Sunday, July 19, 2015

Status Anxiety, Alain De Botton

Status Anxiety"Status Anxiety" is a uniquely sparkly book that, for the most part, I enjoyed immensely. However, like other readers, I have some problems with it.

First of all, a gentle reminder to everyone who approaches a "philosophical" book like this one: all this rationalizing of reality can be helpful sometimes, but it is often overestimated, especially by academics. Even though it should be obvious, people tend to forget that reality stays exactly the same, with or without philosophical analysis. The immense respect that our society gives to the rich and "officially successful" doesn't change an inch. Philosophy therefore achieves little more than providing perspective, or what could be described in ancient Greek as "shooting the shit". We need to keep that in mind.

The book can be summarized as follows: we are all anxious about our sense of status in the world. Today's problem is our egalitarianism. We no longer believe that people who are worse off are “unfortunates”, as that was the old term for them. Instead, they are now “losers”. It is their fault. So we fear failure more than ever, because it is our fault. This is the flip side of meritocracy, which we consider a good thing, but which is really a tyranny of expectations. Also, we envy everybody who does better, at least in our eyes.

De Botton sets out five causes of status anxiety (lovelessness, snobbery, expectation, meritocracy, dependence) and provides what he believes are five cures for the ailment (philosophy, art, politics, religion and bohemia).

From the start, this set up my hopes quite high, because other books on sociological topics (i.e. Zygmunt Bauman's books on consumerism) do not do anything more than analyzing a problem, which leads everybody sane to the ultimate question: "So what?". At least, I said to myself, De Botton made the effort to offer some solutions to the problem he presented. Yeah, well... while that is true, I will explain why his solutions are really not satisfactory, and why this is overall a rationalistic and therefore unrewarding kind of book.

But first, let me complete the positive part of my review: some reviewers blame the author for being "pop", for lowering the fine abstractions of philosophy to the level of corny self-help manuals. They are wrong. De Botton is a deep and erudite thinker, certainly more than capable of writing a brick-heavy dissertation on any philosopher, but he also wants to reach out to many readers, who cares whether that is for a high concept of sharing wisdom with the masses, or for a desire to sell as many books as possible, or for both reasons?

As for his presented solutions, the book concludes by recommending that we simply spread our risks and take advantage of the vast variety of ways in which success and failure can be defined. If we are depressed by our uselessness, then we should simply change our reference points. I found this stance a little too weak, unsatisfactory and commonsensical.

But what I found annoying is the transparency of the author's personal preferences, hidden behind an appearance of total objectivity and utter absence of any opinion. And this is a very typical problem with philosophy in general.

Let me explain: De Botton chose an academic career path in a world (our Western world) where they will often tell you "he who can, does; he who can't, teaches". Where, in fact, academic success is considered nowhere near the highest graces of success in business, and, in particular, success in making tons of money in general. So it's not such a wild guess to say that, as a very competitive individual, De Botton has probably always been bothered by rich businessmen, lawyers and bankers who often get more respect and love from society than philosophers and professors. And if he hasn't, at least he does a lot in the book to build a huge damn case against these rich lawyers and bankers, they who achieved the success commonly recognized as success. Can he be totally objective about it?

Another problem: in the chapter "religion", he treats faith as "just another way to cope with anxiety", absolutely interchangeable with "philosophy" or with politics or with being a Punk. I guess De Botton likes too much his own atheist or non-religious perspective, to be able to speak about religion with any type of real understanding. He keeps referring to Christianity and Christian values without ever giving the slightest hint of whether he thinks it's all great or it is all a load of crap. I find this type of fake detachment to be slightly cowardly: you are not talking about minerals and rocks. You chose to talk about the most important topics of human existence, of which you, Alain De Botton, are fully a part, therefore posing with such a detached attitude is equivalent to position yourself on a higher ground. It comes across as arrogant and, at times, frustrating ("so what?"). It gives the impression of a very cold scientist who is looking at his experiment or his study, not because he cares about any of the people involved in the study, but purely because he enjoys the study itself. Where is his heart, in all this beautiful philosophical talk? Aside from his love for art and literature, no other emotion transpires. Nada. And while this "forcing the emotions out" might be the very distinctive sign of the philosopher's "profession", I find it useless, dehumanizing and unrewarding.

The chapter on religion is not even about religion. It is about the concept of death, and, in one single sentence at the end, De Botton gives an imprecise interpretation of the concept of God. So is it fair to present it as a solution at all, when you provide such a limited and biased perspective on it?

The chapter on Bohemians is the one where De Botton's "objective detachment" most clearly fails, because he LOVES this solution so much, and it shows. After a great eulogy of Henry Thoreau, he goes on to say that the delightful punks across all the Earth, the haters of the bourgeoisie, have actually understood the secret of life, or something along those lines.

Then again, why "Bohemians"?? Why choose this peculiar definition to end a list of very general and wide categories, like philosophy, politics, religion? I am confused. It's like saying: "here's what I'm going to talk about: sport, food, wheather, and cheerleaders' choreography". What about the hundreds of other similar movements, like Grunge, Punk, whatever else? Why not "vegetarianism", then, why leave that one out? Anyway, in this chapter, he aptly and perhaps unconsciously offers the most valid proof of the fact that nobody is immune from our basic instinct of trying to climb on top of each other's heads like monkeys. Because the very best man is, at the end of the day, the one who reads and thinks and loves art and writes all the time. And, oh! guess what De Botton does all day long?

But please, I really don't want to be unfair. I truly enjoyed the book, very much. At times, De Botton's deep passion for history, literature and art jumps at you in such a genuine form, that is inspiring and almost moving. His love for quoting famous works of the past and the present, the delight he takes in doing that, how he chooses really interesting "pearls", anecdots and quotes, is not something I see much as a trick, but rather as a sign of his true deep love for literature and art. Like the love of a dedicated collector. There lies, in my opinion, the real beauty of this book.

And this is ultimately why I would recommend it and why I enjoyed reading it!

Finally, I have to say that I listened to the audiobook. I think the reader is a very good one (I heard his voice before, in some books about Pacific Ocean travel) but he should have toned down his own sense of humor, because at times he gives a sense of arrogant sarcasm to De Botton's voice that does not make it look good at all, and you are left wondering if it was really intended to sound like that.

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