Anyone who has managed to avoid being decapitated by one of those selfie sticks while wading through crowds of tourists around some of the main sites in London (or any other metropolitan centre for that matter) has no doubt reflected on one of the more obvious side effects of the new culture of social media – narcissism. If they have, then I could not recommend more highly Simon Blackburn’s Mirror, Mirror: The Use and Abuse of Self-Love (Princeton 2014) – this link is to the publisher’s website.
Blackburn is formerly Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge. From my memories of the remorselessly dry, analytic approach that most of the philosophers took when studying there three decades ago, it is a wonder that, while coming from this stable, he has been able to write such lucid, engaging and, frankly, very human books. But they are also rigorous, profoundly learned, and, in the end, oddly healing.
This treatment starts with the myth of Narcissus but makes the sound, but perhaps under-appreciated point that self-love,as the ancient Greek story shows, has eternal dissatisfaction built into it. Narcissus reaches out to his own image which he has fallen in love with, only to have his hand shatter its calm reflection on the water surface. The same goes for the sorts of images that Blackburn then moves onto in commercial culture – he writes, in particular, about the L’Oreal campaign with its dreadful slogan `Because you’re worth it’, commenting that the original was apparently going to be the even worse `Because I am worth it’. That, he writes, typifies the sort of self-contained, cold, unreciprocating nature of a lot of images in advertising – things that demand to be looked at, but never, he says, to look back. The message is simple. We need them, they do not need us. That itself denies the fundamental need for responsiveness, dialogue and recognition in any human relationship. No wonder one of the most pertinent critiques of capitalism and consumerism is that their default is to create appetites and hungers, but never to appease them.
Because Blackburn is such an accomplished philosopher, he can write well about morality without becoming moralising. And the final few pages of his book are extraordinary, because, without being remotely patronising, they congratulate the reader for having reached this far into the work and being willing to engage, and think, about these profound problems of self-value, self worth and self-love in a cultural environment where they have become detached from self-knowledge, with its need for appraisal, recognition of contingency, limitations, failures. It is really helpful to have a public intellectual use their immense learning and wisdom to contribute to what is very definitely a vastly important public debate. And much of what Blackburn states is highly prescient, including an eerily powerful section halfway through the book about disdain for facts and expertise – something that has only intensified since 2013 when this book must have been written, and seems to have come to its Armageddon in the dismal EU referendum campaign in the UK, and the equally squalid and awful president election now underway in America.