In the Introduction to this book we considered Freud’s ‘three blows’ theory of scientific development where man was thrice deposed from his central station in the universe; once by Copernicus, twice by Darwin, and then, of course, by Freud himself with the revelation that ‘the ego […] is not even master in its own house’ (1917a, 285). Psychoanalysis’ knock-out punch to man’s narcissism, however, has had an unexpected recoil – in many ways the subject of this book. In keeping with the discipline’s characteristic reflexivity, psychoanalysis demonstrates that wounds to man’s narcissism can only succeed in provoking further narcissistic illusion. Of course, it has not been my intention to say only that narcissism is inescapable (that much we can take for granted); rather, I have used narcissism’s circularity as a hermeneutic device to investigate the conditions of sociability, the productivity of illusion, and the importance of metapsychological formation to an understanding of social relations. Specifically, by returning to various sites of narcissistic investment – mythic, metapsychological, familial, discursive and social – we have repeatedly discerned the operation of narcissism’s double structure: the illusion of narcissistic self-sufficiency, and the corresponding precariousness of the narcissist’s environment of care.
The necessary fiction of narcissistic self-sufficiency is present in Freud’s choice of metaphor of a ‘bird’s egg with its food supply enclosed in its shell’; we saw how the illusion of a self-contained psychical system suggested by the enclosure of the egg can only be spoken of if one takes into account its wider environmental provision, minimally the warmth provided by mother hen (1911a, 219n). We can interpret this as Freud saying, in advance of Winnicott, that there’s no such thing as a baby;
by which is meant that wherever we see a baby – or indeed any other narcissist – we will also see an apparatus of care, whether in the form of the breast, the perambulator, the circulation of money, systems of state security, and so on. Whilst the ‘good-enough’ mother knows when to withdraw her care (and how to disillusion her infant of his narcissistic fantasies), I have preferred to emphasise a structuration of subjectivity in which the environment’s volatility is registered in advance of any empirical character that the environment may have. The potential of the mother leaving – the environment withdrawing – is akin to the prospective fantasy of loss, which we saw above designated an originary lack in the subject. We might say that no matter how benevolent the empirical mother, the conceptual mother has already absconded according to the logic of narcissistic self-sufficiency. That the mother can always leave has stood as a refrain for this thought, connecting Freud’s nursery scene in ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ to various civilised accomplishments and cultured scenes of sociability including Sennett’s polis, Lasch’s sports arena, Simmel’s formal soirees, and Bersani’s cruising sites. If such scenes share the ‘virtue’ of good sociability, they also, undeniably, share unequal and exclusionary conditions of possibility (where was the peasant in Sennett’s polis, where is the married woman in Bersani’s homosexual milieu?). On one level this is only to say that they share structures of narcissistic fantasy – mitigating against environmental disequilibrium – though clearly the manner in which this narcissism is acknowledged differs from case to case.
One version of the narcissistic paradox runs as follows: narcissistic illusions of self-sufficiency (the imaginary covering-over of privation) will deny even those environments of care which appear to be entirely supportive. We saw this in Chapter 2 with the case of Little Hans whose parents were exemplary in constituting a supportive and binding environment of care. They provided the ideal conditions for the developmental achievements of intersubjective recognition which Hans obstinately resisted to the point of his own breakdown. Hans, we remember, was a subject whose imagination found ‘lack’ unconscionable, to the extent of insisting that his mother and little sister had ‘widdlers’ just like him. And yet, strangely, it was this very refusal to recognise the other (as his parents would have wished) that propelled his quasi-scientific investigations, and presented him as an object of attraction to the social world (he was admired by Freud for his sapere aude). We might say, then, that Hans embodied a constitutional overstatement of self, and that his was an illusion of self-sufficiency in a case where the conditions did not seem to require it. The excessiveness of his narcissistic fantasy is worth pondering, in the first place for the structural necessity of positing a self over an original privation; but perhaps more enigmatically, for the form of social relation it implies. Hans is attractive to those whose advice he ignores, and, by being so, he provokes his environment into caring for him. This leads us to a second version of the narcissistic paradox noted above: the environment that the narcissist doesn’t recognise, is the environment that he is able to act upon. Narcissism, thus conceived, is more than a reactive principle. In fact it allows us to imagine a situation of corresponding powers: the power of the environment to withdraw its cooperation, and the corresponding power of the narcissist to act upon the environment by calling out to the narcissism of others.
But just what kind of conversation can take place between multiple narcissists? Throughout this book we have worked to undo the ossification of narcissism as a constitutional state of non-relationality. Of course Narcissus relates! The idea of a non-relational agent is always a fiction, after all; and a fiction, moreover, in which the narcissist and the critic of narcissism partake together. The question that guarantees narcissism’s relevance for contemporary psychosocial debate concerns the limitations of relating and, indeed, of recognition, implied by the very idea of a narcissistic sociability. The reading I have sought to bring forward is one in which narcissism speaks to the confused cohabitation of subject and object within the same breast, which then extends to the multiple boundary confusions in the social world beyond. As the archetypal subject-in-formation (indexed to Freud’s assertion that ‘the ego has to be developed’) Narcissus has to perform the original act of (mis)recognition. We encounter him at the poolside sitting suspended between possession and non-possession of his self; both recognising and failing to recognise himself in the image before him. As Lou Salome suggested, it may be that Narcissus sees the whole world when he looks into the pool; alternatively, it may be that he sees only a distorted face. His identifications range, therefore, from the grandiose to the fractured. To put it somewhat differently, in becoming himself he can only become more or less than himself.
Returned endlessly from self-possession to non-possession, Narcissus is also a figure possessed. Possessed, that is, by an otherness which prevents him from fixing his identity. As Butler – via Jean Laplanche – makes clear, the act of self-identification or self-possession is always an act of dissimulated sociality (2005, 75). This is explicated in the mythic scene through the figure of Echo. As we know, Narcissus turned away from those suitors who would claim to possess him and his beauty, yet
Echo, herself one such suitor, endures in spectral form. If, as is usually emphasised, she is witness to Narcissus’ self-absorption – a symbol therefore of abject exclusion – she must also be read as an externalisation of that which haunts Narcissus from the beginning; the other which comes before any act of identification (without Echo there can be no Narcissus). Damned to repeat words not her own, Echo is also the cita – tional device through which words are taken away from their speaker, become ‘common’ property, and rebound with strange and distorted meanings in other contexts. Forever unrecognised, then, Echo also represents the impossibility of Narcissus fully recognising himself, since his words – like his image – are returned to him inscribed with difference.
The mythic first picture of narcissistic sociability finds an instructive iteration in the encounter between Freud and his charming stray cat discussed in the last chapter. The attraction of the cat resided in its limited susceptibility to influence. That Freud could not successfully court its affection, did not prevent the cat from relying on him for its creature comforts; it was as if the cat derived its charm from its blindness to its own dependency. Although we might imagine Freud’s nurse-maid duties here to have made him the other, secreted and unrecognised, within the cat’s appearance of self-possession, we can also invert this designation so that the cat becomes the unaccounted for other within Freud’s action. Why does Freud continue to feed the cat who refuses to recognise him? If the relationship between Freud and his cat can be seen as a kind of love story, and certainly we can imagine it this way in light of Salome’s account, then, significantly, it is a love story lacking in mutual recognition. Freud and his cat are unrequited lovers together.
In being alert to such seductions of narcissism, we have considered its centrality to the structures of sociability; the act of self-possession draws the other in by seeming to turn away. It has been important to underscore that enfolded within the narcissist’s seductive power exists a vulnerability configured by its precarious environment of care. This has meant that any act of self-possession is always also an act that inscribes an original privation. Critically, within the performance of narcissistic self-possession resides the enigma of social action itself. To act – to self – posit – means to put yourself where you were not, and as such it entails a boundary confusion. Narcissistic action (or action as narcissistic) means a venturing forth into otherness figured as a turning back upon the self. If we detect here an appropriative strategy – where the other is taken to be the self – it is not without its reflexivity. Although narcissism has often been read as eliding difference through failure to recognise the other, recent psychoanalytically engaged critical work has suggested ways in which this failure might be transformed into an opening for an ethical encounter. Specifically by questioning the terms of reciprocal recognition – in particular idealisations of intersubjectivity, and the implicit humanism of always being able to look the other in the face (and thus recognise their otherness) – critical debate has permitted us to imagine an ethical Narcissus (see Butler, 2005; Frosh, 2010).
If we are inclined to think of his constitutional failure to recognise otherness as mere carelessness or irresponsibility, then the idea that Narcissus models an impersonal virtue may prove difficult to accept. Granted, overcoming this difficulty requires that we think of politics as something beyond the public negotiation of different egoic interests, and consider instead of a politics of subjects-in-formation who translate themselves into the world through multiple identifications. Whether these identifications are with groups or with discrete qualities dissociable from a whole person or a complete object, they indicate the distortion of a strictly human and recognisable basis for giving an ethical account. Although she does not propose it in the name of Narcissus, what Butler conceives of as an ethics ‘based on our shared, invariable, and partial blindness about ourselves’ could, as I have defined it here, be characterised as narcissistic (2005, 41). We have seen throughout that Narcissus is blind to his environment – attractively insusceptible to its influence – and yet narcissism must also be considered a theory of the environment, foregrounding, as it does, the question of how the self is (or is not) distinguished from its surroundings. This means, at least in part, that Narcissus is blind to himself. Such a theory is bound to complicate the ethics of recognition insofar as it calls into question what is recognisable as other: what shape must the other take in order to be recognisable, and where and how must it be found?
Throughout this book I have described various scenes of partial recognition: Narcissus at the poolside; the besotted parent with His – Majesty-the-Baby, the coquette in a formally convened gathering; and the horizons of sexual cruising in Bersani’s work. We might say that these sociable scenes all demonstrate the obliquity of effective social relations. To describe the social relation as oblique is to underscore the partiality of the gaze: Echo and Narcissus do not share a look, though they are in relation; the baby looks to the breast of the mother, the mother to her own reflection in the baby’s dewy eyes; the coquette is master of the sideways glance, and presents herself to the other through the part-object of her decolletage; whilst Bersani’s impersonal intimacies engage the backs of heads, and other body parts. Narcissistic sociability, then, describes the relations between subjects-in-formation who are both more and less than themselves, always trespassing the notional and imaginary boundary between self and other. The inevitable final scene to consider in this regard is that of the psychoanalytic consulting room. We might suggest that psychoanalysis as a social science was inaugurated along with the couch, for it is on the couch that the mutual gaze is interrupted, the obliquity of the social situation embodied, and Narcissus is encouraged to speak – of himself, and to himself. Echo, now the analyst, offers the occasional glance and listens on.