Toward a Historically Situated Psychology

Why the Self Is Empty

Philip Cushman
ABSTRACT: This article presents a contextualized treatment
of the current configuration of self, some of the pathologies
that plague it, and the technologies that attempt
to heal it. Of particular interest is the historical shift from
the Victorian, sexually restricted self to the post-World
War H empty self. The empty self is soothed and made
cohesive by becoming “filled up” with food, consumer
products, and celebrities. Its historical antecedents, economic
constituents, and political consequences are the focus
of this article. The two professions most responsible
for healing the empty self, advertising and psychotheral~,
find themselves in a bind: They must treat a psychological
symptom without being able to address its historical
causes. Both circumvent the bind by employing the lifestyle
solution, a strategy that attempts to heal by covertly
filling the empty self with the accoutrements, values, and
mannerisms of idealized figures. This strategy solves an
old problem but creates new ones, including an opportunity
for abuse by exploitive therapists, cult leaders, and
politicians. Psychology’s role in constructing the empty
self, and thus reproducing the current hierarchy of power
and privilege, is examined.
From its beginnings, modern psychology has had difficulty
developing a historically situated perspective on its discourse
and practices. Nowhere is this ahistorical tendency
more obvious than in the debate on individualism. Many
researchers have treated self-contained individualism as
an unquestioned value and the current concept of self–
the bounded, masterful self–as an unchangeable, transhistorical
entity. In opposition to a decontextualized approach,
I will argue that cultural conceptualizations and
configurations of self are formed by the economies and
polities of their respective eras. By studying the self in
this way, psychologists will be better able to understand
the current era and psychology’s place within that era.
I have drawn from the insights of hermeneuticists
such as Faulconer and Williams (1985), Gadamer (1979),
Heidegger (1962/1977), Morawski (1984), Rabinow and
Sullivan (1987), Stigliano (1989), and the authors in the
book edited by Messer, Sass, and Woolfolk (1988) in order
to develop an approach characterized by historical and
ontological concerns. The argument is at times speculative
and nonempirical. It depends in part on a survey of the
opinions of other social scientists and on the arguments
of historians whose qualitative data is far too detailed to
California School of Professional Psychology,
reproduce in an article of this size. I realize that this approach
will be considered imprecise by some psychologists,
but after much debate, I have decided that it is, with
all its flaws, the best approach for such an elusive subject.
Even with these limits, I think the study of the self
across time and cultures is an essential topic for psychology.
If psychologists do not recognize the ethnocentric
nature of psycholngy’s discourse about the current Westeva
self, we commit several errors. In particular, we participate
in a culturally disrespectful and damaging psychological
imperialism abroad and at the same time perpetuate
the discourse of self-contained individualism and
its attendant miseries at home.
By the selfI mean the concept of the individual as
articulated by the indigenous psychology of a particular
cultural group, the shared understandings within a culture
of”what it is to be human” (Heelas & Lock, 1981, p. 3).
The self embodies what the culture believes is humankind’s
place in the cosmos: its limits, talents, expectations,
and prohibitions. In this sense the self is an aspect of what
Heidegger (1962/1977) called the horizon of shared understandings
or “the clearing” carved out by the particular
practices of a particular culture. There is no universal,
transhistorical self, only local selves; no universal theory
about the self, only local theories.
Studying the self of a particular era in this way allows
us to operationalize a basic tenet of ontological hermeneutics:
The process of studying humans is not the same
as “reading” persons as “texts” (Gergen, 1988), but more
like standing behind them and reading over their shoulder
the cultural text from which they themselves are reading
(Sass, 1988a, p. 250). In an earlier article (Cushman,
1987), I suggested that all elements of the clearing, ineluding
psychological theories about the self, are cultural
artifacts and can be examined as elements of the cultural
That is what I am attempting to do when I describe
the current configuration of self: Read over our shoulders.
The self is a difficult concept on which to get a perspective,
precisely because it is such a central aspect of the horizon.
As Sass (1988a) explained, “The horizon’s concealment
is intimately or intrinsically connected with the condition
of being visible . . . . its presence is almost too obvious,
too self-evident” (p. 242). It is therefore difficult for us
to imagine the self as other than the way it is in our era
or to consider it a legitimate subject for study. But as
difficult as it is, the study of the self is also a crucial ele-
May 1990 * American Psychologist
C~p!~ht 1990 by the AmG~can ~k~it~l Association, Inc. 0003-066X/90/$00.75
Vet. 45, No. 5, 599-611
ment in interpreting an era. By studying the configuration
of the current self, we will come to have an enlarged perspective
on the forces that shape it, the discourse that
justifies it, the consequences that flow from it, the illnesses
that plague it, and the activities responsible for healing
it. These things come in packages; unraveling one helps
reveal them all.
The Emergence of the Empty Self
Many authors have described how the bounded, masterful
self has slowly and unevenly emerged in Western history.
This is a self that has specific psychological boundaries,
an internal locus of control, and a wish to manipulate
the external world for its own personal ends. I believe that
in the post-World War II era in the United States, there
are indications that the present configuration of the
bounded, masterful self is the empty self. By this I mean
that our terrain has shaped a self that experiences a significant
absence of community, tradition, and shared
meaning. It experiences these social absences and their
consequences “interiorly” as a lack of personal conviction
and worth, and it embodies the absences as a chronic,
undifferentiated emotional hunger. The post-World War
II self thus yearns to acquire and consume as an unconscious
way of compensating for what has been lost: It is
One can see evidence of the empty self in current
psychological discourse about narcissism and borderline
states, the popular culture’s emphasis on consuming, political
advertising strategies that emphasize soothing and
charisma instead of critical thought, and a nationwide
difficulty in maintaining personal relationships. Broad
historical forces such as industrialization, urbanization,
and secularism have shaped the modern era. They have
influenced the predominant psychological philosophy of
our time, self-contained individualism; constructed the
current configuration of the bounded self, the empty self;
and developed the professions that I believe are most responsible
for rifling and healing the empty self, advertising
and psychotherapy. Thus, the ideologies, subjects, and
businesses of modern psychology have historical antecedents,
economic constituents, and political consequences.
They do not float suspended in time and space:
They have a context.
Unfortunately, throughout the ongoing debate on
the meaning and value of individualism, it has become
increasingly clear that many researchers have made the
fundamental mistake of decontextualizing the subject.
Gergen, (1973, 1985), Giorgi (1970), Harr6 (1984, 1986a,
1986b), and Sampson (1977, 1981, 1983, 1988) have tried
to reorient psychology’s perspective. Others, such as Foucault
(1980) and Levin (1987b) also have argued that
each era produces a particular configuration of self and
I would like to thank Edward Sampson, Jane Burka, Jules Burstein,
Donald ~, Terence O’Hare, Linda Riebel, Karen Cushman, Stanley
Messer and five anonymous reviewers for their help in shaping this article.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Philip
Cushman, 5480 College Ave., Oakland, CA 94618.
corresponding kinds of psychopathology. Sampson’s work
in particular has emphasized the political antecedents and
consequences of the current self.
My understanding of their historical interpretations
is that an increasingly bounded, masterful self was constructed
after the collapse of feudalism. It emerged at the
same time that the modern state was faced with the necessity
of developing justifications and techniques for
controlling a modern populace. During the beginnings of
the modern era in the 16th century, the Western world
began to shift from a religious to a scientific frame of
reference, from an agricultural to an industrial means of
production, from a rural to an urban setting, and from
a communal to an individual subject. These vast changes
were coincident with and some say responsible for the
dual triumph of the concept of Montaigne’s subjective
individual and the method necessary to study it, Descartes’s
objective empiricism (Taylor, 1988). Culminating
with the Victorian era, the concept of the deep, secret,
instinct-driven, potentially dangerous self was used by
the state to justify its role as official controller of selves.
Over the course of the 20th century, it has become apparent
to cultural historians such as Susman (1973) and
Lears (1983) that Americans have slowly changed from
a Victorian people who had a deeply felt need to save
money and restrict their sexual and aggressive impulses.
Americans in the post-World War II era seem to have
become a people who have a deeply felt need to spend
money and indulge their impulses.
The thesis of this article is that the current self is
constructed as empty, and as a result the state controls
its population not by restricting the impulses of its citizens,
as in Victorian times, but by creating and manipulating
their wish to be soothed, organized, and made
cohesive by momentarily filling them up. The products
of the social sciences, and of psychology in particular,
have often worked to the advantage of the state by helping
to construct selves that are the subjects of control and to
develop techniques that are the means of control. In the
early modern period, Bentham’s innovative prison, the
Panopticon (Foucault, 1979), and in the current era, political
polling strategies (Ginsberg, 1986) are prominent
illustrations of the political utility of the social sciences.
This article supports Foucault’s and Sampson’s line
of political reasoning and follows it into the realm of the
economy. I believe that the construction of the post-World
War II middle-class American self is a good illustration
of how the economy and the power structure impact on
personality. Since the end of World War II the configuration
of an empty self has emerged in the middle classes.
It is empty in part because of the loss of family, community,
and tradition (Levin, 1987a; Rieff, 1966; Zaretsky,
1976). It is a self that seeks the experience of being
continually filled up by consuming goods, calories, experiences,
politicians, romantic partners, and empathic
therapists in an attempt to combat the growing alienation
and fragmentation of its era. This response has been implicitly
prescribed by a post-World War II economy that
is dependent on the continual consumption of nonessen-
600 May 1990 • American Psychologist
tial and quickly obsolete items and experiences (Zinn,
1973, pp. 89-119). In order for the economy to thrive,
American society requires individuals who experience a
strong “need” for consumer products and in fact demand
them (Henry, 1963). Such an economy requires individuals
who have an uninterrupted flow of money and a
continual motivation to spend it. The complex interrelatedness
of social change, political forces, and cultural
forms has somehow accomplished this through the dual
creation of easy credit (Malabre, 1987) and a gnawing
sense of emptiness in the self (Kohut, 1977).
Psychotherapy is one of the professions responsible
for healing the post-World War II self. Unfortunately,
many psychotherapy theories attempt to treat the modem
self by reinforcing the very qualities of self that have initially
caused the problem: its autonomous, bounded,
masterful nature (Sampson, 1985). The patient is diagnosed
as empty and fragmented, usually without addressing
the sociohistorical predicament that caused the
emptiness and fragmentation (Bordo, 1988; Levin,
1987c). Thus, through the activity ofhelping, psychology’s
discourse and practices perpetuate the causes of the very
problems it is trying to treat.
The Self Is a Social Construct
This article is based on the type of social constructionist
argument recently developed by Geertz (1973), Gergen
(1985), Harr~ (1986a), Morawski (1988), and Sampson
( 1983, 1988). Humans do not have a basic, fundamental,
pure human nature that is transhistorical and transcultural.
Humans are incomplete and therefore unable to
function adequately unless embedded in a specific cultural
Culture “completes” humans by explaining and interpreting
the world, helping them to focus their attention
on or ignore certain aspects of their environment, and
instructing and forbidding them to think and act in certain
ways (Heiddeger, 1962/1977). Culture is not indigenous
clothing that covers the universal human; it infuses
individuals, fundamentally shaping and forming them
and how they conceive of themselves and the world, how
they see others, how they engage in structures of mutual
obligation, and how they make choices in the everyday
The material objects we create, the ideas we hold,
and the actions we take are the consequences or “products”
of the social construction of each particular era.
They are cultural artifacts. However, these artifacts are
not only the expression of an era. They are also the immediate
“stuff” of daily life, and as such they shape and
mold the community’s generalized reality orientation in
subtle and unseen ways. Consequently, they inevitably
reinforce and reproduce the constellations of power,
wealth, and influence within their respective societies.
The Many Shapes of the Western Self
The self, as an artifact, has different configurations and
different functions depending on the culture, the historical
era, and the socioeconomic class in which it exists. For
example, the Western self has gone through many permutations
over the course of the last 2,500 years. We
would do well to remember Foucault’s (1970; Hutton,
1988) warning that the changes undergone by the Western
self are not developmental changes brought on by an inner
logic, the unfolding of a secret genetic code, or the peeling
of layers of enlightenment. The self has undergone extreme,
erratic, often discontinuous change because it is
part of the larger sociohistorical fabric of its time. The
self must function within a particular cultural pattern:
matching, maintaining, and replicating it.
For instance, the communal, outward looking, nonsexually
conflicted self of Aeschylus’ Oresteia (458BC/
1953) looks vastly different from the tortured, confused,
“inner” self of Augustine’s Confessions (397/1986). The
self of the early Middle Ages was an immortal soul enclosed
in the shell of a mortal body. It looked vastly different
from the cynical, confused, increasingly nihilistic
self of the 1920s. To get the sense of this contrast, imagine
a conversation between Roland, the French knight in the
twelfth century epic The Song of Roland, and Zelda Fitzgerald,
the quintessential 1920s “flapper.”
During the last 2,000 years in Western society the
self has become increasingly more individualistic, more
subjective, and “deeper” (Logan, 1987; Meyer, 1986;
Morris, 1972). Some scholars (e.g., Dreyfus & Rubin,
1987; Taylor, 1988) believe this individual depth was first
expressed by Augustine’s mistrust of self. It was later influenced
by Europe’s incremental steps toward capitalism
and then developed by the Renaissance, the Enlightenment,
and the Romantics (Baumeister, 1986, 1987;
Greenblatt, 1980; Trilling, 1971) into the hypertrophied,
individual self. Finally, the Western self took a major
complicating turn during the ascendancy of the Victorian
bourgeoisie with the overt articulation of its “hidden”
sexual and aggressive content (Lowe, 1982). The individual,
bounded, communally isolated self is a modem phenomenon
(Rieff, 1966; Zaretsky, 1976), roughly paralleling
the development of industrialization and the rise
of the modern state. The belief in objective empiricism
was based in part on the Enlightenment’s search for the
universal laws of a “pure” human nature, accomplished
by studying the decontextualized individual. Lowe (1982)
has shown how the particular qualities of bourgeois perception
objectified and quantified everything. Taylor
(1988) described how the subject-object and mind-body
splits led to an increasing interest in, and the eventual
hegemony of, the empirical social sciences. The social
sciences thus developed at the same time as the emergence
of the isolated, individual self and the modem state’s need
to control it through study and calculated manipulation
(Foucault, 1979; Trigg, 1985).
The Sexually Conflicted Victorian Self
More specifically, the bounded, masterful, middle-class
self has emerged in Western society during the last 200
years. The bourgeois self of the Victorian era in Europe
reflected the impact of the Enlightenment and the in-
May 1990 ° American Psychologist 601
dustrial and French revolutions. The economy’s need for
an industrial labor force caused traditional rural communRies
to be uprooted, populations to become urbanized,
and work to become increasingly compartmentalized
and alienating. The percentage of Americans living
in urban settings had grown from 3.4% in 1790 to 33%
in 1900 (Blum et al., 1973, p. 441). Researchers such as
Flexner (1959), Schiebinger (1987), Smith-Rosenberg
(1981), and Welter (1966) have shown that in the late
18th and 19th centuries in general and the Victorian era
in particular, gender roles in the middle and upper classes
took on a polarized and restrictive cast unique to that
time regarding both social privilege and economic function.
Lowe (1982) convincingly argued that the Victorian
bourgeois self was a secular, rational, subjective, divided,
sexually conflicted, linear self that viewed the world as
objectifiable and quantitative. The “unknown” was once
thought to reside in the external world. Slowly, as the
modern age dawned and developed, the self became the
container for that which could be hidden from others and
from oneself (Baumeister, 1986, pp. 36-50). Trilling
(197 l) described this as the concern for sincerity preoccupation.
Foucault (1979) argued that the modern state
exploited this conception of the self in order to justify its
new, restrictive powers (see also Sass, 1987). By the
triumph of the Victorian bourgeoisie, the unknown was
understood to be unequivocally interior (see also Brandell,
1979; Taylor, 1988) and potentially dangerous. Freud
(1953, 1961) postulated a self with an interiorized unconscious
that contained primitive drives–sex and
aggression–that had to be restricted in order for normative
bourgeois society to function. Early psychoanalysis
reflected these trends, describing and further constructing
the modern self.
Some authors, such as Drinka (1984) and Van den
Berg (1961), have suggested that as a consequence of the
attempts to control “dangerous” impulses, new mental
problems developed in the middle and upper classes, most
notably hysteria and neurasthenia. Many other writers
(e.g., Bernheimer & Kahane, 1985) have also suggested
that the particular Victorian construction of gender and
identity, especially the conflict between the growing ethic
of modernity and the restrictiveness of women’s roles,
was prescriptively linked to the outbreak of hysteria. Susman
(1973) and Lears (1983) also argued that in the
United States the strain of acting in a proper bourgeois
manner took a toll on spontaneity and expressiveness.
What Leafs (1983) referred to as the therapeutic ethos
came into being in order to alleviate derealization and
reintegrate seWnood in the upper classes (pp. 11-17). New
business roles developed, such as the preacher-therapist,
who attempted to cure these new diseases by using the
ideology that Meyer (1980) called positive thinking. The
advertising industry, which Lears thought was another
manifestation of “the therapeutic,” attempted to cure by
implying that products would magically “transform” the
customer’s life. In order to do that, ads became progressively
less informative and more evocative, associating
the product with happy, dean, vigorous models (Lears,
1981, pp. 4-58, 300-312; 1983, p. 19).
The Early 20th Century American Self
During the last 90 years, psychological discourse and
practice in relation to the middle-class self have changed
from a focus on the Victorian, sexually restricted self to
the post-World War II empty and fragraented self. The
seeds of this change slowly began developing in the United
States in the early decades of the 20th century. For instance,
the tactics, products, and successes of therapeutic
businesses such as the advertising and self-improvement
industries changed from a proaccupation with restriction
to an inclination for indulgence.
Susman ( 1973, pp. 271-285 ) has demonstrated how,
especially in America, the quest for developing a secular
personality came to take precedence over building religious
character. Unlike character, which is centered on
personal moral integrity, advice manuals of the time
taught that personality was synonymous with becoming
liked by others. The self was conceived of as capable of
personal change; impressing others and gaining their approval
became an important aim in life, far outstripping
the value of doing the morally correct act, which was
dictated by one’s character. Riesman, Glazer, and Denny
(1953) and Fromm (1955) have also described the innerdirected,
self-reliant rugged individualist who began to
give way to the outer-directed, socially sldlled salespersontype
of individual.
After the turn of the century, popularized forms of
psychology and religion began to offer advice on how to
impress others, become popular, and achieve monetary
success and peace of mind. Advertising began developing
a highly effective strategy: By identifying the product with
an “imaginary state of being” (Lears, 1983, p. 19), the
ads sought to allay the customer’s personal fears and feelings
of inadequacy. “By the 1920s,” Marchand (1985)
explained, “advertisers had come to recognize a public
demand for broad guidance.., about taste, social correctness,
and psychological satisfaction . . . . Advertising
men had now become broader social therapists who off
e r e d . . , balms for the discontents of modernity” (pp.
347, 360).
In the 1920s and 1930s, psychology began to forge
an alliance with business management that appeared to
aid psychology’s emergence as an independent social science
discipline. As Brammel and Friend (1981) and Gillespie
(1988) have suggested, the famous Hawthorne
experiments (Mayo, 1933; Whitehead, 1938) on worker
productivity led the way for an alliance that has not always
been as scientifically objective as historians depicted. Asch
(1983) and Scheibe (1988) have intimated that this alliance
has led to laboratory psychology’s quick rise to power
in American academia. As big business became increasingly
interested in using psychology to boost profits,
maximize worker productivity, and influence consumers,
new subfields of academic psychology emerged. Applied
psychology was used in advertising, marketing, and personnel
602 May 1990 • American Psychologist
The trend toward the waning of Victorian values,
which began and increased in the first three decades of
the century, appeared to have slowed somewhat during
the economic depression of the 1930s and World War II.
The concrete economic problems of unemployment and
hunger took precedence over the cynical and reckless selfabsorption
of the 1920s. Then, World War II effectively
ended the Depression and provided an inescapable sense
of realness. For a moment the ennui of the upper classes,
which the therapeutic ethos had tried to cure, receded.
Slowly, the fortunes of war began to change as the
managers of big business and government learned how
to develop and focus America’s industrial power for the
war effort. There began to emerge in the national consciousness
a sense of the power and affluence that the
United States would generate in the unknown postwar
future (Goldman, 1960). A new era was about to dawn.
The Post’WorM War H Era and Its Economy
In the decades immediately following World War II, the
United States developed an economy that depended on
the continual production and consumption of nonessential
and quickly obsolete products, celebrities, and
experiences (Lowe, 1988). A new era with a new self
was beginning to emerge. Although the roots of this new
world reach back into the earlier decades of the 20th
century, its distinctive character became fully formed in
the decades following the war (Goldman, 1960; Zinn,
1973). Authors such as Blum et al, (1973) have described
an America that became highly urbanized and industrialized.
In 1940 the urban population comprised 77%
of the whole; by 1970 it comprised 95% (Blum et al.,
1973, pp. 441,808). In the post-War era writers such as
Fromm (1955) and Lasch (1984, 1978) have described
a world in which flash .is valued over substance, opportunism
over loyalty, selling ability over integrity, and
mobility over stability. The car transformed urban living,
and postwar industrialization brought with it new business
capacities and new technologies. The movie and
music businesses became dominant, producing a new
kind of star; not a hero, but a celebrity (Susman, 1973,
pp. 282-284).
More and more the focus has come to rest on the
individual (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton,
1985; Levin, 1987b; Zaretsky, 1976). People are living
ever more secluded and secular lives, foresaking even the
shrinking nuclear family. The percentage of American
households of seven or more persons declined from 35.9%
in 1790, to 20.4% in 1900, to 5.8% in 1950. At the same
time, households with only one person rose from 3.7%
in 1790 to 9.3% in 1950–and to 18.5% in 1973. Households
with two persons rose from 7.8% in 1790 to 28.1%
in 1950 (Kobrin, 1978, p. 71). Coincident with the decline
of the large, extended family unit, the individual self came
to be seen as the ultimate locus of salvation: the evolving,
constantly: changing self, on a never-ending search ,for
self-actualization and “growth” (Liflon, 1968). Personal
fulfillment is seen to reside within the purview of the
individual, who is supposed to be self-sufficient and selfsatisfied
(Sampson, 1977, 1985). For this self there are
supposed to be no limits to achievement and enjoyment.
Middle-class Caucasians born in the baby boom era directly
following World War II were told that they were
the privileged generation of the most privileged and powerful
country in the world (Marin, 1979).
For the United States, one of the tasks of the 1950s
was to convert its powerful, international war machine
into a viable, international peacetime economy. This was
not an easy task, and at times the country floundered in
recessions (Goldman, 1960). Eventually it found a way
into postwar prosperity through the creation and use of
universal, easy credit (see Friedman, 1988; Malabre,
1987). Credit made the new economy go: personal credit,
business credit, and government credit. But credit for
The increasingly powerful print and electronic media
unleashed a flood of opinions about how post-World War
II families should spend their money. Countless ads, radio
shows, and TV situation comedies portrayed a nation of
postwar families that needed new homes. Indeed, large
suburban housing developments began transforming the
countryside. Advertisements portrayed a nation of new
families that needed modern, electronic “conveniences”
in order to stay scientific and modern (see the popular
comic strip Gasoline Alley in 1949 for a good example
of these themes; e.g., the Los Angeles Times, particularly
February 27, 1949; also January 2, 1949, and January 6,
1949). New appliances appeared on the market and
transformed household chores. Because the homes and
products were so expensive, young middle-class families
could not save enough cash to purchase them. Thus, credit
became indispensable. The percentage of after-tax income
that Americans have saved has decreased from a high of
25.5% in 1944 to less than 2% by 1986 (Malabre, 1987,
pp. 4, 21). In contrast, the Japanese rate is currently at
30% of after-tax income. During that same span of time,
the volume of consumer installment loans rose from 5%
of personal income in 1949, to 15% in 1979, to a record
20% by 1987 (Malabre, 1987, p. 27).
The Post-Worm War II Era and the Empty Self
I believe that after the war the configuration of the empty
self coalesced and finally became predominant as a consequence
oftbe loss of community and in order to match
the needs of the new economy. Without this particular
self, America’s consumer-based economy (and its charismatically
oriented political process) would be inconceivable.
New discourses and practices such as the advertising
industry and the field of psychology were modified
in order to respond to and further develop the new
configuration of self (Ewen, 1989; Fox & Lears, 1983).
Practitioners in both fields are placed in the position of
being responsible for curing the empty self without being
allowed to address the historical causes of the emptiness
through structural societal changes.
Authors such as Gendlin (1987), Lasch (1978), Leafs
(1983), Liflon (1968), Rieff (1966), Susman (1973), and
Taylor (1988) have observed that Americans in the post-
May 1990 • American Psychologist 603
World War II era came to need self-improvement in a
form and to a degree unknown before. As the individual’s
growth, enjoyment, and fulfillment became the single
most valued aspect of life (Baumeister, 1987), several industries
grew up to minister to this newly created need.
The cosmetics industry, the diet business, the electronic
entertainment industry, preventive medical care, and the
self-improvement industry (containing mainstream psychology,
pop psychology, and pop religion) all came into
prominence. The technological advances in these fields
have been astronomical, as has their increasing power to
influence and control the mainstream of American life
(Lasch, 1978; Lears, 1983).
But how does this new self-improvement industry
work? What makes this network possible? Why do Americans
“need” these items and experiences now when they
never did before? Again, I am speculating that it is the
formation of the empty self that has made this situation
possible; a sense of meaninglessness and absence feeds
these businesses. The Western world and America in particular
constructed a new type of bounded self that was
the perfect complement to the postwar economy built on
a system of universal, worldwide credit. Credit is only
necessary when the individual’s wish to buy outstrips his
or her capital. Individuals do not wish to buy if they do
not perceive a need for a product. But with an empty self
people always need.
Inner emptiness may be expressed in many ways,
such as low self-esteem (the absence of a sense of personal
worth), values confusion (the absence of a sense of personal
convictions), eating disorders (the compulsion to
fill the emptiness with food, or to embody the emptiness
by refusing food), drug abuse (the compulsion to fill the
emptiness with chemically induced emotional experiences),
and chronic consumerism (the compulsion to fill
the emptiness with consumer items and the experience
of “receiving” something from the world). It may also
take the form of an absence of personal meaning. This
can manifest as a hunger for spiritual guidance, which
sometimes takes the form of a wish to be filled up by the
spirit of God, by religious “truth,” or the power and personality
of a leader or guru (Cushman, 1984). For instance,
one of the most au courant of New Age therapies
is channeling, an experience in which an individual is
said to be entered by the soul or spirit of another “entity,”
usually thought to be a god, who then speaks “important
truths.” The wish to be spiritually filled up and guided
can make the individual vulnerable to the deceptive practices
of restrictive religious cults (Cushman, 1986), charismatic
political leaders (Kohut, 1976; Strozier, 1978),
unethical psychotherapists (West & Singer, 1980), or even
highly authoritarian and controlling romantic partners
(Boulette & Anderson, 1986).
Psychoanalytic Theory and the Empty Self
The empty self has become such a prevalent aspect of
our culture that much contemporary psychotherapeutic
theory is devoted to its treatment. Levin (1987c) and
Lasch (1978) among others have suggested that disorders
of the self(i.e., narcissistic and borderline personality disorders)
are one of the more popular diagnoses of our time.
Heinz Kohut (1971, 1977, 1984) developed an entire theory
of psychotherapy based on the empty, fragmented
self. His theory was an attempt to explain how the self is
developed in the individual and how to treat it in order
to alleviate or lessen the effects of emptiness and fragmentation.
In a crucial aspect of psychological development
in Kohut’s self psychology, the parent is psychologically
“taken in” by the child and used to develop a
self. He used the term self object to describe the undifferentiated
nature of the parent-child relationship. In analysis
it is the therapist, functioning as a selfobject, who
initially fills the emptiness. Later in the treatment, the
process Kohut (1977) called transmuting internalizations
is said to fill the emptiness by building the self of the
The other major psychodynamic theory that has recently
come to prominence is object relations theory
(Kernberg, 1975; Masterson, 1981). In general, object relations
theory posits the prominent self of our era, the
bounded, masterful, individuated self, as has Kohut. But
for object relations theorists what fills the emptiness of
the self is not the selfobject experience but rather a whole
cast of psychological introjects: representations of others
(their thoughts, feelings, and needs) and representations
of the thoughts, feelings, and needs of one’s self at various
stages of development (Ogden, 1986). The representations
interact with one another and with the external world,
creating various dramas. What is important to note for
the purposes of this article is that for object relations
theorists the interior of the self is also an emptiness. It is
a space partially filled by the stable self-representation
(the “true self”) and by external “part-objects” brought
into the empty self through the psychological mechanism
of introjection.
Kohut’s method of treatment in particular can be
interpreted as an attempt to undo

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