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REVIEWS OF BOOKS
Christopher Lasch was an outstanding public writer in the United States. He wrote many books on various subjects. Towards the end of his life, his focus was the socio-
The central question of The Culture of Narcissism is the following: why one type of mental problem replaced another as a dominant mental problem in the US. Why were clients with strong symptoms of classic neuroses replaced by people with 'diffuse dissatisfactions'. Why were patients, instead of 'debilitating fixations of phobias' or 'conversion of repressed sexual energy into nervous ailments', come with 'vague, diffuse dissatisfactions with life' with feeling 'amorphous existence' with 'violent oscillations of self-
'chaotic and impulse-
In answering this problem, Lasch relied heavily on the Freudian concept of the psyche. However, Lasch, in my view, consciously, went well beyond Freud -
Lasch argues that two major social forces brought about this: the accumulative changes in the US society since the beginning of the 20th century and the institutional underpinnings of these changes.
What are the characteristics of this society? It is a society in which hierarchical relationships, while they exist and are sharper than ever, are invisible or underplayed, therefore, hierarchical relationships have to be expressed in symbols of material wealth and hedonistic life style (which after all suggests the existence of means to support such a life style). As a result, in this society relationship to others is determined by the competition for obtaining these symbols: inter-
While Lasch was not Marxist, it is impossible not to associate his argument with Marx's passages in Capital and in Grudrisse. Furthermore, Lasch uses the dialectic method for developing his arguments and this gives an additional edge to the book. In this way he could demonstrate that 'conservatives' and 'progressives', while arguing from the opposite direction, the outcomes of their arguments are essentially identical. The same applies to the final chapter of the second edition, in which Lasch convincingly argues that the infinite trust in the technological development and the complete acceptance of the principles of the New Age movement and the infinite trust in superstitions have the same root.
Lasch was not a social conservative, he understood that there was no way back on the social changes, thus his arguments, apart from exploring the origins of narcissism, were directed against the institutions that reinforce these social changes and offer no alternative.
He certainly did not spare his criticism of the self-
'The importance of such programs, however, lies not so much in their objectives as in the anxiety to which they appeal and the vision of reality that informs them -
Lasch probably would not have minded (although he still would have been amused) if these programmes had remained confined to the private life. However, they did not. The same concepts with ideological underpinning, Lasch argues, invaded major institutions, such as education, juvenile courts and social services. Let us look at briefly what Lasch's argument was about them.
In the course of the historic development, the principles of education changed radically. From the concept of creating citizens who are able to receive, understand and appraise information coming from the surrounding world, the school first became a data-
In such an environment pupils are unable to internalise discipline -
The betrayal of pupils is not accidental. Governments demand schools of delivering some knowledge and keeping the pupils in school until they are sixteen (and then send half of them to higher education), while the industry does not need this knowledge, hence schools deliver the knowledge only on paper (today 10% of the British adult population are illiterate). More and more clerical jobs are filled by university graduates and cashiers have A-
The decline is extended to the universities. Lasch's examples (page 150) probably would have brought smiles in United Kingdom. Today? We have Beckham studies, Diana studies, students are given credits for visiting the library...
The family, the other main theatre of the socialisation process, is also invaded by institutions, Lasch claimed. Good-
'The "immature, narcissistic" American mother "is so barren of spontaneous manifestation of maternal feelings" that she redoubles her dependence on outside advice. "She studies vigilantly all the new methods of upbringing and reads treatises about psychical and mental hygiene." She acts not on her own feelings or judgment but on the "picture of what a good mother should be."' (p. 170)
'The narcissistic mother's incessant yet curiously perfunctory attentions to her child interfere at every point with the mechanism of optimal frustration. Because she so often sees the child as an extension of herself, she lavishes attentions on the child that are "awkwardly out of touch" with his needs, providing him with an excess of seemingly solicitous care but with little real warmth. By treating the child as an "exclusive possession", she encourages an exaggerated sense of his own importance; at the same time she makes it difficult for him to acknowledge his disappointment in her shortcomings. In schizophrenia, the disjunction between the child's perceptions of his mother's shallow, perfunctory care and her apparently undivided devotion becomes so painful that the child refuses to acknowledge it. Regressive defenceses, "loss of the boundaries of the self", delusions of omniscience, and magical thinking appear, in milder form, in narcissistic disorders.' (p 171)
The individual who has already had difficulties with developing the healthy superego, enters the workplace, where hierarchical relationships are entangled with bureaucracy and pseudo-
'The object of the corporate career shifts "from task-
Here it is worthwhile to point out that Lasch uses authority almost as a metaphor -
'"The ideal relationship to me would be a two month relationship" said a borderline patient. "That way there'd be no commitment. At the end of the two months I'd just break it off."' (p. 40).
'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 -
The individual in the culture of narcissism cannot even die in peace. Ageing means loosing in the competition (and so does decline of health), while the accumulated technical expertise and life-
'Our society notoriously finds little use of the elderly. It defines them as useless, forces them to retire before they have exhausted their capacity for work, and reinforces their sense of superfluity at every opportunity. By insisting, ostensibly in a spirit of respect and friendship, that they have not lost the right to enjoy life, society reminds old people that they have nothing better to do with their time. By devaluing experience and setting great store by physical strength, dexterity, adaptability, and the ability to come up with new ideas, society defines productivity in ways that automatically exclude "senior citizens".' (p. 209)
The irrational terror of old age and death is closely associated with the emergence of the narcissistic personality... Because the narcissist has so few inner resources, he looks to others to validate his sense of self. He needs to be admired for his beauty, charm, celebrity, or power -
Lasch paints a very gloomy picture (the reader by unfolding his analysis layer by layer will probably find it distinctly pessimistic), without offering a way out. As the narcissistic personality is the product of social developments, it can only be remedied by social forces that change the social relationships, while Lasch cannot see such a social force (his analysis of the radicals is particularly biting). The conservatives, who first attempted to roll back the welfare state did so in a way that degraded people (deserving and undeserving beneficiaries) and only transformed the dependency on professionals to an even more disguised form.
Lasch could not find a way out of this system (in the Revolt of the Elites his anger even reduced the strength of his argument) -
© Dolores James
Dolores James published a book, Counselling for the Masses. What can I expect if I go to counselling. You can find more details about the book here.