Tuesday, 17 October 2006

Book and documentary: Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

Lowdown: Modern day society is most likely to make us feel anxious about our place in the world; but it ain't necessarily so, according to certain philosophers.
It is rare to be able to point at a point in time where something in your life went through a significant change. Back in 2004, I recall driving while listening to Triple J radio's Hack program. That particular episode discussed a newly released book called Status Anxiety; several weeks afterwards, the book's matching documentary was aired on ABC TV, and from then on I never looked back. Not that I learned things I didn't know before; it's the presentation and the way the ideas were delivered that made me add one and one together to thoughts I was already thinking on my own, with the end result being that I had a brand new way to look upon this world we live in.
Last week I finished reading the book for the first time and also finished watching the documentary for the second time; now the time has come for the review.
The premises of Status Anxiety is relatively simple compared to the number of ideas discussed around it. According to De Botton, with the rise of the mertocratic society - a society where people are supposedly as high up the food chain as they merit, a concept that made its day with the rise of the USA - people have been gathering status according to their achievements. Today, the people who have more money have most of the status, and we tend to consider financial wealth as an indicator for overall success.
However, with this "be all you can be" attitude of meritocracy come nasty anxieties: what should we think about ourselves if we cannot keep up with the Jonses? What if we do not manage to be the next Bill Gates, but rather end up working as, say, a clerk for the government? Are we then to be considered failures?
De Botton claims that these negative feelings, which he coins status anxieties, are a relatively new phenomenon. Back in the days before the USA came to be, people were branded with classes, and no one had any illusions about being able to skip from one to the other. However, today, if you do not make it to richness then according to the same logic you do not deserve your status - you're a loser.
We stand no chance in case we want to forget that and go on with our lives; we are attacked by status signs wherever we look. De Botton provides plenty of examples, starting from the Sunday papers that tell us how the successful live like and what "essential" things we need to have in order to live a fulfilling life. Yet it has been proven again and again that the acquisition of these items - be it a Mercedes or an Xbox - does not make one happy.
So how can one avoid having status anxieties? According to De Botton, we cannot avoid them altogether; a man needs to feel close to others, and that process will automatically include some sort of a ranking to tell us where we stand amongst our peers. However, all is not lost, because - De Botton says - what we can control are the parameters according to which we judge our status. Or, to put it another way, we can estimate people's statuses according to what really matters to us; not money, which is not an indicator for a happy or a fulfilled life, but values such as love, intellect, and friendship.
De Botton presents a vast array of ideas with which to combat status anxiety. From a look at how the art guides us to see the things that really matter in life, through a look at Bohemian societies where alternate values to mainstream society reign, and finishing with a philosophical look at death - a point where absolutely everyone becomes equal, a point where the things that really matter are obvious and money matters not. Speaking from recent experience, from your sick bed the reality of who really cares for you shines through. Religion takes its own place in the discussion, serving both as a cause for status anxieties as well as a potential solution.
Seemingly, there is not much of De Botton himself in the book; he borrows concepts and quotes from other philosophers and intellectuals and puts them together in order to make his point. However, by pulling together others' ideas he creates a true manifest for his views. While the book may be judged as a self help book on how to make oneself feel better in our world, it is much more than that; it is an organized philosophical look at what we want in life, what we think we need, what makes us tick, and what really matters.
Written fluently in a manner which is bound to entertain, the book feels like a thriller when read. Examples are thrown in at an amazing pace, making it really easy to keep up with De Botton even when sophisticated concepts are on the discussion board. I simply cannot imagine a better written book discussing philosophies of this caliber.
If there are any faults with the book or the documentary they are to do with the fact many people will not accept them. I can imagine that true capitalists, or very patriotic Americans, for example, will have a hard time accepting the ideas presented in the book; after all, their entire concepts of right and wrong and why they should get up in the morning are shattered into pieces. When thinking of the book as a gift idea to friends of mine who seem to be consumed by the consumerist culture I concluded that I should probably look for alternatives in order to avoid offending these friends; the book's messages is that clear and unavoidable. Alas, reading the book has changed the way I look at the world: it made me happy with what I have; and it makes me feel pity towards those who, say, drive an expensive BMW in order to feel good about themselves.
Overall: 5 very glistening stars.

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