The Culture of Narcissism – My Thoughts on the Book

Despite being written in 1979, parts of Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism read as if they were written today and remain more relevant than ever. Let’s first define what Lasch meant by narcissism, or at least my understanding of it. Narcissists are not those who are supremely or excessively confident in their own abilities. Just the opposite. They are plagued with feelings of inauthenticity, insecurity, and inner emptiness, and need to be validated by the approval of those around them. It’s clear that with the rise of social media and the desire for likes, retweets, and more followers, we have become even more narcissistic now than in 1979. Back in Lasch’s time, he attributed the increase in narcissism to television and the effects of being recorded:

“Modern life is so thoroughly mediated by electronic images that we cannot help responding to others as if their actions – and our own – were being recorded and simultaneously transmitted to an unseen audience or stored up for close scrutiny at some later time. ‘Smile, you’re on candid camera!’ The intrusion into everyday life of this all-seeing eye no longer takes us by surprise or catches us with our defenses down. We need no reminder to smile. A smile is permanently graven on our features, and we already know from which of several angles it photographs to best advantage.”

It’s easy to see the parallels to social media and its influence on our society. That permanent smile is now etched on our faces on Instagram. We project our best selves to evoke envy, seek fame, or for the rush of endorphins we feel as the likes accumulate. And our behavior isn’t the only thing that has changed; even our environment is being altered by social media. Instagram-worthy destinations are being flooded with tourists seeking to capture that perfect image to post. Restaurants have dishes that are designed for sharing via social media, not for consumption. Ephemeral events are booming because of their exclusivity, again for later display on social media as symbols of one’s status. Anybody can listen to Beyonce’s album on Spotify, but only a select fee can watch her perform live at Coachella on this specific year. We crave recognition more and more whether it be from our friends, from our local community or from the mass of fans around the country.

This quote from Lasch about the distinction between fame and celebrity perfectly encapsulates the present:

“Whereas fame depends on the performance of notable deeds acclaimed in biography and works of history, celebrity – the reward of those who project a vivid or pleasing exterior or have otherwise attracted attention to themselves – is acclaimed in the news media, in gossip columns, on talk shows, in magazines devoted to ‘personalities.’”

More and more people have embarked on the quest for celebrity as social media has disintermediated the role of previous gatekeepers such as the magazines or talk shows that Lasch mentioned. Those seeking celebrity no longer need magazines to anoint them. They can now appeal directly to their audience through social media. The ostensible ease with which this celebrity is now obtained leads to everybody trying to become one. After all, all “X” needed to become a celebrity was a nice ass or nice abs or to make interesting small talk. And my ass/abs/small talk is so much better than his/hers. And so the desire for external approval continues to grow.

Still, they are right in the sense that becoming a celebrity is much easier now than before. Somebody can quickly go viral on social media, rising meteorically to celebrity status. Yet such an instantaneous rise can be accompanied by an equally instantaneous fall. Celebrities, more than anybody else, recognize just how fleeting it can all be, causing them to incessantly worry about losing their newfound status. We become more narcissistic in our quest for celebrity but celebrities are the most narcissistic of us all. They not only need constant approval from their current adoring fans but also seek to gain more fans so that they can reach the next tier of stardom. As a result, they’re in a constant state of anxiety, forced to incessantly post on social media to stay relevant and obtain new fans, yet plagued with fear that they will make a mistake and become the latest target of Cancel Culture (the latest trend in social media where everyone is collectively outraged (no moral judgements here) for a few hours and tries to tank their target’s follower count or better yet, to deplatform them).

There are other parts of Lasch’s book that are less strong. For example, he also attributes the rise in narcissism to the rise in bureaucracy and “experts” in all aspects of our life. The bureaucracy and the “experts” restrict what we can do and tell us what we ought to do, resulting in a loss of agency and a corresponding rise in narcissism as we become less and less self-confident about our own actions. He spends way too long describing the rise of bureaucracy and its pernicious effects. To me, nothing is more bureaucratic and monolithic than religion. After all, how much agency did worshippers of Christianity really have centuries ago? The people of Lasch’s time had more agency than their ancestors, and the people in our time have even more agency still, but the affliction of narcissism is only getting worse. What seems to be the issue is not one overriding bureaucracy that tells us how to behave, but many bureaucracies and experts that provide conflicting advice. We have the agency to decide which bureaucracy or expert to listen to, and it is that very agency that causes our loss of self-confidence because as we compare ourselves to those around us, it seems as if the path that we choose never seems to be the right choice.

Though I don’t agree with Lasch attributing the problems of today to a rise in bureaucracy, I do think his diagnosis of the symptoms plaguing society is spot on. Here’s another great quote from the book:

“Our standards of ‘creative, meaningful work’ are too exalted to survive disappointment. Our ideal of ‘true romance’ puts an impossible burden on personal relationships. We demand too much of life, too little of ourselves.”

So what do I think are the causes of narcissism? I think it ultimately boils down to the things Lasch mentioned earlier and the human desire to constantly compare ourselves with the people around us. In Lasch’s time, it was television that changed our perception of the world around us. Television and advertisements shaped our views on how we ought to live our life. And they not only provided a template of how we ought to live our life but also a frame of reference to compare our own to. Suddenly, we were no longer comparing ourselves with just the people around us but also the people on our screens. Maybe before, we were content with our imperfect but solid marriage, job, possessions, or lifestyle, but now, they seem much more imperfect than before. Our expectations slowly rise and when reality doesn’t rise to match our expectations, we become more and more disillusioned. And in Lasch’s time, mass media wasn’t anywhere near as ubiquitous as it is today, nor did they have to deal with social media.

Nowadays, we are bombarded with many more screens and the depictions on those screens are ratcheted up to 11, afflicting not only “lowbrow” shows such as reality TV but also prestige dramas. Consider the voyeurism of Billions, a show about the hedge fund industry. In every episode, we see Axe in his opulent penthouse, throwing money around as if he had a limitless supply (which he basically does), and dining in the hottest restaurants. Netflix’s hit show Chef’s Table is basically food porn. We love these shows and clamor for more, and slowly our expectations continue to rise.

But, the biggest culprit of our exceedingly unrealistic expectations is social media. Now, we are not only deluged with the lives of the rich and famous, but also the carefully crafted images of our friends and acquaintances. Nobody ever puts their doubts or how much their life sucks on social media unless it is cited as an obstacle in their wider narrative of triumph. We’re inundated with highlight after highlight, and as we compare the whole of our life to the highlights of someone else’s, our life starts to seem mundane and pathetic in comparison.

So, what should we do about this? I guess we can watch less TV and not go on social media, but still, our society more than ever worships the rich and glamorous. It’s so pervasive that there’s not much any one person can do. Recognizing the growing narcissism and rising expectations around us might allow us to temper our expectations, to seek to live a life that is not so consumed by the desire for glitz and glamour. We can make changes around the margins, and though that might not allow us to escape the afflictions of modern society, it might help us to become more content with our lot in life. I don’t think this is all doom and gloom. There are many benefits provided to us by the advent of social media. I also believe that the younger generations will be better adapted and better equipped to deal with the deleterious effects of social media, that they’ll place boundaries so that their lives aren’t consumed by it. Either that or the stuff of science fiction happens and the world goes to shit. Who knows.