The Parasite: Between Narcissist and Echoist

In its everyday use, narcissism is not all too good trait. The ego-centric and selfish person that lie, cheat, manipulate, and with his ot her emptiness becomes like a black hole that sucks the energy from peers and admirers, a trait Kristin Dombek has described in her The Selfishness of Others (2016). Their energy may seem charming at first, but it is because their energy is sucked from others. Narcissism is a form of vampirism, as Dombek point out, and at its worst it is a trait that turns to not only neglect others but actively hurting or even killing them.

When we look at artistic narcissists we often see creators, we think of the ego-centric original artist, the genius which radiates of expressive force. But following Dombek’s discussion, this energy always originates in theft and is sucked into the black hole that is the soul of the narcissist.

Psychologist Craig Malkin has popularized a scale of narcissism, as he follows a trail of psychologists who argue that a little bit of narcissism must exist in order to form a sense of self (Malkin 2015). In excess, the narcissist is harmful, both to self and others, but too little narcissism produces a condition which denies the self any form, a condition Malkin calls “echoism,”

“The less people feel special, the more self-effacing they become until, at last, they have so little sense of self they feel worthless and impotent. I call these people echoists” (Malkin 2015: 11)

But the scale is not a mark of essentialism – the time and context makes the self fluctuate along the continuum between narcissism and echoism. Some times we are in need of recognition and our peers support this temporal condition; they boost us before a job interview, or take care of us when we are sick, cuddling our egos they would not accept otherwise (2015: 12). Similarly, we may adjust to a new environment by tuning down the ego and try to blend in, or abate our level of social ambition. And as Malkin highlights, not all narcissists are expressively arrogant, but may be shy and withdrawn, yet still need others to see and recognize them in order to build their self-esteem. But like other traits echoism and narcissism have a tendency to turn into habits, depending on the circumstances and feedback, and can turn into more permanent features of the person.

As the level of narcissism grows in the subject, supported by the environment, the social dynamics of selfishness can grow perverted, turning into abusive demand of recognition and domination. In this way Dombek’s perspective resonates well with psychiatrist Marie-France Hirigoyen’s idea that a narcissist’s life “consists in searching for his reflection in the gaze of others,” a search that can take very abusive form (Hirigoyen 2005: 126). This becomes a perverted or reversed narcissism, as the abuser is not only self-centered, but also takes pleasure in domination and assault of others. The perverted narcissist grows the ego by humiliating others, undermining the victim’s self, and the abuse often escalates in cycles of isolation, rejection, invalidation, discreditation, in order to destroy the victim. This is the abusive narcissist, the “asymptomatic psychotics who find their equilibrium by discharging onto another person the pain they can’t feel and the internal conflicts they refuse to acknowledge. They do wrong, because they can’t exist any other way.” (Hirigoyen 2005: 143)

The rise of consumerism and social media may coincide with what Twenge has diagnosed as the “narcissism epidemic” (2009) where a focus on the self has turned up the volume of pop-existentialism into fully individualist projects of psycho-profit-maximizing subjects, feeling entitled to exclusive VIP treatment at every occasion.

But a question for a psychopolitical examination of fashion is the ambiguous relationship between echoism and narcissism and the continuous negotiation between the two poles in social relations. And perhaps paradoxically, both the echoist and narcissist can be seen as vampires as they both “steal” from their surrounding, or act as “parasites” in Michel Serres’ sense: they trade asymmetrically in social energy. The echoist copies others, “stealing looks” in the mimetic sense, while the narcissist lives on the attention of others, “stealing looks” in the sense of taking their attention. This is the magnetic energy of the narcissist, the celebrity we adore, the beautifully radiating ego “we cannot take our eyes of” – the charisma that makes us feel alive by adoring others.

It must come to this; fashion is always a form of parasitism. Fashion is always a “stolen look.”

References:

Dombek, Kristin (2016) The Selfishness of Others, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Hirigoyen, Marie France (2005) Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity, New York: Helen Marx

Malkin, Craig (2015) Rethinking Narcissism, New York: Harper

Serres, Michel (2007) The parasite, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Twenge, Jean & Keith Campbell (2009) The narcissism epidemic: living in the age of entitlement, New York: Free Press

Status and Exclusion

An easy way to define fashion is to use journalist Susanne Pagoda’s phrase “Fashion is to dress like everyone else, but before everyone else.” Fashion is social and mimetic, and is also a matter of temporal exclusivity. To be among the first is fashion, it increases status, and with enough status one can become part of an elite. Fashion and elitism are not the same, but often intertwined.

But to look like everyone else is not exclusive status, even if many come after you. You must stay in the elite, and to follow the old French etymology, “elite” means to chose and be chosen: to be an elite is not a passive position, but it is an activity. True exclusivity within fashion is “to dress like the elite, but before the elite.”

So how does one increase status to become and stay within the elite, and especially and elite within everyday fashion?

If we would follow Pagold’s definition, status is simply to be liked by everyone else, and this has been a common view within sociology: a person with a lot of connections, at the center of a large network, has many friends and a lot of status. But as Robert Faris (2012) argues, this is only partly true. Yes, a popular and well-connected person may have a “connective status” but this does not make the person part of the elite. Instead, to earn status it is better to have “bridging status”, that is, being a person that has connections through social barriers and keeps these bridges open only to a selected few. Connectivity is ok, exclusivity is better; it is in bridging “whereby nodes efficiently connect otherwise distal regions of networks.” (Faris 2012: 1208).

Not everyone can sit at the Master’s table

To be inviting and friendly with everyone does you some good, your may get a lot of “weak ties”, but being selective, exclusive and manipulative gains you more status. To Faris, these selective processes explains how “seemingly rational, ordinary people routinely engage in harassment, bullying, gossip, manipulation, ridicule, cliquishness, and ostracism” and also explains why people are not always sociable but strive to uphold networks through “reptuational aggression” (2012: 1207)

The exclusive status positions are those that can “bridge structural holes” (Burt 2009), that bridge over social barriers without undermining the exclusivity between the groups, that is, without letting in “non-elites” (which could undermine the status of one or both groups). “Elite status is maintained through selectivity, not connectivity, and by denying rather than accumulating friendships.” (Faris 2012: 1211) And as Faris points to, the elite bridge-builder maintains social barriers by the effective use of repetitional aggression,

“rejecting supplicants may increase the attractiveness of the exclusionary group. This is not to say that connections are without benefit, only that the relative costs and benefits shift toward selectivity in such settings. Actors who are able to efficiently bridge much of the network without an excessive number of ties arguably enjoy the benefits of centrality without the costs.” (Faris 2012: 1211)

Rejecting the connection to others must be central practice in maintaining status. And with the “wrong” friends, one may risk the exclusivity of one’s network, and often peers will remind or enforce restrictions. As social hierarchies are fluid, there is a continuous need to uphold their barriers and order. Repetitional aggression helps in the selection process, and also in rejecting unwanted social competition (which does not bridge to other elites). Repetitional aggression includes “verbal abuse, insults, threats, harassment, ostracism, gossip, manipulation” and their plights can be “exacerbated when perpetuators are anonymous” (2012: 1212). The many ways of rejecting unwanted connections increases the attractiveness of the exclusionary group: it is always a matter of bridging with the “right” people.

Faris argument is easily applied to the status games of fashion. The “right” people are not the friendliest with the most connections, but those who are highly selective and often act as “gatekeepers” to other social groups. The “right” people are those with ties to other exclusive groups, the ones who hang out with the other “right” people, who look like they do so, and prove it by dressing in the right stuff (before others do). The “cool” people must be hard to get to, and must be picky. And if we cannot offer them something they do not already have, we are bound to be rejected.

Or worse.

References:

Burt, Ronald (2009) Structural holes: The social structure of competition, Cambridge: Harvard university press
Faris, Robert (2012) “Aggression, exclusivity, and status attainment in interpersonal networks.” Social Forces 90(4), pp.1207-1235.

The Status of the Bully

In the popular mind, bullies engage in harassing their peers to compensate for their low self-esteem. The bully is scorned by peers as much as feared, and most bystanders would just like the bullying to end.

But according to Juvonen & Graham’s research (2014) this is not true. Instead, bullies have very high self-esteem and are usually very popular: the bullies are the cool kids. Most bullying involves a combination of direct and indirect forms of undermining the victim’s social standing and self-esteem. Juvonen & Graham highlights,

“In contrast to direct confrontation (e.g., physical aggression, threats, name-calling), indirect tactics include spreading of rumors, backstabbing, and exclusion from the group. In other words, the indirect forms frequently involve relational manipulation (Crick & Grotpeter 1995). Whereas the direct forms of bullying often involve intimidating, humiliating, or belittling someone in front of an audience, the indirect forms are designed to damage the targets’ social reputation or deflate their social status while concealing the identity of the perpetrator (Bjorkqvist et al. 1992). That is, the bully is able to use the peer group as a vehicle for the attack (Xie et al. 2002) when relying on relationally indirect tactics.” (162f)

As Archer & Coyne (2005) has shown, indirect forms of relational aggression seems to become the norm amongst both boys and girls by middle adolescence, as physical aggression against their peers is less socially acceptable, but also as it requires considerably higher understanding of social relations than physical aggression.

Bullies may be cold and calculating, seek influence and want to be desired, but that does not make bullies a special asocial or rough types. Instead they are often the popular or “cool” kids in their social group.

“Not only do bullies strive to dominate, they also frequently have high social status. Beginning in elementary school, some aggressive children are considered to be popular (Rodkin et al. 2006). By early adolescence, peer-directed hostile behaviors are robustly associated with social prominence or high status (e.g., Adler&Adler 1998, Parkhurst&Hopmeyer 1998).These findings are consistent with ethological research demonstrating that aggression is a way to establish a dominant position within a group (e.g., Hinde 1974).” (164)

As Juvonen and Graham posits, there is a positive relation between aggression and high social status, which in turn means many aggressive youths have inflated perceptions of themselves (Cairns & Cairns 1994, Hymel et al. 1993). “For example, aggressive elementary school students overestimate their competencies not only in terms of their peer status but in terms of academic and athletic domains as well (Hymel et al. 1993).” (165) Similarly, the bullies experience elevated status as they engage in aggressive behavior, as most social feedback bullies receive affirm their behavior, and they thus think highly of themselves.

“Youths rarely challenge bullies by intervening when witnessing bullying incidents (e.g., O’Connell et al. 1999), although most condemn bullying behaviors (Boulton et al. 2002, Rigby&Johnson 2006). Moreover, when bullying incidents take place, some bystanders reinforce the bullies by smiling and laughing (Salmivalli et al. 1998). Although peers typically do not personally like those who bully others, they are still likely to side with the bully in part to protect their social status, reputation, and physical safety (Juvonen & Galvan 2008, Salmivalli 2010).[…] When peers do not challenge bullies’ aggressive behaviors, bullying is maintained and even reinforced by the peer collective. (165)

Applying Juvonen & Graham’s ideas (2014) to fashion may help reveal some central issues on the psychopolitics of everyday fashion. We may see how indirect or relational aggression in the social dynamics of bullying elevates the aggressor. It may also help us see also how fashion plays part in raising the popularity of the “cool” bully: he or she is “in” and the group surrounding the aggressor is most likely his or her peers (or “in-group”) – affirming the aesthetic domination of the bully by already having submitted to the sartorial codes of the group. The simple victim is the one who stands out as different, but even more provoking may be the ones who are on equal level, but refuse to submit, or the ones who seek access to the “in-group.” Here, the act of bullying may become something of rite of passage to come out “cool” on the other side: just think of the typical humiliating frat-rituals. The master-of-ceremonies (or grey-eminence behind the rituals) is often the “cool” kid waging to control access to the in-group.

It may be easy to think of bullying as something that “bad” people do, but not only do they feel good about themselves, the audience agrees to what they do too – often reinforcing the feeling of belonging to the right group. Clothes is one of the many ways to show belonging to the group, but also signaling the submission to the taste of the group, and indirectly, to the “cool” leader of the group.

Under the “shallowness” fashion can become a uniform that reinforces the affirmation of both group and obedience to the “cool” leader.

 

References:
Adler PA & Adler P (1998) Peer Power: Preadolescent Culture and Identity. New Brunswick, NJ: RutgersUniv. Press

Archer J, & Coyne SM (2005) An integrated review of indirect, relational, and social aggression. Personal. Soc. Psychol. Rev. 9:212–30

Bjorkqvist K, Osterman K, Kaukiainen A (2000) Social intelligence − empathy = aggression? Aggress. Viol. Behav. 5:191–200

Bjorkqvist K, Osterman K, Lagerspetz KMJ (1994) Sex differences in covert aggression among adults. Aggress. Behav. 20:27–33

Boulton MJ, Trueman M, Flemington I (2002) Associations between secondary school pupils’ definitions of bullying, attitudes towards bullying, and tendencies to engage in bullying: age and sex differences. Educ. Stud. 28:353–70

Cairns RB & Cairns BD (1994) Lifelines and Risks: Pathways of Youth in Our Time. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Crick NR, Grotpeter JK (1995) Relational aggression, gender, and social-psychological adjustment. Child Dev. 66:710–22

Hinde RA (1974) Biological Bases of Human Social Behaviour. New York: McGraw-Hill

Hymel S, Bowker A, Woody E (1993) Aggressive versus withdrawn unpopular children: variations in peer and self-perceptions in multiple domains. Child Dev. 64:879–96

Juvonen J, Galvan A. (2008) Peer influence in involuntary social groups: lessons from research on bullying. In Understanding Peer Influence in Children and Adolescents, ed. MJ Prinstein, KA Dodge, pp. 225–44. New York: Guilford

Juvonen,Jaana & Sandra Graham (2014) “Bullying in Schools: The Power of Bullies and the Plight of Victims”, Annual Review of Psychology, 65:159–85

O’Connell P, Pepler D, Craig W. (1999) Peer involvement in bullying: insights and challenges for intervention. J. Adolesc. 22:437–52

Parkhurst JT, Hopmeyer A. (1998) Sociometric popularity and peer-perceived popularity: two distinct dimensions of peer status. J. Early Adolesc. 18:125–44

Rigby K, Johnson B. (2006) Expressed readiness of Australian schoolchildren to act as bystanders in support of children who are being bullied. Educ. Psychol. 26:425–40

Rodkin PC, Farmer TW, Pearl R, Acker RV. (2006) They’re cool: social status and peer group supports for aggressive boys and girls. Soc. Dev. 15:175–204

Salmivalli C, Lagerspetz K, Bjorkqvist K, Osterman K, Kaukiainen A. (1998) Bullying as a group process: participant roles and their relations to social status within the group. Aggress. Behav. 22:1–15

Salmivalli C. (2010) Bullying and the peer group: a review. Aggress. Viol. Behav. 15:112–20

Xie H, Swift DJ, Cairns BD, Cairns RB. (2002) Aggressive behaviors in social interaction and developmental adaptation: a narrative analysis of interpersonal conflicts during early adolescence. Soc. Dev. 11:205–24

The Emotional Vandalism of Fashion

Envy is a form of emotional vandalism – an passion which makes us act in a destructive way, and where we do not actually address the issue at stake: that our rival has performed better than us (or at least seems to have done so in our eyes). But instead of raising our efforts to perform better, our envy triggers us to destroy what our rival has, and not even acquire the same for ourselves. Envy is a matter of relational harm and devastation more than inspiration to excel or to diversify and deepen our palette of what we appreciate.

One of the many traits of envy is that it is bound to emotions of inferiority and inauthenticity. Not only does envy surrender us to a level below our model or idol as we “look up” to them, but it also undermines our own sense of authenticity as we acknowledge that we desire to imitate our model. We treat our mimetic envy dishonestly, and we find ways to disqualify their influence on us; the model is “just lucky” or “not really worth it” or “a pleaser” – anything but an authentic person who deserves what he or she has. This makes envy also camouflage as something else, in irony, or customs, or in ideals such as “justice” and “peace” – also since we fear mostly the proximity of our superior peers. It is the proximity which hurts us, the feeling of “it could have been me.” We do not envy the Royals, but the upcomers, those who could have been us, as their success points to our failures of “keeping up.” We are ashamed of our envy, and we know it, so we must continuously hide it to ourselves.

It is this struggle to “keep up” that puts fashion, and especially its “democratic” version of cheap and accessible (or “fast”) fashion at center stage of contemporary envy and rivalry in dress. This form of envy highlights how we strive for equal shares, whatever the cost may be, not too unlike siblings fighting over the shares of attention from the parents. Yet with fashion we are supposed to be “independent” and “unique” while at the same time fully acknowledging our mimetic desires; who our heroes and celebrities are. This turns into a situation bound to become a double bind and schizophrenic battle within the self, entangled in guilt, shame and envy. We are continually told to be authentic and true to ourselves, yet we simultaneously know we desire to be someone else. And in the worst case, we know the best parts in us, what we are most proud of, are mere copies of our models.

The mimetic emulation of others may be a benevolent form of envy, a good emulation of traits we respect (as suggested earlier) – but in the realm of fashion, with its mimetic binge/purge behaviors, new styles and idols are emulated and rejected with both a social and environmental cost. And not only so; the very modus operandi of fashion is not one of the creative cultivations of capabilities (which we could use in other social realms) but mainly a mode of endless consumption. Few can trade their mimetic accomplishments towards other careers or revenues. Most of us end up bitter copies of that we aspire to be, in seasonal cycles of self-loathing and resentment – and in need of designers to sell us a worthy self-image.

So this is where consumers seek the help of fashion designers; to help us cope with the social coercion mechanisms which undermine the possibility to foster an aesthetic integrity (one’s sense of self “when nobody is watching”). Coercion happens not only in the negotiations between ingroups and outgroups, but in the social mechanics of rivalry, that we all compete for recognition, admiration and popularity. For some, the ends justify the means, and perpetrators of envious bullying or other violent behavior justify their actions with the use of fashion’s “shallowness”, which in turn covers for emotional cues such as disgust and hatred (which, as mentioned above, may turn out to be form a sour knot of envious self-resentment too).

But designers can sleep sound at night. There will be no end to fashion, just like there will be no end to envy – simply because most of us don’t want it to end. The emotional rush of recognition and admiration keeps the perpetuum mobile going in sequential patterns of resentful self-flagellation and mimetic flogging of our idols.

A short note about envy

Fashion is a dreamworld, wrapped in desire. Desire is about seeking what one does not have, and it is reinforced by others desiring the same thing, making it competitive. Vanity is not fair, it is cruel.

Envy is a constituent component of desire. Envy is shameful, and like jealousy, hardly ever confessed, even to ourselves. The two emotional states are constituent to fashion, yet differ; envy is the pain caused by the desire for the superiority had by a rival, whereas jealousy is the agony caused by the fear of losing our own superiority.

To understand the desires of fashion, we must understand envy and jealous, the price we pay for comparing and competing with our peers.

“Beggars do not envy millionaires,” Bertrand Russell argued, “though of course they will envy other beggars who are more successful.” This means our envy is directed at those with whom we compare ourselves, not the distant elites but the peers who outdo us. It is the perceived equality and accessibility of the means of distinction which fans the flames of our envy, and with it comes an increasing shame.

Envy undermines every togetherness, and as it is repressed, it easily morph into resentment, projecting our inferiority onto a an innocent victim, or the one we feel does not even deserve our envy, a scapegoat. This person is blamed, persecuted, and according to Girard’s ideas, by necessity sacrificed.

Albrecht Dürer, Cain Killing Abel, (1511) woodcut, Rosenwald Collection

Envy (from Latin invidia) is an emotion which “occurs when a person lacks another’s superior quality, achievement, or possession and either desires it or wishes that the other lacked it” (Parrott, W. G.; Smith, R. H. (1993). “Distinguishing the experiences of envy and jealousy”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 64: 906–920.) According to Dutch research however, we must differ between malicious envy and benign envy, where the first is about destroying the person of envy (f.ex. Schadenfreude) and the second being motivated by him or her, trying to raise one’s effort and performance. (Van de Ven, Niels, Marcel Zeelenberg, and Rik Pieters. “Leveling up and down: the experiences of benign and malicious envy.” Emotion 9.3 (2009): 419.) Of the deadly sins in Catholicism, envy is one of the most profound. Envy is the motivation behind Cain’s murder of Abel, thus the prime example of desire, rivalry, inequality and violence, yet it also manifests Cain’s superiority by the curse of his strength, the “Mark of Cain.”

The story of Cain and Abel is the foundational myth of fashion. The scapegoat must pay for our repressed desires if we are not to be consumed by the violence of envy, as the tale of Cain and Abel advises us.

As the Chinese butler Lee expounds on the story of Cain and Abel in John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden”:

“The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt – and there is the story of mankind.”