Elizabeth Lunbeck: The Narcissism of the Powerful: Charisma and Fascination in Psychoanalytic Thought

Network Node: 
Thu., Jun. 16, 2011, 7:00pm

The Narcissism of the Powerful: Charisma and Fascination in Psychoanalytic Thought
by Elizabeth Lunbeck
Department of History
Vanderbilt University
Nickle Art Museum
Calgary, Alberta
June 16, 2011

This public talk is connected to the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and The International Society for the History of Behavioral and Social Sciences (Cheiron) first ever joint meeting from June16-19, 2011 on the campus of the University of Calgary and a workshop in Banff, Alberta from June 19 to June 23. Link to conference here.


An enduring puzzle to observers of human nature is the fascination exerted by the figure of power.  Psychoanalysts have long worried this issue, turning to charisma and narcissism to account for our apparently willing submission to powerful but manifestly flawed leaders.  Why, they have asked, do individuals accept the illusory satisfactions offered by the narcissist over reality’s more substantial rewards?  Why do some barter away their independence, allowing themselves to be dominated by charismatic charlatans proffering magic?  In this presentation, I focus on the analytic literature on submission to power as well as on analytically inflected discussions of leadership in the management literature, exploring the relatively recent emergence of the figure—construed as at once necessary and dangerous—of the powerful-man-as-narcissist, from the celebrity CEO to the charismatic politician.  Poised between omnipotence and destructiveness, between magic and danger, this figure embodies many of the contradictions long thought characteristic of narcissists while at the same time marking a significant shift of focus in  the popular discussion:  from the fascinating but frivolous female narcissist who offends aspirational norms of asceticism in her vanity and greedy shopaholism to this figure’s capacity for destruction or, as Freud put it, for damaging “the established state of affairs.”

Elizabeth Lunbeck is a historian of psychiatry and psychoanalysis in the United States and Europe, with allied interests in women and gender, intellectual and cultural history, and the twentieth-century United States.  She is the author of The Psychiatric Persuasion:  Knowledge, Gender, and Power in Modern America (Princeton 1994, 1996), which traces psychiatry’s early-twentieth-century transformation from a discipline concerned primarily with insanity to one equally concerned with normality, as focused on normal persons and their problems as on the insane; it was awarded the John Hope Franklin Prize, the Morris D. Forkosch Prize, and the History of Women in Science Prize.  With the psychoanalyst Bennett Simon she wrote Family Romance, Family Secrets (Yale 2003), which focuses on an earliest surviving account of a psychoanalytic treatment of hysteria.  Professor Lunbeck has also co-edited three additional volumes, most recently Science without Laws:  Model Systems, Cases and Exemplary Narratives, with Angela Creager and Norton Wise (Duke 2007).  At present she is editing Histories of Scientific Observation, with Lorraine Daston (Chicago, 2010), and completing two books that examine the consolidation of narcissism as a clinical category and as cultural critique: On Freud's Narcissism and The Americanization of Narcissism.  Grants and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Charles Warren Center, among others, have funded her research and writing. She has been named "Distinguished Psychoanalytic Educator (2010)" by the International Forum of Psychoanalytic Education (IFPE).