The Culture of Narcissism

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The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations is a book by the cultural historian Christopher Lasch, first published in 1979. It explores the roots and ramifications of the normalizing of pathological narcissism in 20th century American culture using psychological, cultural, artistic, and historical synthesis.

The book proposes that post-war, late-capitalist America, through the effects of ‘organized kindness’ on the traditional family structure, has produced a personality-type consistent with clinical definitions of ‘pathological narcissism.’ This pathology is not akin to everyday narcissism — a hedonistic egoism — but rather a very weak sense of self requiring constant external validation. For Lasch, ‘pathology represents a heightened version of normality.’

Lasch locates symptoms of this personality-disorder in the radical political movements of the 1960s (such as the Weather Underground), as well as in the spiritual cults and movements of the 1970s, from est to Rolfing. Behaviors such as streaking, theatrical illusion in contemporary drama, and a fascination with oral sex are evidence of long-term personality disintegration.

The book builds its thesis from Lasch’s idiosyncratic political views and encyclopedic grasp of U.S. social and economic history, the then-current world of arts and letters, and clinical research and psychological theories on narcissistic personality disorders. As the utopian visions of the sixties faded into the ‘personal growth’ lifestyles of the seventies, the chaos and excess of the former began to imprint itself on the public mind.

‘The Culture of Narcissism’ has been commonly misused by liberals and conservatives alike, citing it for their own ideological agendas. Author Louis Menand wrote: ‘Lasch was not saying that things were better in the 1950s, as conservatives offended by countercultural permissiveness probably took him to be saying. He was not saying that things were better in the 1960s, as former activists disgusted by the ‘me-ism’ of the seventies are likely to have imagined. He was diagnosing a condition that he believed had originated in the nineteenth century.

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