I’m reading Christopher Lasch’s book The Minimal Self again in which he analyses with penetrating scrutiny the sickness that pervades today’s consumer society. It is a society, Lasch insists, that puts a premium on appearance over reality, resulting from the fact that advertisers have convinced us that it is only appearance that matters. We “upgrade” when what we are using is no longer in fashion, whether or not it still works. Indeed, he says, it’s not about how the thing works anyway. It’s about how our owning it will appear to others. We must have the latest because our friends will think less of us off we don’t. (Oh, and by the way, make sure to leave your trailer home standing prominently next to your house so folks will know you have one!)
Lasch knows better than anyone that the reduction of the “minimal self,” which we are fixated on, does not translate into the need to build better character; rather it translates into molding our own appearance so we will be attractive to others. In today’s parlance, he might say, it’s all about how many “likes” we get on social media. Regarding the cult of personality, Lasch notes the following important difference:
“Since [a person] will be judged, both by his colleagues and superiors at work and by the strangers he encounters on the street, according to his possessions, his clothes, and his ‘personality’ –not, as in the nineteenth century, by his ‘character’ –he adopts a theatrical view of his own ‘performance’ on and off the job. . . .. the conditions of everyday social intercourse, in societies based on mass production and mass consumption, encourage an unprecedented attention to superficial impressions and images, to the point where the self becomes almost indistinguishable from its surface.’
Indeed, it was Martin Luther King, Jr. in my memory who was the last to speak not only about the “moral high ground” but also about judging men and women by the “content of their character.” We don’t talk much about character any more (or about the moral high ground for that matter). We don’t seem to care about what sort of person, say, an athlete happens to be. If Tiger Woods is a womanizer and behaves like a wild animal on the golf course we care not a whit as long as he can hit his drive over 300 yards and beat the opposition. Though, in saying this, it must also be noted that in our racist age it is interesting that a black man can be so popular in a world otherwise peopled by wealthy white men who play a game at posh golf courses. That, in itself, may be a good thing.
In any event, the switch from a concern with the kind of people we are to the concern with how we appear to others is based on our consumer culture, according to Lasch, and results in a superficial view of the world — indeed a view filtered through a lens that is focused primarily on the shallow self and how what we do will impress others. We want them to “like” us, whether they like us for the right reasons or not. The “minimal self” is still the focus of our attention, but it is not focused on the deeper self that is formed in the real world meeting both success and failure, growing by way of occasional suffering and struggle. This is a self that can only be found by looking elsewhere. Instead we find a shallow self that purchases goods on the basis of their popularity (“It’s a terrific shirt, sir. Everyone is wearing them today.”) and presents itself as something to be bought on the same basis, a self that cares only about how many friends it has on Facebook.