Christopher Lasch’s The Minimal Self:
A Portrait of Psychological Terrorism

by Ralph Dumain

The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984) by Christopher Lasch is a relic of the early Reagan era but still of interest and applicable to a range of contemporary cultural and intellectual phenomena. Most likely it is a response to the social decline that became perceptible in the late 1970's and to the whole of what was mis-dubbed the "Me Decade." The book should be applicable to the ongoing project of a sociological and ideological analysis of New Age thinking, which was in vogue then and persists in forms adapted to the conservative norms operant since the Reagan era. Lasch's analysis of the destruction of the self is also quite apropos to the ideological complex of what is broadly denoted as "postmodernism", and generalizable to the ethos of popular culture as a whole. Though no longer big news, a lot of cultural data is collected and analyzed. Lasch's own philosophical analysis is somewhat limited, but he knows what he's fighting at an empirical level. I have always regarded Lasch as an ambiguous figure at best, with dangerous neoconservative proclivities, but in this book he hits the mark.

The book's premise is the debasement of democracy, of the quality if life itself in an advanced consumer society where managerialism, manipulation, and the therapeutic mentality replaces old fashioned inner-directedness and naked authoritarianism. Whether in blindly optimistic or pessimistic versions, the contemporary mind is premised on a survivalist mentality, an adaptation to the monstrous totalitarian institutions and destructive mass potential of the 20th century which have created an unprecedented level of uncertainty and which dwarf the individual as never before. In such an environment, the self contracts to a form of blind, unprincipled automatism.

Lasch's nostalgic allusions to the Judaeo-Christian tradition are suspect, but what he is nostalgic for is an older sense of self and responsibility in the face of its obliteration in the contemporary world. Here is where some references to the New Age creep in. Rather than romanticizing the old individualism, Lasch writes scornfully of the modern mythology based on a categorical contrast between older styles of laissez faire individualism and the modern social self—Daniel Yankelovich, Charles Reich, Gregory Bateson, Alvin Toffler, Theodore Roszak, Morris Berman, Betty Friedan, and others—in which the rhetoric of wholeness, contrasted to old-fashioned possessive individualism, predominates (pp. 53-57).

The chapter for which I originally picked up the book is one of the most revealing: on the minimalist aesthetic and the ideology of modern art. Here, the assault on the conscious, deliberating ego is at it strongest, and reveals the sinister implications of the ideology of total spontaneity, effacement of personality, destruction of the separate self—the whole panoply of terroristic ideological behavior that dovetails with the appropriation of Eastern religions and other corresponding beliefs.

Written 24 November 1998, rev. 15 June 2000
©1998, 2000 Ralph Dumain


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