I remember how impressed I was when I first read The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations (Norton, 1979) while in graduate school in the early 1980s. Although it is certainly dated, having just reread the book I remain impressed by its analysis thirty years later. Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) was one of the most thoughtful and reflective analysts of modern American culture in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
The iconoclastic Christopher Lasch argues that Americans by the 1970s had developed a form of narcissism that required most people to seek constant external validation. This resulted, according to Lasch, from the post-World War II experience of economic wealth, liberal government and politics, spiritual bankruptcy, and persistent but unsuccessful attempts to realize self-actualization. In essence, Lasch found evidence for long-term social disintegration through these actions. A misplaced form of utopianism arising from the sixties transmuted itself in the 1970s, according to Lasch, into an endless search for “personal growth” that was both illusive and increasingly fruitless.
At sum, the raising of the individual to the level of iconography—what some have characterized as the “me generation”—has permeated every aspect of American culture. And this development, according to Lasch, is to the ultimate detriment of American culture. Lasch spends considerable effort characterizing his brand of narcissism as the result of “organized kindness” and its manifestation of humanity’s seeking constant external validation.
Lasch traces this development through a variety of representations and priorities in America. These include the quest for wealth and fame, characterized as “making it”; the popularity self-awareness courses; the turning of politics into spectacle; the rise of celebrity and people becoming “famous for being famous”; the commoditization of almost everything; the transformation of education from a fact-based learning experience into one that was focused more on “life adjustment” as its objective; and a range of other issues.
Some of Lasch’s arguments sounds more like personal grousing from a curmudgeon than reasoned, complex analysis. Part of the time when reading this I kept flashing to Andy Rooney and his always grating and sometimes silly grumbling about life in modern America. Part of the time, I thought Lasch was channeling H. L. Mencken’s biting social criticism laced with satire. Always, I detected a strong sense of deep concern about the trajectory of the United States. At some level, Lasch anticipated by a generation the current ills of the American nation.
Take, for example, Lasch’s discussion of the women’s rights movement. He makes the point: “Whereas the resentment of women against men for the most part has solid roots in the discrimination and sexual danger to which women are constantly exposed, the resentment of men against women, when men still control most of the power and wealth in society yet feel themselves threatened on every hand–intimidated, emasculated–appears deeply irrational, and for that reason not likely to be appeased by changes in feminist tactics designed to reassure men that liberated women threaten no one. When even Mom is a menace, there is not much that feminists can say to soften the sex war or to assure their adversaries that men and women will live happily together when it is over” (p. 205). The irrational juxtaposition of power and intimidation that Lasch analyzes in this instance is repeated for many other themes throughout The Culture of Narcissism.
Both conservatives and liberals have used The Culture of Narcissism to support their specific political agendas since its appearance in the 1970s. Sometimes they have misused those arguments, but that should not be surprising. For conservatives Lasch seems to bemoan the demise of traditional values expressed throughout the history of the republic. They embraced Lasch’s proposed return to self-reliance, the family, nature, and the community. Liberals, in contrast, find Lasch’s discussion of the New Deal and Great Society a powerful exemplar of the neverending struggle to advance American liberalism and equanimity. Lasch believed that Americans had become self-absorbed, greedy, and frivolous and liberals agreed. Accordingly, The Culture of Narcissism was all things to all people; and Lasch’s powerful arguments about American culture would be deployed in many settings and for purposes with which Lasch would disagree.
The Culture of Narcissism addressed important social and existential themes, no doubt, drawing on a deep vein of commentary about anomie and alienation ranging from such classics as French sociologist Émile Durkheim’s influential book Suicide (1897) to The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman (1950) and beyond. Published during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, a president best known for his failures in the Oval Office and his successes after leaving it, Carter even referred to The Culture of Narcissism in his famous “national malaise” speech about the decline of the United States.
Rereading Lasch’s biting critique of modern America is both a rewarding and a challenging experience. It was written at a specific time and place and bears the marks of that on every page. Yet, its critique is timeless and its wisdom most applicable.