The contemporary theorist Leo Bersani has made the prospect of narcissism as an aesthetic social principle central to his work. In his seminal text The Culture of Redemption (1990), he locates the ‘aesthetic of narcissism’ as pivotal to his development of a ‘general ethical-erotic project’, identifying in Freud’s 1914 essay the possibility of reading narcissism as a mode of ‘self-jouissance that dissolves the person and thereby, at least temporarily, erases the sacrosanct value of selfhood’ (3-4). In his more recent collaborative work with Adam Phillips (2008), he develops an account of narcissism in line with the principle of ‘self-divestiture’; an undressing or undermining of the self that opens the door to impersonal modes of sexual sociability. Let us consider, then, two aspects of Bersani’s thought in order to return to the phenomenon of coquetry – and Simmel’s theory thereof – equipped with a working theory of impersonal narcissism.
The first aspect concerns Bersani’s treatment of the narcissistic turn inward as a form of asceticism. We saw briefly in Chapter 4 how Sennett associated the narcissistic ‘tendency to measure the world as a mirror of the self’ (1977, 177) to that of a Weberian asceticism where the modern subject is seen to affirm himself by denying himself pleasure in the world: a disposition which, according to Sennett, ultimately leads ‘to an erosion of belief in experience external to the self’ (1993, 334). Bersani too allies narcissism and the ascetic; but whereas for Sennett it was important to position the destructive self-investments of ascetic narcissism against the values of aesthetic sociability, Bersani is adamant that ascetic negativity – a disciplinary reduction of self – is compatible with aesthetic and jubilant modes of sociability. In other words, reprising Salome’s intuition noted above that every cultural discipline has its ‘narcissistic accomplice’, Bersani capitalises on the paradox that the turn inwards can simultaneously create a new and productive relation towards the other. Through narcissistic audacity, new forms and new relations can be forged which traverse the boundaries of demarcated or recognisable selves. Bersani, of course, also has the advantage of a Foucauldian, rather than strictly Weberian, paradigm for considering the compatibility of ascetic discipline with aesthetic formalism. The ascetic discipline is a technology of power, where power, as we know for Foucault, stands as more than a negative instance of repression: ‘In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth’ (Foucault, 1991 , 194).
The second valuable aspect of Bersani’s work for our ongoing exploration of narcissistic sociability concerns his reading of Freud’s 1914 paper. ‘Freud’s most original speculative move was to deconstruct the sexual as a category of intersubjectivity, and to propose a definition of sexual excitement as both a turning away from others [asceticism] and a dying to the self [jouissance]’, writes Bersani, building on the premise that ‘the human subject is originally shattered into sexuality’ (1990, 45; 36). In his treatment of Freud’s metapsychology, he focuses on the difficult relation between autoeroticism and primary narcissism (considered in Chapter 1) to suggest that ‘the new psychical action’ added to autoeroticism to bring about primary narcissism is an act of sublimation. This action has an erotic inference: it infers both ‘something added’, and something moving away from primary autoeroticism, an ego-in-development which will form itself only in anticipation of its self-shattering. To put it another way, the incipient ego is ‘a part’, or perhaps a shard, which imagines itself a whole, and in its illusory state of self-sufficient wholeness readies itself for disintegration. This, says Bersani, is the pulse of the erotic life of narcissism. The impersonal rhythms of narcissistic sociability come to ape this original pulsation where each act of identification implies a self-reduction. We might consider in this light, self-aggrandisement and self-chastisement as linked productions of the ego-ideal, or the imaginary moment of selfintegration which necessarily implies a partition of the self from its other.
In his pursuit of concrete examples of impersonal intimacies – and narcissistic sociabilities – Bersani identifies certain practices that indicate the ‘pleasure of rhythmed being’ (2010a, 48). Specifically, in an essay entitled ‘Sociability and Cruising’, he returns us to Simmel’s coquette. He finds in Simmel’s essay on ‘The Sociology of Sociability’ the promise of a ‘more radical view of the relation between pleasure and negativity’ encapsulated in the sociologist’s reference to the social ideal that man might call ‘the freedom of bondage’ (quoted in Bersani, 47). Focussing on the passage from Simmel cited at the end of the last section, Bersani affirms that:
The pleasure of sociability would not be merely that of a restful interlude in social life. Instead, it would be the consequence of our being less than what we really are. Simmel speaks of a lady who, while avoiding ‘extreme decolletage in a really personal, intimate situation with one or two men,’ feels comfortable with it ‘in large company.’ ‘For she is,’ he adds, ‘in the larger company, herself, to be sure, but not quite completely herself, since she is only an element in a formally constituted gathering.’ It is as if there were a happiness inherent in not being entirely ourselves, in being ‘reduced’ to an impersonal rhythm. (47)
The convened formality of the social situation permits the coquette to enjoy an impersonal intimacy precisely because the pleasurable rhythms of the social encounter are not tethered to the ulterior motives of a whole personality. Identifying the prospect of ‘happiness’ as commensurate with self-reduction, rather than self-definition or selfaggrandisement, Bersani offers his characteristic counterpoint to the thought that sexuality comprises the site upon which the personally laden truth of the self is inscribed. His preferred modern example is gay cruising where the anonymity and partiality of the sexual encounter recapitulates the asceticism and jouissance of impersonal sociability. This reorientation of a sexual sociability is in line with a pleasurable ‘negativity’ that comes from the enjoyment of being less than ourselves.
We might ask how the re-reading of narcissism on offer in Bersani’s work plays out if we return again to Narcissus at the poolside. I suggested above that the waters in which Narcissus sees his reflection cannot hold it still; they compel the dissipation of his image and then permit its re-formation. Narcissus and his image – confused in their cohabitation as subject and object – do not come together in a stable union; rather they scatter on the surface of the water and are subject to the environmental undercurrents on which their movement rests. In relation with his surroundings (but not necessarily in harmony them), Narcissus is in perpetual motion; approaching and withdrawing from his image in turn. Herein lies the foundation of Narcissus’ erotic tension, or the jouissance of his possession and non-possession of himself: To desire in the mode of Narcissus is to take pleasure in losing oneself, in moving beyond a bounded vision of oneself, and then in finding oneself displaced – de-centered, certainly – only to begin the losing all over again. If we can position the mythic figure in line with a psychoanalytic understanding of the sexual as ‘a turning away from others and a dying to the self’ (Bersani), so too can we recognise the legacy of this dynamic in the formal qualities of play that the coquette brings to the social encounter. As Simmel describes it, coquetry entails ‘the act of taking hold of something only in order to let it fall again, of letting it fall only to take hold of it again, in what could be called the tentative turning toward something on which the shadow of its own denial already falls’ (1984, 151).
In this act of ‘taking hold’ of the object, and at the same time turning away from it, Simmel emphasises the significance of the visual gaze. He explains that a ‘sidelong glance with the head half-turned is characteristic of flirtation in its most banal guise. [… ] Physiologically, this glance cannot last longer than a few seconds, so that the withdrawal of the glance is already prefigured as something unavoidable in the glance itself’ (134-135). We should remember that the scene of Narcissus’ poolside retreat was that of a hunt. Narcissus turned his back on the deer in the woods, much as he turned his back on Echo, and found a new source of fascination most worthy of his pursuit. But as any seasoned hunter knows, the acquisition of the object kills the quest. So, like the coquette, Narcissus is not permitted the ‘full face-to-face glance’ that would curtail the pleasures of the chase (135). Carrying Narcissus’ image just out of reach, the ebb and flow of the waters ensure that the ‘withdrawal of the glance is already prefigured as something unavoidable in the glance itself’. Satisfaction, then, is promised and kept at bay as Narcissus learns that to desire is to demand the impossible.
Narcissus’ splendid isolation and the coquette’s insusceptibility to influence become modes of sociability once their environmental relations are exposed. Simmel is quite clear about this: For coquetry to work, the coquette’s interlocutor has to equal her commitment to form over content: Good sociability will only occur when the other in the social relation also desires nothing more than the ‘free-moving play’ of form (1949, 258). The modernist sociologist is simultaneously evoking here an image of the harmonious community and underscoring the precariousness of this achievement. Flirtation is an inherently dangerous mode of sociability because it endeavours to sustain an ‘unstable equilibrium’ between the two poles of having and not-having, or giving and not-giving (1984, 147). And, just as we have recognised the subject’s utter dependency on his environment of care in the phase of primary narcissism (Chapter 1), so too is it the case that the social conditions for sustaining such ‘unstable equilibrium’ cannot be entirely of the coquette’s making.
Although closely related, the female narcissist of Freud’s presentation and the coquette of Simmel’s (and Bersani’s) are not altogether identical. It seems that whereas Simmel has emphasised his coquette’s capacity to take pleasure in leaving herself behind, Freud stresses the narcissist’s capacity – or perhaps the compulsion – to leave others behind. We recall that the point of attraction for Freud was ‘the consistency with which the narcissist manages to keep away from their ego anything that would diminish it’ (1914a, 89). This stands in stark contrast to the coquette who actively desires a particular diminution of her ego. To put it somewhat differently, we could say that for Freud the narcissistic mode of object-choice shores up the ego, whereas for Simmel the commitment to flirtation suspends the ego. There is a definite note of egoic defence in Freud’s account which is absent in Simmel’s. In an attempt to reconcile this difference, we might venture that for Freud it is the apparatus of the mirror which structures the narcissist’s desire for her environment to reflect back her own image (I shall only engage with those who affirm my ego-ideal); whereas for Simmel it is the apparatus of the mask that permits the coquette to enter fully into the environment of the ‘Not-Me’ and embrace the impersonal rhythms of sociability (I shall only engage once private questions of ego are abandoned). However, it would be too simplistic to keep Freud’s mirror and Simmel’s mask in strict opposition here, for, as Narcissus himself poignantly demonstrates, the enigma of the mirror-image is its otherness. Hence, to keep faith with the dialectic conception that Simmel encourages, Narcissus’ reflection is masking and mirroring; concealing and revelatory in turn.
Moreover, we have seen both Freud and Simmel give a particular weight to the symbolic significance of ‘charm’ as an essentially social characteristic. By alloying the figure of the narcissist-coquette I hope to have underlined the basic premise that the ‘charm’ of self-sufficiency is received by an audience as an attractive and eminently social invitation. Another way of putting this would be to say that at some level the insusceptibility to influence, characteristic of narcissism, must work, not only as self-consolation, but also as a provocation to the other; the narcissist’s illusions of self-sufficiency are returned to the world that provoked them. With this reading of narcissism we can redress those accounts in which narcissistic illusions function as simple defence mechanisms against an abject dependency on the environment: such accounts cannot go on to explain narcissism’s enduring social power. Only by maintaining that narcissism calls out to narcissism – by insisting that narcissism communicates – can we remain engaged with the ways in which the illusions of narcissism come to have an impact on the very environment that appears to have been their catalyst. Thus, whilst Freud no doubt situates narcissism as a defensive reaction to a primary environment, he also allows us to imagine how the narcissist might co-create the conditions for a pleasurable environment of play. As is the case with all social relations, there are degrees of volatility to negotiate; whether it is the trespassing narcissistic cat who provokes the gesture of courtship in the form of Freud’s ‘ingenious enticement of his shoe-toe’, or the large beast of prey whose apparent wildness draws in and tames its onlookers, the reader is invited to imagine that sometimes, with certain conditions permitting, the Narquette can succeed in making her environment amenable to play.