Acedia Part II: An Internet of Narcissism

In a recent post on acedia I took a look at this ancient concept, often oversimplified as “sloth” or, perhaps, “distraction” and considered how it applies to the struggle we all have with the siren-allure of social media, our phones and the internet. I don’t think we can consider our technological acedia without a look at narcissism, which seems to be a constitutive driver of the economics of social media via the online doppelgänger we all obsessively curate and disseminate. We’ll do this by way of a review of a 1979 bestselling book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations by the historian Christopher Lasch which has seen a revival in recent years in rarefied corners of both the left and the right.

Lasch reminds me of a my friend’s African grey parrot named Harpo that I’ve been babysitting this month. Every afternoon that I let him out of his cage he climbs up to a shelf to attack a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged which my friends helpfully provided just for this purpose. Harpo goes at this book with gusto, shredding the remaining pages and tossing the book off the shelf where it thuds to the floor and scares the cats and the dogs. Lasch had the same fury in his critique of the self centered culture of the 60s and 70s. I suspect much of the revival of Lasch has a lot to do with the fact that the social media that dominates our lives is nothing more than an obscene narcissism machine gestated in the fevered dreams of the internet’s  Randian hippie progenitors of the Whole Earth Catalog era and now existing as a plague on us all.

First we should clarify what Lasch means by narcissism. It’s not the definition in the diagnostic manuals of our time, but rather the Freudian idea which, to oversimplify a bit, is not self-love but, rather, love of the image of oneself as seen by others. Lasch’s Freudian understanding of narcissism aligns closely with the social media selves we curate for others to view. Lasch notes that narcissism, by this definition, leads to an infantilization, “The point of the story is not that Narcissus falls in love with himself but, since he fails to recognize his own reflection, that he lacks any conception of the difference between himself and his surroundings.” In other words, a solipsistic “I” that recognizes no Other.

The Culture of Narcissism feels like it came off the press last week. While writing at the dawn of cable TV, Lasch seems to anticipate a more interactive internet era,

We live in a swirl of images and echoes that arrest experience and play it back in slow motion. Cameras and recording machines not only transcribe experience but alter its quality, giving to much of modern life the character of an enormous echo chamber, a hall of mirrors. 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.

There’s a sense in which, as I noted in my earlier post about ancient and medieval notions of acedia, there’s nothing new about this distracting “society of the spectacle” but it does seem like problems have vastly expanded since the advent of the world wide web in the 1990s and the subsequent explosion of social media that the Surgeon General now wants to stamp a warning sticker on. Here’s Lasch anticipating what feels like the schizophrenic implications of social media use,

Among the “many narcissistic uses” that Sontag attributes to the camera, “self-surveillance” ranks among the most important, not only because it provides the technical means of ceaseless self-scrutiny but because it renders the sense of selfhood dependent on the consumption of images of the self, at the same time calling into question the reality of the external world.

There’s much more to The Culture of Narcissism than I can hope to explain in a short blog post. Lasch is a clear writer, good at explaining complex ideas without resorting to jargon. But I should also note that he can get as cranky as Harpo the parrot and can lapse into the vice of trend observers, an over emphasis on the influence of big ideas and an under-emphasis on economic conditions and forces. He also holds some retrograde views that, in my opinion, haven’t aged well such as his opposition to no-fault divorce.

He does have some valid criticisms of the New Left of the 1960s which, I think, are still relevant in our time. He laments a “politics of theater, of dramatic gestures, of style without substance” thinking of, I imagine, moments like the time the Yippies cast a spell to levitate the Pentagon or, in our time, throwing soup cans at paintings. He also targets therapeutic culture (much like Mark Fisher) and delivers a spot-on evisceration of New Age and Gnostic spirituality all of which he considers as support structures for a narcissistic ideology.

I couldn’t help thinking about Lasch as I viewed the new Max documentary/reality show Ren Faire, whose main protagonist, the 86 year old “king” of the Texas Renaissance Faire, George Coulam, embodies some of the worst elements of hedonism, greed and cruelty of the narcissism Lasch describes. In Ren Faire we watch Coulam toy with his employees and go on dates at the Olive Garden with a series of 20 something women that he meets online on a site called Coulam’s shameless and humiliating treatment of these young women reminds me of this passage in The Culture of Narcissism,

Sade imagined a sexual utopia in which everyone has the right to everyone else, where human beings, reduced to their sexual organs, become absolutely anonymous and interchangeable. His ideal society thus reaffirmed the capitalist principle that human beings are ultimately reducible to interchangeable objects. . . In the resulting state of organized anarchy, as Sade was the first to realize, pleasure becomes life’s only business—pleasure, however, that is indistinguishable from rape, murder, unbridled aggression.

The hedonism, exploitation, capitalism and fascism described by Lasch and Ren Faire, taken to their unbridled extremes, is the theme picked up in the hardest movie to watch in all cinema, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s horrifying indictment of fascism, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Let’s just say that, while I’m not a big adherent to generational essentialism, I’m beginning to wish that a certain generation of entitled, narcissistic old men, who seem to be clinging to power in this country, would shuffle off this mortal coil soon.

Lest I be the one casting the first stone, I should note my own complicity in our age of narcissism. While there are certainly narcissistic personality types of the sort pathologized in current diagnostic manuals, or in extreme outliers such as the king in Ren Faire, there’s also a broader narcissism, of the sort Lasch is talking about, in which we all participate. Oh, how much I’m addicted to the likes on my Instagram posts!

If not overcome by acedia, I hope to move on from simply calling out the internet addiction problem and move on to the treacherous terrain of “what the hell do we do about it?” Lasch has a few ideas, ending The Culture of Narcissism on a positive note,

In a dying culture, narcissism appears to embody—in the guise of personal “growth” and “awareness”—the highest attainment of spiritual enlightenment. The custodians of culture hope, at bottom, merely to survive its collapse. The will to build a better society, however, survives, along with traditions of localism, self-help, and community action that only need the vision of a new society, a decent society, to give them new vigor.

I have personally witnessed the emergence of these signs of a better way to do things and I hope to also get to some ideas about techniques for dealing with social media addiction. In the meantime I recommend you consider taking a look at Lasch’s very readable book (here’s a pdf–the internet can still be useful!). The Regrettable Century Podcast has two episodes (I and II) about The Culture of Narcissism with guest, C. Derick Varn that provides some further context for Lasch’s work. And here’s a short article about Lasch and his other books.

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