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How Critics Misunderstood and Misused a Powerful Idea

Elizabeth Lunbeck's The Americanization of Narcissism describes how this misunderstood concept has been inextricably woven into the fabric of American culture for decades.

The Americanization of Narcissism

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Length: 384 pages
Author: Elizabeth Lunbeck
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-03

In March 2013, The Atlantic published Bill Davidow's 'The Internet 'Narcissism Epidemic'", which discussed how social networks have given narcissists productivity tools to expand their influence and how narcissists are setting the benchmark for everyday use in terms of how many followers, retweets and likes they get.

It has been claimed that ten percent of 20-somethings and 25 percent of college students exhibit narcissistic pathology. Recently, "narcissism" has also been deployed frequently to insult the artistic or confessional output of young or youngish women, most often when they mine their personal experience in order to write memoir or personal essays for online publications (or, in the case of Lena Dunham, produce and act in a show that includes a character that does those things).

But narcissism in America is not news; it's been a common cultural criticism of the entire country, not just its Millennial generation, for decades. I can't remember the other, earlier America, the one in which cultural critics did not complain about narcissism. It has been fascinating to me, as one of the aforementioned women who mines their personal experiences, how gendered this particular insult currently is when used in cultural criticism. Narcissism seems to be less often levied publicly to condemn men or their work, though I have heard "narcissist" privately used to insult a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis on several occasions.

In an October 1977 New York Observer article by David Foster Wallace entitled "John Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat, Drops One; Is This Finally the End for Magnificent Narcissists?", Wallace reviews an Updike book prefaced with an explanation that Updike's rise in the '60s and '70s established him as the voice of the generation that was probably the single most self-absorbed since the time of Louis XIV. Arguably, American writers of both genders have gotten only more magnificently narcissistic since that review.

What's most frustrating, perhaps, about attacks based on "narcissism" is the slipperiness of the concept itself; in many ways it resists definition or, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart describing obscenity, we know it when we see it. It's often used to insult or to savage or to armchair-diagnose, but the protean concept of narcissism is not inherently a negative one. Much of what is at the forefront of American culture today—the issue of self-esteem in kids, for example—derives from the positive aspects of narcissism.

In The Americanization of Narcissism, Elizabeth Lunbeck, a historian and professor at Vanderbilt University, offers a fascinating, in-depth intellectual history of narcissism and how it has informed the public discussion of what Americans have valued. Lunbeck traces the origins of narcissism as a concept back to Vienna, Budapest and London during World War I. Narcissism was perceived as a condition in which the patient nursed fantasies of omnipotence and acclaim. These fantasies were rooted in deprivation. In fact, Freud had focused on female narcissism as a condition characterized by emotional impoverishment.

In America, however, narcissism became associated with material abundance rather than any sort of deficit. Lunbeck discusses the introduction of "narcissism" into American consciousness, tracing its popularization to the novel work of two psychoanalysts, Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg in the late '60s and early '70s. She argues that narcissism was always double in America: both normal and pathological. It remains that way to this day, and frustratingly, the book doesn't fully tease out the implications of the tension it explores.

Heinz Kohut was an immigrant psychoanalyst who reframed Freudian narcissism as a healthy dimension of the mature self—looking inward was not "navel gazing" but a source of fulfilling gratification. Normal narcissism was the source of creativity and empathy. He applauded those that were searching for intense inner experiences whether that was through drugs, music or Eastern philosophy. I couldn't help but be fascinated with Kohut as Lunbeck portrays him, as someone who probably would have applauded personal essays about finding oneself, even as his ideas were misinterpreted to excoriate those actions.

Kohut saw narcissism as an antidote to what is perceived as the "new emptiness" in American society that cultural critics purport stands in contrast with former American values. Narcissism, to Kohut, was a kind of necessary self-esteem. Simultaneously, however, he saw narcissism as rooted in emotional deprivation, in having parents who were preoccupied or cold. Critics, misreading his understanding of narcissism as psychically healthy, discussed his work in connection with cultural decline. Kohut eventually broke away from traditional Freudian psychoanalysis and established an alternative called "self psychology".

In contrast, psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg saw narcissism as pathology; his idea of narcissists as charming seductive types with a hunger for admiration from others was probably closer to what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) has in mind when it describes narcissistic personality disorder. Critics of the direction America was heading in were quick to use Kernberg's conceptualization of narcissists as those that were grandiose and lacking in empathy. Kernberg saw the frightening interior world of a narcissist as intensely emotional, the result of disturbed object relations in early childhood.

In the '70s, narcissism became popular outside of psychoanalytic circles with the publication of critic Christopher Lasch's Culture of Narcissism. Lasch understood narcissism as obsessive self-examination; that is, narcissism in the Greek mythology sense and also in the sense it seems to be most often used today when talking about Internet narcissism. He associated it with various subcultures, particularly countercultural groups and celebrity culture that encouraged individuals to find themselves and to satisfy their impulses as anxious consumers.

Where psychoanalysts like Kohut and Kernberg understood and presented narcissism in connection with ascetic behaviors and deprivation, Lasch presented narcissism as fuel for a kind of hyper-capitalist new world order. Raging fake needs drove consumption of frivolous commodities. In contrast, the old America was based on the Protestant work ethic, rational thinking, restraint, and the products of logic (scientific and technological goods).

Psychoanalysis had social capital in the '60s and '70s, an influence far beyond its more esoteric status today. In a section called "Needs and Wants", Lunbeck has an interesting analysis of psychoanalysts v. social critics of that earlier time. The psychoanalysts were interested in basic human needs, some material (like food and sex) and others less tangible (love, security, autonomy, individuality and more). Social critics, however, were interested in material wants, the economics of the marketplace rather than intangible needs. In focusing on tangible goods, social critics missed the asceticism of narcissism.

The social critics' version has won, it seems. Not too many lay people associate narcissism with asceticism, as it was originally conceived; thanks to Lasch and those that came after him, they associate it with indulgence.

After a basic grounding in the origins of narcissism in America, Lunbeck's book is organized by concepts associated with narcissism: self-love, independence, vanity, gratification, inaccessibility and identity. It's in these chapters that we learn interesting, but occasionally long-winded stories about how Freud conceptualized narcissism from his personal turmoil; the association Freud drew between homosexuality and narcissism; the link drawn between narcissism, vanity and the expressive possibilities of fashion; London-based psychoanalyst Joan Riviere's theory of narcissism as a condition in which the individual is free from all forms of dependence; and the identity crisis discussed by Erik Erikson. It is in those chapters that we get a sense of how and why narcissism has been framed as feminine.

Although the middle chapters are full of stories, the telling of them is sometimes curiously dry. In spite of a fascinating subject, this is not an easily digested intellectual history. There is a tendency, particularly in the very middle of the book, for the prose to become redundant or desultory. For the most part, Lunbeck is not especially interested in connecting all the dots for the reader or drawing broader conclusions and insights about culture.

This is an account of an idea that has permeated American life for decades, but the alchemy of why the negative account caught on and still has credibility remains somewhat elusive, here. Since the author is a professor of history, her detached tone makes sense, but with such rich material at her fingertips, it was a wasted opportunity not to include a little more color as she does in the book's wonderful opening and conclusion.

At the book's conclusion, Lunbeck reveals her biggest insight with striking force: "[T]he culture of narcissism might in the end be more than province of the orthodox analyst and the ironic, detached and contemptuous critic of modernity than of the self-absorbed adolescent, the shopaholic woman, and the aging Boomer still in search of his self." This feels like a missing thesis, something that readers should have been told from the outset, in order to give more meaning to some tidbits that felt overly digressive.

Is this Lunbeck's effort to psychoanalyze the analysts and the critics? Do analysts and critics see their subject—patients and American society respectively—as a reflection of themselves? Have we lost something vital and important by misinterpreting and misusing the term "narcissism"? It certainly appears that way.

For the reader who reads in order to develop their own insights into American culture, this resource is an indispensable treasure. Like all the best histories there is enough material here to keep anyone who finds herself wondering how America became associated with concepts like identity politics, counterculture, self-esteem and gratification—or anyone curious about the ubiquitous and slippery concept of narcissism—busy for days.


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