A pioneering social critic’s prophetic take on the narcissism pandemic
When Christopher Lasch’s landmark book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations was first published in 1979, narcissism was not a term with much popular currency. The book played a large role in changing that, and in the decades since its publication the wide-ranging cultural critique at its core has been embraced by conservatives and liberals alike. While there are sections of The Culture of Narcissism that now seem dated—or at least a product of their time—much of the material in the original edition is so spot-on and even prophetic that it could have been written this year. What follows is a general sampling of particularly timely or prescient passages from a book that has become a sort of Silent Spring of America’s psychological journey inward. —The Editors
This book describes a way of life that is dying—the culture of competitive individualism, which in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a war of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self.
Economic man . . . has given way to the psychological man of our times—the final product of bourgeois individualism. The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety. His sexual attitudes are permissive rather than puritanical, even though his emancipation from ancient taboos brings him no sexual peace. He extols cooperation and teamwork while harboring deeply antisocial impulses. He praises respect for rules and regulations in the secret belief that they do not apply to himself. Acquisitive in the sense that his cravings have no limits, he does not accumulate goods and provisions against the future, in the manner of the acquisitive individualist of 19th-century political economy, but demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire.
Storm warnings, portents, hints of catastrophe haunt our times. The Nazi holocaust, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the depletion of natural resources, well-founded predictions of ecological disaster have fulfilled poetic prophecy, giving concrete historical substance to the nightmare, or death wish, that avant-garde artists were the first to express. Impending disaster has become an everyday concern, so commonplace and familiar that nobody any longer gives much thought to how disaster might be averted. People busy themselves instead with survival strategies, measures designed to prolong their own lives, or programs guaranteed to ensure good health and peace of mind.
The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.
Notwithstanding his occasional illusions of omnipotence, the narcissist depends on others to validate his self-esteem. He cannot live without an admiring audience. [His insecurity can be] overcome only by seeing his “grandiose self” reflected in the attentions of others, or by attaching himself to those who radiate celebrity, power, and charisma. For the narcissist, the world is a mirror, whereas the rugged individualist saw it as an empty wilderness to be shaped to his own design.
Today Americans are overcome not by the sense of endless possibility but by the banality of the social order they have erected against it. People nowadays complain of an inability to feel. They cultivate more vivid experiences, seek to beat sluggish flesh to life, attempt to revive jaded appetites. Outwardly bland, submissive, and sociable, they seethe with an inner anger for which a dense, overpopulated bureaucratic society can devise few legitimate outlets.
The popularity of the confessional mode testifies, of course, to the new narcissism that runs all through American culture. Instead of working through their memories, many writers now rely on mere self-disclosure to keep readers interested, appealing not to their understanding but to their salacious curiosity about the private lives of famous people.
The mass media, with their cult of celebrity and their attempt to surround it with glamour and excitement, have made America a nation of fans and moviegoers. The media give substance to and thus intensify narcissistic dreams of fame and glory, encourage common people to identify themselves with the stars and to hate the “herd,” and make it more and more difficult for them to accept the banality of everyday existence.
The modern propaganda of commodities and the good life has sanctioned impulse gratification and made it unnecessary for the id to apologize for its wishes or disguise their grandiose proportions. But this same propaganda has made failure and loss unsupportable.
The proliferation of recorded images undermines our sense of reality. We distrust our perceptions until the camera verifies them. Photographic images provide us with the proof of our existence, without which we would find it difficult even to reconstruct a personal history.
Medicine and psychiatry—more generally, the therapeutic outlook and sensibility that pervade modern society—reinforce the pattern created by other cultural influences, in which individuals endlessly examine themselves for signs of aging and ill health, for telltale symptoms of psychic stress, for blemishes and flaws that might diminish their attractiveness. . . . Modern medicine has conquered the plagues and epidemics that once made life so precarious, only to create new forms of insecurity. In the same way, bureaucracy has made life predictable and even boring while reviving, in a new form, the war of all against all. Our over-organized society, in which large-scale organizations predominate but have lost the capacity to command allegiance, in some respects more nearly approximates a condition of universal animosity than did the primitive capitalism on which Hobbes modeled his state of nature.
A society that fears it has no future is not likely to give much attention to the needs of the next generation, and the ever-present sense of historical discontinuity—the blight of our society—falls with particularly devastating effect on the family. The modern parent’s attempt to make children feel loved and wanted fails to conceal an underlying coolness—the remoteness of those who have little to pass on to the next generation and who in any case give priority to their own right to self-fulfillment.
The weakening of social ties, which originates in the prevailing state of social warfare, at the same time reflects a narcissistic defense against dependence. A warlike society tends to produce men and women who are at heart antisocial. It should therefore not surprise us to find that although narcissists conform to social norms for fear of external retribution, they often think of themselves as outlaws.
The ethic of self-preservation and psychic survival is rooted, then, not merely in objective conditions of economic warfare, rising rates of crime, and social chaos but in the subjective experience of emptiness and isolation. It reflects the conviction—as much of a projection of inner anxieties as a perception of the way things are—that envy and exploitation dominate even the most intimate relations. The ideology of personal growth, superficially optimistic, radiates a profound despair and resignation. It is the faith of those without faith.
In an age of diminishing expectations, the Protestant virtues no longer incite enthusiasm. Inflation erodes investments and savings. Advertising undermines the horrors of indebtedness, exhorting the consumer to buy now and pay later. Self-preservation has replaced self-improvement as the goal of earthly existence. In earlier times, the self-made man took pride in his judgment of character and probity; today he anxiously scans the faces of his fellows not so as to evaluate their credit but in order to gauge their susceptibility to his own blandishments. He practices the classic arts of seduction with the same indifference to moral niceties, hoping to win your heart while picking your pocket. The happy hooker stands in place of Horatio Alger as the prototype of personal success.
Success in our society has to be ratified by publicity. It is well known that Madison Avenue packages politicians and markets them as if they were cereals or deodorants; but the art of public relations penetrates even more deeply into political life, transforming policy making itself. The modern prince does not much care that “there’s a job to be done”—the slogan of American capitalism at an earlier and more enterprising stage of its development; what interests him is that “relevant audiences,” in the language of the Pentagon Papers, have to be cajoled, won over, seduced.
The search for competitive advantage through emotional manipulation increasingly shapes not only personal relations but relations at work as well. Personal life, no longer a refuge from deprivations suffered at work, has become as anarchical, as warlike, and as full of stress as the marketplace itself. The cocktail party reduces sociability to social combat.
At the same time that public life and even private life take on the qualities of spectacle, a countermovement seeks to model spectacle, theater, all forms of life, on reality—to obliterate the very distinction between art and life. Both developments popularize a sense of the absurd, that hallmark of the contemporary sensibility. Overexposure to manufactured illusions soon destroys their representational power. The illusion of reality dissolves, not in a heightened sense of reality as we might expect, but in a remarkable indifference to reality.
A number of historical currents have converged in our time to produce not merely in artists but also in ordinary men and women an escalating cycle of self-consciousness—a sense of the self as a performer under the constant scrutiny of friends and strangers. . . . To the performing self, the only reality is the identity he can construct out of materials furnished by advertising and mass culture, themes of popular film and fiction, and fragments torn from a vast range of cultural traditions. In order to polish and perfect the part he has devised for himself, the new Narcissus gazes at his own reflection, not so much in admiration as in unremitting search of flaws, signs of fatigue, decay.
In our society, anxious self-scrutiny (not to be confused with critical self-examination) not only serves to regulate information signaled to others and to interpret signals received; it also establishes an ironic distance from the deadly routine of daily life. On the one hand, the degradation of work makes skill and competence increasingly irrelevant to material success and thus encourages the presentation of the self as a commodity; on the other hand, it discourages commitment to the job and drives people, as the only alternative to boredom and despair, to view work with self-critical detachment. When jobs consist of little more than meaningless motions, and when social routines, formerly dignified as ritual, degenerate into role playing, workers . . . seek to escape from the resulting sense of inauthenticity by creating an ironic distance from their daily routine. They take refuge in jokes, mockery, and cynicism. By demystifying daily life, they convey to themselves and others the impression that they have risen beyond it, even as they go through the motions and do what is expected of them. As more and more people find themselves working at jobs that are in fact beneath their abilities, as leisure and sociability themselves take on the qualities of work, the posture of cynical detachment becomes the dominant style of everyday intercourse.
Excerpted from The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations, by Christopher Lasch. Copyright © 1979 by Christopher Lasch. Used by permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
This article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.