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The literature on narcissism has exploded

The Torments of Narcissism, Me! The power of narcissism
Forfatter: Isolde Charim, Mitja Back
Forlag: Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Kösel-Verlag (Østerrike,Tyskland)
ESSAY / In 2021, there were 1000 publications on narcissism. Narcissism describes a new social normality. This 'self-realization ideology' has now ended up in selfishness and neoliberalism. But what can account for different degrees of narcissism – is it innate character traits, socialization or cultural background?


Narcissism emerged as a cultural diagnosis in the 1970s. From psychoanalytic narcissismtheorists such as Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg spread the diagnosis to cultural theorists such as Richard Sennett and Christopher Lasch. The youth rebellion and a quest to "find one's soul" was obviously an impulse behind the new one individualismn. The ideology of self-realization has now ended up in egoism and neoliberalism. And at the same time the individual feels helpless: Self-help literature is exploding. Nevertheless, the preoccupation with the subject is older than both Descartes and Montaigne: Michel Foucault has shown that "care for oneself" was a theme in antiquity. The Narkissos myth originated with the ancient Greeks.

Narcissism and voluntary submission

The Austrian philosopher and journalist Isolde Charim (b. 1959) has i The Torments of Narcissism ("The anguish of narcissism", 2022) provided a good and up-to-date analysis of narcissism as a cultural phenomenon. The book won her the 2023 Tractatus Prize for Philosophical Essays. The conclusion reads: "The ideology of narcissism is a dead end." She begins with a somewhat antiquated term, namely the call (Reputation). One can think of the opening of Ibsen's Catiline: "I must, I must, then a voice offers me – and I will follow it." Following the voice, it is an example of what Charim understands as the voluntary submission of narcissism. This is the 'primordial scene' of identity. The voice or call can come from God, from a political leader, from an idol, etc. And with the secularization and pluralization of society, the number of possible calls has grown.

But in addition to the individual's voluntary submission under a idea, comes the societal function. Narcissism is an ideology. Charim refers to the French philosopher Louis Althusser (1918–1990): "Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their own real conditions of existence." If the individual existed only out of the real conditions to which he was subject, he would be merely a cog in the social machinery. But it is unbearable. Therefore, the individual has an imaginary relationship in which he is acting, i.e. a subjekt. The imaginary is compared to a "perspective illusion": We perceive the sun as close to us, it is a necessary illusion from which enlightenment cannot free us. Without the imaginary in this sense, we could not live, according to Charim. The imaginary is not a mask that can be torn off, nor is it a mere illusion. The imaginary is necessary for the voluntary submission of narcissism.

Charim follows Lasch and Sennett in that narcissism is neither selfishness nor a strong love for oneself. Although narcissism is one personality disorder, then the term should still describe a new social normality. While Sennett understood narcissism as tyranny of intimacy, Lasch argued that it marked the end of bourgeois individuality. Charim stakes out a third path in the understanding of narcissism, between public intimacy and perversion of the bourgeois subject.

Charim builds on Freuds concept of narcissism, but has little critical to say about it. The objections are therefore in line: When Freud launched the term in an essay from 1914 (in Norwegian 2019: Introduction to narcissism), he wrote nothing about aggression, which has been a major theme in the narcissism literature ever since. He also believed that when libido was transferred from the self to the object, e.g. in falling in love, that self drained of corresponding energy. This presupposes, among other things, that the energy is constant, and that you become weaker from love. Both parts are wrong. Finally, he spoke of a primary narcissism that could be attached to an object and then withdrawn again. Many have dismissed this 'primary' narcissism as a theoretical construct.

Narcissism consists in the fact that the culture has shifted from the superego to the ego ideal.

For Lasch, narcissism is the weakening of the collective certified-structures. Instead, Charim emphasizes that there is a call from the ego-ideal to reach for it. While the superego is governed by prohibitions, is the I ideal a rolemodel. The superego forces and rules through a guilty conscience, while the ego-ideal creates exaltation. Narcissism consists in the fact that the culture has shifted from the superego to the ego ideal. This diagnosis is not new, but is already found at Lasch. The ego-ideal is more cruel than the superego: when you fall short, you not only get a bad conscience, but feel violated and inferior.

The problem becomes how the I-ideal stands in relation to society. When Freud introduced it in 1914, it consisted of voices from outside that were internalized in the subject. It represented the restrictions of society, in addition to the fact that it was also an ideal to compensate for the collapse of the paradise state of primary narcissism. It was not until 1923 that Freud replaced the term 'I-ideal' with the superego, and it has since been a tradition to distinguish between I-ideal and superego in the way Charim does. The best introduction to this problem is still Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel's book The ideal of the self ("Jeg-idealet", 1975), which has been translated into both German and English.

Continuous self-evaluation

Competition and selfishness has become more widespread, while the areas where the logic of capitalism does not apply have become smaller. The market is spreading, and individualism is increasing. Against Lasch, Charim claims that narcissism is not a direct expression of this system logic. Rather, narcissism represents our imaginary relationship to market logic. This imaginary relationship with the changes has become a driving force.

Neoliberalism shapes all social relations according to a cost-benefit model, as when talking about 'human capital' or about being one's own entrepreneur. The market logic is maintained by the subject submitting to an ideal of self-improvement (the I-ideal) and thus being captured by the imaginary.

Narcissism has become part of the conditions for competitionn. That is the new thing about our voluntary submission today. Competition now works by means of objective and subjective narcissism:

The objective narcissism shows itself through the constant evaluation and ranking of everything between heaven and earth. If you have purchased a product or service, you will receive an email asking for feedback so that the supplier can improve. The subjective narcissism consists in a corresponding continuous self-evaluation in relation to the I-ideal. The constant criticism and self-criticism becomes both a driving force and a control mechanism. In the old system, performance was the yardstick. Now the criteria have become more subjective and success correspondingly more unstable. The competence that is prized today has become more mythical or ideological – it is imaginary and narcissistic.

Charim has written an imaginative and sharp analysis of narcissism as a social phenomenon. But the relationship between the old super-ego (which still exists) and the ego-ideal remains unclear. At the same time, it is obvious that the I-ideal has both an individual and a societal side, but the relationship between these could have been clarified better by Charim. Some train, e.g. to approach an ideal of the self, but to what extent is this self-determined, and to what extent is it society's ideal that one tries to realize?

Attention and status

Parts of narcissism research try to bypass psychoanalysis and instead explore it with what one perceives as more empirical and scientific methods.

In Germany, a psychology professor is now trying Half Back (b. 1977) with the title I! Die Kraft des Narzissmus# ("I! The power of narcissism") to justify that everyone is a narcissist, but that some people have a particularly large ego factor. Marked narcissism does not only have negative, but also positive consequences, according to Back. Only a small proportion of narcissists have a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissism is zeitgeistone's most prominent feature, notes Back. Nevertheless, he denies that most people have become more narcissistic now than before. According to him, at the same time, the literature on narcissism has exploded. In 2021 alone, there were 1000 publications on the subject, while in the 1990s there were between 100 and 200.

If the narcissist does not succeed through charisma and charm, he resorts to his pointed elbows.

If he doesn't get enough attention, the narcissist becomes envious and vindictive. The proportion of psychopaths and sadists is nevertheless small among narcissists. The narcissist is not fundamentally evil: the primary goal is to achieve social status. If the narcissist does not succeed through charisma and charm, he resorts to his pointed elbows.

Back rejects that the narcissist's over-sized ego masks an infantile and insecure self. After examining 5500 people, he concludes that the inner self-esteem is actually as good as that of non-narcissists. Narcissists who have to use their elbows are less satisfied, but the self is not hidden deep within. Narcissists do not have a more variable sense of self than others, and they feel better on average than people with a less dominant self. According to Back, narcissism is not based on hidden insecurity, but is due to a strong one orientering against status.

The myth of the narcissist's vulnerability arose because one stopped from narcissistic personality disorder to narcissism in general. Clinical narcissists make up only one percent of the population, while Back operates with sixteen percent who have overdeveloped self-esteem. Diagnosed narcissists are atypical, it is an ego that has not succeeded. The common narcissist does not suffer from his ego. The vulnerable self is not the basis of narcissism, but is due to frustrations when the self fails.

What then can account for different degrees of narcissism, is it innate character traits, socialization or cultural background? Back refutes that the parent's education is the key, even if the tendency to put the child on a pedestal can lead to narcissism. Influence from friends, school and love relationships are more important.

Author Isolde Charim

Back states that narcissism is inherit more than learned. Not one or two genes, but a combination of thousands of genes makes someone have narcissistic traits and develop a strong urge to achieve social admiration. The genes act on the nervous and hormonal systems, which in turn influence how we think, feel and act.

The narcissist is driven by dopamine and therefore takes chances and seeks out the new. Dopamine leads to euphoria and excitement and can be compared to drugs such as amphetamines and cocaine. An example of this connection is Jordan Belfort in the film The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), who is a review figure in the book. The narcissist hunts for new jobs, new people, new clothes and new partners. Future narcissism research must look at the interaction between heredity and environment in the narcissist's development, emphasizes Back.

Narcissism Questionnaire

Although this is a popular book, that is no excuse for failing to discuss method. There are apparently no secrets for the questionnaire researchers – they can naturally measure everything and refute other theories as delusions with the help of their forms.

But isn't this attitude itself narcissistic based on the questions that are asked to demonstrate narcissism? IN questionnaireet Narcissistic Personalty Inventory (NPI, 1988) one must choose between A and B when it comes to 40 characteristics of oneself. No. 16 reads: A. "I can read people like a book." B. "People are sometimes difficult to understand." If one chooses option A, it gives one point for narcissism. Based on this, one could conclude that the test psychologists themselves are narcissists: Researchers like Back read people like an open book via questionnaires without asking a single critical question about whether the questions adequately describe narcissism.

There are also many other problems with NPI's questions, e.g. that A does not exclude B. No. 9 reads: A. "I am neither better nor worse than others" and B. "I think I am a special person". It is not contradictory to answer yes to both, since all are special in the sense that they constitute a unique combination of acquired and learned characteristics. One can therefore be special without feeling better than others. But only answer B scores for narcissism in the NPI.

Author Mitja Back

Mitja Back has – like Twenge and Campbell's bestseller The Epidemic Narcissism (2009) – boiled down the 40 questions in the NPI to 10. The questions assume that the narcissist is less concerned with others and more interested in himself and has above average self-confidence in terms of appearance, authority and ambitions.

The narcissist has a tendency to confuse the ideal image of himself with reality.

The examples consist of a mixture of Fifty Shades of Grey and Trump, by Kim Kardashian and the protagonist of Wolf of Wall Street. Fictional and real examples are discussed side by side. Isn't it narcissistic to confuse fiction with reality? This is actually a feature discussed by the creators of the NPI, Robert Raskin and Howard Terry. The narcissist has a tendency to confuse the ideal image of himself with reality and consequently lacks realityorientering. This feature is not mentioned by Back.

Twenge and Campbell claimed in their book The Narcissism Epidemic ("The Narcissism Epidemic") that Lasch's book from 1979 was written "before research had been done that had examined the personality and behavior of the narcissist in a serious way". Back has the same arrogant attitude: Previous theories are passé.

The self-report can be corrected by observing actual behaviour, and only if this is true, one has a narcissist. But here, too, there are many sources of error. In a theme issue of Psychological Inquiry no. 4-2001, a model is discussed in which high self-esteem can be combined with great unconscious vulnerability. How do you measure unconscious motivation in the NPI questionnaire?

Masked narcissism

Many self-absorbed people also have low self-esteem. Those who do not answer yes to the questions which in sum signal that they think they are world champions, will go under the radar in NPI. People who always have something to complain about and use their own dissatisfaction as a means of power need not be failed narcissists as Back assumes. If charisma and charm don't work, they use aggression and elbows when they don't get their way or don't get enough attention.

While this may be correct, Back does not really discuss covert narcissism ('masked narcissism'). However, he applies the hermeneutic of suspicion to narcissists who front charity. This is a problem because charity violates the narcissism diagnosis. Back here reveals masked egoists who want to bask in the admiration of others. But it stops here.

Aren't there many who are admittedly modest hypocrites out there who lie low but secretly manipulate their surroundings? Gradually, they bore into the nervous system of their fellow humans through passive-aggressive behaviour. They appear kind, accommodating and modest, but are in reality parasites and soul killers. 'Covert narcissists' kill the soul of their victims so slowly that you don't notice it until you are caught in their web. How many of them do we have in society?

More and more articles and mentions on social media of masked narcissism indicate that this is a growing problem. But these go under the radar of Back and the questionnaire enthusiasts because the NPI operates with a simplistic concept of narcissism that believes it can read people like an open book. The narcissist sabotages interaction through gas lighting, silent treatment og stone walling. These are unconscious reaction patterns, and the narcissist himself may believe that he is realizing other people's wishes while in reality he is destroying them.

If the questionnaires could be more advanced, it would perhaps be possible to achieve a rapprochement between Charim's philosophical cultural criticism and Back's enthusiasm that we need assertive and charismatic narcissists as driving forces in social development. Otherwise, different research traditions will continue to talk past each other in their echo chambers.

Eivind Tjønneland
Eivind Tjønneland
Historian of ideas and author. Regular critic in MODERN TIMES. (Former professor of literature at the University of Bergen.)

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