Thursday, August 26, 2010

Lasch - The Culture of Narcissism

Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York: Norton, 1978.

Methodology and Scope
Blends Freudian psychology and Marxism. The culture of narcissism is a 20th century development.


A culture of narcissism has developed in America. Loathing their perceived personal defects and hoping to control and display a positive image of themselves to the world, Americans are heading in troubling directions in several ways. Advertising is key because it encourages people to believe satisfying their wants will lead to happiness.

Key Trends Discussed
The Therapeutic Sensibility has replaced religion as the preferred source for personal salvation. (7) (see the massive self-help sections in bookstores, although I wonder if religion has fought back a bit - it too has a big section. So does new age metaphysics, which Lasch observed growing in the 70s.)

Shift from a society valuing Super Ego values (self-restraint) to values of id (self-indulgence). (177-179).

Chapter IV, "The Banality of Pseudo-Self-Awareness: Theatrics of Politics and Everyday Existence," argues politics has used propaganda-methods (inspired by advertising) to sugesst to the public a perpetual state of crisis. Ideal leadership, (particularly for the President, particularly JFK and Nixon) then, is one that has the ability to rise to the moment of crisis. (78-79)

The chapter goes on to suggest that, having been bombarded in culture with images of spectacle, individuals are beginning to adapt an ironic detachment and distancing, both on the part of the creators/artists and on the part of the audience. Example: attacks on theatrical illusion.
**** This is REALLY interesting, because of its anticipation of post-modern hyper-consciousness in media, about to go mainstream in quality television shows... St. Elsewhere, Moonlighting, Simpsons, etc.

Chapter V, "The Degradation of Sport," (one particularly interesting and enjoyable for me) argues NOT that sports are being taken too seriously but rather that they are being overly-trivialized and thus minimizing their positive social effect as an illusion of reality that offers a healthy outlet for emotions in a controlled (through the rules and ettiquette, both for players and the crowd) setting. Sports, at their best, are kind of like art; thus it's good for the audience to take them seriously. Lasch partly blames liberal criticism of sport, but mostly attacks the professionalization of sports that leads to athletes treating their game as a business rather than pleasure, destroying the magic.

Chapter VI, "Schooling and the New Illiteracy," critiques the education system. Education is encouraged as a means to economic benefits rather than self-improvement.

Chapter VIII, "The Flight fom Feeling: Sociopsychology of the Sex War," discusses the tension between the sexes, partly blaming the feminist movement and the sexual revolution. Sex is encouraged as a selfish (narcissistic) pursuit for pleasure without emotional attachment.

Chapter IX, "The Shattered Faith in the Regeneration of Life," discusses the "campaign against old age." This stems from the narcissistic fears of declining beauty, healthy, and usefullness. It leads to cries for enforced retirement and encouragement of the elderly to find other outputs for their mind and body - hobbies, solitary occupations - that merely get them out of the way.

Chapter X, "Paternalism without Father," discusses the decline of the family/parents role in parenting children. The government, through the education bureaucracy, thinks it can do a better job of raising children then parents. This stems from the shift caused by Industrialization to an occupation that takes fathers (and increasingly mothers) out of the home.

Random Thoughts
The preface of the book would be great to use with my 102 sections in the spring. So much of Lasch's description of the setting within which this was written (late seventies) sounds like America circa 2010. The basics: failed wars, economic stagnation, sense of decline. Deeper: mood of pessimism (xiii) (although Lasch describes that mood flowing from higher circles of leadership down to the people, and I'm not convinced that's what's going on in U.S.-2010), anger towards the government and its bureaucracy (xiv-xv), and a sense that the past is unimportant (xvii).

Critique (Thoughts that are totally useless for comp-purposes)
The less-traditional the style the more I struggle to stay engrossed. This is more towards the theoretical, and it was challenging, but it was pretty brilliant. Overall, I didn't like the cynicism of the book, which says more about the worldview of the book rather than the argument. At the same time, I agreed with a lot of the arguments and disagreed with only a few.

Who should I give this book to
Conservative Dan. Lasch is equally critical of radicals on the left and conservatives to the right, but spends much more time criticizing the radical assault on Liberalism of the past two decades before the book was written. My edition has a new afterword written around 1990, but he doesn't mention Reagan. This book would challenge Dan but I think he'd find enough to like about it to keep him wrestling with it.

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