peteg's blog - noise - books - 2016 09 25 KristinDombek TheSelfishnessOfOthers

Kristin Dombek: The Selfishness of Others: An essay on the fear of narcissism.

/noise/books | Link

Kindle. I was almost persuaded not to bother with this by Jennifer Schuessler's review in the New York Times, but I have a soft spot for Dombek based on an essay of hers in n+1, being similarly "born in the uncanny valley between the millennial generation and Generation X". Come to think of it, that essay (How to Quit) and this are pretty much about the same thing: deciding when to quit, how fast to run, and how to justify it afterwards. Presumably she keeps the happier bits, the bits she sticks with, to herself.

I found it very difficult to figure out what she was trying to do here. It traverses some of the same space as i hate the internet but leaves out the politics of technology, and suffers from too much parsing of received cultural wisdom. This is not an empirical work, and nor is it much of a polemic. She asks the concept of narcissism to bear more than it can. From my spot on the couch, looking for answers in the DSM is already a sign of mental unwellness.

So, cutting to the chase, are Generation Y the most narcissistic generation ever? I have no horse in that race, but would simply observe that they are the first generation with access to widely democratized broadcast technology. I seem to recall that the baby boomers previously held that self-regarding crown, and Generation Y has little hope of bending society to their whims anywhere near as much. Anyway, how narcissistic can you be while living with your parents into your 30s?

Dombek is not a STEM type, and lacks the systems-thinking of, for instance, Cathy O'Neill. In her chapter The Millennial, we essentially get the McNamara fallacy operating in the confirmation mode. It may have helped to separate out narcissism from other personality characteristics such as introversion, and examine the increasing culture of self-reinforcement that comes from, for instance, having algorithms only feed you news that does not ruffle your politics. You know, the general feeling of being in an echo chamber these days. Her chapter on Freud is mildly entertaining but somewhat hopelessly unscientific. Whatever his diagnosis, I don't consider Breivik narcissistic so much as psychopathic. Unempathetic.

More broadly, Dombek tries to engage with the long running project of materialism, of reducing minds to brains. Within her frame, the central problem here is whether to excuse mental pathology by blaming neural dysfunction, and she doesn't really grasp that nettle. Is narcissism the inevitable byproduct of the mass individualism birthed by the Enlightenment? Does it blow with the prevailing economic winds? Does anyone navigate the modern world without it? What is its relation to suicide?

Gemma Sief spills more words.