100 Books: Texts that Influenced My Thinking and Scholarship–Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism

The Culture of Narcissism

Christopher Lasch’s most famous work, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979), sought to relate the hegemony of modern-day capitalism to an encroachment of a “therapeutic” mindset into social and family life.

The thesis was similar to that already theorized by Philip Rieff.

Lasch posited that social developments in the 20th century (e.g., World War II and the rise of consumer culture in the years following) gave rise to a narcissistic personality structure, in which individuals’ fragile self-concepts had led, among other things, to a fear of commitment and lasting relationships (including religion), a dread of aging (i.e., the 1960s and 1970s “youth culture”) and a boundless admiration for fame and celebrity (nurtured initially by the motion picture industry and furthered principally by television).

He claimed that this personality type conformed to structural changes in the world of work (e.g., the decline of agriculture and manufacturing in the US and the emergence of the “information age”).

With those developments, inevitably there arose a certain therapeutic sensibility (and thus dependence) that, inadvertently or not, undermined older notions of self-help and individual initiative.

By the 1970s even pleas for “individualism” were desperate and essentially ineffectual cries, which expressed a deeper lack of meaningful individuality.