In his 1979 bestseller, The Culture of Narcissism, the American historian Christopher Lasch wrote, “Every society reproduces its culture – its underlying assumptions, its modes of organising experience – in the individual, in the form of personality.” He went on to argue that celebrity culture, the radical movements of the 1960s and the dawn of the “information age” had normalised a strain of selfishness that was once deemed pathological.
His diagnosis appeared to be confirmed the following year when “narcissistic personality disorder” (NPD) was admitted to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the US bible of all things psychological. The diagnostic criteria for NPD still make for uncanny reading: “Has a grandiose sense of self-importance,” it begins. “Exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognised as superior without commensurate achievements . . .”
Lasch’s foreboding parallels the lifestyle features and comment pieces of today, in which “the me me me generation” (as Time magazine called it) is denounced as cold and inauthentic, an assemblage of preening headshots, inflated expectations and glossy Snapchats arranged to mask a hollow core. A 2014 New York Times op-ed claimed that “the selfie generation” (Americans aged 18 to 33) was “drifting away from traditional institutions”, and a huge intergenerational research study reported in 2006 that university students ranked higher on the narcissistic personality inventory (NPI) than at any time since 1979. Such findings are often written up with an accompanying sense of moral decline. In July last year, a YouGov press release warned journalists, “Only 37 per cent of millennials think people should ‘always do the right thing’.” Narcissism is back, it seems, and we’re shallower than ever.
Two new books attempt to explain a cultural moment in which our “modes of organising experience” – of sexuality and selfhood – have failed to keep pace with the freedoms on offer. “The privilege of being middle class in America in the 21st century meant that most of the pressing questions in life were left to choice,” Emily Witt writes in Future Sex. “Who should I have sex with when I’m single? What should I eat for dinner? What should I do to earn money? There was limited ancient guidance on such historically preposterous questions.”
Witt’s book is a catalogue of emerging sexualities produced by “ingenuity and perversion”: from activists who believe the female orgasm to be the secret to world peace to wholesome, high-achieving non-monogamists; from the emotional and physical maelstrom of Grindr and Tinder to the “mass intimacy” available via online chat rooms and live webcam feeds. It’s a kind of feeling in the dark, a personal appraisal of life outside the “ontological monoculture” of romantic love. The first chapter illuminates the history of internet dating but ends in uncertainty. “Internet dating had evolved . . . to fulfil the desires of a particular moment,” Witt writes. “At no point did it offer guidance in what to do with such a vast array of possibility.”
“I was born in the uncanny valley between the millennial generation and Generation X, at home neither on the internet nor in a world without it,” Kristin Dombek notes in The Selfishness of Others, an investigation of the new narcissism epidemic or, more precisely, of those who fear one (both Witt and Dombek are associates of the Brooklyn-based literary magazine n+1, for which Witt wrote a couple of the pieces that she develops in her book and Dombek is the in-house agony aunt). She tracks the progress of Lasch’s ideas – in turn derived from Havelock Ellis, Paul Näcke and Freud – as they developed to form a distinctly American phobia. Now every inattentive boyfriend, bratty teenager or serial killer can be diagnosed by “us”, the healthy. They are narcissists. They are empty inside.
Likewise, Future Sex places its author at a crossroads. “I was single, straight and female,” Witt writes. She has just turned 30, so coupledom still looms as “the default denouement of [her] sexuality, and a destiny rather than a choice”. At the same time, she wants “to picture a different future, one aligned with the freedom of my present”. After visiting San Francisco, where the “combination of computers and sexual diversity was especially concentrated”, she undergoes a transformation. From a base of hesitancy and repression, Witt embarks on a journey that leads her to the orgy tent at the Burning Man festival, a live pornography shoot and a sex party named Thunderwear IV, after which she sees sex “as a way to become closer to people who intrigued me, whom I wanted to understand better”.
In discussing narcissism, Dombek casts doubt over “evidence” such as the NPI, taken from studies in which publication bias, unreplicable outcomes and poor write-ups often skew perceptions. She reiterates the usefulness of narcissism as an engine of mental growth (even past childhood into adulthood). Crucially, she reminds us that when Narcissus gazed into the water, he thought he was looking at someone else. It was his affection for that other boy which led him to spurn Echo, who raged because Narcissus loved only himself.
Dombek suggests that when a loved one turns away from us, we should consider our own hurt feelings. “It’s the main thing I’ve learned from reading all this psychology,” she writes: “The future is always trying to feel like the past.” Perhaps we criticise the digital lives of millennials – who “friend” people they’ve met just once and exchange nude photos as a prelude to love – to mask a fear that history is leaving us behind.
As she leaves Burning Man, Witt tries to imagine a future sexuality without shame, in which autonomous zones such as this drug-fuelled freak-out in a desert will no longer be required. “They would meld their bodies seamlessly with their machines,” she imagines, “without our embarrassment, without our notions of authenticity.”
Lasch’s fears about the death of fellow feeling may have been a little overwrought, but his belief that the culture replicates itself in individuals continues to ring true. It is one thing to know how that feels – evicted from the past, uncertain of the future – and quite another to put it into words. Dombek and Witt can do both.
Future Sex: a New Kind of Free Love by Emily Witt is published by Faber & Faber (210pp, £12.99)
The Selfishness of Others: an Essay on the Fear of Narcissism by Kristin Dombek is published by Faber & Faber Inc (160pp, £13.99)
This article appears in the 04 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain