An Essay on Narcissism, Culture, and Art

presented at Cooper Union, sometime in 1988
edited lightly so as not to appear any more pretentious or coherent than I currently wish to seem...

first the sensors, then the censors...


"Politics is what a man does in order to conceal what he is and what he himself does not know"
Karl Kraus

"These are the days of miracles and wonder
And don't cry, baby don't cry..."
Paul Simon

There is a model of mind in which "agents" (units that direct and fulfill the mind's operations, but contain no such mind in themselves) work in a configuration that spontaneously generates the presence of mind. To understand this model, think of a company: though it is made of owners, personnel, and property, none of these things are the company itself. Most of the parts could change yet we would still refer to it as the same company. Individual minds are like complex societies of such agents. Also, agents can themselves be composed of smaller units in societies, and larger societies, such as countries and religions, can behave like agents in larger societies, et cetera. The congruence between levels seems pervasive. It is in the context of this model that this paper, an outline of an opportunity for the kind of general ecology this model connotes, is offered.

At any frame of reference, similar remarks apply: when "culture" is written, we may think of it as describing interaction and activity at any scale, from that of an entire planet to the undercurrents of a gesture; all behave, at once, as both complex societies and rather mechanical functions. Therefore, generally, the words culture/society, individual, and belief may be used interchangeably throughout this paper.


"They say, namely, that what the mind can sense and in many ways perceive is not the mind itself nor existing things but only things that are neither in themselves or in any place; which means that the mind solely by its own power can create sensations and ideas which are not of real things. This amounts to regarding the mind partially as God. They say further that we, or our minds, have a freedom of such a kind that we constrain ourselves, that is, our minds, and indeed our very freedom. For after having contrived some fiction and given it its assent, the mind can no longer conceive or fashion it in any other way, and it is also forced by its fiction to conceive of other things in the same manner in order not to oppose the original fiction...."
Spinoza, "On the Correction of Understanding"

An individual has a mind made of memories and other forms, some of them offspring of thoughts as old as existence, and as innocent as at their birth. These are systematized, and new information is built and integrated into and upon them. In a society, the corresponding presence is called culture. Though memory restricts awareness in certain ways, actively screening certain undesirable information, it frees it in other ways: if one had to come up with the idea of the wheel (or avoidance of pain or death) anew every day, little ability to build to higher vantage points would be freed, and progress would be negligible. We would not figure out much at all.

Great accuracy is not needed in order to become an active and influential element in this status quo of personal worldview; here, evolution is like it is most anywhere else: the main feature determining if a set of traits gets to continue is not whether they desire or deserve to, but, simply, if they can. Beliefs thrive or perish in societies by many of the same rules as for simple viruses: only the degree to which the virus' patterns conform to the susceptibilities of the host environment matters; outstanding virtue is not a meaning. Likewise, mythology, herein used to refer to the form taken by a culture's system of beliefs about reality, the fiction it contrives to convey and reflect its truths, is a constantly changing but by no means necessarily accurate network of agent-beliefs, each in effect striving to succeed. Ostensibly, the purpose of a belief within a culture is a means of increasing the viability of the culture by increasing the fitness of individual modelling, but because beliefs can get sidetracked into more narrow-focus forms of self-serving behavior, they do. The outcome can be violently sluggish inertia, burdening the individual overmuch with inaccuracy and confusion. Culture and belief can become quite domineering in their focus on self-sustenance, taking on self-replicating terrorist qualities: the guilt and intolerance that became the Inquisition, the anger that becomes child abuse.

If a culture's best function is optimized by increasing, in its component individuals and their beliefs, susceptibility to accuracy in perception, and not by bearing down with a distorted, oversimplified homogeneity, then a mythology that works best works in ways which accord with and respect how individuals learn. We learn to ride a bicycle with training wheels at first; without them, we'd just fall, and either give up or sustain injury before long. When co-ordination reaches a certain level, the training wheels come off, allowing the rider useful maneuverability. When a mythology, found continuously and variously as events and stories are filtered through the ruminating consensus, doesn't afford a withdrawal of restraint and support at the proper time, but continues as an oppressive and stultifying presence, not only is growth arrested, but the continued presence of newly acquired sensibilities becomes a difficult condition. Though the limitations of the mythological dogma are apparent to it at this point, the individual can feel prohibited from such awareness, dominated and denied by inertia. Predictably, tension and confusion often accompany this.

A schism can form. In an individual, this can result in degrees of schizophrenia, in which the intuited model takes on a distinct life. Though in some ways this model will be similar to what is acceptable to the auspices of culture, in other ways it can run in direct opposition: an airplane may still be called an airplane, but it may now talk.

In a culture, similar conditions can arise, when the status quo begins to appear to large enough numbers of people as being overly coarse in its attitudes, or out-of-whack entirely. When this schism gets wide enough, breakdowns and revolts can occur. Until such undeniable contradictions are presented convincingly enough, though, the mythology resists and remains as is.

Yet, these changes do occur. Culture never really quite stays the same, but exists in a state of dynamic balance, aligning to information and attitudes only partially resolved and in harmony with each other. The unknown, however suppressed, is continuously present, nibbling or grating at the given party lines. It can cycle back through after previous rejections; for example, authors may be ignored in a country or time, yet find great favor and influence later or further away. Or, the unknown may be previous knowledge lost, either forgotten, denied, or destroyed (e.g., the libraries of Alexandria). Often, when it arises, it is in what we call art, images and forms coming partly from the known, and partly from more vague and/or dormant realms, coming less in support of the known as in support of the felt.

The unknowns that are found are sometimes determined by the expectations, the unknowns sought, which is to say that by looking at existing maps one decides where best to look for unexplored area. It is unlikely, though still common, for information to come into focus without some precedent to recommend it; what we do not have language for, we find more difficult to grasp and integrate. Though we have the presence of that meant by the French word, "sympathique", we haven't the word, and the experience of that meaning, without the word to break the ground for it, remains vague and private, and is not so likely to be recognized so clearly. Though, when a need clearly arises that is not covered by existing language, culture and mythology can re-appropriate existing items, and in effect "make" new uses. As a hermit crab makes a house from a found shell, as the market made the personal computer, culture created the myth of Horatio Alger.

The unknown can be anything: the survival instinct, from which comes the drive for control, can respond to this as a threat. This can become fear and anxiety in a culture. We block out the unknown, and seek, at times desperately, to regulate how much of it enters our homes and minds. Yet we have a corresponding drive to enter and consume this unknown, recognizing that it contains not only death, but life.

Some of the information received is of a kind called "meta-information", which is information about information, abstract rules and patterns. When compared to other knowledge, it can further generate more meta-information at a higher level, by bringing about new questions. The answers can be very different from the known; we once had only a sketchy theory of electromagnetism, but as new information clarified and developed it, it gave everyday form to computers, which in turn begat high-speed calculation of international financial statistics, and changed the face of banking to express new kinds of function, exert new kinds of forces. This example suggests the possible extent of the dynamic balance referred to above.

What is called culture can be viewed as if it had the characteristics of an entity, but it is only given life through the actions of individuals. Family, school, literature, media, and institutions of all kinds all exert persistent influence on the individuals' investigations and perceptions, and the art that arises out of them. They pressure for conformity and against much initiative to the extent that even so-called free expression is based in large part on responses to cultural pressures. The boundary between culture and individual becomes vague. This provides, though, not just an erosion of notions of independence and individuality, but, more encouragingly, also allows for a clear route whereby the individual can act to modify this culture through the choices and perceptions he or she selects and promotes.

Again, the individual and society are allegories for each other, but they are different enough that one studying the other can find very rich answers, full of evidence of unconscious agents whose expression is otherwise usually too vague and unexpected to sense. Especially enlightening is finding out that some of these programs, however unusual, have a streak of heavy-handedness as wide as their structure is simplified: self-determined, cut off from complex and involved two-way communication with other agents, they crash and clutch wildly from behind the screen of invisibility afforded by the shortcomings given by inertia and limited language. Their habitual actions, though coming from an embedded origin, do real work on the outside world of the individual, causing confusion and misinformation. An example is the self-destructive or emotionally-dependent personality, each trying to achieve yet avoid a convoluted state of satisfaction, denying and demanding boundaries in the same breath.

The process of entering the schism and bringing these programs into the realm of consciousness can be as various as the network is vast, yet that seems to be a normal part of the path to growth, so it may be an act likely to be repeated and recommended, and find an environment susceptible to it. When one is not found, one can be made; in this is our hope.


When an individual expresses the belief that something seems to be a permanent encroachment on some territory perceived to be crucial to survival, the individual can react with a variety of behaviors, including depression, defensiveness, acquisitiveness, manipulation, emotional dependency, oral cravings, repressed rage, et cetera. Whatever the extent of the perceived and impending encroachment, and such behaviors, together they characterize the crisis of diminishing expectations, and the narcissistic response, whereby an entity feels its survival is threatened, and reacts to protect itself and ensure that survival. In itself, this sounds healthy and intelligent enough, but the problem comes when this response takes on a repetitive, simplified function, becoming extraordinarily concerned with distorted symbols of the value or worthlessness of the entity: self-fixation. Uncertainty is one of the more frightening kinds of encroachment; power of choice is contingent on confidence in perception, and when uncertainty attains a certain level and quality, the notion that one can make a correct decision enough of the time becomes an uneasy and progressively undermining doubt.

Uncertainty has been on the increase for some time. In medieval cosmologies, the earth was the center of huge, but measurable, concentric and locate-able spheres. However small. earth was exactly what it was, where it was. Now we know we are made of sub-apparent particles, forming clumps millions of light years apart, located in a, get this, an infinity. The better the precision of our instruments becomes, the more convinced we are of the immeasurability of it all. Scale no longer has meaning, nor, by extension, does much else.

As critical study has continued, and speculation grown commonplace, ways of theorizing have become so bizarre, yet compelling, that the hope of conforming to the ideal image, for some all-seeing eye's scrutiny, is as overwhelming as the scope of that eye's certainty is convincingly vast: so very much to know, and so little ability to grasp even the smallest part of it. So much supports the impression of there being such an all-seeing ideal (at least in the old days, you could work for your salvation): in addition to the rigorous and contradictory scrutiny afforded by written media, there are also the implications of photographic reality, namely that reality is finite and apprehensible. Yet even photographs can distort: absolute certainty and absolute uncertainty in one package. Widespread use of recording and replay acts to deprive an event of the privacy of a limited present, dissolving its boundaries and stretching it over and with previously distant areas of time: where once memory was the only access to the past, external memories now offer a counter to this. And, the increased access to these abundant ideals of behavior (social and financial mobility as a widely-available phenomenon) can make these ideals into oppressive nags. You hear that you can make progress because the doors are wide open, yet you know it doesn't mean this.

Also, childhood, once the sheltered period of nurture which provided time to adapt to a great possible variety of environments, up to twenty-one years' worth, has become shortened and distorted. This time is precious, for it is because of it that we need not so immediately be so finally bound to instinct in order to survive. Parents are overwhelmed and fallible, and the child often assumes responsibility for problems which, previously, she or he would have been isolated from.

"...the stimulation of infantile cravings by advertising, the usurpation of parental authority by the media and the school, and the rationalization of inner life accompanied by the false promise of personal fulfillment, have created a new kind of "social individual"; the result is not the classical neuroses where an infantile impulse is suppressed by patriarchal authority, but a modern version in which impulse is stimulated, perverted, and given neither an adequate object upon which to satisfy itself nor coherent forms of control...the entire complex, played out in a setting of alienation rather than direct control, loses the classical form of symptom - and the classical therapeutic opportunity of simply restoring an impulse to consciousness."
Christopher Lasch, "The Culture of Narcissism"

Our capacity and drive to consume the unknown is aggravated, then confounded and sated by the media assault, diluted and trivial filler, simplistic smokescreens. It is made to behave as a hollow reflex.

So, we must be feeling pretty punchy: we have no durable conception of identity, because we are part culture; we have no memory, because it is permeable to playback; we have cause for neither ambition nor complacency, our souls are self-conscious; and it still keeps getting harder to follow, and from an earlier age: we're excellent candidates for narcissism.

After narcissism, sometimes healing can occur; these healings sometimes arise from the direction of the individual. For one and many, art is the doorway in for such intention. History shows many examples of such response, and even a few of its successes. Though Dada was consistent with the rationale of its polemic, still its features, in many ways, are that of a clearly schizophrenic response, dissociated and hysterical. This hysteria is often a step toward acknowledging a schism or contradiction, which is part of a natural progression toward re-integration or wholeness.

In the sixties, there was widespread and wholesale objection to the western status quo. Attitudes about sex, dress, and social organization were questioned by young people en masse, sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently and chaotically. Plenty was changed by this mass cry for revision of the prevailing beliefs: civil rights for women and minorities, birth control, abortion rights, male single parents, ecology; ideas of all these had been in the air for some time, but the sixties made them new quantities, Perhaps we don't feel as much like there remains valid work to be done, or much hope of seeing it past the cultural red tape, which can be discouraging.

"What has our culture lost in 1980 that the avant-garde had in 1890? Ebullience, idealism, confidence, the belief that there was plenty of territory to explore, and above all the sense that art, in the most disinterested and noble way, could find the necessary metaphors by which a radically changing culture could be explained to its inhabitants....The difference between us and the artists of the 1920's is that they thought [a work of art which could save a single human life] could be made. Perhaps it was a certain naivete that made them think so. But it is certainly our loss that we cannot."
Robert Hughes, "The Shock of the New"

Some of our art has become more symptomatic of narcissism. Pop Art is an example of this, in that it was a more childish dismissal of its place in an art historical context, an escape from seriousness, than a systematic attempt at growth. It had little rigor: though it chose popular culture as its subject, or so it said, and discarded its connection with traditional forms, it really only did whatever happened to suit it, using whatever devices it cared to, regardless of any contradictions or inconsistencies. In other words, its critical stance was a largely a farce, and its actions were haughty and snide, glorifying the shallowness of culture, even revelling in it. It was candy, a party for the vacant. That it became so popular just emphasizes the point. Where Dada arose out of its generation's genuinely anxious politics, Pop Art, as typified by Warhol's portraits of media celebrities (including Chairman Mao) asserted the extinction of substance, and rather than express this as a tragedy, trivialized it.

Today our art has become more inwardly involved than ever. It...

"...has become incomprehensible. Perhaps nothing so much distinguishes art today from what it has been at any other place or time. Art has always been used, and thought of, as a means of interpreting the nature of the world and life to human eyes and ears; but now the objects of art are apparently the most puzzling implements man has ever made. Now it is they that need interpretation."
Rudolf Arnheim

Art has even reached a point where it is asserted to have empirical value, and to have such value independent of other needs and contingencies. "Art for art's sake" is, in many ways, just the next logical step in art's long path of self-explication, and its arguments and reasonings are sufficiently thorough, yet it is also true that if "an individual" were substituted for "art", it would sound like a clear example of a narcissistic condition. The connection is not strict or inescapable, yet still indicative.

We have a hunger to keep moving, to experience, even create, if need be, the moment of realization, the temporary summer breeze of omniscience. "Mobility and growth assure the individual that he has not yet settled into the living death of old age" (Lasch). "Every work of art represents an image of an aspiration and an ideal of life. Every one is a wish-fulfillment, a sort of legend or utopia, even when it paints the gloomiest possible picture of existence..."(Arnold Hauser, "The Sociology of Art"): when the viewer uses his perception of a work of art to consider the completeness of his model and worldview, the work becomes a determinant, a maker of thought and action, a director of awareness and emotion. Therefore, art cannot be spoken of as existing exclusively as a set of formal relationships. It begins behind the veil of culture, and continues back into it. Whether its maker realizes this or not does not change this.

At any rate, art-for-art's-sake makes a convincing case for its being an end point of evolution, a last step in the journey into its own meanings (In 1970, Lawrence Weiner's letter to "Arts" magazine abruptly outlined the following piece of art:"1.The artist may construct the piece. 2. The piece may be fabricated. 3.The piece need not be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership). If that is true, we have a crisis, which is to say, the current definitions and priorities are approaching or have reached the limits of their capability to sustain relevance. Art has survived many crises, by re-evaluating itself and finding out which hidden assumptions and premises can fade and allow the next art to emerge.

"What is new...[in this current crisis] is merely the fundamental renunciation by artists of the domination of the content of what is to be expressed and the change of the fear of its invalidity into the desire completely to disfigure and devaluate it."
Arnold Hauser

It is a bit like that hermit crab making all found shells sacred and untouchable objects. Yet, this is not a desire to be ended, but only a response to fear that it will be "killed by a stranger...The expression of this fear and the resistance to the fulfillment of such a fate is precisely evidence of its desire to live, and of its vital force...As long it is distanced from reality and remains apart, it is not threatened and acts as an opiate"(Hauser). Perhaps some premise will be made which will allow this vigor to be released from the rigidity of its defensive stance.

In consideration of the points described and related in this paper, it is plausible to suggest that one of the conditions the coming art might best address is the possibility of bringing richer forms into the mythology of being, perhaps with the hope that the growth of intelligence, and the organism that is this planet and universe, will continue, and not grow crippled and dissociated. By carefully examining our perceptions and the contexts which form them, more can be found to "bring to consciousness", freeing up more awareness to attain higher viewpoints. In a sense, this drive toward higher levels is another kind of fixation with self, but the actions are of opening and welcome, not withdrawal and exclusion; the fixation is transposed to a transpersonal level, an interesting condition. At any rate, this is who we are and what we do, and it is likely helpful to be aware of this in our decisions to create. We can obviate the search for the wished-for love relationship with the absolute, once sought in the father figure, and currently sought in remote and aloof art-for-art's-sake, and realize that we are maker. The implications feel frightening and intimidating, yet we can better learn and teach that the schism can be entered, and that the illusion of separation and divorce can pass. ********

I’m not bored enough to include the footnotes, sorry...try "Grammatical Man" by Jeremy Campbell, "Society of Mind", by Marvin Minsky, "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins, and "The Culture of Narcissism" by Christopher Lasch, and if you’ve never checked out Marx’s chapter on fetish and commodities by all means do so soon...

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