“…is nothing but a heat haze.”
From Plato’s Sophist:
“So think about the man who promises he can make everything by means of a single kind of expertise. Suppose that by being expert at drawing he produces things that have the same names as real things. Then we know that when he shows his drawings from far away he’ll be able to fool the more mindless young children into thinking that he can actually produce anything he wants to… Well, then, won’t we expect that there’s another kind of experience – this time having to do with words – and that someone can use it to trick young people when they stand even farther away from the truth about things? Wouldn’t he do it by putting words in their ears, and by showing them spoken copies of everything, so as to make them believe that the words are true and that the person who’s speaking them is the wisest person there is?”
Sophist is a narrative continuation of a previous dialogue, Theaetetus, where Socrates quizzes the titular child on what knowledge is and what it means to know. Theaetetus proposes several models, all of which get refuted one-by-one, and Socrates concludes with a gentle reassurance to the boy that he is better, not worse, for this, through his awareness of his own limits. The next day, we get the above. Take a moment and consider that carefully.
The common story about pathological, generational narcissism is that it’s the fault of television. It goes: television lies, television dramatizes, television turns everything into a movie with a main character and with side characters, and when television became commonplace, those precise features became engendered in the societal conscious (or if Hegel doesn’t offend, the zeitgeist) and everyone became narcissistic. That is, bluntly, a defense mechanism, and can be overturned with an observation and an argument.
The observation is simple: Plato was precisely concerned with generational narcissism. If you don’t believe me, read the Gorgias and pay close attention. Athens had no TVs. All they had were sophists.
Now for the argument.
Plato’s allegory of the cave has grown so well-known that it has become almost entirely obscured by itself, but a naive reading tells us quite clearly that the literal reason people are trapped in the metaphorical cave is that they mistake images of fakes as being reality. This is not unbelievable prescience reaching into our modern age, but a reaction to something that was already happening in Plato’s time. He was already surrounded with his own Dumbest Generation of Narcissists, and he was watching them drag Athens down into the dirt. They were characterized by being led astray by sophists and orators, who used their words to create images of the real over actual reality, and Athens suffered for it. The inability to discern real and fake comes first, the deception by convenient lies from whatever serves as the contemporary media comes second, and pathological narcissism is the natural development from those lies being internalized without a “reality check” coming in to eviscerate the state of ignorance. Or did you think the TV was a magic box? I wouldn’t blame you; it’s been general opinion for the past half a century.
(N.B. Television, and subsequently the internet, are in fact like traditional media tweaking out on meth: jittery, unstable, will try to steal your money and hawk you useless junk, and most importantly, up all night. TV and the web have the notable characteristic of being available all the time, meaning they can be consumed at a ludicrous rate. Going to listen to an orator or hiring a sophist can only be done at the individual’s convenience, but the moment you have free time, CNN and Netflix are right there waiting. Opium and heroin cause addiction in the same general manner, but you’d better believe that heroin is more dangerous by far.)
Let’s just wrap everything up nicely with a bow: the reason that a young person fails to grow properly out of narcissism is because they are never taught their own limits. It can be gentle, as Socrates gently taught Theaetetus, or it can be the brutal crunch of an adolescent running headlong into the wall of reality, but it must happen or the child is lost. This is the meaning of the Delphic inscription, the very thing Narcissus’ parents were told to avoid, “know thyself.” With context, it becomes “know your place.” Parents in Plato’s time and in our time failed to teach that lesson, and the results are predictable. Without knowing one’s limits, one cannot survive against the limits of knowledge. Toddlers, infamously insensitive to their own limits, are the easiest creatures on Earth to lie to. The children immediately get targeted by the forces of rhetorical fate, their expectations become warped, failures are externalized and successes are undermined, and they come to value the status quo of childhood because they are fooled into thinking its base pleasures identical with goodness and become incapable of recognizing the misery that necrotizes their souls. So it has been, and so it will be.
So what makes something fake?
First, definitions. A fake is something which is neither itself nor a representation of something else, but instead seeks and by nature fails to be that other thing. To give examples of these three categories, imagine a human in contrast with a marble statue and a wax sculpture. The human is simply itself; the marble statue is a representation of that human (the general category of art; consider re-presentation), and the wax sculpture is a fake. Wax sculptures, alongside animatronics and the rest, are the creepiest things around. You know this. They make your skin crawl. This is the effect of the uncanny, and uncanniness is the emotional manifestation of the aesthetic of the fake. It makes your skin crawl, and for good reason: something which is fake is fake not because it just happens to align (that shock of realization when you mistake two similar things has all the intensity of lightning, but it is not uncanny), but because it is trying to trick you. It is trying to fool you, to seduce you, to tell you things which are false in the guise of the true, and that is horrifying. Not terrifying, since terror melts like summer ice, but horrifying, in the same way that the most unsettling horror stories don’t make you leave all the lights on but make you want to scrub your skin until the thoughts in your mind have been scoured off.
Here’s the question that determines now and forever whether you are a sucker for lies and will be taken advantage of as long as you live: what does Disneyland make you feel? If you answer “happy and nostalgic” for any reason other than “I went there with my family / other loved ones when I was young,” don’t bother with anything else, just check out of life now if you haven’t already. You are lost, and you have been found by Panopticon. It has you now. There is no escape once it owns your very feelings.
Disneyland – and this will seem obvious after a moment’s thought – is fake. It is full of fake constructions of real things: not mere replicas which seek to copy, but fakes which seek to lie. The lie is: this is more real than real, the same way that stage-jewels of glass sparkle brighter than the true stones.
This horror is what narcissism lacks. We’ve been identifying narcissism on the disease level as an inability to grow up, an obsession with self-image, and so on – and all these symptoms can be summed into an inability to tell the difference between the real and the fake. This is also the difference between children and adults, and can stand in as an excellent definition of maturity. “So adults are able to see things as they really are? But -“ Hold, there. Seeing things as they really are is permitted to none but the sages and the Divine, didn’t we just talk about the analogy of the cave? This is just about seeing when things are fake, which (as we said before) is about others trying to trick you. It’s hardly knockdown, but an excellent piece of evidence for entrenched narcissism in our society is the lack of a distinct category for the fake. All we have is true and false, real and unreal, with no room for “it doesn’t matter what’s under each cup, or what’s behind the curtain, because someone is trying to trick you: the game, the whole city are what’s wrong, get the hell out before you get taken for all you have.” We, none of us, have been taught to say: it doesn’t matter what’s individually true or false here, because none of it’s real, it’s all a setup. Even if the guy on the street-corner really does sell you a great watch, that doesn’t mean he was for real, it just means the con is further downstream. The game is not to sell you the watch, that’s a chump’s game, amateur performance, it’s to sell the image of you, the watch, the salesman altogether – because then you will be totally in the artist’s power. We can no longer recognize this.
The result of this disability being a societal condition is that now all of our finest institutions are all fakes, hence Disney is the biggest winner in all of media. It’s busy taking over the industry, which should terrify you.
The inability to detect fakes is what lies behind branding, the ability to make something what you say it is. “Wait, isn’t that just, like, everything? That’s postmodern as hell.” Yeah. We’ve gotten to the point where that doesn’t sound absurd. The way it works is simple: you don’t know anything, you are literally incapable of passing judgment on things, and so instead of using your judgment you use your reason, and your reason can only say to check what others say. But they don’t know anything either, so they’re doing the same, and when you get down to it the only people saying anything original are in marketing, and they’re just hawking. So whence truth, whence knowledge? Nowhere, which is why we fall for the dumbest tricks.
Typically it falls to the parents to teach their children about lies, deceit, and falsehood. Failing that, the old stories and legends do the trick. But when all else fails, one simply has recourse to the world itself. The world enforces reality, and we suffer the consequences of being deceived – except when we’re shielded from it, even browbeaten into believing the lies. Ask the kid at Disneyland, admonished for screaming in fear at the bobblehead mascots, what she thinks.
So why here, why now? There’s two answers: a historical-scientific one, which states the deterministic causes of the effects, and the intentional one, which explains why everyone is acting in such a way as to bring this world about. If you want the historical answer, skip to the end and it will be there, and neither it nor the rest of this essay will be of the slightest use to you.
The intentional reason here is pretty simple. If we can’t tell what is real or fake, then we’ll buy shitty cheap knockoff products instead of the real thing. Lots of individual actors push this disability mainstream, most of them in marketing (I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! Maybe you should), but it’s not like there’s a conspiracy going on. Everyone just knows the thing to do, and the thing to do is make bank off of suckers. The way you do that is by branding things, making them into what they are by saying they are that thing, and having nobody capable of contradicting you. This is true whether it’s ugly things saying they’re fashionable, dumb things saying they’re meaningful, or worthless things saying they’re convenient. Think about it: if you go to the store to get toothpaste, what possible means do you have to tell the quality of one brand from another? You don’t, which is why they all have the same ingredients, which is why the only things left are which taste better (pleasure) or are branded to you. This is the direction our social and sex lives have gone, too, where all that matters is that we’re branded as being the right people for the people we hang out with slash fuck. Is a Democrat better than a Republican? I don’t mean morally, because of course you can make an a priori snap judgment about that, but just on the basis of being effective at living. Can you tell? “There’s a lot more that goes into it, the groups are so broad, I’d need specific examples…” And yet chances are you were able to get a moral impulse out of it instantly. That’s not because of what it is, but because of how it was branded relative to you. Consider if the terms I’d used were “academic” and “blue-collar,” or “executive” and “barista.” Then you’d be able to answer the effective-at-living question, and again it would be because of branding. Are any of those judgments, are any judgments at all, your own? “Well, I think [expression of preference within a niche interest].” Yeah, I watch porn too. The real problem isn’t that you’re buying shitty cheap knockoff products, but that you’re living a shitty cheap knockoff life.
Reality doesn’t care what you say or think. It simply is. The best metaphor for this, physical rather than lingual, is a sharp shove on the solarplexus, enough to make you stumble. There’s no say you have in the matter; it just happens to you. That’s the force of the world. It resists branding; whether or not something is branded a certain way, it simply is what it is. This is something we should be able to sense, or at least, be trained to detect. That we have no ability there makes us as vulnerable as children, which indeed is what we are stuck as being.
Learning to judge things as they truly are is, as I said, the domain of sages, but the inability to discern between real and fake is, as Plato said, characteristic of particularly stupid children. You already know which side you fall on.
“My parents never taught me how to judge things. They did things for me, or neglected me, or both.” Adroit, to notice whose responsibility it was, but it was their responsibility when you were a child. Whose is it now? Or rather: if these things can only be taught, where could the judgments come from in the first place? There are old, old stories about these, involving gods and the wise beyond measure, and the theme is that they learned from the world. Why can’t you? There’s much to draw on from antiquity, and much power in yourself.
That’s what comes next.
All right, here it is: the historical cause of narcissism is prosperity. That’s it. The way it works is as follows:
- Ordinary people, non-narcissistic in nature, come upon good times. They treat their children well, and try to shield them from harm.
- The children, being children, are naturally drawn to pleasures and that general sort. Pleasure is, of course, the deceptive image of what is good. They are not punished for their desires or forced into relinquishing them. This breeds in them a valuation of images over reality.
- Upon adolescence, the children begin searching for identity, but only know of pleasures, not the frustrations of childhood. They are unable to settle and mature, forever seeking images. They have not been toughened, and do not learn.
- They treat their children much the same way, only with even less grace and skill, until finally hardships return to the family or one generation finally gives up on having kids.
The proof of this is simply how narcissistic traits consistently show up in tandem with inherited prosperity. This can be slow, like the more gradual rot of the Chinese dynasties, or fast, like the sudden advent of narcissism in several countries following WWII. To make the narcissism generational, all you need is a marked difference in material conditions between two generations: the parent generation has to struggle for basic material needs, makes damn well sure their kids have enough, but fail to realize in the resulting prosperity that the struggle is as important as the goods themselves. The result is a generation of parents who don’t properly provide, and children who are overprovided for. Then those kids have kids…
“So what, doing well means you’re doomed? Getting to the top means you end up wrecking your kids?” Yeah, Sisyphian, huh? Except that this is a historical cause, i.e. not a personal cause. The personal cause is just parents failing to raise their kids right. Blaming what’s happened to you, to your family, on historical conditions is just a defense mechanism, one that prevents change by precluding it. “A pebble can’t change the course of a landslide…” Yeah, but a sentient pebble with arms and legs can damn well choose where it itself goes. This is why history is worthless as a science, especially when it’s right: it serves as an excuse not to act. In contrast, as a literary discipline, its value is beyond measure.
There’s your scientific answer for narcissism, your mathematical narrative, for all the good it will do you: through the Great Depression, Americans struggled for material needs. World War II marked the end of that struggle, as it equally marked a great divide in history, bisecting the historical memory between past and future. With that breaking-point came a wave of prosperity perhaps unprecedented in the history of the world. The generation which immediately followed – and please note, you only really get “generations” in the context of a great calamity which condenses births in its aftermath, which makes it telling that both the authors of “generational theory” (William Strauss, Neil Howe) were part of that single generation – was saturated in wealth and opportunity while at the same time being devoid of parental influence and restraint. They spread out to capture as much of the growing world as they could, in titles and land and culture, while being unaware of any reason to do it besides that they were able to. When war came, the children proved unsurprisingly poor at fighting, and so the ones abroad retreated into themselves while the ones at home had to provide reason for their own lack of courage. The result: a rebranding of themselves as “pacifists,” which set the standard method of evading challenges going forward. As they had children, they taught those children branding from the start, and so that next generation grew up understanding branding as the norm. They fought for their place in a world that suddenly wasn’t so full of opportunity, and found ways to wrestle some margin of success out of it, mostly through placing themselves in the right niche to brand themselves one way or another. The children of those, between roughly the 90s and early 2000s, were born into a world where prosperity was still spread around (on credit), but opportunities were held either blithely by the elderly or jealously by their parents, having no limit to action and no chance of results, held in a virtual world, a dream world, and slowly but inexorably, they all retreated to the internet…