In the 21st century today, narcissism appears to be much less about the correlation between our self-importance and our own personal relationships than it is with the number of followers on Twitter or Facebook friends. Indeed, social networking is, at worst, a platform to cultivate one’s narcissism and indulge where it hasn’t metastasized.
Are we all narcissists? After all, Americans, as well as the rest of the world perceive Americans as excessively narcissistic in which we are attention-seeking, have a sense of entitlement, immodest, self-absorbed, grandiose, and manipulative. However, this is more about the perception of narcissism, rather than actual clinical narcissistic personality disorder, which is rare in its own right. Less than one out of a hundred meets the diagnostic criteria for the disorder.
As for the rest of us, we have the same problem – we are profoundly in love with ourselves, but since this love excludes a love object outside ourselves, it remains constantly dissatisfied and unfulfilled. According to Sigmund Freud, a powerful narcissistic trait exists in all of us. As children, our narcissism was physical – we were interested in our image, our body, as if it was a separate being. But as we grew older, our narcissism became more psychological – we grew absorbed in our own tastes, opinions, and experiences, forming a hard shell around us.
In 1979, Christopher Lasch published a seminal book on narcissism: The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. Instead of the usual cyclical generational feud that is perpetuated by pointing a finger at the foibles of the youth, he paid heed to the stagnation of the West’s dual heritage of individualism and capitalism, which began during the late Middle Ages and came of age after the Industrial Revolution.
A book about contemporary malaise, the Culture of Narcissism is about a way of life that is dying and the psychological shift of the populace that finds itself in the middle of this being-towards-death, a profound topic beyond the reach of Joel Stein’s shallow commentary. Lasch cites doctors who reported an increasing number of psychiatric patients who adhere to the Freudian archetype of narcissism, and saw a diluted form of the narcissistic personality throughout American society. According to psychoanalytic theory, the pathology of narcissism is more serious than mere selfishness or an excessive obsession with self-absorbed blather. According to Freud, the narcissist’s fixation on the self has more to do with repressed self-hatred than with exalted self-love. Narcissism does not make anyone to look into the mirror; it turns the mirror into our only solipsistic reality.
Neither Facebook nor iPhones got us here. According to Lasch, the emergence of these unprecedented narcissistic traits are due to specific developments in modernity that had been a long time in the making, such as the “appropriation of modes of production by a hegemonic bureaucracy,” as well as the “proliferation of images, therapeutic ideologies, the rationalization of the inner life, the cult of consumption, and in the last analysis from changes in family life and from changing patterns of socialization.” (Lasch, p. 32)
Today, we live in such inescapable cultural environment wherein our narcissism has become the default psychological response to a life built on these shifting illusions. It is the natural characteristic of a technocapitalistic society in its decline.
Is it any wonder why we all exist in “illusory worlds of techno-capitalism promoted by academia, media, corporate and government think tanks, foundations? A world where the future is controlled by computer modeling, closed off from us, a world simplified by algorithms that trap us in an echo-chamber of narcissism, a realm where all the feedback mechanism give us only our own thoughts and images back?”
Without foundations, rejecting tradition and a fear of death, the classic Freudian narcissist grounds himself in the approval of others, while remaining suspicious of interpersonal dependence. He manifest the following symptoms: “a sense of inner emptiness, boundless repressed rage, and unsatisfied oral cravings,” while superficially displaying “pseudo self-insight, calculating seductiveness, [and] nervous, self-deprecatory humor.” (Lasch, p. 33)
This description fits half of the members on Internet forums. It is also worth looking at the thematic material of the majority of American fiction since 1950. If literature can sublimate the collective subconscious of a society, exposing and naming cultural attitudes before they become visible and part of the “cultural consciousness,” then we all have been unwitting Freudian narcissistics since the sardonic Holden Caufield embodied some of those descriptors in J.D. Salinger’s novel, published in 1951. Moreover, the past 60 years has shown an increasing number of narcissistic characters in American films and television: Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Tyler Durden in Fight Club, Tony Soprano in The Sopranos, Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, Don Draper in Mad Men, and etcetera.
The most overt way the millennial generation embodied this inherited narcissism was Occupy Wall Street. Its inherent narcissistic tendency was found within the ironic double-mindedness of the Ninety-Nine-percenters themselves who wielded corporate devices in their demonstrations while demanding for the disestablishment of the one-percenters. This movement exemplified some of Lasch’s descriptions of the narcissistic culture in America:
Defensive regression into illusory self-sufficiency in the face of helplessness and dependence.
Passing of moral responsibility from self to paternalistic state.
The need to be constantly externally validated.
Instead of a generational novelty, the attitude of the Occupy fit neatly within a well-established narcissistic tradition in our culture. The 21st century in post-Empire America, already rife with apocalyptic fantasies of Pax Americana, is proving to be the greatest era for narcissists.
Is there a cure to this culture of narcissism? Perhaps conceptualizing ideas such as the limitations of human nature, or the value of self-denial, or the necessity of owning moral responsibility of one’s own actions – all traits once upheld as indispensable for a mature civilization. Perhaps we can strive for them again, or fall back on phonies like Stein to flood us with “pseudo self-insight, calculating seductiveness, and nervous self-deprecatory humor,” and be content as a bunch of narcissists.