Our focus in this chapter on the high point of cultural critiques of narcissism from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, has left open the question of narcissism’s discursive circulation beyond this historical moment. There is no doubt something in the claim that, with hindsight, the type of narratives explored above look to have been ‘rather reactionary take[s] on "postmodern" society’ (Frosh, 2011: 37-38). And yet, they still leave their mark. If we can make the case for revitalising the figure of Narcissus and affording him a more productive role in the dynamics of sociability, then we need to enquire after his sociological legacy. In doing so we can discern a direct lineage from the work of Sennett and Lasch in the 1970s to the sociology of reflexive modernity associated with the British sociologist Anthony Giddens in the 1990s.
The shared ground between these figures consists in their reading of the modern individual of a ‘post-traditional order’ as being without many of the supports, external referents, and received cultural scripts that previously structured his identity; the primary difference between them is that Giddens actively resists a diagnosis – associated, he suggests, with all critiques of mass society – in which the modern age is characterised as one of ‘high anxiety’ (1991, 32). In this regard Giddensian dedication to ‘reflexivity’ emphasises the other side of the protean dilemma to Sennett and Lasch. It goes without saying that the difference between these theoretical orientations can be explained, in part, by the intervening decade or so and the changes in cultural discourse that accompanied it (irrespective of whether we choose to describe such change through the language of globalisation, the themes of the postmodern, or the linguistic turn, for example). However, it should equally go without saying that there is no reason to think that the sociology of reflexive modernity is more compelling as sociology than the critical declinism that Giddens is confident it usurps.
Narcissism is not explicitly retained as a critical term for Giddens; nonetheless his re-orientation of some of the concerns that occupied Sennett and Lasch will give us the opportunity to reconnect our discussion with the terms of the therapeutic, and to re-evaluate MacIntyre’s provocation from the top of this chapter that, in an emotivist culture, the stock character of the therapist does not have a moral voice. We can anticipate that under the rubric of risk and reflexivity, where the very ‘conduct of life’ is subject to ‘planning and rationalisation’ (see Beck-Gernsheim, 139), therapy becomes – as per MacIntyre’s vision – a question of private-sphere-technical-expertise. If, with the aid of the therapist, the modern subject apprehends her future as a site of colonisation demanding the active calculation of risk or ‘the routine contemplation of counterfactuals’, then she is both the object of the critical declinists’ concern (being unwilling to distinguish between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations) and the exemplary subject of Giddens’ modern reflexivity (Giddens, 1991: 29).3 These alternative and period-specific evaluations of modern selfhood and the therapeutic endeavour merit brief consideration at the close of this chapter. For despite obvious differences of critical orientation between the 1970s declinists and the 1990s sociologists of reflexivity, they do have a shared commitment to narrative accountability which, in my view, psychoanalysis – especially through its understanding of narcissism – is duty-bound to disrupt.
In After Virtue, MacIntyre frames selfhood as a narrative practice: ‘man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal’ (216). The story-teller’s task is an ethical one in which the capacity to give an intelligible narrative account infers the capacity to demand an account from the other: ‘I am not only accountable, I am one who can always ask others for an account, who can put others to the question. I am part of their story, they are part of mine’ (218). It is in this way that narrative identity proposes, formally at least, a necessary relation to the other. Once MacIntyre seeks to establish this ideal of narrative communication in historical terms, however, he runs into a difficulty. We have to accept, he suggests, that the identity the self comes to narrate is in great part inherited from the traditions of community within which it is embedded – family, city, tribe, nation for example. From the perspective of ‘modern individualism’, however, MacIntyre expects such an emphasis on inheritance to strike an ‘alien’ note (220). Here, then, he is echoing Sennett’s understated call, noted earlier in the chapter, that in the modern era we are increasingly faced with the task of making our own masks; which is to say we cannot inherit historical narratives without inheriting the problem of historical authority. As MacIntyre stresses it, ‘we are never more (and sometimes less) than the co-authors of our own narratives’ (213). The three words in parentheses here are the most tantalising for they infer something about the mode of sociability possible under the conditions of MacIntyre’s narrative theory; namely, that if we cannot all come to the party with masks of equal author-ity then neither are we all equally autonomous actors. By translating the narrative process of self-accounting into the ethical sphere of the polis, MacIntyre must accept that apparently free exchange and collaboration of individual narratives is always based upon a prior condition. The economy of story-telling is by no means equitable since, along with the giving of the story, comes the question of the ownership of the language: although it is me telling the story, in what sense is it mine?
Lasch’s depiction of the narcissistic survivor shocked out of a narrative relation to history is consonant with MacIntyre’s thesis here, as well as with Sennett’s emphasis on the importance of the actor’s relation to a sense of historical plot. For the survivor, Lasch claims, ‘[… ] life consists of isolated acts and events. It has no story, no pattern, no structure as an unfolding narrative’ (1984a, 96). He stresses the profound sense of ‘historical discontinuity’ which conditions the new narcissist’s experience of ‘a world in which the past holds out no guidance to the present and the future has become completely unpredictable’ (1991, 68). With his temporal perspective locked in the present, Lasch claims that the survivor’s capacity for ‘moral judgements’ and ‘intelligent political activity’ is greatly diminished (1984a, 93). With such a diminished faculty for ethical reflection, life is no longer confronted by a moral agent but rather by a passive victim, and consequently the pseudo-morality of victimhood comes to dominate cultural discourse (67). It is hard to overlook the association here of Lasch’s politics of victimhood and the more wide-ranging concept of identity politics. For the critical declin – ists, any politics that re-centres itself on the experience of belonging to a marginal identity group quickly runs into the problems of authenticity and inauthenticity considered above: consequently identity politics is tantamount to the politics of narcissism.
In his ‘Destructive Gemeinschaft’ article, Sennett expresses his dissatisfaction with a model of politics constructed on the premise of ‘identity-as-legitimacy’ (185). He explains that ‘[w]hile the locality fights the outside world for threatening its solidarity, within itself it conducts continual tests of who really belongs and who really expresses the sense and the interests of the collective whole’ (185). Here, then, the anxious narcissist of Lasch’s depiction finds himself scrutinising the legitimacy of the interest claims of others, and defending the authenticity of his own personal-political identity. Sennett offers Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch as an example of a project that exemplifies ‘the process of narcissism at work in an ideology of liberation’ (179). We might expect Sennett to be in sympathy with Greer’s project which forcefully critiques ‘the psychological sell’ whereby woman ‘seeks aid because she feels unhappy, anxious and confused, and psychology persuades her to seek the cause in herself’ (Greer, 1976 : 90). And of course Sennett does appreciate Greer’s identification of the social structures of female oppression, but he argues that these structures get obscured by her rallying call for woman to seize what woman wants: ‘Total gratification of the self becomes the alternative to systematic discrimination against females. In the course of the book [The Female Eunuch], the world, at first seen as concretely unjust, becomes a mirror or resource for the self’ (Sennett, 1977: 178-179). Reiterating his thesis that categories of human experience are depoliticised when couched in the language of psychology, Sennett holds that a politics legitimated by the terms of its ‘identity’ will become immobilised in the narcissistic mirror.4
Writing almost two decades later, Giddens’ sociology has a rather different complexion: now, the paralysis of ‘identity politics’ has metamorphosed into the productivity of ‘life politics’. Deriving from the emancipatory projects of the 1960s and 1970s, Giddens’ life politics is a mode of discourse directed towards ‘self-actualisation’ which significantly and self-consciously departs from declinist critiques of a political climate governed by the language of selfhood (1991, 9). We can see this divergence most clearly in Giddens’ and Sennett’s contrasting readings of the importance of intimacy and sexual relationships as sites of contemporary self-definition.
In keeping with his critique of the ‘tyranny of intimacy’, Sennett argues that the realm of sexuality has come to be invested with personal and psychological significance to the detriment of sexual relations. ‘Sexuality thus becomes burdened with tasks of self-definition and selfsummary [… ] choosing someone to sleep with becomes a reflexive act; it tells you who you are’ (Sennett, 1977: 181 my emphasis). This emphasis on the burdensome and onerous qualities of such acts is not shared by Giddens, for whom ‘[t]he possibility of intimacy means the promise of democracy’ (1992, 188). The ‘structural source of this promise’, he suggests, ‘is the emergence of the pure relationship’ which encompasses all social relations but is expressed in its ideal form in the intimate partnerships made possible by the conditions of reflexive modernity (188). Giddens sees that the ‘internal referentiality’ of the pure relationship means that ‘trust has no external supports’ and ‘has to be developed on the basis of intimacy’ alone (138). Unlike Sennett, however, who we can assume would include the ‘pure relationship’ in his critique of identity – as-legitimacy, Giddens’ pure relationship is positively framed as the key to political projects of self-actualisation.
Giddens argues, contra Lasch, that ‘the modern self is not a minimal self’ (1991, 181; 209). Rather, personal life is experienced as an ‘open project’ which neither induces a narcissistic retrenchment, nor produces a style of selfhood in which the negotiation of life choices is undertaken with anxious scrutiny (1992, 8). Whereas Lasch relates narcissism ‘to the apocalyptic nature of modern social life’, Giddens tells us that ‘apocalypse has become banal’, meaning that although awareness of high-consequence risk may provide a source of unspecific anxiety in late modernity, it rarely dominates a person’s existence on the day-to-day level (181-183). If awareness of high-consequence risk does become a prominent feature of one’s day-to-day existence this should be attributed to a failing of the individual’s capacity for ‘basic trust’ rather than seen as a representative symptom of a cultural malaise. We can see here that Giddens has transformed Lasch’s new narcissist from the cultural norm (or at least the culturally representative moral character) into the pathological exception.
For Giddens the reason that the failing of ‘basic trust’ is held to be exceptional rather than commonplace can be found in the reflexive character of late modernity itself: risk calculation is embedded in social and political institutions, and embodied in the projects of selfhood. The subject of a modern individualised society, as risk theorist Ulrich Beck writes, must ‘conceive of himself or herself as the centre of activity, as the planning office with respect to his/her own biography, abilities, orientations, relationships and so on’ (135). Whereas Sennett and Lasch had tended to hierarchise the public and private spheres, endowing each with their own distinct characteristics, Giddens infers that the private sphere (as a zone of intimacy) exists alongside the public sphere on a continuum of life organisation, planning and reflexivity. Because reflexive modernity doesn’t allow for a hard and fast distinction between notionally private virtues such as spontaneity, and public techniques of organisation and planning, neither does it allow for a clear-cut distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations.
Predictably perhaps, the therapist is an important figure for Giddens in configuring the reflexive strategies of public and private life. ‘Therapeutic endeavours […] interpret the reflexive project of the self in terms of self-determination alone, thus confirming, and even accentuating, the separation of the lifespan from extrinsic moral considerations’ (1991, 180). Whilst Giddens acknowledges that ‘not all […] therapies are oriented primarily towards control’, this is nonetheless a rather alarming characterisation of the therapeutic function in what he calls the late modern order. On his reading, therapy is to be ‘understood and evaluated essentially as a methodology of life-planning’ which aims to integrate experiences within a narrative of self-development (180). Giddens admits that such processes of self-integration entail the ‘separation of day-to-day life from contact with experiences which raise potentially disturbing existential questions’; he calls this continual separating process – which includes the bracketing out of radical doubt and the displacement of high-consequence risk – the sequestration of experience (244). He insists that ‘in so far as it is focussed upon the lifespan, considered as an internally referential system, the reflexive project of the self is oriented only to control: It has no morality other than authenticity’ (1992, 197-198). Authenticity through self-mastery, then, becomes the credo of a life lived as a planning project.
One cannot help but be struck by the taken-for-granted status that authenticity has come to assume in Giddens’ sociology. We have already seen how for Sennett the culturally sanctioned quest for ‘authenticity’ comes to be symptomatic of an impoverished ethical landscape. Giddens on the other hand, though he concedes that authenticity ‘skirts any universal moral criteria and includes references to other people only within the sphere of intimate relationships’, nonetheless situates it as the singular ethical directive of his ‘life politics’ (1991, 79). It is to be expected that an ethical world-view, as proposed by Giddens, in which it appears that the subject can only form an instrumental relation to the other, will face strong critique. Indeed, Zygmunt Bauman’s complaint that Giddens’ politics of authenticity reduces morality – ‘stretching oneself towards the Other’ – to an accidental derivative of self-concern strikes a familiar note, especially so in the context of our discussion of cultural narcissism (2002, 171).
The implicit accusation that Giddens’ reflexive subject is narcissistic is, of course, double-edged. As we have seen throughout this chapter, the critic who identifies a negative narcissism at work in contemporary social relations soon comes up against the contradictions of his own historical subjectivity. Perhaps, then, rather than evaluating the contesting claims of critical declinism on the one hand and reflexive sociology on the other, we would do well to note that underlying these ostensibly divergent perspectives is a tacit agreement on the central importance of narrative. For Sennett, Lasch and MacIntyre it is only an impersonal historical narrative – where history consists in established plot points and traditional quest formations – that can save the subject from trivial or destructive self-interest; whilst for Giddens narrative is the key both to self-integration, and to the success of modern life politics. The term narrative is a shared transmitter of value, then, but it is also a common problematic. In each case the conditions of narrative remain obscure because of an enduring confusion between the narrative subject and the narrative object. The formative slippages between author and actor, mask-maker and mask-wearer, inventing stories and inheriting stories, are everywhere discernible but seldom fully acknowledged in the sociological texts we have considered. Indeed, we might suggest that to acknowledge these inherent slippages would be to demand a transgression of a narrative mode of sociology altogether.
The psychoanalytic understanding of narcissism we have been considering in this book facilitates such a transgression by refusing to let us overstep the question of origin or the constitution of narrative. The infant’s illusion of self-sufficiency is paradigmatic in this respect since it implies the precariousness of its own narrative fabrication. The autonomy of the subject is, in an important sense, an invented myth at once proposing to give an account of a complete selfhood and always, of necessity, falling short. Furthermore, just as narcissistic self-sufficiency – the logic of the ego-ideal – entails a vulnerability to a primary environment of care, so narratives of autonomy are interpenetrated by the demands of other narratives. The objection will be raised that, by returning endlessly to metapsychology – and indeed to the paradigmatic case of the child – in this fashion, we do not help the sociologist account for the lived experience of contemporary social reality. And yet, the experience of social reality that we have committed to describing is not determined by fully realised individuals operating from within their bounded subjectivities in a rational manner (nor, indeed, by the private planning officers of Giddens’ regime). In this respect, the psychosocial emphasis on subjects-in-formation (subjects who are not fully themselves) remains of value; likewise our encounter with the metapsychological complexities of narcissism offers a useful counterweight to the sociological conception of the self-interested ego.
Judith Butler touches on similar ground in her text of 2005, Giving An Account of Oneself, when she asks what the goal of psychoanalysis might be beyond that of the narrative reconstruction of a life. ‘If the other is always there, from the start, in place of where the ego will be, then a life is constituted through a fundamental interruption, is even interrupted prior to the possibility of any continuity’ (52). On this reading, rather than invest in the integration of narrative, the psychoanalytic project attends to the non-narrative formation of subjectivity (most starkly expressed in Freud’s most radical reading of the Fort-Da game as ‘daemonic repetition’, always in excess of the pleasure principle). It is clear that Butler is not concerned to account for the human subject’s incapacity for narration in terms linked to contingent cultural circumstance (e. g. the ‘cultural decline’ of the 1970s). Instead her account postulates ‘a fundamental interruption’ that sets in motion the subject’s inevitable narrative failings. But the reason that this line of thought is not pursued by the critical declinists, nor indeed by the reflexive sociologists, is because of their shared conception of man as ‘a storytelling animal’ (MacIntyre, 216). Whether this animal is endangered or excelling in the conditions of late modernity is open for debate; the desired coherence of his narration, however, is not.