Lasch, Christopher. (1978) The Culture of Narcissism


Our culture has become so fiercely individualistic that we are obsessed with ourselves and gratifying our id.  We are in a constant quest for fulfillment, happiness and the respect and adoration of others. (22-23)  Advertising promotes self-doubt (not self-indulgence) so that needs are created and never satisfied (181).

Chapter 4 – The Propaganda of Commodities

In a Fordist culture, workers are not simply producers.  It is also necessary for them to be consumers.  By imbuing workers with a taste for the finer things in life, consumer demand drives production. The capitalist manufacturer benefits from educating the masses and ensuring they are not only literate, but also cultured.

“The American economy, having reached the point where its technology was capable of satisfying basic material needs, now relied on the creation of new consumer demands – on convincing people to buy goods for which they are unaware of any need until the “need” is forcibly brought to their attention by the mass media” (72).

We now live in a culture based on appearances. The “society of the spectacle”.  Capitalism has made “having” more important than “being.”  Instead of simply advertising individual products, advertising as a whole promotes consumption as a way of life by promising to fill the aching voids in our lives:

“Now [advertising] manufactures a product of its own: the consumer, perpetually unsatisfied, restless, anxious, and bored.  Advertising serves not so much to advertise products as to promote consumption as a way of life.  It “educates” the masses into an unappeasable appetite not only for goods but for new experiences and personal fulfillment.  It upholds consumption as the answer to the age-old discontents of loneliness, sickness, weariness, lack of sexual satisfaction” (72).

The propaganda of commodities serves two functions:

  1. Quells protest and rebellion by distracting workers with material possessions.  They blame discontent on their lack of possessions instead of trying to change the work conditions
  2. It turns alienation into a commodity.  Natural feelings such as loneliness, insecurity and anxiety are exploited and consumption is proposed as the only cure.

History

A moral change took place around the turn of the century.  The worker used to labour out of moral obligation, now the worker labours to “partake of the fruits of consumption” (73).  In the 1800s, only the elite were concerned with fashion, style and possessions.  But mass production of  luxury items extends these concerns to the masses:

“Mass culture encourages the ordinary man to cultivate extraordinary tastes, to identify himself with the privileged minority against the rest and to join them, in his fantasies, in a life of exquisite comfort and sensual refinement” (181).

Women and Youth

Capitalism depends on women having the freedom to publicly shop, make their own purchase decisions, and cater to their own happiness instead of living for others. Advertisers benefit by depicting women as free and independent from traditional patriarchal oppression.  Advertising “disguises the freedom to consume as genuine autonomy” (74).   Advertisers also flatter youth in order to elevate them to full consumer status so that they will also feel entitled to owning their own stereos, TVs etc.

“[Advertising] emancipates women and children from patriarchal authority, however, only to subject them to the new paternalism of the advertising industry, the industrial corporation, and the state” (74).

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