A revival of Christopher Lasch’s treatise on the 20th century American psyche, The Culture of Narcissism, has contemporary cultural critics asking whether we’ve gone too far in our prioritization of individual rights over obligations to our communities. Lasch’s original claim that “having surrendered most of his technical skills to the corporation, [the contemporary American] can no longer provide for his material needs,” seems more true now than ever. Still we balk at Lasch’s nostalgia for a time when social roles were prescribed so rigidly that institutional subjugation arose.
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What’s the Big Idea?
The intellectual tradition of narcissism is a storied one, beginning with Sigmund Freud’s open lectures in Vienna. The term became the fulcrum of the 60s and 70s when the US struggled to come to terms with social discontent embodied in racial segregation, the Vietnam War, and emerging identity politics movements. But how is the term narcissism relevant today? Is there a conscientious struggle to balance rights with obligations in our contemporary political landscape, or does the individual rule our ideology?