Millennial Narcissism as a Problem of Social Recognition

Daniel Avatar

Narcissus is a comedy in so far as what I am giving to the other is myself, what I recognize in the other, what I love in the other, is myself. This is the object outside of itself. – Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, The Freudian Subject

The recent obsession with millennial narcissism has become a bit more nuanced in popular culture.  Many writers and journalists are now pointing out the a-historic nature of critics who declare today’s young people to hold a monopoly on self-love compared to previous generations. Speaking of historical origins of narcissism in America, what about the self-love espoused by the transcendentalists and romantics? There was no shame in their self-love. It was as if the whole world could come into a mystical union with the self. But today, Walt Whitman’s politics of the self in Leaves of Grass and Democratic Vistas appears as a very vague, mystical notion.

One of the legacies that Whitman leaves to us, however, is the notion of self-love as a revolt against Protestant individualism. Whitman’s self-love was rooted in a grand union of one’s body with the world, whereby the other took on all of nature. The-other-as-whole evokes an almost gestalt theory, making Whitman’s ontology of the self most in alignment with today’s New Age spiritualists. Although there are important differences between Whitman’s self-love and today’s New Age self-realization and self-help.

So often today, calls to be one’s true self involve engaging in the regimen of self-help, we have no recourse to a ‘natural’ sense of authenticity, but rather an artificial sense of the self’s ontological status. Is there then an ontological problem inherent to millennial narcism?


The Other, for Whitman was a wholly (holy?) Other to oneself. To embrace this wholly Other other was the highest ethical act of self-love. While the faint torch of Whitman’s gestalt love for the All is carried forward by obscurantist New Age spiritualists, millennials are certainly faced with the challenge of narcissism – but not as a choice they take onto themselves. Rather, millennial narcissism shows signs of revolt against a mode of subjectivity that is imposed upon them. Julia Kristeva writes of the subject formed in protest and its waning presence in contemporary life. For Kristeva, along with many psychoanalysts, the problem is staging intimate revolts against the system (the family, patriarchy, etc).

What would a genealogy of this revolt of the subject since Whitman’s Leaves of Grass look like? My thesis here is that an embrace of the gestaltist self with the Other-as-whole began as a backlash to the dominant Protestant work ethic of individualism, for which Christopher Lasch’s account is helpful in turning to.

What is Millennial Narcissism?

The standard arguments for why millennials are narcissistic comes from those that define narcissism as a generational problem, as something that plagues a certain generation over and above another. I am thinking here of the liberal view of narcissism espoused by David Brooks. Brooks argues that an American citizen is narcissistic in direct proportion to how much volunteerism they do, and to how highly they think of themselves. For example, high school graduating classes report on public opinion tests each year a higher percentage of self-purpose and self-worth. Students in each generation think they are more unique compared to their peers, and this trend only seems to grow exponentially.

Brooks’ view of the ideal American citizen is one that is able to shrug off this societal pressure and realize themselves through what Christopher Lasch calls the ‘bureaucratic ego Ideal.’ Brooks’ view of the non-narcissistic citizen is thus nostalgic for the liberal utopia which has somehow been overran by the 1970’s “Me” Generation, the birth of radical neoliberal capitalism in the 1980’s, its beginning revolt with “Gen X,” followed by what many see as its total integration with “Gen Y” and now the “Millennials.”

A more historically grounded and scientific understanding of narcissism in American culture is given by Christopher Lasch in, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. Lasch identifies three stages of narcissism in American culture, the first coinciding with the Protestant work ethic period running up to the second World War, where social recognition was determined based on one’s individual relation to God and work, an individualized relation of self recognition. In this period of narcissism, (or lack thereof) Max Weber’s predestination theory of Protestantism, or the idea that one either has or does not have God’s grace proved the basis of one’s self recognition. Even if one was successful, this did not mean that they had to be narcissistic in part because the relation they had to recognition was internalized, i.e. recognition was either awarded by God or it was not.

The second stage of narcissism that Lasch identifies is what he calls the ‘heteronomous man of organization’, whereby recognition from others was realized through institutions. Here, the post New Deal period of American history stands out as the model, whereby narcissism was largely held in check through social relations that enabled “socially determined ego identification” with others. The subject (citizen) in this second stage perceives the rules of the game (competition, advancing in one’s workplace, etc.) in terms of the ideal Ego grounded in social relations. Freud problematized this picture in his analysis of groups as he showed that individuals are open to one another through the affect of panic in the same way they are drawn together in love.

Freud wrote in his famous text,”On Narcissism,”

“narcissism is not a perversion, but the libidinal complement to the egoism of the instinct of self-preservation, a measure of which may justifiably be attributed to every creature” (Pgs. 73 – 74).

It is desire itself that is staged to the individual from an other. As Michel Borch-Jacobsen writes, “desire is about to be, not to have.” In other words, desire is not possessed in any original way by the individual, but is possessed by the other, and the individual imitates this desire. It is this exchange with the other that the millennial struggles with insofar as the other for the millennial is opaque, has largely disappeared, and has been replaced with a series of artificial desires, for which the millennial must wage a battle against in the process of their own self-realization. This is the site of the millennials revolt, and thus, it is the site of the millennials subject formation.

Lasch drew attention to the type of narcissism that millenials are prone to, a concept he refers to as “pathological narcissism.”  Pathological narcissism makes up for the missing ideal of the Ego, as realized through the Other (or institutions), with the Superego. What Lasch reveals is that behind the superficial “breakdown of (paternal) authority” and “permissiveness” significant of the psychological constitution of Narcissus, there is a rise of a much more “irrational” and “cruel” pre Oedipal “archaic” Superego.  Socially determined ego identification breaks down in the case of pathological narcissism, and the subject perceives the rules of the game in terms of the Superego, and not the ideal Ego grounded in social relations.

Millennial Narcissism as a Problem of Social Recognition

The narcissistic millennial is thus thrown to a social environment that presents panic, which as we saw above, is a precondition to the formation of narcissism according to Freud. Importantly, this environment lacks an Other whereby an ideal Ego identification can take place. Pathological narcissus cannot experience the paradox of desire – because he is filled with so many different desires that are artificial. He is presented with too many answers without questions. The borderline presents the break with this point – whereby the borderline is the first step towards normalization of pathological narcissus.

  • Experiential capitalism has become the scene by which one comes to realize themselves through products. Experiences themselves have become commodified. Gadgets, apps, and a whole host of web platforms have come to control our lives, leaving us passive spectators.
  • Expertise-driven knowledge has come to be the first stop in determining problems that used to be determined through networks, through ideal Ego exchanges, through community and through mentors. The mentor has died out for the most part today.
  • Relationships have become largely commodified and instrumentalized. Millennials have huge networks of friends, but maybe 2 or 3 close friends that they can really trust and so on.
  • The symbolic space itself, since it presents an other that is artificial and based on an superego structure creates a feeling of panic. This panic endemic to the symbolic is made further destabilizing because the individual is left to fight it without the support of an ideal Ego as grounded in institutional relations of recognition.

Is not the literature on the toxic co-worker an example of this situation? The toxic other is the other who we have to manage a proper distance to. There are literally dozens of self-help books out about how to “not strangle your co-worker” and more famously, Toxic People: 10 Ways Of Dealing With People Who Make Your Life Miserable.

The toxic person is no longer the ethnic or minority scapegoat as we had under the era of the bureaucratic ideal Ego. Now, the toxic person is the one who is the narcissist, it is the one who is unable to navigate the proper implicit codes of transgressing the system. In other words, the toxic person is the one who follows the superego demand to the fullest extent, often without shame. The toxic co-worker is thus homologous to the sociopathic personality that we celebrate in popular culture.

In a work environment that is built on competition, all the while management has to make decisions about promotions, advancements, and still appear to be “horizontal” and not “hierarchal” in its management and decision making structure, the toxic person is the one who sees through this facade and seeks to advance at all costs. The toxic person is the narcissist without shame. Without transgressing the rules, the individual fails, this we know, but it is the toxic co-worker who can’t seem to follow the transgressive rules properly and who is overwhelmed by the superego injunction.

This blatant following of the implicit hidden rules of advancement is the source of his toxicity to his co-workers. The toxic co-worker is too serious, too concerned with himself, and he thus presents the truth of the system back to his co-workers. He is the symbolic problem of the “system.”

Typically, management resolves the issue of the toxic co-worker by reducing the conflict to a failure of communication between two isolated workers (individuals). The remedy for this breakdown is to create more routinized communication between the two parties. Yet a failure of communication is always a failure of a bigger work environment that must be reformed but that doesn’t desire to be reformed. You (whether you are the toxic person or the one who is dealing/coping with the toxic person) most often decide that the work environment could be reformed, but you pick and choose your battles.

The toxic co-worker knows that he will be celebrated at the end of the day because the meritocracy cares about (titles and positions), don’t regard  care for others, compassion and being a team player. The toxic co-worker has realized this truth and is therefore made himself immune to the repercussions of his brute desire for self-advancement. There is something that is honest about the toxic co-worker that is secretly admired by his peers, despite the fact that his presence overwhelms.

What I’m left with after these reflections on millennial narcissism is the need to conduct a genealogy of narcissism in American culture starting with Whitman up to our present, one that situates today’s borderline as a revolt against this new injunction towards being narcissistic. At the same time, it is important to unearth the ways in which transgressing the demand to be narcissistic plays out as well.

One response

  1. Anzaholyman

    Reblogged this on Anzaholyman's Blog and commented:
    Good stuff from a fellow bloger

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