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 And as Malkin highlights, not all narcissists are expressively arrogant, but may be shy and withdrawn, yet still need others to see and recognize them in order to build their self-esteem.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.”
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