The more man objectifies himself in his work, the more reality takes on the appearance of illusion. As the workings of the modern economy and the modern social order become increasingly inaccessible to everyday intelligence, art and philosophy abdicate the task of explaining them to the allegedly objective sciences of society, which themselves have retreated from the effort to master reality into the classification of trivia. Reality thus presents itself, to the layman and ’scientists’ alike, as an impenetrable network of social relations – as ‘role playing’, the ’presentation of self in everyday life’. To the performing self, the only reality is the identity he can construct out of materials furnished by advertising and mass culture, themes of popular film and fiction, and fragments torn from a vast range of cultural traditions, all of them equally contemporaneous to the contemporary mind. In order to polish and perfect the part he has devised for himself, the new Narcissus gases at his own reflection not so much in admiration as in unremitting search of flaws, signs of fatigue, decay. Life becomes a work of art, while ‘the first art work in an artist’ in Norman Mailers pronouncement, ’is the shaping of his own personality.’ The second of these principles has now been adopted not only by those who write ‘advertisements for myself ’ for publication but by the everyday artist in the street.
The Culture of Narcissism
W W Norton & Co Ltd; New edition edition (15 Jan 1979)