Brief Reviews, Midweek Edition, VOLUME 2

Brief review: Two New Books on our Narcissistic Culture

A Brief Review of

The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.
Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell.

Hardback: Free Press, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

The Peep Diaries:
How We’re Learning to Love
Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors.

Hal Niedzviecki.

Paperback: City Lights Books, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

We were reminded in reading Chris Hedges’ new book Empire of Illusion, that the prevalence of image-driven communication is intimately linked with a narcissistic “cult of self.”  Thus, it is not surprising to find contemporary thinkers grappling with the problem of our escalating narcissism.  Two recent books have taken on the task of unmasking this widespread and deeply-rooted cultural affliction.  Psychology professors Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, in their book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, employ a medical analogy (diagnosis, root causes, symptoms and treatment to explore the cultural prevalence of narcissism.  They begin the book by observing:

American culture’s focus on self-admiration has caused a flight from reality to the land of grandiose fantasy.  We have phony rich people (with interest-only-mortgages and piles of debt), phony beauty (with plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures), phony athletes (with performance-enhancing drugs), phony celebrities (via reality TV and YouTube), phony genius students (with grade inflation), a phony national economy (with 11 trillion of government debt), phony feelings of being special among children (with parenting and education focused on self-esteem), and phony friends (with the social networking explosion).  All this fantasy might feel good, but, unfortunately, reality always wins.  The mortgage meltdown and the resulting financial crisis are just one demonstration of how inflated desires eventually crash to earth (4).

The Narcissism Epidemic is an excellent work of social criticism that takes a careful historical (Chapter 4: “How Did We Get Here?”) and social look (increasing materialism, vanity, etc.) at how the prevalent narcissism has arisen in American society.  Twenge and Campbell explore this social phenomenon from a variety of different perspectives.  Their work on the rise of the “health and wealth” gospel and the influences of narcissistic culture on religion (and vice versa) was particularly insightful.  The book concludes with a lengthy chapter on how we can repent of our narcissistic ways.  Following in the footsteps of Twenge’s earlier book Generation Me, this book is a vital one for churches struggling to understand the broader culture in which we live and it is also very convicting in that it reveals the extent to which we have been conformed to the ways of the world around us.

Hal Niedzviecki addresses a specific facet of our narcissism epidemic in his The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors.  Steeped in the new media of our age from Reality TV to online social networks, Niedzviecki probes the question of why we are increasingly interested in broadcasting ourselves and looking on as others broadcast themselves.  He summarizes our “peep” culture: “In the age of Peep, everyone wants to know everything (and everyone wants everyone else to know everything about who they are, why they are and how they are” (13).  Unlike Twenge and Campbell’s book, Niedzviecki is long on the description (sometimes veering into the more tawdry elements of Peep culture – e.g., sexual exhibitionism and voyeurism) and short on the direction that it offers us toward change.  His narrative ultimately wends toward this eloquent conclusion: “People don’t want to make the leap.  As despairing a thought as it may be, the bulk of us have no desire to use the mass-mediated environments of social networking… to connect in the real world.  We’d rather be at home peering at each other online than putting ourselves out there for friendship, messy emotional connection, and all the responsibilities and frustrations that come with forming attachments to others” (262-263).  The Peep Diaries, while well-written and useful as a warning about the excessive ways new media can be used to bolster our narcissism, it was a little disappointing in that it offered little in the way of reflection on how we might get out of this mess of self-absorption, and thus in itself teetered close to the edge of being a sort of meta-broadcast that perpetuates the cycle of narcissism.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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