The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times. By Christopher Lasch. Norton. 317 pages, $16.95.
December 4, 1984        

In “The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations” (1979), Christopher Lasch described a sea change in the American national character, from the stern and self-directed individualism of earlier centuries— based on “compulsive industry and relentless sexual repression” — to something starkly different:

“Today Americans are overcome not by the sense of endless possibility but by the banality of the social order they have erected against it. Having internalized the social restraints by means of which they formerly sought to keep possibility within civilized limits, they feel themselves overwhelmed by an annihilating boredom, like animals whose instincts have withered in captivity. A reversion to savagery threatens them so little that they long precisely for a more vigorous instinctual existence. People nowadays complain of an inability to feel. They cultivate more vivid experiences, seek to beat sluggish flesh to life, attempt to revive jaded appetites. They condemn the superego and exalt the lost life of the senses. Twentieth-century peoples have erected so many psychological barriers against strong emotion, and have invested those defenses with so much of the energy derived from forbidden impulse, that they can no longer remember what it feels like to be inundated by desire. They tend, rather, to be consumed with rage, which derives from defenses against desire and gives rise in turn to new defenses against rage itself. Outwardly bland, submissive, and sociable, they seethe with an inner anger for which a dense, overpopulated, bureaucratic society can devise few legitimate outlets.”

To deplore the “new narcissism” is now commonplace, thanks in part to Lasch’s influential book. But as this passage suggests, Lasch’s work is more than a moralizing indictment of frivolous hedonism and irresponsible self-indulgence. It is not didactic so much as diagnostic, not a sermon but a set of case studies informed by an ambitious and original theory. Lasch aims to reveal the psychopathology of contemporary life and expose its historical and political roots.

In everyday usage, “narcissism” means excessive self-love or self-absorption. To understand “The Culture of Narcissism”, its well-known predecessor, “Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged” (1977), and its newly published sequel, “The Minimal Self”, one must lay aside this popular definition and follow Lasch into the labyrinth of psychoanalytic theory. According to Freud, a newborn infant cannot distinguish between itself and the rest of the world, and therefore between the source of its needs (its own body) and the source of its gratifications (other people, especially its mother). Hence its first mental experience is a sense of omnipotence. Inevitably, some of its needs eventually go unmet, at which time it becomes aware, more or less traumatically, of its separation from the rest of the world. It reacts with rage against the source of its frustration (its parents), but since the source of its frustration is also the source of its gratification and the sole guarantee of its continued existence, the infant cannot tolerate its own impulses of rage and aggression, which would, if realized, annihilate it along with its parents.

This dilemma is unique in the animal world, since only humans are so helpless for so long after birth. The infant’s response is fateful — indeed, virtually defines the human condition. The infant represses its rage. But repressed emotions always return. The infant’s rage is converted into a variety of fantasies: the fantasy of primal union, in which the irreversibility of separation and dependence is denied; the idealization of the parents, which denies that the parents sometimes frustrate the child and also that it wishes to punish them in return; and the splitting of parental images into all-good and all-bad, which denies the incomprehensible discovery that gratification and frustration come from the same source.

These fantasies have one crucial thing in common: they are all outsized, out of scale. The infant is pictured as either omnipotent or helplessly persecuted, the parents as either perfectly benevolent or implacably threatening. And the fundamental truth of the infant’s situation — its separation from and dependence on the rest of the world— arouses alternating panic and denial.

According to psychoanalytic theory (which I’ve simplified radically), the repression of infantile rage and the fantasies that result are universal and unavoidable. What happens thereafter determines the degree of the child’s — and adult’s — maturity or pathology. What must occur, if emotional health is to be achieved, is a gradual scaling down of the superhuman size that the parents have assumed in the infant’s fantasies, and a gradual softening and displacement (“sublimation”) of the intense, overwhelming feelings they have called forth. How?

By Lasch’s account, there are several ways. First, through the child’s continuous experience of love and discipline from the same source, i.e., its parents. The actual experience of discipline — of limited but not token punishment — slowly breaks down the archaic fantasy that the parents’ displeasure means the infant’s annihilation. Next, through what Lasch calls “optimal frustrations,” which one might also call (perhaps a little recklessly) “benign neglect.” In sharp contrast to the awkward and excessive solicitude of the over-anxious mother, the instinctive confidence of a woman immersed in a kin community or “biological stream” allows the child to experience simultaneously the lessening of its mother’s attentions and its own modest, growing mastery of its immediate environment. Then there is the child’s encounter with what Lasch (following the British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott) calls “transitional objects”: playthings, games, and other objects and activities that symbolically express unconscious attachments but at the same time provide the child with reliable links to a stable, comprehensible external world. And finally, there is every day contact with the father, whom infants of both sexes formerly envied, hated, and feared because of his superior access to the nurturing mother. When the child is part of the father’s work environment, it observes two things: first, that he is fallible; and second, that he possesses important and satisfying skills, which he is able and willing to pass on to the child, thus earning its gratitude. Both insights help reduce him to human size in the child’s psyche.

To the extent that these several experiences occur, the child can overcome its archaic terror at the discovery of its separateness from the world as well as its unconscious fear and hatred of those who forced this discovery upon it. It can abandon its chief defense against those feelings: the fantasy of overcoming separateness and regaining primal, undifferentiated union with the world. In other words, it can become a self, distinct from others and comfortable with the distinction. It can grow up.

But if these maturational experiences do not occur, no secure self emerges. The growing child’s unconscious mental life is still haunted by boundless rage over infantile helplessness, by the fear of parental retaliation that this rage induces, by the simultaneous idealization and demonization of the parents, and by the infant’s only available defense against these impulses and fears: the fantasy of a return to oneness and omnipotence. The result is a neurotic adult. Neurotic, Lasch asserts, in specific and predictable ways: wary of intimate, permanent relationships, which entail dependence and thus may trigger infantile rage; beset by feelings of inner emptiness and unease, and therefore ravenous for admiration and emotional or sexual conquest; preoccupied with personal “growth” and the consumption of novel sensations; prone to alternating self-images of grandiosity and abjection; endowed with ingratiating, nervously self-depreciatory humor and seductive but superficial self- insight; unable to identify emotionally with past and future generations and therefore unable to accept the prospect of aging, decay, and death. This constellation of symptoms is known with in psychoanalytic theory as narcissism: the lack of an autonomous, well-defined self. It is currently, as Lasch claims and the clinical literature attests, the most common form of emotional pathology — the neurotic personality of our time.

It was not always so. The neurotic personality of Freud’s time was quite different — acquisitive, fanatically industrious, self-righteous, sexually repressed. Then the typical symptom was obsessional (an inexplicable compulsion, e.g., incessant handwashing) or hysterical (chronic excitability or, conversely, non-somatic paralysis of a limb or faculty, e.g., frigidity). These symptoms stood out in sharp relief against the background of a stable personality, something like a “bug” in an otherwise well-functioning computer program. To simplify for the sake of contrast: the Victorian Viennese neurosis was localized and discrete; contemporary narcissism is systemic and diffuse. To simplify even more dramatically: the character of selfhood has changed, from a strong (often rigid) self, in secure possession of fundamental values but riddled (often crippled) with specific anxieties, to a weak, beleaguered self, often full of charms and wiles, and capable, but only fitfully, of flights of idealism and imagination.

Why? What can account for this subtle but immensely significant shift? Lasch’s answer to that question extends over six books and two decades. His first three books — “The New Radicalism in America” (1965), “The Agony of the American Left” (1969), and “The World of Nations” (1973)— were, among other things, a social and intellectual history of the American left. Lasch was fascinated by the left’s long tradition of cultural radicalism, its persistent attempt to move from political criticism to criticism of American life as a whole. He had many suggestive things to say about the forms this cultural radicalism has taken and the reasons for its continual frustration. But his critique was tentative, needing to be completed by a theory of the relations among politics, culture, and psychology. He formulated that theory in “Haven in a Heartless World” and “The Culture of Narcissism”, and he’s refined and extended it in “The Minimal Self.”

Lasch posits a connection between two of the deepest, broadest phenomena of modem history: the change in personality described above; and the change from early, developing capitalism (relatively small-scale, still permeated with pre-industrial values and work practices, and largely concerned with expanding production to satisfy basic needs) to mature capitalism (dominated by huge, bureaucratic organizations, “rationalized” by the reduction of workers’ initiative, autonomy, and skills, and concerned with expanding consumption through the creation of new needs). Modernization, according to Lasch, is the introduction of new, parallel forms of domination into work life and family life. In a sweeping but closely argued passage he makes the central link in his complex argument:

“The socialization of reproduction completed the process begun by the socialization of production itself— that is, by industrialization. Having expropriated the worker’s tools and concentrated production in the factory, industrialists in the opening decades of the twentieth century proceeded to expropriate the worker’s technical knowledge as well. By means of “scientific management,” they broke down production into its component parts, assigned a specific function on the assembly line to each worker, and kept to themselves the knowledge of the productive process as a whole. In order to administer this knowledge, they created a vastly enlarged managerial apparatus, an army of engineers, technicians, personnel managers, and industrial psychologists drawn from the same pool of technical experts that simultaneously staffed the “helping professions.” Knowledge became an industry in its own right, while the worker, deprived of the craft knowledge by which he had retained practical control of production even after the introduction of the factory system, sank into passive dependence. Eventually, industry organized management itself along industrial lines, splitting up the production of knowledge into routinized operations carried on by semiskilled clerical labor secretaries, typists, computer card punchers, and other lackeys. The socialization of production — under the control of private industry — proletarianized the labor force in the same way that the socialization of reproduction proletarianized parenthood, by making parents unable to provide for their own needs without the supervision of trained experts.”

How does industrialization produce a culture of narcissism? Lasch argues that the evolution of capitalism has affected family structure and the socialization of children in a number of ways. In reorganizing the production process, it has removed the father from the child’s everyday experience and deprived him of the skills that formerly evoked the child’s emulation and gratitude. This means that the child’s archaic, punitive fantasies about the father persist unchecked. In encouraging geographic mobility, it has uprooted families from kin communities and replaced intergenerationally transmitted folk wisdom about child rearing with social-scientific expertise dispensed by professionals. This undermines parental confidence and replaces face-to-face authority over the child with the impersonal, bureaucratic authority of schools, courts, social welfare agencies, and psychiatrists. In promoting mass consumption, advertisers (like social-science professionals) have convinced parents that their children are entitled to the best of everything but that, without expert assistance, parents are helpless to determine what that might be. In generating a mass culture glutted with rapidly obsolescing commodities and transient images, it blurs the distinction between reality and illusion and renders the world of objects unstable and bewildering. This makes it difficult for the child to locate “transitional objects,” which would help it find its way from infantile attachments into the external world of culture and work. And in promising an endless supply of technological marvels, it evokes grandiose fantasies of absolute self-sufficiency and unlimited mastery of the environment, even while the quasi-magical force that conjures up those marvels — i.e., science — becomes ever more remote from the comprehension or control of ordinary citizens. This is a recipe for regression to psychic infancy: fantasies of omnipotence alternating with terrified helplessness.

One of the prime tenets of psychoanalysis is that pathology and normality are not sharply demarcated but continuous. So these secular developments — the sundering of love and discipline in the child’s experience, the invasion of family life and work life by professional and corporate elites, the blurring of distinctions by mass culture — not only produce more narcissistic individuals than formerly, but also create a new psychic environment. A world populated by rigid selves is a world of sublimation and its derivatives: aggression, greed, cruelty, hypocrisy, unquestioning adherence to inherited values and restraints. A world of weak selves is more fluid, corruptible, blandly manipulative, sexually easygoing, uncomfortable with anger and rivalry, and leery of defining constraints, whether in the form of traditional values or of future commitments. To play with typology: the distinction between the early capitalist self and the late capitalist self is the distinction between the Puritan and the swinger, the entrepreneur and the corporate “gamesman,” the Wild West and Marin County, Cotton Mather and Charles Reich, Benjamin Franklin and Dale Carnegie, Natty Bumppo and Andy Warhol, Horatio Alger and the Happy Hooker, the imperial self and the minimal self, Prometheus and Narcissus. That these distinctions bespeak profound change is obvious. But — assuming they suggest a fair comparison between early modern and late modern culture — that they represent progress is less obvious.

For Lasch, then, modernization is not the solution but a new form of the problem — the problem, that is, of domination. This belief is the source of his longstanding critique of his fellow socialists and feminists. Much, perhaps most, of the left has always been convinced that industrialization, technological development, and the erosion of traditional forms of authority, are intrinsically progressive. Modernization has had its costs, admittedly, but the answer to the problems of modernity was usually held to be more of the same, preferably under democratic auspices. In socialism’s glorious youth, Marx called for “a ruthless criticism of everything existing”; few of his successors doubted that the decline of Christianity, patriarchy, possessive individualism, and everything else existing would be followed directly by something better. But, Lasch argues, these things have by and large declined; the result is not a radical extension of political and sexual autonomy but a bureaucratically mediated war of all against all.

Lasch’s most intimate and in tense disagreements are with cultural radicals: critics of education, sports, religion, sexuality, the family, and the work ethic, and proponents of a new, “liberated” ideal of expressiveness and self-realization. What these radicals ignore, Lasch charges, is that Christianity, competitive individualism, and the patriarchal family are already obsolescent, at least in those social strata where modernization is most advanced. These values and institutions have been undermined not by leftist opposition but by capitalists themselves, for their own purposes: to promote mass consumption and to regiment the work process. By espousing an ideal of personal liberation largely confined to leisure time and heavily dependent on the consumption of goods and services, cultural radicals have conceded defeat. Instead of adapting to industrialization and mass culture, Lasch contends, the left should oppose them. Only a change to human scale, to local, decentralized control (in work places, communities, and families), can halt the spread of commodity relations and the bureaucratization of the self.

* * *

This — along with a wealth of analytical nuance and illustrative detail, which I’ve necessarily omitted — is Lasch’s central argument. Of course he’s not the first to try to combine Marx and Freud. Wilhelm Reich, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and even — in an extended sense — Norman o. Brown and R.D. Laing have preceded him in that effort; and left-wing “romantic” criticism of industrialization and mass culture goes back much further. (Lasch acknowledges a debt to one of the earliest, and perhaps the greatest, of such critics, William Morris, though not to Morris’s great successor, D.H. Lawrence.) But the psychoanalytic theory of narcissism, like the phenomenon itself, has only recently come into its own; and the historiographies of consumerism, professionalism, the family, and the relation between technology and the labor process are all currently in a heroic phase. Lasch has synthesized this vast body of theory and historical research into an extraordinarily deep and comprehensive interpretation of modern life.

An interpretation is above all an act of imagination. The imagination of the left has in the main been dominated by a vision of history as progress. But this hope has become difficult to sustain. The 18th-century belief in straightforward progress modulated to the 19th-century belief in dialectical progress. Lasch leads that it is time to renounce the dream altogether and instead re-evaluate our endangered traditions: “We now know…that many radical movements in the past have drawn strength from the myth or memory of a golden age in the still more distant past…The belief that in some ways the past was a happier time by no means rests on a sentimental illusion; nor does it lead to a backward-looking, reactionary paralysis of the political will.”

Acts of imagination, being individual, are always incomplete. No doubt the past was in some ways a happier time. But the ways in which it was not also have their claims on our imagination. One respect in which it is difficult to argue for the superior happiness of the past is the condition of women; not surprisingly, feminists have been Lasch’s sharpest, sometimes bitterest, critics. Their criticisms have been twofold: feminist historians have accused Lasch of understating — of too weakly imagining — the oppression of women and children in the premodern family, and psychoanalytic feminists have charged that his view of narcissism is reductive and excessively bleak.

Lasch has repeatedly denied that his criticism of the family’s critics implies any “nostalgia” for the vanishing (by his account) patriarchal order. In scattered passages he has characterized that order as “despotic” and “essentially exploitive”; and replying directly to his own critics (in the preface to the paperback edition of “Haven in a Heartless World”) he declares forthrightly that “the justice of women’s demand for equality remains too obvious to ignore” and that “economic subordination for women is morally indefensible and…no longer provides the basis for a good marriage, if indeed it ever did.” But Lasch immediately qualifies that avowal: “The trouble with the feminist program is not that economic self-sufficiency for women is an unworthy goal but that its realization, under existing economic conditions, would undermine equally important values associated with the family. While defenders of the family need to acknowledge the justice of the central feminist demands, feminists for their part need to acknowledge the deterioration of care for the young and the justice of the demand that something be done to arrest it.” Whether and how “existing economic conditions” can be transformed to allow for both women’s equality and “the care of the young” is a question that Lasch, characteristically, leaves open. Until it is answered, there will be no peace between feminists and “defenders of the family.”

“The Minimal Self” is devoted to, among other things (e.g., bringing contemporary political rhetoric and minimalist art under the explanatory paradigm of cultural narcissism), answering Lasch’s more recent critics, especially feminist psychoanalytic theorists. According to Lasch, one of the most promising political developments of our time is the attempt by the feminist, environmental, and peace movements to work out a critique of “instrumental reason”— i.e., of rationality conceived as technological mastery over nature and social organization. Part of the imaginative and theoretical underpinning of this critique is the idea that there is something essentially masculine about conquest, dominance, perhaps all purposeful activity, and some thing essentially feminine about nurture, mutuality, tranquility. Freudian feminists have put this familiar notion into its most sophisticated form. Freud distinguished between two regulative agencies within the psyche: the superego, mediator of externally imposed norms, and the ego-ideal, an ambiguous concept that aims to capture the outwardly directed aspects of the fantasy of overcoming separateness. The superego makes possible autonomy, individuality, detached rationality. The ego-ideal motivates imagination, play, self- sacrifice, and the desire for loving union. Feminists argue that the long history of male dominance is a history of the moral hegemony of the superego. The monopoly of child rearing by parents of one sex — mothers —distorts the psychic development of boys and girls into an artificial asymmetry. The collectivization of child rearing will correct that asymmetry and usher in a dual reign of superego and ego-ideal. Promethean values have brought us to the brink of planetary destruction; it is time to temper them with narcissistic ones.

Lasch admits the plausibility of this far-reaching thesis. But he argues back that assigning a gender to psychopathology is ultimately misleading. All of us, men and women alike, suffer the predicament — infantile dependence — to which narcissism is a response, and all of us now grow up in a culture that makes coming to terms with that predicament more difficult than ever before. The “masculine drive” for technological omnipotence, for perfect self-sufficiency, and the “feminine” desire for mystical union, for perfect harmony, are a coordinate pair, mutually reinforcing and equally futile. “Masculine” solipsism and “feminine” symbiosis both seek to deny the unbearable facts of separation and dependence. Prometheus and Narcissus are “brothers under the skin.”

If not Prometheus or Narcissus, where is the model of a sane culture? Lasch, again characteristically, does not say. But in the final pages of “The Minimal Self”, he throws out some hints. He raise intriguing possibility that the psychoanalytic theory of “transitional objects” may provide support for the classical theory of “practical reason” — Aristotle’s doctrine that the goal of work and politics is not the satisfaction of discrete interests but the formation of character through submission to the rules of a “practice,” such as science, art, or public debate. What these two notions have in common, according to Lasch, is that they point the way to an “evolutionary” rather than a “regressive” achievement of the ego-ideal’s quest: union with the Ideal and release from desire. Only a disciplined relationship to a manmade order of objects and practices can hold in tension the demands of external reality and the unconscious urge to return to the womb. In this tension, in our acknowledgment of this conflict, is our fragile peace.

Belief in the ineluctability of conflict is the essence of tragic consciousness. In this sense, in its insistence that “lovemaking, artistic creation, and play,” along with all other purposeful activities, “become most deeply satisfying when they remind us of the tension that precedes release, the separation that precedes reconciliation, the loss underlying restoration, the unavoidable otherness of the other,” Lasch’s vision is fundamentally tragic. At once con s and revolutionary, it suggests that genuine democracy and a tragic view of life are not only compatible but inseparable.