Sociology 1: On the Narcissism of Nostalgia
The question ‘what does it mean to have something in common?’ is at the heart of the narcissistic dilemma of social recognition. Because it engages with the unresolved intricacies of differentiation and identification – differentiation from the other; identification with the other – it is also the basis upon which narcissism intersects with sociology. Writing of Gemeingeist (common spirit), Freud alerts us to the fantasy structure of every social bond: ‘What appears [as] Gemeingeist, [… ] does not belie its derivation from what was originally envy’ (1921, 120). Paying short shrift to the idea of a primary harmony, then, Freud suggests that the ‘appearance’ of a common ‘social feeling’ has at its root an appropriative fantasy. Hence he reveals the devious operations of power that paradoxically maintain the semblance of social cohesion. And yet, his demystifying impulse – exposing the aggression concealed by a fantasy of social harmony – is countermanded by an equal appreciation for the power of fantasy itself. It is ‘in the nature of an [narcissistic] identification’ says Freud, to turn ‘what was first a hostile feeling into a positively-toned tie’ (121). In other words, in Freud’s mind there is a clear association between the present achievement of a common bond and the past narcissistic fantasy of undifferentiated self-hood. In this chapter I am concerned to connect the complexities of what I have begun to call narcissistic sociability to the construction of a sociological discourse which takes as its object the dissolution of social bonds in the period of modernity.
Ferdinand Tonnies’ tale of the transition from Gemeinschaft (Community) to Gesellschaft (Society), first published in 1887, provides an early sociological account of the changing formations of modernity. My interest in Tonnies’ work concerns its status as an enduring background coordinate for more contemporary sociological works; as such,
I shall outline its principal features in broad terms, rather than provide an intimate dissection of the text. In this way we shall achieve an encapsulation of this seminal work of sociological theory that I am proposing to characterise as a ‘scriptural moment’ for the discipline. By situating Tonnies’ account in this way, I intend to communicate two related ideas: First, that it represents an enduring reference point in sociology’s discipline-defining script, where social change is narrated through the poetic lines of the weakening centre: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’ (W. B. Yeats). Second, that its scriptural quality pertains to its narrative form: The lost object of this particular sociological story – perhaps the lost object of every story – is the bond of community. The well-established thesis that sociology was inaugurated as ‘the science of the disenchantment of the world’ raises the prospect that, for the sociologist, nostalgia is an occupational hazard (Moscovici, 142). This chapter asks if there is perhaps an affinity between narcissism as an object of sociological critique, and nostalgia (for community relations) as a mode of sociological enquiry? And if there is such an affinity, how might we seek to inflect sociological accounts of the lost object with a revised theory of narcissism?