Christopher Lasch’s The Culture Of Narcissism

One of the surest signs of impending old age manifests itself as a frustration with modern culture and a conviction that not only film and music were better in some halcyon past, but people, too. By that standard, I have been aging rapidly of late. In walking into a fast food restaurant the other day, I was confronted by a group of young teenagers – clearly all friends – whose attentions were entirely focused on their smartphones; they did not speak to each other, or take in their surroundings, but continued to text or pose for pictures, oblivious to everyone around them. Christopher Lasch, author of the 1979 bestseller The Culture Of Narcissism, would not have hesitated to label their behaviour narcissistic, and the smartphone, with its front-facing camera and myriad social media apps designed to showcase your private life to the public, as the ultimate expression of a self-obsessed culture. Lasch’s thesis holds that changes in American society – including family structure, the predominance of advertising and the abundance of consumer goods – have promoted the spread of a narcissistic pathology, with dire consequences for culture, politics and family formation.

The first thing that stood out to me, and that bears mentioning, is that 15 years separate the publication of The Culture Of Narcissism from Lach’s later work, The Revolt Of The Elites, and it seems that, in the interim, he dropped much of his reliance on Freudian psychology. I had expected The Culture Of Narcissism to be more a cultural critique than a psychological one, but Lasch is quite insistent that, when he employs the term “narcissism,” he means it in its clinical definition, referring to a pathology that manifests itself in “dependence on the vicarious warmth provided by others combined with a fear of dependence, a sense of inner emptiness, boundless repressed rage, and unsatisfied oral cravings.” Lasch does not argue that we are producing more pathological narcissists, but that our cultural concerns are coming to reflect those of pathological narcissists: “the intense fear of old age and death, altered sense of time, fascination with celebrity, fear of competition, decline of the play spirit, deteriorating relations between men and women.” These are grandiose claims to make, and neither the structure of the book – a collection of essays, loosely assembled along the central theme of narcissism – nor its scant marshalling of anything like statistical evidence serve to make his case, as his critics have been quick to point out. Nonetheless, Lasch struck a chord, for the book became a bestseller and catapulted him into the national spotlight, culminating in a visit to Camp David, where he was asked to advise President Jimmy Carter.

Taken as a whole, the book might fail to convince, particularly outside of the context of the 1970s, but there are nonetheless numerous insights into the changing nature of our society that are sure to resonate with modern readers. Consider, for example, the massive shift in our economy, from its early 20th century basis in manufacturing and agriculture to its modern emphasis on intellectual services. Our grandparents worked with their hands, producing tangible goods, whereas we sit at desks, manipulating figures on a computer screen; Lasch was not the first to suggest that such a shift entails a loss of dignity and meaning:

Today Americans are overcome not by the sense of endless possibility but by the banality of the social order they have erected against it. Having internalized the social restraints by means of which they formerly sought to keep possibility within civilized limits, they feel themselves overwhelmed by an annihilating boredom, like animals whose instincts have withered in captivity.

There’s a whiff of Freud in this, of Civilization And Its Discontents, but the passage also bears a remarkable resemblance to a famous excerpt from Oswald Spengler’s The Decline Of The West:

A beast of prey tamed and in captivity – every zoological garden can furnish examples – is mutilated, world-heavy, inwardly dead. Some of them voluntarily hunger-strike when they are captured. Herbivores give up nothing in being domesticated.

Assume, for a second, that Lasch and Freud and Spengler are correct, and that modern man has paid a steep psychic price for acquiescing to the demands of civilization. How would he cope? Lasch has answers: by erecting “a posture of cynical detachment,” by escaping into leisure activities that become ever more demanding of his time and energy, by forgoing marriage and romantic commitments – which, after all, require a faith in the future, including a future beyond the lifespan of the narcissist – in favour of more immediate gratifications. “As more and more people find themselves working at jobs that are in fact beneath their abilities,” Lasch writes, “[…] the posture of cynical detachment becomes the dominant style of everyday intercourse.” “Cynical detachment” might be the most succinct possible description of much of my generation, many of whom are so skeptical of authority and tradition and the conventional path through life that they have all but given up on marriage and childrearing.

Our growing estrangement from both meaningful work and the traditional comforts of marriage and family life have combined to promote leisure activities into the most prominent source of meaning in our lives.

Work now retains so few traces of play, and the daily routine affords so few opportunities to escape from the ironic self-consciousness that has itself assumed the qualities of a routine, that people seek abandon in play with more than usual intensity.

That has been a remarkable boon for capitalism, and for the advertising industry that has used “the propaganda of consumption” to turn “alienation itself into a commodity,” but it has had dreadful consequences for the average American, who has been conditioned to seek fulfilment in acquisition or entertainment – neither of which serve as adequate substitutes for marriage, family or meaningful work. “Contrary to the pronouncements of most educational theorists and their allies in the social sciences,” Lasch argues,

advanced industrial society no longer rests on a population primed for achievement. It requires instead a stupefied population, resigned to work that is trivial and shoddily performed, predisposed to seek its satisfactions in the time set aside for leisure.

Ask a Millennial about their interests, and the likely reply will include some combination of diversionary entertainments, from video games and fantasy sports to film, television and music. Note, also, that the well-off and well-educated differ primarily in their tastes – HBO or Netflix rather than reality television or ESPN – rather than in their interests. We are all of us united in our need for distraction.