Narcissism in cultural theory: Perspectives on Christopher Lasch, Richard Sennett, and Robert Pfaller

Bernadette Grubner 1
  • 1 Institut für Deutsche und Niederländische Philologie, Berlin, Germany
Bernadette Grubner

Abstract

For several decades, the concept of narcissism has been used to criticize society and culture(s). This paper discusses the achievements and limits of such approaches. In a first step, it sketches controversies within psychoanalysis around the notion of narcissism itself. It then proposes a categorization of cultural theories that draw on narcissism in general. The main part of the paper deals with three exemplary theories: Christopher Lasch’s The culture of narcissism; Richard Sennett’s The fall of public man, and the philosophy of Robert Pfaller. A detailed analysis shows that theories which try to establish causal connections between society and the occurrence of personality disorders usually fail to explicate this connection in a satisfactory way. Theories that criticize society because it supposedly fosters narcissistic personalities prove to be unconvincing. Approaches that use the notion of narcissism in a broader, metaphorical sense, however, have the potential to cast a new light on certain developments in culture.

1 Introduction

Madness is something rare in individuals –

but in groups, parties, peoples, ages it is the rule.

(Nietzsche 1990 [1886]: 103)

In recent decades, the term “narcissistic” has been so frequently used to categorize so many things – politicians, lifestyles, the new communication media, even whole eras – that it seems to have lost any specific meaning. Most commonly, it is used to accuse people of self-centeredness, delusions of grandeur, ruthless self-interest, and showmanship, as in the case of the President of the United States, Donald Trump. Applying the term to a society or a culture as a whole has a decades-long tradition that parallels the commodification of more and more aspects of social life. Today, Instagram, the widespread use of selfie sticks, or the literature of “New Sincerity” all seem to express an ever-growing absorption with the self and the way others conceive of it. Even the practice of attributing “narcissism” to everything and anyone has itself been analyzed in terms of cultural critique: In her 2016 essay about the “fear of narcissism,” The selfishness of others, cultural journalist Kristin Dombek points out that “narcissism” has become a catchword that evidently never applies to the person actually brandishing it.

This over-use not only drains all meaning from the term itself. It also risks obscuring the problems that arise from transferring notions of (psychological) disease to collectives (cultures, societies), or even works of art. While we would probably react with skepticism if somebody diagnosed an entire society as “paranoid” or “hysterical,” the labeling of contemporary society as “narcissistic” has become commonplace. However, the very idea that a society can be appropriately characterized through recourse to classifications of mental disorders has to be called into question, or at least requires a methodological and theoretical foundation.

A comprehensive debate about the possible interplay between sociology and psychology, and its limits, took place as early as the 1950 s between researchers from both disciplines like Talcott Parsons and Heinz Hartmann. And it is probably safe to say that this fundamental dispute addressed the matter more thoroughly than its subsequent offshoots (not to mention present-day discussions). With regard to the question of “narcissistic” societies or cultures, Theodor W. Adorno’s comment on this dispute is noteworthy. In a paper originally published in 1955, Adorno argued that attempts to merge sociological and psychological approaches necessarily have to take into account the complex interrelation between society and the modern psyche. Rejecting the idea that there was something like a “neurotic personality of our time” (Adorno 1968 [1955]: 89), he nonetheless asserts that “the objective situation does determine the course regressions will take” (Adorno 1968 [1955]: 89) by mobilizing those infantile defense-mechanisms that are most suitable for a given historical situation. Interestingly, in reference to alienation, reification, and the pressure to conform to the demands of an inherently contradictory society, Adorno also turns to narcissism. In terms described by Freud in his paper On narcissism: An introduction (1957 [1914]), Adorno conceives of narcissism as the ego’s libidinal solution to a crucial problem – the impossibility of reconciling the claims of the libido with those of self-preservation by means of reality-testing in an irrational society (Adorno 1968: 86–89).

As we can see, the idea that post-war Western societies promote narcissistic tendencies arose long before the seventies were pronounced the “Me-Decade” (Tom Wolfe), and well before the Internet propagated the illusion that everybody could gain world-wide attention and admiration. However, Adorno’s understanding of narcissism differed from our current conception. He understood it – as Freud did – within the framework of drive theory, as a libidinal investment with the self rather than with outside objects.

In my paper, I would like to analyze three contributions to cultural theory that apply the notion of narcissism to society or predominant cultural tendencies: Christopher Lasch’s seminal monograph The culture of narcissism (1979), Richard Sennett’s 1976 monograph The fall of public man, and the theory of the Austrian cultural philosopher, Robert Pfaller, outlined in On the pleasure principle in culture: Illusions without owners (2014 [2002]), Das schmutzige Heilige und die reine Vernunft (2008) and other works. Lasch and Sennett have popularized the “narcissistic approach” to culture more than any other writers. Their books have not only been influential, they also present elaborate and historically comprehensive analyses that by no means diagnose every form of self-centered behavior as pathological. Pfaller’s approach to cultural theory brings this line of thought up to date in a particularly original and fruitful way, which is why I have chosen his writings as a present-day example. As my analysis will show, theories that criticize society because it supposedly fosters narcissistic personalities prove to be rather unconvincing. Approaches that use the notion of narcissism in a broader, metaphorical sense, however, have the potential to cast a new light on certain developments in culture.

In order to assess these three approaches in depth, I will start with a historical outline of the concept of narcissism in psychology, with a special focus on psychoanalysis. This is not only intended to provide an impression of how controversial the whole concept was (and how very simplistic today’s careless labeling of anything selfish as “narcissistic” really is). It also provides a basis for exploring the conception of narcissism employed by the authors in question. I will then propose a rough categorization of theories that apply the term narcissism to society and/or culture. In a third step, the texts of Lasch, Sennett, and Pfaller will be examined in detail, with special attention given to the ways in which they use the concept of narcissism.

2 Narcissism in psychoanalysis: Freud and afterwards

When he introduced the concept of narcissism into psychoanalytic theory in 1914, Freud drew on the works of the German psychiatrist Paul Näcke, who himself referred to the British physician and social reformer, Havelock Ellis. In 1899, Ellis published a study on “auto-erotism,” which he understood as “the phenomena of spontaneous sexual emotion generated in the absence of an external stimulus proceeding, directly or indirectly, from another person” (Ellis 1942 [1899]: 161). Näcke, for his part, used the term “narcissism” (‘Narcismus’) in a narrower sense: his “narcissist” obtains sexual satisfaction solely by looking at himself – and not, for instance, by means of masturbation (Näcke 1899: 375). The reason for this narrower definition lies in the notion’s eponym, the youth Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, who falls in love with his own reflection.

Freud breaks with the mythological reading in this strict, literal sense, but takes up the sexual dimension that Näcke attributes to the myth. To understand the implications of Freud’s “introduction” of narcissism as a new stage in psychosexual development, we need to recall the earlier drive theory, outlined in Three essays on the theory of sexuality (1953 [1905]). Here, Freud describes the development of human sexuality as the development of drives that become increasingly differentiated. In the beginning, the infant’s sexual instincts are partial (oriented towards different erogenous zones) and auto-erotic. The libido then develops to the point where it turns to external objects for gratification, thereby unifying under the primacy of the genital zone. The new stage of “primary narcissism” introduced in the 1914 study is located between auto-erotism and object-love. However, this “in-between” does not imply a succession of clear-cut stages following one another chronologically;. Rather, it indicates a further differentiation within drive theory. While in Three essays, Freud proposed the basic difference between ego-instincts and sexual instincts (libido), he now introduces a new type of libido, the “ego-libido” as opposed to the “object-libido” (Freud 1957 [1914]: 76). The objects of the libido do not necessarily have to be external, the self (or “ego,” as Freud still writes at that time) is also an object of libidinal cathexis. A close reading of Freud’s writings suggests that this early stage of “primary narcissism” is considered crucial for the constitution of the self and its perception as a unity (Gast 1997). It is not only part of each individual’s psychosexual development, it is even decisive for establishing a stable self. Pathological (“secondary”) narcissism, on the other hand, occurs later if the libido is withdrawn from external objects and directed back to the ego.

Originating in a controversy within psychoanalytic theory, narcissism became a highly disputed concept, but nonetheless a distinctive feature of some psychoanalytic approaches that developed after Freud’s death. In object relations theory as formulated by Melanie Klein (1946), for instance, primitive object relationships exist from birth, hence, there is no stage of “primary narcissism” prior to libidinal investments in external objects. However, these very early object relations bear the mark of narcissism, insofar as the child is incapable of recognizing the objects (usually the mother) as independent from its needs and their discomposingly strong emotions. According to Klein, narcissistic object relations are characterized above all by projective identification, a process in which rejected parts of the self (envy, aggression, etc.) are forced upon an external object with the objective of controlling it (Klein 1946).

In the 1970 s, narcissism was at the center of what became known as the Kohut-Kernberg controversy. Heinz Kohut, one of the founders of self-psychology, placed narcissism center-stage in his theory of the self and its development. In contrast to psychological approaches considering narcissism only in terms of a personality disorder, Kohut emphasized that narcissism was indispensable for developing a healthy, positive attitude towards the self. If narcissistic needs are constantly repressed, they intensify and may express themselves in “unrestrained pursuit of grandiose aims and the resistanceless merger with omnipotent self-objects” (Kohut 1972: 365). Kohut even mentions German fascism as one possible result of repressed narcissism. This entailed important changes in therapy as well. Since narcissism can only be integrated into a healthy self if it finds acceptance within certain limits, the psychoanalyst needs to maintain an empathic attitude towards the patient’s narcissistic needs and even his outbursts of narcissistic anger (Kohut 1972: 387–394). Empathy turns out to be more adequate to this task than the analyst’s interpretations.

Otto Kernberg, who was more indebted to the psychoanalytic school of ego-psychology and to some extent influenced by Kleinian approaches, vigorously refuted Kohut’s theory of narcissism. In his view, pathological narcissism does not stem from an inhibited development of a healthy self that needs to be remedied by means of empathic mirroring, but rather from “a libidinal investment in a pathological self-structure” (Kernberg 1974: 258). Hence, there is no continuity between healthy, normal narcissism and pathological narcissism. With regard to therapy, Kernberg argues for the systematic interpretation of narcissistic transference (on the one hand, primitive idealization of the analyst by the analyzand; on the other, the attempt by the latter to exercise omnipotent control of the analyst) (Kernberg 1974: 262–263).

While social theories inspired by the protest movement of 1968 welcomed Kohut’s ideas, which chimed well with their attack on capitalist society as emotionally repressive (Reiche 1991: 1048–1049), Kernberg prevailed in psychological theory in the long run. His publications on narcissistic and borderline personality disorder provide the basis for present-day concepts of these diseases in psychology and psychiatry.

The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fifth edition) defines the narcissistic personality disorder as a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts” (DSM-5 2013: 669). However, disputes about narcissism and its characteristics are still going on. This was evident during the preparation of the fifth edition of the DSM, when the designated work group of the American Psychiatric Association proposed reducing the number of personality disorders listed in the manual from ten to five – which would have led to the deletion of narcissistic personality disorder altogether. This attempt to reform diagnostic schemes in psychiatry met with considerable resistance, not least with regard to the “loss” of narcissistic personality disorder (Campbell et al. 2010).

This very brief historical sketch makes it clear that the concept of narcissism is anything but well-defined and uncontroversial. Rather, it has been subject to constant debate. At the risk of sounding malicious, one is tempted to say that the wide variety of theories and approaches to the phenomenon of narcissism makes it a passe-partout for cultural critics – hence its heavy over-use in the media. But there is yet another reason for its serving such a multitude of purposes, namely the ancient myth behind the notion. In fact, not only has narcissism been made to serve all sorts of interests. Narcissus himself has enjoyed a successful career in literature as well as in philosophy, where he has been invoked in order to prove quite different points – for example, that the visible world is not to be taken as existing independently, but as having emanated from a transcendent “One” (Plotinus); that the “I” is not – as the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte had suggested – the basis of all knowledge by positioning itself as self-consciousness, but is instead interwoven in a web of relationships (Johann Gottfried Herder (1990a [1797], 1990 b [1797]), in his didactic poems Das Ich and Selbst); or that the modern subject is constituted as a self when it recognizes itself as a whole entity in the mirror, thus identifying itself with its specular – and always only imaginary – image (Lacan and his theory of the “mirror stage”).

Like all genuine myths, the tale of Narcissus is well and truly open to extrapolation. The course of the original story having been expanded to encompass the concept of narcissism, two aspects have remained constant throughout history: first, emotions or perceptions that reflect back upon the subject, such as self-love and self-awareness. The myth of Narcissus describes both a movement of self-referentiality and a complex interplay of mirror-images (when Narcissus falls in love with his mirror image, does he really fall in love with himself?). Second, it deals with desire and sexuality. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Narcissus is introduced as a youth who repels all lovers, including the nymph Echo who has desperately fallen in love with him and wastes away after he has rejected her. A curse pronounced by another rebuffed lover makes him suffer the same fate as he has inflicted upon others: He falls in love with his own mirror image and thus has no chance of being loved in return.

While Freud, following Ellis and Näcke, emphasized the sexual dimension of narcissism by incorporating it into his theory of drives, the entire concept was desexualized again over the course of the twentieth century (Gast 1997). This reflects the general tendency to abandon drive theory – a development that Adorno (1962) denounced as “revision” of psychoanalysis.

3 Cultures of narcissism vs. narcissistic societies

A general overview of twentieth-century approaches to cultural theory that draw on the notion of narcissism in order to gain insight into contemporary society shows that they can be roughly divided into two groups. One invokes narcissism in order to criticize society, the other uses it in order to describe ambivalent, long-term developments.

The first group argues that society/culture is organized in such a way that it promotes narcissism in the individual. These approaches suggest – sometimes without explicitly reflecting on the claim – that there is a determinable connection between society and the development of (mental) diseases. The occurrence of a given disease (or its statistical increase) is considered to indicate specific social woes. In this light, the assertion on the part of psychiatrists and psychotherapists that the incidence of narcissistic personality disorders increased as of the second half of the twentieth century, while “classical” neurosis receded, has been interpreted as a sign that a significant change had occurred in the structure of society.

One of the first authors to advance this type of reasoning was Adorno (1968), who maintained that defense-mechanisms were heavily influenced by society, which thereby shaped the structure of the psyche. He describes the ego as an unstable construct whose intricate function of mediating between the demands of the libido and the demands of society is further impeded by a society imposing renunciations that contradict rational principles of self-preservation. This results in the withdrawal of parts of the ego into the unconscious – the transformation of object-libido into ego-libido, to describe it in terms of drive theory. Hence, narcissism allows the individual to maintain the illusion of a possible harmony between the pleasure principle and the reality principle (Adorno 1968: 86–88). In general, theories that assert a causal connection between society and personality types do not refer to Freud’s drive theory, but rather rely on Kohut’s psychology of the self – see, for instance, Thomas Ziehe’s 1975 monograph on narcissism as a new type of socialization (“neuer Sozialisationstyp”).

The second approach assumes an analogy between culture/society and the individual, so that societies generally can be described using notions derived from psychology: characteristics associated with clinical narcissism can be found in institutions, cultural products, the media, works of art, etc. Adherents of this second group claim that such a transfer of concepts from psychology or psychoanalysis to sociology or cultural critique makes it possible to describe new developments in society more adequately, allowing new insights into culture.

This tradition starts with Freud’s writings on cultural theory, which are based on an assumption generally known as “recapitulation theory.” Formulated by the biologist Ernst Haeckel in 1866, this theory – largely refuted today – postulates an analogy between the development of the human being from embryo to adult (ontogeny) and the evolution of humankind as a whole (phylogeny). The individual is held to go through the same stages in the course of its development as humankind in its evolution. If this were true, early stages of human culture could be placed in parallel with stages of childhood. Since, in Freud’s view, the causes of neuroses were for the most part fixations on earlier stages of psychosexual development, “primitive” cultures, childhood, and neurotics shared important characteristics – and research into one of them could provide insight into the nature of the other (see, for instance, Freud 1958 [1912–1913]). On this basis, Freud turned to the writings of cultural anthropologists of his time, such as the Scottish social anthropologist James George Frazer (Totemism and exogamy, 1910) and the German physician Wilhelm Wundt (Völkerpsychologie, usually translated as Social psychology, vol. 2, 1906) and interpreted their accounts of “primitive cultures” in the light of findings that stemmed from his research on neuroses. The result was his essay Totem and taboo: Some points of agreement between the mental lives of savages and neurotics, published in 1912–1913.

In the third part of Totem and taboo, which deals with animism as system of thought, Freud puts forward the notion of “omnipotence of thoughts” to characterize primitive practices of magic that seek to control the world (Voodoo, rain magic, etc.) (Freud 1958 [1912–1913]: 75). The underlying principle of these procedures is described as “mistaking an ideal connection for a real one” (Freud 1958 [1912–1913]: 79) – a failure to acknowledge the real powerlessness of human beings. He then establishes a progression from animism based on the “omnipotence of thought” to religion in the proper sense, where omnipotence has been transferred to a higher being (but retaining the possibility of exercising a certain influence on the higher power by means of ritual and prayer). The third and most evolved stage is science, a system that takes into account the weakness and insignificance of human beings (Freud 1958 [1912–1913]: 88). In his effort to connect social anthropology with psychoanalysis, Freud posits a parallel between drive theory and the development from animism to science via religion. The animistic phase thus corresponds with narcissism in terms of libidinal investment of the self/ego. In this sense, “primitive” societies are narcissistic in their conception of the world and their subliminal belief that there is a causal connection between thoughts and desires and the outside world. Since Freud identifies narcissistic world views as part of a primordial phase of cultural development that necessarily has to be overcome in the course of time, the connection between culture and narcissism is certainly not free of bias. However, Freud’s aim is not to judge or criticize a given culture, but to describe it within a teleological framework.

Of course, description and critique are not mutually exclusive. The most interesting theories that draw on the concept of narcissism combine both perspectives – or at least reflect both aspects. But they have both attracted criticism, too. With respect to the first approach, critics have pointed out that even though types of societies and predominant pathologies might be related, the connection between them can hardly be established directly. The German psychoanalyst Reimut Reiche, for instance, even challenged the abovementioned increase in narcissistic personality disorders that is generally agreed upon, even by otherwise dissenting researchers. In a brilliant essay in which he discusses both clinical and societal issues, Reiche (1991) points out that personality disorders – considered as “early” disorders, because they are supposed to originate in an early phase of childhood – have occurred at all times, but failed to be diagnosed as such because they were integrated as “normal” into stable institutions and value systems. In this view, the increase in the incidence of personality disorders cannot be interpreted as a sign of fundamental changes in society that affect personality structures directly, but rather it indicates a shift of attention as a result of ideological assumptions (Reiche suspects an unacknowledged idealization of earlier stages of bourgeois society which supposedly produced individuals capable of facing conflicts, of sublimation, and of experiencing feelings of guilt).

The second approach, which diagnoses societies or cultural tendencies as a whole, can be criticized for promoting organological models of society susceptible to ideological usurpation. An elaborate critique of using diseases in order to describe society is formulated by Susan Sontag in her Illness as metaphor (1978). Sontag analyses the ways in which tuberculosis and cancer were imbued with all kinds of symbolism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries respectively. As long as their causes were not known (the mycobacterium tuberculosis was discovered by Robert Koch in 1882), they were thought to express the difficulties people had in adapting to society. Sontag points out that this line of argument often leads to the implicit assumption that patients of TB or cancer were themselves responsible for suffering from these diseases. In the last chapter of her essay, Sontag demonstrates how cancer is associated with an evil proliferation in society that has to be eradicated: “To describe a phenomenon as a cancer is an incitement to violence” (Sontag 1978: 84). Sontag’s observations can be generalized in the sense that the metaphorical use of diseases in order to characterize specific aspects of society can easily be exploited for ideological purposes, all the more so if the diseases are heavily laden with symbolism.

The following analysis of Lasch’s, Sennett’s, and Pfaller’s contributions to cultural theory will keep these valid objections in mind. However, the main questions addressed will be how the concept of narcissism is integrated into the respective theories, what the approaches being discussed accomplish by referring to psychology, and where they encounter limits.

4 The promotion of narcissism in corporate capitalism: Christopher Lasch

Christopher Lasch’s book, The culture of narcissism, was published three years after Richard Sennett’s The fall of public man. Nevertheless, I will analyze Lasch’s contribution to narcissism in cultural theory first, because he deals at great length with the concept of narcissism, its diagnostic criteria, its relevance as a syndrome of modern society, and the question of applying it to cultural issues. There is probably no other study that provides us with a more thoroughly worked out diagnosis of cultural narcissism.

With regard to the abovementioned possibilities of applying the notion of narcissism to society, Lasch’s book, at first sight, adopts both perspectives. He uses the concept of narcissism as a means of analyzing recent developments in American society, but also in order to criticize them harshly. In an afterword written in 1990, Lasch characterizes it as an “attempt to [...] explore the psychological dimension of long-term shifts in the structure of cultural authority” (1991 [1979]: 238). However, this exploration is based on the assumption that narcissistic personality disorders are on the increase in American society. Thus, the actual aim of the book is to establish a connection between changes in social structure and the increase in the incidence of narcissism. Citing clinical publications, Lasch (1991 [1979]: 33) mentions the following character traits of the pathological narcissist: “dependence on the vicarious warmth provided by others combined with a fear of dependence, a sense of inner emptiness, boundless repressed rage, and unsatisfied oral cravings.” Furthermore, he lists what he calls “secondary traits”: “pseudo self-insight, calculating seductiveness, nervous, self-deprecatory humor.” This can hardly be described as a positive characterization. By establishing causal connections between developments in society and the increase in the incidence of narcissistic personalities, Lasch seeks to elucidate what is going wrong in late capitalist America. This is why The culture of narcissism belongs to the first category of texts, which criticize society by arguing that it fosters narcissism in individuals.

In the course of his argument, Lasch discusses crucial changes in the work ethic (chapter III), the “spectacularization” of politics by the mass media and the advertising industry as well as the loss of a feeling for reality in a society absorbed by self-awareness and image cultivation (chapter IV), the decline and trivialization of sport through its commodification (chapter V), the decaying standards of education in schools and universities due to their alleged pursuit of efficiency (chapter VI), the usurpation of child-rearing by the state, and the replacement of all types of authority – of parents, public representatives or superiors – by therapeutic forms of social control (chapter VII), the changes in sexual relationships, family structures and gender relations (chapter VIII), and the way of dealing with age and death (chapter IX). In the last section (chapter X), he summarizes his findings under the heading “Paternalism without a father,” (Lasch 1991 [1979]: 218) and correlates this with corporate capitalism and its claims on the individual.

Lasch’s central theses can be summarized as follows: the overcoming of feudalism by capitalism has led to a bureaucratic, impersonal form of government, which suits the needs of corporate capitalism. In this process, a therapeutic ethic has become a decisive lever of power, denying the individual essential knowledge that had formerly been handed down from one generation to the next, such as how to raise children, how to produce basic foods, or how to deal reasonably with matters of health or age. It has also replaced guilt with illness (criminals now being seen as victims of their social and familial environment), with the result that no one is held to be responsible for their actions any longer. Instead, people have become disoriented and helpless due to their dependence on institutions, experts, and therapists. At the same time, the advertising industry creates the need for “self-fulfillment” and makes people chase after desires that cannot be satisfied, instead of accepting their constraints and learning to derive gratification from sublimation (love, work, family). Lasch’s principal adversary is “welfare liberalism, which absolves individuals of moral responsibility and treats them as victims of social circumstance” (Lasch 1991 [1979]: 218).

With respect to applying a psychiatric concept to society, Lasch is aware of possible difficulties and warns against short-circuits and overly simple analogies. How does he propose to conceptualize the convergence of the two spheres? His argument is based on the assumption that there is a general connection between society – especially its power structures – and personality structures: “Every society reproduces its culture – its norms, its underlying assumptions, its modes of organizing experience – in the individual, in the form of personality” (Lasch 1991 [1979]: 34). Lasch refers to Adorno and Emile Durkheim to support this claim. In this view, the frequent occurrence of a particular mental disorder indicates a general problem in the way society is organized. Pathology is seen as a “heightened version of normality” (Lasch 1991 [1979]: 38); it makes general developments or phenomena more visible.

On the basis of this general assumption, Lasch proposes two ways of explaining how personality is shaped by society, without specifying them as two different models. The first model is spelled out explicitly: it refers to the psychoanalytic concept of the superego and its development on the basis of identification with (parental) authority figures (Lasch 1991 [1979]: 11–13). If the institutionalized authority declines, the superego is fed by aggressive impulses from the id instead, thus becoming notably harsh and punitive. It forces the self to regress to “a grandiose, narcissistic, infantile, empty self” (Lasch 1991 [1979]: 12). Conversely, the development of a moderate, yet firm and reality-oriented superego depends on a realistic assessment of parental authority and its integration by means of loving identification. The superego is not only “society’s agent in the mind” (Lasch 1991 [1979]: 12), but is also an indicator of the individual’s experiences with society, which result in psychic balance or imbalance.

However, Lasch relies to a greater degree on another model of conceptualizing the relationship between society and character traits. Most of his arguments are based on the assumption that society fosters particular personality traits by rewarding them or by creating dilemmas that require these traits in order to be resolved. In this sense, the “narcissistic society” is defined as “a society that gives increasing prominence and encouragement to narcissistic traits” (Lasch 1991 [1979]: xvii). This way of thinking is much more indebted to behaviorism – and to commonplace ideas.

If we examine the argumentation in The culture of narcissism in greater detail, we find three main ways of conceptualizing the fostering of narcissistic personality traits:

  1. 1.Financial and symbolic reward: well-paid jobs – particularly management positions in corporations – no longer require achievement, but narcissistic personality traits instead (cf. Lasch 1991 [1979]: 44–47; 59–63).
  2. 2.Narcissism as the best available solution for coping with anxieties and insecurities created by society. Lasch (1991 [1979]: 48) particularly highlights therapeutic ideologies that promote normative developments. If everything is measured against a scientifically determined norm, people are made to scrutinize themselves (their bodies, health, ageing, etc.). They become constantly afraid of not conforming to standards, instead of developing a critical distance to normative thinking and relying on knowledge derived from common sense.
  3. 3.The ubiquity of virtual realities blurs our sense of reality and of our places in it (cf. Lasch 1991 [1979]: 47–48). Lasch points out how the advertising industry, by means of the mass media, has replaced the criteria for “false” or “true” information with the question whether information is credible. Every aspect of life is drawn into the pervasive virtual world and influenced by the logic of make-believe. This also leads to a “degeneration of politics into spectacle” (Lasch 1991 [1979]: 81).

In short, narcissism is on the increase – first, because it is rewarded; second, because it presents itself as a solution to anxieties and tensions; third, because it is congruent with the “spectacularization” of society. As persuasive as this argument seems, closer inspection shows that the explanation of the connections between society and personality remains unsatisfactory. In various respects, the logic of cause and effect seems to be reversed: it is not society that creates narcissistic individuals, but rather narcissistic people who give society a certain form.

For example, Lasch elaborates at length on the family being weakened because many of its functions and competences are being transferred to public institutions and experts. With reference to Kohut’s theory of narcissism, Lasch points out that the ideal mother-child connection provides “optimal frustration” (1991 [1979]: 171). Otherwise, the child cannot internalize the image of the loving mother while at the same time developing an adequate assessment of reality (the mother’s fallibility). While fathers are absent most of the time, mothers fail to attend to their children’s needs in an adequately affectionate yet judiciously frustrating way. However, this scenario fails to explain the increase in the incidence of narcissistic personalities, because it presupposes a narcissistic mother. Lasch shifts from an account of the ways that narcissism develops in a specific type of family to a description of how a narcissistic mother produces a narcissistic child (cf. Lasch 1991 [1979]: 170–172; 176–180). Similarly, Lasch depicts contemporary sexual relationships as being marked by narcissistic personalities. He establishes a loose connection with the decay of family, marriage, and the emancipation of women. But why these developments logically entail narcissism remains unclear.

5 The tyranny of intimacy: Richard Sennett

In Richard Sennett’s monograph, The fall of public man (1976), narcissism does not appear in the title, since objecting to a culture of narcissism is not its main concern. The book is nevertheless relevant for a critical evaluation of narcissism in cultural theory because it shows how the conflation of cultural theory and a figure of thought borrowed from psychology can be productive in gaining new perspectives on culture. Sennett’s book thus belongs to the second category mentioned above. But of course it also has a critical dimension.

Sennett takes an historical approach. He argues that, after the end of the Ancien Régime, the public sphere changed considerably; more precisely, it slowly decayed. In eighteenth-century London and Paris strangers were able to communicate effectively in a public setting, thanks to a system of unequivocal signs. Being expressed through codified clothing and conduct, the social status of the individual was immediately and unmistakably recognizable. In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, a person’s “truth” migrated from public life to inner life – i. e., to their personal feelings or “psyche.” According to Sennett, this resulted in the decline of artful playacting in favor of emotional authenticity, and a growing concern with one’s own identity. This was associated with the idea that personal feelings appeared involuntarily (body language, facial expressions, etc.), which led to the desire to shield oneself from the gaze of others in public and to control one’s behavior and facial expressions (Sennett 1976: 161–174). The urban dweller became passive. At the same time, one was on the lookout for exterior signs of others’ inner “truth.” Social codes emerged, based on minute details that changed rapidly, and with which only the initiated were familiar. Features that indicated the (social, sexual, emotional) “truth” of a person were no longer unequivocal signs, but rather symbols that stood for something else and needed to be decoded (Sennett 1976: 78–79).1

This constituted an important paradigm shift that has had a considerable impact to this day. Henceforward, the main criterion for evaluating a person was personality, not actions. This is particularly obvious with regard to politicians. They are now supported – or rejected – on the basis of their supposed personal qualities and visible character traits instead of their accomplishments. Furthermore, this focus on personality hampers the functioning of groups that share political goals – particularly emancipatory goals, such as those pursued by the workers’ movement – because they need to concentrate on concerted action in order to be effective. Instead, political groups now tend to self-absorption by compulsively seeking to define the subject that is to be liberated. The primacy of personality is also apparent in determining what counts as a successful employee. Especially in IT and administration, people are hired not so much on the basis of what they know or their skills, but on the basis of their personality traits. The employee merges as a person with his or her job. One can summarize this line of thought by observing that bourgeois society – from its beginnings in the eighteenth century – has done away with its own cultural assets (or at least, some of them) over the course of time.

Psychology in the narrower sense – the impacts of these developments on mental health – is not Sennett’s focus. He concentrates on the changes in social conduct, epistemological systems, and the criteria for deeming argumentation to be valid. This bias is one of the aspects of The fall of public man that Lasch criticizes. In his view, Sennett neglects the unconscious and irrational incentives for actions – including political actions – and is wrong in assuming that people generally make decisions on the basis of what is in their best interest (Lasch 1991 [1979]: 29). Effectively, Sennett does not – like Lasch – think of pathology as a “heightened version of normality.” He does not draw on theories of narcissism to explicate an interrelation of societal and psychological structures, but rather to demonstrate how the long-term development of social conduct and systems of belief in Europe hinders people from acting to their own advantage.

He elaborates this point in a passage on the transformation of sexual relationships as a result of their emancipation from social norms. Sennett argues that the liberation of sexuality from codified rules has led to a situation where it has lost any significant relation to the public sphere: “In rebelling against sexual repression, we have rebelled against the idea that sexuality has a social dimension” (1976: 8). This radical privatization of love has in fact emptied it of many of its contents, leaving a void that cannot be filled. This situation is very much like the narcissist’s key problem, which Sennett describes as follows:

[...] narcissism is an obsession with ‘what this person, that event means to me.’ This question about the personal relevance of other people and outside acts is posed so repetitively that a clear perception of those persons and events in themselves is obscured. This absorption in self, oddly enough, prevents gratification of self needs; it makes the person at the moment of attaining an end or connecting with another person feel that “this isn’t what I wanted.” Narcissism thus has the double quality of being a voracious absorption in self-needs and the block to their fulfillment. (Sennett 1976: 8)

In sexuality, this implies an emotional depletion, while at the same time the ability to symbolize it (finding sexual metaphors in everyday life) diminishes (Sennett 1976: 9). To sum up, Sennett does not seek to establish a cause-effect relationship between society and narcissism or to explain the increase in narcissism as an effect of changes in society. But he isolates one particular aspect of pathological narcissism that elucidates a specific pattern – the paradox that narcissists focus entirely on their own needs while simultaneously being unable to fulfill them.

Thus, Lasch’s (1991 [1979]: 29) accusation is well founded that Sennett’s perspective on politics resembles the Tocquevillean perspective on the “politics of self-interest.” One might even say one aspect that interests him in the concept of narcissism is that it provides an explanation of why people constantly act against their own interests.

Sennett’s book contains several sophisticated studies on different subjects that show how this approach can cast a new light on various aspects of European history. One of its strongest chapters – in my view – deals with the Dreyfus Affair, which Sennett (1976: 240–251) analyses in terms of destructive community-building at the expense of ascertaining the truth. However, I will now discuss another central thesis of his book in more detail because it lends itself to a comparison with Lasch, and even more so with Pfaller, namely the claim that the “tyrannies of intimacy” (Sennett 1976: 337) have brought about a loss of expression that is related to the devaluation of social role play.

To make this point clearer, I will first take another look at Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism, where we also find a discussion of play and playacting. Lasch (1991 [1979]: 86–90) finds it deplorable that the advent of the American “culture of narcissism” involves not only forfeiting play, play-acting, and theatrical illusion, but also a fading sense of reality. Both spheres seem to be intricately intertwined. While reality becomes more and more unreal due to the ubiquity of (self-)images and the primacy of credibility over truth, twentieth century theatre systematically destroyed the aesthetic illusion and sought to converge with reality. Lasch (1991 [1979]: 93) links this to the pathological narcissist’s emotional shallowness and feelings of depletion, as well as his or her longing for true, authentic feeling.

Sennett (1976: 323–327) alludes to similar ideas by referring to psychoanalytic theories of narcissism (Freud, Kohut and Kernberg), though without taking into account the essential differences between these approaches. However, his argumentation has a different thrust. For him, the conventionalized expression of feelings – not authenticity – promotes activity, liveliness, and a diversity of codes. In a historical perspective, Sennett confronts the intertwining of theatrical play-acting and social behavior in everyday life in the eighteenth century with the regime of authenticity and the primacy of the inner life of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

To elaborate the liberating effect of social role play, he compares it to the play of children. By obeying a set of rules, children not only submit to social standards, they also attain a specific type of freedom through self-distance (Sennett 1976: 316–323). This self-distance consists in abstaining from pursuing one’s own goals directly. Although a child usually plays a game ultimately in order to dominate the other players, it accepts the rules of the game as barriers to achieving this goal. Furthermore, playing games makes it possible to surmount the fear of frustration through the desire to take risks. Sennett concludes: “Play teaches a child that, when he suspends his desire for immediate gratification, and replaces this by interest in the content of rules, he achieves a sense of control over and manipulability over what he expresses” (1976: 321). Furthermore, children learn that rules have to be obeyed but that they are conventions that can be changed, not immutable truths. They are actors – in the sense of being performers and of being active – not spectators.

This attitude is the absolute opposite to that of the employees of the twentieth century who have lost all self-distance, merging as persons with their work: “Class becomes too much a part of themselves to be played with” (Sennett 1976: 328). Referring to Max Weber, Sennett (1976: 333) calls narcissism the “protestant ethic of modern times,” and compares it to another term coined by Weber, “worldly asceticism,” which Sennett interprets as a self-denial of pleasure that serves the purpose of validating the self. Symptoms of this new asceticism are the fear of “closure” (unconscious self-obstruction designed to prevent the attainment of a goal, as reaching the goal would point to an independent outside world no longer connected to the self), and the feeling of inner emptiness that masks an accusation directed at the outside world for failing to arouse any intense feelings (Sennett 1976: 335). Both symptoms contribute to the deterioration of self-expression and add to the general passiveness of the public. The point of interest is no longer the performance of emotions by relying on conventional signs, but the impression others might gain from what I say or do, or what I look like. Sennett concludes that “narcissism is the psychological rationale for the form of communication we have called representation of emotion to others, rather than shaped presentation of emotion” (1976: 335).

6 Illusions and cultural pleasure: Robert Pfaller

The philosopher and cultural theorist, Robert Pfaller, first became known through his writings on interpassivity, a theoretical approach to contemporary art (edited volume Interpassivität [2000]; Ästhetik der Interpassivität” [2008]). An “interpassive” work of art contains its own observer, thus relieving the recipient from the task of even enjoying it. Slavoj Žižek (1989: 35) has analyzed this in the phenomenon of “canned laughter,” the artificial laughter inserted into television shows. The viewer “delegates” his amusement to a pre-recorded reaction. In his studies on interpassivity, Pfaller had already delineated what was to constitute the center of his later publications, namely the concept of “illusions without owners.” Pfaller’s work revolves around the question of pleasure and its cultural resources, and why the increasing restrictions placed on them meets with barely any resistance, but is instead welcomed by what seems to be the majority of people in industrialized countries. He analyses this development with respect to postmodern philosophy and neo-liberal politics, and sketches possible strategies for a new intellectual left. Beyond that, his writings rank among the most original attempts to employ the concept of narcissism in cultural theory today.

Pfaller’s approach is twofold. On the one hand, his critique is directed against developments in contemporary society that deprive people of pleasure without their even noticing any repression. He detects a culture of asceticism marked by a voluntary, indeed even vehemently demanded submission to social practices and relationships that are becoming more and more sterile. On this basis, Pfaller also identifies aspects of social life – in the arts, in conviviality, and interpersonal relationships – that can be seen as the remnants and last refuges of cultural pleasure.

Besides, obviously, Richard Sennett and Slavoj Žižek, Pfaller draws on the work of the Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga on play elements in culture, as well as the French psychoanalyst Octave Mannoni, to whom he owes the distinction between “illusions with owners” and “illusions without owners” (Pfaller 2008: 69–71). The former are regular beliefs that people stand by (like believing in human reason, progress, etc.). “Illusions without owners,” on the contrary, always seem to be somebody else’s convictions – for instance, although nobody believes in horoscopes, people still like to read them regularly. Even though football games can easily be recorded, football enthusiasts often cancel all appointments in order to watch a live broadcast of a game. The importance of such anonymous illusions, in Pfaller’s view, is that they are a major source of cultural pleasure. With respect to both Huizinga and Sennett, Pfaller detects these pleasurable conventions in manners, everyday rituals, sports, games, elegance, and eroticism. In this context, he brings up narcissism as a force that not only hinders these phenomena, but even combats them.

This becomes clearer if we examine the examples Pfaller provides to elucidate his point. With respect to the enormous success of far-right populist parties in Austria, he remarks that their supporters vote precisely for politicians who do not even pretend to care about improving the lives of working class people, but instead bluntly announce more austerity measures to come. Another example concerns measures that regulate and restrict public behavior, such as smoking bans. Not only do people not protest against these policies, they even request them fervently, while the sanctioned behavior is met with disgust and revulsion. Pfaller speaks of “reactionary affects” (2014: 201) and – following Deleuze – “sad passions” (2014: 197). Drawing on the psychoanalytic concept of repression, he assumes that this paradoxical reversal of pleasure and unpleasure indicates a defense-mechanism that enables the maintenance and indirect gratification of the repressed pleasure precisely by vigorously fighting it (Pfaller 2014: 197).

The psychoanalytic concept of narcissism comes into play as one possible explanation for this paradoxical situation. In On the pleasure principle in culture, Pfaller refers to Freud’s paper on narcissism in order to point out that the ego-libido strives for self-respect and not for pleasure. At the same time, it disguises its origin in the libido and finds its gratification precisely in the disdain of pleasure.

This line of thinking is further developed in Das schmutzige Heilige und die reine Vernunft. Here, postmodern theories of identity (Pfaller 2008: 118–123) and the supposed hedonism of today’s consumer society (Pfaller 2008: 123–127) are examined for a narcissistic core. With contemporary concepts of identity in mind, Pfaller points out that the theory of self-made, mobile identities that is supposed to free individuals from pre-assigned social or gender roles actually inscribes an inevitable failure into this quest, which procures narcissistic gratification. Since one is never fully, properly defined but rather always in the process of shaping one’s identity, one escapes both demands and criticism from others (Pfaller 2008: 122). This is in line with Sennett’s observation concerning the narcissist’s fear of closure. But even the hedonistic tendencies of today’s consumer culture are diagnosed using the concept of narcissism because these tendencies reject pleasures that do not comply entirely with the ego (smoking, drinking alcohol, vulgar and obscene language). Narcissism in this sense means the desire – or the compulsion – to entirely be oneself, in contrast to a pleasurable play with codified roles.

In summary, Pfaller calls attention to ascetic developments in culture that enforce absolute conformity between individuals and their illusions, beliefs, and practices. More importantly, he advocates the protection and further development of cultural codes and practices that are pleasurable because they require individuals to distance themselves from their “authentic” selves. Although it is derived from psychoanalysis, the concept of narcissism does not function as a psychiatric notion here, but rather as a metaphor for a specific relation between the self and the outside world. In my view, it is precisely this adaptation that renders the notion productive.

7 Conclusion

Cultural theories that draw on the concept of narcissism share a general thrust. They claim that major social developments or achievements that are usually interpreted as improvements involve serious drawbacks. This is why these theories are often suspected of a conservative bias and cultural pessimism. (Reading Lasch’s comments on feminism, or the family and its dissolution, one might well gain the impression that one is dealing with a conservative.) However, their interventions usually do not advocate a return to the past, but instead endeavor to come up with alternatives – a third way between the extremes of setback and (supposed) progress. If authenticity, for instance, was the weapon that emancipation directed against the rigid repression of predetermined social roles – could we think of a form of liberation that does not discard the pleasure of playacting but instead builds on it?

More generally, narcissism always addresses a basic difficulty in the relation between the individual and the outside world, namely the fact that the self or identity is only constituted in the interplay between self and other. Personal borders are always at stake. Compared to a rigid social norm on the one hand and an endless, anxious self-inquiry about one’s own position or appearance on the other, there seems to be a third and possibly more attractive alternative, namely to promote the ability to – seriously, yet playfully – obey social rules that we know to be changeable. This might open up a way that does not end in the self, but guides one towards the world.

References

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  • Lasch, Christopher. 1991 [1979]. The culture of narcissism: American life in an age of diminishing expectations. New York & London: W. W. Norton.

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  • Reiche, Reimut. 1991. Haben frühe Störungen zugenommen? Psyche 45(12). 1045–1066.

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  • Sontag, Susan. 1978. Illness as metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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  • Ziehe, Thomas. 1975. Pubertät und Narzißmus: Sind Jugendliche entpolitisiert? Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt.

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Footnotes

1

From the viewpoint of structuralist semiotics, Sennett’s distinction between “sign” and “symbol” cannot be considered particularly tenable.

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  • Adorno, Theodor W. 1962. Die revidierte Psychoanalyse. In Max Horkheimer & Theodor W. Adorno (eds.), Sociologica II: Reden und Vorträge. 94–112. Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt.

  • Adorno, Theodor W. 1968 [1955]. Sociology and psychology (part II). New Left Review 47(1). 79–97.

  • Campbell, W. Keith, Joshua D. Miller & Thomas A. Widiger. 2010. Narcissistic personality disorder and the DSM-V. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 119(4). 640–649. http://wkeithcampbell.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/MillerWidigerCampbell20101.pdf (accessed 12 January 2017).

  • Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: Fifth edition. DSM-5. 2013. Washington & London: American Psychiatric Association.

  • Dombek, Kristin. 2016. The selfishness of others: An essay on the fear of narcissism. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

  • Ellis, Havelock. 1942 [1899]. Auto-erotism: A study of the spontaneous manifestations of the sexual impulse. In Havelock Ellis, Psychology of sex, vol. 1, 161–325. New York: Random House.

  • Frazer, James George. 1910. Totemism and exogamy. A treatise on certain early forms of superstition and society. 4 volumes. London: Macmillan.

  • Freud, Sigmund. 1953 [1905]. Three essays on the theory of sexuality. In Strachey, James (ed.), The standard edition of the complete works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 7, 123–245. London: The Hogarth Press.

  • Freud, Sigmund. 1957 [1914]. On narcissism: An introduction. In James Strachey (ed.), The standard edition of the complete works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 14, 73–102. London: The Hogarth Press.

  • Freud, Sigmund. 1958 [1912–1913]. Totem and taboo: Some points of agreement between the mental lives of savages and neurotics. In James Strachey (ed.), The standard edition of the complete works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 13, 1–161. London: The Hogarth Press.

  • Gast, Lilli. 1997. Metamorphosen des Narzißmus: Ein Beitrag zur psychoanalytischen Ideen‑ und Begriffsgeschichte. Psyche 51(1). 46–75.

  • Haeckel, Ernst. 1866. Allgemeine Anatomie der Organismen, Band 1: Allgemeine Morphologie der Organismen, Band 2: Allgemeine Entwickelungsgeschichte der Organismen. Berlin: Georg Reimer.

  • Herder, Johann Gottfried. 1990 a [1797]. Das Ich. In Johann Gottfried Herder, Werke, vol. 3, 825–830. Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag.

  • Herder, Johann Gottfried. 1990 b [1797]. Selbst. In Johann Gottfried Herder, Werke, vol. 3, 830–834. Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag.

  • Kernberg, Otto F. 1974. Contrasting viewpoints regarding the nature and psychoanalytic treatment of narcissistic personalities: A preliminary communication. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 22. 255–267.

    • PubMed
    • Export Citation
  • Klein, Melanie. 1946. Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 27. 99–110.

    • PubMed
    • Export Citation
  • Kohut, Heinz. 1972. Thoughts on narcissism and narcissistic rage. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 27. 360–400.

  • Lasch, Christopher. 1991 [1979]. The culture of narcissism: American life in an age of diminishing expectations. New York & London: W. W. Norton.

  • Näcke, Paul. 1899. Kritisches zum Kapitel der normalen und pathologischen Sexualität. Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten 32(1). 356–386.

  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1990 [1886]. Beyond good and evil: Prelude to a philosophy of the future. London: Penguin.

  • Pfaller, Robert. 2008. Das schmutzige Heilige und die reine Vernunft: Symptome der Gegenwartskultur. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag.

  • Pfaller, Robert. 2000. Interpassivität: Studien über delegiertres Genießen. Wien & New York: Springer.

  • Pfaller, Robert. 2008. Ästhetik der Interpassivität. Hamburg: Philo Fine Arts.

  • Pfaller, Robert. 2014 [2002]. On the pleasure principle in culture: Illusions without owners. London & New York: Verso.

  • Reiche, Reimut. 1991. Haben frühe Störungen zugenommen? Psyche 45(12). 1045–1066.

  • Sennett, Richard. 1976. The fall of public man. Cambridge, London & Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

  • Sontag, Susan. 1978. Illness as metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

  • Wolfe, Tom. 1976. The “me” decade and the third great awakening, New York Magazine, 23 August 1976. http://nymag.com/news/features/45938/ (accessed 12 January 2017).

  • Wundt, Wilhelm. 1906. Völkerpsychologie. Eine Untersuchung der Entwicklungsgesetze von Sprache, Mythus und Sitte. Zweiter Band: Mythus und Religion, zweiter Teil, Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann.

  • Ziehe, Thomas. 1975. Pubertät und Narzißmus: Sind Jugendliche entpolitisiert? Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt.

  • Žižek, Slavoj. 1989. The sublime object of ideology. London & New York: Verso.