Critical book review:
Christopher Lasch (1991)
The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Expectations
The culture of narcissism was widely recognised as a socio-cultural critique of American society when published in 1979. Written by Christopher Lasch, the book analyzes a social phenomenon identified by Christopher Lasch as ‘cultural narcissism’, a process by which certain attributes of the pathological branch of narcissism (Bocock, 2002) become societal characteristics (Lasch, 1991). This review will be analyzing the relevance of the book within wider sociological debate. I will argue that although the book identifies a recognisable social trend it fails to deomonstrate a specific cause or reason for that trend. The author proclaims that the causes of narcissism are the decline in the family and fetishism of commodities (Lasch). I will go on to argue that capitalism is the main cause of narcissism and that Lasch fails to diagnose the problem by focusing on superficial aspects of it rather than the root cause. I will also argue that by analyzing the causes of the problem superficially the author only suggest superficial and erroneous solutions.
Books Core Argument
The culture of narcissism is inspired by Sigmund Freud's theory of pathological narcissism. There are obvious similarities between both thesis, but they also differ in that for Freud it was a pathological illness of a determined group of individuals with an over developed sense of self. For Lasch, contemporary social trends have led to narcissism becoming a cultural rather than a psychological phenomena, in the sense that aspects of Freudian narcissism have become characteristic of modern social life. But by becoming a social phenomena, cultural narcissism is expressed in a very different way from pathological narcissism. Lasch argued that the cultural narcissist was not self obsessed and did not have an over developed ego as Freud had suggested. In fact it was the lack of self worth and an uncertain and fragile sense of self that made the narcissist dependent on the opinions of others in order to form his or her own identities. By depending on others the majority of people in modern American society (and these traits can, I argue, be identified in British society) form relationships that are parasitic in nature, and divide and isolate individuals rather than unite them. The author argues that in today’s society, skills, knowledge and ability are less important as being perceived as having those characteristics. The fear of death may be a universal condition, but modern western society attempts to deal with these understandable fears with holistic therapy, cosmetic surgery and self help books. Rather than by encouraging people to engage with the social and political world in order to make it a rewarding and fulfilling experience, the modern narcissistic individual is encouraged to see his or her life as a spectacle for others, where gratification is gained from having a winning image that is admired and coveted by others. Cultural narcissism not only affects individuals but also manifests itself within social institutions. Lasch accepts Marx’s (1844) argument that the influences of the market on everyday life have come to shape the ways in which we relate to each other as individuals and put a value not just on the objects being produced but also those who produce it. This influence of the economic structure on the personal lives of citizens comes to shape all relationships around us and according to Lasch means that we see each other only in terms of how we utilise others. Context
The book was an insightful socio-cultural representation of the American society of the time. A nation that was humiliated in the Vietnam War and constantly negotiating with the USSR during the cold was losing faith in its own ability to solve the socio-economic problems that are endemic to capitalist society. In this sense, however, it is...
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