I’m still bouncing back and forth between projects at the moment, struggling to find my footing. This week, having fallen off one horse, I decided to go back to a book I’m working on about narcissism and photography. The general thesis is, for all our moral panicking about an endemic “culture of narcissism”, our historical understanding of this most infamous complexes has frequently been positive and constructive.
We’ve seen this understanding struggling to emerge over the last few years, on both the left and the right. That Trump supporters think diagnoses of narcissism are useless is probably to be expected, but that the left engages in habits of armchair diagnosis is left broadly unacknowledged. As Jia Tolentino recently wrote, in a review of one of the few other books on narcissism that questions our general obsession with the term, “in pathologizing narcissism, we have forgotten how perilous it is to constantly diagnose other people.” There is a real danger in throwing the term narcissism around so narcissistically, as if the person diagnosing is somehow on the moral high ground; it is “the danger of any particular world view that requires, for the sake of consistency, its owner to believe that she is good.”
Though others have questioned this tendency, many accounts remain ahistorical and reductive, struggling to shift off the full weight of our contemporary preoccupation with this personality disorder. Although I’m primarily exploring how this is can be fixed through an art-historical reading — essential since contemporary folk-psychological understandings are tied to photography — I have been intrigued to discover that a number of philosophers have tentatively made this same argument over the course of the twentieth century, often in passing and in comments that seem to be generally overlooked. They offer breadcrumbs that allow us to reconstruct not just a misused clinical narcissism but a critical one.
Jacques Derrida, for instance, argued there is not one narcissism, but many, claiming that, “without a movement of narcissistic reappropriation, the relation to the other would be absolutely destroyed, it would be destroyed in advance.” Recalling Freud’s comment “that another person’s narcissism has a great attraction for those who have renounced part of their own narcissism and are in search of object-love”, Derrida insists that the “relation to the other … must trace a movement of reappropriation in the image of oneself for love to be possible”.
It sounds like a twisted logic, but it is a form of narcissism many of us experience every day. Still, its history is complex… For Freud, this form of narcissism was essentially misogynistic — he uses the example of men, devoid of self-awareness, who love narcissistic women because it gives them something to chase. It is the narcissism of the hunt. But for Derrida, this same understanding needn’t be used so restrictively and with such a moralistic overtone. This kind of narcissistic love is, in fact, very useful, even natural. It entangles you in another. It is to fall in love with a certain reflection of yourself in another’s eyes. Just as certain people hunt lions, as if it is a form of game recognizing game in the natural world, in our own social relations we frequently talk about how to love someone “brings out the best in you”. It is to acknowledge that you might love yourself more when you are with them. But this is no straight-forward self-centeredness. Just as Ovid’s Narcissus tears himself apart, both in love with himself and tormented by the inaccessibility of himself, it is a kind of narcissism that often leads to ego-death rather than becoming a red flag for a poor understanding of sociopathy.
Most tellingly, it is a form of love made as natural as breathing when we have children. (We can, of course, love others in this way, and the point is perhaps that we should, by no longer restricting this understanding of love to our immediate family.) The love you have for a child is an unconditional love, for instance, which does not simply mean “I will love you no matter what you do”, but, as Deleuze writes in Proust & Signs, it is “to love without being loved, because love implicates the seizure of these possible worlds in the beloved, worlds that expel me as much as they draw me in”. Again, this is something we intuit in our love of our children. For Freud, the “charm of a child lies in a great extent in his narcissism, his self-contentment and inaccessibility, just as does the charm of certain animals which seem not to concern themselves about us, such as cats and the large beasts of prey.” It is a love for those who possess a “narcissistic consistency with which they manage to keep away from their ego anything that might diminish it.” So too for Deleuze, who notes that this kind of love also implores us “to stop loving, because the emptying of the worlds, the explication of the beloved, lead the self that loves to its death.”
This form of narcissism makes more sense in our present moment when we consider the reasons why a derogatory “narcissism” is as applicable to Donald Trump as it is to the Black Lives Matter movement. Our limited understanding and fear of narcissism is, in fact, nothing more than the doubling down on narcissism itself. Neoliberalism is built on ideological positions of idealism and individualism, and so the fact that conservative commentators see narcissism as a symptom of decline is an example of a cultural hegemony reaping what it has sown. But whereas Trump is “narcissistic” in a manner broadly encouraged by society, especially among elites, the Black Lives Matter movement is a project for encouraging black communites to love without being loved, to love each other, vouch and protect each other, when the world at large has no love for black interests in turn. Often denounced as a kind of “collective narcissism”, Black Lives Matter is narcissistic in the only way that matters — an understanding that has been eradicated from our social understanding of the term in favour of a moral panic about taking too many selfies.
Perhaps the best way of understanding this split is through the words etymological root: narce. Though a promiscuous prefix, it most notably gives us the word “narcotic”, which reflects its usage as a cure for everything from cancers to earache in the ancient world, as well as a sense of intoxication. But this sense of narce does not and has never existed in a “narcissistic” vacuum of “psychedelic fascism”, but provides us with new grounds for “psychedelic reason”, as well as social change and adaptation. Just as Ovid’s Narcissus went through a metamorphosis, transforming himself violently from man to flower, representing nature’s self-overcoming, narcissism in many psychoanalytic contexts is not being trapped within neoliberalism’s enclosure of the self but finding a way out through the self. Our negative understanding of narcissism both moralizes against, whilst keeping us encased within, the former; the latter, though it is demanded and struggled for constantly, is avoided. This is not amnesia but ideology. Narcissism is restricted as a way to interpret the world, cleft of its capacity to change it.