“It is a commonplace of social criticism that America has become, over the past half century or so, a nation of narcissists.” From this...

“It is a commonplace of social criticism that America has become, over the past half century or so, a nation of narcissists.”

From this opening, Elizabeth Lunbeck‘s new book proceeds to offer a fascinating narrative of how this came to be, exploring the entwined histories of narcissism, psychoanalysis, and modernity in 20th and 21st century America. Narcissism permeated 1970s discourse on America, its decline, the relationship of that decline to material consumption, and the physical and emotional pathologies associated with these transformations. The Americanization of Narcissism (Harvard University Press, 2014) takes readers into the deeper history of the emergence, complexities, and metamorphoses of the study of narcissism in the work of psychoanalysts Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg in the early 20th century, at the same time offering a wonderfully rich account situating them in the larger context of interlocutors that included Freud, Joan Riviere, and others. The book concludes with a thoughtful reflection on the recent resurgence of the idea of “healthy narcissism,” its relationship to the notion of charismatic leaders (like Steve Jobs), and the place of “Generation Me” in all of this. Lunbeck’s book should be required reading for anyone working in the history of the human sciences, of psychoanalysis, and of the modern US. It’s also an enlightening and very readable story that helpfully and productively problematizes a commonplace (narcissism = bad = American) that permeates contemporary popular culture, from TV shows to online personality quizzes. Enjoy!

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