A Fine Romance

Culture, Economy, Media, The Life of the Mind

In our society, anxious self-scrutiny (not to be confused with critical self-examination) not only serves to regulate information signaled to others and to interpret signals received; it also establishes an ironic distance from the deadly routine of daily life. On the one hand, the degradation of work makes skill and competence increasingly irrelevant to material success and thus encourages the presentation of the self as a commodity; on the other hand, it discourages commitment to the job and drives people as the only alternative to boredom and despair, to view work with self-critical detachment. When jobs consist of little more than meaningless motions, and when social routines, formerly dignified as ritual, degenerate into role playing, the work—whether he toils on an assembly line or holds down  high-paying job in a large bureaucracy, seeks to escape from the resulting sense of inauthenticity by creating an ironic distance from his daily routine. He attempts to transform role playing into a symbolic elevation of daily life.

-Christopher Lasch, from The Culture of Narcissism

Early in The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch says that Homo capitalus is represented by Robinson Crusoe, in his senescence by Moll Flanders. I like the formulation, even if it implies an ultimate penitence that seems unlikely. Maybe Roxana would be more apropos. The point is plain enough. Both characters are self-reliant, but the former makes while the latter is merely on the make. Well, then again, Crusoe had a slave. Take it away, J.M. Coetzee. All metaphors collapse under the burden of specificity. I think that this one, broadly taken, stands.

Lasch is a great crank. Contempt is the natural pairing for erudition, like a good Sauternes and foie gras. I hold his clunky Freudianism against him because I despise psychology as the pseudoscience of the very “anxious self-scrutiny” that Lasch condemns, but Lasch behaves more like a juge d’instruction than a shrink, and his diagnoses shade into the prosecutorial. If occasionally absent-minded, wandering off to land gratuitous roundhouses on the soft body of “radical lesbianism” and other such mythological pillowcases, his central thesis is sound: bourgeois society is the author of the very things it so “readily” subjects to “moralistic inflation.”

That is to say that in establishing an “etiology” and a taxonomy of contemporary narcissism, Lasch is careful (and indefatigable) in noting that all these narcissistic habits and attitudes are the natural outgrowths and ends of the habits and attitudes of bourgeois capitalism. You might say that’s obvious, and, well, uh, okay. That’s true. No one proposes that hook-up culture or texting or Urban Outfitters or whatever the New York Times and National Review are on about emerged, causa sui, out of the void, although you do find some people, especially on the National Review side of the thumb-worn coin, treating The Sixties like just such a Titan, first god from whom all the rest of our dire modern principalities declined.

Narcissism came out in ’78. Guys, The Free People Store opened in Philly in ’70. Lasch died in ’94. Well, people had been cybersexing each other on IRC since the late 80s. I started pic swapping on mIRC in the late middle 90s, just a few years after Lasch’s demise. To get back to the point of the prior paragraph, most modern moralizers acknowledge in an abstract way that the unspeakable vices of the youth and The Children, Who Are Our Future have history, lineage, and heredity, but they still approach the advent of Facebook with a google-eyed and hilariously un-self-realized crackpot Marxism. Everything represents a Definitive Break With The Past.

Social Networking, the latest broad technological enabler of both cultural narcissism and narcissistic moral peacocking about cultural narcissism is really too large and amorphous for the worriers to land any convincing blows. Newspapers hate bloggers and magazines whine about Twitter, although no one is really sure if these are social networks or New Media Platforms or micro-versions of mini-magazines. Lately, the pearl-clutching has moved on to the universal self-documentarianism of Instragramming and photo sharing in general, the pervasive criticism being that the succeeding generations of Our Society have become little more than gross exhibitionists and voyeurs.

I’m not sure who’s guiltier of anxious self-scrutiny, the Instagrammers or their discontents. There is something pitiable about a system of self-display whose single desirable outcome is approval. Oh, You Follow Me, You Really Follow Me. Look on my works, ye mighty, and LIKE. On the other hand, what is crasser, what could be more tawdry, than a bunch of adults gazing in priestly disapproval at the crypto-nubile attention-seeking of the young people who stand to inherit this wrecked, violent, wonder-less civilization.

The answer is right now composing a trend piece for the Times “Thursday Styles.” Having denied a couple of generations now any but the narrowest alleyway to the material heights that represent the sole remaining source of transcendence and object of veneration, shall we now complain that young people publicly style their lives like Vogue spreads? In a country that idolizes the likes of these assholes, will we regret that kids curate their existence in pale imitation thereof? Isn’t there a certain irony in people who write for wide-circulation publications and go on the teevee complaining about voyeurs and exhibitionists?

I am going to ruin the many hours you spent getting that lousy BA and define modernity for you. Modernity is the destruction of old forms combined with the retention of old prejudices. When I hear you complain about your sons and daughters wasting their time with sepia filters and party photos, I have just two questions: how much do you pay for cable, and are you hiring? Oh, are the answers a lot and no, respectively? I figured.

This isn’t to say that there’s anything to celebrate in Snapchat. I thank the internet for any number of successful, mutually pleasant, wholly salutary casual encounters, but even I think the world has made it a minute too easy and an ounce too cheap to show each other pictures of our genitals. But I actually find, amidst the preening and ersatz editorialism of the Instagram et alia generation a kind of social revanchism that I do appreciate. “Oh, it’s a small town. Everyone knows everything about everyone.” One of the worst habits of our society is its gratuitous secrecy, its capacious furtiveness. What I like about Instagram and Facebook and all the rest lies in the refusal to accede to the fussy insistence that, while it may be all right to get drunk at a party, it is wrong, wrong to let your boss know about it. Or your mom.

What bourgeois society valorizes as individuality and liberty is very often little more than a bland, greedy, nasty little sense of possession. It reeks of monetization. It disapproves of sharing. We have even coined the term: over-sharing. By which we mean something very similar to hastily foregoing the possibility of copyright. No, I object. If we can’t have a better world, we can at least keep in touch.

12 thoughts on “A Fine Romance

  1. Been hearing “narcissism” a bunch in recent blog posts (by various people).

    This was the only one that explained it in a way that made sense and didn’t reek of academic babble. Thanks.

  2. Perhaps one of the most meaningful of Bob Dylan’s outcries, was:

    May you stay forever young …..

    Even though it has …..long since, ….. been …forgotten …….

    even by Bob, …according to the new BOB …….

  3. On the other hand, what is crasser, what could be more tawdry, than a bunch of adults gazing in priestly disapproval at the crypto-nubile attention-seeking of the young people who stand to inherit this wrecked, violent, wonder-less civilization.

    This. Thank you Mr Bacharach, where have you been all my life? (Thanks to Wolcott too.) The only age group I saw protesting the war on its first official homocidal day and getting arrested was “millennials” aka “kids” bless their instagramming little hearts. All your work is powerful, I even unearthed some old amazon reviews!

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