Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Culture of Narcissism Revisted by Christopher Lasch

This is a rendition of Lasch's 1990 'Afterword' to the current edition of The Culture of Narcissism first published in 1979. It might suggest to the reader the while the objects of the protests of the "tea-baggers" are essentially correct, their cultural conditioning is such that the best they can produce is an impotent spectacle. Although Lasch's political perspective was socialist, he was an iconoclast with 'populist' sympathies.

Thanks to Tom Wolfe and a whole pack of lesser journalists, the seventies had already come to be known as the "me decade" by the time The Culture of Narcissism appeared in 1979. Many commentators understandably read the book as one more account of the self-centered attitudes that seemed to have replaced the social concerns of the sixties. Journalists have taught us to think of decades as the standard unit of historical time and to expect a new set of cultural trends at ten-year intervals. If the sixties were the Age of Aquarius, the age of social commitment and cultural revolution, the seventies soon gained a reputation for self-absorption and political retreat.

Reviewers greeted The Culture of Narcissism as another "jeremiad" against self-indulgence, a summing up of the seventies. Those who found the book too gloomy predicted that it would soon be outdated in any case, since the new decade that was about to begin required a new set of trends, new slogans and catchwords, to distinguish it from its predecessors.

As it turned out, the eighties did not see a revival of altruism and civic spirit, as many commentators predicted. Yuppies, who set the cultural tone of that decade, were not known for their unselfish devotion to the public good. Now that another decade ( 90s) is beginning, I am asked whether 'the I's still have it," in the words of the New York Times. Are we still a nation of narcissists? Or have we finally begun to rediscover a sense of civic obligation? These are the wrong questions, I think; but even if they were the right ones, they are questions that are quite irrelevant to the issues addressed in The Culture of Narcissism.

Narcissism was not just another name for selfishness. The conclusions of my long studies of the influence of culture on personality were not that American society was "sick" or that Americans were all candidates for a mental asylum but that normal people now displayed many of the same personality traits that appeared, in more extreme form, in pathological narcissism. Freud always stressed the continuity between the normal and the abnormal and it therefore seemed reasonable, as a Freudian, to expect that clinical descriptions of narcissistic disorders would tell us something about the typical personality structure in a society dominated by large bureaucratic organization and mass media, in which families no longer played an important role in the transmission of culture and people had accordingly had little sense of connection to the past.

I was struck by the number of observers who spoke in general terms of a collapse of 'impulse controls,' the "decline of the superego", and the growing influence of peer groups. Moreover, psychiatrists described a shift in the pattern of the symptoms displayed by their patients. The classic neurosis treated by Freud were giving way to narcissistic personality disorders. "You used to see people coming in with hand-washing compulsions, phobias, and familiar neuroses, now you see mostly narcissists." The evidence provided by several studies of business corporations, to the effect that professional advancement had come to depend less on craftsmanship or loyalty to the firm than on "visibility", "momentum", personal charm, and impression management [Public Relations]. The dense interpersonal environment of modern bureaucracy appeared to elicit and reward a narcissistic response- an anxious concern with the impression made on others, a tendency to treat others as a mirror of the self.

The prevailing social conditions thus brought out narcissistic personality traits that were present, in varying degrees, in everyone- a certain protective shallowness, a fear of binding commitments, a willingness to pull up roots whenever the need arose, a desire to keep one's options open, a dislike of depending on anyone, an incapacity for loyalty or gratitude.

Narcissists may have paid more attention to their own needs than to those of others, but self-love and self-aggrandizement did not impress me as their most important characteristics. These qualities implied a strong, stable sense of selfhood, whereas narcissists suffered from a feeling of inauthenticity and inner emptiness. They found it difficult to make connection to the world.. At its most extreme, their condition approximated that of Kaspar Hauser, the nineteenth-century German foundling raised in solitary confinement, whose "impoverished relations with his cultural environment" left him with a feeling of being utterly at life's mercy.

I go on in this retrospective to considerations that help to see how psychological defenses against separation anxiety- against early feelings of helplessness and dependence- can be elaborated in human culture. One way to deny our dependence on nature ( mothers in early consciousness) is to invent technologies designed to make us masters of nature. Technology, when it is conceived in this way, embodies an attitude towards nature diametrically opposed to an exploratory attitude represented by the idea of conscience which originates in traditional, family-based religious notions of remorse, forgiveness and gratitude and recognizes material limits to personal gratification ( "having it all"). It appeals to the residual belief that we can bend the world to our desires, harness nature to our own purpose, and achieve a state of complete self-sufficiency. This Faustian view of technology has been a powerful force in Western history, reaching its climax in the Industrial Revolution, with its remarkable gains in productivity, and in the even more remarkable advances promised by the post-industrial information explosion.

The secret of life itself now seems within our grasp, according to those who predict a revolution in genetics- in which case it may be possible for us to keep ourselves alive indefinitely or at least to extend the human life span to unheard-of-lengths. This impending triumph over old age and death, we are told, is the ultimate tribute to humanity's power to master its surroundings. The prolongevity movement embodies the utopian possibilities of modern technology in its purest form- culture's regressive solution to the problem of narcissism because it seeks to restore the primal illusion of omnipotence and refuses to accept the limits of our collective self-sufficiency- a revolt against nature and a revolt against God.

Although the science of ecology- an example of the "exploratory" attitude towards nature, as opposed to the Faustian attitude- leaves no doubt about the inescapability of our dependence on nature- that human intervention into natural processes have far-reaching consequences that will always remain to some extent incalculable- so far it has had little practical success in overcoming the economic and social processes associated with narcissism even among its most vociferous advocates.

But even our deeply rooted, misplaced faith in technology does not fully describe modern culture. What remains to be explained is how an exaggerated respect for technology can coexist with a revival of ancient superstitions, a belief in reincarnation, a growing fascination with the occult, and the bizarre forms of spirituality associated with the New Age movement. Archaic myths and superstitions have reappeared in the very heart of the most modern, scientifically enlightened, and progressive nations in the world, suggesting that both are deeply rooted in social conditions that make it increasingly difficult for people to accept the reality of sorrow, loss, aging and death- to live within limits, in short. The anxieties peculiar to the modern world seem to have intensified old mechanisms of denial, deeply rooted in primary narcissism....*

The best defenses 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 in a characteristically pungent remark, that we exchange crippling emotional conflict for ordinary unhappiness. Love and work enable each of 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 else 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.

Our growing dependence on technologies no one seems to understand or control has given rise to feelings of powerlessness and victimization. We find it more and more difficult to 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 problem of dependence, separation, and individualization, 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


  1. *Instead of dreaming of the imposition of human will on the intractable world of matter, the New Age movement, which revives themes found in ancient Gnosticism, simply denies the reality of the material world. By treating matter essentially as an illusion, it removes every obstacle to the re-creation of a primary sense of wholeness and equilibrium- the return to the Nirvana principle, as Freud aptly called it, a longing for the complete cessation of tension, which seems to operate independent of the "pleasure principle' and follows a "backward path that leads to complete satisfaction."... New Age spirituality takes strange shapes, but it is a prominent feature of our cultural landscape, like fundamentalism itself, which has grown steadily in recent years. The flowering of such movements has confounded earlier assumptions about the increasing secularization of modern life. Science has not displaced religion. Both seem to flourish side by side, often in grotesquely exaggerated form [and pursuant to the dominant personality traits of our time.]"

  2. faux intellectual bllx filling the unexplained - as usual