Elizabeth Lunbeck is a Professor of Psychiatry and Nelson Tyrone Jr. Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. This interview is based on her new book The Americanization of Narcissism (Harvard University Press, February 2014).
JF: What led you to write The Americanization of Narcissism?
EL: I have long been interested in narcissism as a clinical category and a cultural phenomenon, and in the confusion that surrounds the term and its meanings. Talk of narcissism is threaded through American cultural commentary from the 1970s on and I wanted to understand why it was so compelling to so many–what cultural work was it doing? The term narcissism is perhaps singularly protean. No other clinical category is used to refer to the best in human nature (fellow-feeling, goals, ambitions–all associated with “healthy narcissism”) as well as the worst (destructiveness, grandiosity, exploitation–all associated with malignant narcissism). This made the project all the more challenging, as I tried to capture the full range of its usages and a good deal of its complexity, but it also made the project more interesting to me.
EL: In the book I argue that as narcissism, which had long been of interest within psychoanalysis, entered the cultural conversation in the US in the 1970s, it did so tied to a critique of consumption that found exemplary articulation in Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. Lasch and other cultural commentators eagerly adapted the psychoanalytic concept of narcissism for their own criticism, embracing its negative aspects while slighting its positive aspects–a move that has left us with a rather narrow conception of narcissism and that has led to an impoverished popular conversation about it.
JF: Why do we need to read The Americanization of Narcissism?
EL: I think to understand the contemporary conversation about narcissism–and especially to appreciate its limits–it helps to understand the concept’s rich history. We are quick now to condemn one another, and especially the young, as narcissists. Using the term so loosely, we drain the critique of the destructively pathological narcissist of its force: when everyone is a narcissist, as many now claim, the charge is meaningless. The psychoanalytic conversation about narcissism that I reconstruct was far richer and more forgiving of human foibles and desires than the contemporary popular discussion.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
EL: Although I decided to become a historian in my first year of college (in History 1), I only decided to become an American historian in the midst of my graduate education. In graduate school, I developed an interest in psychiatry and psychoanalysis (this was when Foucault was all the rage and anti-psychiatry was in the air), and after much searching found case files from a hospital in Boston that would allow me to reconstruct the practice of psychiatry in the early years of the twentieth century. That was it–I fell in love with the subject and have been engaged in it since.
JF: What is your next project?
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