“Narcissistic” is a word which more than a few cultural critics have used to define American life in the twenty-first century, an age when self-importance is often correlated less with our own personal relationships than with our number of Twitter followers. As evidenced by Joel Stein’s recent Time cover story on the millennial generation, many commentators have argued that today’s twentysomethings have a novel penchant for being selfish, hedonistic, and entitled, traits not well suited to the sustenance of civil society. The criticisms leveled at us millennials by Stein and other members of our parents’ generation are by now all too familiar: we’re self-obsessed, we’re dumb, and we’ll most likely contribute to the downfall of civilization as we know it.
However, the millennial generation’s indignant counterargument has not been much better. It generally goes something like this: “Young people of every generation tend to be narcissistic, at least until they grow out of it”—a feat, they tend to argue, that Stein has seemingly not accomplished. For all its unoriginality, at least this view acknowledges the truth that every new generation in history has been criticized by its elders and that humankind seems to be selfish by nature. But something is still missing.
Both Stein’s and his opponents’ arguments are weak attempts to contribute to what should be one of the more interesting discussions of our time—the development of a rigorous cultural psychology that can help us make sense of our performance in important realms of human activity, like ethics, politics, and art. The current debate falters due to both sides’ employment of bland, superficial language, equating the word “narcissistic” with mere selfishness or hedonistic egotism or, as Stein puts it, “lazy entitlement.” There is no question that today we’re a narcissistic generation—in fact, our culture may be thoroughly narcissistic—but precisely what that means has gone amiss in today’s insipid social criticism. We haven’t always been this way; 100 years ago, American culture barely evinced any of the traits associated with narcissism. Just how did we get here, and what does this mean for us?
It is a shame that Stein’s Time article only casually mentions Christopher Lasch’s seminal book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations, which was published in 1979, just one year before Stein’s cutoff date for “Gen Y” status. Stein should have found in Lasch a more solid framework for his cultural commentary than in the pop psychology he cites; Lasch, a neo-Marxian leftist turned Freudian conservative, displays an intellectual rigor that makes his prescient criticism of America’s psychological decay just as compelling for a reader in 2013 as for a reader in 1979. Moreover, Lasch escapes the cyclical generational feud perpetuated today by pointing the finger not at “the novelties of youth” but at the stagnation of the West’s dual heritage of individualism and capitalism, the seed of which was planted way back in the late Middle Ages and which came to fruition after the Industrial Revolution.
The Culture of Narcissism is a book about contemporary malaise, about “a way of life that is dying” and the psychological shift of the populace that finds itself in the midst of this death-in-life, heady topics that lie beyond the purview of Stein’s surface-level commentary. Citing doctors who report a growing number of psychiatric patients who adhere to the archetype of the Freudian narcissist, Lasch sees the narcissistic personality, in a slightly diluted form, present throughout American society. In psychoanalytic theory, the pathology of narcissism is more potent than mere selfishness or an unhealthy obsession with “me-talk.” As Freud argued, the narcissist’s fixation on the self has much more to do with repressed self-hatred than with exalted self-love. Narcissism doesn’t make us want to look into the mirror; it turns the mirror into our only, solipsistic reality—a reality the narcissist refuses to acknowledge.
We didn’t get here just by spending too much time on Facebook or by being addicted to smartphones, however. According to Lasch, the advent of these unprecedented narcissistic traits are due to specific modern developments a long time in the making, like the “appropriation of modes of production by a hegemonic bureaucracy” and
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 (p. 32).
This is the inescapable cultural environment in which we live. In a sense, narcissism has become the normal psychological response to life in a world built on these shifting illusions. It is the natural character of a technocapitalist society in its declining stages.
Lacking any solid foundation, disdainful of tradition and fearful of death, the Freudian narcissist seeks to ground himself in others’ approval while remaining fearful of interpersonal dependence; he manifests behaviors like “a sense of inner emptiness, boundless repressed rage, and unsatisfied oral cravings”; superficially, he displays “pseudo self-insight, calculating seductiveness, [and] nervous, self-deprecatory humor” (p. 33). Today, these descriptors call to mind typical behavior displayed on Internet forums. Take also the thematic material of much American fiction after 1950. If it is true that literature can channel the subconscious psychology of a society, exposing and naming cultural attitudes before they rise to visibility and “cultural consciousness”, then we’ve been unwitting Freudian narcissists ever since the sardonic Holden Caulfield embodied at least five of the above descriptors in Salinger’s novel, which was published in 1951. Add in the correlative fact that the last fifty years have seen a growing number of narcissistic characters in American films and television (Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, Tyler Durden in Fight Club, everybody in Jersey Shore) and you get something even more to the point: narcissists have been our culture’s constant companions for the better part of the last century.
Had Stein been as incisive as Lasch in his analysis of our culture’s collective psychology, he might have made a positive critical contribution by focusing on one of the specific ways in which the millennial generation has embodied this inherited narcissism: Occupy Wall Street. Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that Occupy was largely (but by no means exclusively) an empty gesture of trendy liberal politics and inarticulate activism without actual reform. Its narcissistic tendency can be found in the ironic dual-mindedness of the Occupiers themselves, who wielded smartphones (produced by corporations) in their demonstrations while calling for the disestablishment of the “1%”. At the risk of sounding too much like some of Occupy’s right-wing critics, I think the movement exemplifies some of Lasch’s foremost descriptions of the narcissistic culture—the defensive regression into illusory self-sufficiency in the face of helplessness and dependence, the passing of moral responsibility from self to paternalistic state, the need to be constantly externally validated. Far from being a generational novelty, the attitude of Occupy fits squarely in line with a narcissistic tradition already well-established in our culture.
Instead of trying to save his article with sentimental claims (“despite their shortcomings, millennials will save us all”), Stein might have ended with an actually useful notion. If we want to cure our culture of its narcissism, and we should, we might try conceptualizing ideas like the inherent limitation of human nature, the value of self-denial, and the necessity of owning moral responsibility for one’s actions. These traits were once upheld as indispensable to the development of a mature citizenry. Persons and states strove to attain them. We ought to strive for them again, because as long as we allow poseurs like Stein to barrage us with their “pseudo self-insight, calculating seductiveness, [and] nervous, self-deprecatory humor,” we’ll just continue to be a bunch of narcissists.