The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations
Christopher Lasch. W. W. Norton & Company; Revised edition (May 1, 1991), 302 pp. $10.85
The trick to writing social criticism is to focus on patterns that run deeper than the exterior of a society, so that its tenets cannot be tossed aside after a few years of discussion. Find the core composition, not the trends. Christopher Lasch was able to do this with The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. He struck a cultural nerve at enough depth that the book is commonly referenced some twenty five years later.
Originally written in 1978, and clearly in response to the tumultuous 1960s and its aftermath, the book explores the clinical definition of narcissism and applies it to the world around him. At times his tone is pessimistic; at others, ironic. He often references directly the era in which it was written. But overall, his observations of various aspects of American culture - parenting, obsession with celebrity, consumerism, ageism, moral permissiveness - enable him to make direct connections to the symptoms of the individual narcissist. Lasch’ lasting success is demonstrated in how these observations resonate into the 21st Century. Here are a few examples.
“The propaganda of commodities serves a double function. First it upholds consumption as an alternative to protest or rebellion... In the second place, the propaganda of consumption turns alienation itself into a commodity. It addresses itself to the spiritual desolation of modern life and proposes consumption as the cure.” (73)
This is distinctive to the social critique of the last 100 years, with the rising influence of advertising and the growing power of the corporate media. Today, society is so inundated by the call to consume that it transcends propaganda; consumerism is now successfully integrated into self-identity. Protesting it simply doesn’t occur. Gap and Ipod advertisements represent modern rebellion and individuality with conformist fashion and dance moves; political activism has no place (allowing a peace during war time on university campuses, the historical birthplace of political protest). All of it attainable through the mere spending of disposable income, an expenditure that has increased per capita over the last thirty years.
“The denial of age in America culminates in the prolongevity movement, which hopes to abolish old age altogether.” (217)
The American revulsion towards aging, expressed in everything from cosmetic surgery to the promise of age-related gene modification, is as pervasive as it has ever been. Lasch goes on to say that “the prolongevity movement expresses in characteristic form the anxieties of a culture that believes it has no future.” Fear of aging and death, as well as hypochondria, are fundamental to chronic narcissism. This is also symptomatic of our world today.
“The media give substance to and thus intensify narcissistic dreams of fame and glory, encourage the common man to identify himself with the stars and to hate the ‘herd.’” (21)
According to the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders, the narcissist believes he is special or unique and can only be understood by, or associate with, other special or unique, or high-status people. There is little denying that contemporary popular culture, born from American media, feeds upon and is perhaps obsessed with lifestyles of the rich and famous. To add an enigmatic twist, he says:
“The only important attribute of celebrity is that it is celebrated; no one can say why.” (47)
Certainly one can argue that applying such a broad interpretation of narcissism to the troubles of American culture makes for an easy diagnosis - just as anyone raising a child might become convinced they are suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It also may be suggested that his secret to success is in the subject itself; it positions him to speak directly to the narcissist in all of us (and the narcissist loves such acknowledgment, particularly from a bestselling author). Keep in mind that this is not a manifesto; it is pop-sociology at its best. As such, it is an important work that is engaging, entertaining and comprehensive, if not a testimony to the idea that narcissism is the collective malady of our time.