Our Culture of Narcissism

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Forty Years and Counting

Berry-LITERARYPMS-03_102019

Most Chronicles readers will no doubt recall the sordid Jussie Smollett hoax, which played out over the course of almost three months early this year in a scenario that might have been scripted for reality TV. Given the media’s saturation coverage of the fiasco, I will forego a reprise of the details. Instead, I wish to suggest that the Empire star’s memorable antics on the mean streets of midwinter Chicago were not at all a freakish anomaly, but a perfect illustration of the new American normal. We are now so far around the bend that we can see ourselves coming back from the opposite direction—with a noose around our collective neck. What is most interesting about Smollett is his unbridled capacity for self-hypnosis. At some point he seems to have begun believing his own story. Even after the hoax had started to unravel, Smollett (who is also a recording artist) made concert appearances and repeated his victim narrative on television. At one appearance he stated, “Above all, I fought [expletive] back…I’m the gay Tupac!”

I offer this précis of the Smollett saga as a particularly memorable, if a mite histrionic, instance of our culture of narcissism. Of course, I can’t say with any certainty that Smollett qualifies as a narcissist in the clinical sense of the term (only his therapist knows for sure). I can say, though, that Smollett’s attempted hoax of the Chicago authorities, not to mention his delusional statements in the aftermath, illustrates several of the traits associated with narcissistic personality disorder: exaggerated feelings of self-importance, excessive need for admiration or attention, and a pronounced facility for manipulating others.

To be sure, one might expect such behavior to be more prevalent among media stars and politicians; after all, careers with high public visibility tend to draw narcissists like butterflies to the sweet nectar of celebrity. But in fact narcissistic behavior is now pervasive in American life: in the corporate world, in sports, in the rearing of children, in our frenzy for social media exposure, in our failed marriages, in our consumerism, in our obsessive preoccupation with youth and beauty, in our navel-gazing spiritualities, in our addiction to any number of therapeutic regimes, and in our exaggerated fear of death. The list could, of course, be extended.

In their recent book The Narcissism Epidemic, social psychologists Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell have argued that the increase in narcissism in American society since the 1980s parallels the disturbing spike in obesity statistics, especially among women. Cumulative statistics from the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale show that, over the same period, we have seen an exponential inflation of self-esteem indicators, particularly among the cohort ranging from middle-school to college-aged students. At present, on a 40-point scale with 40 representing “perfect self-esteem,” 51 percent of this cohort score in the 35+ range. That’s about 10 to 15 points higher than the historic normal range. The factors influencing this epidemic—if that term is not too hyperbolic—are complex, but one key cause may be that our once-admired American individualism is no longer restrained by the traditional sources of morality and authority, which kept it in check. I raised this question in an exchange with Dr. Boris Vatel, a practicing psychiatrist for many years, who said:

Culturally individualistic societies are more prone to give rise to individual and collective narcissism than are collectivist societies, in which, by definition, the collective good is viewed as superior to the individual good. I would also submit that, to the extent that cultures preferring individual achievement over group achievement lose their internally-shared notions of normality (behavior, dress, culture, etc.), their members become atomized, autistic, and [their] narcissistic tendencies will become more and more prominent.

None of this should come as shocking news. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Christopher Lasch’s landmark best-seller The Culture of Narcissism, a work which continues to be a touchstone in the frequent public discussion of the issue. Lasch’s perspective is probably more relevant today than ever, with a caveat or two. Some have taken Lasch to task for spreading his net too wide, for attempting to explain too disparate a range of cultural phenomena under a single rubric, and thus to expand the meaning of the term “narcissism” well beyond the strictures of the clinical definition of the term. There is at least some truth in this claim. For example, in chapters dealing with matters such as the “degradation of sport” or the “sociopsychology of the sex war,” Lasch probably overemphasizes narcissism as a key factor where a more complex analysis might have been called for.

Yet, it cannot be fairly claimed that Lasch uses narcissism as a free-floating signifier severed from its clinical meaning. In fact, he explores the clinical literature at some length, drawing especially on the work of Otto Kernberg, a psychiatrist whose work on borderline and narcissistic personality disorders was groundbreaking. Following Kernberg, Lasch insists that narcissism must be understood as “more than a metaphoric term for self-absorption...” but as a “psychic formation in which ‘love rejected turns back to the self as hatred.’”

Lasch thus sees narcissism in adults beginning in childhood at the point when the “ego has developed to the point of distinguishing itself from surrounding objects.” The blissful dependency upon a mother’s love is felt by a child as omnipotence. Each of us experiences the inevitable expulsion from that dependency as traumatic, but for various reasons, some people feel extreme trauma. Such a child “may attempt to reestablish earlier relationships by creating in his fantasies an omnipotent mother or father who merges with images of his own self.” Out of such a familial context arise the traits associated with pathological narcissism—traits which, Lasch claims, “in less extreme form appear in such profusion in our everyday life.” These would include, in addition to those mentioned above, a fear of dependency, a chronic sense of inner emptiness, and repressed feelings of rage.

As Dr. Vatel suggested, if “sub-clinical” narcissism is indeed proliferating, one must look first of all at changes in family structure and dynamics, since it is by way of the family that traditional morality and authority are first mediated. Lasch traces the erosion of the traditional family structure back to at least the late 19th century, when already a prying cabal of credentialed “experts” had begun to regard the American family as a “narrow, parochial, and selfish” institution that stood in the way of the development of genuine sociability.

If the family could not simply be replaced, these experts argued that many of its functions could be transferred to social agencies and public schools—and they were. For example, as early as 1889 the first juvenile courts emerged with an explicit mandate to “rescue” children from irresponsible parents without a trial. Juvenile offenders were placed under the discipline of the state under the guise of compassion and prevention. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, under the influence of John Dewey and others, the schools began to assume in loco parentis many of the functions, both practical and disciplinary, of the domestic household. Meanwhile the nuclear family, itself a product of the industrial age, struggled with rapidly increasing external pressures, especially economic ones.

Most importantly, the authority of the pater was placed on trial and found wanting, a trend which gained a great deal more momentum with the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and ’70s. Psychologically, this is crucial since the primary check to the development of narcissism in children had always been the father, who embodied the “reality principle.” The stereotypical dads of the ’50s sitcoms were the last virtual gasp of the old patriarchs. Typically presented in a crisp, buttoned-down way, puffing on their ubiquitous pipes, they were moral exemplars and loving disciplinarians. But even in that depiction one could discern an underlying mockery. Their very perfection seemed to argue for something rotten beneath the surface.

By the 1970s and beyond, dads have increasingly been either objects of ridicule or altogether absent from popular narratives. Single parenting, which in practice is usually single mothering, has all but become the norm for large sectors of American family life—and this erosion of the father’s role has enabled the growth of narcissism. Again, Dr. Vatel made the point eloquently:

 

With respect to the loss of the father and other traditional sources of authority in American culture, it does seem reasonable to conclude that this has also encouraged the rise of narcissism. When a child’s every whim is catered to and parents become primarily sources of gratification rather than instruction, the child grows up into an ‘adult’… who believes that the entire world revolves around him. The child does not learn how to patiently endure, how to strive for something higher than himself, and how to tolerate frustration. He grows up into an adult who really does not live in the real world in the sense that he does not develop a true appreciation for other human beings as being something other than mere extensions of himself.

If the American family has become a breeding ground for narcissistic personalities, consider also the malignant external influences that are brought to bear upon children as they approach adolescence, which are external only in the sense that they do not originate within the household. Among these new external sources of authority that have replaced or diminished the authority of parents is advertising. As recently as 2017, the market value of the advertising and marketing industries in the U.S. was estimated at $1.2 trillion.

The advertising industry is an “authority” only in a subversive sense of the term. It upholds models and “standards” as evanescent as the fashion trends it promotes, and most of its prodigious market value feeds voraciously upon the inner sense of personal emptiness that is at the core of the narcissistic condition.

Conservatives who endlessly wring their hands over the destruction of family life rarely recognize, or pretend not to recognize, the baneful effects of capitalism in its late, consumerist phase. Apparently, some of them are prepared to defend the “free market” until their dying breaths, even as it poisons the cradle of social order, the family.

One of the strengths of Lasch’s critique is that his withering criticism is directed equally at the political left and right. Liberalism, he is quick to point out, has undermined the authority of the family by placing it in the compassionate hands of a legion of public bureaucracies. And conservatism, by its blind defense of free market forces, has done just as much if not greater damage.

Today, the most pernicious of these forces are the Big Tech companies, global in their reach and ubiquitous, almost omnipotent, in their penetration of the most intimate realms of private and familial life. Where is the parent who has the strength of character to refuse his or her children access to a cell phone? Yet these cunning devices, which fit so snugly in a pocket or purse, are the most effective means yet contrived for severing adolescents from the bosom of the family and introducing them to a realm of fabricated idols–a realm in which new identities can be adopted every day with the swipe of a screen.

Let me be blunt about this. As young Americans come of age, complete college degrees of dubious value, and enter the working world, those whose narcissistic traits are most well-developed may, ironically, be the best suited for success in the world we have made for them. This is now true for many of the professions, and especially in the corporate world, where the capacity for exploiting and manipulating others is in great demand.

This was already true in the 1970s when Lasch wrote The Culture of Narcissism and is even more so today. Borrowing a term from Erich Fromm, Lasch comments on the “market-oriented personality,” the man adept at “selling himself as if his own personality were a commodity with an assignable market value.” The same individual will be adept at moving from one company to another to advance personal career aims, at manipulating impressions, or at discarding the kinds of moral or familial commitments that might hinder his or her rise to power and influence. If he or she does marry, that commitment will often be delayed, and it will very likely be a provisional, “contract” marriage in spirit, if not in fact. According to CNBC, the number of prenuptial agreements has risen fivefold in recent years, particularly among millennials.

In his private life, the same narcissistic adult will not find much satisfaction in the fleeting, superficial relationships he enters into. He may very well seek out therapeutic help, but what all too often passes for therapy today may very well enable rather than stymie his narcissistic urges, since the therapeutic professions have largely abandoned anything resembling what the late sociologist Philip Rieff called a “moral demand system.” Instead, like the culture at large, they have shifted toward “a predicate of impulse release, projecting controls unsteadily based upon an infinite variety of wants raised to the status of needs.”

If the narcissist personality, sensing his spiritual vacuity, seeks out some sort of religious affiliation, he may find transient satisfaction in one of the New Age congeries, which are themselves little more than expressions of a collective narcissism designed to awaken in him or her feelings of a vague cosmic unity. This faux unity resembles nothing so much as regression to the infantile state, where the separation between the self and the external world has not yet transpired.

All of this represents a profound threat for the future of American society. To follow Lasch one step further, “we are fast losing our sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future.”

This absence of continuity came up in a conversation I had with Dr. Richard Culley, who has maintained a psychiatric practice in New York’s Hudson Valley since the early 1970s. He asserted forcefully that if we are witnessing a narcissism epidemic, it probably has a lot to do with the collapse of concrete communities through which any enduring sense of selfhood might be defined. For too many of his patients, he said, there is no self nor a “we” against which the self might be measured and shaped. Lacking a bond of connectedness to a rooted community over generations, the sense of self becomes malleable and even hypothetical.

We are accustomed to think of the narcissistic personality as “self-absorbed,” but at its core there is an emptiness, a horror of the possibility that one might be simply an “X,” a non-entity, adrift in a Nietzschean sea of possibility. To ask the question “Who am I?” is already to reveal a dangerous degree of psychic alienation. The self then becomes a “project,” an entrepreneurial opportunity. One’s sense of time, no longer anchored in the gravitas of the past, dwindles to an insecure awareness of the momentary, to that which is perpetually vanishing.

The past, historical or personal, arouses in the narcissist only a sense of nausea because it stands in judgment over his illusions of omnipotence and his defiance of death. Hence, his life remains mired in the temporal with little concern for posterity. The future, to the extent that it is a concern, will be little more than a blank screen upon which he may project his fantasies or desires. These come perhaps in the form of Utopian political projects, or in more radical visions of transcending the sentence of death by technological means. Take, for example, the “transhumanist” project of infinitely extending the human life span, or, even more ambitious, of engineering, through the miracle of nanotechnology, a transformation of the very idea of the human. Melding minds and machines, such a project would be an expression of our collective narcissism, promising as it does the re-creation of that infantile dream of omnipotence. That is the dream which lies at the heart of the narcissistic denial of troublesome flesh—our “body of death,” as St. Paul would have it—though of course the transhumanist project is not quite the “deliverance” that the author of the Epistle to the Romans had in mind.

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