Persuasion industry's assault on personhood

by Rob Horning

5 January 2009


In Shifting Involvements Albert Hirschman cites this 1971 paper by philosopher Harry Frankfurt (who has since gone on to mild mainstream notoriety because of his treatise On Bullshit), in which he calls attention to “second-order desires”, or the desires we have about our primary desires. These are what we want to want and, according to Frankfurt, make up the substance of our will, and whether or not we experience it as being free. Frankfurt theorizes that “the conformity of a person’s will to his higher-order volitions may be far more thoughtless and spontaneous” than it is for others, who agonize over being able to act on their preferred desires (e.g.: I want to read Marx; I end up playing 1942 on a video game emulator). “The enjoyment of freedom comes easily to some,” Frankfurt notes somewhat depressingly, “others must struggle to achieve it.”

Hirschman cites Frankfurt’s surprisingly accessible essay merely to highlight the fact that we often have multiple sets of preferences simultaneously, which foils the more simplistic models of neoclassical economics with regard to consumer demand. If we want contradictory things at any given moment, it’s not clear where we will find our marginal utility; if our wants change in the process of satisfying them, then our incentives are in perpetual flux, flummoxing the calculus that is presumed to drive rational decisionmaking. We end up having to commit now to wants we may not possess in the future, or we may reject one desire in favor of another now, only to find they have switched places later. And so on.

But Frankfurt’s essay seems also to have a bearing on the larger question of how the persuasion industry (marketing, advertising, and to some degree, entertainment) scuttles our sense of selfhood, which, Frankfurt argues, hinges on our expression of will. The persuasion industry is seeking always to confuse the communication between our first- and second-order desires; it’s seeking to short circuit the way we negotiate between the many things we can conceive of wanting to come up with a positive will to want certain particular things at certain moments. It seeks to make us more impulsive at the very least; at worst it wants to supplant our innate will with something prefabricated that will orient us toward consumer goods rather than desires that are able to be fulfilled outside the market. This can occur without our having been persuaded directly by the advertising messages, simply by overloading us with information and unleashing the “paradox of choice” and worse, optional paralysis. Frankfurt describes it this way:

People are generally far more complicated than my sketchy account of the structure of a person’s will may suggest. There is as much opportunity for ambivalence, conflict, and self-deception with regard to desires of the second order, for example, as there is with regard to first-order desires. If there is an unresolved conflict among someone’s second-order desires, then he is in danger of having no second-order volition; for unless this conflict is resolved, he has no preference concerning which of his first-order desires is to be his will. This condition, if it is so severe that it prevents him from identifying himself in a sufficiently decisive way with any of his conflicting first-order desires, destroys him as a person. For it either tends to paralyze his will and to keep him from acting at all, or it tends to remove him from his will so that his will operates without his participation. In both cases he becomes, like the unwilling addict though in a different way, a helpless bystander to the forces that move him.

In short, optional paralysis eradicates our identity, especially when we are conceiving of it as being expressed by marketplace decisions. We may argue that it is foolish to found our identity on such stuff, but that doesn’t render this sort of anxiety, this being “destroyed as a person,” any less existentially terrifying. (It’s a good reason, however, to question why identity has become so bound up with consumerism and explore alternatives.) Heavily marketed goods in the competitive marketplace translate into eroded confidence on the part of consumers in what they want and the ultimate meaning of their desires.

Exacerbating the problem, and heightening our ambivalence and akrasia, is that the condition of being a “helpless bystander to the forces” that move us is perpetually in the process of being redefined in marketing discourse as a pleasurable, desirable state; i.e. as a second-order volition worth embracing. Passivity—an instinctual and inevitable response perhaps to being overloaded with information—is entertainment, is convenience, is relaxation, is anything but helplessness and alienation from ourselves.

With passivity toward the operation of our will encouraged and celebrated, it’s no wonder that we experience more and more of life as being governed by “addictions”—by compulsions beyond our ability to control—and that we routinely describe ourselves as becoming addicted to things that are not actually physically addictive (shopping, sex, the internet, World of Warcraft, Facebook, Jamba Juice, etc.). It may be that we want not to be able to control ourselves, as this resolves the contradiction inherent in wanting to will passivity. Our attempts to rationalize our desires fluctuate between pleasurable surrender (we are serenely impulsive, with the speed with which our impulses are gratified serving as an index to our prosperity and to our autonomy) and medicalized despair (we are addicts who are not responsible for our actions, which we stand removed from but which we can’t alter to reconcile with our other better desires as yet only vaguely formulated but having something to do with conquering impulses). Our inability to know what we really want ends up being either the illusion of freedom, of keeping options open, or it ends up feeling like a pathological condition that we vainly await the cure for.

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