Status Anxiety: Reviews

Geraldine Bedell in The Observer, 29 February 2004

Alain de Botton, distiller of droplets of culture for general edification, has a new subject, which he explores in a book and an accompanying Channel 4 documentary, both called Status Anxiety (Viking £16.99, pp340). With his customary command of the philosophical and literary canon, de Botton sets out to examine why the fragile modern self depends so crucially on the good opinions of others and what we might do in order to feel better about it.

There are, it seems, at least two kinds of public, popularising, intellectuals – the AC Grayling sort, who specialise in explaining complex and difficult argument in simple language, and another lot, in which we might include de Botton, who deploys a more allusive, meandering, episodic method of illumination. (De Botton sees himself as not unlike Adam Phillips here, a writer he admires.) This style seems particularly effective for subjects that aren’t usually subject to serious intellectual rigour, such as travel, or, in the case of de Botton’s next book, architecture.

The trouble with status anxiety as a subject is that, despite de Botton’s insistence that he could discover very little that had been written about it, philosophers are worrying away at it all the time (Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self and Richard Layard’s recent lectures on happiness, to take just a couple of examples, are both substantially preoccupied with it). So, for that matter, are sociologists, psychologists and economists.

Social economist Fred Hirsch published his Social Limits to Growth as long ago as 1977, arguing that beyond a certain level of comfort, all consumption is positional, ie about status, meaning that we are consequently trapped in self-defeating cycles of desire and dissatisfaction. Even journalists have had the odd pithy observation to contribute. Andrew Sullivan observed that status has less to do with how much money you earn than with who returns your phone calls.

So status anxiety seems a rather unwieldy, overweight and overdone theme for de Botton’s elegant mosaic method. As he acknowledges, his subject is ‘really the story of the modern West, attitudes to rank, status, money; what’s happened to art, religion…’ To which one can just squeak: ‘Blimey! And some of the sections are only 28 words long!’

This is not meant to imply that de Botton is lightweight, nor that he bastardises or diminishes thought by writing in a fragmentary way. Neither charge is true, besides which, he has had to deal with far too much intellectual snobbery already. The hostility to him has been prompted by his precocity (he published his first book, Essays In Love, when he was 23) and partly by status anxiety on the part of academics: ‘Trying to be a sort of intellectual in the public arena is very irritating to people. They think, “Why is this bugger on television?” ‘ (It has, incidentally, taken odd forms, frequently involving derogatory remarks about his physical appearance, although he is attractive enough to be on television and has piercing, beautiful eyes.) He also thinks the distrust might be to do with ‘having a very strange name, which makes me sound like a French aristocrat’.

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