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Narcissism and self-care: theorising America’s obsession with mundane health behaviour

Abstract: This paper deals with the rather pessimistic interpretations of the rise of a culture of self-care in the 1960s and early 1970s offered by Christopher Lasch, Phillip Rieff, Richard Sennett and other critics of cultural narcissism. These writers saw the proliferation of mundane health information in the mass media as stemming from the erosion of meaningful social relationships and the disintegration of psychic integrity. They mourn the loss of religious authority and the increasing power of ‘new sources of self’. They also argue that a focus on the self results in a loss of social support, further undermining psychic integrity. The paper argues against such negative interpretations by exploring the productive effects of this blurring of the public and the private. Rather than being caused by erosion and loss, I argue that the new focus on the self is a result of the colonisation of mundane self-care practices by the media, the market and new forms of expertise.


A new popular health consciousness seemed to emerge in the United States during the late 1960s and 1970s. There was a surge in interest in personal health and wellbeing, expressed in a wide variety of health-related social movements (including vegetarianism, the natural health movement, the women’s health movement, and consumerist critiques of medical practice) and consumer fads (grapefruit juice, aerobics, workout videos, etc.). It seemed as though the mundane world of self-care had become a national obsession. The myriad day-to-day practices that individuals engage in to recover, maintain or improve their health had become topics worthy of public discourse, filling the shelves of bookshops and newsagents, the talkback radio airwaves and filling television with lifestyle programming.

Self-care practices are one type of ‘technique of the body’, the broader category of reflexive techniques for managing one’s body, including grooming, posture, adornment, gesturing, eating, swimming, walking, sleeping and so on (See Mauss, 1973; 1979). These techniques are learned through corporeal socialization as the ‘natural’ body is acculturated. In this paper I am concerned with the ‘coming out’ of self-care techniques of the body, which had always been part of human daily repertoires but were not formerly considered interesting enough to be the subject of expert or celebrity opinion. By the late 1980s, many of the movements that had begun in the 1970s had become major fields of cultural and economic activity. By 1987, Americans spent US $74 billion on diet foods, US $5 billion on health clubs, US $2.7 billion on vitamins and US $738 million on exercise equipment and these figures would certainly have risen much higher today (Glassner, 1989).

Today, personal striving and spending to improve health is taken-for-granted. In the 1970s, however, when self-care practices were new to the public sphere and the market, there was much discussion of the meaning of these new obsessions. People were divided over the appropriateness of discussing intimate details in public, such as the colour of one’s urine, the contents of one’s refrigerator or the frequency of one’s orgasms. To some, such pettiness reeked of self-obsession, leading Tom Wolfe to famously call the 1970s ‘the me decade’ (Lasch, 1980, p.5). For others, the body had been liberated from decades of repression. In order to better understand the society we live in today, it is worth revisiting these debates, which were carried out at a time when the public celebration of the mundane was still shocking and exciting. It is difficult to be shocked or excited any longer. This era is not only of interest for Americans. With the exportation of American popular culture, these petty conundrums have been globalised. These developments in 1970s America had repercussions across the world, especially in English-speaking societies, where the influence of American popular culture is greatest. Around the world there have been similar intellectual debates, in which writers here in Australia and in many other countries tried to understand the meaning of such public mundanities. These debates have been paralleled those within the United States. The only difference is that whereas Americans saw such phenomena as peculiarly Californian, the rest of the world sees such a focus on the self as peculiarly American.

On the Left, popular interest in self-care was interpreted as part of an anti-institutional critique of medicine. Writers such as Ivan Illich (1976) and Irving Zola (1972; 1973) saw self-care as a force against professional dependency. Their critique of institutionalised healthcare closely followed Parsons’ functionalist understanding of the medical profession. They saw professional-institutional forms of health care as mechanisms of social control and so saw the rise of self-care as the expression of a popular liberatory rebellion against institutional power. This interpretation fitted neatly with the early consumer backlash against medicine and psychiatry in the 1960s and 1970s. One broad theme in many of these movements was an effort to reduce dependency on professional healthcare services and institutions by providing individuals with tools to undertake their own self-care.

The other major intellectual response to the appearance of these self-active cultural forms was the critique of cultural narcissism, which I will discuss in this paper. Best known through the work of Philip Rieff (1966), Richard Sennett (1974), and Christopher Lasch (1980; 1984), this tradition of disparaging and often despairing intellectual comment on what are seen as the self-obsessional tendencies promoted by consumer capitalism has been a major influence on subsequent critical interpretations of popular interest in mundane health behaviour. While the anti-institutional writers tended to confine their discussion to the relationships between individuals and health care institutions, the critics of narcissism and were more broadly concerned with the rise of diverse forms of introspectivity in popular culture. They were critical of what they saw as a new type of inward looking personality. Instead of celebrating self-care as resistance to medical dominance as Illich and Zola had done, these writers saw the rise of self-care practices in popular culture as evidence of a variety of forms of social decay.

Critiques of cultural narcissism often focused on the extraordinary new counter-cultural movements that appeared to be particularly self-obsessed. Peter Marin’s (1975) article in Harper’s magazine described the self-religions that were later to call themselves the New Age movement (see also Heelas 1996). Marin recounts a conversation he had with a man who had embraced mysticism and spirituality.

He was telling me about his sense of another reality.

‘I know there is something outside of me,’ he said. ‘I can feel it. I know it is there. But what is it?’

‘It may not be a mystery,’ I said. ‘Perhaps it is the world.’ (p.50)

Marin argues that the worlds of community, history and social action have been so eroded that people have only the inner world in which to search for meaning. They often find ‘in there’ one of the many mystical recollections of a world beyond the self that are produced by the spiritual fashion industry.

At the same time as these fringe cultures were causing concern to some intellectuals, the mass media became focused on the private self in ways that were perhaps less spiritual, but were seen as equally narcissistic. Self-help books, in particular, concerned the reading classes. James Lincoln Collier, in The Rise of Selfishness in America (1991), recounts the growth of self-help book publishing in the 1970s:

In 1971, The Sensuous Man and Any Woman Can! made the [New York Times best-sellers] list. In the summer of 1973 Dr Atkins’ Diet Revolution, The Joy of Sex, and I’m OK–You’re OK were on the list together. In 1975 Sylvia Porter’s Money Book, Power! Winning Through Intimidation, The Relaxation Response, The Save Your Life Diet, and TM were on simultaneously (p.232).

Why, the critics asked, have Americans become so preoccupied with such mundane aspects of their private lives?

Diagnosing social forms

Lasch, Rieff and Sennett argued that structural changes in American society were changing individuals’ psychology, leading to a shift in the dominant personality type of the society as a whole. The tradition of psychoanalytic diagnosis of culture dates at least from Freud, but theories of fundamental contradictions between human nature and society are of course much older. Marx’s ‘species nature’, for example, was based on his notion of the spontaneously arisen natural community and in part, his theories of alienation in class society centre on the incompatibility between this species nature and the psychic requirements of the capitalist mode of production. Freud (1985) later theorized a fundamental contradiction between human nature (the id or the pleasure principle) and culture (the ego or reality principle). The ‘polymorphous perversity’ of primary human nature, he argued, is incompatible with the co-operative requirements of civilized societies:

We cannot fail to be struck by the similarity between the process of civilization and the libidinal development of the individual… Sublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic, or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life (p.286).

Freud could see no way out of this fundamental conflict, since the more civilized a society becomes, the greater the repression required. The non-satisfaction of powerful instincts results in hostility in every society, and in neurosis.

In Germany in the 1930s, the welding of psychoanalysis with Marxism led to a number of psycho-sociological explorations of the modern psyche. Even before Adorno and Reich had attempted to explain the rise of fascism in psychoanalytic terms, Karen Horney had written one of the first overtly psychological diagnoses of modernity (Horney, 1937). In The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, she saw the root of neuroses in the fears and conflicting tendencies inherent in her culture. She listed as the most important of these cultural conflicts those between competition and brotherly love; between desires and their dissatisfaction; and between alleged freedom and actual limitations (pp.288–9). Most people, she observed, manage to negotiate these contradictions and accept them as part of ‘modern living’, while those who cannot are diagnosed as neurotic. These three tensions arise from the relatively free-floating nature of modern life as compared with the more predetermined and restrictive conditions of more traditional social forms. These tensions have of course intensified since Horney wrote, and self-care promotion is one way shaping individuals’ personal negotiations of the tensions between selfishness and cooperation; desires and dissatisfaction; and perceived freedom and actual limitations.

Decades later in the United States, the psychological conflict between the individual and the civilized society once more came to the fore. During the 1950s and 1960s many American social commentators wrote of the perceived loss of individual autonomy in the face of the homogenizing and depersonalising effects of ‘mass society’, in many ways echoing Weber’s writings on rationalization. These critiques responded to the increasing influence of professional-institutional modes of practice (James, 1996), in which the power held by the mass media, big business, big government and big unions was seen to threaten those individualistic values—self-reliance, independence and personal initiative—that were held up as the motive force of the American dream. With the heavy influence of psychology, and especially psychoanalysis, on American social criticism in this period, the emerging ‘mass society’ was seen to be causing a new type of psychological make-up. David Riesman (1950), for example, identified two ideal-typical personality structures, the inner-directed and the other-directed. The inner-directed person is typified by the self-reliant individual of the nineteenth century. This personality type internalises cultural imperatives, using them as a resource in acting independently. He argued that the inner-directed personality had given way to the other-directed, heteronomous personality type. Riesman feared the gradual loss of individuality in the face of the conformism that accompanies the other-directed personality. He argued that individual defences are battered down by ‘the group’, despite the persistence of a contradictory and increasingly anachronistic ideology of free-enterprise and individualism. The critiques of medicalisation offered by Illich and Zola were heavily influenced by the broader analysis of the loss of personal autonomy in the face of professional-institutional modes of practice.

The emergence of the ‘counterculture’ in the late 1960s in the United States, with its heavy emphasis on introspective self-exploration, was in part an oppositional reaction to the ‘mass society’. The 1950s precursors to the counter culture, the Beats, thought of themselves as spiritual refugees fleeing the uniformity and boredom of suburbia or, as Kerouac explained, from ‘the people watching television, the millions and millions of the One Eye’ (Kerouac, 1958, p.104). Instead, the Beats sought mobility and extremes – wild experiences to escape from the predictability of suburban life. They were on a search for meaning and spirit in what they saw as a heartless world, and a way of living more meaningfully. They were drawn together by their desire to elude the mainstream and to avoid angst by resorting to hyper-mobility. They looked to Zen Buddhism to provide deeper inspiration and meaning to their escapism and to guide the perpetual search for new experiences (Ziguras, 1996, pp.67-87). Vytautas Kyvolas, writing in 1970 about the psychological make-up of ‘post-modern man’, expresses most clearly the approach which sees the dominant ‘modern’ and oppositional ‘underground’ personality types as both derived from social structural changes—the one reflecting what Parsons might have termed systemic imperatives and the other a reaction to these forces:

If the sociological trend … is toward an increasingly rationalized and impersonal bureaucracy, its psychological resultant may be a more rationally organized and unemotionally performing type of personality, concerned only with the orderly application of rules rather than with the solution of immediate existential or ultimate philosophical problems. But, as a reaction to the sociological trend, an exaggeratedly irrational kind of personality might emerge—one inclined toward anarchic romanticism, expressionism, mysticism, and the politics and education of ‘ecstasy’ (Kavolis, 1970, p.436; emphasis in original).

The desire of many young people to ‘drop out’ of mainstream society in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States, much noted by mainstream writers at the time, was only one side of the process. The critics of narcissism tended to overlook the other side of this process, captured in the ‘tune in, turn on’ part of Timothy Leary’s famous exhortation. T.R. Young (1972), to pick one of thousands of possible examples, told his readers that ‘modern society has become much too flimsy a fabric out of which to build a self-system’, and instead encouraged readers to turn to the ‘new sources of self’. These included ‘the next generation of psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and psychiatric social workers [who] will “help” us to be unattached rather than adjusted to the social order’ (pp.1, x). He encouraged the rejection of ‘society’ in favour of self-constitution, with the aid of those new sources.

An inward turn?

While young people were turning in growing numbers to these ‘new sources of self’, social commentators tended to focus on the loss of the old sources of self. In 1957, a team of American social researchers conducted what amounted to a psychological profile of the American population, which was then repeated in 1976. Between 1957 and 1976, they observed ‘a reduced integration of American adults into the social structure’, and saw this as ‘a shift from a socially integrated paradigm for structuring well-being, to a more personal or individual paradigm’ (Cited in Collier, 1991, p.224; emphasis in original). This shift was accompanied by a higher degree of introspection and a tendency to visit others less and belong to fewer organizations. A similar study, led by Robert Bellah, particularly interested in the relationship between private and public life, suggested that an ‘expressive’ or ‘lifestyle’ individualism had replaced the earlier utilitarian or economic individualism. The new individualism was putting in jeopardy the survival of democratic institutions which, they argued, depend on ‘the extent to which private life either prepares people to take part in the public world or encourages them to find meaning exclusively in the private sphere, and the degree to which public life fulfils our private aspirations or discourages us so much that we withdraw from involvement in it’ (Bellah et al., 1985, p. ix). They argued that work continued to be centrally important to the self-identity of Americans and their concern with self-reliance, so the work ethic remained strong, but was now accompanied by an isolating preoccupation with the self (Bellah et al., 1985, p.56). Rieff, Sennett and Lasch drew upon such empirical studies to argue that a narcissistic form of individualism that celebrates self-expression and self-gratification was replacing the rugged individualism of the nineteenth century (Lasch, 1980, p. xv). While those involved in the new social and cultural movements saw opportunities for growth, exploration and transformation in the new tools for rethinking the mundane, conservative critics such as Lasch saw the growing interest in practices of the self as an inward turn that involved the withdrawal from the social or public sphere and a narcissistic and solipsistic obsession with the inner self.

Sennett wrote in The Fall of Public Man (1974) that impersonal relations in the public sphere were increasingly seen as phoney obligations, causing people to turn to their private lives for authenticity and meaning. Intimacy and private life were coming to be seen as ends in themselves and ‘the psyche is treated as if it had a life of its own’ (p.4). He believed that one result of the preoccupation with the self was a confusion between public and intimate life. Increasingly, people were dealing with public matters in terms of personal feelings—matters that Sennett believed could only properly be dealt with through codes of impersonal meaning. This confusion of boundaries between the self and the external world, between the private and public spheres was a major concern for the critics of narcissism for a number of reasons:

1. Democracy was seen to rest on the ability of citizens to rise above self-interest in order to act for the public good, and this blurring raised the fear that people would no longer be able to think beyond their own self-interest.

2. The public seemed to be more interested in their leaders’ private lives than their political actions.

3. They did not welcome the politicisation of the private sphere. Being well-educated white middle-class men, they were members of the most privileged segment of the population—those with most to lose from the politicisation of the interpersonal relations with regard to gender, race or class.

It is now fashionable to deconstruct the public–private dichotomy as a fiction complicit with the maintenance of established power relations. Nikolas Rose (1990), for example, states that ‘the distinction between public and private is not a stable analytical tool, but is itself a mobile resource in these systems of knowledge and power’ (p.217). While this may be true, it begs the question of why this ‘fiction’ held up for so long, and has only become visible as an imaginary construct relatively recently. The distinction between public and private did indeed serve as a stable analytical tool until very recently. It has become a mobile resource primarily because the relative autonomy of these spheres has been seriously eroded. The value of Lasch, Rieff and Sennet’s work is in theorising this shifting of boundaries that allowed the mundane details of private life to suddenly become worthy of public exposure.

The mediation of the mundane

These commentators were witnessing the birth of new therapies, new forms of expertise, new types of radio programs, new dietary fads, and so on. People have always been involved in the types of self-care that was the focus of these ‘new sources of self’, but previously these mundane conversations had been conducted in the privacy of one’s house or one’s own head. Now they were being broadcast, bought and sold, and studied as never before. These writers saw the media’s interest in the private self as a major influence in eroding public life in America. Sennett (1974), for example, lays some of the blame at the feet of electronic media:

Electronic communication is one means by which the very idea of public life has been put to an end. The media have vastly increased the store of knowledge social groups have about each other, but have rendered actual contact unnecessary. The radio, and more especially the TV, are intimate devices; mostly you watch them at home (p.282).

They saw the media and professional interest in mundane self-care as separating people from one another, facilitating a withdrawal from social interaction. This sentiment was expressed powerfully by James Lincoln Collier (1991), who claimed that the increasing amount of time Americans spend in front of television is a major cause of what he called the rise of selfishness in America:

What is troubling about this enormous immersion in television and the media in general, is the extent to which it has isolated people one from one another. At bottom, television is a machine which helps people to wall themselves off from one another. So long as we are engaged with the magic box, we are not engaged with others (p.245).

What Collier forgot was that while TV watchers may not be engaged in face-to-face interaction with others, they are certainly involved in a form of communication with others. Lasch, Rieff and Sennet also focused on the erosion of face-to-face interaction and generally missed the fact that self-care practices were increasingly reconstituted through mediated communications with others.

While these writers focused on the mental health implications for individuals, they generally overlooked the production and dissemination of mediated self-care advice. One early exception was Arthur Brittan who in The Privatised World (1977) described the ‘invasion of consciousness’ as a process of privatisation in which ‘the subjective experience of individuals in industrialised and capitalist societies is distorted and influenced by the mass media and bureaucracy’ (p.147). He emphasized the extent to which the private sphere is reconstituted by mediated information, so that even the most intimate aspects of private life have become the subject of public discussion:

‘Sexual privacy, supposedly an essential requirement of personal identity, is now subject to the dispassionate analysis of experts who comment on technique, performance and impotence, to a world-wide audience who suddenly discover their own sexual inadequacies. … Sexual privacy is, therefore, an illusion because each sexual episode is geared into a vast network of performance requirements, which in turn generate anxiety about the sexual adequacy of the participants (p.147).

Brittan argued that the analysis of this situation was torn between ‘mental health’ analyses that saw this emphasis on the private lives of individuals as narcissism as the writers I am considering do, or else as ‘media manipulation’, as Frankfurt School social theorists such as Horkheimer (1972) and Althusser (1969) had done. Both of these approaches tended to see the individual as being in a vulnerable and unhappy situation, as did the Foucaultian approaches to this issue in the late 1980s and 1990s (see for example, Rose 1990 and Lupton 1995).

The loss of religious authority over the mundane

To understand the basis of Lasch, Rieff and Sennett’s pessimism, it is worth considering the religious tone of their critique. The critics of narcissism saw the popular demand for self-care advice as being fuelled by a deep void—a loss of meaning generally attributed to a loss of religious faith, a distrust for authority, and the fragmentation of close-knit social relations in favour of looser connections. Philip Rieff argued in The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966) that the power of psychologically trained professionals was causing a shift in the dominant culture of Western societies, from a ‘Christian culture’ to a ‘therapeutic culture’. The emergence of psychological man was one of the effects of the collapse of ‘Christian culture’ and its attendant institutions, which, he argued, had previously saved believers from ‘destructive illusions of uniqueness and separateness’ (p.3). Rieff proposed that whereas

Religious man was born to be saved, psychological man is born to be pleased. The difference was established long ago, when ‘I believe’, the cry of the ascetic, lost preference to ‘one feels’, the caveat of the therapeutic. And if the therapeutic is to win out, then surely the psychotherapist will be his secular spiritual guide (pp.24–5).

Rieff may have exaggerated the hold which psychoanalysis and humanistic psychology had over the fields of psychology and psychiatry as a whole in this period when behaviourism was becoming dominant in mainstream psychology. Nevertheless, he pointed to a dramatic shift in professional practice to align professional expertise with the self-care capacities of the patient, so that rather than surrendering to the professional and ‘following doctor’s orders’, the practitioner and patient began to work together and alongside one another in a cooperative manner.

Paul Halmos (1970) developed Rieff’s thesis in more detail, arguing that the ‘personal service professions’, as he termed them, had developed a relatively coherent counselling ideology. He grouped professionals into either ‘personal service professions’ (clergy, doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers) or ‘impersonal service professions’ (lawyers, accountants, engineers, architects). The principle function of personal service professions, he stated, is to ‘bring about changes in the body or personality of the client’ by implementing techniques applied from the social and psychological sciences (Halmos, 1970, p.22). Whereas Rieff saw all professional intervention in psychological and emotional realms which was not of a religious orientation as therapeutic, even describing political ideologies such as Marxism as ‘therapies of commitment’, Halmos distinguishes between ‘reformist’ and ‘therapeutic’ interventions, where reformist orientations attempt ‘to change the rules which regulate social relationships’ and therapeutic orientations aim to ‘change the personality of the client or the patient’ (Halmos, 1970, p.18). Halmos argued that the therapeutic approaches to dealing with personal problems were not merely a result of the professionalisation of self-care advice, but must also be studied in terms of the ideological and political trends within such professions.

Before the advent of new forms of expertise on the mundane aspects of daily life (pop-psychology, health and fitness experts, alternative therapies), the only public institutions to deal in any depth with such matters were religious authorities. Now the clerics had lost significant ground in the battle to shape dietary, emotional and sexual practices. Lasch argued that the religious desire for salvation by surrendering oneself to a higher power had given way to the desire for well-being and health which is to be achieved through the taking of control over one’s self rather than surrendering it. In contrast to Rieff however, Lasch contended that therapy constituted an anti-religion. While religions construct a moral realm that extends far beyond the space and time occupied by the person, modern societies cannot envisage anything beyond immediate needs, and therapeutic cultures can conceive of nothing beyond the immediate desires of the individual (Lasch, 1980, pp.7–13). On one side of the division of labour between religion and psychology, therapy substituted religious salvation with the attainment of a desirable mental state – ‘self-actualisation’, ‘happiness’ or ‘wholeness’. Meanwhile, on the religious side of this divide, new religious movements with decidedly therapeutic approaches emerged. The New Age movement is a loose collection of such ‘self-religions’ that treat the inner self as the ultimate source of contentment and well-being. The self is conceived as a quasi-spiritual entity, existing on a different plane and requiring transcendent practices in order to be reached (Heelas, 1982; 1996).

Lasch argues that because of the loss of stable sources of authority, those in narcissistic societies are increasingly dependent on celebrities, media personalities, professionals, experts and bureaucracies for validation. The lack of deep engagement with others leads to a craving for approval and admiration, and this need cannot be satisfied by the fleeting or absent others from whom it is sought.

His apparent freedom from family ties and institutional constraints does not free him to stand alone or to glory in his individuality. On the contrary, it contributes to his insecurity, which he can overcome only by seeing his ‘grandiose self’ reflected in the attentions of others, or by attaching himself to those who radiate celebrity, power and charisma (Lasch, 1980, p.10).

In contrast to the reliance on one’s family, Lasch saw a ‘new paternalism’ emerging – a dependence that was encouraged by the professionals and bureaucracies on who people were increasingly relying. In turn, these institutional agents transform collective grievances into personal issues amenable to therapeutic intervention (p.14). In his later work, Lasch (1984) increasingly cast reflexive practices of the self as mere coping mechanisms. He argued that people had turned inward because of the desperate state of a world threatened by environmental disasters, nuclear apocalypse, decaying cities and other seemingly intractable crises over which individuals have no control. Crisis, he argued, had been normalized to the extent that people no longer expected to be able to make sense of the world or to find a meaningful existence with reference to once reliable meta-narratives or institutions. Narcissism, the retreat into the mundane self, is thus a defensive strategy – a reaction against fears of abandonment and feelings of anxiety and guilt.

The loss of social support

As well as mourning the loss of more authoritative forms of religious practice, the critics of narcissism mourn the loss of face-to-face community and the sense of meaning and belonging afforded by such a community. Before the therapeutic culture, there were positive psychological, religious and ethical rewards for pro-social behaviour, good citizenship and communal values, and these were mutually reinforcing. According to Rieff, there was ‘a design of motives directing the self outward, toward those communal purposes in which alone the self can be realized and satisfied’ (Rieff, 1966, p.4). In modern industrial societies however, the bonds between each person in the chain of social responsibility are broken, so that everybody lives a truly private life, and individualistic philosophies that attempt to make sense of this condition increasingly take hold.

The emergent therapeutic culture attempts to soothe the descent into meaninglessness experienced by late-modern subjects. Rieff, Sennet and Lasch contend that the therapeutic remedies actually exacerbate the social problems they seek to cure. They argue that the forms of community that exist in individualistic societies are not strong enough to establish a positive culture. Rieff concludes that the desire for freedom is self-defeating. Satisfaction, he argues (perhaps rather anachronistically), can only be attained by surrender to a Higher Power, an unquestioned designer of communal purposes. This religious critique of self-help is often encountered in conservative responses to contemporary cultural issues of many kinds (e.g., Carroll, 1974).

Lasch likewise interprets the narcissist’s obsession with the self as a desperate search for the means to counter the insecurity produced by the weakening of the social super-ego that was formerly represented by the father, teachers and preachers. The rugged individual of the nineteenth century could act confidently in the world because these sources of authority could be taken for granted. In contrast, Lasch argues, the ‘psychological man’ of the twentieth century searches desperately for a personal peace of mind while the social and personal conditions of contemporary life make that end harder to achieve (Rose, 1990, p.216). Lasch sees the preoccupation with consciousness as an indication that there is a void within, which creates a desire for therapeutic interventions. Rather than a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, Lasch sees the contemporary demands for therapeutic assistance as part of a ‘struggle for composure’ by individuals who feel lost or fragmented. However, this recourse to expert help is thoroughly self-defeating, according to Lasch. Therapeutic approaches that seek to counter this sense of meaninglessness by helping the person to overcome their inhibitions and helping them in satisfying their desires only heighten the individualization of the person, exacerbating the problems of disconnection they experience. Lasch characterizes all therapeutic systems as advocating social withdrawal, and so sees all therapy as inherently self-defeating.

Arising out of a pervasive dissatisfaction with the quality of personal relations, it advises people not to make too large an investment in love and friendship, to avoid excessive dependence on others, and to live for the moment—the very conditions that created the crisis of personal relations in the first place (Lasch, 1980, p.27).

To use the example of love, according to Lasch, in the therapeutic enterprise love is discussed in terms of the emotional self-interest of the patient rather than to encourage the individual to subordinate their needs to those of others. Because of the self-interested nature of such a relationship, the resulting emotional attachment lacks meaning, according to Lasch, when compared with more traditional notions of love as self-sacrifice and self-abasement. The meaningfulness of relationships in earlier times was conveyed by the requirement for self-sacrifice for the other, or submission to a higher loyalty (Lasch, 1980, p.13). Lasch here characterizes all therapeutic advice as encouraging a withdrawal from interpersonal relationships. He ignores those types of therapy that work to help the person reintegrate themselves with a network of caring others and to rebuild damaged relationships.

Arlie Russel Hochschild (1994) analysed the degree to which contemporary women’s self-help literature encourage their readers to withdraw from social relationships (which she calls ‘cool’ advice) or encourages readers to engage more fully with others (‘warm’ advice) in order to overcome various life crises. Warm and cool forms of advice differ in their attitudes to emotional investment. Warm advice emphasizes the desirability of connectedness, stability and safety, whereas cool advice values positively individual freedom, self-sufficiency and disengagement. Hochschild sees a distinct contrast between the generally warm tendencies of the self-help books advocating ‘traditional’ gender identities and the cool tendencies of those favouring feminist-informed ‘modern’ identities. Many of the ‘cool moderns’, as Hochschild terms them, argue that the desire to be safe and warm is the cause of women’s problems. While her observations support Lasch’s argument, Hochschild advocates a warm modern approach, reminding us that advice (whether delivered by a professional or a text) is able to encourage cooperation and connection, just as it can advocate withdrawal.

Lasch often characterized therapy as inevitably anti-social, but at times conceded that such ‘warm’ and sociologically informed forms of advice-giving are possible. A productive form of therapy, he argued, would involve providing critical insights into a person’s condition so they can ‘gain insight into the historical forces, reproduced in psychological form, that have made the concept of selfhood increasingly problematic’ (Lasch, 1980, p.17). Giddens likewise observes that therapy is not simply ‘a means of adjusting dissatisfied individuals to a flawed social environment’ but instead is often a proactive method of life-planning which responds in appropriate ways to the ‘dislocations and uncertainties to which modernity gives rise’ (Giddens, 1991, p.180).


The path followed by Lasch, Rieff and Sennett identifies the limits one reaches when analysing self-identity based on readings of images of self in electronic and print media. The critics of cultural narcissism focus too heavily on the media image, while overlooking both the practices of consumption used by audiences and the politics of media production. They read contemporary culture by looking at the assumed audience written into texts by the producers of individualistic self-help cultures (like the Martians who study life on earth by analysing intercepted television transmissions). The culture may in fact be no more self-obsessed than it has ever been, but the way its self-obsession is worked out through professional and mediated relationships is much more striking to the cultural critic. Intimate discussions over a coffee table are not as visible to the cultural critic as intimate articles in magazines. They may have identified a powerful trend, but in the end they echoed media hype, in the process overstating the fears and cravings of American society.

How then are we to understand the cultural politics of self-care promotion, and the entry of mundane health behaviour into the mediated public sphere? Firstly, I think we should acknowledge that meaningful face-to-face interaction with loved ones is still a most important source of information and encouragement. What we are seeing in the media preoccupation mundane health behaviour is not a withdrawal into the self, but the addition of a new layer of communication about the mundanities of embodiment. In past decades, professionals and the media have become powerful ‘new sources of self’, but the messages they convey reach people who are still enmeshed in networks of interpersonal relations, who share worries and solutions with those close to them. ‘Expert’ self-care advice is usually not being passively accepted by isolated individuals starved for information, as these writers tend to make out, but becomes another part of an increasingly complex mix of information sources to be drawn on. In contrast to these writers, I think what we are seeing is a more robust sense of self that results from the mundane practices of strategic information accumulation and decision-making which ordinary people must employ in their actual self-construction projects. What this discussion has shown us is the value of empirical studies of consumers of mediated health information. People often gather information and advice strategically, deciding which sources to consult and how to weigh the information they obtain from various sources. They may consult friends, healthcare professionals, advertising material, self-help books, magazines, and, now, the Internet (Rogers, Hassell and Nicolaas 1999). The media does not mirror the nation’s soul, and theorists who attempt to describe social practices based on an analysis of mediated content often underestimate the agency of the audience.

At the same time, we should not underestimate the constitutive power of the media over mundane body techniques. The way people live is changing, and the elevation of the mundane aspects of self-care into the mediated public sphere is definitely a contributing factor. Just as it is important to study the way in which these messages are taken up, it is important to study the ways in which they are produced. The separation between a private sphere framed by face-to-face interaction and a public sphere composed of institutions and abstract relationships has been eroded. Social life has changed in ways that make the distinction between public and private acts impossible to sustain analytically, and the politicisation of the bodily mundane inevitable. New social movements, as Alberto Melucci (1989) observed, provide tools for the political transformation of the self as well as the society one lives in. When studying the production and distribution of self-care advice, one needs to be aware of the diversity of ideological approaches that inform it. We need to be aware of the presence of ‘warm’ advice that seeks to use mediated sources to bring people closer together, even though it may be buried in a mountain of individualistic recommendations. As the corporate production of culture draws on scientific and media expertise to penetrate ever deeper into the most mundane aspects of embodiment, so too does the politics of cultural production become ever more personal.

Note: I owe a great debt to Paul James, whose comments on an early draft of this paper were most helpful, and whose kind advice over the years has been indispensable.

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Author: Christopher Ziguras completed a doctoral thesis on the cultural politics of self-care, and is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education, Monash University. He has written widely on the ways in which mediated communications shape self-identity, and his most recent research deals with the cultural dimensions of technologically-mediated transnational higher education.

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