The influence of Christopher Lasch
Christopher Lasch cuts a curious figure in the contemporary sociological landscape. His work of 1979, The Culture of Narcissism, propelled the debates about the cultural malaise to a new climax, and gave intellectual weight to the key Zeitgeist concerns being captured in slogans of ‘me-ism’. The Culture of Narcissism is a sweeping study of the change in character of the principal social institutions and cultural formations of 1970s America, and by extension a study of the American national character itself. Lasch offers as empirical evidence for his thesis of cultural decline the retreat of the Father within the conventional family model, the interrelated encroachments of the bureaucratic into private life and the therapeutic into public life, the shifting attitudes towards old age and dying, and the changing dynamics of education, sport, leisure time, and sexual relations. Like Sennett, he argues that narcissism represents the psychological dimension of a culture that displaces political history. As Lasch turns his attention to the different facets of modern life, two stylistic features of his work are particularly striking: first, the abundance of metaphors of decline (waning, loss, disappearance, fall); and second, the insistence on the Hobbesian climate of ‘a war of all against all’ into which the modern individual is ruthlessly cast. While Sennett had insisted that his thesis wasn’t written to provoke regret, in Lasch’s case the hyperbole of his critique seems intent on activating a yearning for the lost authorities of yesteryear. No doubt Lasch’s seminal text derives some of its populist success from its polemic style, however we might want to ask what there is in Lasch’s sociology – beyond the seductions of mourning – that joins up with the contemporary discursive practices of social and psychoanalytic thought? Or, as one commentator recently asked: ‘Who now reads Christopher Lasch?’ (Kilminster, 131).
The answer to this question is that many still do, and for various reasons.2 Perhaps most straightforwardly, for those who wish to provide an overview of the rise of therapy culture or explore the points of contiguity between sociological and psychological language, Lasch’s work provides an historical coordinate that cannot be overlooked. More interestingly, there are those for whom Lasch’s substantive critique remains vitally instructive to an analysis of contemporary cultural conditions – the contemporary sociology of Frank Furedi or Keith Tester, in which Lasch is held up as an exemplary voice, might be positioned in this way. And finally, there are those for whom Lasch’s style of criticism is symptomatic of a cultural conservatism, a resistance to the qualitative shifts that bridge the political discourses of the 1960s and ‘postmodern’ politics, or the nostalgia that marks the melancholy cultural critic. Of course, Lasch was not blind to the charge of nostalgia within his own work but it was one he disputed on the grounds that too often ‘critics of nostalgia seek to reassure themselves that evidence of cultural decline is really evidence of nostalgia’ (1984b, 65).
Although using narcissism as a metaphor for the human condition, Lasch is keen to distinguish his declinist thesis from Sennett’s which, he contends, ‘reverses cause and effect’ and ultimately ‘participates in the current revulsion against politics – the revulsion, that is, against the hope of using politics as an instrument of social change’ (1991, 30). The following quotation gives a flavour of his rhetorical style, as well as his determination to distinguish himself from Sennett:
Reversing cause and effect, Sennett blames the contemporary malaise on the invasion of the public realm by the ideology of intimacy. For him [… ] the current preoccupation with self-discovery, psychic growth, and intimate personal encounters represents unseemly selfabsorption, romanticism run rampant. In fact, the cult of intimacy originates not in the assertion of personality but in its collapse. Poets and novelists today, far from glorifying the self, chronicle its disintegration. Therapies that minister to the shattered ego convey the same message. Our society, far from fostering private life at the expense of public life, has made deep and lasting friendships, love affairs, and marriages increasingly difficult to achieve. As social life becomes more and more warlike and barbaric, personal relations take on the character of combat. (30, my emphasis)
This is a puzzling position. We have paid sufficient attention to Sennett’s thesis, and the paradox of authenticity put forward by Lionel Trilling, to trust that Sennett is not postulating ‘the assertion of the personality’ as an uncomplicated cause of the cult of intimacy. Sennett does not suggest that ‘private life has been fostered at the expense of public life’, but rather that the boundaries between the public and the private are (narcissistically) confused. In other words, Sennett has read the ‘assertion of the personality’ not in terms of ego-strength, but as a symptom of the poverty of the ego – ‘narcissism is the very opposite of strong self-love’ (Sennett, 1993: 324). Or, to express it in the Kohutian language that both Sennett and Lasch draw from, the empty self and the grandiose self are equally probable, and often vacillating, presentations of the narcissistic bind. The reason Lasch’s reading of Sennett is puzzling, then, is because Lasch enacts the very charge that he misdirects at Sennett’s work: he argues that ‘Sennett’s eagerness to restore a distinction between public and private life [… ] ignores the ways in which they are always intertwined’ and thus muddies the causal waters of cultural narcissism (30). To my mind, however, it is Lasch who insists on an overdrawn distinction between privacy as a lost site of cultural value, and the warlike conditions of sociality which personal life then comes to mirror. As Jessica Benjamin (1988) has noted, Lasch ‘dismisses Sennett’s defense of bourgeois civility as a valid basis for public political life, while he himself clamors for the same bourgeois values in private life’ (277n). In other words, Lasch takes Sennett to task for arguing that the intimacies of private life have corroded the public sphere, before switching the order of play and proffering his reading in which private life is invaded by forces of bureaucratic officialdom. However, it should be clear that because both of Lasch’s scenarios give primacy to either the public or the private sphere as the dominant ‘invader’ of the other sphere, neither account would keep faith with the logic of narcissism as a state of boundary confusion. It is no surprise then, that, despite his protestations to the contrary, we often find Lasch standing on the same critical ground as Sennett. For example, when he insists that modern culture encourages the celebration of one’s attributes as opposed to one’s actions (1991, 59), he is in accordance with Sennett’s thesis that the ‘tasks of personality are antithetical to the tasks of social action’ (1993, 219). The rule of ‘public relations’ in political life, and the triumph of image-based politics, or politics as a form of spectacle, attest to the dominance of a narcissistic logic in the public sphere. We can detect here Lasch’s desire to (re)instate a secure distinction between ‘reality’ and ‘representation’ which reminds us of the possible affinities between narcissism and nostalgia that converge on the problem of the reality-status of the lost object. Let us consider this problematic further by focussing on the themes of the retreat of ritual and aesthetic sociability, where Lasch and Sennett again share common ground.