Lasch’s ‘new Narcissus’
Lasch conceives his new Narcissus in relation to the character-type of the ‘American Adam’ whose ‘rugged individualism’ and ‘unbridled egotism’, we are told, were much celebrated in nineteenth-century American literature (1991, 10-11). Lasch is quick to point out, however, that the resemblance drawn between the two characters on the grounds of a shared ‘imperial’ sense of self is somewhat misleading as Narcissus’ self-image is now altogether more ‘tenuous’ than that of his forebearer’s (8):
Notwithstanding his occasional illusions of omnipotence, the narcissist depends on others to validate his self-esteem. He cannot live without an admiring audience. His apparent freedom from family ties and institutional constraints does not free him to stand alone or to glory in his individuality. On the contrary, it contributes to his insecurity, which he can overcome only by seeing his ‘grandiose self’ reflected in the attentions of others, or by attracting himself to those who radiate celebrity, power, and charisma. For the narcissist, the world is a mirror, whereas the rugged individualist saw it as an empty wilderness to be shaped to his own design. (10)
Predictably, Lasch, like Sennett, is unprepared to celebrate the other side of the modern protean dilemma, and instead hones a story of the individual’s fall from a robust, coherent and outward-facing self, to the withdrawn, destabilised and vacuous self of the narcissistic state. Lasch is clear that his Narcissus craves recognition; ‘he cannot live without an admiring audience’ – a reading at odds with Freud’s appreciation of the narcissist’s attractive indifference to her audience (a point developed in Chapter 5). Similarly, Lasch’s assertion that Narcissus’ mirror offers selfconsolation (standing in counter-distinction to an empty wilderness to be shaped by the subject’s own design) is a telling deviation from Freud’s conception of narcissistic subject-formation where the boundaries of the self and the world are continually redrawn. Underlying a conception of Narcissus as anxious and wretchedly dependent is Lasch’s appraisal of specific historical determinants: ‘The psychological patterns associated with pathological narcissism [… ] originate in the peculiar structure of the American family, which in turn originates in the changing modes of production’ (176).
The special place that Lasch gives to the family develops the thesis of his earlier study of 1977, Haven in a Heartless World, in which he argues that the attenuation of the family’s social role and cultural authority has entrenched a climate of dependency. The increasing popularisation of progressive education, that Lasch associates with the 1930s and 1940s, ‘boil[s] down to the obligation to make children feel wanted at every moment in their lives’ – a practical manifestation of this trend would be the shift in experts’ advice from ‘schedule feeding’ to ‘feeding on demand’ (1991, 162). The ‘revolt against behavioural and progressive dogmas’ which exaggerated the parent’s power to harm the child, in turn produced its own dogma in the form of the cult of authenticity, positioned as a prominent cultural hallmark from the 1950s on (168-170). When parenting advice altered so that parents, although really the emphasis is on the mother here, were told ‘to trust their own feelings’ the authenticity trap was set: as is familiar from our discussion above, the ‘injunction to feel spontaneous emotion does not make it easier to feel’ (177). This is one instance where the influence of Lasch’s sociological analysis should not go un-remarked upon: his observations regarding the ‘deskilling of parents’ as the unintended consequences of expert advice continue to resonate within contemporary social thought.
The cult of authenticity reflects the collapse of parental guidance and provides it with a moral justification. It confirms, and clothes in the jargon of emotional liberation, the parent’s helplessness to instruct the child in the ways of the world or to transmit ethical precepts. By glorifying this impotence as a higher form of awareness, it legitimizes the proletarianization of parenthood – the appropriation of childrearing techniques by the ‘helping professions’. (167)
To borrow from MacIntyre’s lexicon, once subjected to the discourse of the therapist as bureaucratic manager, the parent figure – whose actions are governed by the principle of ‘psychological effectiveness’ – becomes another ‘role’ cast in the absence of a distinction between ‘manipulative and non-manipulative social relations’ (MacIntyre, 30).
We have arrived at a culturally recognisable understanding of modern-day narcissism where Narcissus’ reputed vanity, exhibitionism and manipulation mask his dependency, officiousness, and his unhappy relation to work. Narcissistic grandiosity, in this view, invariably expresses the diminished and defensive ego. Clearly, narcissism’s deployment in the cultural criticism we have considered reflects a transplantation of terminology from the mythological and the metapsychological arenas to an historically focussed sociological analysis. This historicisation of narcissism, which locates its cultural heyday in mid – to-late twentieth-century America, is not without its problems however. Because the mode of critique exhibited in this chapter is committed to narrating cultural decline, it is not well disposed to acknowledge the vicissitudes of narcissism, let alone to appraise Narcissus’ virtues. Indeed, how, for Sennett or Lasch, could Narcissus be virtuous if he is enduringly associated with the depredations of late capitalist society? Is it possible, for example, to draw a line between their critique of late capitalism, and a patrician dismissal of mass culture, or between their attack upon the cultural figure of Narcissus, and their repudiation of forms of feminine sociability (see Chapter 5)? As we have seen, Lasch goes as far as to suggest that narcissistic subjects are produced by family relations, which in turn are produced by changing modes of production. Whilst, at one level, this is indisputable (of course changing productions create new subject-formations), his insistence on pathologising a cultural moment results in a falsely static view of what is wrong. He fixes an image of society and then laments that society’s paralysis. In so doing, the critical declinist neglects his own narcissistic investment in the fallen society that he remains attached to; Lasch, we might say, plays Echo to his own narcissistic state.
The broader point to note is how, when viewed as a cultural pathology, narcissism is deprived of its positive aspect. In Lasch’s picture of parental narcissism, a mother’s narcissism produces the narcissism of her child, just as a debased bureaucratic culture produces the narcissistic subject of the mother. But as we saw in Chapter 2, a Freudian conception of parental narcissism is never so straight-laced. For Freud, an infant’s narcissism, though clearly determined by a culture of parenting, also invariably determines the intensity of the parents’ enraptured identification with the child. In his turn away from the world, the child produces its social environment by provoking the parent into an act of narcissistic emulation: that child is me. These interlocking narcissisms of parent and child which reverberate into the larger social world are never linear in their determination. The 1970s sociological narrative of narcissism’s production, however, gives short shrift to such narcissistic productivity, and indeed to narcissistic rapture.