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Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations by Christopher Lasch (1979-01-15) Hardcover – 1759
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Not so. The book grew out of an earlier study of the family (Haven in a Heartless World) and is concerned with far larger cultural patterns than the transient decade-by-decade changes of the late 20th century. Lasch is concerned with the bureaucratization of both business and life, the surrendering of parental authority to `professionals' who are anxious to justify their existence and reap the benefits of a general cultural and personal dependency. We emerge from the womb too early, our primal feelings being those of loss (of our previous blissful state) and the painful realization of our utter dependency. This leads to both systems of thought and political/cultural programs designed to capitalize on those psychological realities. Rather than come to terms with our limitations and constraints we strive to regain our bliss by indulging our dependency and many stand by to help us with that doomed quest.
From that point, Lasch explores multiple aspects of our society, from higher education to sport to paternalism in its many forms, to sex, politics and popular culture. The result is a masterpiece of cultural history and analysis. In the course of the book Lasch is forced to struggle with multiple difficulties. First, cultural history is endlessly complicated and does not yield answers easily. We know that something has happened (SAT scores have gone down despite increased investments in education; western history is no longer required in colleges and universities; sexual hookups are more common, committed relationships more difficult, etc.) but to find precise causes for these realities (if and when they can be identified as realities) is very difficult. Second, human behavior results from human psychology, but `human psychology' is something very much in dispute. Lasch's primary allegiance is to Freud and to many Freud is no longer a psychiatrist but rather a philosopher or poet. Finally, human cultural history subsumes all history. Those who would explicate it must do so with an awareness of human history, science, behavior, art, economics and so on. This is not a task for the weak of heart.
The bottom line is that Lasch comes as close as anyone to facing these difficulties and still succeeding in the writing of a significant, persuasive book. Indeed, The Culture of Narcissism is one of the monuments of 20th century social science/cultural history. The book is so rich as to defy easy summary. Two things stand out in particular from the perspective of 2011: a) so much of what he says applies today with equal or greater force; and b) it would be fascinating to see the book rewritten in light of the insights of evolutionary psychology. The humanities have been notably resistant to the neo-Darwinism that marks so much of contemporary social science, a neo-Darwinism that works hand in hand with studies of the human brain enhanced by contemporary instrumentation. My own view is that this work would markedly reinforce Lasch's argument, the resistance to that work indicating the ideology of the vested interests which encourage narcissism as the source of their livelihood.
Bottom line: this is a monument in the social sciences. The original publication date--1979--should not deter contemporary readers, who will find its erudition, insight and wisdom a healthy antidote to a culture of therapy that ultimately fails to cure what ails us.
It takes some effort to grasp Lasch's thesis, and I found some of the commentary dated (as one might expect from a book published in 1979), but the writing is very polished and thoughtfully provocative.
All of the "problems" I encountered with the book were those of trying to understand, think through, "test" and consider Lasch's ideas--which, to me, are all marks a good book. I can find fault with specifics in Lasch's ideas, but overall, this was a persuasive, interesting, and compelling union of cultural and individual analysis, centered on the psychoanalytic concept of narcissism and America's unique history. Specific topics included: (a) "making it" in America; (b) pseudo self-awareness and the spectacle of politics and celebrity; (c) the degradation of sport; (d) the commoditization of education and its focus on "life adjustment;" (e) socialization of reproduction and the collapse of authority; (f) the flight from ("true") feeling embodied in a culture of promiscuity and sexual warfare (perhaps his least balanced chapter); (g) the "planned obsolescence" of older persons; and (h) the link between our bureaucratic culture and narcissistic dependence on it.
The overall tone of the book reminded me of Joan Didion's novels and Yates' poem Slouching Toward Bethlehem--fear and anxiety about nothing within, nothing without, simply our neediness. Lasch's book also reminded me of another psychoanalytically informed cultural critique from the 1950s, Norman Brown's Love's Body.
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