When entire communities forget the value of past history, when their members lose their own identity due to cultural upheavals or gradual cultural changes taking place in society, the unsettling result may be a complete loss of communal as well as of individual identity and self-worth while eliminating meaningful relationships. Jane Jacobs, Alain de Botton, and Guy Debord have each greatly explored, in their own way, the meaning of such loss as well as their consequences on the individual, small communities, and on entire societies. All three bring a fascinating angle to the problem whose origin is anchored in each author’s background, personal experience, and previous written works.
Jane Jacobs in “Dark Age Ahead” proposes that our society is about to enter a dark age, which represents our culture’s disappearance. This loss is occurring in our times and is caused when people no longer remember that is has been lost. Jane Jacobs, famous for her previous works on urban development as well as urban economies, clearly warns everyone that our cultural inheritance is endangered due to the loss of family and community. A community is formed when people can communicate freely with one another. However, the problem posed by today’s modern society is that the emphasis no longer lies on cultural and family values, depriving us of meaningful communication with others as well as precious relationships that would have brought us closer together to form solid communities. Cultural communication is learned and passed on from generation to generation, most efficiently when it is done without interruption and in person. It has to be forceful, persistent, and expandable. She gives the example of schools having textbooks as well as teachers, employees in the workplace training interns. Jane Jacobs sees that this natural scheme has already been attacked and is unraveling in our time. She predicts that the end result will be a total amnesia of our human nature that will destroy what we really need to live happy lives.
“Status Anxiety” is Alain de Botton’s exposé on our modern society’s obsession with a universal money culture, in which the amount of money one has, bestows a level of status to the individual. In his previous works like “Consolations of Philosophy”, Alain de Botton uses philosophy as a way to help readers with common problems. He uses the same strategy in this book, appealing to the reader’s sense of global and personal observation and reason. We all have an inborn desire to be recognized as somebody important in the world: a craving for elevated status, respect, and admiration. De Botton makes it clear that in order to become successful and important in our money culture, we need to belong to the ‘in-crowd’ of our higher status peers; we need to fight for our status because status gives us an identity.
Consequently, if an individual has little money, his or her status will be low, his or her self-respect will be low, and his or her identity will be void; without success, a person ceases to exist in the eyes of society and of its members. Interestingly, De Botton mentions that in pre-modern societies, people’s roles were fixed: if you were poor, you were considered poor for the rest of your life and free of status anxiety because, as a poor, you did not care about status; you were content with your lot in life and did not lose your identity because you did not really have one in the first place. However, a rich person would suffer from status anxiety because there was so much to lose if he or she lost status in the upper strata of society; he or she would be condemned to oblivion and loss of identity. Nowadays, roles are no longer fixed and everyone may have access to high status through the accumulation of money and expensive material things.
Jacobs and De Botton converge on the same problem but from different angles. On one hand, Jacobs focuses on the concept of culture, family, communities, and relationships. In essence, what one loses in modern society is personal relationships and communication with other members of one’s community. This leads to forgetting cultural bonds as well as a loss of identity that was defined by cultural inheritance. On the other hand, De Botton focuses on the loss of identity as defined by money, status, and peer pressure. So, if the formers lead to forgetting who we are in terms of personal identity within society in general, then, viewed from Jacob’s point of view, our loss of status and personal identity leads to a loss of cultural identity because we are no longer part of any community. That is their convergence on the problem of loss and forgetting. The basic question they both ask is “what is really important in order to be content and fulfilled in our lives within society?”
Guy Debord, however, takes a very different approach. His analysis of our modern society is highly intellectual, non-emotional, and strictly analytical, implying that an average reader may not be helped by such a rigorous philosophical treatment of our role within society and of the nature of society itself. In fact, the goal of Jacobs and De Botton was to help readers grasp what they needed to ponder over for themselves. In “The Society of Spectacle”, Guy Debord goes into a detailed treatment of what he calls ‘the spectacle’. ‘The spectacle’ embodies our environment in terms of all human life, activities, and any phenomena. We exist within the ‘spectacle’ and our actions represent a collection of spectacles themselves. In order to comprehend such an idea, an appropriate illustration would be a Russian doll whose body contains smaller and smaller dolls. From the outside, there is only one doll that an observer can see. Yet, we also are separated from true reality, which is not part of the ‘spectacle’. It is as though, the Russian doll was visible to the observer in a transparent glass room outside of which he would be his own observer looking at the doll. Guy Debord states that in a modern society like ours, where Capitalism and production prevail, we are disconnected from our personal direct actions and life because a capitalist society encapsulates us in a ‘transparent glass room’ or a depiction of our life. We are not masters of our lives in the ‘spectacle’: ‘the spectacle’ prevents us from experiencing the reality of life because ‘the spectacle’ is a fabricated reality in which the producers of the economy are dominating all human life. Therefore, we belong to the ‘spectacle’ but if Capitalism was replaced by the visible reality of true life, then we would regain our freedom of ‘being’, instead of being slaves to ‘having’. Debord gives an idea of what needs to be done to get on the path of true freedom. We need to bring about a critique of the system, describing the true nature of ‘the spectacle’ because it will reveal it to everyone, releasing them from their shackles.
Thus, Debord takes apart the idea of loss of identity, of our forgetting the reality of life due to our condition of prisoners to our modern society where appearances and shallow thinking dominate our lives. He also converges on the same problem but his view is based upon the concept of losing identity by being ‘a prey in the spider’s web of Capitalism’ whereas Jacobs focuses on loss of identity due to the disappearance of cultural inheritance, communities, families, and relationships and De Botton concentrates on the loss of identity through a loss of status that depends on a money culture or in Debord’s words Capitalism. The common question then becomes: how can we free ourselves from modern Capitalism to return to a happy life and to a simple reality? De Botton says that we need to exercise our free will. Jacobs adds that we need to reestablish what we lost, and Debord claims we need to expose the fabrication of our modern capitalistic society. Each idea integrates within the previous one.
Jane Jacobs died on April 25, 2006 at an old age. Her long life gave her a unique perspective on the early years of the 20th century when people lived in reality, even a depressing one. Jacobs makes a good treatment of the loss of cultural inheritance that is tied to our identity within a community. Some have criticized her arguments, saying her treatment lacked depth, as compared with her previous works. Jacobs was not concerned with depth but with simple ideas that any reader would comprehend and think over with respect to their own life. Furthermore, her comparison of the decline of our modern society vis-à-vis ancient dead civilizations is acceptable since students of History have shown that History repeats itself. Consequently, recognizing the signs of decline and rectifying the problem are keys to survival. De Botton presents an astute description of the modern money culture in terms of the obsession with money, the needs versus the wants, peer pressure, and a raging pursuit of successful status that the readers can relate to.
His strategy for solving status anxiety woes is straightforward: choosing a simple life. Using philosophy to help people with life is an old idea but a good one. As to Debord, a non- philosopher might be put off by his complicated reasoning in explaining how we are disconnected from a simple life because of our attachment to the fabricated apparent reality of Capitalism. His rather abstract arguments are compelling because it allows the readers to get to the essence of disconnection, the precursor to loss and amnesia.