Culture of Narcissism

Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations was a best-seller when it was first published in 1979, and it stands as one of the most distinctive works of social criticism and commentary of the last three decades. Lasch used the term narcissism, a psychological term based on a myth, “as a metaphor for the human condition”. Analyzing culture through a psychological, diagnostic metaphor is an experimental venture. Many writers fail. The bookstores and libraries are filled with half-baked social theories dressed up in medical jargon. And, of course, narcissism has become one of the catchphrases of popular psychology, with literally hundreds of self-help books mentioning narcissism in some way. Lasch’s ideas stand out from a mass of inferior material.

Lasch was a student and teacher of American history, with an emphasis on populist and radical ideas and politics. He described himself as a radical and a populist. He was a critic of capitalism as practiced by modern corporations, criticizing the way advertising constantly undermines people’s confidence in their skills, their abiliities and the quality of their lives, in order to sell them new products and services. He was also a critic of the educational system, psychology and social work, identity politics, celebrity culture, the destruction of tradition, the devaluation of ordinary skills, and the devaluation of families in modern society. He is basically a democrat and a humanist, with a strong sense that social limitations and social forces make people lead degraded and unhappy lives. This perspective makes him an ambivalent critic of popular culture. The fact that he is a critic of popular culture doesn’t make him a conservative, but some aspects of his critique resonate with intellectual conservatives. Liberal philosophers and ideologues of individualism, identity, and self-actualization like Charles Taylor, writing in The Malaise of Modernity, associate him with Allan Bloom and other conservative social critics.

The term “narcissism“, was relatively obscure in 1979. As Lasch noted in the Afterword to the 1991 Norton paperback edition of The Culture of Narcissism, by 1979, Tom Wolfe’s identification of the 1970’s as the “Me decade” was a journalistic and cultural cliche. Freud used the Greek myth of Narcissus in his own distinctive method of psychological analysis – psychoanalysis – to describe a particular pattern of feeling, thinking and acting. In classical Freudian theory, a very young child is the perfect narcissist. Radically dependent, and frightened of being alone, the child tries to be recognized by adults, to control adults, and find a sense of peace and security. This explains the child’s fears, demands for attention, fantasy life, and extreme emotions. This kind of process is normal in children, but abnormal for adults. As we grow up, we learn about attachments, trust, and independence. We learn our limitations. Narcissists don’t get it – they are so insecure about themselves that they constantly demand attention and constantly try to control other people. It is an elusive concept, because people responding to the same insecurities may act in dramatically different ways. A narcissist may appear to be neurotic, needy and passive-aggressive, or may present as a self-confident person, focussed to the point of being obsessed, perhaps a bully or a predator.

Freud’s ideas were popular with American psychologists for a while, but not necessarily widely understood or accepted. In modern therapeutic literature, narcissism tends to refer to the more aggressive presentations. Mental health professionals used to use the term megalomania as the formal DSM diagnostic category for individuals with a personality problem marked by a grandiose sense of the self. The colloquial term was egotism. In 1980, DSM started referring to it as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The clinical disorder is marked by lack of empathy for other persons, manipulative actions, grandiose fantasies and pretentious behaviour. Narcissism isn’t an especially popular term, but it has gone into common usage to describe people who might otherwise be described as vain, conceited, arrogant, pretentious, selfish, self-absorbed or manipulative. When the word is used this way, it becomes a matter of opinion and perspective. Simple confidence and strength can appear as narcissism to an insecure or defensive person. As Christina Rosen said in her essay The Overpraised American :

But therapy today is itself a form of attention, as a glance at popular self-help books reveals. Lasch might have diagnosed the problem of cultural narcissism, but the contemporary self-help industry has rushed in to try to solve it; the shelves of bookstore self-help aisles are filled with offerings such as Why Is It Always About You? Saving Yourself from the Narcissists in Your Life and Enough About You, Let’s Talk About Me: How to Recognize and Manage the Narcissists in Your Life. In the ever-indulgent world of self-help, the narcissist is, of course, never you; it is always someone else.

Lasch used the term as Freud had used it, rather than in either the modern clinical (DSM) sense or the modern popular sense. He specifically refused to label self-confidence, self-interest and detachment from the needs of others as narcissism. His working method was an analysis of social conditions, looking for indications of narcissism in the Freudian sense. He started with the idea that a lot more ordinary people were acting like classical narcissists, and tried to understand what social circumstances were contributing to this behaviour. Lasch explains cultural narcissism as a response to anxiety, and a social strategy for people who lack a secure sense of their selves. This analysis allows Lasch to identify several interconnected social systems that cause social anxiety, that fail to educate and support people in being aware of their identities as human beings with rights and responsibilities, and that promote extravagant and grandiose behaviour. While he discusses various systems separately, Lasch also describes the evolution of the modern, technological, materialist, consumption-oriented, personally liberated, nominally egalitarian American society. People are insecure because they are in fact vulnerable. More and more people are adopting narcissistic strategies to protect themselves. One strategy is making a grandiose show of ourselves. Another is turning to religious and psychological practices to reach psychological states where we experience peace, harmony and transcendence.

Lasch mentions a therapeutic sensibility as the prevalent way of understanding people’s feeling and actions. He suggests which has largely replaced religion as a source of language about moral and political matters. People understand themselves and others in terms of personality and emotional forces rather than character and moral choice. It is based on the idea of health and it looks for causes – or excuses – for behaviour in both nature and nurture. He discusses the modern fascination with being aware of feelings and justifying actions based on feelings. He suggests that this kind of awareness is superficial and false – he devotes a chapter to the banality of pseudo-self awareness. The therapeutic sensibility subjects people to the judgments of therapeutic experts and people imitating therapeutic experts, which makes people self-concious about how they present themselves. It encourages people to present themselves in socially conventional “healthy” ways, but it celebrates spontaneity and authenticity in personal relations. This makes it acceptable to act like a celebrity, which usually means flamboyant and theatrical behaviour – life as a performance. The therapeutic sensibility is genially non-judgmental towards impulsive and selfish behaviour, but harshly judgmental towards discussion of character, goals and values.

American industry became adept and producing commodities which were supposed to save labour and increase personal freedom. The advertising industry became adept at selling new commodities. This caused people to become dependent on industrial systems, which is a form of vulnerability. The selling process depends on manipulative language, and manipulative tactics to persuade consumers that they need something new. The language of advertising is often appeals to the consumer’s sense of entitlement while undermining the consumer’s sense of his own status and competence. The process contributes to distrust of language, and a pervasive anxiety about having the right possessions to signify safety and success.

Work itself has become more tenuous. Lasch suggests that the old model of work involved purposeful activity and genuine accomplishment. Less jobs involve strength, skill and concrete achievement, and more jobs involve the slippery businesses of networking and selling. Work becomes an exercise in presentation. Workplace relationships become competitive, exploitative and unsatisfying. The old model of success was the self-made man, who created wealth by skill and ingenuity. The modern model is the happy hooker, happily selling herself. The American educational system has become the recruiting and training arm of industry, producing workers and consumers, instead of self-reliant citizens.

An elite class of managers, bureaucrats and professionals has gained increasing power. Political life has become a form of theater and entertainment. Politicians speak to the public through advertising, propaganda and stage-managed events. People find that public life has become distant, and they find themselves powerless to participate. The social sciences have been important to industry and politics, providing new techniques to motivate, persuade, manipulate and control workers, consumers and citizens. The managerial and professional class has aggressively expanded its power and influence. One its projects has been the idea that expert judgments on the process of human social living are possible and desireable. The managerial class discredits tradition, common sense and personal judgments. This has contributed to the erosion of democracy, and the disempowerment of ordinary citizens.

The social structures of families and small communities, in which children learned the business of being human from interaction with trusted adults have been disrupted and largely discredited. For most of the time, adults interact with other adults in the workplace, while their children go to school, where children interact with each other and with a few selected adults. At home, children’s interactions with adults are limited, and tend to be organized around the consumption of commodities – including entertainment commodities in the form of TV, movies and games. Family bonds are strained, the parental role in the socialization and education of children is minimized and parental authority is radically undermined. Adults are culturally sanctioned for not fulfilling their children’s wishes and for hurting their feelings, which reduces them to negotiating with their children, and bribing them to behave well. Adults fail in the task of socializing children, and children become insecure tyrants.

Lasch devoted a short chapter to “The Flight from Feeling, The Sociopsychology of the Sex War” which starts with the claim that the modern dream of a rich, satisfying, erotic and emotional relationship is an illusion, and that “personal relations crumble under the emotional weight with which they are burdened”. Love is based on trust, and it is hard to trust anyone in a culture of narcissism. People are so isolated, so vulnerable, so fearful that they can’t have satisfying emotional relationships. The sexual revolution has not, contrary to the hopes of 20th century liberationists, allowed people to become more intimate. It has simply made us promiscuous.

Christina Rosen covers many of these points, and relates them to the current state of culture in her essay The Overpraised American.

The Culture of Narcissism addressed important social and existential themes – alienation and anomie, but it was read as an attack on popular culture. Lasch felt that he had been misunderstood. He wrote The Minimal Self, Psychic Survival in Troubled Times, published in 1984, and added a long Afterword to the 1991 paperback edition of The Culture of Narcissism to clarify his stance. In the Afterword he wrote:

The best defences against the terrors of existence are the homely comforts of love, work and family life, which connect us to a world that is independent of our wishes yet responsive to our needs. It is through love and work, as Freud noted … that we exchange crippling emotional conflict for ordinary unhappiness. Love and work enable us to explore a small corner of the world and come to accept it on its own terms. But our society tends either to devalue small comforts or to expect too much of them. Our standards of “creative, meaningful work” are too exalted to survive disappointment. Our ideal of “true romance” puts an impossible burden on personal relationships. We demand too much of life, too little of ourselves.

… We find it more and more difficult to a achieve a sense of continuity, permanence or connection with the world around us. Relationships with others are notably fragile; goods are made to be used up and discarded; reality is experienced as an unstable environment of flickering images. Everything conspires to encourage escapist solutions to the psychological problems of dependence, separation and individuation, and to discourage the moral realism that makes it possible for human beings to come to terms with existential constraints on their power and freedom.


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