Cultural Narcissism – Some Examples from Anglo-American Sociology
In 1920, facilitated by his nephew and would-be American emissary Edward Bernays, Freud was in liaison with Cosmopolitan magazine regarding the commission of a series of popular articles on psychoanalysis. Freud proposed to write on the topic of not using psychoanalysis in polemics. However, when the editors suggested that, given the taste of the general public, he’d be better off writing on ‘The Wife’s Mental Place in the Home’ or ‘The Husband’s Mental Place in the Home’, Freud responded with indignation. It is a matter of record that Freud abandoned this project, admonished his nephew, and passed over forever the opportunity to be listed as a contributor to Cosmopolitan magazine (see Jones, 1957: 30-31). Still, it would only be a matter of time before psychoanalysis, at least in its therapeutic guise, inveigled its way into the popular print media.
It is Ernest Jones’ suspicion that the strength of Freud’s reaction to the editorial advice ’emanated from feeling a little ashamed himself at having descended from his usual standards by proposing to earn money through writing popular articles’. Jones goes on to assure his readers that ‘it was the only time in his life that [Freud] contemplated doing such a thing’ (31). This direct brush with the culture industry put Freud’s narcissism on trial. That ‘an author of good esteem’ was being dictated to by matters of the market was surely an affront to his ego-ideal, but more subtly, as Jones hints, Freud’s response displays the wounded pride of a man who should have known better. The humiliation of an uncharacteristic lapse of judgement (descending from his usual high standards) reveals a further element to his ego-ideal, and we see Freud to be as vulnerable to the attraction of self-sufficiency as any normal narcissist. Thus it would seem that to be forewarned is not to be forearmed, which is of course only fitting for the theorist whose project it was to challenge man’s narcissism whilst simultaneously demonstrating its intractable character.
Of equal interest here, is what this vignette might indicate about the variable cultural appetite for a palatable rendering of psychoanalytic theory. Within his own lifetime Freud witnessed a readiness on the public’s part to accept his work (which is not to say that he was not also preoccupied by the counter-current to this trend); and in seeing something of the potential for the cultural appropriations and distortions of psychoanalysis, as well as what we might today call its normalisation, he was forced to recognise that the ‘cure’ was poised to become part of the ‘disease’ (Rieff, 1965 : 303). In 1787 the German poet Goethe had the following to say: ‘Speaking for myself, I too believe that humanity will win in the long run; I am only afraid that at the same time the world will have turned into one huge hospital where everyone is everybody else’s humane nurse’. Philip Rieff suggests that Goethe’s words are the ‘earliest prophecy’ of the therapeutic revolution that would eventually come to dominate Anglo-American culture in the mid-twentieth century (Rieff, 1973 : 21-22n). As he describes it in his work of 1959, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist:
In the emergent democracy of the sick, everyone can to some extent play doctor to others, and none is allowed the temerity to claim that he can definitively cure or be cured. The hospital is succeeding the church and the parliament as the archetypal institution of Western culture. (1965 , 355)
Appositely, on the topic of a market of competing therapies, Freud himself had commented that ‘when all is said, human society has no more use for the furor sanandi [mania for healing] than for any other fanaticism’ (1915b, 171).
In addition to the rise of the therapeutic, Goethe’s anxiety anticipates critiques of the social processes of administration, bureau – cratisation, medicalisation, professionalisation, and the perceived de-personalisation of human relations often associated with such processes. As allied developments that intersect with critiques of a therapy culture, these latter terms convey the stock-in-trade of sociological analysis. I argue that we can develop Rieff’s observation and note that in speaking of the transformations of intimacy and autonomy, the poet’s apprehension, which has remained at the forefront of our cultural imagination, persists as one of the signature motifs of Anglo-American sociological discourse in the half century since Rieff’s seminal account.
What is most interesting for our current discussion is that the term ‘narcissism’ became the metaphor of choice for expressing these persistent cultural concerns. In this chapter we shall discover how the term narcissism was transformed from a rather difficult set of ideas in Freud’s metapsychology to a fairly accessible diagnosis of a cultural pathology. Not only an indicator of vanity and exhibitionism, narcissism also became the watchword, especially in 1970s America, for the link between the structural depredations of late capitalist society and a therapeutic subjectivity.
There are various claims made about what exactly typifies a therapeutic culture: for example, the predominance of confessional modes of communication, a new emotional style of relationality, an apparent readiness of appetite for the ordinary man’s survival story, the presence of the therapeutic expert presiding over questions of human and public relations, the persistence of questions of well-being and happiness in cultural and political debate, and the predominance of permissive cultural codes and practices which foster introspective modes of interaction and self-narration. But what is repeated in the numerous narrative accounts of the therapeutic turn is a culture of self-centering rising and taking the place of traditional cultural scripts. This culture of selfcentering, assessed under the terms of the therapeutic, opens the door to narcissism. As Eva Illouz has pointed out, canonical critiques of a therapy culture have emphasised how ‘the therapeutic persuasion has made us abandon the great realms of citizenship and politics and cannot provide us with an intelligible way of linking the private self to the public sphere because it has emptied the self of its communal and political content, replacing this content with a narcissistic self-concern’ (2008, 2). As political categories are transmuted into psychological categories, the self retreats into an impoverished environment without the ties that formerly bound. Beyond the remarkable and perhaps disarming familiarity of this sociological tale which extends the narrative of the lost Gemeinschaft, I want to suggest that this tendency is representative of the reduction of narcissism to a negative cultural symptom which typifies many of the sociological understandings of the so-called therapeutic turn – and as a result overlooks some of the complexities of narcissism that we explored in the first part of this book. In order to do this I shall consider the contributions of three authors’ accounts of the changing cultural landscape of the mid-to-late twentieth century; namely, Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man of 1974, Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism of 1979 and The Minimal Self of 1984, and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue of 1981. Having already intimated that there are numerous and competing ‘beginnings’ to any investigation of the rise of the therapeutic (e. g. from Goethe to Rieff), a comment on my selection of these texts may be worthwhile.
Written within a decade of each other (from 1974 to 1984) the texts under consideration here illuminate the changes in cultural practices and moral discourse that were seen to mark the waning of the twentieth century. By subjecting the so-called ‘triumph of the therapeutic’ to further scrutiny, Sennett and Lasch have together comprised a powerful influence on the subsequent development of Anglo-American sociology. Both writers commit to invigorating the somewhat confused deployment of narcissism as the metaphor for the human condition that was to be found in many of the commentaries of the 1970s. Alongside Lasch’s and Sennett’s works, and Tom Wolfe’s ‘The "Me" Decade and the Third Great Awakening’ (1976), the critic Imogen Tyler points us to a plethora of associated publications from the 1970s: ‘Edwin Schur’s The Awareness Trap: Self-Absorption Instead of Social Change (1976), Simon Sobo’s "Narcissism as a Function of Culture" (1977), Marie Coleman Nelson’s editing of The Narcissistic Condition: A Fact of Our Life and Times (1977), Aaron Stern’s ME: The Narcissistic American (1979), Peter Marin’s "The New Narcissism" in Harper’s Magazine (1975), [and] Jim Hougan’s Decadence: Radical Nostalgia, Narcissism and Decline (1975)’ (Tyler, 2007: 346). The affinity between Sennett and Lasch is well noted in contemporary sociology where they are regularly coupled as critics whose explanations for the rise of the therapeutic rely on accounts of the changing relations between the ‘public’ and ‘private’ sphere (e. g. Rose, 1999; Giddens, 1991; Furedi, 2004). They are also clearly linked in their assessment that the revisions to moral life they document are symptomatic of a major cultural crisis. In this regard, I want to position Sennett and Lasch as ‘critical declinist’ theorists.
As a moral philosopher who makes no express reference to narcissism (psychoanalytic or cultural), but whose project has been called ‘the philosophical version of Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism’, MacIntyre stands on slightly different terrain (Alford, 9). MacIntyre positions ‘characters’ as ‘the moral representatives of their culture’, and argues that every culture has a ‘stock of characters’ that legitimate a mode of social existence (2007 , 28). Beyond his central reference to the therapist, MacIntyre’s account is of particular interest because of his presentation of narrative accountability as that which makes intelligible the concept of personal identity, and as that which contemporary society is in danger of losing. I shall begin by briefly introducing the therapist as a key figure for MacIntyre’s theoretical and methodological orientation, and foregrounding some points of comparison between his more philosophical work and the cultural and historical sociology of Lasch and Sennett.