The Culture of Narcissism in an Era of Identity Politics Gone Awry

Venice Allen (left) and Posie Parker (right), the two women at the centre of the debate on identity politics in the UK as they fight to ensure sex-based protections for females.

Christopher Lasch’s 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism, took what was then a very narrowly-applied clinical term and used it to diagnose a cultural pathology he viewed rampant within American society. Taking Freud’s original definition of the term “narcissism,” Lasch’s text focusses upon the repressed rage and self-loathing which is transformed by the narcissist into grandiose notions of selfhood and self-important, to include a complete abandon of reason and connection with the material present.

Rereading Lasch’s book, I am struck by how the ethos of what he analyzes is very much with us today, and in hyper-drive as he writes presciently of our society’s obsession with fame, power, and control, all this circulating what he refers to as an “apotheosis of individualism”:
 It is true that a “present-oriented hedonism,” as Riesman went on to argue, has replaced the work ethic “among the very classes which in the earlier stages of industrialization were oriented toward the future, toward distant goals and delayed gratification.” But this hedonism is a fraud: the pursuit of pleasure disguises a struggle for power. Americans have not really become more sociable and cooperative, as the theorists of other-direction ad conformity would like us to believe; they have merely become more adept at exploiting the convention of interpersonal relations for their own benefit.

Nothing speaks so clearly to this paradigm today than how woke culture has emerged among the left which results in the regular social media callouts of feminists who challenge gender ideology and the more recent media frenzy over a child, Desmond Naples, whose life has become co-opted by both transgender advocacy and Converse’s latest advertising campaign. The message is clear when it comes to marketing ideology as woke religiosity: there are no ethical limits to what humans will do to grab hold of power.

It’s also no coincidence that Lasch’s book appeared during the Carter presidency amidst extreme inflation and a recession which was accompanied by oil shortages, record-high crime rates, and crumbling infrastructure in major cities. It was amidst such crises that the culture of narcissism emerged so forcefully within American culture in light of no economic prospects for the younger generation and high rates of unemployment. Where material reality failed to provide any comfort, emotional cultural tropes emerged where an obsession with fashion and celebrity coupled with exaggerated notions of self-worth came to mark American society from the 1970s onward. All this even if his diagnosis was of a condition which he views originating in the nineteenth century as he analyzes Emma Bovary as the “prototypical consumer of mass culture, still dreams; and her dreams, shared by millions, intensify dissatisfaction with jobs and social routine.”

Where do we go when capitalism does not offer us any reprieve from the dreams left unmatched and the waning of jobs in a world where medieval feudalism is fast returning?

Last month I spoke with Shaz Memon, Founder of Digimax and a dental marketing specialist, who tells me how many millennials today are turning to connect to themselves rather than a community in this era of being overworked and often underpaid. Memon postulated, “I think in this current economic climate where the under-thirty crowd is more highly educated than ever while paradoxically these same individuals face diminishing job opportunities, the result is a generation which is struggling to stay afloat while facing steeper odds for any sort of economic advancement and social importance. Where do you go for reassurance or a feel-good moment? Many are turning to treatments which improve how they look, and how you look directly reflects upon how you feel.”

I thought a lot about Memon’s words to me over the past month as I reread Lasch’s bestseller from almost forty years ago which directly critiques what was then a growing culture of self-focus and non-traditional spirituality. In fact, Lash’s claim is this: it’s not that psycho-spiritual therapies were the cure to narcissism, they were, in fact, the product of narcissism. Forty years later, bell-bottoms and mood rings in the attic, we still haven’t accounted for the drive behind the new age spiritual boom of the 1970s, the obsession with Jane Fonda workouts and the culture of addiction from the 1980s onward which have birthed today’s culture of self-betterment and hyper-narcissism. It’s not that there is anything wrong per se with working on the self, but when this “work” becomes its own pathology, we are simply applying one bandage over another. Underneath lies a festering wound that is growing in size.

And the symptoms to our social malaise is everywhere. It is impossible not to note that every other media article is its own infomercial as to how to deal with others’ identities or how to feel better about the self. Yet, nobody seems to question why within the cultural vehicles of mass media, entertainment and literature, we are being overwhelmed with messages about how to see the world, a recipe for how to be a “good citizen” as opposed to a “bad one.” No wonder people are at a loss as to how to feel good in an era where we are told that almost everything we think and feel is wrong.

Where university studies once focussed upon learning facts and understanding the various philosophies throughout the ages, today these academic centres are very much at the heart of ideological propagation where today reading a book is no longer the focus of academic inquiry and interpretation, but it is more an exercise which is caught within the web of political Newspeak. All this when at the end of university studies today, most students face grim employment prospects and even bleaker economic ones. Forget about owning a home or having just one job as this generation’s parents often did, the present reality for millennials is perhaps the grimmest since over the last 100 years.

It’s a no-brainer that the result of several decades of self-help, jazzercise, and 12-step programmes to address addiction together with a worldwide economic meltdown, that millennials are caught within the only game in town: that of language. Without the Visa gold to power forth to a new outfit or taste, language has taken over as the currency of choice. And the great things about this postmodern language of selfhood, it perpetually casts the victim as he who holds all the cards. “Did you misgender me? You bigot…” so the discussion begins, inevitably ending in some sort of Twitter throw down.

It is no wonder that people seek respite from the daily politics of life within the confines of a nail salon or having their faces rejuvenated. What better paradise could there be than lying in the prone position, eyes closed as muzak fills the empty space. No Brexit negotiations to get lost within, no hearing about one’s need to be sensitive to the latest self-absorbed narrative, and no asking for another’s pronouns.

But what is driving our culture’s current obsession with the self? Could it be just as Lasch’s book came about in an era of financial crisis, that youth culture’s obsession with the self is merely the surrogate to the jobs and professional identities that these millennials will never have? But let’s not blame this movement on the “youth” as the theories which have buttressed much of the current narcissism have emanated from scholars today in their fifties and sixties. Today, there is cultural cache in being viewed as “woke” and in being able to relate to youth culture through social and political theories that superficially empower them, but which fundamentally disempower them by advancing fictions of victimhood as power.

What is the answer to the growing age of hyper-individualism and neoliberalism whereby the subject only matters if he can discount decades of social theory that has allowed for there to be fruitful discussions on matters that address historical materialism and not fantasy, to address the creation of the subject through actions and not words? Lasch makes many observations of his culture, noting how social descent and stagnation results in a social discourse of parody instead:

[M]ore and more people find themselves working at jobs that are in fact beneath their abilities, as leisure and sociability themselves take on the qualities of work, the posture of cynical detachment becomes the dominant style of everyday intercourse. Many forms of popular art appeal to this sense of knowingess and thereby reinforce it. They parody familiar roles and themes, inviting the audience to consider itself superior to its surroundings.

Lasch goes on to note that what people seek is “not cynical detachment but a piece of the action, a part in the drama instead of cynical spectatorship.” Instead, all that the subject has today is pure spectatorship or to become the spectacle. This is beyond any clearly defined aesthetic or philosophy, yet it falls within the confines of the meaningless and the mundane. The contemporary subject is facing a lifetime of economic poverty and social irrelevance amidst the backdrop of late-stage capitalism where the only ware left to sell is the self.

At the end of the day, if all you have to offer society are your pronouns, the constant obsession over “passing” as that which you are not, and the need to control how others see you and our cultural obsession functions in strict correlation with the demands of these social terrorists, then we have pretty much lost sight of what social belonging and participation is really about.