“Buy more, own more, make more, fuck more, be more.” This is perhaps the first tell-tale sign that Mark Manson’s onscreen adaptation is a precursor into the forewarned worldview of being a happy little capitalist.
The international bestselling book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, is a self-proclaimed antidote to the myriad of self-help texts out there that are allegedly “too positive”.
The documentary centres on Mark Manson, author and narrator, who takes viewers through the emotionally taxing periods of his life.The film is filled with personal anecdotes, cautionary tales and a ‘how not to’ index of things we should follow, in order to become “less awful people”.
Just in case viewers aren’t aware of the world’s imminent collapse (read: global warming, climate change, imperialism, threat of nuclear war), Manson opens with a serious fixation on death, telling the cameras:
“You’re going to die one day. You and everyone you know are going to be dead soon and if you go around giving a fuck about everything and everyone without conscious thought or choice, well then you’re going to get fucked.”
The documentary begins with a montage that encases the primordial scenes of the human condition. Viewers see couples marrying, people opening presents, embarking on travels, vintage cameras, record players, cheerleaders, dancers in bright neon leotards, others performing death-defying feats, a dachshund sitting on a boat, and Mark himself relaxing on a floatie in the middle of a pool, surrounded by synchronised swimmers and sipping on a cool drink.
Manson looks to the social media platform Instagram with disdain, reminding viewers of the dangers in living a life that is curated through posts where everyone filters out the banal and focuses on the extravagant. An app dedicated to sharing images of one’s life can quickly become a competitive instance of proving who has a “nicer job, a fast car, a prettier girlfriend”. Through this exchange, he concludes with a message that the public are encouraged to accept: a better life is about “more, more, more”.
Manson describes living in a ‘feel-good’ culture, led by beer commercials and self-help gurus as a dangerous one fuelled by “delusional positivity”. While the material world works algorithmically, happiness, and by extension, our emotions, do not. His ire with human emotion is tied to an uneventful image of running on a treadmill. In the documentary, he states that happiness is great but ‘blah’ because it means nothing needs to change. He declares that it is important to learn to sit with negative emotions because this can cross-train your mind into dealing with future issues. However, I don’t completely agree.
Manson’s cynical take on life, filled with hapless ‘don’t give a fuck’ phrases can be reductive, and gives the impression of a presumptuous know-it-all who walks into a bar, trying to throw pearls of wisdom at the first unassuming person they see.
One instance sees Manson reflecting on a friend from the past called Jimmy. A savvy entrepreneur who lacked insecurities and was a walking post of entitlement, or a “total fraud” who misused being an ‘angel investor’ to lead his own financial schemes.
Here, he speaks on the consequences raising self-esteem across generations. What I take issue with is Manson’s conflation of entitlement in an ex-friend with the idea of raising self-esteem for an entire generation to lead to the argument that we as people are all “selfish”, “entitled” and simply, boring.
In addition to the allegedly false message that we are deserving of everything that we desire, Manson wholeheartedly disagrees with the fact that everyone is unique. He is content with thinking everyone is fucking boring. That we are cut from the same cloth, and that we should all learn to accept our own banal existence in order to continue functioning in society.
The trajectory of Manson’s argument follows the hypothesis that building an economy on monetising people’s attention results in a culture largely “built on the message of entitlement.”
“Traditional self-help says every single person is unique and extraordinary… I find that to be tyrannical. What’s liberating is recognising that none of us are very special.”
This gives… The Truman Show. It reminds me of the unexcitable, record-loop-playing, monotonous thing of life. How could anyone be remotely happy with that?
The critical eye on social media and its undue influence on younger generations is valid. Manson argues that social media continues to expose us to the top 0.00001% of performers. That our existence online and what we see is constantly mediated by their influence which can have a sore impact on our perceptions about having healthy relationships with others, and ourselves.
However, the crux of it all is linked to an abject failure to see the class aspect, and the inbuilt systematic pressures which lead to a coalition of social media apps or instances in an attention economy which see people striving for temporary highs.
Manson doesn’t believe that the “problem is necessarily with the system of capitalism” but that the “problem is with us.” We, apparently, do not understand how our own minds work, and so we’ve got to “get straight with ourselves.” But how? By (fucking) caring less.
Manson offers his self-ascribed ‘law of avoidance’, where he stipulates that “people will avoid an action or experience in proportion to how much it threatens their identity and their worldview.” He states that it is true for both positive and negative experiences, that they will self-sabotage something if it’s too good to be true, or they will outwardly avoid things that have a lot of risk attached.
He says that we need to assume responsibility for our choices so as to stop making mistakes, or at least repeating the same mistakes. This individualistic view is limited and reduces people to their socio-economic status, financial viability, to the context of their surrounding circumstances.
It feels almost too convenient for people like Manson to offer these platitudes, which revel in an “oh well, the world is fucked” philosophy. His central thesis revolves on people needing to start caring less about everything, asserting that life is about experiencing pain, and “taking responsibility” for our problems, mixed in with some tongue-in-cheek worthy moments from his past (cheated on girlfriends, family falling apart, drug bust at school).
The danger of giving no fucks about anything and the occasional hackneyed cliches of “life is about suffering”, reduces the viewer to a cynically torn philosophical questioning of their existence. His “subtle art” of not giving a fuck is a prime excuse for those who want to keep the system as it is, and is an admission that we must simply accept all that happens to us because the world is incapable of being changed.
The Greta Thunbergs, Violet Cocos and soup-throwing-climate-activist Anna Hollands of the world would widely disagree. Give a fuck about the climate, give a fuck about mass exploitation, give a fuck about wage theft, give a fuck about the people in your life and more.
“Is this a riot or a fucking parade?” Mark Manson asks. I say let this life be one fuelled by giving-many-a-fucks, and a hazed riot of festivities.