The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations is a 1979 book by the cultural historian Christopher Lasch (1932–1994) exploring the roots and ramifications of the normalizing of pathological narcissism in 20th century American culture using psychological, cultural, artistic and historical synthesis.
The book offers as its central thesis the proposition that post-war, late-capitalist America, through modifications placed by the forces of "organized kindness" on the traditional family structure, has given rise to a personality-type consistent with clinical definitions of "pathological narcissism". Pathological narcissism, notably, is not akin to typical narcissism—someone with a hedonistic or self-centered sense of self—but rather someone with a very weak sense of self. For Lasch, "pathology represents a heightened version of normality." Lasch locates symptoms of this personality-disorder in the radical political movements of the 1960s (such as the Weather Underground), as well as in the spiritual cults and movements (everything from est to Rolfing in his view) of the 1970s. Behaviors such as streaking, theatrical illusion in contemporary drama, and a fascination with oral sex are evidence of long-term personality disintegration.
Perhaps the book owes much of its seventies-era popularity to its synthesis of somewhat conservative politics (especially social conservatism or paleoconservatism) with a seemingly encyclopedic grasp of U.S. social and economic history, the (then) current world of arts and letters (where further evidence of damaged personalities emerged), and the corpus of clinical research and theoretical insight into the narcissistic personality disorders. As the utopian visions of the sixties faded into the "personal growth" lifestyles of the seventies, the chaos and excess of the former began to imprint itself on the public mind. In this setting, perhaps many needed a voice like Lasch's — deeply learned (and therefore credible and sane) yet sternly, perhaps paternally, upbraiding.
An early response to The Culture of Narcissism commented that Lasch had identified the outcomes in American society of the decline of the family over the previous century. The book quickly became a bestseller and a talking point, being further propelled to success after Lasch notably visited Camp David to advise President Carter for his "crisis of confidence" speech of 15 July 1979. Later editions include a new afterword, "The Culture of Narcissism Revisited".
The book has been commonly misused by liberals and conservatives alike, citing it for their own ideological agendas. Author Louis Menand wrote:
Lasch was not saying that things were better in the 1950s, as conservatives offended by countercultural permissiveness probably took him to be saying. He was not saying that things were better in the 1960s, as former activists disgusted by the 'me-ism' of the seventies are likely to have imagined. He was diagnosing a condition that he believed had originated in the nineteenth century.
Lasch attempted to correct many of these misapprehensions with The Minimal Self in 1984.