The Cultural Narcissist
Written by: Palma
Sam Vaknin's Psychology, Philosophy, Economics and Foreign Affairs Web Sites
"The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety. He seeks not to inflict his own certainties on others but to find a meaning in life. Liberated from the superstitions of the past, he doubts even the reality of his own existence. Superficially relaxed and tolerant, he finds little use for dogmas of racial and ethnic purity but at the same time forfeits the security of group loyalties and regards everyone as a rival for the favors conferred by a paternalistic state. His sexual attitudes are permissive rather than puritanical, even though his emancipation from ancient taboos brings him no sexual peace. Fiercely competitive in his demand for approval and acclaim, he distrusts competition because he associates it unconsciously with an unbridled urge to destroy. Hence he repudiates the competitive ideologies that flourished at an earlier stage of capitalist development and distrusts even their limited expression in sports and games. 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 nineteenth-century political economy, but demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire." (Christopher Lasch - The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an age of Diminishing Expectations, 1979)
"A characteristic of our times is the predominance, even in groups traditionally selective, of the mass and the vulgar. Thus, in intellectual life, which of its essence requires and presupposes qualification, one can note the progressive triumph of the pseudo-intellectual, unqualified, unqualifiable..." (Jose Ortega y Gasset - The Revolt of the Masses, 1932)
Can Science be passionate? This question seems to sum up the life of Christopher Lasch, erstwhile a historian of culture later transmogrified into an ersatz prophet of doom and consolation, a latter day Jeremiah. Judging by his (prolific and eloquent) output, the answer is a resounding no.
There is no single Lasch. This chronicler of culture, did so mainly by chronicling his inner turmoil, conflicting ideas and ideologies, emotional upheavals, and intellectual vicissitudes. In this sense, of (courageous) self-documentation, Mr. Lasch epitomized Narcissism, was the quintessential Narcissist, the better positioned to criticize the phenomenon.
Some "scientific" disciplines (e. g., the history of culture and History in general) are closer to art than to the rigorous (a. k.a. "exact" or "natural" or "physical" sciences). Lasch borrowed heavily from other, more established branches of knowledge without paying tribute to the original, strict meaning of concepts and terms. Such was the use that he made of "Narcissism".
"Narcissism" is a relatively well-defined psychological term. I expound upon it elsewhere ("Malignant self Love - Narcissism Re-Visited"). The Narcissistic Personality Disorder - the acute form of pathological Narcissism - is the name given to a group of 9 symptoms (see: DSM-4). They include: a grandiose Self (illusions of grandeur coupled with an inflated, unrealistic sense of the Self), inability to empathize with the Other, the tendency to exploit and manipulate others, idealization of other people (in cycles of idealization and devaluation), rage attacks and so on. Narcissism, therefore, has a clear clinical definition, etiology and prognosis.
The use that Lasch makes of this word has nothing to do with its usage in psychopathology. True, Lasch did his best to sound "medicinal". He spoke of "(national) malaise" and accused the American society of lack of self-awareness. But choice of words does not a coherence make.
Lasch was a member, by conviction, of an imaginary "Pure Left". This turned out to be a code for an odd mixture of Marxism, religious fundamentalism, populism, Freudian analysis, conservatism and any other - ism that Lasch happened to come across. Intellectual consistency was not Lasch's strong point, but this is excusable, even commendable in the search for Truth. What is not excusable is the passion and conviction with which Lasch imbued the advocacy of each of these consecutive and mutually exclusive ideas.
"The Culture of Narcissism - American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations" was published in the first year of the unhappy presidency of Jimmy Carter (1979). The latter endorsed the
book publicly (in his famous "national malaise" speech).
The main thesis of the book is that the Americans have created a self-absorbed (though not self aware), greedy and frivolous society which depended on consumerism, demographic studies, opinion polls and Government to know and to define itself. What is the solution?
Lasch proposed a "return to basics": self-reliance, the family, nature, the community, and the Protestant work ethic. To those who adhere, he promised an elimination of their feelings of alienation and despair.
The apparent radicalism (the pursuit of social justice and equality) was only that: apparent. The New Left was morally self-indulgent. In an Orwellian manner, liberation became tyranny and transcendence - irresponsibility. The "democratization" of education: "...has neither improved popular understanding of modern society, raised the quality of popular culture, nor reduced the gap between wealth and poverty, which remains as wide as ever. On the other hand, it has contributed to the decline of critical thought and the erosion of intellectual standards, forcing us to consider the possibility that mass
education, as conservatives have argued all along, is intrinsically incompatible with the maintenance of educational standards".
Lasch derided capitalism, consumerism and corporate America as much as he loathed the mass media, the government and even the welfare system (intended to deprive its clients of their moral responsibility and indoctrinate them as victims of social circumstance). These always remained the villains. But to this - classically leftist - list he added the New Left. He bundled the two viable alternatives in American life and discarded them both. Anyhow, capitalism's days were numbered, a contradictory system as it was, resting on "imperialism, racism, elitism, and inhuman acts of technological destruction". What was left except God and the Family?
Lasch was deeply anti-capitalist. He rounded up the usual suspects with the prime suspect being multinationals. To him, it wasn't only a question of exploitation of the working masses. Capitalism acted as acid on the social and moral fabrics and made them disintegrate. Lasch adopted, at times, a theological perception of capitalism as an evil, demonic entity. Zeal usually leads to inconsistency of argumentation: Lasch claimed, for instance, that capitalism negated social and moral traditions while pandering to the lowest common denominator. There is a contradiction here: social mores and traditions are, in many cases, THE lowest common denominator. Lasch displayed a total lack of understanding of market mechanisms and the history of markets. True, markets start out as mass-oriented and entrepreneurs tend to mass - produce to cater to the needs of the newfound consumers. However, as markets evolve - they fragment. Individual nuances of tastes and preferences tend to transform the mature market from a cohesive, homogenous entity - to a loose coalition of niches. Computer aided design and production, targeted advertising, custom made products, personal services - are all the outcomes of the maturation of markets. It is where capitalism is absent that uniform mass production of goods of shoddy quality takes over. This may have been Lasch's biggest fault: that he persistently and wrong-headedly ignored reality when it did not serve his pet theorizing. He made up his mind and did not wish to be confused by the facts. The facts are that all the alternatives to the known four models of capitalism (the Anglo-Saxon, the European, the Japanese and the Chinese) have failed miserably and have led to the very consequences that Lasch warned against… in capitalism. It is in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc, that social solidarity has evaporated, that traditions were trampled upon, that religion was brutally suppressed, that pandering to the lowest common denominator was official policy, that poverty - material, intellectual and spiritual - became all pervasive, that people lost all self reliance and communities disintegrated.
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