* Pippin – Grainne Russell (2019). Part of a series of works exploring the possibility to ‘allow human interaction and relationships to be real and meaningful. The perception of idealism through lifestyle and image created in the social media world is an ever-increasing false delivery made difficult to comprehend. Nature is central to our lives allowing us to remain grounded in the vast expansion of the technological world’.

– J. T. (the author prefers to be anonymous)

The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, noting the intensifying human tendency to avoid thinking about the kind of world we currently inhabit, has given rise to a sobering realisation. To ‘all those who feel at ease with themselves and secure in their rights, because they have the luck and the misfortune not to think’, illustrated in this case in ‘Flaubert rather than Marx’s sense’, by fiction rather than in political theory. (Pierre Bourdieu, translated by Peter Collier, The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger (California: Stanford University Press, 1988), p. 98). To precisely those people content to live without a sufficient conscience of the impending consequences of our delipidated political life, and who are in plain sight contributing to an alarming psychological trend. To a growing narcissism, one certainly signaling a move away from community life (or being in close, authentic contact with our surrounding reality), and instead into our own self-constructed vision of life. To a more superficial sanctuary, unfettered by what plays out in the political and cultural world.

Massive Change in social life

   A shifting trend, which has initiated massive changes in general human social life. This has now been painstakingly exemplified by political leaderships’ surreal obsession with the economy over human lives, and television briefing ratings over sophisticated governance; which has led many to reconsider how they think about the contemporary political-social landscape. A concern is growing over whether we can reasonably trust a political system which, at worst, seems liable to become transformed into a kind of large-scale public psychosis: a disengagement from reality, amidst a need to retreat inwards and merely pretend that things are still operating as normal. To disengage from political involvement, since the idea of politics in its current state has simply become too painful. In his 2016 documentary, HyperNormalisation, Adam Curtis has significantly compared the western capitalist world to the end of the soviet union, which likewise took place in a climate of mutually understood deception and corruption, a disingenuous breakdown of relations from both from the side of politicians and the people, and the unspoken agreement to merely pretend that this breach was normal; until the political sphere suddenly collapsed under its own morbid contradictions.

            The conclusion reached, that HyperNormalisation confuses and distorts hope for a better future, is certainly anything but normal. This is underscored by the sense that to just pretend for today, and to plan for tomorrow merely at some undefined later date, is contributing to a more and more ‘unreal’ world. One which does not so much consider or provide human security and happiness, but relegates it directly out of the tangible world (and into a sphere of chimeric oblivion, or make-believe). In Albert Camus’ 1947 novel, the Plague, a biological calamity also sweeps across society. Once the worst of the crisis has been averted, with ‘cries of joy rising from the town’, the relieved population seems to obliviously swipe away an important fact: just ‘what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague (i.e. the bacteria Yersinia pestis, bacillus; a literary parallel to our own COVID-19) never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years: in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves and that perhaps the day would come’ when the panic re-surfaced. When obtuse unpreparedness once again became outright terror.

            That whether in a subsequent breakout, or in the ensuing effects of the disaster, the complications arising in either case would invariably ‘send them forth to die in a happy city’: would somehow conspire to spoil future happiness at some unspecified date, eventually. (Albert Camus, the Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1948), p. 150.) This uncertainty, confounded by the fragmented nature of our damaged social ontologies (or the nature of social reality), is now being seen for what it is: a ticking time bomb. Gabor Mate, considering ‘the Plague’s longstanding symbolic parallel with the dangers of growing fascism, whether on the eve of Hitler’s rise or the xenophobia now again rampant in the United States, has offered an alternative re-reading of Camus’ time tested work. That, alternatively, ‘on the political level, fascism is the highest representation of the egoic human mind’, and that Camus may have meant just as much to point at the dangers, arising from a society immersed in collective narcissism, of toxic obliviousness to significant events as they unfold, and how they unfold. That fascism is often a state of mind. And a popular one.

            One whose persistence, living on quietly in unseen places or concealed surfaces, can be something just as much of a mystery as where it came from; and which poses just as much as a risk factor. Thanks in part to the psychological constitution of the leadership at the highest political levels, the crisis has certainly revealed, politically speaking, a morbid timeline which now looks set to span failures from the past, anxieties of the present, and apprehension about the future. The issue of the burden of guilt, whether governments acted fast enough, and whether measures to dismantle policy on pre-empting such a pandemic (to assure enough ICU resources, and a global infrastructure of medical readiness), has revealed the priorities of those at the top of governmental positions, now more than ever steeped in what has repeatedly been called borderline psychopathy (for some) and narcissism (for many). To the ways, too, in which ‘narcissists adopt all kinds of defenses to counter narcissistic shame, developing ‘addictive, reckless or impulsive behaviours’ to keep their own concocted worlds alive and breathing, ‘they deny, withdraw, rage or engage in the compulsive pursuit of some kind of – (unattainable, of course) perfection’. (Sam Vaknin, “Narcissism, Shame, Happiness”. EC Psychology and Psychiatry 8.3 (2019): 242-245, p. 242.) They twist the truth, in order to evade feelings of shame and guilt: actual reality and objective fact not-withstanding. This is a dangerous combination, pathological avoidance of guilt, and political authority.

Guilt and Guilt feeling

The way that we have seen this shame play out, whether in the exclusive focusing on measures that were taken, instead of the ones that weren’t (the borders that were closed, instead of the hospitals that were not ready), or in simple denial of incompetence, demonstrates that ‘guilt is an objectively determinable philosophical entity. That given relevant knowledge regarding the society and culture in question. . . we must distinguish ‘guilt’ from ‘guilt feelings’: Guilt follows events. Guilt feelings can precede them’. (Sam Vaknin, “Narcissism, Shame, Happiness”. EC Psychology and Psychiatry 8.3 (2019): 242-245, p. 242.) The anxiety of this second type of guilt, the problematic feeling which makes victimhood a reality before the allegation or crisis has occurred at all, has reared its head throughout our political world, and the surreal form of emotional logic which tries in vain to suck us into its matrix of meaning. Narcissism, then, represented at the top of society, has become something no short of disastrous: shown as quite acceptable to emulate. Pathologised guilt, and susceptibility to it, can and does create a pathology that modifies the social life exposed to it.

            When Marx wrote that there is a spectre haunting Europe, that of communism, the widespread media coverage of COVID-19 has helped show to the light of day a new spectre affecting Europe, and socially-politically especially the United States: narcissism. What the typical person makes and expects from the social and economic consequences of what is soon to come, now seems more significant than ever. This is to say that the quality of typical human thinking, in age of anti-intellectualism resulting from a lack of investment and respectability in the appropriate areas, is now set to define the next ensuing political stretch of time. As the social analyst and historian Christopher Lasch pointed out individual narcissism is indeed collective insanity, and the ‘growing therapeutic climate’, i.e.more and more people seeking help for unmanageable feelings about the world we have inherited, is not by coincidence. (Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: W.W Norton, 1979), p. 6.)

            Avoiding toxic narcissism, both in ourselves and in our immediate world, could certainly make lives more meaningful. This battle against casually allowing humans to behave unconscionably, seems unlikely without the adoption of the crucial position: that you matter, but so do others; and that sense must prevail. In the recent rejection of scientific authority by certain political leaders, reinstated only after disaster had struck, increased thoughtfulness is needed to reassert science’s crucial role in political life and population management. The youngest generation, observing from below, has received mixed messages about the relationship between scientific rigour and its distorted translation into politics. One idea that has existed in varying forms of popularity throughout the last century, is that common sense analysis is needed to ensure that science always can be assured its crucial role. That ‘the man of science is a poor philosopher, and should it not be the right thing for the physicist to let the philosopher do the philosophising?’ Albert Einstein believed that ‘the whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking’, and stressed what he personally saw as a ‘much more difficult problem: the problem of analysing the nature of everyday thinking’.  (Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (New York: Crown Publishing, 1960), p. 290. ) With everyday thinking damaged, society suffers: Science and philosophy should be the two pillars guiding political decisions, which can nowadays be made by untrained political leaders.

Narcisism and children

            With schools closed, and millions of children surely retreating into the warm embrace of virtual reality, the ramifications of the virus on their relationship to reality afterwards, is something that we should be proactively on the alert for. As Loris Malaguzzi once said, ‘’children are very sensitive and can see and sense very quickly the spirit of what is going on among the adults in their world’. Loris Malaguzzi, “Your Image of the Child: Where Teaching Begins” in The Hundred Languages of Children, ed. by Edwards, Gandini and Forman (Norwood: NJ Ablex, 1993), p. 1.) The spirit of disillusionment currently impacting everything and everyone, must be an assault on this sensitivity of children, a mismatch of information about how humans live their lives at this time and what the future may have in store. That life can not only go wrong, but can cease for a time to make much sense at all. Should children be encouraged to internalise narcissistic behaviours, ways of changing the facts to suit the world that is exclusively in their head? Should they consider the ones that they would rather, over the one’s that they have been presented with ? Ease over actuality?

            Just as when violence occurs in families, and the victims are ostracised for the sake of ease, for the difficult association it brings to mind, the youngest victims of this society are in more than serious risk of being caught in the cross-fire: in incurring an appetite for dishonesty, and unreflexive personality traits that do not accommodate empathy or accurate appraisal of real-life facts. The young, now isolated from the social environment and from accurate information, leaves further wide open the possibility for human narratives to becomes distorted, unscrupulous and broken. Where fabrication is not seen as an issue anymore, further trouble is to be expected.

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