Therapeutic Culture and Its Discontents: Christopher Lasch’s Critique of Post-War Psychologization
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Christopher Lasch’s bestseller The Culture of Narcissism (1978) has had, beyond doubt, a significant impact. It was even read in the White House.1 Today it is not only still frequently taught and referenced, there are also still empirical studies conducted which try to verify Lasch’s assertion of the predominance of the narcissistic personality. These experimental and clinical studies however might be classified as one of the many instances of the psy-sciences engaging in, to use Lasch’s own words, “the classification of trivia”2 as they invariably neglect the social and political stakes of Lasch’s work. The issue we shall tackle here is whether or not Lasch’s wedding of cultural critique and a general psychopathological assessment has proved to be a viable endeavour. While the writer Tom Wolfe defined the post-war society as the “Me-decade”, Lasch tried to couple the, at the time, booming therapeutic culture and what he terms the advent of the narcissistic personality in the Cold War era. The question is, can Lasch’s clearly political critique of culture really account for the proclaimed shift in psycho-symptomatology? Or, put differently, can Lasch substantiate the link between processes of psychologization (as a political and ideological issue) and the psychology or psychopathology of the modern subject? In this chapter I shall consider Lasch’s somehow decentring answer, his interesting move of putting forward what I call a critique of psychological politics. However, I shall argue that Lasch does not remain fully true to this insight when he turns to the clinical issue. Here he works from a meta-psychological use of psychoanalysis and, much like Husserl, threatens to be overtaken himself by the processes of psychologization. First I shall show, starting from mainstream assessments of Lasch’s work, how his is essentially a critique of psychologization. Second, I shall engage with Lasch’s metapsychology and consider what should be saved from it. Finally, I shall address the relevance of Lasch for a contemporary critique of psychologization.
KeywordsChronic Fatigue Syndrome Borderline Personality Disorder Social Origin Somatization Disorder Late Modernity
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