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Some Uses of Narcissism

08/01/2017 11:24 AM | J. Todd Dean

Some Uses of Narcissism

J. Todd Dean

            Everybody knows what narcissism is. It is a term everybody uses to describe bosses and coworkers, unpleasant neighbors, and certain politicians. From this, one could be forgiven for assuming the definition of the term is clear: if journalists and television anchors feel free to use it regularly, then it must be generally understood. But note that in a debate over the behavior of the recently elected 45th POTUS, experts in the field of mental health, including a former professor of psychiatry at Harvard and an editor of the DSM (Dodes, 2017; Frances, 2017), could not even agree that there was pathology present. This does suggest that there is less clarity than one might expect.

But perhaps not. Consider what historian Elizabeth Lunbeck has to say about the nature of narcissism in the introduction to her book The Americanization of Narcissism:

Generations of commentators, lamenting narcissism’s paradoxes and capaciousness, have tried to narrow its referents and settle, once and for all, its meaning. Narcissism’s protean nature, however, has proven as much a resource as a liability, and the concept has become too ubiquitous, and culturally and clinically useful, to submit to assiduous boundary policing…. Narcissism has always been simultaneously pathological and normal, and debates over selfishness, hedonism, and vanity have not arisen out of the idea of narcissism but, rather, are among the oldest questions we have asked ourselves. (2014, pp. 6-7).

So, at least as Lunbeck sees it (without giving references to those generations of commentators), narcissism is a concept that gets used in lots of different ways. Today, it is used almost constantly to attack Donald Trump. As we will see, the term is used quite differently again in Lunbeck’s history of 1970s social criticism, in the work of Christopher Lasch (1979/1991; 1984), and again in Kate Schechter’s study of developments in the history of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, Illusions of a Future (2014). Why narcissism would be used in so many different ways is an interesting question—one I hope to address in what follows. Before doing so, however, I would like to revisit the source of the confusion, Narcissus himself.

As described in Book 3 of The Metamorphoses (Ovid, 8 AD/2004), Narcissus is a hunter who wants all the people who chase after him to leave him alone—something inconceivable for Trump. It is not until he sees his own reflection that he does the same thing Echo and his myriad other admirers have done, becoming completely infatuated with an image. Like Echo, he dies for love of what he sees but can never touch (and why can’t he touch himself, we may reasonably ask—everybody else can). It will be remembered that Narcissus’s mother, Liriope, consulted the blind seer Tiresias to ask if her son, “already adorable” as he was being born (Ovid, 8 AD/2004, p. 109, l.345), would have a long life. She was told he would, so long as he never knows himself (p. 109, l.348). Later, a frustrated would-be lover prays that “Narcissus may fall in love and never obtain his desire!” (p. 112, ll.405-6). “His prayer was just,” we are told, “and Nemesis heard it.” When the beautiful boy finally stumbles on his own image and realizes that he cannot have what he sees, he cries, “I know you now and I know myself. Yes, I am the cause of the fire inside me, the fuel that burns and the flame that lights it./What can I do? Must I woo or be wooed? What else can I plead for?/All I desire I have. My wealth has left me a pauper.”(p. 115, ll.463-6). It is clear that Ovid’s Narcissus is nothing like Donald Trump. Furthermore, it would be a stretch to say he meets any of the criteria of the DSM personality disorder that bears his name, which is rather strange.

            Thus, Narcissus is not at all what the DSM-5 tells us a narcissist is today (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 327), with a “grandiose sense of self-importance” and a requirement for “excessive admiration”; rather, he is completely unaware of himself, even to the point of not recognizing his image as his own. He knows what moves him and what he wants, but does not see it as relating to him in any way; consequently, he has all he desires, but he can’t enjoy any of it. Christopher Lasch observes (1984, p. 19) that “it is this confusion of the self and the not-self—not ‘egoism’—that distinguishes the plight of Narcissus.” So Lasch, at least, has some sense of how the myth works. We are still left with the question: what brought the story of Narcissus to be associated with the egoistic epithet that is so ubiquitous in the pages of The New York Times, at least since November 2016?

This confusion of Narcissus and the self-satisfied egoist is not a recent phenomenon, dating back at least to the later 19th century: Näcke, as reported by Freud, first uses the term “narcissism” in a psychiatric context to “denote the attitude of a person who treats his own body in the same way in which the body of a sexual object is ordinarily treated—who looks at it, that is to say, strokes it and fondles it till he obtains complete satisfaction through these activities” (Freud, 1914/1957, p. 73). This is striking because this is precisely what did not happen for Narcissus—he could never even figure out that the image he saw in the water corresponded to his own person; besides which, he never got sexual gratification at all, contra Näcke’s narcissist.

            It does not help clarify matters that in this text, Freud uses “narcissism” to describe different types of people in very different ways: does the narcissism of the psychotic, for example, relate to the narcissism of a woman or a homosexual, a person suffering from toothache (p. 82), or a parent (p. 91)? However, given all the confusion that surrounds the definition of narcissism, perhaps Freud’s lack of clarity is the most judicious way to approach the problem.

            Well before Freud developed a theory of narcissism, he was dealing with something very similar to the problem of Ovid’s Narcissus, I believe: a tension between how aware one is of oneself and what the subject of psychoanalysis is. Simply by labeling the conscious part of the subject “the I” (das Ich), he was making the point that “I” experience myself as what “I” am, even though there is a great deal more to the human subject than that self-awareness. Just as Ovid was making light of the Greek injunction to “know thyself” in describing the seer’s prediction to Liriope, Freud recognizes the problematics of self-knowledge at least from the time of his Project, where he first refers to the conscious self as “the I”.

            But again, this was not a particularly new idea by the time Freud was writing to Fliess. To take only one example of the questioning of self-awareness, there is one of Freud’s favorite writers, Nietzsche, for whom self-knowledge is an endlessly problematic idea: hardly a passage of The Gay Science (Nietzsche, 1887/1974) does not at least elliptically address the issue. Or consider the other father of modernity, Marx, who early in his career confronts the problematics of the subject. Eagleton summarizes an element of Marx’s second thesis on Feuerbach:  “…to know yourself in a new way is to alter yourself in that very act; so we have here a peculiar form of cognition in which the act of knowing alters what it contemplates. In trying to understand myself and my condition, I can never remain quite identical with myself, since the self which is doing the understanding, as well as the self understood, are now different from what they were before.” (1999, p. 4). Marx, like Nietzsche, Freud, and Lasch, understands that self-knowledge is always problematic, and it is problematic in ways that, at least since the 19th century, we have come to think of as narcissistic.

            I would suggest that one of Freud’s most attentive readers, Jean Laplanche, captures most succinctly the problem of narcissism for psychoanalysis: “What is at stake here, in Freud’s hesitations”—the various starts and stops Freud applies to this notion of narcissism—Laplanche (1970/1976, p. 74) notes, in a chapter on “The Ego and Narcissism,” “is, in fact, the actually ambiguous status of the ego: the ego, even though it is a reservoir of the libido cathecting it, can appear to be a source; it is not the subject of desire or wishes, nor even the site in which the drive originates… but it can pass itself off as such.” Like Narcissus, Freud’s ego thinks it has everything figured out: it is simply a matter of what one (correction: one’s ego) knows. Then something else happens and the certainty is lost.

            So why don’t we call the study of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche “Narcissism Studies”? Had I never read The Americanization of Narcissism (Lunbeck, 2014) and Illusions of a Future (Schechter, 2014), I might never have asked myself that question. Reading Lunbeck and Schechter’s works, however, I found myself returning several times to questions of how and why we use the concept of narcissism in the way we do.

            Elizabeth Lunbeck’s The Americanization of Narcissism (2014) was widely reviewed when first published in non-academic journals like Bookforum, The New Yorker, Boston Review and others (Accocella, 2014; Camp, 2014; Gornick, 2014; Scialabba, 2014; Tumber, 2014). The author was interviewed in The New Republic (Robb, 2014), and also released a YouTube video in which she discusses the book. I was struck by this, because there is no other academic monograph focused on psychoanalysis I know of that has achieved such public recognition outside the academy. The book also won a prize from the American Psychoanalytic Association, the 2015 Courage to Dream award. 

            Lunbeck approaches the topic of narcissism from a very specific perspective: a critique of the way American social critics in the 1970s used the concept as it was being reworked by psychoanalysts, especially Kohut and Kernberg. She introduces her book by first describing the way she perceives those social critics:

It is a commonplace of social criticism that America has become, over the past half century or so, a nation of narcissists. Greedy, selfish, and self-absorbed, we narcissists are thriving, the critics tell us, in the culture of abundance that is modern, late-capitalist America. The disciplined, patriarchal Victorianism under which our stalwart forebears were raised has purportedly given way to a culture that asks nothing of us while at the same time promising to satisfy our every desire. (p. 1)

and then explains the relationship of these critics to developments in psychoanalytic thinking in the American Psychoanalytic Association:

Critics might never have latched on to the term and its meanings if not for the appearance of path breaking works on narcissism, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, by the Viennese émigré analysts Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg, which generated both excitement and fierce controversy among psychoanalysts. Celebrating what others condemned, Kohut boldly reframed narcissism as a desirable, even healthy, dimension of mature selfhood. He consistently underscored narcissism’s positive aspects, arguing that it fueled individuals’ ambitions, creativity, and fellow-feeling… (p. 3)

            As noted above, Lunbeck comments that narcissism means too many different things, in too many different contexts, to have a clear and clearly agreed-upon meaning. At the same time, it is too important to not be a focus of a great deal of attention. This seems to me a very striking observation, but it is also one that Lunbeck never develops further, so that we are left with the question, why should this be so? Also, from the beginning of her book it is clear that Lunbeck is raising another question: is narcissism a problem for society, or is it something more problematic than pathological, and, therefore, merely misunderstood by the social critics who decry it, rather than being a source of difficulty for the culture at large? From the ways she talks about the various approaches to narcissism of the social critics she is concerned with, especially Christopher Lasch, and the rethinking of narcissism she attributes to Kohut and Kernberg, it would appear that she sees narcissism more as a good thing than otherwise. But that doesn’t really address the paradoxes she describes at the beginning and at various points throughout her monograph: what makes narcissism impossible both to define and to ignore? And is it a real problem, or just a question of one’s perspective?

            Related, I believe, to these questions, is another one: what made it important to write this book now? It is a very pointed study of a trend in criticism of American society that became most prominent during the presidency of Jimmy Carter (described by Lunbeck as “part culture critic, part preacher-in-chief” [p. 13] because of his “malaise” speech), juxtaposed with a very detailed report on some developments in theorizing within the American Psychoanalytic Association that were going on in the same decade. Both of these have long since become old news: the influence of Lasch’s thought on public discourse since the appearance of his bestseller The Culture of Narcissism (1979) is close to nil, as one reviewer of this book noted (Camp, 2014); furthermore, it is hard to imagine that many people outside the world of clinical psychoanalysis have an interest in developments in the field, especially almost forty years after the fact. So why even go there?

            Reading with these questions in mind, I found myself thinking of how the concept of narcissism is used by the various players in the book. In this regard, Lunbeck’s description of Freud’s use of the term troubled me. For him, the author states, a healthy self was one “without needs” (p. 114), while psychoanalysis began as “a severe science of man” (p. 49). In fact, per Lunbeck, “Psychoanalysis at its inception had valorized independence, self-sufficiency, and freedom from needs, the same values Lasch was promoting in the 1970s” (p. 114).   I confess to being surprised to learn that that is what early psychoanalysis valorized. More surprisingly, I was struck by Lunbeck’s accusation that Freud, in his conceptualization of “primary narcissism,” did not recognize a distinction between fantasy and reality in his depiction of “the infant as omnipotent in its majestic independence, its narcissism expressed in its autoerotic love of self….Construing infancy as a state of sovereignty, [analysts] consistently blurred lines between fantasy (the infant as independent) and social relations (the infant as perforce dependent)...” (p. 114). She contrasts this with Kohut and Kernberg, who both make this distinction.

            This all has to come as a surprise to anyone who has studied the texts in question, because there is no doubt that Freud understood that primary narcissism was a fantasy of power, not a claim of fact, and that even among the dimmest of his followers, then or now, whatever controversies there were concerning the nature of primary narcissism—after all, the infans is not telling us how powerful she feels—nobody was making the claim that the child is or should really be “without needs,” though Lunbeck goes on to express incredulity at this misconception for a few more pages. Further, it is confusing how Lunbeck understands this: on the one hand, Freud, she says, is making the category mistake of treating a fantasy of omnipotence as a reality. At the same time, she seems to be saying, as noted above, that Freud “valorizes” this independence. It is entirely unclear from this what she is conveying that Freud is saying about primary narcissism: is it a fantasy of independence that he wishes were true but really is not, or is it a reality that he “valorizes”?

            Throughout this section, the author ties Lasch and those 70s social critics to these “classical” analytical positions. On the very next page, after making these confusing claims about what Freud said about primary narcissism, she asserts that

Lasch and his fellow social critics adopted this Freudian fantasy of the self without needs to condemn what they argued was a ubiquitous, feminized dependency threatening the body politic. The critics’ indictment gained force as they joined it to a critique of consumer society structured around a profound distrust of desire and fantasy, wants and needs (p. 115).

Here, as in her introduction to the text, Lunbeck links the critique of narcissism to the economic structure of contemporary society. But here, as also in her introduction, she does not address that link: what does “consumer society” or “late-capitalist America” have to do with narcissism? 

            I would like to suggest that here we start to get an answer to at least one of the questions I raised earlier: why write this book now? Lunbeck is lining up opposing sides in a conflict that has not really been defined: on the one side are “classical” analysts—chief among them Freud—who are committed to a way of seeing healthy people as totally “independent,” which would seem to mean even in infancy, strange as that seems. Aligned with this position are the social critics of the 1970s who, per Lunbeck, share these views. On the other side are “consumer society,” Heinz Kohut, and Otto Kernberg. At no point in her text does Lunbeck clarify how the socialist critique of late capitalism as presented by Lasch, or any other of the social critics she discusses,. is also a denial of “desire and fantasy, wants and needs.”    

            The way Lunbeck uses the concept of narcissism here is worth looking at in some detail. Per her reading, it is either a “Victorian” denigration of contemporary society or a healthy expression of “desire and fantasy, wants and needs.”  I.e., there is nothing in the concept of narcissism that is inherently a problem, except that thinking makes it so. She has made the entire issue of consumerism merely a matter of point of view: to Victorians like Freud and Lasch, consumerism is morally opprobrious; to the more enlightened, for whom narcissism is not an inherently bad thing, it is the means to freedom. 

            Consider the way in which, in the chapter on “gratification” (Lunbeck, 2014, pp. 164-201), she links a certain technical recommendation and developmental argument in Kohut’s work to the social criticism of Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1979/1991). After going in great detail through a reading of issues related to the clinical theory of narcissism, she moves on to a discussion of Kohut’s developmental theory of “optimal frustration” and the developmental and clinical theory of gratification that arose from that work. Immediately afterwards, she relates her summary of Kohut with the main theme of her book: 

Me-Decade cultural critics associated narcissism with bottomless greed and blissful gratification, largely unaware that asceticism figured importantly in Freudian orthodoxy. Philip Rieff, Daniel Bell, and others lamented that asceticism as a cultural ideal had disappeared… (p. 194)  

She quickly makes the point that Lasch, who references Kohut in his own work, gets him completely wrong, radically misunderstanding the whole point of the theory of “optimal frustration.” She footnotes her argument by stating, “Lasch’s tendentiousness can be glimpsed in his confident assertion that love of the child ‘came to be regarded not as a danger but as a positive duty’” (Lunbeck, 2014, p. 330). This would indeed appear to be an obnoxious and wrong-headed take on the concept of “optimal frustration.” However, in looking up the reference in Lasch’s book, it is hard not to see Lunbeck’s use of it here as misleading. The line she quotes, which is 10 pages from the closest reference to Kohut, is part of a discussion of the development of “experts” in childrearing in the early decades of the twentieth century. As Lasch describes it, the growth of the “science” of childrearing was a consequence of the growing force of capitalism. The movement from an effort to remove parents from the picture entirely to one that favored “permissiveness” was his focus in this comment. Further, he explains his arguments in terms of the work of Hilde Baruch, a child analyst, pointing out that she

grasped the social and cultural transformation that has made science the handmaiden of industry—in this case, psychiatry the handmaiden of advertising, which enlists psychiatry in the attempt to exploit “parents’ desires to do right by their children.” By keeping parents in a state of chronic anxiety, psychiatry thus frustrates desires that advertising can then claim to satisfy. (Lasch, 1979/1991, p. 164)

            What is most striking in this is not simply that Lunbeck has misrepresented Lasch’s point, but she has done so in a way that completely ignores his larger argument: the problem with narcissism is not simply a matter of the definition of the concept or of tolerance of difference—how “ascetic” or “Victorian” one expects normal people to be—but is intimately connected to social issues. Also, he is tying narcissism to the question of what one knows: in this example, psychiatry has disturbed the self-understanding of parents, so that they are drawn to buy things to help them learn how to be better parents.

            More striking still is the argument Lunbeck makes regarding the relation of gratification and capitalism immediately after she has introduced the Me-Decade social critics in this. In particular, when she juxtaposes a critique by Daniel Bell (“’The one thing that would utterly destroy the new capitalism is the serious practice of deferred gratification,’ he wrote” [Lunbeck, 2014, p. 195]) with the argument of “the adman Ernest Dichter”: 

Dichter had, in 1960, made much the same point, arguing that the “economy would literally collapse overnight” were people to restrict themselves to fulfilling “immediate and necessary needs.” Dichter updated Thorstein Veblen’s work, suggesting that the gratification, thrill, and enjoyment to be found in using products ranging from cars to golf clubs to dictating machines, not their value as status symbols, accounted for their irresistible attraction to consumers. Where else but the marketplace would individuals experience satisfactions as intense as those afforded by the “first few minutes” with your new television and the first ten minutes driving your new car? Such pleasures, he argued, were unequaled, never again to be duplicated in the course of life. (Lunbeck, 2014, p. 195)

I found this argument confusing, but also relevant to two questions I raised earlier. First, it seems clear that Bell and Lasch, as reported by Lunbeck, are making a claim for a kind of problem that they are calling by the name “narcissism” that involves the consumption of goods that are not necessary for life, but which support this economy; by way of contrast, Lunbeck is arguing, with the help of the adman Ernest Dichter, that the pursuit of satisfaction through the enjoyment of consumer goods is not really a problem at all. (Except that the satisfaction does not seem to last very long—a matter of minutes, in these examples. But that is a problem for the consumer, per Dichter, not capitalism; indeed, the brevity of the enjoyment insures that the consumer will soon buy more cars and televisions.) Veblen’s theory of planned obsolescence—which is not elaborated further in Lunbeck’s discussion—assumed that the goal of the leisure class was to enhance prestige with ever-newer Things (Veblen, 1899/1994); Dichter makes the point that this isn’t really the case, per Lunbeck: it’s not prestige people are after, it’s enjoyment. This would appear to mean, then, that the problem is not consumerism, but the idea that enjoyment, as opposed to prestige, is morally opprobrious. To Bell, keeping capitalism going as it was in the 1970s would appear to be a bad thing; to Dichter, it is best for the commonweal that we all enjoy life as unselfconscious consumers, because that is how capitalism is maintained: there is no problem in pursuing an enjoyment, as opposed to a prestige. So we are back to the question I raised earlier: is there a problem in the world, regardless of what we name it, or is the problem that Bell and Lasch and the other social critics Lunbeck presents in her book. are just looking at things from an antiquated perspective? Lunbeck and Dichter’s argument here is based on the self-image of the consumer: I’m excited not because I have prestige, but because I’m enjoying myself. Here, again, the focus is entirely on how one sees the image of the happy consumer; there is no sense of anything beyond the question of the image.

            Indeed, reading Lunbeck, one could be forgiven for assuming the social critics she is describing were political and social conservatives of the highest order. She does mention that their critique is related to concerns about capitalism, but she does not say anything about what, specifically, that concern is. She goes to great lengths to critique Lasch’s arguments about authority in the family, for example, but never relates these to his larger point regarding capital, as outlined in the discussion of family planning I describe above. One could easily imagine that the most likely place to find these guys in the 1970s, after reading Lunbeck, would be standing next to Phyllis Schlafly at an anti-Equal Rights Amendment rally or at a Reagan fundraiser. The fact that social conservatism is not the point of the critiques presented—that Lasch even refers to socialism as a positive force (1979/1991, pp. 205-6; 232ff.)—is never mentioned.

            It is striking that Lunbeck sets up the contrast between Lasch and psychoanalytic authority for another reason: American psychoanalysis in the 1970s was a medical subspecialty. For a cultural critic like Lasch to hold forth on narcissism—a medical diagnosis—was tantamount to a physical education teacher diagnosing heart failure. This brings in an entire medical focus that is not obviously relevant when one reads Lasch. For example, Lunbeck makes the point that “Kernberg rejected the Laschian notion that society could produce narcissism…” (2014, p. 69), and does not really address the issue of cultural influence again. Not only might there be a lot more to say on the question of the influence of culture on the personality, but the point driven home is that such influence is irrelevant. Even in what she quotes from Kernberg, there is not a wholesale rejection of the idea that cultural forces may influence the expression of a psychiatric problem; rather, the psychiatrist makes the claim that cultural influence cannot cause the problem that would not have existed otherwise. Since Lunbeck does not reference a response to that claim by Lasch, we do not know if he would have argued this point.“As our case descriptions in clinics and conferences pile up, the wealth of evidence that the ‘normal’ home, as well as the broken home, fosters malnutrition, [etc, etc]…the conclusion grows, not that parents need education, but that a specialized agency had  better take over the whole matter of child rearing.” Quoted by Lasch (1979/1991, p. 159), from a book by Miriam Van Waters (a judge writing in the 1920s), Parents on Probation.

Another striking element in this argument in particular is his focus on the importance of contraception in the view of how political forces would impact the workings of a family. In this, his arguments are entirely consistent with Foucault’s conception of “biopolitics” (Foucault, 1976/2003, pp. 231-264). While this is entirely irrelevant to Lunbeck’s work, it does have a major role in Schechter’s (2014).

Italics added.  CONTINUED

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