Books & Ideas

The Weak Self: Christopher Lasch on Narcissism

In Response to Vivian Gornick

May 06, 2014

Vivian Gornick’s review of The Americanization of Narcissism is written with her usual cogency, verve, and elegance. But I think she and the book’s author, Elizabeth Lunbeck, are mistaken about the motivation and import of Christopher Lasch’s views on the “underlying character structure” of late twentieth-century America.

Lasch was fundamentally a critic of mass society. He located the pivot of modern psychic development in the rise of mass production, with its concomitant deskilling of workers, destruction of economic independence, change in relations of authority from personal to abstract, and professionalization of education, management, mental health, social welfare, etc. The result of those epochal changes was a drastic change in the socialization of children. Individuation largely consists of the gradual reduction in scale of infantile fantasies of omnipotence and helplessness, accompanied by the child's modest but growing sense of mastery, continually measured against its human and material surroundings. Formerly, the presence of potent but fallible individuals, economically self-sufficient, with final legal and moral authority over their children's upbringing, provided one kind of template for the growing child's psychic development. 

Narcissism refers to a weak, ungrounded, defensive, insecure, manipulative self.

As fathers (and increasingly mothers) become employees, with the family's economic survival dependent on remote, abstract corporate authorities, and as caretaking parents were increasingly supervised or replaced by educational, medical, and social-welfare bureaucracies, the template changed. The child now has no human-size authority figures in the immediate environment against which to measure itself and so reduce its fantasies to human scale. As a result, it continues to alternate between fantasies of omnipotence and helplessness. This makes acceptance of limits, finitude, and death more difficult, which in turn makes commitment and perseverance of any kind—civic, artistic, sexual, parental—more difficult. The result is narcissism, which Lasch described in the opening pages of Culture of Narcissism thus:

Having surrendered most of his technical skills to the corporation, [the contemporary American] can no longer provide for his material needs. As the family loses not only its productive functions but many of its reproductive functions as well, men and women no longer manage even to raise their children without the help of certified experts. The atrophy of older traditions of self-help has eroded everyday competence, in one area after another, and has made the individual dependent on the state, the corporation, and other bureaucracies.


Narcissism represents the psychological dimension of this dependence. Notwithstanding his occasional illusions of omnipotence, the narcissist depends on others to validate his self-esteem. He cannot live without an admiring audience. His apparent freedom from family ties and institutional constraints does not free him to stand along or to glory in his individuality. On the contrary, it contributes to his insecurity, which he can overcome only by seeing his “grandiose self” reflected in the attentions of others, or by attaching himself to those who radiate celebrity, power, and charisma. For the narcissist, the world is a mirror, whereas the rugged individualist saw it as an empty wilderness to be shaped to his own design.

Narcissism refers to a weak, ungrounded, defensive, insecure, manipulative self—what the title of Lasch's next book after The Culture of Narcissism labeled “the minimal self.” It is emphatically not about “selfishness,” “self-absorption,” “self-love,” or self-assertion. The grand opposition Gornick sets up between modern “liberation” and traditional “civilized behavior”—which she deems “the way the world looked to a white, middle-class man without the gift of empathy who found all the social tumult depressing rather than stimulating, and who, feeling the ground beneath his own feet beginning to give way, came perilously close to idealizing a solidity of the past that never was”—may be relevant to understanding Allan Bloom or Saul Bellow. But it's not much use in coming to terms with Lasch's far deeper and subtler argument. 

Read Vivian Gornick's essay, "In Defense of Narcissism."

Read more: 


I'm not going to go off on the narcissm of the 70's and on, on the relations of camp, to kitch, to fascism, or how the hippies became yuppies. The record's clear enough. The man responsible for some of the 'classic' ad campaigns of the 70s credits Woodstock and Acid. And did you ever go to Jerry Rubin's Netwoking parties at the Paladium? I didn't think so. 
But here's the question, since you're the favored literary critic at Crooked Timber, and you defend their politics, as social scientists and intellectuals. How is it that Henry Farrell's favorite band is named "My Bloody Valentine" ?
The hypertrophied self is a "reaction formation" of the "Iron Cage".  How's them for buzzwords?
How do you respond, as a moralist, to Farell's taste in decadence?
You and Gornick are arguing from two sides of the same coin. What is that coin?

Sorry, George Scialabba.  We should all re-read pages 195-200 of Lasch's book Culture of Narcissism and we can all cringe together.  He was lambasting feminism in a way that Gornick is talking about.
However, where Gornick could have gone had she had the space to talk about Lasch in more detail is that Lasch was a disciple of David Reisman and The Lonely Crowd.  He was talking explicitly throughout the Culture of Narcissism about people who depended upon others' evaluations for self-worth, which was the precise point of Reisman's work (Reisman wrote the work with others, but was most personally associated with the work).  What made Lasch different from Reisman is he saw what Daniel Bell saw in the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, which is how corporate values were supplanting nearly every aspect of American social relations, and that feminism was being expressed in a manner that emphasized too much automony at the expense of community values.  
Lasch did a better job of explaining this in an essay reprinted by his daughter after Lasch's death (his daughter was herself a professor at one time I believe), the book of essys entitled Women and the Common Life, where Lasch wrote:  ''The feminist movement, far from civilizing corporate capitalism, has been corrupted by it. It has adopted mercantile habits of thought as its own.'' 
Still, Lasch's phrasings in Culture of Narcissism grates to our more feminist attuned ears.  George Scialabba is still correct that Lasch overall was far more subtle and was speaking in a tradition that not only Bell and Reisman would understand, but also I would bet, Martha Nussbaum and Barbara Ehrenreich would understand.  

With all the back and forth no one offers an alternative to technocratic reason. I've never seen Reisman, or Bell or Lasch saying anything but the obvious, obvious at least to an outsider.  And in its moral passivity the sociological or 'scientific' analysis of common behavior reinforces it. Measuring to the mean puts downward pressure on the mean. Conservatives would say "everybody does it", but technocrats can say "it's the science", and down we go. Scialabba's jeremiads are celebrated by technocratic readers only because they won't change a thing: technocracy wins regardless. There's a nastiness behind that, a hidden nihilism, their bloody valentine to the humanities that can offer nothing in return.
In the years I've followed the technocratic web, of political theoreticians and philosophers, I've been advised that actual politics is not their business. If "Freshwater" economists are mocked for admitting that they can't predict a thing, why aren't political theorists mocked as well?  And why the pretense at political "science"  when there is no longer a pretense at a science of history? How do you explain technocrats mocking Jonah Goldberg for writing Liberal Fascism,  40 years after the publication of Discipline and Punish? It's doesn't matter if it's a lousy book; can they at least make the connection? But they're so blind to their own assumptions even as fans of Max Weber, that they can't recognize the moral conservatism, laced with irony, aristocratic and anti-bourgeois, that justly mocks them.
Given their pretense at engagement, would it help to introduce anyone above  to Helena Cobban? She is after all an editor at this journal.  But I've tried and it gets nowhere. I don't have to point to her religious convictions to point out that her moral convictions precede any interest in ideas as such. That would render her a conservative. Cobban was charged by the Israelis with telling a moderate non-aligned political figure in Gaza that he'd get whacked and his family would be in danger if he joined a Hamas led government. Odd gig for a pacifist. But Cobban admits her priors; she builds from them consciously. Her moral superiority is evident, but unlike Scialabba she doesn't make claims for herself. 
Logically I'd think the question now should be not how best to study mediocrity but how best to give the world more Helena Cobbans. Sadly that's beyond the scope of liberalism.
Narcissism in the US?
In spades.
The banality of jeremiads by authoritarian schoolmasters? 
Puritans and drunks? 
Pedants and children.
Few and far between.

I am familiar with Helena Cobban and admired her essays in The Boston Review.   I am not sure why we need to rip into Lasch, Reisman and Bell in order to raise Ms. Cobban's stature.  
As for Lasch, Reisman and Bell, each of them generally eschewed the usual political labels, and were not, by the way, people who saw themselves as "political scientists."  Bell and Reisman saw themselves as writing and speaking within the realm of sociology, but only barely.  Lasch saw himself as a historian more than any other academic profession.
Lasch, Reisman and Bell also endured much taunting from left to right in their lifetimes, sometimes not much different from Seth's attack.  Seth may see their solutions as "obvious," but somehow their solutions have eluded most Americans--and many younger pundits and intellectuals barely know who they are, though they should.  Their solutions were to continue with the New Deal and a social democratic state--and I at least find those solutions to be both correct and necessary for the salvation of our nation.  Each of them did possess a certain cultural conservatism endemic to their era and their own sensibilities.  While we don't need to go all the way there with them, we would find they would agree with us that the promotion of decorum, professionalism and kindness would suit them and the rest of us just fine.

That is so liberal, tedious and boring.  We want to break things and fantasize about manning (sorry) the barricades.

When I said above that Cobban was "charged" I meant it in the sense that she was "given the job" or "tasked".  She was the messenger of a threat of assassination. She tells the story in a comment here
I'll add that though Cobban fit the bill perfectly here, whenever I'm talking about Israel to white people and Jews, I've found it's best to defend my points by referring to the opinions of other white people and Jews. I'd say that's the result of a "scientific" analysis but not one that resolves to the sort of certainty that liberals demand. Quite the opposite. But irony in the liberal technocratic imagination is something directed only at others. Self-awareness is deprecated as non-technical. 

I do remember those heady days of yore.
Never did so many sloganeer so much for the benefit of so few.
Some still do, it seems.

The scientific model presented as philosophy has wraped the folk culture in the garb of fate as medical drama to be resolved by specialists hired to be feather merchants.

Yes. This article has it right. Lasch saw narcissism as a widespread reaction that comes from late capitalism. It's odd that we diagnose narcissism now if the implications of Lasch are that a majority of people have it. I don't think he meant it to be a diagnosis and he certainly wasn't talking about the counterculture itself as narcissistic. He just meant that they missed the point of what they were fighting for or that some meaning in it got lost. Vivian has a nice hypothesis perhaps of some value, but it completely misrepresents Lasch's work.

Moralism is decadence against decadence.  Lasch's writings are as much symptom as diagnosis. 
Brecht and Pinter are called leftists but you could just as well call them modern Jacobeans. If you can't see the irony you miss the point. 

Scialabba's thoughtful, humane prose is the highest good and most profound joy that contemporary Boston has to offer.  Thank you George.

"Having surrendered most of his technical skills to the corporation, [the contemporary American] can no longer provide for his material needs. As the family loses not only its productive functions ..." This seems to harken back to some never-never land of self-sufficient (and, yes, patriarchal) families. The patriarchal was all too real, the every family a little factory/farm. I wonder.

"never-never land of self-sufficien" explains the attraction of libertarians as robber barons, each a little hill with a keep, defending their rights to a slave-owning autarky. The trouble with narcissists here is they don't see any point in owning slaves. Whatever.

The problem with both Lasch's position and Scialabba's defence is that both are highly selective in their readings of the psychoanalytic literature on narcissism (a point Lunbeck tries to correct) and therefore misinterprets the possiblities present both historically and psychically.  Because Lasch relies far too much on Kernberg's characterization of narcisism as pathological he underestimated the possibilities of what Kohut called "healthy narcissism" whose lack is precisely what leads to the sort of weak self that Lasch and Scialabba bemoan.  Kohut actually offered a more coherent historical account of the shift from classical neuroses to narcisissist disorders than Lasch did because he was able to do it without overstating the posssiblities present in the classical neuroses or in the family structures that produced them.

What are we now but a culture in thrall to celebrity.  Nothing matters but who has the bigger car and the bigger house.  What is this but the narcissism of Capitalism which teaches the single virtue of greed.

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