Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

Facebook Narcissists: A Reply to a Reply

Very shortly after posting my essay on Facebook and narcissism, Nathan Jurgenson over at the Cyborgology blog provided an erudite reply challenging the perceived assumption that narcissism is a destructive element working against the expression of an individual's 'true self'.

Given that I referenced a book on the subject called The Denial of the True Self, I am of course now obliged to clarify my position on this fundamental question.

What matters is not the existence or non-existence of a true self, but the socio-cultural perception of such. Many people still believe in the notion of a true self. They are encouraged to cling to that notion as the basis of their self-worth - that is how our Western societies continue to operate. That such a belief may be a fabrication becomes almost irrelevant in a social space where certain actions and interactions are collectively considered unacceptable or even taboo.

I described a narcissist as potentially being "a person whose online identity becomes less an honest, if simplistic, version of an imagined notion of 'true self' and more a marketable brand." The operative word here is 'imagined'. The narcissistic self which may overtake numerous other selves can still be seen as a distorting extrapolation of personality, without having to accept that there is one, fundamental self being obscured. Admittedly this essential point could probably have been made more forcefully in my original post.

Jurgenson noted, "While my goal in this comment is not to convince anyone that there is or is not a true self, I wish to point out that one's assumption on this matter is centrally important to what conclusions will be drawn." My point is that people do make that assumption regularly, even though they may be wrong - especially from the standpoint of a postmodernist. Facebook indeed asks us to agree that our Facebook self is an accurate portrayal of our real self - there is one, supposedly representative profile. Because this is a fallacy, and particularly because Facebook is a limited space for expression, it becomes clear that such alignment of selves is a farce, a mere illusion.

"selves are performative, but we still live within a culture which places severe limits upon those performances"

Also, Jurgenson pulls me up on my mention of the word "pathologies". I am well aware of the Foucauldian rebuff to that approach, but I am also aware that we do not live in a Foucauldian society (more's the pity). Absolutely I agree that selves are performative, but we still live within the boundaries of a culture which places severe limits upon those performances.

However, what I was really trying to emphasise in that piece was not the prognosis for digital narcissists, but rather the importance of their relationship with others around them. I would be surprised if Jurgenson disagreed with the argument that truly narcissistic behaviour creates barriers to interaction, even though it may be on some level defensible as an explorative act of imaginative self-construction.

Now, an even more interesting question might tackle the nature of a society which operates in this redundant way, fearful of narcissists, obsessive about the cultivation of true selves, despite the presence of technologies which frequently demonstrate that such a perspective on 'individuality' is really quite anachronistic.

This is where it is valuable to consider Lasch's ideas of a culture which, despite detesting narcissism, only perpetuates the power of narcissists because of fundamental unease over the idea that selves are projected, are fictional and malleable.

But still my opinion lingers that Facebook is a space where the flexibility of selves often becomes frozen, formulaic and repetitive. Facebook narcissists certainly fall into that trap, as do those who egg them on. Barriers to transgression exist within all media, even though the same media may be appropriated by some as self-liberating platforms. These barriers are cultural, and really I think that is one of the most fascinating outcomes of the internet; that it has divided people between those who are unable to relinquish such barriers, and those who seek to punch through them.


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