the subject assessed reality” (24). For Salecl, the lacks that we come to expect are emblematic of our relationship with the big Other, which—in Lacan’s famous formulation—is both inconsistent and castrating, in the sense that the subject must draw his or her authority by acceding to its symbolic strictures. The recognition of a lack, therefore, is not so much frightening as it is inconvenient and unavoidable. When an object replaces the lack, however—such as, in my case, a colored threat level or vague waiting period for books—it is the unexpected arrival of this object that causes anxiety. It would seem, therefore, that our anxieties might be limited to instances, exceptions, or events. But when we remember that, for Lacan, the subject invariably inaugurates his or her own lack by speaking, we find that anxiety is a fundamental symptom of sociality, particularly in the degree to which we endeavor to disguise, disavow, and negate our own inherent lack. For Salecl, therefore, the presence of anxiety is neither good nor bad, but necessary: “the very fact that the subject experiences anxiety should not be taken as something that prevents the subject’s well-being, but rather as a sign that the subject is struggling in a particular way with the lack that marks the individual and the antagonisms that mark the social” (147).

It is in this light that we must consider the guiding principle of Salecl’s exploration, which is that “what really produces anxiety is the attempt to get rid of it” (69). Nowhere is this more pronounced than in her discussion of identity and individuation. Using the fashion industry as an example—within which “shoe anxiety” is apparently a recent phenomenon (4)—Salecl explores the recent strain of what we might call anti-advice, which mandates that the only style is your style:

the fashion industry, for example, has been convincing consumers that they should not follow fashion advice and try to make themselves into someone else, but should rather discover what is unique about themselves, and with the help of fashion just accentuate it…. However, this new marketing strategy creates a lot of unease for consumers, since what actually provokes anxiety in the subject is not the failure to be someone else, but an inability to be oneself. (56-7)

Within this trend, one encounters not merely the inconsistency of an Other from which we are barred access, but that Other’s abjuration of its own demand and desire—the negation of law. In other words, the only rule is that there are no rules. Yet, as Žižek proposes in The Parallax View, it is prohibition itself that makes identity possible: “Law engenders the desire to ‘free oneself’ by violating it, and ‘sin’ is the temptation inherent to Law—the ambiguity of attraction and repulsion which characterizes anxiety is now exerted not directly by freedom but by sin…. our obedience to the Law itself is not ‘natural,’ spontaneous, but always-already mediated by the (repression of the) desire to transgress it” (90). Thus, there can be no articulation of self—no being oneself—without the rule of the Other to challenge and name this transgression. For Salecl, this trend in fashion is symptomatic of a more pervasive doctrine of “new individualism,” in which the subject “is more and more perceived as creator of his or her identity and less and less identifies with the values of his family, community or state” (129).1 But by what measure can I perceive myself when I am the measure? Have we become our own objects?

For Salecl, the movement of essential individualism is not merely limited to fashion, but finds its expression in everything from endlessly deferential self-help books to recent horror films in which mutagens originate within the body, not as the result of an outside force. And while a cultural turn towards personal empowerment initially seems liberating, Salecl finds a certain discomfort in the prospect of subjects who are “less and less caught up in this dialectic of desire and more an more under the pressure of jouissance” (146). Again, Salecl follows Lacan’s theory that anxiety itself acts as “an affect that warns us of the painful encounter with jouissance … anxiety can be perceived as a protective shield from jouissance which also allows desire to stay alive” (52-3). In other words, the absence of rule inhibits desire because one is led to believe that there is nothing worth wanting that is not already possessed. At the same time, however, there is also nothing stopping the subject from indulging him or herself to the fullest, since that is what one deserves to be doing.2 For Salecl, this impulse is encapsulated by Nike’s “Just do it” mentality, but a more apt illustration might by Gatorade’s recent “Is it in you?” campaign. In each appeal, the only demand on the subject is to recognize (and fully realize) his or her own ontological imperative; there is no indication of what “it” is, which requires the subject to then become the object that replaces his or her own elementary lack. And it is precisely this kind of object that signals the emergence of anxiety.

This is perhaps why the writing of love letters is a crucial point in On Anxiety. For Salecl, the purely textual intercourse of a love letter reflects “an attempt to prevent a horrifying encounter with the desire of the Other,” and a compulsive recourse to the pen functions to create the essential “rules, prohibition and obstacles” by which the object of desire is kept as a desirable distance (78). More specifically, Salecl is interested in the recent trend of people who write love letters to themselves through online greeting card services, which suggests that, as subjects, there may be some resistance to aforementioned culture of jouissance. If one writes to oneself, a desire either of or for oneself can be extrapolated – not to mention a sense of intrinsic distance from oneself, which indicates an anxious relationship to the measure of the Other. In other words, writing a love letter to oneself suggests that something still prevents the subject from accessing and/or achieving whatever “it” is “in” him, to return to Gatorade’s cultural query. And, thus, there is still a desire.3

In clinical terms, it would seem that culture today advocates the rejection of our neurotic impulses—which seek the recognition and desire of the Other—while promoting and encouraging our psychotic ones. The psychotic, Salecl reminds us, is a person who “stands outside normal social relationships, which also means outside the law…. he or she is not marked by a lack and also not bothered by the fact that the Other is lacking” (105).4 If nothing else, this is what the absence of anxiety would suggest. And if we are led to believe that anxiety can be conquered—through drugs, therapy, cosmetics, or anything else—then there would be nothing to prevent us from discounting or discarding our regard for the Other. But Salecl argues that it is precisely these available options that inhibit a kind of cultural psychosis. Because we, as subjects, are increasingly anxious about the possibilities of ridding anxiety, Salecl concludes that the “psychotization of society at large” is not yet complete, since the subject still “remains anxious about whether the Other exists, or what the Other wants” (147)—even if what it wants is for us to not care.

In this argument, On Anxiety is extraordinarily persuasive, due in no small part to the buoyancy with which it is written. Salecl displays a commanding knowledge of Freudian and Lacanian thought that is not merely limited to discussions of anxiety, but also offers an accessible introduction to their overall consequence and utility. As an installment in the Thinking in Action series—of which the overt aim is to bring philosophy to its public—On Anxiety does not sacrifice any academic rigor, but supplements it with familiar cultural documents in a way that makes the theory make sense. Of the series itself, perhaps its most interesting contribution is not its sense of inclusiveness, accessibility, or relevance, but its sheer sexiness. From the bright pink and orange of its exterior to the metallic sheer of its inside cover, the book itself is an alluring object that exists in sharp contrast to the daunting, austere covers that adorn so many works of critical theory. In After Theory, Terry Eagleton begins by suggesting that “Structuralism, Marxism, post-structuralism and the like are no longer the sexy topics they were. What is sexy instead is sex” (2). I would argue that the Thinking in Action series, on the whole, may just make theory sexy again. The books are pretty, cheap, quick, and inviting—all of which, combined, encourage a kind of intellectual promiscuity that is increasingly necessary within a culture that, according to Salecl, has lead us to believe that we already are all we need to know.

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1. This rise of self-creation is explored more fully in Chapter Six of On Anxiety—“Can Testimony Offer a Cure for Anxiety?”—which draws heavily on an essay that Salecl originally published in Other Voices, “Why One Would Pretend to be a Victim of the Holocaust.” In both texts, Salecl interrogates Binjamin Wilkomirski’s ersatz Holocaust memoir, Fragments, which can be read to imagine a traumatic memory in order to both counter the inconsistency of the big Other and to challenge the powerlessness of authority. Much of this essay appears verbatim in On Anxiety (in a slightly reorganized manner), but Salecl also adds a brief reading of Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful as a less controversial illustration of the links between trauma, memory, and the symbolic order.

2. According to Salecl, prescription drug advertising is particularly adept at doing this. Citing advertising for Paxil, she suggest that the quick, painless, and obvious solution of simply taking the drug to make things “right” in one’s life can promote feelings of guilt in those with any reservations. The implication of the advertising is that “not taking the drug can be understood as a rejection of getting oneself and the family in order” (69).

3. Much of Salecl’s theoretical framework for this argument can be found in Chapter Four, “Love Anxieties,” which is based on an essay of the same name in the collection Reading Seminar XX. In the original essay, Salecl tackles Lacan’s enduringly enigmatic proposition that “there’s no such thing as a sexual relationship,” to which she responds with a more detailed analysis of gendered anxieties. For men, desire is always attended by “the fact that castration has marked them by a lack, which also means that their phallic function has been negated,” which, in turn, fosters anxieties of impotence in the presence of the object of desire (93-4). Women, on the other hand, are traumatized by the fact that they “can never be sure what kind of object they are in the Other’s desire” (97). In On Anxiety, Salecl adds her discussions of love letters, Cyrano de Bergerac, and the artist Sophie Calle.

4. This definition comes out of Chapter Five, “Anxieties of Motherhood,” in which Salecl explores the different incarnations of anxiety in Susan Smith and Andrea Yates, both of whom confessed to killing their young children. Yates is most closely characterized as a psychotic, here, in that she expressed “no doubts about the satanic danger from which she tried to protect her children” (105). Smith, on the other, confessed that she wanted to rid herself of children in order to be more attractive to a potential lover—thus indicating an attention to the desire of the Other.

Works Cited:

Eagleton, Terry. After Theory. New York: Basic, 2003.

Salecl, Renata. “Love Anxieties.” Reading Seminar XX: Lacan’s Major Work on Love, Knowledge, and Feminine Sexuality. Ed. Suzanne Barnard and Bruce Fink. Albany: State U of New York P, 2002. 93-7.

---------------. On Anxiety. Thinking in Action. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

---------------. “Why One Would Pretend to be a Victim of the Holocaust.” Other Voices 2.1 (2000). 15 June 2007 <http://www.othervoices.org/2.1/salecl/wilkomirski.html>.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

About the Reviewer:

David B. Olsen is a Ph.D. student in the Department of English at Saint Louis University, where his research interests include critical theory, contemporary fiction, and visual narratives. His dissertation explores the intersections between fiction and image in recent American novels, including the use of photographs, illustrations, graphic design, and the materiality of the book.

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
Olsen, David B. "Being Good at Being Oneself: Renata Salecl and the Ontology of Anxiety: Review of Renata Salecl, On Anxiety" Other Voices 4.1 March 2010. January 19, 2018 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/dolsen/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
David B. Olsen, Being Good at Being Oneself: Renata Salecl and the Ontology of Anxiety: Review of Renata Salecl, On Anxiety. Other Voices 4, no. 1 (2010), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/dolsen/index.php› (accessed January 19, 2018)

APA Style Citation:
Olsen, David B. (2010, March). Being Good at Being Oneself: Renata Salecl and the Ontology of Anxiety: Review of Renata Salecl, On Anxiety. Other Voices, 4.1. Retrieved January 19, 2018, from http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/dolsen/index.php


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