Narcissism in the digital age

Ralph Wolfe Cowan, The Entrepeneur, 1987. Courtesy: the artist

Ralph Wolfe Cowan, The Entrepeneur, 1987. Courtesy: the artist

Ralph Wolfe Cowan, The Entrepeneur, 1987. Courtesy: the artist

‘Facebook Story’ is an interlude track on Frank Ocean’s 2016 album, Blonde. Voiced by French music producer SebastiAn, it is a brief account of a relationship-gone-wrong in the age of social media. In short: boy dates girl, faithfully, for three years; girl sends boy Facebook friend request; boy refuses on grounds that ‘I am right here with you, in reality.’ Girl dumps boy immediately; boy deems girl ‘crazy’ and ‘jealous’. It is difficult to discern the true narcissist in this narrative (which was drawn from the producer’s own experience and relayed to Ocean in a recorded conversation): the girl, for buying into the social-media mirage and assuming that the boy’s eschewal of the internet for real life was a ruse for infidelity; or the boy, for assuming her feelings and assigning them back to her, fixing her as suffering from feminine hysteria? Does the exchange represent a mere misunderstanding or a revelation? It remains unclear.

‘Facebook Story’ was not a case study featured in Kristin Dombek’s recent monograph, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism (2016, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), but it certainly could have been. Dombek’s superbly written and very readable argument re-appraises early psychoanalytical conceptions of narcissism – to which gay men and vain women were thought to be particularly prone – within the context of modern-day feminism and social media’s digitally enabled hall of mirrors.

She begins at the (undeniably Western, white, male-driven) beginning, performing a brief historical synthesis of continental philosophy and Greek mythology (Immanuel Kant, Ovid) and psychoanalytic theory (Sigmund Freud) to arrive at the moment where popular culture converged with a more subject-focused medical establishment (René Girard, Otto Kernberg, Heinz Kohut) to forge a newly problematized diagnosis for the acutely self-centred: Narcissistic Personality Disorder. First listed in 1980 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of mental health published by the American Psychiatric Association, Narcissistic Personality Disorder was the freshly minted formal term for a now-psychiatric condition that had, just one year earlier, been identified as a social phenomenon in historian-critic Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979). Lasch’s pocket-sized paperback of armchair sociology, now a cult classic, pointed a presciently accusatory finger at America’s obsession with itself as manifested through its social and religious systems, the sexual revolution, the proliferation of self-help literature and rampant consumerism. By Lasch’s grave account, it’s a wonder that the US managed to muddle its way into the 1980s! Indeed, he identified the traits that would come to typify the ‘me’ culture of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and beyond.

So, is narcissism a slippery form of mental illness or a cultural norm that has shapeshifted over time? If extreme self-regard is indeed an affliction, who amongst us is authorized to recognize it in others, given how acutely pervasive it is? And whose diagnosis is more accurate: that of the clinician or the citizen-critic? Dombek suggests some answers in a narrative that expertly weaves fact with social observation in a relentless search for the subtly hypocritical nature of self-obsession. An essayist long-affiliated with a particular corner of Brooklyn’s literary scene – Dombek is a regular contributor to the literary magazine N+1, amongst others – she is a veteran observer of the demands of young urban adulthood and its perilous effects on individual identity. Dombek casts her case studies as archetypes (the bad boyfriend, the millennial, the murderer, the artist) embodied by subjects both obvious (author, public speaker, notorious womanizer and eventual repentant Tucker Max) and less so (Allison, the star of the MTV’s 2007 reality show, My Super Sweet Sixteen, whose constructed on-camera ‘daddy’s girl’ persona turns out to belie her future as a self-aware adult.)

As for Facebook, Dombek tacitly avoids delving too specifically into the fleeting whims of mainstream social media, even if the narcissistic traits most easily recognized in modern times are likely indelibly marked by such online networks. Still, the internet looms large over her narrative. How could it not? Instead of focusing on the better-known platforms, she turns to the truly weird, bravely wading into the ‘narcosphere’: a digital rabbit hole reserved for deeply neurotic forms of self-interest. There, websites devoted to psychological self-diagnosis enable and encourage those feeling scorned by love or otherwise disenfranchised to help themselves by diving through a digital escape hatch.

The Selfishness of Others exercises successful restraint in avoiding the acute sense of self-centredness often found in a book-length essay written by a literary ingénue. ‘Any book you write is its own asylum,’ Dombek notes self-consciously, ‘but a book about narcissism is like the padded cell inside the asylum.’ Amidst this suggestive dodging and weaving, Dombek manages to take a position, revealing what anyone who has served a decent amount of time in psychotherapy should know: that our collective human tendency to project, blame, accuse and diagnose others – especially where narcissism is concerned – is actually a thinly veiled compen­satory gesture for our own deeply flawed personalities. We are all narcissists and our own tendencies toward self-obsession remain in constant negotiation with those of our peers. Only a true narcissist, however, would deign him- or herself able to judge others accurately. Dombek-as-author isn’t a full-blown case, but she is clearly searching for an antidote – if only as a precautionary measure.

If women and gay men have historically been narcissism’s scapegoats, then the tables have surely turned: the heterosexual, presumably white, male is the obvious target of ire today. Dombek is an equal-opportunity critic, however. In one chapter, for instance, it is revealed that a man’s philandering ways might merely be the product of the female everywoman’s imagination: she doesn’t actually know whether or not, while she minds their children at home, he is propping up a local bar re-enacting the same strategy of chat-and-caress with which he had seduced her years earlier. She suspects it, however, and that fantasy – and its continuous repetition in her own mind – is, in itself, a form of self-obsession. Narcissism is relative, as are its moral implications.

Dombek’s book was first published during the lead up to the US presidential election and her thesis couldn’t have been more prescient. The effects on the American psyche of Donald Trump’s bombastic rhetorical style are already clear. Lazily inarticulate, crass, lie-riddled, overtly misogynist and racist, Trump – inveterate, capital-N Narcissist – has effectively given people permission to access and act upon their own deeply held positions of bigotry, hatred and self-interest. I am writing this review in the immediate aftermath of the election and the fallout has already inspired fear and violence, both on the streets and online. Facebook, it transpires, is an infinitely greater threat than either SebastiAn’s ex-girlfriend – or, indeed, most of us – had imagined.

Applying Dombek’s logic of authorial self-awareness, we might consider the possibility that the desire to pathologize a politician like Trump is itself a symptom of narcissism. Such a diagnosis remains a way of establishing order amidst a post-election state of chaos rife with guilt, rage and shame. To primarily focus criticism on Trump’s personality is to conveniently to disengage from larger sociopolitical and economic issues: the very form of cognitive privilege that resulted in his election.

As the old adage suggests, we vote like we hire: to see a reflection of ourselves manifested in a representative of our own desire for power, however pathetically perceived that status actually is. For those who couldn’t see beyond the myopic self-interest that drove the election from its inception, the moment is now – and forever forward. For those seeking to understand the mental fog that carried us here, read The Selfishness of Others and take a look in the mirror.

Main image: Ralph Wolfe Cowan, The Entrepeneur, 1987. Courtesy: the artist. 

Sarah Hromack is a Senior Associate at Project Projects, the interdisciplinary design studio based in New York. 

Issue 184

First published in Issue 184

Jan - Feb 2017

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