Status Anxiety: Redefining "Success" and its Many Representations

Originally published in 2004, many of the ideas
contained in the book are more relevant and easy to
identify since the global economic downturn.
Having spent this term discussing and thinking about revolution and art in a dedicated seminar to the topic, it has been important to move beyond the more typically discussed political frameworks of radical change and extend the conversation to the world of social revolution. Of course the two often operate hand in hand-- and perhaps one of the most accessible and interesting philosophers working on the topic today is Alain de Botton. Recently, I assigned portions of his public documentary series Status Anxiety to two of my classes—both of which cover the chronological period associated with the rise of modernism from the late  nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. Based on de Botton’s book of the same name, Status Anxiety probes that most modern and equally uncomfortable question of how one’s place in society is ranked and evaluated by others. In turn, the book and documentary series reveals how the historical context for status can be located in the rise of modern secular societies and the alienating effects of global capital expansion. Modern art has an important role to play in de Botton’s argument since it is within the historical avant-garde and bohemian cultures, which helped profoundly shape modernism in the early part of the twentieth century, that we find evidence and representation of the challenge to mainstream conceptions of status, authority, and institutions of power. See the introductory clip to the documentary embedded here below (the whole documentary can be found here):

Alain de Botton is a self-described "public philosopher" and has
written many books probing the question of our everyday lives and concerns.
Interestingly enough, de Botton created this series prior to the current economic crisis, and in this sense his ideas are far more relevant to how many ordinary people are questioning ideas of status today. More recently, de Botton sat down for an in-depth interview to reflect on how his ideas have evolved since he first wrote Status Anxiety, providing targeted commentary concerning the kind of social revolution that many see unfolding around the world today—in expected places like the Middle East, but also in unexpected places like the United States and Canada. His comments are especially intriguing with respect to how people are beginning to redefine how success is measured and represented since the first signs of the crisis.

At the same time, de Botton links some of the problems within today’s frame of mind with what he sees lacking in the contemporary art world, namely an art of tragedy along the lines of the ancient Greeks. De Botton’s argument is that we are less likely to see artists today engaging with themes of inevitable loss and/or unexplained or irrational misfortune since it flies in the face of a deeply held societal belief in the West that everyone has an equal chance at success based on their own merits and hard work. In other words, one of the unspoken assumptions of modern life and status stretching back over 200 years is that our failures are somehow our own fault—period—without consideration for forces well beyond our control (such as the incomprehensible economic structure we currently live in). No doubt de Botton‘s ideas and theories concerning status and success reveal deep stakes in the way social revolutions, and the art that accompanies them, will take shape in the future.  And for many of the students I work with today who worry about their own success in the future, Status Anxiety also offers some measure of comfort and critical reflection.