It would be difficult to find a more apt expression of the narcissism and emptiness of our culture than actress Emma Watson’s recent relationship “update.” Entering upon her 30s without a husband or children, Watson momentarily was filled with rumblings of dread. But she has since found inner peace after consecrating her singledom with the label “self-partnered.” Of course, it’s being called “empowering” by all the usual suspects.
The “self-partnered” label goes beyond ordinary narcissism in that it actually makes a partner out of the self, dispensing with the notion that companionship is essential to happiness. But there is nothing new about Watson’s mentality, either. It’s more of the same narcissism that has been poisoning our culture for decades, the so-called culture of narcissism that was diagnosed by Christopher Lasch in his classic text of the same name.
The culture of narcissism found distinct expression in the New Consciousness movement, which made narcissism and “self-love” into virtues. As Lasch understood it, the “Me-ism” of the 1970s was a product, not a cause, of social breakdown.
The narcissistic type was a response to changes in culture, in capitalist modes of production, in the structure of the family and in patterns of socialization that made “living for the moment” an attractive strategy of “psychic survival” under warlike conditions in social life.
The New Consciousness movement introduced into the Western mind a hodgepodge of narcissistic cliches, slogans, and myths that live on today with unabated strength. Among these myths is the notion of total emotional invulnerability, the idea that everything people need to be happy is within themselves, and it needs only to be identified and embraced to achieve “self-actualization.”
The Sadness Behind the Myth
Naturally, attempts to justify a life of isolation, if an understandable reaction to the social and emotional wreckage of our culture, are seldom convincing. But that hasn’t prevented a decadent bourgeois from trying to transform narcissism and selfishness into virtues with which to combat their sadness. Today’s magazine literature is rife with what one might call the “wine aunt confessional,” for lack of a better term. Partly apologia for the single life, these articles attempt to frame a life of childlessness as one choice among many that is no worse than the rest.
These testimonials about the virtues of childlessness are a dime a dozen. A recent and representative take adopts the usual tone of defiance to express pseudo-insights like this, which come close but narrowly miss reaching self-awareness: “Maybe some people need to have their own offspring to suddenly realize the world is not all about them. It seems to me, though, that many already intuitively understand this and live accordingly.”
Another popular and unconvincing motif is that pets and babies are interchangeable: “I’m so full to the brim with gratitude, concern, and empathy for my dog and two cats, I don’t feel like I’m missing out.”
These articles often deal with the importance of “self-care” and the essential disposability of relationships. Even as the use of antidepressants and rates of mental illness and suicide have spiked, many relationship “experts” continue to counsel looking inward to find the solution to feelings of personal emptiness. It never seems to occur to them that larger changes in social patterns have destroyed the conditions for happiness and that hiding in the blank of a transcendental “self” doesn’t fix, but rather exacerbates, feelings of alienation.
This embrace of isolation is being pushed as an agenda of liberation. In a glossy write-up on this “single positivity” movement, the Guardian tracks this fashion as though it were some new or groundbreaking development. With poignant cynicism, the author welcomes the disenchantment that comes with more people “rejecting the notion that true love is the only path to happiness.” The author writes of a woman who quite literally married herself, in a so-called “sologamy” ceremony, which was meant—of course—as a symbolic statement about the “stigma” of being single.
Even as people find it harder to strike up meaningful interactions, make new friends and find satisfying relationships, the gurus and “experts” keep telling the lonely to embrace their isolation.
These attempts to “own” one’s isolation, though, too often seem like the lady protesting too much. What “self-love” amounts to is nothing revelatory or groundbreaking, but something profoundly banal and rather sad. The imagined emancipation of dispensing with “unsatisfying relationships” to be alone smacks not of wisdom but of entitlement, bitterness, and unrealistic expectations of perfection from life partners.
Of course it’s possible to be content and single, and being alone certainly affords one the free time to focus on career, hobbies, or other callings. But having a healthy sense of self-esteem and “self-love” is not the same thing. It’s one thing to be content in solitude, and another to shut out love and companionship in the name of “empowerment.” The concept of self-love rests on a false and unhealthy myth of total emotional self-sufficiency that tries to ignore the inescapable vulnerability of being human. The individual is encouraged to derive all resources for taking on life’s stresses from a bottomless well of self-admiration, rather than in the give and take of family relationships or an understanding of a higher power.
Coping with Social Collapse
Despite mounting evidence that society is becoming increasingly isolated and unhappy, our culture clings even more tenaciously to myths of total emotional self-sufficiency. It may even be that the myth is indispensable now that the damage is done to personal relationships in our culture. Having destroyed the peace of family life, having replaced civilized society with a war of all against all, the myth of total psychic and personal self-reliance provides a deceitful refuge from the chaos.
The “self-love” myth is a cruel delusion for an era as lonely as ours.
Our irony-poisoned culture is not a happy one. Many people today complain about the difficulty of forming romantic relationships, even friendships. There is a sense of extreme contingency and brittleness in personal connections that produces expectations of certain abandonment and betrayal, prompting an attitude of ironic detachment as a defense. This glibness, of course, is all a transparent pose that tries to conceal a great loneliness and fear of attachment.
The narcissistic personality Lasch described, with its fear of aging, fear of commitment, fear of “missing out,” deep self-loathing, has long since gone mainstream. As Lasch well understood, the “anarchic” or “warlike” conditions of social life in our age may actually make a retreat into the self a completely reasonable or attractive strategy for psychic survival in a social world that resembles a “war of all against all,” in which the goal is not thriving but mere survival.
A cold analysis of the lay of the land lends itself to a certain degree of shrewdness, invulnerability, and calculation. As social scientists never tire of reminding us, narcissists are often very successful people, not only in business but also in the dating game.
But ultimately this retreat is self-defeating, as it provides no shelter from destructive, more powerful forces beyond the individual’s control.
It is hard not to see in the rise of the “self-love” mentality an elaborate attempt to cope with various forms of social collapse, chief among them the increasing brittleness of marriage, family, and monogamous relationships. In this sense, “single positivity” is an attempt to justify the very same false “emancipation” that created the bleak, warlike state of modern romance that makes singledom an attractive shelter.
For people seeking commitment and marriage, today’s dating game is like walking through no-man’s land. One of the great challenges of modern dating is its pervasive ephemerality, the understanding that a long-term relationship is not the expected outcome, and that the relationship will “work itself out” as both partners negotiate their private anxieties and seek to outmaneuver the other in a game of emotional manipulation.
Like the narcissistic personality itself, the “self-love” myth is a response to social conditions that are bleak and inhospitable to forming lasting, trusting, happy relationships. The Darwinian nature of modern dating is a consequence of changes in technology and in social attitudes, but it is most intimately tied up with the promise of “liberation” that was supposed to bring rapture and “free love” for everyone. Instead, the sexual revolution has created a fluid, fungible and dehumanizing dating market, in which sex comes cheap and a good man is hard to find.
This state of affairs has exacerbated feelings of rage and mistrust between the sexes, fueling a further breakdown in relationships. Lasch understood that narcissism derives from rage and defenses against rage, rather than sincere self-love, and we do indeed live in a time of great rage, especially in the realm of personal relationships and the relationship between men and women in general. Never in recent history have men and women mistrusted or hated each other more; it seems no accident that feelings of inter-gender rage and romantic vexation are finding more candid expression in popular culture, often couched in the rhetoric of voluntary singledom as a form of “empowerment.”
Another advocate of “single positivity” is the rapper Lizzo, whose song “Truth Hurts” has become a kind of femme power anthem for its frank declaration of independence from undependable men. It’s clear that Lizzo has tapped into something, and it’s not hard to figure out what that something is: an audience of young women jaded from bad experiences with non-committal “fuckboys” and, to an extent, exclusionary, even impossible beauty standards.
“Why men great till they gotta be great,” Lizzo snarls, transforming romantic frustration into a liberating middle finger. “I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever be your side chick/I put the sing in single/Ain’t worried ’bout a ring on my finger.”
The virtue of “single positivity,” like all forms of liberalism, is that it purports to emancipate. But it never seems to occur to Lizzo or the many advocates of the “single positivity” mindset that the anarchic state of the dating game which makes singledom an attractive refuge is a product of the so-called “emancipatory” social changes they celebrate.
A False Liberation
The self-love myth continues to find justification in the same mentality of liberation that created the mess from which it purports to provide shelter—the modern hubris that people don’t need to follow historical patterns of human behavior to find fulfillment. In this arrogant mentality, all previous generations of human beings were wrong about life, and only the newly enlightened, “woke” generations have found some wisdom. This mentality is interwoven with social liberalism, its hostility to tradition and the family, and its false promises of “emancipation” from history.
The appeal of “single positivity” is that it promises to provide liberation from the past. To question singledom as a normative lifestyle is to suggest that another norm, that of the traditional family, is better. Obviously, this is problematic. What if some women don’t want to get married? To advocate marriage and family as the norm is seen as reactionary and wrong, whereas “childless and happy” as a new standard must be embraced to justify “liberation” from patriarchal constraints.
But, as Lasch well understood, liberationist attacks on morality and the traditional family now not only are superfluous but are also misleading in their promises of emancipation. The world we live in now bears the imprint of cultural radicalism—there is not much left for the radical to destroy. The traditional family for a great many is a ruin, the peace of family life destroyed by careerism, the worries of work, rampant divorce, and the “two-income trap.”
Lasch did not share the popular social conservative view that everything went wrong in the 1960s. The patriarchal family instead was besieged and destroyed by capitalism, by changes in forms of production that took first the father, then the mother outside the home, and which usurped the authority of parents to socialize their children—an authority handed over to consumer capitalism and its handmaidens, such as advertising and the managerial class of psychological “experts” who mold the ideal consumer, with his bottomless anxiety and restless appetites. But Lasch nevertheless understood that modern radicalism tends to support a status quo that has already been thoroughly debased.
Perhaps the sort of people who embrace “self-partnered” as a descriptor are just difficult to love.
In this sense, modern “liberation” is merely a handmaiden of consumerist hedonism, and “single positivity” and similarly permissive fashions attack what little is left of more traditional and stable social arrangements that might provide some protection from the terrors of modern life.
In reality, much of what passed under the banner of “liberation” created just the opposite: the individual was transformed into a mere consumer, stripped of affiliations to family, community, and nation, robbed of identity, meaning, or purpose, enjoined only to work and pursue pleasure during free time.
The 1960s repudiated once and for all the past and its constraints, inaugurating a society constructed entirely around an ethos of consumption, hyperindividualism and “choice.” But the world constructed in this image is not a happy or freer one. Ours is a world of endless “choice” in which people feel distinctly trapped. The horizon of freedom is unlimited when it comes to consumption, but not when it comes to the things that really matter. An illusion of potentially unlimited sex partners is belied by the difficulty of forming secure, life-lasting relationships.
It is not my place to pontificate about the relative happiness of women today. But a cursory examination of the anecdotal evidence in any one of our lives, combined with the data on the growing use of antidepressants suggest that the impression something today is amiss is not a wild one. It may be that many women today would like to be full-time mothers but cannot. The liberation of career has led to a situation where many women who don’t want to work outside the home have little choice but to do it anyway and a situation where they, and even those who do want to work outside the home, find themselves overwhelmed by the stress of juggling two roles.
Certain feminists have long suspected that the “sexual revolution” was part of a long-con by noncommittal men, and the status quo of modern dating appears to be a testament to that claim. Many women with more traditional leanings who are seeking a husband today complain that modern dating has placed men in the drivers’ seat. Those who point out this simple fact must face the rage of the Left for suggesting that women should even want husbands at all, or that they have somehow been cheated by changes that were supposed to be liberating.
The “liberation” of the 1960s was really achieved by extending the rule of the market to the realm of personal relationships, bringing the workplace into the home and transforming lovers into both consumers and consumed. The lover markets himself with beguiling arts, like a corporation selling a brand, while partners are evaluated and consumed according to cold rules and calculations establishing their “worth.” Partners are disposed of like commodities with indifference to feelings, decency, or reciprocity.
To embrace “self-partnered” as a label, in this sense, is tragically and openly to declare oneself a commodity, and worse than that, a worthless one.
“Single positivity” is a mere derivation of consumerism, another way of saying, “do whatever feels good.” Without family, religion or meaningful relationships to provide meaning and security, the individual becomes a powerless consumer vulnerable to exploitation by corporations and the state. For his feelings of despair and alienation, the modern society provides consumer products, pornography, movies, therapy, drugs, and casual sex along with the technology for facilitating it—further isolating him in daydreams that hide a miserable reality.
Worse, the consumer society encourages him to celebrate his isolation. The consumer is taught to cast off all commitments and attachments that stand in the way of his pleasure and convenience, but which might provide his life with some order, discipline, and fulfillment. He is encouraged to retreat into an amniotic state of infantile indulgence, and to cultivate similarly regressive affections for pets as surrogate children, so-called “fur babies.” He is told never to doubt the rightness of his cravings, which can provide his only salvation, and to take umbrage when “elitists” criticize his taste in superhero movies.
The hyperindividualism of the liberal, consumerist society has destroyed intimacy, love, friendship, and family. The norms and values of the narcissist have left an indelible mark: a non-committal attitude, a pursuit of personal pleasure, an understanding that even the most intimate relationships are transactional and liable to cancellation at any time, have all worked to undermine relationships. Even casual friendships are more difficult to form when a glib detachment is the norm, when remaining “busy” and filling one’s time with work is the highest good. The world of personal relationships has grown distinctly de-personalized, steeped in a conversational style of detachment and irony.
The destruction of the family has produced a society that is distinctly precarious, unstable, warlike, and pathological. The atomized, bleak world created in the image of the narcissist has distinct signs of his various forms of mental illness: a normalized sense of arrogance and grandiosity, pervasive feelings of depression and inadequacy, a desperate desire to be “seen” in the world of social media, anxiety about “missing out” or being bested by friends and competitors.
As Lasch observed, the erosion of chivalric myths, however disingenuous they might have been, has disenchanted love and exposed age-old antagonisms between men and women, making it harder than ever for the sexes to relate or to trust each other. This atmosphere of fear encourages emotional manipulation as a survival strategy. Defeat in modern dating is defined by being the first one to “catch feelings.”
An aversion to relationships is encouraged by liberalism and consumerism, which cultivate a sense of grandiosity in the average person, encouraging the masses of men and women to imagine themselves unrealized geniuses who cannot accept the limitations of family. To limit one’s “choice” risks squandering “potential.” One must never settle, but instead, always be on the move. It is good, advisable even, to be always seeking to “trade up” or optimize one’s partner like a luxury car. But in fact, nothing is ever good enough to satisfy the narcissist’s unrealistic demands.
The “self-love” mentality is really an attempt to justify narcissism and unwarranted expectations of perfection from partners, transferring the insatiable appetite that drives the cult of consumption to the dating game with a too-discriminating taste towards lovers that regards no one as good enough to spend life with. For the masses of people, such discriminating judgment is not only ill-advised; it’s misplaced and pretentious.
The society created in liberalism’s image and its ethos of “liberation” has not created a stable, more happy society, but instead has produced generations of jaded, cynical, isolated people desperate to affirm their loneliness as a form of “empowerment.
A Vicious Circle
The whole Gestalt of New Age narcissism and consciousness therapies continues to attract devotion from a society that cannot abandon its faith in the “emancipation” of social liberalism, even as society grows more isolated and miserable. Lacking eyes to see the source of the problem, the liberal society can only reaffirm its own misleading solutions.
Despite the destruction already done to the family, a deliberate, liberal anti-natalist agenda continues to hold sway, holding up climate collapse as a justification for a life of ageless adolescence, while encouraging the consumer to wed himself to his childish appetites and nothing more.
Rejecting religion and all forms of higher spirituality out of hand, the liberal society instead tries to satisfy human needs for belonging with material solutions that fall short. Consumption, drugs, casual sex, and psychotherapy are the default palliatives for filling the inner void. These solutions never work, of course, so instead the liberal society can only further glorify the self as the source of all happiness. It seems no accident that the default forms of spirituality that today attract widespread devotion, particularly among young people, are the commodified, plastic garbage of New Age-ism, astrology, and other nonsense that merely restate and elaborate upon their own narcissism, their “self-love.”
In the final analysis, “self-love” is a kind of spiritual onanism that rejects sex itself. Millennials and Generation Z continue to find interest in “spirituality,” but this interest has not been coupled with the kind of wild, libidinal rebellion of the Boomers in their day. Rather, younger Americans simultaneously are less religious and less interested in sex. For many young people, dating has become a game set with too many traps to be worth the trouble. It’s easier to stay inside and play video games or binge Netflix than to risk going on a date and meeting a future spouse.
We find ourselves in a vicious circle: even as birth rates drop to record lows, even as people find it harder to strike up meaningful interactions, make new friends and find satisfying relationships, the gurus and “experts” keep telling the lonely to embrace their isolation. This mentality will never be interrupted without a frank determination to question the underlying hyperindividualism of the self-love concept itself, which entails a re-assessment of liberalism and its consequences.
All of this analysis leaves aside a mystery: does Emma Watson, of all people, have trouble finding a stable partner, and why? Perhaps the sort of people who embrace “self-partnered” as a descriptor are just difficult to love.
“Single positivity” is a cynical cope, an attempt to position a life of isolation as a victory over the constraints of convention and basic needs of love and companionship. The only way to break this pattern is to discard the over-done irony and detachment, the myths of emotional hermetism, and re-discover the traditions and human vulnerability that modernity has sought to suppress.