Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Culture of Narcissism (1979)

Another book I meant to get to approximately in its time, toting around in used mass market paperback all these decades. It feels a little out of date now in its reliance on Freudian language and contextualized with figures equally so—Woody Allen, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth. Yet if anything Christopher Lasch's insights about the decay of ancient traditions of family and community, replaced by fresh-faced experts and technocrats of the middle class, struck me in many ways as dead-on as ever. A constant theme is enlarging celebrity worship, which has only worsened exponentially since then. He is particularly lucid in his depressing history of 20th-century spectator sports, whose trends, again, have only worsened: corporate control, a product increasingly debased by its commercial requirements, too great for any to resist. He is perhaps most devastating on our system of education, which he compares most aptly to Thorstein Veblen's systems of elaborate status representations. That would be funny if there wasn't so much at stake. Education is still a gatekeeping strategy between classes. Wealth inequality is only worse. Politicians are plainly the tools of moneyed interests—that's common knowledge and conventional wisdom now, as Donald Trump affirms in his starring role at the current Republican debates. We turn into our empty selves to find meaning and only find emptiness. There are things here to say about game theory too probably, but the larger point is there are multiple forces with an interest in keeping the deadly state of insanity in place. We go along to get along. At the same time, I'm not sure I trust the "helping professions" as little as Lasch does—he denigrates them in large and small ways here, usually using the scare quotes. The self-perpetuating cycles of violence and ignorance, as ancient as any of the traditions Lasch celebrates, are precisely what the helping professions (social workers, community workers, therapists, teachers, etc.) are attempting to interrupt. The effort is merited—children, women, and minorities still suffer great abuse systematically, and the problem still needs to be fixed, even if it appears perilously like the lunatics running the asylum. As much as anything Lasch is addressing the kind of spiritual malaise President Jimmy Carter pointed out the year this book was published, one that is still very real, and Lasch is doing so with the same kind of eye on the literary arts that Freud himself kept. He seems notably haunted by Joseph Heller's very haunting second novel, Something Happened, published in the mid-'70s, and on that level I'm certainly on Lasch's wavelength. Hard times ahead.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. I can't even remember what this book was about, yet I do remember reading it at the time and taking it very personally. I hated it. Probably says a lot more about me than about the book.

  2. I think it's the best social criticism of the second half of the American Century or the best I can think of right now anyway. He's often maligned b/c of his emphasis on self-reliance or self-government as foundational democratic values, and so for the affinity of these ideas with the original republican experiment and libertarian values. Or his heavy use of psychoanalysis, Freud being repellent to lots of people who don't know anything. Or even for his conservative position on abortion, which I've never agreed w/ at all. Maybe he does romanticize the self-reliance of pre-20th century communities of faith. But no one, no one, dissects the way modern institutions and elites replicate corporate managerial structures or the way consumer society feeds on the hollowing out, the narcissism, the "minimal self," that these authority relations generate. To the left, or much of it anyway, he was too hostile to progressive social reforms but really his preoccupation was authentic, populist, democratic participation and he wasn't taken in by paternalistic social engineering bullshit like Kennedy's Camelot. I dunno, I need to revisit his stuff after some thirty plus years but he had a huge influence on me as a young reader and I still regard him as one of my few true working class intellectual heroes. But you never hear ab his stuff any more, so thanks for giving it some attention.