From self to selfie: Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism, 40 years on
In 1979, Christopher Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism: American life in an age of diminishing expectations. The book has proven a controversial touchstone ever since, with its bracing reflections on the decline of family life, the rise of meaningless managerial roles and the psychological costs of always ‘performing’ for the eyes of society.
Forty years on from its publication, a new collection of essays – From Self to Selfie: A Critique of Contemporary Forms of Alienation – aims to analyse the contemporary relevance of one of Lasch’s most profound insights: that our current ‘narcissism’ reflects more the instability and isolation of the self than what is often suggested as its rampantly individualist character. This collection charts the rise and the fall of the self, from its emergence as an autonomous agent during the Enlightenment, to the modern-day ‘selfie’ self, whose existence is realised only through continuous external validation. These changing dynamics of selfhood reveal, not only the peculiar ways in which selfhood is problematised in contemporary society, but equally the tragic fragility of the selfie, in the absence of any social authority that could give it some security.
What are we to make now of Lasch’s various claims, including his central claim that society can be understood with comparison to the diagnosis of pathological narcissism? To what degree did Lasch anticipate the dominance of social media or the enduring effects of the ‘gender wars’? Or is Lasch’s analysis eclipsed by new, more rigid, categories of identity, where the question of ‘what I am’ is more prominent than ‘what I might make of myself’?