The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Expectations The culture of narcissism was widely recognised as a socio-cultural critique of American society when published in 1979. Written by Christopher Lasch, the book analyzes a social phenomenon identified by Christopher Lasch as ‘cultural narcissism’, a process by which certain attributes of the pathological branch of narcissism (Bocock, 2002) become societal characteristics (Lasch, 1991). This review will be analyzing the relevance of the book within wider sociological debate.
I will argue that although the book identifies a recognisable social trend it fails to deomonstrate a specific cause or reason for that trend.
The author proclaims that the causes of narcissism are the decline in the family and fetishism of commodities (Lasch). I will go on to argue that capitalism is the main cause of narcissism and that Lasch fails to diagnose the problem by focusing on superficial aspects of it rather than the root cause. I will also argue that by analyzing the causes of the problem superficially the author only suggest superficial and erroneous solutions.
Books Core Argument The culture of narcissism is inspired by Sigmund Freud’s theory of pathological narcissism. There are obvious similarities between both thesis, but they also differ in that for Freud it was a pathological illness of a determined group of individuals with an over developed sense of self. For Lasch, contemporary social trends have led to narcissism becoming a cultural rather than a psychological phenomena, in the sense that aspects of Freudian narcissism have become characteristic of modern social life.
But by becoming a social phenomena, cultural narcissism is expressed in a very different way from pathological narcissism. Lasch argued that the cultural narcissist was not self obsessed and did not have an over developed ego as Freud had suggested. In fact it was the lack of self worth and an uncertain and fragile sense of self that made the narcissist dependent on the opinions of others in order to form his or her own identities.
By depending on others the majority of people in modern American society (and these traits can, I argue, be identified in British society) form relationships that are parasitic in nature, and divide and isolate individuals rather than unite them. The author argues that in today’s society, skills, knowledge and ability are less important as being perceived as having those characteristics. The fear of death may be a universal condition, but modern western society attempts to deal with these understandable fears with holistic therapy, cosmetic surgery and self help books.
Rather than by encouraging people to engage with the social and political world in order to make it a rewarding and fulfilling experience, the modern narcissistic individual is encouraged to see his or her life as a spectacle for others, where gratification is gained from having a winning image that is admired and coveted by others. Cultural narcissism not only affects individuals but also manifests itself within social institutions.
Lasch accepts Marx’s (1844) argument that the influences of the market on everyday life have come to shape the ways in which we relate to each other as individuals and put a value not just on the objects being produced but also those who produce it. This influence of the economic structure on the personal lives of citizens comes to shape all relationships around us and according to Lasch means that we see each other only in terms of how we utilise others. Context The book was an insightful socio-cultural representation of the American society of the time.
A nation that was humiliated in the Vietnam War and constantly negotiating with the USSR during the cold was losing faith in its own ability to solve the socio-economic problems that are endemic to capitalist society. In this sense, however, it is perplexing to find that although the author focuses on the socio-economic factors that influence cultural narcissism there was not mention of capitalism on the index of the book and Karl Marx only gets a very scant mention despite the obvious use of his theories. According to Lasch we have become a society of consumers rather than producers.
Marx (1844) saw humanity as creative, purposive labourers or producers, where only the private ownership of the means of production prevented humanity from producing for need rather than for the profit of the capitalist, This modus operandi means that late capitalism has actually robbed us of the purpose of humanity as a species. However, Lasch identified that because production of many of the goods enjoyed by western society are now produced overseas, people conceive of themselves far more as consumers rather than as producers.
By taking away our capacity to produce the goods that we consume, capitalism has removed the essence of human life for Marx and left us with nothing but an ache to constantly and remorselessly consume. This only leaves us with a distinct sense of dissatisfaction and a fear of not leaving any worthy evidence of our existence (Lasch). The fear of ‘no exist’ as Lasch puts it, is a deep void that the narcissist constantly and unsuccessfully tries to fill. This fear inspired by a narcissistic culture has similarities with Ulrich Beck’s theory of modernity. Beck argues that we live in society where risk is prevalent.
Most of these risks are manmade and a result of technological development, and the environmental damages this can cause. However, unlike Lasch, Beck sees some positive consequences from this, in the form of the social solidarity that can develop from the management of risk, or the response to natural or manmade disasters. Lasch’s theory is closely related to Beck’s individualisation thesis which explains that structural constraints are loosening, and that identity is becoming a choice we make. In other words Giddens (2009) argues that identity is a DIY project.
Identity is no longer a given, but an ongoing process in which we construct or write our own biographies and through a process of reflexivity can change our perception of self, and how we are perceived by others. These two theses share some very defining features: The preoccupation with historical continuity (for or against it), self surveillance and the presumed necessity of others in order to form our identities. Both theses are looked at from different perspectives, for Lasch the culture of competitive individualism would ultimately provoke the collapse of society.
For Giddens individualization has positive outcomes such as the “emancipation from the repressive conditions of the past” (Addams; p, 120), and the opportunity to change the biographical history of the individual through the process of reflexivity. Evaluation The book is inspired by and a reaction to modern western capitalist societies. The author offers not only a descriptive account of the society in which he lived, but a pessimistic interpretation of the direction he thought these societies were developing in. The narcissistic characteristics are not only present but exacerbated in our cultural milieu.
The most evident characteristics of cultural narcissism in our society are, an obsessive interest in the rich and famous, an exaggerated use of photographic devices that serve as the most relevant and believable evidence of our existence and finally how the therapeutic sensibility and consumerism have taken over the influential moral guidance that institutions such as the church and the family used to provide. I would also argue that many of the trends and traits Lasch identified have become prevalent since the 1970’s.
In particular, with the development of the internet, the ability to put photographs and videos onto one’s own Facebook page, for one’s friends to see, is further evidence of what Lasch thought of as people’s need to prove to others that they have done the things that they say they have. That without the evidence, and the admiration of that evidence, those events, (parties, weddings, daytrips, etc. ,) do not seem real. However, I found myself frustrated by the author’s superficiality when treating certain aspects of his thesis, and in particular, the diagnosis of the causes of cultural narcissism being the clearest example.
The author fails to provide a strong and in-depth explanation of why and how capitalism is the root cause of narcissism. By suggesting the decline of the family and the fetishism of commodities as responsible for narcissism, the author is looking at the causes only superficially. These two factors are not the root cause but only expressions of the real problem: the way in which the market in capitalist society comes to influence every aspect of the life of the individual.
This became a focal point of criticisms directed to the book with which I thoroughly agreed, as Kammen argued, the author “had the responsibility of showing how and why is capitalism the cause of so many evils, this it does not do, instead we get a series of bald assertions rather than explicitly historical explanations”(Kammen, 1979 ) A good example of this is the way in which Lasch argued that “Modern capitalist society not only elevates narcissists to prominence, it elicits and reinforces narcissistic traits in everyone”(p. 32). This assertion should have been followed by a Marxian analysis of the impact of capitalism upon socio-economic historical structures as identified by Kammen, but instead we get another list of the anecdotal consequences of capitalism without an analysis of the causes. Despite the psychoanalytical approach, the book does try to explain in socio–economic terms the cultural phenomenon of narcissism, so it was disappointing not to find a more consistent and in depth critique of capitalism as the ultimate cause of narcissism.
This is in my criteria perhaps the greatest limitation of the book. The decline of the family is according to Andre Gorz (1999:454) intrinsically connected to the market and the way in which it dictates how we live in capitalist societies. According to Gorz capitalism bases our worth as individuals on our capacity to sell our skills or labour power.
Only marketable skills are truly valued in a capitalist society, and as such, a relative, who chooses to care for a sick or elderly relative is of less of a value, than a professional who chooses to make his or her skills a commodity. The effect of the economic sphere onto private life, or indeed the public sphere, has been detrimental to the family and the socialisation of our children, as Lasch argued (p,232) capitalism “ undermines parental authority and thus making it hard for children to grow up”.
The belief that financial worth and independency supersedes any other type of social value is a part of the moral propaganda dispersed by the ruling classes in order to sustain the otherwise unsustainable levels of consumerism required by the capitalist mode of production. So whereas The Culture of Narcissism has demonstrated the existence of narcissism, and then identified the cause(s) of it, Lasch has only really managed to do the first of these successfully. It is the contention of this review that Lasch has made two fundamental errors: .
By not specifying one particular causal explanation for cultural narcissism, but instead spotting narcissism in many forms in life and popular culture, and seemingly giving each its own particular causal explanation, The Culture of Narcissism falls short of the high standards in sociological theorising set by Marx or Durkheim, or Giddens and Beck who engage in the classical sociological project of attributing a particular causal chain of reasoning under which all other social phenomena can be explained. . Whereas Marx was optimistic about the future, as the solution of contemporary problems, Lasch had no such concerns or faith. In itself, this cannot be seen as a fault, as he cannot be expected to argue something he does not believe, but it raises an issue of where the solution to the problem of narcissism lies. In his work on the family, Lasch looks to the 1950’s as a more harmonious time, and he clearly prefers the political idealism of the 1960’s to the therapeutic sensibility of the 1970’s.
But whereas Craib (1992: 222) realised that for Lasch the answer to the problem of narcissism lay in the past, this is clearly an unrealistic prospect. Furthermore, Lasch does not show how, even if it were possible, to revert to a less narcissistic period, how the mistakes of the past (and a return to current levels of narcissism) could be avoided. Conclusion The book is certainly commendable for the insights it offers into our society and for opening this social phenomenon to debate in the sociological arena and wider society. Its greatest downfall is the superficial and inconsistent analyses of the causes of narcissism. By failing to diagnose the root cause of the phenomenon the author can’t satisfactorily provide solutions that are not at the same superficial level than the causes he suggested.
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