Narcissism Through the Digital Looking Glass

  • Jay Watts
Part of the Studies in the Psychosocial book series (STIP)


Ever since Lasch (1979) declared we live in a ‘Culture of Narcissism’, journalists, critics and indeed shrinks have been quick to criticise an ever-increasing puffed-up societal self-obsession. However though the term narcissism is often assumed to be an insult, a ‘personality disorder’, an illness, it is first and foremost a crucial developmental stage, and a creative one at that (Freud, On Narcissism: An Introduction. SE, XIV, 67–104, 1914). This developmental stage has often been disrupted by experiences such as trauma, abuse or displacement as well as cultural norms that have paralysed an individual’s development. Such cultural norms include presumptions of a fixed gender identity or sexuality and, indeed, a presumption that object-love is always better than self-love. However, what is missing is an understanding of how developing an idea of a self is a complex manoeuvre that can come undone as a result of traumas such as abuse or displacement. A ‘false self’ (Winnicott 1962/5) or ‘as-if self’ (Deutsch 1934) can develop through problematic early caregiving, of course, but also through growing up in an environment where one’s desires are seen as deviant (and thus suppressed). The digital world offers an opportunity for individuals to immerse themselves in a backcloth where a wider range of sexual, racial or gender identities can be validated. Narcissistic cyber-activities here are not pathological but an opportunity for the individual to go back to what some would see as the core adolescent tasks of self-development in a safer, more playful arena than that which had been experienced in local reality. Radical organisations such as the Hearing Voices Network give the most damaged spaces to play with and create a missing sense of an ‘I’ to ward off the disintegrative experiences that make psychosis dangerous rather than creative. Cyber-narcissism here is not just healthy, but life-saving. In this chapter, I will combine theorising with examples of cyber-activities from the clinic and radical organisations to bring my arguments alive. I aim to show how cyber-analysis can reconnect us with the radical Freud who saw identity development as a lifelong adventure rather than the conservative Freud who implies that progressing along developmental stages in a linear fashion is crucial to ‘healthy’ development. Cyber-analysis can rescue clinical and theoretical psychoanalysis from the vested interests that keep it in bed with ideas of ‘illness’, ‘expertise’ and ‘pathology’ that can entomb the subject as much as cure. Reclaiming narcissism as a desperate—though sometimes flawed—attempt to become may just yet show the public that psychoanalysis can dialogue with the identities movements that are shaking up what it means to be a subject in the twenty-first century.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jay Watts
    • 1
  1. 1.Clinical psychologist and psychoanalystLondonUK

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