Christopher Lasch’s Quarrel with Liberalism 3

Lasch’s argument, at this point in his work, had begun to show some similarity to that of Michel Foucault, whose analysis of mod¬ern institutional benevolence as a tyrannical system of social con¬trols Lasch wrote about approvingly. Perhaps a stronger, or more immediate, influence was Philip Rieff’s notion of “the triumph of the therapeutic”—the idea that the twentieth-century belief in per¬sonal liberation has created a new culture organized around a new type of human being, whom Rieff called “psychological man.” It was Lasch’s development of this argument of Rieff ’s that yielded the work for which he is famous. The Culture of Narcissism (1979) was a book of its moment. It ap¬peared at the close of a depressing decade and near the close of an unpopular presidency. Lasch was, in fact, one of the luminaries in¬vited to Camp David to help Jimmy Carter organize his thoughts for the speech in which he proposed that Americans were suffering from malaise (a word that did not actually appear in the speech it¬self), and this well-publicized distinction no doubt helped put the book on the best-seller list. Its argument is a little more complicated than people whose knowledge of it came largely at second hand may have assumed. Lasch proposed that the modern developments he had examined in his earlier work—the demise of the family and the erosion of private life generally—had produced “a new form of per¬sonality organization.’’ If (as he thought) people were behaving and feeling differently, it was because a fundamental change had taken place not only in beliefs and values—in what people thought moral, or permissible, or desirable—but in the structure of the mind itself. Our “social arrangements live on,” he proposed, “in the individual, buried in the mind below the level of consciousness.”
The principal evidence for this assertion—beyond sociological observations about a “sense of inner emptiness,” the “decline of the play spirit,” and so forth—were psychiatric reports on contemporary personality disorders, which were (Lasch claimed) increasingly as¬suming a “narcissistic” pattern. Lasch was not, as some of his more casual readers may have assumed, using “narcissism” in the every¬day sense of “self-centered” or “hedonistic.” He was using the term in a clinical sense that had been developed in a psychoanalytic tra¬dition arising out of Freudian theory—in the work of Heinz Kohut, Otto Kernberg, and the object-relations psychologist Melanie Klein. In this literature, a “narcissist” is not someone with an overweening sense of self, but, on the contrary, someone with a very weak sense of self.
In order to make the psychoanalytic data he had assembled fit the case he was making about the emergence of a new personality type in society at large, Lasch made one further assumption: that “pathology represents a heightened version of normality”—that is, that a clinically disordered personality, of the kind reported in psychoanalytic studies, is representative of the current “normal” personality type. This made for a rather elaborate theoretical con¬traption. The reader was being called upon to make the following assumptions, any one of which is clearly vulnerable to challenge: that changes in education, the role of the family, the nature of work, and so on are capable of producing fundamental changes, “below the level of consciousness,” in people’s psychological makeup; that the changes in American life over the last hundred years have been extensive and unidirectional enough to create an entire population dominated by this new personality type; that the pathological per¬sonality does indeed present a version of the normal personality; and that the particular examples of narcissistic behavior adduced by Lasch in 1979—among them the Manson Family killings, the kid¬napping of Patty Hearst, the attack on theatrical illusion in contem¬porary drama, “the fascination with oral sex,” and the streaker craze—are evidence of long-term personality disintegration, rather than isolated responses to a confusing but transitory historical mo¬ment. (There was also the problem that a writer who had elsewhere suggested that psychiatry was, in the hands of some of its practition¬ers, at least, one of the corrupting forces in modern life was relying rather heavily on a psychiatric conception of the “normal.”) The Culture of Narcissism was thus a book it was easy to misunderstand. Lasch was not saying that things were better in the 1950s, as conser¬vatives offended by countercultural permissiveness probably took him to be saying. He was not saying that things were better in the 1960s, as former activists disgusted by the “me-ism” of the seventies are likely to have imagined. He was diagnosing a condition that he believed had originated in the nineteenth century.
The Minimal Self (1984) was written to correct the misapprehen¬sions of the earlier book’s admirers. The “narcissistic” self, Lasch ex¬plained, was really a type of what he was now calling the “minimal ’ self—“a self uncertain of its own outlines, [yet] longing either to re¬make the world in its own image” (as in the case of technocratic reformers and other acolytes of “progress”) “or to merge into its envi¬ronment in a blissful union’’ (as in the case of countercultural- ists, feminists, and ecological Utopians). Authentic selfhood lies between these extremes, he wrote—in an acceptance of limits with¬out despair. But the conditions in which such a self might be forged were being destroyed.
What is distinctive about Lasch’s criticism of modern life, be¬sides its unusually broad scope, is its moral and personal intensity. For it is one thing—and not an uncommon thing among academic intellectuals—to analyze modern democratic society as a system of social controls masquerading as personal freedoms, without con-cluding anything more radical (or less banal) than that all societies must hold themselves together somehow, and that an officially “open” society will find means for doing so that are designed to ap¬pear as uncoercive as possible. But Lasch showed no interest in this kind of analytic detachment, which he regarded as just the sort of superior sociological “expertise” he associated with the bureaucratic and professionalist mentality he abhorred. He was (or he gave, in his work, the impression of being) a man who believed he had caught “the modern project’’—his phrase for the group of social and political tendencies he analyzed—in an enormous lie, and who cannot rest until the lie has been exposed. There is an invasion-of- the-body-snatchers urgency to his writing; and this gave it, over the years, an increasingly aggrieved, and sometimes paranoid, tone. It also drew him to a style of relentless and contentious assertion which can be, to put it gently, extremely off-putting. It was an un¬usual style for a scholar to resort to, and I think he meant it, quite deliberately, to be offensive: an affront to the modern taste for cool and logically seamless forms of persuasion. If he did mean it that way, it works.

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