The Greek word νᾶνος nanos means ‘dwarf’ – hence our now tech-driven teeming nano-prefixed vocabulary to describe investigations and developments at a very small level of reality (i.e., the molecular and atomic quantum worlds). The character in Greek mythology named Narcissus fell in love with his own image in a pool and vainly tried to embrace that beauty, even in death continuing to pine for the unattainable image of himself (the most delicious telling of this tale is by the Roman poet Ovid in his hyper-hellenized ‘epic’ the Metamorphoses [3.339-510]).
Hence my latest coinage: nanonarcissism!
Nanonarcissism is society’s starkly obsessive preoccupation with the tiny privileging centrifugal differences of its members rather than a celebrating of the larger centripetal similarities of us all.
Why is nanonarcissism so deeply offensive to me?
Well, maybe because on my view it is so … so not American.
It is based on a collectivist philosophy of the type that has by now been thoroughly discredited, and it cares little, it seems, for individuals. In its addictive fascination with difference it is divisive, promotes bizarre speech codes, and creates arbitrary and artificial enclaves of uniquenesses.
Thus, women can never understand men. Why? Obviously, because they have never been men. Well, yes … and snow is white. So now what? And blacks can never understand whites? Why? Obviously, because they have never been white. O.K., and stone is hard. So now what? And so forth and so on. This kind of chunk thinking has vicious consequences, as in making it ‘well-known’ that categories of peoples are incapable of getting along without the intervention of facilitators or even legal sanctions.
Nanonarcissism coerces us into pre-configured classifications from participation in which we are meant to gain our personhood. Our individual selves are of nugatory moment, and we seem to emerge in our full contours not so much as a result of what we in our own right accomplish or achieve but of our membership in categories, in groups. And some groups are designated as so wanting in abilities or capacities for achievement that they require special help — thus, for example, the practicing alcoholic is a victim of her disabilities and must be afforded singular accommodation in employment and special grants by the government, and the low-IQ student on a government scholarship to the university must be given twice as much time as other students to take his exams.
Ethnicity, gender, disability and, perhaps most important of all, victimization, whether self-declared or mandated as inhering in group association, become the be-all and end-all of important decision taken about, or evaluation made of, a person’s life. Aren’t these rather limiting ways to segment the rich reality of individual human beings? Why have these particular axes of identity assumed such over-arching salience in contemporary self-identification? Why has the most subsuming of all categories, membership in the human race, been demoted to virtual insignificance?
Nanonarcissism seems to want to push us apart and give us justifications for not being able to talk to each other or to understand each other without mediation by a vast therapeutic community of government-mandated facilitators for ‘sensitizing’ us to the other’s abused feelings. The more exquisite the hierarchy of categories, the more problematical becomes the fineness of the segmentation. If Hispanics can’t understand what it is like to be Nordics, and Norwegian Nordics can’t understand what it is like to be Danish Nordics, and female Danish Nordics can’t understand what it is like to be male Danish Nordics, and young female Danish Nordics can’t understand what it’s like to be old female Danish Nordics … well, I think you get my point. Don’t you? Try the same thing on the Hispanic side, and mutatis mutandis you get Mexican Hispanics, Puerto Rican Hispanics, Salvadoran Hispanics, Cuban Hispanics – male, female; old, young; native-born, foreign-born — and so on and on and on into , once again, another ghettoized ghetto of implicitly mutual incomprehensibilities.
What kind of thing is this nanonarcissism that unquestioningly issues scores of designated categories of difference as passes to specialness, promotes the elevation of our allegedly inevitable misconstruing of each other as the summum bonum of social intercourse, and celebrates the putative victimhood of some as their most prominently identifying characteristic? Are some people nothing more than the sum of their imputed vulnerabilities? Is an inability to talk to each other, much less understand each other, something to glory in or as something to dismiss as unworthy of us all? Should not the rules be the same for you as for me?
Why not privilege the vast suffering of fat people? Or of short people? Of those who wear eye-glasses? Who decides what difference is to ‘count’?
Wouldn’t it be a great deal healthier 1 to concentrate on our shared likenesses and similarities?
I know, I know … on this subject I really am just an impossible old narcissistic troglodyte!
In the present connection, where I have advanced the suggestion that there is something perverse or ‘diseased’ about all that I subsume under the term nano-narcissism, it is entirely fortuitous but nonetheless not uninteresting that no less an eminent authority than Aristotle (Historia Animalium 577b25-27) notes the following about οἱ νάνοι hoi nanoi (‘the dwarfs’):
Οἱ δὲ καλούμενοι γίννοι γίνονται ἐξ ἵππου, ὅταν νοσήσῃ ἐν τῇ κυήσει, ὥσπερ ἐν μὲν τοῖς ἀνθρώποις οἱ νάνοι, ἐν δὲ τοῖς ὑσὶ τὰ μετάχοιρα·
So-called mules are born of a mare when she is sick during pregnancy, just like dwarfs among humans, and the weakest of the litter among pigs.
For whatever reason the great intellectual then immediately adds (577b27):
καὶ ἴσχει δέ, ὥσπερ οἱ νάνοι, ὁ γίννος τὸ αἰδοῖον μέγα.
And just like the dwarfs, the mule has a penis that is large.