I don’t really like the term narcissism because it is vague and in important ways can be applied to almost anyone.
The concept does have value though in that it is widely recognized and understood and does seem to point to something real.
Narcissism basically means being excessively selfish, self-centered, or vain. We can imagine a narcissist as someone who is trapped in a hall of mirrors, or trapped in their own imagination. Being trapped by your own imagination sounds paradoxical. But we can indeed become trapped when the terms, elements, or substance of our imagination is trapped in something else. Just as our bodies can be trapped in a prison cell, so our minds can be trapped within limited concepts, a limited sense of our options.
I contend that end-users of culture (virtually all of us) are trapped. A better term than end-user might be retail consumer. In this sense, we could say that retail consumers of culture are trapped by what they are consuming. I avoided the word retail above because it implies buying things with money. What I mean is accepting cultural norms as real or complete or good enough when they are not.
Rather than define narcissism in the usual ways, let me now define it based on signaling. A narcissist is someone who exhibits “unnecessarily reduced signaling.”
What does that mean?
Unnecessarily in this context means it doesn’t have to be that way. Reduced means there could be much more. Signaling means any and all communicative signals—words, expressions, gestures, actions, etc., but especially words.
A retail consumer of a culture, thus, unnecessarily accepts reduced signaling. To put it another way, end-users of culture are trapped by what they have consumed or “bought.”
Retail implies wholesale while end-user implies that the thing used was made or designed by someone else. For cultures, this implication is exactly right. Very few people make culture, though culture most definitely is made by some people.
Why are end-users or retail consumers of cultures narcissists?
They are narcissists because they are trapped within the reduced signaling of the culture they have “bought.” The wholesalers of culture, those who have made it, don’t think the signals are “unnecessarily” reduced; they want them to be that way. They want end-users to accept their ideas and do what they say, which is what most people do.
Most end-users have no idea they are trapped and do not consider themselves narcissists. But they are narcissists because they are completely stuck at the retail level. They have little or no control over how they understand things. And they have almost no control over how they speak to other end-users or how they hear other end-users.
How do I know this? One way is this: people almost everywhere are capable of complex understanding, be it tying flies for fishing, knitting, doing engineering, designing a home, etc. Nearly everyone exhibits complex understanding of at least a few things.
But almost no one exhibits a complex use of communicative signals. This is so because communicative signals move quickly and usually move through sound (speech).
Without training, it is very difficult to isolate and analyze communicative signaling in real-time. And if you don’t do it in real-time, there is no other way to do it. Even if you have a tape and a video of a communicative exchange, it is impossible to be sure of your analysis after the fact.
Real-time signaling is quick and complex. A single mistake can change the course of a conversation in one person’s mind without changing it in the other person’s mind. From that point on, mistakes will multiply.
What all of us normally do almost all of the time to correct for this problem or difficulty is we reduce our signaling.
And what do we reduce it to? We reduce it to cultural norms. Like narcissists, we assume that other end-users think like us, speak like us, and hear things in roughly the same way we do. If there is any confusion, most of us run quickly toward the nearest retail cultural artifact, thus blurring the real exchange and permanently trapping ourselves in end-user culture.
The mores, taboos, and preferences of culture become what we think we are. And that is a profoundly reduced package from what we are capable of. If you have any complex skill or understanding of anything, take a moment to compare it to how you conceive of your own mind during acts of communication. Or the minds of others during acts of communication.
I bet your understanding of how to take care of your tropical fish or do your favorite hobby is better and more detailed than how you conceive of your communication with others.This is the narcissism of the cultural end-user. It’s a small, made-by-others, prison of ideas within which the individual, maddeningly, resides.
If you do have a complex conception of communication, I bet it is strategical, designed to get you what you want and is thus narcissistic in that sense.
Rather than end on this depressing note, I can add the way to fix this problem. Do FIML or something very much like it. Once you can control, analyze, and fully understand real-time communication, you will be free of or have the means to get free of the reduced terms of retail culture.
Update 11/4/14: Another way to view end-user cultural narcissism is through the concept of “narcissistic supply,” which is “…a type of admiration, interpersonal support or sustenance drawn by an individual from his or her environment and essential to their self-esteem.”
Retail consumers of culture require narcissistic supply that validates their cultural consumption, admires it, praises it, agrees with it, and conforms to it. Retail culture is deeply characterized by fairly set patterns of mutual narcissistic supply that permit only slight deviation from whatever its norms are. My guess is scam artists and psychopaths learn how to work the patterns of narcissistic supply to get what they want. Scam artists often deflect moral judgement against themselves by saying that they were only able to fool people because those people wanted to believe. There is much truth in this defense though, of course, wanting to believe is not the same as wanting to be fooled or cheated. In a similar vein, retail cultural narcissists are capable of a sort of psychopathic behavior themselves in that they cannot bear to have their supply-values ignored or disrespected and will lash out, often with great vehemence, at anyone who does not comply with their need for supply.