Christopher Lasch – The Culture of Narcissism, part 1/X, current essay being more of an overview.
Imagine a kind of masquerade.
It’s an acting contest at first, and everyone is assigned a mask. The guest is to playact the identity of the mask – so the person who gets a werewolf mask howls, the guest with a zombie mask groans, etc. The best actor wins. This being a party, assume that everyone is still vying for status and attention in the interim, but that may not be acting. People talk about all sorts of things at parties, even those with explicit contests. Most people won’t assume that the mask says anything about the person – it’s randomly assigned, after all. Those who do are missing the point. Both the judges and the guests will appraise character based on acting. The contest may not be equal, of course – there are differences in acting ability, perhaps some roles are easier or more prestigious than others – but these still relate to action.
Now imagine that the rules of the game change. There are no longer preassigned masks. Everyone is expected to provide their own. Perhaps this was due to concerns over fairness (easier/harder masks or prestige of role), perhaps there was arson at the mask-factory. It doesn’t matter – the contest remains but the rules change. There’s no longer one contest, but two: making a mask, and acting like it, and all of a sudden it starts making sense to focus on the mask. Pro-social behavior is both performance and making a good mask, but now the mask is more important. For one reason, if roles are easier/harder and this correlates with prestige (it will), people might begin to bring the most prestigious mask that they can still act as, that isn’t beyond their ability. For another, since you made the mask, it shows certain inner aspects previously hidden (desires, self-awareness, whatever). Still: there are limits, and you have to be able to behave in a certain way. You can’t simply gain status by making the most prestigious mask possible – the judges will make you fall on your ass. The opposite is also dangerous, albeit socially: Don’t say “I was too busy to put in the effort”, as though this is a successful social maneuver. This shows us that you’re lazy, or poor, or [thing]. For most people, social opinion is important for their own identity, and of course you’d start to identify with the mask. It increasingly signifies your role. Still: Nothing changes about the original dynamic. Some people are better actors and others are worse actors; some roles are harder (read: more prestigious) and others are easier. Some people still want to win the contest, but “winning the contest” is now a mix of acting talent, pro-social behavior, and proper self-estimation. This may still be unequal, but it’s less random.
Final transformation: hide the contest. It still takes place (somewhere), but is no longer the explicit public aim. Power-dynamics remain among the party-goers and these are more prominent than before. People still gossip at parties, winners and loser still emerge, the new game increasingly revolves around the mask. It signifies how you think of yourself, how you think of others, etc. There’s technically something important about playing the role behind it, but with a hidden contest all social prestige comes from the mask itself. Accordingly, the mask becomes a token of everything you are, even if everyone knows it’s just a mask. Suddenly, the game isn’t fun anymore.
You think narcissism is about grandiosity, that the narcissist delights in masks, that they will love the final form, but that does a great disservice to the masquerade. In all of these, the narcissistic response is the same, and it’s not caring for the mask. Narcissism is: “All of these idiots care about their masks. I am so much more. If they’d let me act, I could show them.” In our final contest, the narcissist then crafts an impossibly prestigious mask, one that would show “what their skills really are if they could use them.” But there’s no real contest, and they’re stuck in potential. They might be able to act, but who knows? They’ve never tested themselves. This is a double movement: They simultaneously distance themselves from the mask (“I’m so much more”) while overidentifying with it (“it still signifies what kind of person I am, because I could act this well”).
The first two iterations have some vaguely objective measure (acting, judges), and people will develop coping mechanisms accordingly. They learn their limits and adjust. They have to – everyone else can see them act. This may be unfair in some way, but there’s no getting around it. At worst they blame luck or their own meager talents, but it’s still a kind of game. There are also social defenses: people respect those who know their strengths and weaknesses, maybe the less-prominent cluster together for comfort, everyone assumes that they have other talents. I don’t care if those are “merely” social niceties, they’re enough. Only the third version encourages a narcissistic defense for everyone, regardless of an NPD diagnosis. It practically mandates it. After all: everything they are is on the surface, the judgment is no longer confined but constant, and there are no objective measures. You fall into fantasy, because… how else can you respond?
The first game looks sort-of like Junker heaven, the second is The Future That Liberals Want, and the third is how Lasch views our world. I don’t want any of them, but my wants are irrelevant. “I see what you’re saying, and it sounds anti-democratic.” Things can be more than good or bad. Explicit hierarchy (assigned masks, i.e. nobility by birth) is not better, and I personally dislike it, but don’t assume hierarchy evaporates without its explication. After all: only in the “most democratic”, final version does the entire party become a contest.
If you prefer the question phrased like a leftist would: why do power dynamics reproduce themselves as society liberalizes, why do they get worse, why do they always follow earlier patterns?
Don’t relax, this was just a game. Even the Greeks, notable inventors of Narcissus, understood them as a metaphor for life. See: Heraclitus and petteia (or pesseia). Lasch, in turn, devotes an astonishing amount of time to sport, and before that to manners. These are, after all, nothing if not a social mask.
Manners have run their course, in Lasch’s time but even more for us: now you can wear sweats to the park, the concept of a salad fork activates dyspepsia, and the boss goes by “Jeff”. Ignoring the easy question (“Was this for a good or bad reason?”), Lasch concerns himself with the aftereffects. Here he takes from Richard Sennet, though disagreeing with Sennet’s conclusions. The net result, according to Lasch, is a social invasion of the self:
In eighteenth-century London or Paris, sociability did not depend on intimacy. “Strangers meeting in parks or on the street might without embarrassment speak to each other.” They shared a common fund of public signs which enabled people of unequal rank to conduct a civilized conversation and to cooperate in public projects without feeling called upon to expose their innermost secrets. The romantic cult of sincerity and authenticity tore away the masks that people once had worn in public and eroded the boundary between public and private life. As the public world came to be seen as a mirror of the self, people lost the capacity for detachment and playful encounter, which presupposes a certain distance from the self.
Quickly – I assume people still win and lose socially, right? According to pop culture the platonic form of this will be the high school reunion. What kind of person wins the new game, the game of authentically “showing who you really are?” (“People with narcissistic personalities, although not necessarily more numerous than before, play a conspicuous part in contemporary life, often rising to positions of eminence.”) Moving on.
Lasch is using mask (just slightly) differently than in my metaphor, but don’t get confused: he’s talking about “creating an authentic persona (i.e. your own mask)” for society instead of earlier, artificial ones. This is the transition from preassigned to personal. What makes this invasive is also the same. Your appearance – your mask, your social role – comes to stand in for you, and the previous defenses are no longer available.
The most important word here is “authenticity.” This is against earler mores, which we know all about: aristocratic customs were the outward signifier of domination, petit-bourgeois manners reified capitalism, and the office hierarchy mirrored patriarchy. That’s bad, of course, but not necessarily connected with authenticity, and aristocratic disdain for plebs went out with velocipede. This tenuous connection between “authenticity” and the politics of (perhaps) “anti-dominance” or “leftism” or simply “democracy” is a modern one. It’s what Lasch’s book is mostly about. For Lasch, this is not merely sloppy scholarship: this is the founding myth of modernity. This is Athena blasting out of Zeus’s weathered brow, fully-formed and wise.
Follow the logic best you can, even if it’s mostly images: there’s a you, and that’s independent of [everything else]. The you strives to announce itself, and the hodgepodge of dusty traditions and stuffy religions and -isms play goalie. That might be political repression. More commonly it’s individualistic. No one is repressing [white male twenty-something], but Zooey Deschanel still needs to teach him how to belt out Simon & Garfunkel lyrics from the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s just [him] doing [him]! The only people who frown are The Olds and the Conservatives, always coded as such in popular representations. We’ve allowed you to flourish, and now you can be yourself: dress how you want, say what you want, buy what you want.
In other words: The language is implicitly psychiatric. You is somehow independent of society, an independent object of study. It’s not a social role, much less a political one. If something is “wrong” with it, then there’s therapy, and so the goal isn’t [broader change] but freeing this you. This changes your desires, of course. If the real problem is that society represses your inner-you, you don’t necessarily need political change. It’s just as good to be free “to be you” within a broader structure. It also means that whatever even smacks of “restraint” can be identified with an oppressive structure. Anything that encourages your “you” is, naturally, liberating.
Important to note for this entire review: Lasch despises therapists. He uses psychological jargon, but it’s never without some disdain for the modern form.
Related: Lasch is probably the least clear of all books in this series. He’s flawed in many (many) ways, and he contradicts himself the most. Oh well. At times he wants narcissism (clinical) to be proliferating, so he’ll quote therapists who note the tremendous uptick in narcissistic disorders as opposed to classical neuroses. There’s no way to make sense of this and the line quoted above (“may not be more…”). He relies too heavily on psychological jargon to combat “unsophisticated metaphors” while using narcissism primarily metaphorically. I should be clearer on that: Lasch means to describe a broader cultural shift that tracks with the clinical characteristics of narcissism, and he does occasionally make reference to the idea of “pathology as existing on a spectrum with normality”. But modern narcissism is a socialization much more broadly than what Kohut intended, and Lasch knows this even if he plays a little fast and loose with it.
Nevertheless, Lasch is possibly the most important of these four books, because he’s describing the defense mechanisms of society. This has obvious political significance, by which I mean: if the world collapses tomorrow, our failure mode is going to mean a whole lot more than anything else. It also has immediate practical significance: if you can’t overcome a psychological defense mechanism, then everything else is for naught. I’m not nearly smart enough to write The Theory but even if I could then I’d still need to break down your walls. Yes, I mean you.
I promised that I was not going to talk about narcissism after this, but that was before I started this series. There’s no way to avoid talking about The Last Psychiatrist (Alone), so I may as well charge on in. Here’s your equation: Lasch:Alone::Averroes:Thomas. I’m not on there, in this metaphor I’m just a Catholic. When I started writing I adopted the parts of TLP I liked to try and write better (something else I learned from him). Then this all happened. I know, I know, it’s awful for me to write like someone else. Wait for it, how…. inauthentic.
The point is that the two are related, and I’ll occasionally make reference to both. For instance: many people read The Last Psychiatrist as though Alone has two fundamentally different projects, one “social/political”, and the other “psychological”. Lasch is interpreted similarly, with reviews of him describing The Culture of Narcissism as a mish-mash of “fucking Nanny State” and “here’s what Kohut thinks about your favorite celebrity.” These are the same thing. Narcissism reveals itself dialectically. If you hate words like that, just think “process”. Things have equal and opposite reactions, etc. The real origin is increased paternalism (see below), but the result of that is a more image-obsessed society, and the result of that is narcissistic defenses. In response, [think piecers] use “more image” as evidence of narcissism, running on the classic image of Narcissus and his reflection. What Lasch points out is simple: if this is a process, then origin, appearance, and psychology are all different and all of them feed into one another.
Which takes us to: “The DSM says one thing, you’re describing another.” True, to which I have two response: a) And?, b) what do you think the word “narcissist” means? The word didn’t just beach itself, it comes from a myth. That origin is important for all the early literature on narcissism – the term wasn’t chosen solely for self-obsession. Plenty of classical figures could have given their name for that. Don’t confuse the origin for the characteristics, and don’t confuse the external characteristics for the inner traits.
Alone already explained the myth, read it. Short version: Narcissus’s parents are given the warning that he’ll live long “only if he never knows himself.” His parents do their best to make sure he’ll reach senectitude. Rather than training him to be an adult (behave properly, generate healthy coping mechanisms, know limits, etc.), they keep him in a state of perpetual childhood. Narcissus is about socialization, specifically: what happens when someone never learns who they are, when they never test their boundaries, when they’re dependent on others. This isn’t not egomania, it’s practically the opposite. How can he be loving “himself” if there’s no “himself” to obsess over?
The only way to learn “who you are” is to find boundaries – between the self and others, the self and the outside world, the self and the object. That means failing sometimes, and sometimes it hurts. It also means succeeding, albeit with initial struggles. One could assume a difference between “potential” and “actualization” here. Everyone has the “potential” for infinity within their own heads – every kid wants to be an astronaut. Admittedly, it’s hard to learn that you don’t have the right stuff. Kids bounce back, though, and it might be harder for parents to watch their initial failure. Regardless, that’s the only way to do something, to know yourself. Fuck parents, it’s hard to watch you friends fail, but that makes it no less important. They eventually find what they can do, as we all must, and enjoy our powers there. Even if they’re always unhappy, there’s a real world out there without any of your moral qualms. A kid cries if she can’t ride a bicycle on the highway. What happens if you let her? At the extreme of this comes narcissism, where the sense of boundaries blurs out, and even other people are just creatures of the fantasy.
Ignoring the autobahn, most of learning boundaries is psychological. You aren’t good enough to do [thing], but you can do [this]. You aren’t [other person], but you can befriend and learn from them. Without learning this, the real world still swamps you, but you’ve never learned inner defense mechanisms. There’s no resillience in your core. Which should tell you: narcissism is essentially defensive. It’s a regressive psychological tic, something that comes from an inability to control oneself or one’s surroundings concretely, becuase you never learned your own powers, and so you try to control everything mentally. This is appearance because, after all, your whole world is appearance. You can’t do the thing yourself, so you require other people both to do it and to tell you you can – but that just makes you turn everyone towards you. You’re obsessed with images (that’s all you can do!) but that makes you contemptuous of them. Everyone else must be just as superficial, and something something phonies. You want to be “great, elite, powerful”, but you can’t risk imitating those you admire – to do so would be to risk your identity, would be to risk failure, another ego-wrecker. Anyway, you can’t even separate them from you, how could you suss out what they can do and you can’t in order to learn it? Hence you adopt the prestigious signifiers without any of the competence, convinced that it’s the only distinction between you. If any of that fails, you hulk out, because “failure” is not something you ever learned. All the while, the inside of you looks like WWI no-man’s land: vast emptiness punctuated by shells and explosions, by a rage that does nothing but roil the muck.
For Lasch, our society functions just like the parents of Narcissus. This comes from several angles, each of them further enforcing the others. All of these things teach you “how to live” without letting you figure that out on your own. Better: while actively destroying earlier habits, whether these are cultural or personal.
If this reminds you of James C. Scott, then good. I’m reserving “elites and politics” for next time, but what Lasch is talking about is essentially Taylorism. Taylorism, also called “scientific management” was a practice of determining the ideal work stances, break times, behaviors, etc. on a massive scale. The idea was to make work as efficient as possible, but also to cut down on bodily taxation. Hilariously, Taylor developed it by watching the motions of factory workers, and then developed a grotesque, platonized version to feed back to them. He also added various incentives, based around perfecting break-times, etc. for incentives. Finally, Taylor seeked to sort people based on their “abilities”, but rather than testing their limits preferred to decide who was/wasn’t intelligent and just place them. It didn’t go well (famously beginning a large wave of books on anomie), but it wasn’t necessarily “evil”. It did seek to “better” the workers, even if management really benefited. It wasn’t meant to be zero sum.
Taylorism continues in modern management techniques, and Lasch does talk about that. But the deeper sense is a kind of Taylorism that extends into every arena of life. Some of this undermines confidence (parent guides about how You Will Fuck Your Kid Right Up Without This Book), others destroy earlier competence (Taylorism, but also unnecessary education in all things). All of this weakens the individual, making previously metic activities pseudo-epistemic. In this way, Lasch is following Scott to the logical conclusion. Lasch:
Therapy legitimates deviance as sickness, but it simultaneously pronounces the patient unfit to manage his own life and delivers him into the hands of a specialist. As therapeutic points of view gain general acceptance, more and more people find themselves disqualified, in effect, from the performance of adult responsibilities and become dependent on some form of medical authority.
In ignoring the the psychological dimension, these authors also miss the social. They fail to explore any of the character traits associated with pathological narcissism, which in less extreme form appear in such profusion in the everyday life of our age: 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. Nor do they discuss what might be called the secondary characteristics of narcissism: pseudo self-insight, calculating seductiveness, nervous, self-deprecatory humor.
Lasch’s term is “paternalism without fathers”, and that should horrify you. His point is twofold: 1) all the aspects of earlier dominance continues, even if doesn’t have a figurehead. 2) it continues for forever, and there’s no way to escape this prolonged childhood.
As John R. Seeley noted in 1959, the transfer of parental knowledge to other agencies parallels the expropriation of the worker’s technical knowledge by modern management – “the taking over from the worker of the sad necessity of providing himself with the means of production.” By “helpfully” relieving the worker from “such onerous responsibilities” as the provision of his own and his children’s needs, society has freed him, as Seeley wrote, “to become a solder in the army of production and a cipher in the process of decision.”
Lasch gives a lot of examples of this – he was a historian, and most of the book is about the increasing bureaucratization of American life – but I’m not going to get into all of them now. Some of them are governmental, but many are private. All share the same characteristic: removing the responsibility for failure from individuals and placing them in hands of a benign “expert”. Critically, all of them interact with and exacerbate one other. Also: all of them rely on image.
Consider work: Lasch lays out the underlying problems in a chapter called “Changing Modes of Making It”. If you’re competing for a job at [idealized past], then there’s a clear failure mode. You either can or can’t do the job. If you can’t, then you can train better next time. If you can, then you have it. But consider an increasingly disastrous economy, and especially one that’s dominated by “expertise” (read: school). Suddenly you’re competing with people who are their jobs. They don’t merely have the experience, they have a masters in it. They not only interned, they’ve done it for fun in Bermuda. They have fifty thousand certifications in [career], and they’re available on Sunday. They also dress perfectly, crack the perfect jokes, and [other things]. Suddenly, “image” starts getting a whole lot more important. This should immediately remind you of the manners->authenticity motion, and that’s not a mistake. As above, so below.
Sure, you can legislate some of it away, but a) paternalism, and b) are you for real? “You legally don’t have to disclose [thing],” which means that not doing so is a terrible idea. Even if something somehow becomes totally free from scrutiny, then what? They’ll just find another signal.
Everyone starts getting the certifications, which means that there are demands for government subsides (paternalism), and suddenly certifications don’t matter. We fall back into image. What else can you rely on if everyone has the cert? Piece by piece, your whole life gets absorbed; piece by piece you become your mask. So you turn to the market for solutions, and find that there are a billion ads designed to make you appear [however you want to appear]. This doesn’t make you less stressed, it just brings work home.
Personal life, no longer a refuge from deprivations suffered at work, has become as anarchical, as warlike, and as full of stress as the marketplace itself. The cocktail party reduces sociability to social combat. Experts write tactical manuals on the art of social survival, advising the status-seeking partygoer to take up a commanding position in the room[…]
The recent vogue of “assertiveness therapy,” a counter-program designed to equip the patient with defenses against manipulation, appeals to the growing recognition that agility in interpersonal relations determines what looks on the surface like achievement.
In other words: don’t worry, we have a Taylor for that, too.
Now everyone is assertiveness therapizing themselves, and so not only can you not rely on it, you see every interaction as faked. You hate them. Where can you turn? How could you even know? Nothing has an objective measure anymore, and the little that isn’t image is indistinguishable from what is. All the while, you know that you are not the mask, you are better than these idiots.
We have a cure for that. It comes in ten thousand flavors, choose your favorite: Maybe you like wellness centers, perhaps a seminar on transcendental meditation? At the very least, watch this television show about someone like you in every way, especially in the “better than the others but indistinguishable” way. The most common, though, is… well, notice how both Lasch and The Last Psychiatrist focus on the dominance of “psychology-speak” in every day life?
It’s easy to read Lasch here like a paleocon, and they did gobble his book up. It certainly sounds like he’s saying something like “Liberals decided to be nice, and it made a generation of wimps.” That’s the opposite of his point. None of this makes things nice. As each of those boundaries breaks down, it only makes life more warlike, because everything is suddenly up for observation.
Sure, you can tell how dated Lasch is by some of his references (“assertiveness therapy”), but that only makes his case stronger. How many “assertiveness therapies” have we passed through since 1979? Did any of them do anything, or were they simply a defense?
Read what’s underlying this passage: no one knows how to deal with the new conditions of social life. This may be because the conditions are new, it may be because they were simply never properly socialized, it doesn’t matter. The problem with capitalism isn’t that it doesn’t give you waht you want. The problem with capitalism is that it gives you exactly what you want, and if narcissism is defensive and social, then what we want most is a defense.
You want someone to explain to you, preferably with some kind of Science, that ” You are more than that mask. You’re better than them, you’re a good person underneath it. Here are some tips to best those dummies – remember, they’re the bad person for identifying with it.” They’re selling something, and what they’re selling is a defense mechanism. The entire society was training you how to desire something, and then it snaps back around to provide it. “Self-help book”, sure, but why not pop culture?
Societies have heroes – who are yours? Lasch’s point is that no one is competent, they just have image. “Sounds like the Office.” Exactly, and everyone’s boss is Michael and everyone is Jim. The secret of Jim is that he’s the best salesman in the office, i.e. the company makes its living on him, but he never asks for a raise. Instead Jim gets pranks. He gets to be Jim. He’s good at his job, but it’s “not him”, so why should he care to advance in it? He, instead, receives the supreme joy of “not caring about this”.
Mind-blowing fact, but real-life Michaels watch The Office, and they love it. Moremind-blowing: they’re right to, because Michael is Jim to his superiors, and it’s Jims up and down the ladder, top to fucking bottom. All of them get to express themselves, and none of them gain power. Precisely because of that, in fact. “Soft power.” Sort of, but missing the point here, and you sound like a leadership seminar. Soft power implies a goal, or an aim, as though there was a secret plot to convince you to take a pay cut and ask for it. There is no goal here. The issue isn’t that someone brainwashed the office into not asking for a raise, it’s that no one knows how to get a raise. By which I mean: no one knows what they’re worth, materially, and that’s despite the laws there to make them ask each other. Knowing all of your coworkers’ salaries won’t help if you don’t know your position relative to them, and you don’t know your position relative to them if everyone is 90% better than everyone else at 100% of the tasks. Hell, that implies that you care. But you don’t, right? You’re Jim.
This isn’t a conspiracy – Jims don’t plot to screw the people under them. The very, very top benefits, sure, and so you can pretend it is, but that’s just a narcissistic defense. They didn’t do anything to you, they just benefited from [everything] doing it to [everything]. Whoops.
To intentionally screw someone over is “mean” and all of us know that Jim is “nice”, even though he’s exploding with hatred. “How?” What else would you say about someone whose entire life revolves around inflicting suffering on those weaker than him? Of course it’s barely presented that way, because that just looks ugly. You need [pick your Jim] not to eat a bullet, and the moment it gets too close to reality you get an itchy trigger finger. He has to look Powerful (albeit, over Dwight), but never be actually powerful. Then you’d start to wonder how you stacked up to him, then it would be a real question over worth.
Ignore the office, pop culture is useful but not everything.
Our question is more general. Not “why don’t you ask for a raise?” but “why do you always relinquish power for its image?” Keep it in the back of your mind. This isn’t about how narcissistic defense mechanisms work (next two parts), but where they come from.
How do you make a world of Jims? Well, what’s his other primary character trait? How do you differentiate him from the rest of them? Pam, yes, of course, she’s human jewelry (possibly not for him, definitely for the viewer). Not her, the other thing. Jim’s the only one who went to college.
Education is critical for for several reasons. One, it’s where paternalistic aspects of the state come out most prominently, and where they mesh with consumerism. Two, it’s how the elites are trained. Three, both through authority figures and through peer groups are socializing mechanisms in schools. Fourth, Lasch conceives of the culture of narcissism as coming from developments in the 19th and early 20th century, and school is where you most see that.
So: Watch this all unravel.
The American ideal of education didn’t change for some time. It aimed to make a self-reliant, independent citizenry. Jefferson wanted independent farmers, Republican yeomen, equally adept at debating philosophy and cultivating according to the latest agronomic theory.
It doesn’t matter if this never existed. It’s an ideal for education, an image of what it’s “supposed to do”. And what it’s supposed to do is initiate men into culture and political independence. We still have this ideal: an ignorant populace cannot retain a republic, cf. every third think piece two years ago, and every other one during the election. What changed wasn’t the ideal, it was [anything else].
Public school starts with immigrants, specifically from Ireland. There are two theoretical responses: No Irish signs, of course, and education. Unless you want to spam the comment section with references to a vague and historically untenable Hibernophobia, you’ll recognize that we did the latter. Lasch, now:
From this time on, the the problem of acculturating the immigrant population never wandered far from the center of the American educational enterprise. “Americanization” became the specifically American model for education conceived as initiation into modern culture. Because the task of initiation presented itself in this form, the American school, in contrast to the European, placed heavy emphasis on the nonacademic side of the curriculum. The democratic aims of bringing the fruits of modern culture to the masses gave way in practice to a concern with education as a form of social control.
It should be stressed that this had the same aim as the Jefferson ideal. Preserving the republic is tantamount. The issue is over changing definitions of “self-reliance” – namely, people who didn’t know their rights, or – more pressingly – lacked the skills, knowledge, and linguistic background of natives were bound to be second-class citizens. America was not designed for class-distinctions, which is of course why we’ve never ever had them.
Lasch is fundamentally incapable of describing anything without it sounding apocalyptic, but this isn’t as bad as it sounds. He relates stories of immigrants who really did prosper and who, moreover, really were initiated and integrated. It did help people to prosper and get some self-respect.
That ends in the progressive era. There were problems with high rates of academic failure that collapsed into protests against “genteel culture” on the progressive side. On the other side there were concerns that “culture” was being degraded by… well, being touched by the filthy fingers of the masses. This results in a new educational philosophy: “self-reliance” comes to mean “practicality”, and this being the progressive era, “practicality” mostly means finding a good job in a factory.
Of the three ways in which the schools train an efficient labor force – inculcation of industrialism, vocational training, and selection – the third henceforth became by far the most important: “fitting the man to the job,” in the jargon of educational reformers at the time of World War I.
Taylorism. Let several pages pass, CTRL-F “deadening”, the passage bursts like fireworks on the fourth. We’ve been Americanized.
Reformers soon realized that not only were people still failing to complete the “culture” parts of the curriculum, these courses were no longer “useful” at all. Drones don’t need Greek, to put it bluntly, and why let them try? Hilariously, though, we still need to put those people in schools. It’s only fair – the lottery of masks is unjust. Reformers now want to ensure that the man can survive around his job.
The introduction of courses in home-making, health, citizenship, and other nonacademic subjects, together with the proliferation of athletic programs and extracurricular activities, reflected the dogma that schools had to educate “the whole child”; but it also reflected the practical need to fill up the students’ time and to keep them reasonably contented. Such programs spread rapidly through the public schools in the twenties and thirties, often justified by the need to make “good citizenship,” in the words of a dean of Teachers College, “a dominant aim of the American public school.”
Dimly recognizing that in many areas – precisely those that lie outside the formal curriculum – experience teaches more than books, educators then proceeded to do away with books: to import experience into the academic setting, to re-create models of learning formerly associated with the family, to encourage students to “learn by doing.” […] Two educators wrote in 1934, without any awareness of the irony of their prescriptions:
“By bringing into the school those who are practical doers from the world… to supplement and stimulate the teaching of those whose training has been in the normal school, education can be vitalized…”
You think this sounds familiar, and it does. What was that meme that spread about how high-schools should teach us “important things” rather than [Dead White Book]? You claim to have parents, but where the fuck are they. Don’t answer that, they failed because there was never a “parenting class”. Obviously.
Reactionaries, of course, have their own memes: “The American Male – missing since 1950”, accompanied by a greaser doing… I don’t know, greaser things. There’s a jukebox involved. Lasch falls on the greaser’s side. So do I:
The more closely education approximated this empty ideal, however, the more effectively it discouraged ambition of any sort, except perhaps the ambition to get away from school by one expedient or another. By draining the curriculum not merely of academic but of practical content, educators deprived students of challenging work and forced them to find other means of filling time which the law nevertheless required them to spend in school […] Though teachers and administrators deplored their students’ obsession with popularity, they themselves encouraged it by giving so much attention to the need to get along with others – to master the cooperative habits considered indispensable to industrial success.
I would be a greaser too if the other option was classes in (Lasch listing from reformer prescriptions in Illinois) “selecting a family dentist” and “improving one’s personal appearance.”
Then we hit the ’60s.
Modern education reforms are well enough known that I won’t quote extensively. We move to college because this is when “college” starts to mean “college” as we know it.
Lasch calls this the birth of the “multiversity”. One wing for research, most for attracting consumers. Administrative costs skyrocket, making it even more necessary for students to attend. Two trends emerge: high-schools are driven by reform practices to teach students “creatively”, that is, to play to them as though they were a consumer class. This teaches students to be intolerant of failure. The second is radical justification of this. As we all know now, to lack a college degree is worse than death. It’s “inhumane” to allow students to… well, anything. Hence:
“That’s not the 60s!” No, it’s when those kids became the dominant professors.
All of this makes genuine sense, and don’t you fucking ‘snowflake” me. What’s happening here? This isn’t “socialism”, this is consumer capitalism. When the university becomes a commodity (admittedly, an important one for signalling), then you do exactly what any good company would: you meet the demands of the consumer, and the consumer doesn’t want to fail.
At the same time, “radicals” adopt identical logic based on the importance of “education for the masses”. This also makes sense. If you need the image for work, then pressuring the government to pass people and subsidize poorer students is a good policy. Shortsighted, maybe, but… well, so was Polanyi’s double movement, and this is the same thing.
Lasch rightly recalls that the revolutionary period of the 1960s begins with attacks on the university. Not attacks on it as in “make it go away”, but attempts to control it. Charges of “cultural elitism” and “exclusionary policies” were meant not to undermine the university’s credibility but to change its policies while retaining the credibility of it being a “university”. Why take charge of something that’s lost power?
Save it, I know the response about “cultural Marxism” or whatever. No one made classes “revolutionary”, they made them easier. Let no man fail. What the reforms of the 60s and 70s had to do with was not “communism”, nor was it even particularly radical. It was, in fact, a deep-rooted American tradition: acculturate the children into the world. Lasch:
When they proposed to enlist the university on the side of social reform, they echoed the service ideal that justified the imperial expansion of the multiversity in the first place. Instead of trying to hold the university to a more modest set of objectives, radical critics of higher education accepted the premise that education could solve every sort of problem.
We want to know “who’s responsible.” How about no one? Every aspect of society – radicals, capitalists, the state – was complicit.
“Who’s to blame, though?” No one, everyone, maybe three or four people, who knows? If you sussed them out, would that stop it? Is The Man just Rumplestiltskin with a monocle? “It’s all my dad’s fault, so it’s not my problem,” sounds like you’re building a really fucking bad future for yourself, but ok.
True, finding a Villain helps the movie in your head. It doesn’t help you act (it stops it), but it is a good defense mechanism. That Villain isn’t real. This is a natural phenomenon, and everyone is right in some way. There isn’t even metis for a factory, what makes you think one exists for the administrative class? There’s no traditional practice for raising a kid in this society, and whatever there was is gone. Are you asking parents to help their kids fail?
Besides, this is the Jeffersonian ideal, right? You genuinely did teach kids how the world works, the world just doesn’t work very well. What did they learn? How to get the trappings of power without power. What else? How to defend against themselves. Is there more? Yeah, you combined radical politics and psychology, handing all power over to whoever can best persuade you that the problem isn’t you. Last words? Lasch:
Far from preparing students to live “authentically”, the higher learning in America leaves them unable to perform the simplest task – to prepare a meal or go to a party or get into bed with a member of the opposite sex – without elaborate instruction.
Go back, return to power. What happened to it? Power doesn’t just disintegrate, it pops up all throughout human life. You legislate the contest away, but that doesn’t make you powerful. This has dire political consequences, both sides of the spectrum. I don’t care about Jim’s love life, I care about what he does to people around him. This being a democracy, there are political consequences to all of those actions, and more on those in the next parts.
Right now, a question: Which Lasch quote frightened readers off? My money is on one: “Therapy legitimates deviance as sickness”. Sketch, I know. Sounds a little bit like we’re drawing moral boundaries here. Worse: what if those people are sick? It’s not their fault, after all. Ignoring the politically imperious consequences of that: duh, kind of the point, and yes I know how bad that sounds. What’s your point?
We need a measure sooner or later. I’m writing about narcissism now, but the point of this series is nihilism. Nihilism is about losing values, losing anything to measure yourself again. What happens in the third iteration of our game? You lose the explicit presence of the judges.
Society no longer expects authorities to articulate a clearly reasoned, elaborately justified code of law and morality; nor does it expect the young to internalize moral standards of the community. It demands only conformity to the conventions of everyday intercourse, sanctioned by psychiatric definitions of normal behavior.
I know that [philosophy] says that values are subjective and arbitrary and etc. but that philosophy is asinine. Not because values aren’t arbitrary (open question), but because it didn’t think to ask the obvious followup: So what? “So like existentialism.” So like the opposite, at least of the common form. What does “choosing your own values” do for you? What do people choose right now? Narcissistic defenses, admittedly highly authentic ones. Blame capitalism if you must, but markets aren’t the problem. Nor are “defense mechanisms” generally. Every society has those, see: the concept of hell. Narcissism pops up only because it’s choice defense of a society that has no values, and there’s no way to pull back. To do that you need a measure, something solid to test yourself against, which is what all of it avoids. You need a value system and it can’t just come from you. The closest we have is money, which a) mostly used to buy defenses and, b) seriously, that’s the real problem? Is our world lacking money right now?
Word to the wise: you can’t draw values out of random factoids, stop trying. I don’t care how much data you have about the natural world, I don’t care how fine your comb is, “What is good?” will slip right through its teeth. Our model of science will not give you the values you need.
Here’s your conspiracy, take it however strongly you want: why did narcissism aggressively overtake the humanities first? “The best defense is a good offense.”
Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades, of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at that critical moment it presumes itself as reality.
I’m not telling you to read a thousand page book, but I’m not not telling you to. There are worse places to start, and Gaddis was a genius. You expect this metaphor to continue, or there to be a scene at a party, or Camilla to have a bad experience at some orgy. What else is that qualifier doing right up front? But Camilla dies next sentence, and what’s in the next line, the paragraph, the main plot of the book?
Nothing much about masks.
image top and below, Wong Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild
next in the Lasch series: elites and populism.