On the surface, the basic thesis of Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism does not seem in the least bit “scandalous” and, if read from a certain point of view, may even appear to be another example of neo-conservative criticism of contemporary authoritarian consumer society. Lasch attempts to lean on the classical analysis contained in works by David Riesman (The Lonely Crowd) and William Whyte (The Organization Man) and show how, in late capitalism, what in Marxist terminology is called “socially mandatory character” has received a new form. That is to say, after the “autonomous” individual of Protestant ethics and the “heteronomous” (Other-oriented) individual of bureaucratic capitalism, a new narcissistic type of individual is being formed, corresponding to the transition to a “post-industrial” society. Given Lasch’s evidently critical attitude towards “Narcissus”, his work could easily be categorised as a neo-conservative rejection of contemporary hedonism and the disintegration of authoritarian values. But the “Lasch scandal” is connected with something else; he defined his project as leftist and radically democratic; he proposed that the contemporary left had surrendered defence of the family and patriarchal authority to (neo-)conservatism too soon. According to Lasch, today’s conformist type is in fact the “anti-authoritarian” Narcissus, who mocks the family and rejects patriarchal authority. For this reason, if the left wants to establish an active alternative to the existing situation, it must begin to deal with all these ideas. This entirely changes the view which laid the foundations for the New Left in the west and whose purest expression is without doubt Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization. According to this view, revolution is expressed in the surpassing of the family as a mediator of patriarchal authority and in the re-affirmation of Narcissus, blended with the world. It is easy to imagine what polemical reactions were triggered by this thesis; it is rejected by both the majority of feminists, who understand it as a concealed re-affirmation of patriarchy, and by a broad range of the liberal New Left.
Participants in the cultural debates triggered by The Culture of Narcissism were quick to forget the fact that the notion of narcissism is not merely an abstract moral idea but an accurate notion with a precisely defined role in the theory of psychoanalysis. Lasch takes from Otto Kernberg’s standard work Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism in particular. For this reason, we must start with a summary of Kernberg’s basic theses and place the discussion of pathological narcissism (PN) and borderline states into an appropriate historical context.
What historical experience resulted in the theory of the borderline as a special clinical entity? Back in the 1940s and particularly in the 1950s, American psychoanalysts encountered a growing number of cases which eluded any classification based on the distinction between neurosis and psychosis. On the one hand, it was evident that these were not cases of psychosis (the individuals in question could still participate in society, sometimes very successfully, and “functioned” very well in general) and obviously could not be associated with the “loss of a sense of reality” or “madness” (in the ordinary sense). On the other hand, they were not cases of neurosis (hysteria and obsession) either, at least not in the usual sense, for the patients displayed a whole range of psychotic symptoms: paranoid ideas, neurotic repression substituted with more “primitive” defence mechanisms (split, denial of certain aspects of reality, etc.) and, particularly, pathologically accentuated narcissism (since even Freud described neurosis as a narcissistic disorder, his case of “President Schreber” can in fact be interpreted as a narcissistic defence against homosexuality; because homosexuality is completely unacceptable for his narcissistic self-image, Schreber can come to terms with it only if he assumes the role of a passive sexual partner of God Himself, who selected him to conceive a new mankind). This was the basic rift, the fundamental “impossible encounter”, at the very outset of borderline theory: the well-established classification or axis was shattered and violated, the axis whose one end is the “over-adjusted” hysteric that exaggeratedly identifies himself with social order, which causes his suppressed instinctive substance to strike back in the form of symptoms, while the other is the “maladjusted” psychotic who wilfully excludes himself from (social symbolic) reality. All of a sudden, we are faced with the unbelievable phantom of a psychotic who “functions” perfectly. Naturally, these cases were at first excluded as exceptions, deviations from the rule, but it soon transpired that these borderline exceptions between neurosis and psychosis were the rule and that, unlike traditional cases of neurosis and psychosis, they were far from exceptional in everyday practice.
A new clinical definition of borderline disorder was gradually formed, along with its correlate “pathological narcissism”; exceptional borderline phenomena were given an independent theoretical consistency which, at the diagnostic level, is defined by the following features:
1. “Free” unattached anxiety
2. Polysymptomatic neurosis, or a range of symptoms incompatible in “classical” neurosis (hysterical conversions, “classical” symptoms of obsession, polyphobia, “dissociation reactions”, impulsive neurosis, pathological hypochondria, paranoid ideas).
3. “Polymorphically perverse” sexual tendencies (promiscuity, experimenting with “new forms”, fear of an emotionally over-strenuous commitment that would “curtail” one’s freedom).
The unsystematic features of polysymptomatic neurosis, the impression of randomly accumulated symptoms which are not derived from any unified subjective existential position and which seem to be only partly connected – this lack of any system is not due to our incomplete approach but is characteristic of the disjointed or “dispersed” borderline subject whose individual symptomatic complexes are “held together” only by (a Hegelian) abstract negativity of undefined unattached anxiety. Unlike positive connection, this anxiety renders only unconnectedness positive; the anxious “feeling of emptiness” signifies that the subject has failed to unify or “totalise” himself into a homogenous existential being. The third characteristic of borderline, “polymorphically perverse” sexuality, exposes the effects of the “dispersed” totalised subjective structure in sexuality. The fact that the borderline is connected with the un-unified, “unformed” Ego is confirmed by structural analysis; Kernberg defines four basic features of the borderline subject:
1. Different signs of the weakness of the Ego (the difference between the “strong” and “weak” Ego is naturally characteristic of American psychoanalysis): a low anxiety “tolerance threshold” (in comparison with a “normal” individual); less significant problems (social failure, the subject tells jokes that fail to amuse and hears sarcastic remarks about his or her person) can cause extreme anxiety and depression; insufficient control over one’s own instinctive reactions (the subject “cannot control himself”, succumbs to his impulses); inability to sublimate (which in fact is only another aspect of the above); the subject is no stranger to “important” achievements, which are merely a means to satisfy a “lower” aim (in high social circles, the subject can boast merit and considerable knowledge – nevertheless, he gives the impression that his only motivation is social success and that, in reality, he “does not care about it at all”…).
2. Regression to primary mental forms: the subject’s mentality is dominated by associations and superficial details which are beyond “rational” thinking. But again, there is more to it. On the surface, borderline subjects are completely capable of rational thinking; nevertheless, their behaviour and emotions follow two completely different sets of logic. For example, although he is completely aware that a person close to him is not an enemy and holds nothing against him, some “primitive” conclusion, which is, for example, based on a paranoid interpretation of a casual smile or similarity to another (hostile) individual, convinces the subject that this person is the worst of his enemies (this regression is best carried out by means of projective tests).
3.”Regression” to primary defence mechanisms: the main defence mechanism in a “normal”, “mature” person is suppression (the fully-developed Ego integrates and unifies one’s mental life, and a message which is unsuitable for this unified framework is suppressed or pushed from one’s awareness), while in a borderline subject, the Ego is not strong enough to perform this integrational role and is replaced by primitive defence mechanisms which destroy the integrity of the Ego: split, projection, denial of reality
Here, special attention must be paid to how, by employing some kind of paranoid construct, these “regressive” defence mechanisms prevent both the unity of the Ego and psychological unity. When, for example, a borderline subject considers somebody both “good” and “bad”, he solves this dichotomy with a simple time split: for a while, the object is “good”, after which the subject goes to the other extreme and the object becomes “bad”, which does not result in any sense of contradiction, because the subject’s Ego is not sufficiently integrated; he can carry several contradictory libidinal beliefs which are expressed one after another. (The best known example of such a tendency is the attitude of the “little man” towards politics, in terms of rapidly changing contradictory libidinal opinions: at one point, “politics” is a “big thing”, awakening patriotic feelings; at another point, it is a “whore”, a sphere of corruption and intrigue. The “little man” does not attempt to integrate these two beliefs.) A “normal” subject would suppress or eject one of the contrary beliefs from his awareness: if according to my integrated normative system I hate somebody, I must suppress the love I feel for this person, and vice versa.
4. The last feature, which is already contained in the previous one, is a pathological relationship towards the object, which is in fact an inability to integrate different beliefs (the “good” and the “bad”) into a single image of the object. In this respect, it is possible to describe the basic characteristic of the borderline subject: he always gives the impression that he experiences the other as a “puppet”, that he is incapable of a proper inter-subjective relationship. Intersubjectivity implies accurate knowledge and acceptance of the other as a contradictory unity of different opinions; this contradiction gives depth to the other, a feeling of boundlessness, which plays an important role in the experience of the “personality”. In a borderline subject, we are dealing with the als-obpersonality: on the surface, everything seems to be “normal”, the subject respects all the rules of the inter-subjective game; he nevertheless gives the impression that he is not a “living personality”, that he treats us “superficially”, that everything is like a piece of puppet theatre.
The only thing still left is genealogical analysis, in relation to which I wish to limit myself to a single comment regarding sexuality. Although the borderline subject is capable of “normal” genital sexuality, a detailed analysis reveals that in his libidinal economy his seemingly genital sexual activity is dominated and defined by pre-genital, oral and anal logic. The very sexual act is mostly understood as an act of violence and display of aggression; the woman feels humiliated and exploited while, if the woman dominates, the man feels endangered and fears that the woman will “devour” him and that he will lose his identity and autonomy.
“Pathological narcissism”, as a correlate of the borderline in addition to all borderline symptoms, displays the “pathological”, “big” Ego. Therefore, there is a weak Ego regressing to the primary forms of thinking and primary defence mechanisms and establishing a pathological relationship towards objects, but all these weaknesses are “compensated” for with the “big Ego”, a pathological construct which, in place of the “normal” Ego, performs the function of integration. Let us begin with a diagnosis or, to be more precise, a phenomenological description of “pathological Narcissus”:
– Upon first contact, PN appears more adjusted to the environment than the borderline subject; he “functions” well and sometimes even “distinguishes” himself, or dominates his surroundings. Nevertheless, we soon come across a contradiction: PN despises and exploits people, seeing in them nothing more than a tool for his own affirmation. At the same time, he is completely dependent on their acknowledgement and admiration, and exists only because of the reputation which he enjoys among his fellow human beings. He distinguishes himself socially, playing the role of a powerful, cynical, efficient and witty individual without superfluous illusions; at the same time, the slightest derision or some other social “failure” drives him to a state of traumatic depression. The Hegelian dialectic of recognition is here brought to its opposite: the “master” is a slave to the recognition of his slave and constantly anxiously observes the effect his complacency has on the slave. The slightest sign that the slave has seen through him, that he is secretly laughing at him, can bring him down. Unlike the traditional master, who “thinks that he is recognised for the master since he already is a master as it is”, PN is the paradox of a reflected master who knows that his position is secured only by the recognition of other people. For this reason, he subordinates everything to his public “appearance”. This basic contradiction is the source of other PN features:
– A complete inability to empathise: PN can never really “enter the other”, “feel” with him, experience him in terms of “personality depth” or subjectivity abyss. All people in his surroundings fall into one of the following three categories:
(1) The ideal other, those from whom he expects narcissistic recognition and who, in PN’s subjective economy, function as an extension of his own “big Ego” (as a rule, these are powerful, influential and famous individuals);
(2) “enemies” or “conspirators” who represent a threat to his narcissistic affirmation;
(3) the rest, the “crowd”, “puppets”, suckers who exist only to be used and abandoned. Even when PN develops an attachment to the ideal other, the relationship is not particularly deep and can easily be broken or demoted to the level of the “crowd” (if the ideal other experiences failure) or the “enemy” (if the ideal other humiliates PN’s narcissism or ignores him). Relationships are easily broken and established anew; the ideal other today is the “enemy” tomorrow because Narcissus cannot establish a relationship with the other at the subjective level.
Evidently, PN takes the availability of other people for granted and finds it completely natural that people should be treated ruthlessly and used for his own narcissistic pleasure. For this reason, PN often gives the impression of profound indifference, coldness and selfishness, hidden behind a mask of brilliance. Narcissus attempts to charm and seduce us; he astonishes with eloquence, enthusiasm and sexiness. Nevertheless, behind it all, a cruel and selfish mind can be sensed. As long as he expects narcissistic gain from us, he is full of enthusiasm, but once “we are no longer of any interest” to him, his incredible charm immediately turns into complete indifference.
– It is evident from the above that PN is incapable of forming a sincere attachment to another person, and of depending on him or her in terms of commitment, obligation, engagement, trust and dedication. PN is a slave to his “success” in the eyes of other people. He depends on their recognition, but this kind of dependence cannot be mistaken for trust in and dedication to the other. Narcissus wants to take advantage of the other, gain as much narcissistic profit from him or her, and even when he greatly admires the other, he does that exclusively for narcissistic reasons. For this reason, he always preserves a fundamental mistrust in people; he is pathologically afraid of being excessively dependent on them, of opening up “too much” and becoming too attached to them. Therefore, in sexuality, he prefers short-term “cold” relationships which do not represent an excessive “emotional burden” and which “allow him to breathe”.
– Every Narcissus is intrinsically convinced that he is an exception, an “outcast”. Externally, he respects the “rules of the game”, he is a conformist; in reality, he “does not take the game seriously”, he “plays it” only to escape punishment and become successful in society. PN is even convinced that everybody else does the same: life in society is a game, everybody wears a mask, everybody is a criminal hiding behind a conformist appearance and thinking only about how to exploit and trick other people. One must be smart; one must know how to lie low and adjust.
– PN pathologically fears even the smallest failure, such as loneliness, old age and illness. He takes care of his body (jogging being narcissistic exercise par excellence!), tries to stay “forever young” and remain the centre of attention. He is prepared to do everything “not to get lost in the grey crowd of the average”, because he believes that there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who have made it and the remaining “crowd”.
– PN is incapable of true sadness. When faced with the loss of a loved one, he breaks into a helpless rage. The loss is simply unacceptable and unbearable to him; it is an assault on his narcissism. He is incapable of “containing” this wild rage and turning it into quiet mourning.
– Finally the last feature, which brings us back to the initial paradox. PN simply cannot enjoy himself, because pleasure is completely alien to him and exteriorised in the other. He finds pleasure when other people acknowledge his pleasure (a typical example would be a “heart-breaker” who boasts about his conquests, while in reality he does not care because the only thing that matters to him is the recognition he gains from other people with his exploits – he enjoys himself as much as he thinks others enjoy themselves). This subjective economy results in a curious “short circuit”: the final aim of being successful is not what can be gained by it but the success itself as social fact. For this reason, PN is never “with himself” but is always “exteriorised”, which manifests itself, for example, as an “inner sense of emptiness” and “loss of identity”, which drives him into even more frenetic activity.
Before we begin with structural analysis, another observation derived from the phenomenological description of PN must be mentioned. It is not difficult to recognise in PN an “average American”, with his paradoxical “conformist individualism” (individualism as a social conformist perception”) and cult of social “success” at any cost, etc. Sometimes we even get the impression that Kernberg is not describing a type generated by means of generalised clinical experiences but a caricatured model found in films or literature. This observation in no way diminishes the value of Kernberg’s analysis, however, because it is based on a naive distinction between “real life” and ideological “clichés”, presuming that in “real life” individuals do not imitate models which are, in a pure and distilled form, offered by popular art. Therefore, the ideological construct of the “big Ego” is in no way merely a “reflection” of real processes but is actively formed and structured by the very “real” subjective constitution of an individual.
Consequently, structural analysis shows that the pathological “big Ego”, as the central integrational aspect of PN, is a result of the fusion or merging of three elements: (1) the real Ego (the subject recognising himself as a special, real being); (2) the ideal Ego (an idealised self-image nourished by the subject); (3) the ideal object (the ideal other, a dear person, experienced by PN as an extension or part of his own “big Ego”). This merging diminishes the critical distance between the real Ego, the ideal Ego and the object, which in a “normal” subject is a motivating force for constant improvement and approximation to the ideal. Therefore, in PN, the real Ego is directly blended with the ideal Ego, while the idealised Other loses all negative characteristics and appears as an omnipotent “good other”, as the subject’s secret guardian who takes care of his wellbeing and provides narcissistic satisfaction. The critical component of PN takes a “degenerate” form of the horrifying, blind, cruel, paranoid and threatening force of the Superego, as an “evil fate” embodied in the “enemy” into whom the subject projects his own aggression.
With this we have touched upon the crucial dimension concealed behind PN: in reality, “pathological Narcissus” is a helpless, terrified subject, a victim of a cruel and uncontrollable Superego who is completely lost and faced with impossible demands on the part of his environment and his own aggression. This is, in fact, a pre-Oedipal situation, dominated by an omnipotent, protective and caring mother in the form of the “ideal object” on the one hand and the aggressive uncontrollable environment on the other. The narcissistic “big Ego” is in fact a reactive formation – a reaction to an unresolved and unsymbolised conflict situation. The only way for the subject to endure this situation is to build an “imaginary supplement”, the “big Ego”, which is blended with the omnipotent, idealised, motherly guardian. Now we can reply to a previous remark according to which the borderline phenomenon proves the outdatedness of the Oedipus complex and of classical psychoanalytical methods as such: “… the problem of borderline is not the exaggerated repression of instinctive forces, which would cause neurotic reactions in the form of the symptomatic ‘resurfacing of what has been suppressed’, but the weak Ego – the fact that the patient’s self has not developed to the level where it could perform its integrational function…” The answer to this observation would be that the Oedipus complex is still very topical because the unsolved issue of Oedipus as such underlines the borderline and PN problem; the subject has failed to “internalise” paternal law, which is the only path to transformation – or, in Hegelian terminology, the Aufhebung or abolition/surpassing – of the cruel, “anal” and sadistic Superego into the pacifying “inner law” of the ideal Ego.
Kernberg himself points out that the borderline disorder in PN can be found almost exclusively in families where the “father has been absent” (not meaning “empirical absence” but the fact that the father did not perform his paternal “role” and did not function as an embodiment of law), because of which the child’s life was controlled by the mother in a double phantasmic image of the “good”, protective and caring mother and the “evil” mother imposing “impossible” demands on the child and threatening to “devour” him. Because of the “father’s absence”, the child is incapable of doing away with or resolving the contradiction between the protective and threatening other, and of dialectically “surpassing” it with an inner law, with the name of the father and the paternal ideal of the Ego, in which, having been transformed, both initial aspects are “synthesised”: the subject symbolically identifies himself with the name of the father, the law loses ts terrifying Superego alienation and, at the same time, the “critical” dimension is preserved and can act as a “punishing” element (the inner “voice of conscience”).
According to the analysis, the narcissistic “self-love” and the libidinal investment in the Ego conceals rather than replaces the subject’s incredible hostility towards himself and his uncontrolled aggression, and the immense anxiety felt towards the object; the subject invests libidinal energy in the self because he is incredibly afraid of the object and is incapable of establishing a normal relationship with it. Behind indifference towards and contempt for the object (i.e. the Other Subject), there is the fear of establishing contact with and the inability to surrender to the object: the “big Ego” is, in fact, a mask for its opposite. We must not forget that borderline and PN theory was developed by the “traditional” and not “revisionist” neo-analytical trend of American psychoanalysis. Despite all the revisionist claims that classical psychoanalysis is outdated, this “traditional” trend still offers the most insightful description of the mental constitution of an individual living in late capitalist society, a description which far supersedes the ideological phrases (of the neo-romantics) relating to the “consumer society individual”.
Borderline and PN theory is undoubtedly based on Freud’s second topic (ego-superego-id); the main contribution of this topic, which replaced the consciousness/the pre-conscious/the unconscious topic, is evident in the context of Freud’s texts on narcissism, written in the second decade of the 20th century. Accordingly, the Ego is no longer only a rational element representing reality and conscious control, etc. over the obscure subconscious instincts; it is a very likely “pathology” of the Ego itself; the Ego is subject to unconscious libidinal investments, which in turn corresponds with the notion of narcissism. Equally, the Superego is not some bright force of moral law constraining barbaric instincts and managing them with difficulty, but is usually connected with the Id and can be as cruel and “irrational” as the barbaric law which embodies the destructive “deadly instinct”. Nevertheless, Freud’s second topic also allows a different “conformist” reading which emphasises the Ego as a synthesising element which “rationally” harmonises the demands of reality and the Id. This reading prevailed in the 1940s, and resulted in the transformation of American psychoanalysis into a conformist ego-psychology. Accordingly, the aim of psychoanalysis is the strengthening of the patient’s Ego to enable him to adjust to (social) reality without irrational constraints. Naturally, the distinction between “normal” and “pathological” narcissism is indelibly marked by the tradition of ego-psychology, because the notion of “normal narcissism” is based on the “strong” Ego capable of performing its integrational role. For this reason, Kernberg lists the following four functions of the “mature” Ego:
– to distinguish the Ego and its subjectively experienced content fromobjective reality.
– to integrate (“good” and “bad”) characteristics into a united image of theobject.
– to interiorise and de-personalise the punishing Superego element,transforming it into the ideal Ego.
– to sublimate instincts.
A person with a “mature Ego” possesses a normal sense of reality and a realistic understanding of objects when he replaces the archaic, anal, sadistic and personalised Superego with a de-personalised moral ideal Ego and inner law, and when he successfully renders primitive instincts sublime. This would be a case of “normal narcissism” – a justified investment of libidinal energy in the Ego and a narcissistic contentment with one’s own personality, which is not “pathological”. The borderline personality remains halfway between psychosis and the normal Ego: its attitude towards objects is pathological; the Superego remains at the primitive sadomasochistic level; instincts are not sublimate; and the Ego is not integrated enough to perform the integrational role. In reaction to this weakness, the pathological integrational “big Ego” is formed. This difference between normal and “pathological” narcissism is undoubtedly real, for it is confirmed by medical cases. But the problem is that its theoretical implications lack a notion of the symbolic and of the need for symbolic order. Briefly, the difference between “normal” and “pathological” narcissism cannot be theoretically explained without referring to the symbolic, because the features which distinguish “normal” from “pathological” narcissism (ability to form relationships, dependence on the other, ability to mourn, integration of “good” and “bad” characteristics into an integral image of the object) point to the importance of the symbolic. The fate of the subject’s Ego and its “normality” or “pathology” is not decided by the Ego itself but by the subject’s attitude towards the symbolic, due to which the formation of the “normal” Ego is a secondary result of the “interiorisation” of symbolic law.
Let us turn to PN’s inability to depend on the other and to nourish feelings of commitment to and trust in the other. This dependence or commitment is what Lacan calls “symbolic connection”, pact or engagement – “giving one’s word” to someone. This does not involve emotions or feelings, sincerity, empathy and compassion – PN has plenty of these. His problem lies in the fact that a promise does not commit him internally, does not place an obligation on him. He regards promises, bonds and pacts as “rules of the game” which must be observed on the outside but which do not represent an existential commitment. In fact, PN “feels free”; he does not know an intrinsically valid law; he recognises only the external “rules of the game”. This also explains the well-known pressing feeling of “inner emptiness” and “loss of one’s own identity”; what he lacks are not images that would give him an imaginary identity but a “bond” that would place him in the inter-subjective symbolic network. In other words (if the “metaphorical ” description is replaced with more expert terminology): pathological Narcissus simply lacks the performative dimension of speaking. This statement may at first seem paradoxical, because PN strives for “effect” rather than for the “content” of what is said, the whole point of his speaking being to assert his brilliance and to enchant or seduce the person spoken to. In this respect, we must take account of the key differences (interpreted completely wrongly by Marcuse in his criticism of Austin’s supposed “behaviourism”) between the performative (illocutive) and pragmatic (perlocutive) aspects of the speech act. The performative aspect is not the same as the pragmatic “effect” of a statement. Let us take an extremely basic example: if I say to somebody in trouble “I promise I will help you”, this is the performative aspect, or the very act of promise, which I thereby perform. I gave my word to somebody; there is a new symbolic relationship between us and I am obliged to help regardless of whether I will indeed help him. The pragmatic aspect of this example would encompass the “actual” effects of the promised act: the other will undoubtedly behave differently if he believes my promise; he will feel gratitude and respect towards me, and so on. And this is PN’s problem: he is a master of the pragmatic power of speech, he knows how to use speech as a tool for the manipulation, seduction and enchantment of others; at the same time, he does not keep his word and keeps his distance from it, as if it were the tool of manipulation itself.
What precisely do we mean when we say that PN is not capable of establishing a relationship with the other (i.e. subject) as such – that he is not capable of real inter-subjectivity? This issue can be approached by means of description theory or, to be more precise, by means of Kripke’s criticism of this theory and his rejection of the possibility of reducing a name to a set of positive characteristics that an object must feature in order to be denotative of the name in question – in other words, his rejection of the possibility of replacing a name with a description of a set of characteristics (see Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity, 1979).
PN could be described as a subject behaving in accordance with the theory of description; he sees the other reduced to a set of descriptive characteristics, particularly those which meet his narcissistic needs. In other words, he sees the object in terms of the gain he can receive from him or her: he loves a woman because… (she has beautiful hair and legs, she has a great sense of humour and is interested in the same films as he is). PN is therefore the person who answers the woman’s eternally excruciating question: “Why do you love me?” with a detailed description of reasons: because of your beautiful eyes, because of your wit, etc. The other side of this reduction to a set of descriptive virtues is that as soon as the subject loses one of these virtues, she also loses her libidinal status and becomes dull. The logic of “pathological Narcissus” is clearly reflected in the often-heard remark: “My fiancée is never late for a date, otherwise she would no longer be my fiancée!” The fiancée is reduced to a set of positive features, which include the fact that “she is never late for a date”. The moment she loses this virtue, that is, the moment she is late, she also loses her status and is no longer a fiancée. It is not necessary to point out how far this kind of attitude is from a real attitude towards the other as such. It is immediately evident that an answer to the question “Why do you love me?”, which consists of a well-defined list, is a rude and scornful insult and a direct negation of love. By it, the other is “objectivised” and denied existence as a subject. The only true answer to the question would be: “I do not know why, there is something in you, some x, something that gives a miraculous lustre to all your virtues…”. Proper “love” entails a feeling that one would still love a person if he or she lost all his or her positive features. In other words, the beloved is “set in an abyss”, all of his or her “positive” characteristics are trans-substantiated, they glow in some impalpable void and are in fact a “positivisation” of the void itself – of that x (“object small a” in Lacan’s terminology).
The same theory could be approached from the point of Lacan’s distinction between the logic of the sentences: “tu es celui qui me suivra” and “tu es celui qui me suivras” (see Lacan, Le Séminaire III, Paris, 1981, p. XXII). The definition of the subordinate clause radically changes its status depending on whether the verb in the subordinate sentence is in the second or third person. If in the third person, the sentence is about a simple statement, a description of (one’s) characteristics. If the verb is in the second person, however, the sentence is no longer merely about a description but a performative “appointment of a mandate”, a symbolic engagement, bond and obligation – you are the one who must follow me (even if in reality you do not). In the first case (“tu es celui qui me suivra”) one simply made a mistake – one associated the other with an erroneous characteristic and it turns out that the other is not the one who will follow. In the other case (“tu es celui qui me suivras”), you will remain that who will follow me, who should have followed me, because the fact that “you will follow me” remains a symbolic bond, a “mandate” defining your inter-subjective status. The fact that you did not follow me does not change this status but means that you simply did not keep your promise and commitment. Here we can return to the statement about the fiancée: the mandate and commitment of the “fiancée” naturally implies a whole set of positive characteristics, including the fact that the person who is granted this mandate will not be late for a date (leaving aside to what extent certain cultural environments regard being late for a date as proof of “female charm” and part of the game), which represent a symbolic definition (Lacan’s S1 mathem) superseding and totalising a chain of positive virtues (S2). This means that even if she is late, she will remain my fiancée because we are bonded with a symbolic pact that is beyond petty narcissistic disappointments. With this, we have reached the realistically known possibilities for the integration of “good” and “bad” characteristics into an integrated image of the object; this is more probable if founded on a symbolic integrating characteristic or a symbolic “beyond good and evil” definition – in other words, beyond the imaginary opposition of “good” and “bad” characteristics. The united or integrated image of a “fiancée” does not lie in the simple “picturing of the same object with both good and bad characteristics”. A unifying symbol is called for, a symbolic definition which defines the person of the “fiancée” beyond her (imaginary) characteristics, which preserves its value even if she disappointed us regarding the positive features implied by the mandate or definition. The integration of the image of the object as a collection of his or her “imaginary” characteristics implies some unimaginable aspect, a symbolic designation of a performative nature which cannot be justified by means of the object’s positive characteristics.
On this basis, PN’s other characteristics can be explained, such as his inability to mourn. Mourning is a symbolic act par excellence by which the lost object is interiorised (aufgehoben) in a symbolic ritual. For this reason, mourning implies a calming down, pacification, coming to terms with the loss, and the impotent rage triggered by the loss is transformed into a respectful admiration of the lost object (proof of this is the confusion or comic effect when, in the middle of the mourning ritual, one notices that the object is not really lost and that the “body is still alive”, as in the case of the funeral mass for Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn). PN is incapable of transforming loss-induced rage into mourning. It is more probable that he will forget about the lost object or discover that he did not really care for it at all, thereby investing his libidinal energy in a new object. But in order not to get lost in the re-listing of characteristics, let us return to the decisive feature which is the source of the rest: of fundamental importance for PN is the coincidental integration of symbolic law which represents the name of the father or the paternal ideal of the Ego, the coincidental symbolical identification with the ideal of the Ego (as a result of a “normal” resolution of the Oedipus complex), the making-up for the paternal ideal with the pre-Oedipal “sadomasochistic”, “anal”, “maternal” Superego. Although in a typically American “naive” theoretical form, Lasch was the first to draw attention to the fact that the making-up for the ideal of the Ego with the “anal” Superego was the basic characteristic of late capitalistic “bureaucratic” society; behind the superficial “breakdown of (paternal) authority” and “permissiveness” significant of the psychological constitution of Narcissus, there is the rise of a much more “irrational” and “cruel” pre-Oedipal “archaic” Superego.
Nevertheless, an over-hasty invocation of the “archaic Superego” leaves the door open to Jungian obscurity. For this reason, a purely conceptual level must be maintained, and the Superego, the ideal of the ego (Ich-Ideal) and the ideal Ego (Idealich), a trinity which corresponds with Real-Symbolic-Imaginary, kept separate. The characteristic that distinguishes the ideal of the Ego from the ideal Ego is undoubtedly identification. The ideal of the Ego and the ideal Ego are two modes of identification, symbolic and imaginary – or, according, to Lacan’s mathems: I(A) and i(a) identification with the S1 “unary feature”, with the predominator in the other, as represented by the subject, and identification with the mirror image. In contrast, according to J. – A. Miller the Superego excludes any kind of identification, and is an irreducibly alien, non-internalised, traumatic, ungraspable and threatening order, and therefore something real in the sense of the impossibly unsymbolised. As far as the difference between the ideal of the ego and the ideal Ego is concerned, it suffices to remember Lacan’s definition of the ideal of the self as a point of symbolic identification from Le Séminaire XI; it is a point in the other, from which the subject sees himself in a form worthy of love, from which he is seen as worthy of the other’s love. For example, we have fulfilled a difficult task, sacrificed our own direct interests and fulfilled our duty, proved our loyalty on some higher level – in this case we feel some inner contentment that we have risen to the “level of our mission”. Although this undoubtedly implies an instance of narcissistic pleasure, because “we like ourselves”, the example cannot be connected with imaginary narcissism, because it contains an element of symbolic identification with objects, ideals and the law which we abide by, all of which are beyond the narcissistic interest of the Ego because they are part of the symbolic order in which we are integrated. The “feeling of contentment” is our “reward” for subordinating ourselves to a higher cause, for sacrificing our narcissistic interest. Narcissism contained within this “inner contentment” is of secondary significance and is mediated by the symbolic.
Based on this, examples of higher theoretical consistency in Kernberg’s distinction between “normal” and “pathological” narcissism can be drawn. In “normal” narcissism, the narcissistic imaginary identification i(a) is “mediated” by symbolic identification I(A), such as symbolic identification with the name of the father – the paternal ideal of the Ego is the one that makes up and regulates imaginary narcissistic satisfaction. “Pathological” Narcissus lacks the ideal of the ego element, the symbolic identification i(a), and the image of the Ego as such, without finding support in I(A), performs the “integrational” role. And this is what must be focused on in the “big Ego” characteristic of PN.
According to Lasch’s basic thesis, which has been confirmed by the clinical analysis of the constitution of “pathological Narcissus”, the celebrated “breakdown of paternal authority” or the paternal ideal of the Ego is only one side of the process. Its other side is the emergence of a much more “irrational” and “cruel” law, the maternal Superego, which does not prohibit but orders, demands pleasure (by means of a constant grasping for “social success”, domination over other people and their exploitation with the aim of confirming one’s own narcissism) and which punishes “failure” much more severely than the “voice of conscience” of the ideal of the ego, with unbearable anxiety and extreme masochistic self-humiliation that can even lead to the loss of one’s own identity. What we are dealing with in “pathological Narcissus” is i(a) directly based on the cruel, crazy, “irrational” and “anal” Superego, instead of i(a) “mediated” by I(A). Lasch connects this process with certain fundamental changes in late capitalist social relations – in other words, with the onset of “bureaucratic society”. On the surface, this thesis may seem paradoxical: “bureaucratic man” is usually envisaged as the exact opposite of Narcissus, as the “man of the apparatus”, an anonymous individual dedicated to the organisation and reduced to the status of a cog in the bureaucratic machine. But according to Lasch, the psychological type, or a libidinal economy which corresponds to contemporary bureaucratic society, is in fact “pathological Narcissus”, who does not take the social “rules of the game” seriously and who is an unrelenting outcast interested only in manipulating other people to attain narcissistic satisfaction. The solution to this paradox lies in the fact that there exist three rather than two stages in the development of what can be called the “libidinal constitution of the subject in bourgeois society”: the individual of Protestant ethics; the heteronomous “man of organisation”; and “pathological Narcissus”. Lasch’s contribution lies in the fact that he was the first to clearly describe the transition from the second to the third stage. There is still talk of a phenomenon called the downfall or breakdown of Protestant ethics. Two classical descriptions of this process are The Organization Man by William Whyte and The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman. Riesman introduces a fundamental notional contradiction of the “autonomous” (selfdirected) and “heteronomous” (Other-directed) individual. The “self-directed” individual is the basic type of the 19th and early 20th centuries. He is the individual of “Protestant ethics”, whose basic principles are individual responsibility and individual initiative (“Help thyself and God will help thee!”). Each individual answers before God and must not follow the blind crowd; the inner satisfaction of having done one’s duty is more important than the reputation and success enjoyed with other people. For this reason, the fundamental characteristic of Protestant ethics is the difference between legality and morality: the former consists of social rules and external laws; the latter is guided by an inner law, the “voice of conscience” or, in other words, the internalised paternal ideal of the Ego. Naturally, this implies an ideology that fits in with liberal capitalism, the society of the “struggle against everything” – this society is guided by the “invisible hand” of the market, everyone should follow their own interests and thus contribute to the welfare of the whole of society as much as possible.
With the onset of bureaucratic corporate capitalism, this individual autonomy was lost and the heteronomous principle prevailed; the “nonconformity” of Protestant ethics has been replaced by an individual striving to attain recognition from the social group to which he belongs. The ideal of the ego radically changes its content and, in a way, becomes “exteriorised”, consisting of the expectations of one’s group and surroundings. The source of moral satisfaction is no longer a sense that, despite pressures from the environment, one has remained faithful to oneself and fulfilled one’s duty. On the contrary, it is the sense that one has given priority to being loyal to one’s group. From the point of view of the ideal of the Ego, the individual observes himself with the eyes of the people around him; he sees himself the way he should be in order to be worthy of the group’s affection. In the conflict between the individual and the institution, the individual must let go, renounce his worthless independence and find his place in the social organism to which he belongs and which gives meaning to his life – the greatest value is the sense of belonging. The “invisible hand” of the market has been replaced by the “invisible hand” of the institution. The individual’s resistance to the institution is a result of his narrow narcissistic delusion rather than anything else. The institution does not want to harm him; it is just that the deluded individual is not always aware of that. This does not only change the “content” of the ideal but also its status: it is not that, in the case of the heteronomous individual, individualism has been replaced by conformity but that the ability to adjust to the demands of the environment and respond quickly to the ever new and changing demands of the environment is a value as such, or even a supreme value.
In the 1940s and 50s, “heteronomous ethics” was promoted by a series of Hollywood films. The extreme example quoted by Whyte is The Caine Mutiny (based on H. Wouk’s novel of the same title). In brief, the story is about a warship called Caine, which is in danger of sinking because its crazy paranoid captain is incapable of issuing the right commands. He is replaced by a group of officers who take over the command and save the ship. Later, on shore, the mutinous officers must justify their actions in court and prove that the captain was indeed insane and incompetent. They succeed in doing this with the help of their lawyer, but at a reception where the mutinous crew members celebrate their victory, the lawyer tells them that he defended them out of duty whereas, in reality, he is ashamed of himself because they were in fact guilty. One of the reasons why the captain became paranoid was that the subordinate officers derided him instead of putting up with his whims and striving to help him as considerately as possible. In short, the officers bear the blame for the entire incident because they displayed cynical mistrust instead of dedication to the common cause. (The gallant paradox of the lawyer character lies in the fact that it is his duty to defend the officers, which corresponds to individualist ethics; from his individual, “inner” ethical stand he is on the side of “heteronomous” exteriorised ethics, which gives priority to one’s dedication to the institution. What we have here is a perversion of an ordinary character who “externally” fakes his loyalty to the institution while “internally” striving to preserve his autonomous ethical stand.)
There is one constant in this process of the transformation of Protestant ethics into the “heteronomous” ethics of “organisation man”. “Socially mandatory character” (if we may make use of Marx’ syntagm) is formed on the basis of symbolic identification or an interiorised ideal of the Ego. The third stage described by Lasch breaks through this framework: the form of the ideal of the Ego is replaced by the narcissistic “big Ego”; it is no longer the case of an individual forced to integrate the demands of the environment constituted in the symbolic element of the ideal of the Ego, but of a “Narcissus” who “does not experience the game with sincerity” and who takes the rules of the environment as the external “rules of the game”. He experiences “social pressure” completely differently, not in terms of the ideal Ego but in terms of the “anal”, “sadomasochistic” Superego. And this is the key moment: today’s society is no less “repressive” than it was at the time of “organisation man”, the loyal servant of the institution. On the contrary, the difference is that social demands no longer take the form of the ideal of the ego, of an integrated and “interiorised” symbolic code, but remain at the level of the pre-Oedipal command of the Superego.
The basic feature of this third stage is that in the subjective economy, the social “big Other”, which is a network of socio-symbolic relations faced by and capturing the subject, functions more like a “mother-on-whom-the-satisfaction-ofone’s-needs-depends”, representing Lacan’s first image of the big Other. The demand of the Other assumes the form of a command of the Superego to find pleasure (in the form of “social success”, etc.) under the protective care of the motherly “big Other” as an extension of the narcissistic “big Ego”. The state of dependence characteristic of the pre-Oedipal constellation, in which the satisfaction of needs depends on the “whims of the Other”, repeats itself in the subject’s relationship towards the socio-symbolic Other, which increasingly appears as the Other-outside-law and could therefore be termed “benevolent despotism”.
The most distinct sign of this transformation is the substitution of the right to punishment (and sentencing) with therapeutic law: the subject is no longer guilty because he is not responsible for his actions, which are a result of a plethora of psychological and social circumstances. The role of the strict judge is taken over by social care: the offender must be cured and not punished, and suitable social and psychological circumstances must be created that will not drive him to crime… An analogous trend can be found in education: the aim of the educational system is no longer the imparting of certain knowledge or a certain system of rules of social behaviour to students. This kind of school is nowadays considered an “alienated” and “repressive” institution which takes no account of the student’s individual needs. On the contrary, the school should enable the student to recognise and, in accordance with social needs, direct and develop his creative potential; it should create a space for the free expression of his personality. At all levels of society, we find the cult of “authenticity”: one should cast away “masks”, “alienated social roles” and “repressive rules” and open the door to one’s “true self” in every sphere of creativity, from sports to religion, from politics to sexuality, from work to hobbies, in order to turn it into a sphere for the expression and affirmation of one’s “authentic” personality and for the development of one’s creative potentials. Lasch shows that this cult of “authenticity”, this cult of the free development of the “big Ego”, free of “masks” and “repressive” rules, is nothing less than a form of its own opposite, of preOedipal dependence, and that the only path leading to the mastering of this dependence is identification with a certain decentralised, alien aspect of the symbolic law external to the Ego. The late bourgeois individualism of the narcissistic “big Ego” merely seems to be a return to the early bourgeois individualism of “Protestant ethics” while, in reality, it implies a much greater dependence than that of “organisation man”. In addition to the inherent incompleteness of his analytical conceptual apparatus, Lasch’s weak point lies in the fact that he does not supply a sufficient theoretical definition of that turning point in the socio-economic reality of late capitalism which corresponds to the transition of “organisation man” to “pathological Narcissus”. At the level of discourse, this turning point is not difficult to determine: it is the transformation of the bureaucratic capitalist society of the 1940s and 50s into a society described as “permissive”. It entails a “post-industrial” process which, at this level, has been described in terms of the “Third Wave” theory of writers such as Toffler. Now we can finally return to the key issue of the relationship between “pathological narcissism” and borderline disorders. Unlike American medical practice, which sets borderline closer to psychosis than neurosis (which is due to an obsession with the “strong Ego” as a sign of “normality”, while the absence of this Ego immediately points to psychosis), we must agree with J. – A. Miller, who says that borderline is literally a “contemporary form of hysteria”. If “pathological Narcissus” represents the prevalent libidinal constitution of late bourgeois “permissive” society, borderline marks the point of its hysterisation, the point at which the subject is faced with the already-described basic paradox or contradiction of his PN. Miller connects the transformation of hysteria into borderline disorder with scientific changes in contemporary ideological everyday life – science in different forms, ranging from experts whose advice and instructions guide our entire life, including its most intimate aspects, to micro-electronic gadgets offered en masse by industry, which is increasingly becoming an inherent constituent of the everyday Lebenswelt. This blending of Lebenswelt with science radically undermines the very notion of Lebenswelt as a field of everyday pre-scientific self-understanding and pre-theoretical life practice, from which science derives its meaning. An exemplary case would be Husserl’s late attempt to expose the rootedness of the scientific way of thinking in the pre-scientific world of life practice – exemplary because it is no longer possible today, since Lebenswelt has “lost its innocence” and become inherently defined by science. Reference to the pre-scientific Lebenswelt would today correspond with reference to the pristine and unspoiled domestic environment of Blut and Boden ideology. Husserl is entirely right when he claims that it is possible to define science’s signifying horizon – in other words, a hermeneutic question to which science replies with its activity only through references to the pre-scientific Lebenswelt. In other words, it is impossible to say that science replaces the original ground of life practice with another (its own) signifying horizon or a hermeneutic question. Science as such, in the strict hermeneutic sense of the word, is unsignifying and as soon as it inherently begins to encroach on the Lebenswelt, the whole loses its meaning and we find ourselves in a void. In this sense, we must also understand Miller’s claim that there exist today numerous proofs of the presence of science in the everyday Lebenswelt, which in its basic dimension appears to be an answer without a question:
“The history of our time adjusts to the predominant form of knowledge: to science – which is evident in the constant invasion of gadgets that represent numerous answers without questions. Recently, a person from Silicon Valley gave a befitting description of the turning point which in culture is generally experienced as discomfort: ‘Home computer is a solution without a problem.’ Based on this, a hysteric turns his essence into a question.” (J. – A. Miller, “Liminaire”. Ornicar?, 29, Paris, 1984, p. 4)
Given the fact that an “answer without a question” is actually the most condensed definition of the real as the unsymbolised (the real as a condition that “does not answer any question” and which lacks a signifying horizon), it becomes clear in what sense science represents the basic reality of the contemporary world. This aspect of the “question-less answer” can be clearly presented with three partial characteristics of the contemporary age: the role of experts in everyday life; micro-electronic gadgets; and advertising. The basic paradox of the contemporary “cult of authenticity” is that its inner constitution and driving force are a bunch of manuals which, by appearing scientifically legitimate, give the subject prescriptions on how to attain his authenticity, how to liberate the “creative potentials of his Ego”, how to cast his mask and reveal his “real Ego”, and how to turn to intuitive spontaneity and genuineness. But here we are interested in something other than the fact that even the most intimate spheres of life are presented as attainable by means of (pseudo or real – it does not matter which) scientifically legitimate procedures. In connection with these phenomena, we usually speak of a void, and of the loneliness, alienation and artificiality of “contemporary man” in terms of a real need which the scores of manuals attempt to satisfy in an individually psychological way by means of a mystification of the actual social foundations. But we are ignoring the opposite dimension, which is in fact even more important: the primary effect of these manuals is not a prescription of how to satisfy these needs but the creation of these “needs” and the provocation of the unbearable sense of “void” in our everyday life, the insufficiency of our sexuality, the lack of creativity of our work, the artificiality of our relations with other people and, at the same time, a feeling of complete helplessness and an inability to find a way out of this dead end – or in the words of Moličre, before these manuals offer their poetry to us, they haughtily instruct us that, up to now, we have been talking in prose. The difference between PN and borderline can be defined in terms of this very dialectic of the question and answer: “pathological” Narcissus plunges “without questions” into the current of ever-new answers and for each answer, with an “ethical” obsession, he invents for each object functions and needs to be met by it, in order to conceal the basic paradox of the “answer without a question” as soon as possible. In contrast, borderline defines a point where this current stops, where the subject is faced with the lack of meaning of the answer as such and where he no longer accepts ever-new “answers without questions” “without asking questions”. He asks a wellknown hysterical question, a question to the Other, from whom he expects a different answer, an answer to what these answers without questions mean.
From a traditional point of view, this answer would be quickly rejected on the premise that it represents “fake needs” serving the interest of capital accumulation. Nevertheless, this explanation is misleading, because it presumes the existence of “real needs”. Naturally, every individual has a few “basic” needs which must be met in order to survive. But as soon as we enter the sphere of the symbolic, the whole matter is reversed and the symbolic articulation of a need changes it into a demand of the Other, while beyond this demand there lurks the abyss of unarticulated and merely-evoked desire. That need is subordinated to desire is made evident by the banal fact that for desire (=law), the subject is prepared to sacrifice any “basic” need, such as going on hunger strike or living in complete celibacy. The basic paradox or fundamental fact of psychoanalysis is that no matter how integrated he is into the network of speech, the subject in reality and irreducibly “does not know what he wants”, the object of his desire eludes him, and every articulation of desire in the form of a symbolic demand is accompanied by a shift until the ultimate point of the desire turns into the experience of “this is not it”, which in turn creates a possibility for a whole range of “not wanting anything” stands, such as of wanting only “nothing” – that missing part which fuels the desire. Strictly speaking, the position of the hysteric is nothing other than the position of a subject who “does not know what he wants”, who does not know to what extent he is caught up in the network of predominators. The “hysterical question” is the question to the big Other, demanding to tell us what we want and what our desire is.
Here we must take into account the key fact that desire is always intersubjective – the subject’s desire is, in different forms, always “mediated” by the desire of the Other. The desire, to desire what the Other desires, to desire the Other himself, to desire to become the object of the Other’s desire… Therefore, the problem of the “permissive” “consumer” society does not lie in the fact that it forces us to adopt “fake needs” instead of “real ones”. On the contrary, the problem is that with the constant flood of new consumer items and the provocation of demands, it narrows the space of desire, masks the “empty place” from which desire emerges, and creates a saturated field where the “impossible” desire can no longer be articulated. In simple terms, “pathological Narcissus” is so saturated with “answers without questions”, and is shown in so many ways “what he really wants”, that he simply cannot experience the paradox of the desire, the cleft between desire and wanting, which results in the fact that, despite the object of desire, “we do not know what we want”. Borderline marks the very point where this crazy curve breaks and the subject becomes hysterical, convincing himself that, despite all the answers, he in fact “does not know what he wants”, finally opening up to the desire. The paradox of the relationship between PN and borderline is that the actual situation contradicts what is visible, according to which borderline would be closer to the pathological disintegration of the personality while PN would represent a step closer to normalisation, or to an attempt at some kind of unification of the Ego which is supposed to synthesise the disintegrated elements. An opposing view would be that if it is not a psychosis, “pathological narcissism” is clinically a “pre-psychotic condition” at least, characteristic of the “als-ob-personality” (as-if-personality) – a condition in which, on the surface, the subject is “fully functional”, although he does not inherently abide by social law. For this reason,”pathological Narcissus” gives the unsettling impression that “there is nothing behind the mask”, that we are speaking to a puppet, that the mask really is just a mask, and that what is hiding behind it is something completely different and dialectically not mediated by the mask. Borderline is not a transition from a pre-psychotic condition to psychosis or the breakdown of the mask of the “pathological” Ego, which supposedly maintained the appearance of unity. On the contrary, it is the first step towards the “normalisation” of pathological Narcissus, a point in its hysterisation, a point at which the subject loses all distance and gets caught up in the paradox of desire or the symbolic.
On this point, American psychoanalysis suffers retaliation from its own conformist obsession with the problems of the Ego as the agent of social adjustment: since the borderline type lacks a “strong Ego”, it quickly pronounces him psychotic and cannot understand that somebody who is socially fully “adjusted” and fully “functional” can, in fact, be psychotic. Its idea of psychosis is defined in terms of a subject who has lost “control of himself”, who “cannot control his instinctive forces” – who, in short, behaves in a “socially maladjusted way”. The paradox of “pathological Narcissus” lies in the fact that he is a psychotic normal person: although PN behaves “normally” in a “socially adjusted way” according to all “positive” and empirically visible characteristics, “nothing is right” and we get this persistent feeling that it is all a terrible travesty, that the person in question is merely “acting real”. Here we could quote the well-known joke from Freud’s Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, which says that Shakespeare’s works were not written by Shakespeare but by his contemporary of the same name. This is an example of PN’s psychotic dimension: “pathological Narcissus” is literally “somebody else” in relation to himself, or in terms of his symbolic identity or identification. In this context, we must also understand Lacan’s statement that the present-day “normal” individual is psychotic.
This considerably narrows down the term “repressive desublimation” as employed by “critical theory” to determine the libidinal economy of late bourgeois society: “repression” is understood as the opposite of symbolic law or the pressure or command coming from the Superego, while desublimation must be understood in the strictest sense of Lacan’s writings, which is almost the opposite of the ordinary. Sublimation is usually identified with desexualisation or a shift of the object as such, which satisfies instinctive needs, to a “higher”, “more cultural” form of fulfilment; instead of seducing a woman, one seduces the audience with poetry, and instead of getting into fights, one criticises other people. According to a vulgar psychoanalytical “interpretation”, for this kind of artist contact with the audience is a sublime form of sexual intercourse, and for a critic an attack represents a sublime form of aggression. It is not difficult to conclude that this kind of understanding again presupposes some kind of “basic”, “unsublime” form of gratification which is sublimated. Lacan starts from an empty place or nothing around which a desire is articulated and from which the object or the reason for a desire is an impossible and unsymbolised object, or a threatening deluding thing (das Ding) that is in itself “nothing”, which corresponds with its own deficiency. Sublimation is nothing but the fact that some “empirical” positive object is “elevated to the dignity of things”, that it experiences its own transsubstantiation and that, in its subjective libidinal economy, it functions as the embodiment or positivisation of “nothing”, or the impossible thing and reasonobject of desire. The sublime object is therefore the paradox of an object which can “live” only in “semi-shadow” or can only be evoked: as soon as we attempt to render it “explicit”, to bring it to light, it is lost or melts away. In Fellini’s Roma, we find an exceptional example of the fragility of the sublime object. During the construction of tunnels for Rome’s underground railway, workers find an unexplored underground opening and immediately call archaeologists, who break through the wall sealing the cave. Suddenly, they gaze upon the splendour of an ancient Roman hall whose walls are covered with frescos featuring sad, melancholic figures (their sadness is caused by their awareness that they are heathens, that they were born too early for the Christian truth, because of which they are doomed; these figures are closer to truth than “real” Christians, who with justification are portrayed by Fellini as hypocritical and obscene – this is also the gist of Fellini’s Satyricon). But the frescos are too fragile to stand the light and, as soon as they come into contact with the air, they start to fade away. Desperate onlookers can only observe how the object which they approached too closely is slipping away from them. This is the sublime object: as long as it exists in “midspace”, in an obscure shadowy world, it represents a threatening “thing”; as soon as we get too close to it, however, it turns into an ordinary “positive” object and we are faced with the banal reality. For this reason, Lacan can repeat Rilke’s thought that beauty is the last mask shielding the horrible – beauty is a way of evoking the horror of things in the world of the gaze. Therefore, sublimation evidently has nothing to do with “desexualisation”: the object of “physical” erotic passion (if indeed it is passion) is always sublime. In the case of “pathological Narcissus”, however, we can, with all justification, speak of “desublimation”: not because he is not able to “redirect his libidinal energy towards higher goals” but because the libidinal object is reduced to mere “positivity” due to the fact that Narcissus wants to get to the “bottom” of everything, to come to terms with it. Nevertheless, exactly because of this, he misses that “nothing” evoked by the object if it remains in “mid-space”. Although borderline is a contemporary form of hysteria, or the point of the hysterisation of “pathological Narcissus” as the prevalent libidinal constitution of late bourgeois society, it does not imply a simple transformation of a former “traditional” form of hysteria. It is possible to say that only with borderline does the constitution of hysteria enter its “distilled” or purified form as a question presented to another subject who “does not know what he wants”. In the case of “traditional” hysteria, this basic constellation is veiled with “sexual repression”. “Traditional” hysteria can still be interpreted in terms of a naive and unproblematic opposition between “internalised” suppression and suppressed instincts: the subject suppresses instincts or forms of instinct gratification which are not acceptable to the internalised value system, pushing them to the unconscious, while the suppressed then resurfaces in the form of hysterical symptoms. With the emergence of the “permissive” society, this naive stand has lost its significance. The vulgar understanding of psychoanalysis has proclaimed it “outdated”, whereas an approach which preserves a feeling for the real subversive core of Freud’s discovery points to the fact that the paradoxical essence of the hysterical condition is only now becoming evident. The fact that analytical psychoanalysis does not recognise borderline to be a contemporary form of hysteria, rather defining borderline disorders as related to psychosis, is a result of its blindness to the aforementioned subversive core of psychoanalysis and of the fact that it literally does not hear the hysterical question.
Žižek, S. “Pathological Narcissus” as a Socially Mandatory Form of Subjectivity.” First
published in the Croatian edition of The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch
(Narcisistička kultura, Naprijed, Zagreb, 1986)