Posts Tagged ‘narcissism’

Today is Little Richard’s 80th Birthday!  I can’t help but hope that Camille Paglia might be celebrating the occasion, with pinocalada and some old 78s. Because Good Golly Miss Molly! if the great ball of fire that is Little Richard isn’t a ‘sexual dissident’ I don’t know who is.

It has been well documented that along with Elvis and maybe even Gorgeous Liberace, Little Richard helped produce the strutting, preening, sequinned phenomenon of Glam Rock. But it’s not just skinny white boys that Richard has influenced. When a couple of years ago, I first encountered the amazing Janelle Monae, I wondered if he might have been her grandfather!

The echoes of Little Richard in Janelle Monae reflect the way that metrosexuality is not just a ‘feminine’ expression of masculinity. It is actually a breakdown of gender difference itself! And men’s increasing flamboyance is best understood in relation to women’s growing ‘active’ and sometimes quite ‘butch’ stance. There would be no Little Richard without Marlene Dietrich, no David Beckham without Suzi Quatro, no Morrissey without Elsie Tanner. Glam men are accompanied by and influenced by and reinforced by Punk Women.

Little Richard interests me for another reason. ‘Black Music’ for want of a better term has a reputation for being ‘macho’ and aggressive, an expression of ‘traditional’ (often meaning, especially in relation to hip hop, violent) masculinity. But thanks to pioneers such as Little Richard, there are some brilliant gender blurring R and B and Hip Hop bands and artists. Do I have to remind you of the narcissistic, sexually ambiguous, lame-clad Prince?

 Or what about the retro, yet metro Outkast?

When I saw Ice T’s great documentary about this history and  ‘literary’ culture of Rap Music, The Art Of Rap, I couldn’t help noticing how ‘self-loving’ a lot of the artists featured were, from their gold chains and nifty trainers to their colourful suits, coiffured hair and the way they courted the camera’s gaze. 

There is another reason to open the babycham, metro lovers and gender benders. Because finally, in 2012, the pathologising term ‘gender identity disorder’ has been removed from the American ‘Bible’ of psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Stastical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders. This news will hopefully please Juliet Jacques who has recently published her final column in her Guardian Transgender Journey series. Her writing has shown that far from being ‘weird’ or ‘sick’, trans people’s experiences, feelings and ideas can be representative of the human condition as a whole. I only hope that the DSM maintains this sensible streak and deletes narcissism from its statutes too. But the problem with narcissism is that it is not possible to separate it into a ‘separate gender’ (though I’d argue our attempts to do so with trans identities fail too). So if we admit that narcissism is not a problem, we are conceding that everyone, men and women and those who identify as neither, have a touch of the Little Richard about them.

And that is even to MetroAuntie, quite a scary thought!

It looks like the psychiatry establishment has done a U-turn and put ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ back in the proposed DSM 5 – the latest edition of the bible of psychiatric illness, due to be published in 2013. I expect this is in part due to the  outcry by many medics and members of the public when it was announced at the end of 2010 that the ‘disorder’ was going to be dropped from the books.

I am inclined to agree with this Telegraph article that the move is a shame and a poor reflection on contemporary society:

‘You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to see that narcissism has shifted from a pathological condition to a norm, if not a means of survival.

Narcissism appears as a necessity in a society of the spectacle, which runs from Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” prediction through reality television and self-promotion to YouTube hits.

While the media and social media had a role in normalising narcissism, photography has played along. We exist in and for society, only once we have been photographed. The photographic portrait is no longer linked to milestones like graduation ceremonies and weddings, or exceptional moments such as vacations, parties or even crimes. It has become part of a daily, if not minute-by-minute, staging of the self. Portraits appear to have been eclipsed by self-portraits: Tweeted, posted, shared.’



Longer version of the Telegraph article in Frieze magazine:


These are some of the words that feature in the background of the ‘Une’ cosmetics website.

What this company is selling is more than a make-up range, made with ‘natural’ products that is kind to the environment. This company is selling a version of the self. THE version of the self that dominates our culture, the version of the self that is vital to keep the post-modern world spinning.

This of course is the neo-liberal individual: autonomous, self-actualising, Self-sufficient, self-regarding, narcissistic.

Whilst much has been written on this development in modern capitalism of the importance of the individual, economically and socially, the narcissistic nature of that individual has not been addressed so carefully. Why does this self-actualising individual also have to be so…vain?

Why is it via cosmetics adverts, fashion spreads and sportswear lines that the contemporary self is being sold?

Mark Simpson has attempted to answer this question. His ‘metrosexual’ model of masculinity(and femininity) is all about the narcissistic individual.

‘Narcissism is outside of tradition’ writes Simpson, ‘It’s literally self-referential. So narcissism is both a product of and a helpmeet to rapid change – producing ‘individuals’ in identical loft apartments. Heterosexuality, as a system of sexual division of labour and loving rather than cross sex attraction, is a strongly conservative force. In fact, it literally makes a fetish of its conservatism. Corporate capitalism doesn’t like tradition because tradition doesn’t like change. Whereas all us individuals in loft apartments require lots of gadgets and accessories and gym membership.

Narcissism, the original eroticism, is both pre and post sexuality. Pre because autoeroticism and one-ness with the mother are, in Freudian terms, the origins of sexuality. Post because narcissism is in a sense undifferentiated – it’s not about The Other. Or sexual difference. As I said elsewhere, metrosexuality isn’t about flip flops or facials, or men becoming ‘girly’ or ‘gay’, but about men becoming everything. To themselves’.

But as can be seen in the advertisements for cosmetics such as this, and in the gyms and the shopping malls, in the characters on our TV screens and in our own mirrors, the most chilling characteristic of these narcissistic, ‘unique’ individuals, is that they are all so utterly similar. (look at the neutral tones of the  products showcased on this advert-the blankness of the model’s expression-making the ‘look’ easy to emulate)

The fact is that contemporary consumer capitalism has appropriated and dissolved-maybe even destroyed-the one thing that radicals have tried to use to resist its alluring powers: difference. And when it comes to sexuality this is a problem.All those gays, all those ‘transgender’ people, all those queers, dykes, butches, homos, who as sert their right to be ‘different’ to the norm, could actually just be buying into that consumer capitalist model of the unique, narcissistic, homogenous individual.

Michel Foucault was ahead of his time, aware of this self-absorption of the contemporary sexual ‘dissident’ always concerned with his or her identity:

‘If identity becomes the problem of sexual existence, and if people think they have to ‘uncover’ their ‘own identity’ and that their own identity has to become the law, the principle, the code of their existence; if the perennial question they ask is ‘Does this thing conform to my identity?’ then, I think, they will turn back to a kind of ethics very close to the old heterosexual virility. If we are asked to relate to the question of identity, it has to be an identity to our unique selves. But the relationships we have to have with ourselves are not ones of identity, rather they must be relationships of differentiation, of creation, of innovation. To be the same is really boring.’

So if we really want to change the world what is there left for us to do? Maybe we have to start focussing on what we have in common as human beings, rather than how uniquely individual we all are. Maybe we have to stop asking ‘who am I?’ but rather other questions like ‘what needs to be done?’ ‘why is the world how it is?’ ‘How can I contribute?’  ‘What can I say? What can I make? Maybe we have to resist the calls from self-help books, adverts and our own, over-developed psyches to always look inwards, and start looking outwards.  Sounds quaint doesn’t it? But I think it is our only hope.

Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Salavador Dali

According to sources in America, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is due to be removed from the DSM – the diagnostic and statistical manual of clinical psychology and psychiatry in America. NPD will be taken from the psychologists’ ‘handbook’ along with four other ‘disorders’, when the document is published next in 2013.

In an article in the New York Times, we have been told:

‘Narcissists, much to the surprise of many experts, are in the process of becoming an endangered species. Not that they face imminent extinction — it’s a fate much worse than that. They will still be around, but they will be ignored.’

But I don’t think any narcissists out there need to smash their mirrors, cancel their self-help book orders or close down their blogs just yet. Because, as Mark Simpson has told us, ‘ours is the Dorian Grey age’ or rather the Patrick Bateman age. The reason narcissism has been taken off the list of psychiatric diseases is not that narcisssists are being ignored, but that they have become the norm. How can a culture that reifies self-love and self-regard, treat it as an illness?

This news would come as no surprise to Christopher Lasch, who, over thirty years ago, wrote The Culture of Narcissism.

In it he pretty well predicted the postmodern world we live in now, including Sports celebrities, therapy culture and soundbites, where the neo-liberal individual trumps the socialist ‘community’ at every moment:

‘Even as he dug deep into psychoanalytic and social theory and American history, Lasch took in a remarkable range of contemporary experience, making many observations that, if anything, ring more true today. In a chapter called “The Degradation of Sport,” he lamented the way big money and free agency were turning the athlete into a mere “entertainer” who “sells his services to the highest bidder,” bound to his team only in a spirit of “antagonistic cooperation” (a term borrowed from David Riesman). Noting how self-help experts make us feel that success or failure is at stake at every moment, he seemed to anticipate the calculating side of social networking. “The search for competitive advantage through emotional manipulation,” he wrote, culminates in a sociability that functions as “an extension of work by other means.” And long before Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness,” Lasch perceived that “the air is saturated with statements that are neither true nor false but merely credible” — which only makes it easier for the narcissist to see the world as an extension of his desires.’

I’m not going to say anymore. Mike Sorrentino says it all really, with his mantra of ‘GTL’.

In contemporary culture, then, the narcissist, far from being a sociopathic pervert, is the model of the healthy individual. And by healthy, of course we mean profitable.

I am sure Professor Simpson is staring into his pool as I type, looking for some more profound things to say on the matter. But just as the ‘homosexual’ was taken from the psychiatry books and launched himself, preening and mincing onto our dancefloors and shopping malls, so the ‘narcissist’ has found his way from the wards of the sanitorium, onto our TV screens, into our bedrooms and our, er, shopping malls.

And these days, if you don’t like shopping, then really there could be something seriously wrong with you.

Update December 2011: Narcissism is back in the DSM as a disorder (NPD):