American culture has for years been seen as shallow, hedonistic, and narcissistic. This has been especially true within recent years, with many within our country and around the world decrying what is seen as our self-absorbed attitude. In The Culture of Narcissism, Christohper Lasch defines the narcissism of American society not as self-absorption, but a form of self-loathing stemming from a lack of a sense of history and rooted in the decline in the family. He chronicles how this has resulted in a form of dependency on outside forces and life becoming theater. Written in 1979, Lasch seems to be the godfather of modern social critique. His ultimate message, in my opinion, is that thought has an important, if not singular, impact on life.
In the book, Lasch compares modern American culture to the psychological disorder of pathological Narcissism, asserting that the character traits associated with it “in less extreme form appear in the everyday life of our age” (Lasch, 1979). This narcissism is not a form of selfishness or inordinate self-love, it is a seeking for meaning in life (Lasch, 1979). The search is in vain, however, since the narcissist is in a state of constant yearning. Psychology describes narcissistic personality disorder as one possessing a grandiose sense of self-importance (Widiger, 2000). Traits include the seeking “excessive admiration from others” and fantasizing about limitless success and power (Widiger, 2000). Again sourcing psychology, Lasch discusses to the development of narcissism from the infant experience to put his theory in context.
Lasch sites Freud’s description of narcissism beginning in infancy, in which the infant is unable to distinguish his existence from its mother. This results in the infant confusing dependence on its mother with its own omnipotence (Lasch, 1979). Over time, the infant comes to separate itself from its surroundings, which results in frustration. The narcissist develops the aforementioned traits as well as others as a way to cope with the frustration and/or regain that sense of omnipotence from infancy (Lasch, 1979). Observing a parallel between these behaviors and the behavior of modern American society, Lasch sees a culture suffering from a kind of self-hatred.
Connected to this self-hatred is modern culture’s declining sense of historical time. Of particular note is loss of the feeling of being part of a continuation of generations (Lasch, 1979). The past, in the narcissistic mind and contemporary American thought, is of no importance The primary concern today is to “live in the now”, since not only the past unimportant, but the future is uncertain. According to Lasch, the prevailing notion of society not having a future “…incorporates a narcissistic inability…to feel oneself part of a historical stream…”(Lasch, 1979). This view of the world, then, contends not only is there no reason to live for one’s ancestors given the unimportance of the past, there is no reason to live for those to come (Lasch, 1979). Lasch exemplifies this in his discussion of the pervading fear of aging and death (in particular, the aversion to old age) describing attempts at staving off the process such as the urging of couples to postpone or forgo parenting, taking early retirement, and medical efforts to lengthen people’s lifespan.
At the heart of the rise of the narcissistic nature in our society is the breakdown of the family (Lasch, 1979). Lasch attributes this to the modern capitalistic structure, which has shifted the worker from being a producer to being a consumer and made work duties routine. This created a need for a people “educated” in “the culture of consumption (Lasch, 1979). Over time, this “education” became the job of mass media, schools, psychologists, government agencies, and other entities (Lasch, 1979). Given this, parents are no longer parents, and the tensions between men and women are exacerbated. This phenomenon culminates in society’s dependency on entities outside of the self to deal with the problems of everyday life.
Lasch chronicles this dependency at every stage, beginning with childhood and parenting. He describes a school system focused on inculcating life skills, as seen in the introduction of such courses as health, physical education, and vocational skills on the K-12 level and “multiversities”providing not only an academic education, but a variety of enterprises (Lasch, 1979). Marriage counselors, family therapists, and social workers now serve as the resources to turn to. Even in the most important area of the family relationship-parental imposition of boundaries on the child-these entities are there to take on the task once belonging to the parent (Lasch, 1979). This reliance on others continues as the child develops and enters the work force.
The environment of the workplace, Lasch illustrates in his discussion of the “Changing Modes of Making it” is one in which the way to the top is for one to have a good image (Lasch, 1979). It is a competition in which how one is perceived means more than how one performs (Lasch, 1979). Company loyalty is nonexistent; given anyone who wants to “make it” can use it to achieve his goals (Lasch, 1979). Lasch goes on to devote a good deal of the book to how this behavior has become a part of interpersonal relationships.
His description of modern society in his discussion of “The Art of Social Survival” is one in which personal interaction, like the aforementioned workforce, is a competition. Emotional connection gives way to appearing personable. Personality is “sold” in the same way as tangible goods (Lasch, 1979). This trivialization of relationships, he contends, is rooted in narcissistic need to avoid feelings. Of note is his account of contemporary male-female relations.
Democracy and feminism, according to Lasch, have “stripped the courtly convention of the subordination of women”. As a result, womanhood is “demystified” along with sex itself (Lasch, 1979). This, along with the aforementioned narcissistic lack of feeling and competitive nature saturating contemporary thought, sex as an end in itself has become permissible, even encouraged, as “liberation”. One quote says it all-“It is symptomatic of the underlying tenor of American life that vulgar terms for sexual intercourse also convey the sense of getting the better of someone, working him over, taking him in, imposing your will through guile, deception, or superior force ”To condense Lasch’s discussion of the aforementioned topics into one phrase, it would be a title he uses in one of the sections of the book-“The theater of everyday life”.
One of the telling ideas presented in the book is how in the mind of contemporary society, there is a feeling that life is a performance. This is made so, it contends, by the aforementioned prevalence of the narcissistic dependency on presenting an image, creating a kind self-awareness (Lasch, 1979). Even sport, which Lasch promotes as legitimate source of escape from the routine of work life, has become little more than entertainment. One look at American culture today reveals a multitude of examples of Lasch’s description of a narcissistic society.
The power of The Culture of Narcissism is the fact that despite being published in 1979, it speaks directly to 21st Century culture. “Reality T.V.”, celebrity obsession, self-help books, and psychotherapy permeate every aspect of our lives. It makes us take a look at close look at ourselves as a society, and makes us evaluate what makes us what we are. For me, it called me to a deeper look at the power of thought..
The book, to me, was a somewhat difficult read, given its focus on psychological theory. In my opinion, it talked about a lot of problems, but did not seem to offer any solutions. However, a recurring theme popped out at me- the narcissistic personality is rooted in thoughts and perceptions created in mind, and Lasch’s solutions to deal with the repercussions of its saturation into our culture-for people to “take the solutions of their problems into their own hands”-requires a restructuring of the mind. From a psychological perspective, treatments for personality disorders such as narcissism include techniques that alter one’s perceptions and assumptions about oneself (Widiger, 2000). As I explore this approach to the book, I find my belief reinforced that how one thinks impacts their life
Lasch, C. (1979). The Culture of Narcissism-American Life in An Age of Diminishing
Expectations. New York: Norton.
Widiger, T. (2000). Personality Disorders. Microsoft Encarta. CD-ROM.