At The Baffler, Suzy Hansen reviews Elizabeth Lunbeck’s THE AMERICANIZATION OF NARCISSISM and finds its defense of narcissism both puzzling and disturbing.1
In the process, Ms. Hansen defends Christopher Lasch’s classic CULTURE OF NARCISSISM (one of my personal favorites) against Ms. Lunbeck’s interpretations, noting that Lunbeck is merely the latest in a string of commentators to misunderstand and misrepresent Mr. Lasch.
Here is Ms. Hansen’s summary of Lasch’s actual arguments:
Lasch, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, formulated a captivating, often infuriating, theory of what had gone wrong in the American promised land. For Lasch as for Freud, narcissism was a telltale weakening of the self and its basic coordinates. Only where Freud had detected the condition chiefly in developmental blockage arising from family traumas, Lasch saw it as the distressingly common side effect of the sensory onslaught of consumer capitalism, finding characteristic expression in everything from our image-obsessed media, the burgeoning therapeutic industry in human potential and self-help cures, and the fractured course of family life.
Lasch wrote of psychologists suddenly befuddled by the incurable thousands shuttling through their office doors, complaining of a hollowness of spirit, a deep self-hatred, an inability to love, and most disturbingly, a loss of memories and connection to the past. These people, the American people, were those for whom “to live for the moment is the prevailing passion” and who were “fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future.” Most of all, Lasch, invoking Hobbes, argued that America’s increasingly consumerist society “in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of war of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self.” 2
Lasch’s critique was not primarily therapeutic or individualistic; it was (and this was precisely the point) social and political, even historical, as Ms. Hansen notes:
By the late ’70s, Lasch observed, “Americans seem[ed] to wish to forget not only the sixties, the riots, the new left, the disruptions on college campuses, Vietnam, Watergate, and the Nixon presidency, but their entire collective past.” The detachment from history was to Lasch “one of the most important symptoms of the cultural crisis.” Americans believed they “alone among the people of the world could escape the entangling influence of the past.” From the nation’s first colonial settlement, Americans had enjoyed an unprecedented opportunity for rebirth; their offspring constantly reenacted this experience by breaking from the past and starting anew. The immigrant experience enshrined a nearly ritual form of social amnesia among exiles from the Old World—one that pivoted on the regeneration of a perennially innocent (i.e., narcissistic) self.
Americans’ collective narcissism and “social amnesia” in the 1970s was not a new phenomenon. Ms. Hansen quotes several commentators preceding Lasch; notably, she cites Alexis de Tocqueville who, in 1840 (!), “wrote that the prototypical American was ‘withdrawn into himself . . . almost unaware of the fate of the rest. Mankind, for him, consists in his children and his personal friends. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, they are near enough, but he does not notice them. He touches them but feels nothing. He exists in and for himself.’” 3
Hansen’s critique, following Lasch, is not simply that Americans remain self-absorbed; it is not even that individual self-absorption has consequences for the wider society. Rather, it is that our collective national self-absorption, combined with our economic and military power, has consequences for the rest of the world, consequences of which we seem blithely unaware and from which we psychologically (and politically) detach ourselves. She writes:
In Rebirth of a Nation, historian Jackson Lears argued that “the power that undergirded [Americans’] dreams of personal and national regeneration” was “their dependence on empire for their prosperity, for their racial, social, and even moral identity as a people.”
“Rarely do we connect the two,” says Ms. Hansen, “the self to the empire.” In fact (this is my claim and not Ms. Hansen’s), we Americans typically either deny the crimes of empire that undergird our prosperity or—in the case of left-wing critics like myself—we simply affix stickers to our vehicles and windows declaring “Not In Our Name,” as if that somehow absolves us and as if absolving ourselves, rather than stopping the crimes, is the point.
What is the vaunted “American Exceptionalism” other than narcissism on a national scale? Americans’ “dogged refusal of history seems like the logical outcome of the uniquely solipsistic American character Lasch struggled to identify,” writes Hansen. And she concludes:
Every American has been immersed since birth in the propagandistic reassurance that he or she is the most superior citizen on earth, simply by virtue of coming of age in this model capitalist democracy, the endpoint, in our eyes, of national and human evolution. This propaganda has produced a kind of nationalism so pervasive and misguided that most Americans wouldn’t even know to call it nationalism—it is, for us, simply the proper order of things. So, as is the case with other undiagnosed neurotic disorders, we lie to ourselves to sustain it, whether about the poverty of millions of our stateside neighbors, or the historic crimes committed against Native Americans and black Americans at home, or the casual mayhem we’ve visited upon Iraqis, Afghans, and everyone else abroad.
What’s more, that delusion ensures we’ll never have to consider what our history has to do with our selves—that we’ll remain in the condition of chronic pastlessness that was, for Lasch, the most troubling and foundational indicator of our national narcissism. When I moved abroad seven years ago, it wasn’t some new, bright beginning; instead, my relationship to the world felt suffused with a kind of melancholic amnesia, as if I should have known and recognized and understood the place, as if I, or someone like me, had been there before. Americans, expat and homebound alike, never really know how to make these connections between our imperial selves and the carelessly tended ruins kicked up in their wake. It’s what makes us, as they say, special.
Please read Suzy Hansen’s “America’s Long Holiday” in its entirety; and then go ahead and read other articles at The Baffler, one of our best contemporary journals of opinion and intellectual provocations.
2 Anyone who thinks it’s a stretch to link consumerism with Hobbes’ “war of all against all” has never experienced Black Friday morning.
3 It can be argued--and for all I know it has been--that American narcissism began with the fact that many of our earliest immigrants were by definition self-focused individuals willing to leave behind home, family, and community in order to make their way to (and in) a new land. "Rugged individualism" was simultaneously a necessity, a virtue, and a common character trait in our frontier days; it was also, of course, a myth, but that's a different story.