Christine Rosen: What Did Christopher Lasch Get Right/Wrong in The Culture of Narcissism?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Christine Rosen is a fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center and senior editor of the New Atlantis. Her book, My Fundamentalist Education, will be published by PublicAffairs in January.]

Every age develops its own peculiar forms of pathology, which express in exaggerated form its underlying character structure,” the historian and social critic Christopher Lasch wrote in The Culture of Narcissism. For Lasch, writing in 1979, that character structure was an unrelenting narcissism, one that threatened to undermine the rugged individualism of previous eras and, quite possibly, liberalism itself. His book “describes a way of life that is dying,” he wrote in the introduction, “the culture of competitive individualism, which in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a war of all against all, [and] the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self.”

Critics promptly judged Lasch’s work a jeremiad (albeit a best-selling one), an erudite but extreme lament about the state of the culture that was astute in pointing out the development of certain tendencies among Americans but far too pessimistic about the future of liberalism. Those optimists assessed the American and found an individualistic, competitive specimen who had, in recent years, become appropriately more attuned to the need for self-care and an enriched self-esteem. Lasch, by contrast, looked at the American and found him peering into a mirror, anxiously rating the figure staring back at him and wondering how to combat the inexplicable emptiness he felt. As for the causes of this new narcissism, Lasch placed the blame on “quite specific changes in our society and culture — from bureaucracy, the proliferation of images, therapeutic ideologies, the rationalization of the inner life, the cult of consumption, and in the last analysis from changes in family life and from changing patterns of socialization.”

Although it is true that Lasch allowed himself to make sweeping generalizations about the quality of the American character, The Culture of Narcissism has nevertheless remained one of the more useful critiques of late twentieth-century American life and has outlived the feverish criticism it once spawned. The book challenged many of the core assumptions that elites and non-elites blithely accepted as facts at the time: that human beings would continue to devise more sophisticated means of controlling nature and its effects (such as aging) through technology and science, and that these would bring inordinately positive results; that democracies inevitably continue to progress in their development rather than stall or regress; that extremes of individualism and secularism would free people from the supposedly restrictive confines of family, religious, social, and political obligation. Such sentiments were hardly new, of course, but Lasch outlined the weaknesses of them keenly.

Lasch subtitled his book, “American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations,” and it is useful to question just how far the diminishing of expectations he first identified has gone. Looking back on The Culture of Narcissism more than 25 years later, what did Lasch get right and what did he get wrong? What developments did he presciently identify and which ones did he miss? In the interim decades, has Lasch’s narcissist given way to a new type of American character and, if so, what are that character’s defining traits? A descriptive tour revisiting some of Lasch’s themes — especially the transformation of the family — suggests that the narcissism Lasch described has not disappeared. It has simply taken on a different and in some ways more exaggerated form....

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