Staying alive

In the The Minimal Self, Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (1984, ISBN 0-393-01922-5), Christopher Lasch supplemented The Culture of Narcissism, and refined his analysis of cultural narcissism. The earlier book covered economic, political, educational, and social structures, and the psychological experience of living in a consumerist world of superficial exchanges. In that situation people don’t know how to value anything and cannot identify values worth having. The Minimal Self deals more with cultural and psychological issues, with some attention to the political and social movements that came out of the Counterculture of the 1960’s. (He addressed a few points about the Counterculture, the New Left and the New Age in the Afterword of the 1991 Norton paperback edition of The Culture of Narcissism). His method, again, is a review of the social and psychological effects of living in a late capitalist, postmodern society.

This time, he pays more attention, on the one hand, to the experience of alienation and fear, and on the other hand, to the emerging politics of the narcissistic self.
His first main clarification of narcissism is identify it as a cultural response to fears about survival, at two levels – survival as a distinct person, and survival in itself. The second and third Chapters deal with the Survival Mentality, and the Discourse of Mass Death. The Survival Mentality looks at survival themes in the arts and the media. There has been a shift in thinking, so that for many people, survival has become success. There is a pervasive sense of oppression, and for many, victim-hood has become the defining characteristic of personal identity. The Discourse of Mass Death looks at cultural responses to the reality of mass death, the extermination of populations of disposable people. Jewish survivors of the Nazi death camps used the Biblical term “holocaust” to identify the event. He argues that this was partly a response to the debasement of the term genocide, (from ethnic slaughter to any ethnic conflict) and partly a response to a horrifying insight. The Holocaust was a radical slaughter of people who had been systematically dehumanized in a totalitarian regime. He moves on to discuss the debasement of the term totalitarian, originally conceived by Hannah Arendt as a monstrous use of power to render people valueless and superfluous, to a synonym for an authoritarian regime. His argument is that totalitarianism and the Holocaust represent a deep break in the human condition, calling for a renewal of religious faith and a commitment to decent social conditions.
The argument that the Holocaust is distinctive because the Nazis made their victims seem subhuman to the soldiers and functionaries ordered to kill them seems flawed. The dehumanization of victims is a necessary step to induce thousands of human beings to engage in mass murder, and a necessary mechanism of genocide. (For an example from recent memory, watch Hotel Rwanda and listen to the Hutu propagandists calling for the extermination of the cockroaches). The Holocaust lurks like a monster in our consciousness because it exposes the frailty of the American and Western European faith in free markets, democracy and culture. The Germans were a civilized, educated people, who happily elected a lunatic, and followed him into war and mass murder. Both Liberals and conservatives in the West tended to view Western culture as more highly evolved than other cultures, and incapable of the brutalities of humanity in earlier times and other places.
Lasch goes on to review the psychological studies of Holocaust survivors and the relevance of the Holocaust to Jewish identity and world politics. Psychologists study Holocaust survivors as examples of survival under extreme stress. Lasch suggest that when the events are studied this way, the horror is watered down, and people are left arguing about who had it worse, and how to survive. This reflects a disengagement from hope. He argues that where individuals have no power to protect themselves from these monstrous powers, their only refuge from pervasive fear is in imagining ways to survive.
The next chapter returns to themes of survival in the arts and the media looking at novels by writers as diverse as Philip Roth, J.G. Ballard, Henry Burroughs, Henry Miller, Susan Sontag, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Pynchon, and a variety of modern visual art. Here, Lasch tries to show that artists are discerning and expressing concern for survival, in order to show that survival concerns are dominating people’s imaginations.
He devotes a chapter to a reexamination of the Freudian theory of narcissism, and its cultural parallels. In this area, he adds substantially to the ideas covered in The Culture of Narcissism. He draws on Melanie Klein and the later Freudian writers and their theorizing about narcissism and the fragmentation of the ego The simple version of Freud’s theory is that every person has three basic personality structures – id, ego and superego. The id represents basic physical needs and raw emotion, the superego represents social needs and rules, and the ego represents rational self-mastery and the true mature self. Freud identified the ego ideal as an aspect of the superego. Later writers argued it was a separate psychic structure. Lasch treats the ego ideal as a separate structure drawn to visions of unity and perfection in a demanding and selfish way. The ascendancy of the ego ideal is narcissism. In Lasch’s thought people who become fixated on cultic religious practices, personal growth, identity politics and special issue politics are cultural, if not psychological, narcissists. They are typically self-righteous and supercilious, dramatic and intense, and largely detached from the world. They cultivate a posture of critical irony, or a posture of spiritual detachment. They don’t ignore the world outside the self, but they disengage when they can’t control the world outside the self.
Later in the book, he explores the history of the Counterculture and the politics of narcissism. He builds his point by tracing the evolution of the idea of the self, in an arc from individualism to narcissism, in religion and psychology, drawing on his knowledge and skill as a historian. He looks at the tension between ecstatic religion and rationalism within the American Protestant Churches, the assimilation of a light version of Freud’s ideas into the optimism of American psychology, and the influence of Romantic and mystical figures like Jung and Bateson. The end product is an emphasis on being righteous about your feelings. He argues persuasively that the concerns of the New Age and the American New Left with primitive nature, identity, authenticity, feelings, imagination, feminine principles, and utopian visions are essentially narcissistic, and represent a disengagement from the political process.
The idea that emerges, not necessarily in Lasch’s own words, is that there is movement to a politics of taste. The common themes unifying his discussions of the ego ideal, narcissism, the Counterculture, the New Left and the New Age are sentiment, intuition, drama, and beauty. The politics of narcissism are the politics of dramatic protest against the fact that the world is ugly and unhappy. It is idealistic in the sense that it protests the failure of the world to live up to imagined aesthetic ideals of peace and harmony.
The Freudian section of the book is difficult, with Lasch developing an obscure idea of the ego ideal within the obscure and unhappy field of Freudian personality structures. However, it allowed him to develop the metaphor of narcissism and to apply it to modern cultural and political movements. In the first chapter, he reviewed three different sets of reactions to his earlier book, all of which interpret him as a critic of materialism and self-gratification. Conservatives saw him as a critic of a decadent morality and mainstream liberals saw him as a critic of consumerism. The emerging New Left agreed that society was narcissistic, but thought this was a sign of cultural progress. It was focused on self-fulfilment, rather than justice. Lasch didn’t agree with any of those visions and responded by suggesting an alternative to the well-accepted but muddled left-right vision of politics.
He suggested that we might think of three factions, the parties of the superego, the ego and the the ego ideal, each focused on one aspect of the Freudian structure as the dominant mechanism of social control. The party of the superego favours the use of rules. The party of the ego including classical political and economic liberals, want to manipulate people to act the right way. The party of the ego ideal – the Counterculture, the New Age, the postmodern liberalism of feeling, and identity – is self-righteously utopian. His suggestion is fertile with ideas. It creates a framework for his discussion of the cultural and psychological foundations of the modern Left, and implies that the new liberalism of identity politics represents the collapse of democracy, under the pressure of life in the modern world, into postmodern absurdity.
His new classification is basically a critique of the failures of the logic of individualism against the manipulative programs of modern social planning, on the government side, and advertising on the economic side. His own loyalties seem to lie with the party of the Superego, which he identifies with social critics like Daniel Bell and Philip Rieff. He has substantially adopted Rieff’s analysis of the emergence of the therapeutic sensibility. He has much in common with Daniel Bell, who was described by Rick Perlstein, in “The Prophet Motive, Daniel Bell’s take on capitalism 20 years later” (Slate Magazine, 1996):

Daniel Bell is, simply, one of the most important cultural critics of the postwar era, though also something of an anomaly, with his uncompromising commitment to both economic equality and bedrock cultural conservatism.

Lasch writing in 1984, two decades after the Counterculture of the 1960’s, two decades before matters reached their present state, was an early critic of postmodernism. His original idea that cultural narcissism reflects uncertainty about survival becomes stretched, but the book works very well, when read with The Culture of Narcissism, as a critique of the ideology and art of postmodernism and mass culture in late capitalist society.