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Having internalized the social restraints by means of which they formerly sought to keep possibility within civilized limits, they feel themselves overwhelmed by an annihilating boredom, like animals whose instincts have withered in captivity.
A reversion to savagery threatens them so little that they long precisely for a more vigorous instinctual existence. People nowadays complain of an inability to feel. They cultivate more vivid experiences, seek to beat sluggish flesh to life, attempt to revive jaded appetites. They condemn the superego and exalt the lost life of the senses. Twentieth-century peoples have erected so many psychological barriers against strong emotion, and have invested those defenses with so much of the energy derived from forbidden impulse, that they can no longer remember what it feels like to be inundated by desire.
They tend, rather, to be consumed with rage, which derives from defenses against desire and gives rise in turn to new defenses against rage itself. Outwardly bland, submissive, and sociable, they seethe with an inner anger for which a dense, overpopulated, bureaucratic society can devise few legitimate outlets.
It is not didactic so much as diagnostic, not a sermon but a set of case studies informed by an ambitious and original theory. Lasch aims to reveal the psychopathology of contemporary life and expose its historical and political roots. According to Freud, a newborn infant cannot distinguish between itself and the rest of the world, and therefore between the source of its needs its own body and the source of its gratifications other people, especially its mother. Hence its first mental experience is a sense of omnipotence.
Inevitably, some of its needs eventually go unmet, at which time it becomes aware, more or less traumatically, of its separation from the rest of the world. It reacts with rage against the source of its frustration its parents , but since the source of its frustration is also the source of its gratification and the sole guarantee of its continued existence, the infant cannot tolerate its own impulses of rage and aggression, which would, if realized, annihilate it along with its parents.
This dilemma is unique in the animal world, since only humans are so helpless for so long after birth. The infant represses its rage. But repressed emotions always return.
These fantasies have one crucial thing in common: they are all outsized, out of scale. The infant is pictured as either omnipotent or helplessly persecuted, the parents as either perfectly benevolent or implacably threatening. And finally, there is every day contact with the father, whom infants of both sexes formerly envied, hated, and feared because of his superior access to the nurturing mother.
To the extent that these several experiences occur, the child can overcome its archaic terror at the discovery of its separateness from the world as well as its unconscious fear and hatred of those who forced this discovery upon it.
It can abandon its chief defense against those feelings: the fantasy of overcoming separateness and regaining primal, undifferentiated union with the world. In other words, it can become a self, distinct from others and comfortable with the distinction. It can grow up. But if these maturational experiences do not occur, no secure self emerges.
The result is a neurotic adult. This constellation of symptoms is known with in psychoanalytic theory as narcissism: the lack of an autonomous, well-defined self.
It is currently, as Lasch claims and the clinical literature attests, the most common form of emotional pathology — the neurotic personality of our time. It was not always so. Then the typical symptom was obsessional an inexplicable compulsion, e.
To simplify for the sake of contrast: the Victorian Viennese neurosis was localized and discrete; contemporary narcissism is systemic and diffuse. To simplify even more dramatically: the character of selfhood has changed, from a strong often rigid self, in secure possession of fundamental values but riddled often crippled with specific anxieties, to a weak, beleaguered self, often full of charms and wiles, and capable, but only fitfully, of flights of idealism and imagination.
What can account for this subtle but immensely significant shift? He had many suggestive things to say about the forms this cultural radicalism has taken and the reasons for its continual frustration. But his critique was tentative, needing to be completed by a theory of the relations among politics, culture, and psychology.
Modernization, according to Lasch, is the introduction of new, parallel forms of domination into work life and family life. In a sweeping but closely argued passage he makes the central link in his complex argument:. Eventually, industry organized management itself along industrial lines, splitting up the production of knowledge into routinized operations carried on by semiskilled clerical labor secretaries, typists, computer card punchers, and other lackeys.
The socialization of production — under the control of private industry — proletarianized the labor force in the same way that the socialization of reproduction proletarianized parenthood, by making parents unable to provide for their own needs without the supervision of trained experts.
How does industrialization produce a culture of narcissism? Lasch argues that the evolution of capitalism has affected family structure and the socialization of children in a number of ways. In encouraging geographic mobility, it has uprooted families from kin communities and replaced intergenerationally transmitted folk wisdom about child rearing with social-scientific expertise dispensed by professionals. This undermines parental confidence and replaces face-to-face authority over the child with the impersonal, bureaucratic authority of schools, courts, social welfare agencies, and psychiatrists.
In promoting mass consumption, advertisers like social-science professionals have convinced parents that their children are entitled to the best of everything but that, without expert assistance, parents are helpless to determine what that might be.
In generating a mass culture glutted with rapidly obsolescing commodities and transient images, it blurs the distinction between reality and illusion and renders the world of objects unstable and bewildering. And in promising an endless supply of technological marvels, it evokes grandiose fantasies of absolute self-sufficiency and unlimited mastery of the environment, even while the quasi-magical force that conjures up those marvels — i.
This is a recipe for regression to psychic infancy: fantasies of omnipotence alternating with terrified helplessness.
One of the prime tenets of psychoanalysis is that pathology and normality are not sharply demarcated but continuous. A world populated by rigid selves is a world of sublimation and its derivatives: aggression, greed, cruelty, hypocrisy, unquestioning adherence to inherited values and restraints.
A world of weak selves is more fluid, corruptible, blandly manipulative, sexually easygoing, uncomfortable with anger and rivalry, and leery of defining constraints, whether in the form of traditional values or of future commitments. That these distinctions bespeak profound change is obvious. But — assuming they suggest a fair comparison between early modern and late modern culture — that they represent progress is less obvious.
For Lasch, then, modernization is not the solution but a new form of the problem — the problem, that is, of domination. This belief is the source of his longstanding critique of his fellow socialists and feminists.
Much, perhaps most, of the left has always been convinced that industrialization, technological development, and the erosion of traditional forms of authority, are intrinsically progressive.
Modernization has had its costs, admittedly, but the answer to the problems of modernity was usually held to be more of the same, preferably under democratic auspices. But, Lasch argues, these things have by and large declined; the result is not a radical extension of political and sexual autonomy but a bureaucratically mediated war of all against all.
What these radicals ignore, Lasch charges, is that Christianity, competitive individualism, and the patriarchal family are already obsolescent, at least in those social strata where modernization is most advanced.
These values and institutions have been undermined not by leftist opposition but by capitalists themselves, for their own purposes: to promote mass consumption and to regiment the work process. By espousing an ideal of personal liberation largely confined to leisure time and heavily dependent on the consumption of goods and services, cultural radicals have conceded defeat. Instead of adapting to industrialization and mass culture, Lasch contends, the left should oppose them. Only a change to human scale, to local, decentralized control in work places, communities, and families , can halt the spread of commodity relations and the bureaucratization of the self.
Brown and R. But the psychoanalytic theory of narcissism, like the phenomenon itself, has only recently come into its own; and the historiographies of consumerism, professionalism, the family, and the relation between technology and the labor process are all currently in a heroic phase. Lasch has synthesized this vast body of theory and historical research into an extraordinarily deep and comprehensive interpretation of modern life.
An interpretation is above all an act of imagination. The imagination of the left has in the main been dominated by a vision of history as progress. But this hope has become difficult to sustain.
The 18th-century belief in straightforward progress modulated to the 19th-century belief in dialectical progress. Acts of imagination, being individual, are always incomplete. No doubt the past was in some ways a happier time. But the ways in which it was not also have their claims on our imagination.
Their criticisms have been twofold: feminist historians have accused Lasch of understating — of too weakly imagining — the oppression of women and children in the premodern family, and psychoanalytic feminists have charged that his view of narcissism is reductive and excessively bleak. While defenders of the family need to acknowledge the justice of the central feminist demands, feminists for their part need to acknowledge the deterioration of care for the young and the justice of the demand that something be done to arrest it.
Part of the imaginative and theoretical underpinning of this critique is the idea that there is something essentially masculine about conquest, dominance, perhaps all purposeful activity, and some thing essentially feminine about nurture, mutuality, tranquility.
Freudian feminists have put this familiar notion into its most sophisticated form. Freud distinguished between two regulative agencies within the psyche: the superego, mediator of externally imposed norms, and the ego-ideal, an ambiguous concept that aims to capture the outwardly directed aspects of the fantasy of overcoming separateness. The superego makes possible autonomy, individuality, detached rationality. The ego-ideal motivates imagination, play, self- sacrifice, and the desire for loving union.
Feminists argue that the long history of male dominance is a history of the moral hegemony of the superego. The monopoly of child rearing by parents of one sex — mothers —distorts the psychic development of boys and girls into an artificial asymmetry.
The collectivization of child rearing will correct that asymmetry and usher in a dual reign of superego and ego-ideal. Promethean values have brought us to the brink of planetary destruction; it is time to temper them with narcissistic ones. Lasch admits the plausibility of this far-reaching thesis. But he argues back that assigning a gender to psychopathology is ultimately misleading. All of us, men and women alike, suffer the predicament — infantile dependence — to which narcissism is a response, and all of us now grow up in a culture that makes coming to terms with that predicament more difficult than ever before.
If not Prometheus or Narcissus, where is the model of a sane culture? Lasch, again characteristically, does not say. Only a disciplined relationship to a manmade order of objects and practices can hold in tension the demands of external reality and the unconscious urge to return to the womb. In this tension, in our acknowledgment of this conflict, is our fragile peace.
Belief in the ineluctability of conflict is the essence of tragic consciousness. At once con s and revolutionary, it suggests that genuine democracy and a tragic view of life are not only compatible but inseparable. By Christopher Lasch. Categories : Boston Phoenix. Subscribe to this site's feed. And here's another profile of me at Times Higher Education.
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The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times
Lost your password? Please enter your username or email address. You will receive a link to create a new password via email. There is much to admire in the work of Christopher Lasch. He has constructed wonderfully exact criticisms of the presumptions and intrusions of those agencies of social control which are called, in the current jargon, the human services.
The Minimal Self : Psychic Survival in Troubled Times
The Minimal Self, by Christopher Lasch