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Narcissism and resonance

Looking for Resonance How to change your soul life in digital modernity
Martin Altmeyer is fed up with criticism of social media and wants to redefine the concept of narcissism. But does he succeed?



After the controversy over forensic psychiatrists' diagnoses of Breivik, the term "narcissistic personality disorder" has not exactly become more popular. It denotes a mixture of greatness fantasies and sadism. The second forensic psychiatric report stated this:

“His grandiosity is well illuminated, not least in his fantasies of status in a self-constructed organization, as well as ideas of future recognition, position and admiration. He looks unique (…). The actions charged clearly show how he has seen himself entitled to act on his own and across society's rules and moral / ethical norms. His failure to empathize has been evident, not least by his inability to take the offender's perspective in a genuine way. ”

But it is a long step from the diagnosis of mass murderers to children who want attention all the time and the new digital self-disclosure trend. When we use the word "narcissism" about all this, it's no wonder it leads to conceptual confusion.

En «kind» Narcissism? Many have criticized digital developments for producing increasing self-esteem. Cultural theorists like Christopher Lash, Thomas Ziehe and others talked about a new type of narcissistic socialization as early as the 1970s. What would they say today about published diaries (blogging), "sharing" of experiences on Facebook, autofiction novels and selfies? The German social psychologist Martin Altmeyer has looked tired of soured cultural criticism of the digital culture, and has instead chosen to redefine the concept of narcissism.

I am social. Altmeyer polemics much against an operational theoretical view of narcissism in which alleged intersubjectivity has previously been excluded. This critique should hit Freud and orthodox psychoanalysis. Against this understanding, Altmeyer puts an intersubjective concept of personality formation: We are created through the reactions or the "resonance" we get from our surroundings. Digital media only reinforces and provides new opportunities for the way our personality is created – through the reactions we get from others. Altmeyer is not the only one who perceives Freud's theory of narcissism in this way. Thus, it becomes a task to make psychoanalysis intersubjective and social. But this controversy is, in my opinion, a critique of a straw man. In order to present psychoanalysis in this way, one must virtually ignore the fact that Freud describes phenomena such as projection, introjection, transference and countertransference. These concepts try to capture that mental conflicts are constituted by and appear in mental relationships. Altmeyer pretends that it is a new discovery that we are created in interaction with others. And with this attempt to reinvent the wheel, he believes he has also acquired a means of defending social media and the new digital culture. But this argument is due to a fallacy.

Net narcissism. And the other big mistake he makes is not seeing that even though we are created in interaction with others, it does not mean that we need feedback on who we are from social media all the time. Even when we are alone, we can talk to ourselves, to others, to think of friends and acquaintances. It is entirely possible to be social even if you are offline!

Those who complain about growing narcissism are themselves narcissists, Altmeyer believes, they are afraid of losing the monopoly of interpretation in favor of democratization in the digital space. That's why they come up with their sour cultural critique – they long for an idealized past that has never existed. He polemicizes against people like Evgeny Morozov (b. 1984), a leading critic of modern information capitalism, who warns against surveillance and digital imperialism. Jonathan Franzen also mentions Morozov as a source of inspiration for the novel Purity (2015), in which the line from surveillance in the old GDR to today's internet is drawn. Franzen says in an interview that the internet is "the biggest narcissism-promoting instrument ever created". In Germany, well-known intellectuals such as Botho Strauss and Hans Magnus Enzensberger have announced their withdrawal from the Internet. According to Altmeyer, such reactions say more about the inner demons of cultural critics than the media world they demonize.

Facebook provides a total program for media self-presentation: Showing! Connecting! Contacting! Sharing! Resonating!

What kind of social self? But if the self is social, it can be this in different ways. It is entirely possible to be social without being an exhibitionist. Social flexibility can quickly lead to independence and the urge to turn the tide with the wind. The question Altmeyer does not discuss is whether social chameleons promote a dynamic sociality over time. One of the strengths of democracy is that there are institutions that promote disagreement. This does not mean that everyone should be the old woman against the current, but that several heads think better than one – provided that they come with different perspectives on the issue being discussed. Here, Altmeyer makes it too easy for himself when he says that our need to be socially visible online is an expression of human «social nature». For that reason, so to speak, the cultural critique of digitization and social media can be rejected in the first place!

Altmeyer accepts that what is not visible in the digital world literally no longer exists. All areas of society are now mediated; sports, cultural life and politics follow the laws of the attention economy. Yes, even universities and government institutions actively market themselves online, and visibility is an imperative. Facebook provides a total program for media self-presentation: Showing! Connecting! Contacting! Sharing! Resonating!

A postheroic age. Altmeyer relies on Martin Dornes' book Does capitalism make us depressed? About mental health and illness in modern society (2016). This book is also a confrontation with tendencies towards black paint on the left. Dornes denies that globalized market liberalism has made it more difficult: People are generally well mentally equipped for the changes in family and working life. The psychological strain is now by no means greater than in the first 30 years after the war with the "Wirtschaftswunder", which many in retrospect tend to idealize.

The new thing is that people today have to shape their own lives and have opportunities that previous generations did not have. The so-called postheroic personality is less authoritarian and more adaptable. The individual has developed a new sensibility and is no longer heroic because he does not stubbornly try to realize projects against the demands of the real world. This also entails the possibility of failure in new ways that were previously maintained by tradition and role expectations. Dornes compares before and now in the following way: “He who previously stood at the assembly line and let others decide, did what he was asked to do in a hierarchical organization and led the professional life separately from a private life with a patriarchal division of roles within the family. He also did not have to worry about responsibility, initiative, the boundaries between work and private life, division of labor in the home and co-determination rights for women and children. "

Altmeyer pretends that it is a new discovery that we are created in interaction with others. This is how he believes he has been given a means to defend the new digital culture.

Where the superego, tradition and authority previously determined the individual's pattern of action, more has now been left to the individual. Freud spoke of the need for the self to be strengthened in relation to the primitive urges and desires of it ("Wo Es war, soll Ich werden"). Altmeyer and Dornes believe that the self must now take over some of the functions the superego previously had. Freud said that the self was not a master in its own house and that it had to fight against three hard lords: the one, the superego and the outside world. The individual's freedom and autonomy are relative and unstable. Although psychoanalytically inspired social psychologists such as Dornes and Altmeyer now believe they can ascertain a structural transformation of the individual's mental equipment, this relationship has not changed.

Democratization? Digital media means that more people can, in principle, have a say, and this certainly means democratization. And the opportunities for information access and exchange have become enormous – a progress that of course also presents challenges. But what Altmeyer does not write about is that of social media in practice does not necessarily work so democratically. Some popular opinion leaders on Facebook have thousands of "followers", while others appear as gray mice. They are happy to follow their idols or drivers. In practice, not everyone gets the same amount of attention – if that was what democratization should consist of. Instead, it is a fierce battle for attention, and people like Altmeyer should discuss how democratic this driver cult on Facebook is. He simply states that digitalisation does not lead to what Jürgen Habermas called "colonization of the world of life", but that it "connects people with each other".

Changed relationship between the generations. Altmeyer takes on the role of an old 68-year-old who has taken sides for the new era. He openly accepts when old heroes from his own generation are voted out in today's German reality series. Altmeyer then also claims that the generational hierarchy has been turned upside down. Previously, the older generation reluctantly passed on the baton to the next generation, who always had to fight for the role of adults. But many older people today do not seem to identify with the world they leave to the younger ones. Instead, many complain about the pluralism of value, the loss of authority, or what they call the superficiality of the modern digital world. Many in the parent generation try to stop a development they feel is threatening, and this leads to a lack of realityorientering, according to Altmeyer. This opens up for the youth generation to have more power.

But precisely in this perspective, there is every reason to be suspicious of the old radical Altmeyer's confession to digital culture and information capitalism. There is something convulsive about his seemingly undivided enthusiasm that we now have the opportunity to live out our "resonance" needs to the fullest. Maybe he's trying to drown out his inner demons from previous generations in the Frankfurt School like Habermas and Adorno? In any case, one can expect that this inner tension in Altmeyer's position will be able to be used creatively in future publications.

This is Tjønneland's second article on narcissism.
Here you will find the first: "Increasing conformism"

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Eivind Tjønneland
Historian of ideas and author.

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