I, Me, Mine, Myself: Reflections on Narcissism and Self-Destruction
I am presently reading Jean M. Twenge’s and W. Keith Campbell’s book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, and making copious notes in the process. With this post, I want to begin sharing some of my observations and criticisms of their understanding of narcissism — where they go right, and where they go wrong — even if I haven’t yet concluded reading the book.
I do share with them, however, the concern that the culture of narcissism is ultimately socially- and self-destructive, to which many of the strange, disturbing, and critical events of our day bear all-too-eloquent testimony. Their book demonstrates well, I think, (and however inadvertently) how the “rational pursuit of self-interest”, carried to an extremity (hybris), becomes absurdity, and reverts by the process of enantiodromia into a madness which becomes the irrational pursuit of self-destruction.
But while I might accept their prognosis, I differ greatly about its definition, diagnosis, aetiology, and course of treatment, which seem to be based on an incomplete interpretation of the myth of Narcissus and Echo itself, as well as an all-too-great reliance upon conventional, “empirical” clinical definitions of narcissism that are themselves too reductionist.
Although the authors confine most of their comments to American culture, (sensibly. It is what they are familiar with) most of their observations on narcissism are pertinent to the Modern Era more generally — especially as a symptom of its late stages. They locate the rise of the “epidemic” of narcissism in the 70s with the publication of Tom Wolfe’s 1976 New York Magazine essay on “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening” and Christopher Lasch’s 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations.
Not being familiar with Wolfe’s essay, I looked it up online and read it through. I found it, in turns, humourous and boring, and not too insightful about narcissism either. What did strike me, though, was the final words of his essay. “…Me…Me…Me…Me.” called to mind the words of Agent Smith from the movie The Matrix, as the arch-narcissist (if it were at all possible for a rogue programme from the machine world to be narcissistic. But then, it is often a characteristic complaint of narcissists that they suffer from feelings of being “mechanical”). Perhaps the creators of The Matrix even had Wolfe’s essay in mind? In any event, Smith’s narcissism was designed to stand in stark contrast to Neo’s humility and self-sacrifice, whose journey does, in some ways, resemble that of the medieval Parsifal from a fool to a Grail Knight.
My objection to Wolfe’s essay is its truncated historical sense; it’s lack of broader historical context to account for this alleged sudden departure from supposed “norms” that occurred during the 70s and 80s with the ascent of a “Me Generation” of thorough-going, self-absorbed narcissists. The question immediately arose for me is how this “Me Decade” relates to the “I” Era. For that is what the Modern Era was basically about, from the discovery of “point-of-view” perspectivism in the Renaissance (along with a rage then for mirrors, biographies, and autobiographies) through to Rene Descartes’ famous formula “I think, therefore I am” which provided the philosophical foundation for the assumption that the “pursuit of rational self-interest” alone could provide a reliable universal guide to the good life and the good society. From this presumption that the subjective “I”, acting purely from itself through thinking — as this “cogito” or thinking thing — and that this thinking thing was the cause or condition of my being arose the conceit of “the self-made man” who bootstraps himself into existence like the goddess of Reason Athena, born fully adult and armoured from the head of Zeus. Thinking thus comes to be confused with sentience or awareness (leading ultimately to a latter-day absurdity that ideology is consciousness).
Once the “Me Decade” is placed within this historical context of the 500 year old “I” Era, then it will be observed that there was no sharp break with precedents of the past in the 1970s. Only a shift in emphasis from “I” to “Me”. The one who acts from itself, the “I” as subject, is now acted upon as “Me”. Me is called “dative case”, and data means “the given” or “gifted”. The “I”, previously the initiator of action, now becomes object or target of external action — experiences itself as “me”. There is something of an echo of this in the distinction between the old English term “methinks” that becomes, under the massaging of Cartesianism, the cogito or “I think”. With “me”, I no longer act. I am acted upon. I am molded by external powers. “Me” is passive construction.
So, Mr. Wolfe’s assumption of previous selfless norms to contrast with the “me” generation is risible. Ever since the Renaissance, the ego has become the centre of attention with its emphatic “point of view”. The “Me Generation” does not represent a break, but a logical development on that — “I” as subject, “me” as dative case, “mine” as possessive case emphasises three ways the egoic nature relates to its experience of reality as being, or as having or possessing, or as being possessed (or “being had” as the popular saying goes). The sense of “entitlement” is strongly connected with the passive or dative case… “me” as the centre of attention. But that is only a variant on the “point of view” mentality.
These grammatical forms… I, me, mine, myself… are just so many phasic permutations of the self-image, which is the socio-historical constructed identity. But the self-image is not the self or actor who constructs the image and then becomes lost in the role it has created. The “creator” of the self-image is something else altogether. That confusion of self with self-image (or “true self” with the “false self”, or creator with creature) is the essence of narcissism. The ego, even as the cogito, is the self-image. Neither “I”, or “me”, nor “mine”, nor “myself” represents the first nor last word of our existence. They may all be forms of narcissism, and just so many avenues along which the “rational pursuit of self-interest” has born us through the last 400 years or so.
Where Twenge and Campbell do seem to get it right is in their observation that, in some ways, the exaggerated narcissism we see today is a passive survivalist response to a culture that is already predisposed towards narcissism and self-idolatry even before the young arrive on the scene and are expected to “sell themselves” or construct their own “brand” — the “Me Brand”. The real delusion, phoniness, and fakery of the narcissist today is the conceit that he or she is a true “individual”, whereas they have all been cookie-cutter massed produced by the corporate media culture itself, so that they all behave and act remarkably alike — that is, narcissistically. Even their mere self-image isn’t their own to claim. To be is to be perceived, and to be perceived as a “brand”.
This is where Arthur Herzog’s 1973 book The B.S. Factor: The Theory and Technique of Faking It in America dovetails neatly into the “culture of narcissism” only later noticed by Wolfe and Lasch. Herzog never really used the term “narcissism”, but he had his finger on the pulse of it long before it was noticed by others. On the principle “when in Rome do as the Romans”, in a culture of fakery, perception management, and image-mongering, it may be “rational self-interest” itself to fake it and play the phoney also. It may not be particularly noble, but it will get you through (if that’s your purpose).
And there’s a certain sense where knowing you’re faking it and playing the act is the opposite of narcissism. The real problem is with those who don’t know they’re faking it or play-acting. There’s the trouble.