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The Americanization of Narcissism

The Americanization of Narcissism

Elizabeth Lunbeck
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    The Americanization of Narcissism
    Book Description:

    American social critics in the 1970s seized on narcissism as the sickness of the age. But they missed the psychoanalytic breakthrough that championed it as the wellspring of ambition, creativity, and empathy. Elizabeth Lunbeck's history opens a new view on the central questions faced by the self struggling amid the crosscurrents of modernity.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-72614-7
    Subjects: Psychology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
    (pp. 1-8)

    It is a commonplace of social criticism that America has become, over the past half century or so, a nation of narcissists. Greedy, selfish, and self-absorbed, we narcissists are thriving, the critics tell us, in the culture of abundance that is modern, late-capitalist America. The disciplined, patriarchal Victorianism under which our stalwart forebears were raised has purportedly given way to a culture that asks nothing of us while at the same time promising to satisfy our every desire. Plentitude reigns where privation was once the norm, and self-indulgence has displaced self-control. Reckless Wall Street bankers, philandering politicians, charismatic CEOs, talentless...

  4. I. Narcissism in the Me Decade

      (pp. 11-36)

      Narcissism, so apparently apt a diagnosis of the modern nation’s collective ills, first coalesced as a clinical phenomenon not in the relative abundance of Me Decade America but in the straitened circumstances of World War I–era Vienna and Budapest and of interwar London. The psychoanalyst’s narcissism, rooted in deprivation and unmet need, was a complex amalgam of grandiosity and fragile self-esteem, of fantasized omnipotence coupled with feelings of inferiority, of emotional self-sufficiency yoked to raging hunger for acclaim, admiration, and what were called “narcissistic supplies.” The narcissist’s interpersonal economy was characterized as much by renunciation as by gratification, as...

      (pp. 37-58)

      The debut of the Americanized Freud of the Viennese-born, Chicago-based psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, who burst onto the American analytic and cultural scene in the 1970s brandishing a positively tinged and appealingly normalized narcissism, captured the attention of social critics and sparked what many agreed was a revolution in the field. Kohut took on the straitened Freud he had been taught, proclaiming his death and fashioning himself midwife to the rebirth of analysis. He brilliantly situated his interventions at the crossroads where simmering dissatisfaction with foundational Freudian precepts, fortified at the hands of a clutch of prewar and wartime émigré European...

      (pp. 59-80)

      Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg defined the field of analytic debate about narcissism in the 1970s. The work of both was critical to establishing the concept’s newfound visibility, within and beyond psychoanalysis. While Kohut focused for the most part on the positive, generative dimensions of narcissism, Kernberg brought its malignant dimensions into clear view. Like Sándor Ferenczi, Kohut was committed to a model that stressed the deprivations narcissistic patients had experienced, and he advocated empathically meeting their needs and supporting their strivings, however grandiose, in the analytic encounter. Kernberg, criticizing Kohut for abandoning drive theory and for downplaying the centrality...

  5. II. Dimensions of Narcissism from Freud to the Me Decade and Beyond

    • Four SELF-LOVE
      (pp. 83-112)

      Among the many characterological traits associated with narcissism, none has proven more central and enduring than self-love. The Narcissus of classical mythology, whose name the first psychoanalysts appropriated, died of what the English philosopher Francis Bacon called “rapturous admiration of himself.” Fatally transfixed by his own image, Narcissus had long served in the Western tradition as an object lesson in the dangers of excessive love of self, and it is thus not surprising that analysts’narcissismconnoted an all-enveloping vanity and admiration of self. The sexologist Havelock Ellis, who is usually credited with having coined the term in 1898, used...

      (pp. 113-137)

      Many Americans like to think of independence as a quintessentially American value. Its roots are seen to stretch back to the first groups of immigrants to have come to American shores in search of personal, social, and political freedom and autonomy. Since the Declaration, the idea and sentiment of independence has been located at the heart of the national enterprise, visible not only in domestic and foreign policies and culture but also in a host of redoubtable American archetypes, from the frontiersman of the nineteenth century to the technology entrepreneurs of the twenty-first. Dependency is, by contrast, anathema to many,...

    • Six VANITY
      (pp. 138-164)

      Vanity, long referring to a female taste for frivolity and desire for admiration, has been associated with narcissism from the start. What Freud’s colleague Otto Rank called “normal feminine vanity” entered the psychoanalytic conversation in 1911, making its debut linked to the narcissistically tinged love of one’s own body that Rank suggested was especially evident in women and feminized homosexuals. Maintaining that woman was more narcissistic than man, analysts in the next several decades confidently theorized womanly narcissism as compensatory and biologically determined, derivative of the “castration” girls underwent at puberty. As one explained, a young woman’s physical beauty “makes...

      (pp. 165-201)

      Gratification figured centrally in social commentators’ jeremiads, encapsulating the contest between excess, satisfaction, and pleasure on the one hand and asceticism, restraint, and control on the other. “Gratification Now Is the Slogan of the ’70s, Laments a Historian,” reads the title of a 1979Peoplemagazine profile of Christopher Lasch, who singled out the counterculture’s celebration of “living for the moment, immediate gratification, opposition to the work ethic” as exemplary of America’s culture of narcissism.¹ Critics spoke with one voice in condemning what they argued was an ascendant culture of personal gratification that celebrated self-fulfillment and self-realization at the expense...

      (pp. 202-223)

      The notion that the narcissist was a new type of person was central to Christopher Lasch’s indictment of his fellow Americans. Lasch linked the ascendancy of narcissism to what he held were “quite specific” social and cultural changes: bureaucracy, therapeutic ideologies, the culture of consumption, and the changing nature of the family. To him, newly ubiquitous narcissists exemplified how empty, shallow, and meaningless American culture had become. As he saw it, the traits associated with the neuroses and hysterias of Freud’s time—among them acquisitiveness and a fiercely repressed sexuality—were endemic to the morally rigid social milieu in which...

    • Nine IDENTITY
      (pp. 224-251)

      In the 1940s and 1950s, psychoanalysts and cultural critics delineated a newly subjective concept of identity that they argued was integral to the achievement of authentic selfhood, a concept that found immediate and deep resonance with popular notions of the self. Analysts and popular writers told of man’s suddenly urgent quest for identity and of his search for himself, and of the emergence of a new late-adolescent rite of passage, the crisis of identity, while Betty Friedan’sThe Feminine Mystique,the opening salvo in second-wave feminism, published in 1963, maintained that women of her generation were collectively facing an identity...

    (pp. 252-272)

    Classically oriented American analysts were able to maintain control of their discipline, in part by continuing to overlook and marginalize dissenting voices within it, until Kohut and Kernberg mounted challenges to their hegemony. The 1970s analytic revolution recouped these dissenting voices for mainstream psychoanalysis and shifted the center of the analytic conversation to narcissism. Social critics realized that within psychoanalysis talk of narcissism was suddenly everywhere and, appropriating the “new narcissism” for their own purposes, associated it with catastrophic cultural decline, loss of moral bearings, and a surfeit of hedonistic self-indulgence. They stressed narcissism’s Kernbergian malignancies while largely ignoring its...

    (pp. 273-275)
  8. NOTES
    (pp. 276-351)
    (pp. 352-354)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 355-367)