At the top of this chapter I asked whether there may be an affinity between narcissism as an object of sociological critique, and nostalgia as a mode of sociological enquiry. Moreover, I intimated that it was necessary to inflect sociological accounts of the lost object with a revised theory of narcissism. We can now bring the various strands of our discussion together.
Narcissism is never only the story of one; the precarious presence of the narcissist’s environment of care, the everyday phenomenon of parental narcissism, and the sociological characterisations of intimacy testify to the fact that narcissism and sociability are coeval. However, important questions remain concerning the placement and character of narcissism within the sociological script. Tonnies’ sociological account of the lost ‘holistic organic bonding’ of community bears resemblance, I have suggested, to certain psychoanalytic convictions regarding an original ‘harmonious mix-up’ between child and environment. Significantly, in such readings, the displacement of narcissism’s ‘primary’ character (we recall from Chapter 1 that Balint was wont to describe a primitive union under the rubric of ‘primary love’), means that narcissism becomes the ruination of harmonious sociability. Accordingly we can anticipate how, within the canon of sociology, narcissism will be situated and characterised, along with Gesellschaft social conditions, as producing rationalised, atomised, and self-interested subjectivities. Indeed, in the following chapters we shall examine prominent sociological critiques of a modern ‘culture of narcissism’ whose rhetoric of decline is connected to a particular and reductive conception of narcissistic sociability.
The idea that sociological thinking has been propelled by the impulse to mourn the social bonds of community, and critique the ‘inauthenticity’ of the bonds that emerge in their wake, has been much discussed. For example, Stauth and Turner, keeping the Gemeinschaft-Gesellschaft distinction in the frame, explore how the nostalgic paradigm of classical social theory (and in particular nineteenth-century German philosophy) persists in contemporary sociology’s critiques of mass culture. The themes of nostalgia and melancholy in the sociological lexicon draw from the ‘elitist critique’ of modernity which ‘trades upon the myth of premodern stability and coherence’ and ‘presupposes a world in which there was a unity of art, feeling and communal relations’ (512-513). Indeed, it is not difficult to extrapolate a structural affinity with Tonnies’ script: the modern subject is an exilic subject because the social bonds of community have come undone, and when the infamous centre can no longer hold, a culture of self-centering, which is to say a ‘narcissistic’ culture, vies for attention as the authoritative sociological script.
Additionally, at stake within the sociological characterisation of modernity is a theory of love. To posit, in the past, the bonds of an integrated community is also to conceive of a lover’s mise en scene. Significantly, and I think mistakenly, the figure of Narcissus is denied a place in this primary arena on the grounds that narcissistic self-investment precludes mutuality of social relations. Given our revisiting of Freud’s theory of primary narcissism as a treatise on love, and his foregrounding of the complicated temporality of transference love, we are, however, empowered to challenge this idea. Via Freud, we have seen how nostalgic idealisations of the past are revealed as retroactive fantasies; how the mode of recollective memory is recast as compulsive repetition (‘the patient will begin his treatment with a repetition’); and how within the scene of imaginary plenitude – the infant in his nursery, the community with its assumed social cohesion – there is an original implication of disequilibrium. Effectively, what this amounts to is a psychoanalytic reprimand of temporally naive (linear) social narrations.
Indebted to the tale of transition that Tonnies bequeathed to the discipline, the sociological narrative, which is to differing degrees a reflection of nostalgia, is a consoling one. Even when the narrative is steeped in the rhetoric of modern decline, it remains consolatory if it retains a faith in a once existent harmony. By reflecting on this consolatory figuration we have begun to detect its own narcissistic characteristics, and can venture the irony that the critic who laments a modern culture of narcissism is, according to the nostalgic temper of his thought, revealed to be a narcissist. I am at pains to stress that by identifying, in the broadest terms, a nostalgia operative in sociological modes of narration, I do not wish to characterise such modes as simplistic or without critical merit.3 Rather, I hope that by bringing sociology to the mirror we can consider the construction of its discursive imaginary, in particular two of its discipline-defining topoi, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft with their all-too-familiar associated dualisms: home and exile, community and atomisation, spontaneity and rationalisation. One of the strengths of primary narcissism as a heuristic apparatus is that it shows that neither side of these binaries is tenable in itself. The idea of environmental mutuality might well depend on myths of egoic self-sufficiency, while the idea of the rational, self-interested subject is, for Freud, necessarily a modern form of magical thinking. But in asking the sociologist to abandon the ‘myth of premodern stability and coherence’ (Stauth and Turner, 512), we are also asking him to give up the pleasures of a nostalgic script. Narcissus at the poolside, remember, ‘rejoiced in his torments’; and critically his non-possession of the lost object kept him faithful to it. It shouldn’t take a psychoanalyst to remind us that symptoms are rarely given up without a fight (narcissism especially, as Freud regularly stated, will not disappear on account of the introduction of ‘true’ object-love). Perhaps, then, we would do well to hold in mind not only the satisfactions that a nostalgic disposition might entail, but also, in keeping with our determined redemption of Narcissus, the ways in which nostalgia may open out onto vital and pleasurable modes of sociability. One possibility of such a mode would be embodied by an active social critique.