In the 1970s, Christopher Lasch, among other social critics, contended that the US was a nation in decline due to growing numbers of narcissistic Americans who in their self-absorption were chasing material plenty and easy gratification. Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism brought together clinical insight and cultural criticism in the wake of America’s defeat in Vietnam and the political corruption of Watergate that resonated with the people’s low morale and waning confidence in our nation’s status and influence. His critique has enjoyed amazing staying power through the final decades of the 20th century and continues to serve as a powerful indictment of our cultural, political, and social malaise.
But why? How did the psychoanalytic concept of narcissism, initially rooted in the clinical studies of the individual psyche by Freud and his colleagues in the earlier part of the 20th century, become the basis for a pervasive criticism of American society today as greedy and vain? If we step back and trace the evolution of narcissism in psychoanalytic thought over the course of the 20th century alongside its dissemination and popularization in broader society, we see that critics like Lasch weren’t so much diagnosing a changed America as employing a changed diagnosis. Lasch, whose critique could be characterized as “the narcissization of America,” was actually helping to usher in the Americanization of narcissism.
So argues Elizabeth Lunbeck, in a penetrating work on the ways in which both psychoanalytic thought and cultural criticism have grappled with a series of irresolvable tensions that we all experience between dependence and independence, neediness and self-sufficiency, asceticism and abundance, renunciation and gratification, poverty and plenty. In The Americanization of Narcissism, Lunbeck demonstrates the concept’s protean nature and suggests that part of its polemic appeal is to be found in its capaciousness, in the conceptual space narcissism offers for old and enduring debates. The notion itself allows us seemingly new ground on which to conduct centuries-old discussions of who we are and what we value both collectively and as individuals.