Review of The Fear of Insignificance: Searching for Meaning in the Twenty-first Century by Carlo Strenger

Philosopher-psychoanalyst Carlo Stenger has written a brilliant and timely interdisciplinary book, The Fear of Insignificance: Searching for Meaning in the Twenty-first Century. Drawing on existential philosophy, psychoanalysis, sociology, and other disciplines, he diagnoses, interprets, and points the way toward therapeutic transformation of the existential unease that haunts our current age, illustrating his theses with evocative case studies of individual lives.

What ails us, Strenger claims, is the increasing "commoditization" of human beings in a thoughtless and unfettered global free-market system. In such a system, the value of the individual is determined by quantitative rankings of "global celebrity," measures of fame or fortune within our rapidly expanding "global infotainment" network. Among the symptoms of this spreading pandemic of commoditization infecting "Homo Globalis," Stenger identifies and discusses malaise, superficiality, anti-intellectualism, pop-spirituality, moral relativism, and a "just-do-it" mentality.

Strenger interprets the quest for various forms of celebrity as a worldwide escapist flight from human finitude and the tragic dimension of human existence into mindless, inauthentic delusions of omnipotence. Celebrity, fame, and fortune are sought as symbolic immortality.

The path to therapeutic transformation that Strenger maps out is no less than a Nietzschean revaluation of values--of what it means to have a valuable life. In place of commodity and adaptation to the market place, he calls for a re-emphasis on the development of individuality, generativity, and creativity, and a pursuit of intellectual depth, self-knowledge, and meaningfulness. Strenger thereby seeks to awaken us to the possibility of a new form of human solidarity rooted in an owning up to our common human condition and in a common commitment to the enrichment of human life on planet earth.

I found Strenger's whole argument to be powerfully persuasive, even inspiring. The book will have a wide interdisciplinary appeal -- e.g., to social philosophers, psychoanalytic therapists, sociologists, and students in all these fields. It should also have wide appeal within the educated public -- for example, to all those who feel alarmed by the escalatingly grandiose and destructive escapist ideologies into which people of our era flee from the existential vulnerabilities exposed by the likes of global terrorism, global nuclear proliferation, global warming, and global economic collapse.