What if the internet and social media and millennials didn’t make us selfish and self-absorbed and narcissistic?1 What if, instead, today’s self-centered image world was born decades before digital media, as part of a much longer transformation of American society? Consider the following passage from Christopher Lasch’s 1979 best seller, The Culture of Narcissism:
Life presents itself as a succession of images or electronic signals, of impressions recorded and reproduced by means of photography, motion pictures, television, and sophisticated recording devices. 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. … We need no reminder to smile. A smile is permanently graven on our futures, and we already know from which of several angles it photographs to best advantage.
Sound familiar? Plagued by social media’s selfie culture, not to mention automated propaganda, deep fakes, and the presidency of Donald Trump, many of us have begun to tell ourselves a story of American decline. In the middle of the 20th century, the story goes, Americans enjoyed a narrow spectrum of media options and, as a result, a shared public culture. In the absence of cell phones and laptops, children played stickball on the street and learned the arts of democratic cooperation. It was the internet that blew all that away.
But what if it wasn’t? More than a decade before the birth of the World Wide Web, and years before cell phones graced our pockets, Lasch declared in The Culture of Narcissism that Americans had turned away from public life and toward “purely personal preoccupations.”2 And it wasn’t just the media that were driving that turn; it was a series of confidence-deflating changes in American society. In 1945, the country had won World War II and set out to build a liberal world order across the globe. Now its army had stumbled home in defeat from Vietnam. President Nixon had resigned in disgrace. And an entire generation seemed to have lost faith in the benevolent intentions of the American state. “Storm warnings, portents, hints of catastrophe haunt our times,” wrote Lasch. “The ‘sense of an ending’ … pervades the popular imagination.”
Even as Lasch was lamenting the state of the nation, Ronald Reagan was waiting in the wings. Soon enough, Reagan would champion deregulation, privatization, and the ubiquitous pursuit of profit in order to claim that it was “morning in America” once again. That’s what makes The Culture of Narcissism so important for us to reread now. It is a fulcrum book. In its own apocalyptic era, it told a story of a culture gone off the rails. It was “a civilized hellfire sermon,” wrote Frank Kermode in the New York Times, “with little promise of salvation.”3
But for us, the book should be a marker, a road sign. Even as he attacks the mid-20th-century world of large, bureaucratic industries and commercial mass media, Lasch digs up the roots of our collective contemporary narcissism. We may be tempted to blame our cell phones for our troubles and to look back nostalgically to the seeming cultural coherence of the Cold War era, and even to the centralized manufacturing industries and centralized media outlets that enforced it. Yet, as The Culture of Narcissism makes clear, it was in fact the image-obsessed, consumer-driven mass culture of that time that set us on the road to the chaotic, internet-enabled individualism we navigate today.
What’s more, the book makes visible the ways that culture opened the door to neoliberalism and ushered us through it, to today’s newly individualized, authoritarian style. To watch Lasch wrestle with the legacy of the 1960s revolt against mass society as we read, to watch him turn from an early allegiance to the countercultural left toward a celebration of the nuclear family and the private hearth, is to watch him take a generational turn. In The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch not only analyzes the ways Americans were turning inward to escape the challenges of politics; he models them.
Who Was Christopher Lasch?
When Lasch wrote The Culture of Narcissism, he was one of America’s most well-known intellectuals. A professor of history at the University of Rochester and, before that, at Iowa and Northwestern, he had spent the 1960s drafting a backstory for the campus rebels who surrounded him.
Lasch’s 1965 volume, The New Radicalism in America, 1889–1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type, made the case that at the end of the 19th century, a new kind of radical had emerged: an alienated social critic, who took inspiration from the lives of ordinary citizens, and who sought to change society less by changing its political institutions than by changing its culture.4 Lasch followed this up four years later with a collection of essays entitled The Agony of the American Left, in which he argued that the Vietnam-era generation should return to that same 19th-century era of cultural revolt. In doing so, he argued, they would rediscover the roots of Black Power, the attractions of populism and socialism, and new ways to challenge the orthodoxies of the 1950s.
Together these books made Lasch a kind of house scholar for the New Left. Lasch seemed to be calling for a loosening of strictures on sexuality and the end to combat overseas, much like the figures he chronicled, and much like the longhairs in the streets. Yet, in his own life, Lasch kept his daily round well-ordered and conventional. He married his college sweetheart, Nell Commager, and stayed married to her until he died, in 1994. They had four children together. And every Christmas, for 25 years, Lasch presented her with a scrapbook of souvenirs from that year in the life of his family that he stitched together himself.5
In 1977, this home-loving Lasch met the radical historian of his earlier volumes in the book Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged. Returning once again to the late 19th century and working forward through the 20th, Lasch examined portraits of the family as they were painted by the fields of psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Together, he argued, these disciplines worked to undermine the traditional family, to corrode the particular, gendered roles on which it depended, and to outsource the work of social reproduction from the intimate realm of the home to the impersonal bureaucracies of the welfare state. Under such pressures, he claimed, the family could no longer be the haven it had been in earlier eras.
What Was “The Culture of Narcissism”?
Even as he critiqued the disciplines of psychology and anthropology, Lasch embraced two of their guiding precepts: first, that the family was the primary engine of socialization, and second, that families tended to produce in their children the kinds of personalities favored by the cultures in which they lived.
These two ideas became the engines behind The Culture of Narcissism. According to Lasch, transformations in American society had given rise to a new kind of personality in the 1970s: a creature who “feels consumed by his own appetites,” who “cannot live without an admiring audience,” who “praises cooperation and teamwork while harboring deeply anti-social impulses.”
This new narcissistic type could be found in psychologists’ waiting rooms and on the streets, but he was also more than any single person. For Lasch, the narcissist was a cultural eidolon, a composite character whom he could put at the center of a particular story of collective cultural decline.
What made Lasch’s work distinctive was its fusion of culture-and-personality anthropology and Frankfurt School social psychology.6 Like Margaret Mead, Geoffrey Gorer, and other intellectual descendants of anthropologist Franz Boas, Lasch believed that cultures produced modal types of personality.7 And like the scholars of the Frankfurt School, he believed that the kind of structural changes in the economic base analyzed by Marx spawned psychological and cultural effects that could be understood by way of Freud.
According to Lasch, Americans of the 1970s were suffering from three structural transformations: the rise of postindustrial modes of manufacturing; the ubiquity of mass media; and the transfer of personal, emotional labor from the family to the welfare state. Together, he argued, these forces were producing a new, modal type of personality: the narcissist.
“The Culture of Narcissism” Today
If we take each of the transformations Lasch identified in turn—postindustrial capitalism, mass media, and the institutional management of our inner lives—his analysis begins to illuminate not only the roots of his own era’s gloom, but those of our own. Alongside the rise of the social sciences, midcentury Americans had seen the rise of large, bureaucratic organizations, he writes. These had emerged to help control industrial production at scale, but they also spawned a need for a new kind of person—the glad-handing, white-collar man. Large-scale bureaucracies, he explained, “created conditions in which labor power takes the form of personality rather than strength or intelligence. Men and women alike have to project an attractive image and to become simultaneously role players and connoisseurs of their own performance.”
Lasch is self-consciously echoing David Riesman’s critique of the “other-directed” personality here, but he could just as easily be writing about our own age of Instagram and LinkedIn. And that suggests that we might need to rethink our account of how digital media are changing our culture. If Lasch is right, our obsession with self-presentation predates the web by many years. And in that case, maybe digital media are not driving a new rise in the importance of personality as a source of economic power so much as they are amplifying and accelerating processes of personal-image management born long ago. In other words, maybe our problem isn’t changes in media technology. Maybe it is simply another round of changes in capitalism.
Then, as now, the stakes couldn’t be higher. For example, Lasch points to advertising and argues that, when coupled with ubiquitous electronic media, its logic of promotion has created a new standard of credibility. Ad-fueled mass media, writes Lasch, have “given rise to a pervasive air of unreality.” In this gaslit world, we are encouraged to accept what seems plausible as what is true, what feels urgent as what is actually important. Facts cease to be the basis of credibility, and the consequences can be severe. Lasch points to Vietnam by way of example. With fierce understatement, he reminds us that “it was because prestige and credibility had become the only measure of effectiveness that the American policy in Vietnam could be conducted without regard to the strategic importance of Vietnam or the political situation in that country.”
Ask the Kids
Today we once again suffer under leaders obsessed with their standing in the media. As Americans, we labor under a carefully cultivated fog of unreality, a deliberate obfuscation of facts on the ground, a cloud of he-said-she-said callouts that ricochet from Twitter to Fox to CNN. We may blame our authoritarian-in-chief or his enablers in Congress and at Facebook for our troubles. But, as Lasch reminds us, fact-based reality came under siege decades ago and under different technological conditions.
The internet has enlarged and speeded up the circulation of images and rumors, but perhaps only that. It is the need for advertisers to make a profit that has remained constant from Lasch’s time to our own. Together, the spread of electronic media and the arm-twisting habits of advertising, writes Lasch, have made “the categories of truth and falsehood irrelevant to an evaluation of their influence. Truth has given way to credibility.”
The Lesson of “Narcissism”
What is to be done? Here, unfortunately, Lasch offers little help. Instead, he resuscitates the argument that animated Haven in a Heartless World, asserting that the welfare state is destroying the traditional family. Marriages are collapsing, he claims, parents are turning over their responsibilities to psychologists and social workers, fathers are fleeing the hearth.
Though presented as if it were historical fact, Lasch’s critique of the welfare state reads more like the report of a right-wing Rorschach test. Just beneath his seemingly rational analysis lies a deeply irrational fear of emotion, sexuality, and the Other.
Sexuality in particular is so emotionally explosive that people must numb themselves to its power with drugs and, perversely, promiscuity, says Lasch. Some even retreat from forming family ties altogether, choosing to live alone. Sexual energies and the diversity of sexual preferences, he suggests, are tearing America apart. “‘Radical lesbians’” are the worst, he writes: they “carry the logic of separation to its ultimate futility … directing a steady stream of abuse against men and against women who refuse to acknowledge their homosexual proclivities.”
“The Culture of Narcissism” makes visible the ways that culture opened the door to neoliberalism and ushered us through it, to today’s newly individualized, authoritarian style.
In the culture wars then aborning, this sort of poisonous nonsense would fuel the evangelical right’s assault on gay rights and, later, the rise of a president who bragged about his ability to commit sexual assault unpunished. But despite this shameful legacy, Lasch’s critique of the welfare state does give us a glimpse of two important forces that shape our world now: the critique of institutions and the ongoing deskilling of our intimate lives. When Lasch attacks the welfare bureaucracy, he echoes an entire generation’s critique of state institutions, a critique that began in the 1960s and that fueled the neoliberal activism of the 1980s. When he promotes the family, he joins both the commune dwellers of the 1960s and the right-wing culture warriors of the 1980s and 1990s in celebrating the realm of intimate interpersonal relations, of home and commune, as the best alternative to the depersonalized, image-driven world of the public sphere.
This celebration opens a door to conservative and neoliberal fantasies of self-reliance that will dominate the decades to come. It also points to fantasies of agency that fuel the surveillance economy today. When he shows how bureaucratic forms of social care perform intimate labor for which we were all once responsible, Lasch also gives us a glimpse of a deskilling process we are experiencing today at scale. Neoliberal and right-wing pundits may fear that the welfare state alone is sucking away our autonomy. But one look at our cell phones reminds us that ad-sponsored media and the corporations that design and deploy them are busy absorbing skills we once called our own. As most any unmarried adult can tell you, the complex social process once called “dating” has been subsumed by Tinder, Bumble, and other apps. And as anyone who uses Google Maps on the road can report, it’s getting hard to find your way without it.
Forty More Years?
“Every age develops its own peculiar forms of pathology,” according to Lasch, “which express in exaggerated form its underlying character structure.” He may be right. But then again, one of the things Americans have learned from the upheavals of the midcentury is that the country may never have had a single character structure in the first place. It may be that our experiences have been so diverse—that our races, genders, and sexual preferences have led us through such different versions of America—that to even articulate a vision of a national whole can be an act of oppression.
And that leaves us in a quandary. In The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch clearly articulated the fears of a Manhattan-Washington-Boston–centered elite. In the 1970s, the institutions they led were under assault. Formerly underground styles of cool were joining birth and education as gateways to social standing, and people who did not look or act like Christopher Lasch and his friends were seeking power everywhere. The right-wing backlash of the 1980s, parts of which The Culture of Narcissism foreshadowed, still haunts us, as do struggles to bring the full range of our lived experiences into public view. The industrial transformations and mass mediatization Lasch chronicled have hardly slowed, and the need for each of us to become our own brand that he lamented has hardly abated.
How, then, will we come together? By what logic will we make a country that accommodates and even celebrates our differences, and yet claims each of us on equal terms? In The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch has shown us how the consensus of the mid-20th century disappeared and how our own more fractured time began to take its place. No one can quite say where our next vision of national unity might come from.
But for now, there is still a bit of good news: it is harder to hate digital-media technologies after reading this book, and a whole lot easier to take aim at the corporate capitalists who shape how we use them.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
- Since at least the rise of Myspace and Facebook, analysts have argued that digital technologies have spawned a self-obsessed, hyperindividuated, image-driven culture. Millennials in particular have come in for abuse. On May 9, 2013, for instance, the cover of Time magazine featured a teenage girl using her cell phone to take a selfie, under the headline “The ME ME ME Generation.” Just in case readers missed the point, the same cover announced that “Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists.” ↩
- Writers from Daniel Bell to Richard Sennett and Philip Rieff had recently offered similarly gloomy analyses of American life, but something about Lasch’s tone struck a chord. The Culture of Narcissism exploded onto the cultural scene. The Washington Post called it “the big intellectual book of the season.” A reviewer for Time magazine compared Lasch to a “biblical prophet.” Within a year, The Culture of Narcissism had won a National Book Award and become a best seller. Jimmy Carter even invited Lasch to Camp David and put his ideas at the center of the president’s famous “malaise” speech later that year. See also Henry Allen, “Doomsayer of the Me Decade,” Washington Post, January 24, 1979; R. Z. Sheppard, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” Time, January 8, 1979. ↩
- Frank Kermode, “The Way We Live Now,” New York Times, January 14, 1979. ↩
- The antiwar polemicist Randolph Bourne, the sexual activist Mabel Dodge Luhan, the journalist Lincoln Steffens—in Lasch’s telling, they foreshadowed the countercultural activists of the 1960s. ↩
- Jean Bethke Elshtain, “The Life and Work of Christopher Lasch: An American Story,” Salmagundi, no. 106/107 (1995), p. 155. ↩
- By 1979, some parts of that story had been widely told. Just a few years earlier, Tom Wolfe had declared the 1970s the “Me Decade,” Philip Rieff had announced “the triumph of the therapeutic” in a book of the same name, and Richard Sennett had lamented the fall of “public man.” Tom Wolfe, “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” New York, August 23, 1976; Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud (Harper & Row, 1966); Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man: The Forces Eroding Public Life and Burdening the Modern Psyche with Roles It Cannot Perform (Knopf, 1977). ↩
- For more on the culture-and-personality school of anthropology, see Charles King, Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century (Doubleday, 2019). For a study of its impact on the idea of American character and the democratic personality, see Fred Turner, The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties (University of Chicago Press, 2013), pp. 39–76. ↩