Online contact is often dressed up in the language of love but much of it is actually fully devoid of human feeling, writes Elizabeth Cotton. Online technologies also get us into bad narcissistic habits. The result: we live in a narcissistic society where random acts of intimacy with real people are pointless and romance is dead.
Romance takes a real pounding in a recession, with divorce going up by nearly 5% since 2008 and a rise in domestic violence and family break-up. Tell us something we don’t know? Actually relationships in a time of recession are a complex business, reeling from the impact of public policy on family incomes to the massive rise in availability of online porn, there’s something about our collective decline in intimacy that requires us to dig deep.
It’s 100 years since Freud wrote On Narcissism, which over time has become the most written about idea in psychoanalysis. Tempting as it is to blame the narcissists for this (seriously what do you think about me?), one of the reasons might be the hold that narcissism has on our culture. From the narcissism of the ego-ideals we present through social media to the collective perversion of NHS privatisation – one way or another narcissism is a dimension of ordinary life.
Some of us stare open mouthed at our corporate culture which celebrates megalomania and magic solutions and a public policy of anti-vulnerability promoting superheroes and self-sufficiency. Cut, cut, cut. This is narcissism as a perversion of love, a world of leaders that can only love the things that they control and withdraw their interest from the external world to the internal one. Me, me, me.
Despite being a big fan of anything that puts people in contact with each other, online technologies can indeed get us into bad narcissistic habits by helping us withdraw from the troublesome activity of having to rub along other separate and independent human beings. The technology we use at work and play is potentially a space where these perverse ideals can be pursued offering a virtual exit from human neediness and insecurity. One third of all US divorces cite Facebook activity and 50 per cent of baby boomers regularly sleep next to their smart phones. Intimacy gets replaced by shoes or the hairless body of the online porn star. I am my facebook profile.
Online contact is often dressed up in the language of love – human emotion and therapy speak peppering public engagement and policy consultations. Much of it is actually fully devoid of human feeling, summed up in the image of political leaders doing a selfie at Mandela’s funeral. A narcissistic society where instrumentality rules over relationality creating a world of haves and have nots, omnipotence and a disdain for human life and the vulnerability and pain that this actually involves. This is a narcissistic world where random acts of intimacy with real people are pointless, and romance is dead.
Tempting as it is to project the problem of intimacy into our un(self)conscious attempts to virtually link-in, all that the technology does is concretise one of the many psychic retreats we’re all tempted to take when it comes to relationships. Whatever our status, there exists a narcissistic choice of love objects; ourselves and our ideals or what Freud called anaclitic love, based on intimacy with someone different and separate from us.
Narcissus mistook his own reflection for a lost love and got locked in a matching-anorak-co-dependency-situation with someone that wasn’t really there. Click here for your perfect partner, a 99% match, or click here for chemistry and the messy business of relations with other people. Narcissus stopped the crushing pain of loneliness by staring at his own reflection and in the process starved, his needs left untouched without any intercourse with life.
In a profoundly Scandanavian response, the Norwegian government this week adopted a policy of Date Nights. Yup, a policy to encourage fledgling narcissists to go out and date. No generational slander here because despite the research on the impact of technology on the Millennials it turns out that the group most vulnerable to narcissistic withdrawals are the 40-44 year olds. That sentence alone should remind us of the real value of actual data and public policy that uses it.
To celebrate 100 years of On Narcissim on the 27th February the LSE has invited some pretty ordinary people to come and tell us what they think about love, politics, culture and technology and the potential for human contact. Whatever your online status, commit a random act of intimacy and come and join us.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
About the Author
Elizabeth Cotton is the founding director of The Resilience Space and the Surviving Work Library www.survivingwork.org.