Friday, June 08, 2007

Narcissism, Association and Taboo

An Essay by Ken Sanes:

As human beings, we are all tool-using, power- and status-seeking, symbolizing and culture-creating, aggressive and assertive, immortality-fascinated, sexual and pleasure-seeking, safety and relationship-seeking beings. We are also inherently narcissistic beings who must, by drive, necessity and desire, live together in groups. Out of this interaction between narcissism and association, much of society takes shape.

Narcissism is our natural state, one we are born with. It means that we are immersed in our selves, in our own pleasures and pains and our point of view. We are the center of our world. As traditional psychoanalysis would put it, like Narcissus, we adopt our selves as our own love object. We measure what we encounter by its effect on us and we seek pleasure and avoid pain, this being a part of our instinctual and physical inheritance.

This concept of narcissism is larger and more basic than the concept of self-interest used by economic theory, which generally describes people as seeking what they believe is in their interest, and avoiding what is not in their interest. Self-interest is itself only an expression of our absolute and primal self-involvement with ourselves.

When this narcissism is paired off with other human abilities, such as our ability to reason, and the struggle for survival, we get the calculating, strategizing characters of economic theory. But other kinds of behavior emerge from this same matrix. For example, when we feel we have been slighted or aggressed against in some way, we spontaneously desire revenge over the other party to right the wrong and restore our sense of esteem to its rightful place. When we are put down, we spontaneously yearn to master others, to repair the narcissistic wound. Such reactions are primitive and spontaneous, and they express the self's absolute involvement with itself.

But even as narcissistic beings, we must live together and can't imagine not doing so. We coalesce into groups. We produce new generations. We display ourselves. We flock together and take narcissistic pleasure in the joys of withness. We organize to serve our own interests. We derive social pleasure from being together, from exchanging symbolic parts of ourselves in conversation. We don't merely interact with other people as other narcissistic selves, but we expand our narcissism to include them, through identification. We judge them according to how they affect our projects: are they obstacles or allies; are they like us or different. We conspire with them, exchanging secrets, knowing glances and covert communications, and ultimately we symbolically taken them in or we spit them out and designate them as Other.

We expand our basic narcissistic definition of ourselves to other people spontaneously and as a basic psychological process. Our sense of narcissistic identification expands to include family, friends, the group and ultimately the nation, so that what slights these, slights us. And we transfer the image of the primary caretakers we identified with onto other people later in life, so that these early self-shaping experiences become a template for later experiences.

One of the ways our narcissism finds social expression and one of the bridges connecting our narcissistic selves with society, is our self-esteem and public image. Our self-esteem is the image we have of ourselves, the messages we constantly give ourselves about who we are, how good we are as people and members of society, based, ultimately, on cognitive-emotional schemas we have of ourselves in relation to the primary caretakers of childhood. It is our world of self-reproaches and self-flattery. When the messages are good, our sense of ourselves expands.

Many of the messages to ourselves about ourselves fall into one or more of three categories: morality, competence, desirability. We are often measuring ourselves. How good are we? How good are we at what we do? How desirable in the eyes of our fellows? Growing up, we develop images of ourselves and significant others, as good, competent and desirable, or bad incompetent and undesirable, based on messages we get from significant others. And so we constantly seek to make ourselves the former, so the internalized version of our significant others that is part of our minds can send us flattering messages about ourselves.

But this self-esteem is also tethered to our reputation and status, since, to an important degree, we project our significant others onto others, and then judge ourselves based on how they judge us. Thus, it is easier to have good self-esteem with a good public image and a high status, and it is easier to project a good public image when we have high self-esteem.

In order to maintain our self-esteem and succeed in our group life, we use our skills and rationality, abstracting lessons from situations, retaining what we learn and applying it to new situations. We develop sensory-motor skills and we use a kind of social rationality to develop our social skills and social persona. We learn the customs of the society we grow up in and learn how to manifest them.

As self-involved creatures, living together, seeking each other out, we also, spontaneously create and crystallize a moral order, with taboos, prohibitions and proscriptions of what we must do, can do and cannot do, and why. Taboos determine what is acceptable conduct and unacceptable; what will be respected and deplored. They define the boundary of conduct beyond which is transgression. Taboos and the moral order are complex cultural creations that come from a number of sources. To an important degree, they come out of our own psychodynamics, our instinctuality, and evolve over time. Much of the moral order is, in essence, what narcissistic creatures devise in order to live together. They regulate how we will interact, defining and protecting individual rights and the social order from our own egoism.

Negative emotions, based in our narcissism and esteem system, are a part of what keep us in line with taboos. When we violate the moral order, we know we may suffer various kinds of social sanction, including a loss of reputation and thus self-esteem. Having internalized the moral order, we suffer this loss in our own eyes. We experience shame, guilt, anxiety, depression, embarrassment and humiliation, all of which reduce our sense of ourselves in the eyes of ourselves. Internalized fears of danger similarly keep us in line. It is as if the conscious personality and behavior is surrounded by a force field. When we stray too far into realms we have been taught are taboo, in what we think or do, we experience a fear of the danger of a loss of love and esteem from ourselves and others, a loss of significant others, and of physical injury. We then fall back.

To some degree, these taboos correlate with psychological repression. They are a system for regulating desires and repulsions, and they determine what we can think and symbolize to ourselves about our own motives.