[Paleopsych] Inside Higher Ed: Narcissus With an iPod

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Intellectual Affairs: Narcissus With an iPod
February 8, 2005

[This is a new publication, which is online only and free. It was formed 
by former staff at the Chronicle of Higher Education.]

    By [10]Scott McLemee

    With [11]"The Age of Egocasting," appearing in the latest issue of The
    New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society, Christine Rosen (a
    senior editor of that publication and a resident fellow at the Ethics
    and Public Policy Center) coins a neologism to describe something that
    has, until now, gone without a name. We are now well into the era of
    tailor-made media feeds. TiVo, the iPod, and RSS provide the tools
    with which an individual can regulate and customize the flow of news,
    information, and entertainment. We can create very comfortable and
    diverting pockets of cultural influx -- "egocasting," as Rosen calls
    it, "the thoroughly personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one's
    own taste."

    The author does not just identify this emergent fact of life; she also
    traces its secret history through a fascinating account of how the TV
    remote control was invented and marketed. And like any good cultural
    critic, she worries in an incisive manner. "By giving us the illusion
    of perfect control," as Rosen puts it, egocasting technologies
    "encourage not the cultivation of taste, but the numbing repetition of
    fetish.... In thrall to our own little technologically constructed
    worlds, we are, ironically, finding it increasingly difficult to
    appreciate genuine individuality."

    That is forcefully put. Yet ultimately it is just a variation on the
    theme of the late Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism
    (1979). That Rosen does not cite Lasch's book is hardly surprising. It
    is more often denounced than read. Few people now realize that it was
    not a jeremiad against self-indulgence. Rather, Lasch took a hard-eyed
    look at how consumerism -- including nonstop media consumption --
    tends to empty out the personality, leaving an insatiable appetite for
    more of the same.

    "Narcissism," wrote Lasch, "signals a loss of the ego, an invasion of
    the ego by social forces that have made it more and more difficult for
    people to grow up." And that complaint was lodged, remember, long
    before the rise of the [12]Webcam or the 24-7 media cycle (let alone
    "egocasting" technologies).

    For an unusually insightful take on Lasch, check out Robert Boyers's
    essay "The Culture of Narcissism after Twenty-Five Years," in the fall
    issue of Raritan. Boyers makes short work of those who would treat
    Lasch as a neoconservative: such critics "didn't know what they were
    talking about." But the essay does offer a patient and exacting
    account of how Lasch yearned for some kind of stable, authoritative
    cultural order -- while never quite offering a plausible account of
    what one would look like, or how it might come into being.

    Boyers's essay is not available online. (It is mildly appealing to
    find that Raritan's [13]Web site is not just primitive but at least
    one year out of date.) Copies of the fall issue should still be
    available at some newsstands. Or you could avoid the lures of
    cyberspace and consumerism altogether by reading it in the periodicals
    section of a good library -- that perfect institutional antithesis of
    cultural egocasting.

    And now a favor to ask of you. Please copy this [14]contact
    information into your address book. Consider this an open invitation
    to drop me a line.

    For a columnist, there is some danger of falling into a trance from
    the pursuit of one's own fascinations. My interests are not exactly
    narrow. The towering piles of academic books and JSTOR print-outs in
    my study present a certain risk to our housecats. It is pleasant to
    have a license to pontificate on whatever lies at hand, but there's
    just no way around it: This column will be of much greater substance
    if readers occasionally write in with suggestions, hints,
    remonstrations, and reading lists.

    Now, to be perfectly explicit, this is not a request for tips on what
    is "hot, hip, and happening" in academe. The rise and fall of
    intellectual hemlines is a fascinating topic, to be sure. But the
    tendency of cultural journalism to become a form of fashion reporting
    brings out the worst features of everyone involved. There is a
    cultural studies volume from the mid 1990s in which the authors
    solemnly proclaim that wearing a leather jacket and an unorthodox
    haircut may be a scholar's way of subverting the dominant codes of
    academic life. (Uh, OK. But that didn't work, now, did it?) When you
    hear that a trend is "hot," the healthiest impulse is to throw cold
    water on it. Remember, the leisure suit was once fashionable.

    But if some discussion or development strikes you as important -- if
    it has consequences, good or bad, that people outside your field
    should know about -- then please drop me a line.

    Likewise, please let me know if you've recently read a book or article
    that left you blinking with astonishment for days afterwards. There
    are moments of intellectual excitement that remind us why we ever got
    into this line of work. Conversely, there might be a conference paper
    that leaves you thinking, "Well, that was a masterpiece of incoherence
    and bad faith. Professor X has just summed up everything that is wrong
    with the discipline." (Irritation, too, can generate the tingle of

    So please consider this a standing invitation to share your moments of
    illumination, whether euphoric or dyspeptic.

    Don't worry about being too outspoken or indiscreet. Just say what's
    on your mind.  I won't print your message here, as such -- at least,
    not without permission. And not without doing my own reading,
    interviewing, and cogitation first. (There is, after all, a world of
    difference between unmediated opinionating and the protocols of
    journalism, no matter what you've heard to the contrary.) The address,
    again, is intellectual.affairs at insidehighered.com.

    Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.


   10. mailto:scott.mclemee at insidehighered.com
   11. http://www.thenewatlantis.com/archive/7/rosen.htm
   12. http://www.mclemee.com/id36.html
   13. http://raritanquarterly.rutgers.edu/

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