The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations

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I’ve been meaning to read Christopher Lasch, finally got around to it. What better gut punch than this 1979 book that lays out the outlines of what our vastly-more decayed society in 2016 looks like? He lays it all out in the preface, accusing bourgeois society of having “lost both the capacity and the will to confront the difficulties that threaten to overwhelm it.” This is derived from our widespread rejection of the past and he quotes David Donald about “a sense of the irrelevance of history and of the bleakness of the new era we are entering.” We assumed that we would learn from our mistakes, but the lessons taught are “not merely irrelevant but dangerous.” A glimmer of hope in the wreckage comes from the revival of local action in the face of modern bureaucracy, but the biggest threat comes from narcissists among us. “The narcissist has no interest in the future because he has so little interest in the past…. [living in] a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire.” Now that I’m finished reading it, I can summarize by saying this book has a few good chapters but seems to go off the rails after a hundred pages.

The Awareness Movement and Social Invasion of the Self

“To live for the moment is the prevailing passion—to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity. We are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future. It is the waning of the sense of historical time—in particular, the erosion of any strong concern for posterity—that distinguishes the spiritual crisis of the seventies from earlier outbreaks of millenarian religion, to which it bears a superficial resemblance.”

Why are we so angry?
“Today Americans are overcome not by the sense of endless possibility but by the banality of the social order they have erected against it… Twentieth-century peoples have erected so many psychological barriers against strong emotion, and have invested those defenses with so much of the energy derived from forbidden impulse, that they can no longer remember what it feels like to be inundated by desire. They tend, rather, to be consumed with rage, which derives from defenses against desire and gives rise in turn to new defenses against rage itself. Outwardly bland, submissive, and sociable, they seethe with an inner anger for which a dense, overpopulated, bureaucratic society can devise few legitimate outlets.”

The void within – blame it on the media
“The mass media, with their cult of celebrity and their attempt to surround it with glamour and excitement, have made Americans a nation of fans, moviegoers. The media give substance to and thus intensify narcissistic dreams of fame and glory, encourage the common man to identify himself with the stars and to hate the ‘herd,’ and make it more difficult to accept the banality of everyday existence.”

“Experiences of inner emptiness, loneliness, and inauthenticity… arise from the warlike conditions that pervade American society, from the dangers and uncertainty that surround us, and from a loss of confidence in the future. The poor have always had to live for the present, but now a desperate concern for personal survival, sometimes disguised as hedonism, engulfs the middle class as well.”

The Critique of Privatism: Richard Sennett on the Fall of the Public Man
Sennett criticizes narcissism and says that the best things in the Western cultural tradition come from “conventions that once regulated impersonal relations in public.” This is the crux of it for me, the decline in civility. Need to read Sennett’s book next.

The Narcissistic Personality of Our Time

Lasch rails on the idea that we’ve come to equate narcissism with the baseline of human condition. It’s not the normal, although it’s what is encouraged in the corporate offices of middle managers everywhere. What’s causing all this narcissism? First off, bureaucracy. “For the corporate manager on the make, power consists not of money and influence but of ‘momentum,’ a ‘winning image,’ a reputation as a winner. Power lies in the eye of the beholder and thus has no objective reference at all.” Another factor, the idea that one must go in for periodic medical checkups, no longer feeling secure until you get a “clean bill of health.”

What else is causing the spike? (This bit is almost too much to handle, forty years later when things have gotten so much worse:) “Another influence is the mechanical reproduction of culture, the proliferation of visual and audial images in the ‘society of the spectacle.’ We live in a swirl of images and echoes that arrest experience and play it back in slow motion. Cameras and recording machines not only transcribe experience but alter its quality, giving to much of modern life the character of an enormous echo chamber, a hall of mirrors. Life presents itself as a success of images or electronic signals, of impressions recorded and reproduced by means of photography, motion picture,s television, and sophisticated recording devices. Modern life is so thoroughly mediated by electronic images that we cannot help responding to others as if their actions—and our own—were being recorded and simultaneously transmitted to an unseen audience or stored up for close scrutiny at some later time. ‘Smile, you’re on candid camera!’ The intrusion into everyday life of this all-seeing eye no longer takes us by surprise or catches us with our defenses down. We need no reminder to smile. A smile is permanently graven on our features, and we already know from which of several angles it photographs to best advantage. ”

Changing Modes of Making It

“What a man does matters less than the fact that he has ‘made it.’ Whereas fame depends on the performance of notable deeds acclaimed in biography and works of history, celebrity—the reward of those who project a vivid or pleasing exterior or have otherwise attracted attention to themselves—is acclaimed in the news media, in gossip columns, on talk shows, in magazines…” Now success shifts from task mastery to controlling others, feeding narcissism. And you get no respite outside of work, either. “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. Experts write tactical manuals in the art of social survival, advising the status-seeking partygoer to take up a commanding position in the room, surround himself with a loyal band of retainers, and avoid turning his back on the field of battle.”

“The propaganda of death and destruction, emanating ceaselessly from the mass media, adds to the prevailing atmosphere of insecurity… The impression of arbitrariness in the reporting of disaster reinforces the arbitrary quality of the experience itself, and the absence of continuity in the coverage of events, as today’s crisis yields to a new and unrelated crisis tomorrow, adds to the sense of historical discontinuity—the sense of living in a world in which the past holds out no guidance to the present and the future has become completely unpredictable.”

Banality of Pseudo-Self-Awareness

Advertising has a few negative effects—it pushes consumption as a way of life instead of protest or rebellion. In Nystrom’s words, “industrial civilization gives rise to a philosophy of futility, a pervasive fatigue, a disappointment with achievements.” Purchasing happiness is the easy way out. With the rise of ads, the rise of lies. “Truth has given way to credibility, facts to statements that sound authoritative without conveying any authoritative information.” As Boorstin points out (in his The Image, which I also read and enjoyed), we live in a world of pseudo-events and quasi information, “In which the air is saturated with statements that are neither true nor false but merely credible.” Politics has become spectacle (AHEM!), and Lasch cites Nixon as the example, having “an indifference to truth that goes beyond cynicism—an indifference that can be explained only on the assumption that the concept of truth, for men exercising irresponsible powers, has lost most of its meaning… words chosen purely for their public effect quickly lose all reference to reality. Political discussion founded on such principles degenerates into meaningless babble…”

Beyond advertising and politics, the actual theater shows the sickness of humanity with the rise of the theater of the absurd. “The contemporary playwright abandons the effort to portray coherent and generally recognized truths and presents the poet’s personal intuition of truth. The characteristic devaluation of language, vagueness as to time and place, sparse scenery, and lack of plot development evoke the barren world of the borderline.”

Degradation of Sport

Apparently at one time, sport was considered a good thing, centered around “play” and “teamwork.” Television has ruined this among other things, rearranging the sporting event calendar to suit its needs and “deprive sports of their familiar connection with the seasons, diminishing their power of allusiveness and recall.” Plus, as spectators become less knowledgeable about sport, “they become sensation-minded and bloodthirsty.”

Schooling and the New Illiteracy

A somewhat controversial chapter; Lasch smacks down public education pretty hard, saying that instead of bringing intellectualism to the masses, we’ve dumbed down schools. Yes, while everyone is technically literate, they suffer from a new form of illiteracy, “unable to use language with ease and precision, to recall the basic facts of their country’s history, to make logical deductions, to understand any but the most rudimentary written texts, or even to grasp their constitutional rights.” By giving everyone education, “instead of creating a community of self-governing citizens, [we’ve] contributed to the spread of intellectual torpor and political passivity.” Why? Because of the way we teach, forcing all children to go to school for a certain amount of time, and bringing down the standards of what we teach. Lasch rails against “multiversity” and the inclusion of black studies and women’s studies into colleges.

One thing he points out is quite interesting—because we’ve entirely rejected religious study for the most part, “biblical references, which formerly penetrated deep into everyday awareness, have become incomprehensible, and the same things is now happening to the literature and mythology of antiquity—indeed, to the entire literary tradition of the West, which has always drawn so heavily on biblical and classical sources. In the space of two or three generations, enormous stretches of the ‘Judaeo-Christian tradition,’ so often invoked by educators but so seldom taught in any form, have passed into oblivion. The effective loss of cultural traditional on such a scale makes talk of a new Dark Age far from frivolous. Yet this loss coincides with an information glut, with the recovery of the past by specialists, and with an unprecedented explosion of knowledge—none of which, however, impinges on everyday experience or shapes popular culture.”

The rest of the book

There’s a dumb chapter on Socialization of Reproduction and how because our mothers aren’t close to us, we become narcissistic. :-/

Next an even dumber chapter on feminism, how women really shouldn’t ask for men to be both tender and sexual. The only sane thing he says in the chapter is that the battle between the sexes has intensified because of “the irrational male response to the emergence of the liberated woman.” One of the worst things he says: “it appears that the exploitation of women by men… antedates the establishment of production based on private property and may well survive its demise.”

Right on the heels of the woman problem, the elderly problem. Now that we’re not valuing the wisdom of our old people, they’re not connected to the life cycle, not handing down their knowledge. Not sure the narcissist connection.