The Culture of Narcissism Nearly Thirty Years Later
In the October/November 2005 issue of Policy Review, Christine Rosen attends to the critique of American society that historian and social critic Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) offered in his book The Culture of Narcissism. (When Lasch died in 1994, Ken Myers talked with Dominic Aquila about The Culture of Narcissism; the interview is featured on Volume 7 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal. Lasch and his writings are addressed in a new anthology, Figures in the Carpet, several essays from which will be discussed on upcoming issues of the Journal.) In her article "The Overpraised American," Rosen, a guest on Volume 70 of the Journal, assesses the trajectory for society Lasch predicted in his work. She states, ". . . the narcissism Lasch described has not disappeared. It has simply taken on a different and in some ways more exaggerated form."
In The Culture of Narcissism, which was published in 1979, Lasch asserted that Americans had become narcissistic; they had exchanged the development of character for the development of personality and were happy to peer into a mirror in order to rate who they were and how they might develop a sense of fulfillment. He depicted how the culture was beginning to devalue the very things—a strong home and family life, independence and self-reliance, work, and connections with others in a world "'independent of our wishes yet responsive to our needs,'"—that prevent people from becoming narcissistic and susceptible to the "'terrors of existence.'" Rosen studies the same factors Lasch originally used to discover and describe these trends and concludes that "Lasch's narcissist has become the over praised, attention-seeking, technologically dependent American who is aware and concerned about certain influences on family and social life but little motivated to change his lifestyle to counteract them." She writes: "Although the children of Lasch's narcissists express both shock and confusion over the disorder of their family lives and the declining civility around them, their response so far has been largely one of retreat—into congratulatory, therapeutic reassurances, into the cocoon of increasingly large homes where the demands of domesticity and family life can be outsourced and distracting entertainments easily obtained. This is a technologically sophisticated world that nevertheless increasingly lacks opportunities for genuine connection. It is a world where parents fret about negative, outside influences on children yet do little to stop children (or themselves) from watching hour after hour of the television that celebrates those very influences. Demanding constant praise and immediate feedback, and without knowing where, at any given moment, they rest on the tumultuous yet finely calibrated scale of success, Americans are, in the end, even more anxious and unhappy than the narcissists Lasch first described. Whether or not these anxieties will become a permanent feature of our culture remains to be seen. But as Lasch's book reminds us, their influence is not likely to disappear. It is likely to grow even more powerful in ways now beyond our ability to imagine."
Rosen's "The Overpraised American" is available on-line. [Posted November 2005, ALG]