not sold in stores
by Victoria Camblin
Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety (2004) describes a chronic and seemingly universal condition of distress at our perceived level of success in relation to that of our peers—a sensation of imbalance on the modern social ladder. Democracy is the disturbing origin of that anxiety. Give us an ostensibly egalitarian, free society, says de Botton, and we will live in fear of being seen by others to fail to fully exploit the abundant potential of that condition.
Fortunately, we can buy things. We can acquire special possessions that throw off the scrutiny of our peer group; then we can wear them, display them, drive them and inhabit them. We can also fake them. In fact the simplest way to project success may be to buy things we cannot afford, or better yet, to seek out a “deal”. What follows is that wherever there is a market for luxury products that function as much psychologically as they do practically (such as Nike sneakers or Chanel bags), a market for their counterfeit versions (that is, other things with “swooshes” or C’s all over them) lurks closely behind. Like status anxiety itself, authentic desireables are the cultural products—regardless of where they are actually manufactured—of a more or less Western, “free” consumer society; the objects that fakely approximate them, meanwhile, are by and large devised in social contexts that do not necessarily fall under the jurisdiction of the democratic. So if de Botton is right in saying that the freedoms associated with modern living are the source of our status woes, then are objects produced under dictatorships, communism or simply in areas of political conflict anxiety-free? A “Louis Vuitton” made in the People’s Republic of China instead of France, Switzerland, Spain or Italy would in that case be the key to breaking a curse that was two thousand years of Western civilization in the making.
The idea that anxiety is fundamentally linked to freedom is not de Botton’s. Enter “anxiety” into the search bar atwww.brainyquote.com and you will find citations linking the two phenomena in some way or another as far back as the 4th century B.C. Kierkegaard’s contribution is particularly elegant: “Anxiety,” he says, “is the dizziness of freedom.” The passage is from his 1844 The Concept of Anxiety, in which he describes the experience of anxiety as akin to the dizziness caused when one “happens to look down into the yawning abyss”—an abyss, in our terms, that engulfs our wobbly social ladder like the black imitation leather surrounding the butchered double C’s on a counterfeit “Olympic edition” Chanel handbag. Yet one can be productively anxious; Kierkegaard even suggests that whoever has learned to be so has learned “the ultimate.” The key to mastering our status problems, then, is putting the right kind of dizzying spin on our notion of freedom.
When Russian Constructivist Aleksandr Rochenko went to Paris in 1925 to arrange the Soviet section of the International Exposition of Decorative and Industrial Arts, he wrote in a letter home: “The light from the East is not only the liberation of worker, the light from the East is in the new relation to the person, to woman, to things. Our things in our hands must be equals, comrades.” This was, as Christina Kiaer explores in her 2006 Imagine No Possessions (2006), Rodchenko’s counter-proposal to capitalist commodity fetish, a theory of the Eastern object as one that is endowed with a kind of human functionality. Today when high-profile Russians travel to Paris they tend to buy authentic Louis Vuitton on the Champs Élysées, but Rodchenko’s advice is still interesting with regards to the new Eastern object, be that a Lebanese “Lakost” eau de toilette or a Gucci-branded Mickey Mouse wristwatch from Beijing. Imagine faux possessions. These artifacts lack the melancholy and emotional deprivation of the must-have status symbols described in de Botton because unlike the “real” products that promise an authentic experience of material success, they are complicit, our comrades in status-deception. Counterfeits and hybrids are surreally aware of the symbolic terms of the game of snakes and ladders we play as inhabitants of a Western democracy—a game in which we are as upwardly mobile as we are prone to social slide. Objects that register and embrace the dizziness of that freedom, though, may make for a fortunate fall.