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Narcissus and the Mind/Body Problem


Maybe it’s because it’s the darkest time of the year, or the Christmas consumption rush when we’re all supposed to be experiencing brotherhood and love at the cash register, or the horrific daily reports of violence in Iraq that make me yearn for voices of real moral authority calling for real peace, real justice, real love. The Right of course has their voices, from the fire and brimstone of the pulpits, to the invective of Limbaugh and O’Reilly, to the softer Orwellian drawl from the White House telling us we are killing people to liberate them. The Democrats, it appears, have a terminal case of neoliberal laryngitis. And the Left? Left out? Left behind? Or yet to overcome our fractured identity politics to find a universalizing message that can inspire?

Narcissus fell in love with his own image reflected in the water, an unrequited passion that ultimately consumed him and he wasted away. Sometimes I think the U.S. Left could learn from the myth of Narcissus. When we gaze into the political mirror, we want – and expect – to see our own kind. We are more concerned with our own identities than with finding common ground with different ones.

Clearly, identity-based formations are often powerful and positive ways to mobilize people and to challenge prevailing hierarchies. But in the U.S. the way identity politics gets embodied can be problematic. Consumer capitalism thrives on a narcissistic obsession with appearances: our bodies R us. Given that we live in the most crassly consumerist society on the planet, it is not surprising that this ethos affects even those on the Left. We are obsessed with bodies and their appearances: whether they are black or white, queer or straight, young or old, male or female. Sometimes we are more obsessed with bodies than with minds.

It doesn’t help, of course, that the Right is obsessed with bodies too — with controlling them. Racism, homophobia, and misogyny force us to defend our bodies and to define ourselves politically through that defense. We are reduced to our bodies even when we don’t want to be. In building bridges between our various struggles, we too often link in an add-on way: issue plus issue plus issue, but the parts do not equal a substantive and substantial whole. We lack an overarching framework, a universalizing discourse that can mobilize more than just ourselves. The Right has been much more attentive to that need.

We are trapped in a sort of vicious cycle. Without a powerful and convincing moral script, it becomes harder to break out of our identity formations, and the political parochialism that ensues makes it even harder to develop a broader vision. We are trapped looking at our own reflections in the water.

How do we get out? How do we win the fight for hearts and minds? I don’t think we can rely on rhetoricians and spin doctors to do it for us, though some new language would certainly help. Maybe the first step is to acknowledge that we are influenced more than we realize by consumer culture and that our obsession with appearance and identity may have something to do with the perverse logic of the marketplace that sells difference as a way of ensuring conformity. A little political self-reflection is in order, rather than staring like Narcissus in the reflecting pool.

– Betsy Hartmann directs the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. She is the author of Reproductive Rights and Wrongs and The Truth about Fire, a political thriller about the Far Right.

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