Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University Communications Prof., told a crowd at the University today that she’s unafraid to venture into dialogue about touchy subjects — from pornography to what she has coined as “sexual paranoia,” which she says has washed over college campuses across the country.

Kipnis has published six books that mostly focus on discourse about gender/sexuality politics, love, sex, American popular culture and aesthetics through essays and anecdotes on her extensive experience and research as a video artist and cultural critic. Her recent essay “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” garnered uproar among the student body at Northwestern, resulting in a Title IX claim filed against her.

Kipnis spoke at Rackham Tuesday to an audience composed partially of past and present members of the Michigan Society of Fellows, a group that grants individuals who have demonstrated excellence in various academic disciplines with three-year fellowships. During the event, she read from an excerpt of her upcoming book about narcissism.

“There is a rampant level of accusation about other people’s narcissism, and I guess it irks me in a certain way,” Kipnis said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “I often find myself writing about things that irk me.”  

She added that narcissism had persistently come up in her travels and conversations, prompting her to write about it.

“At a certain point I just started thinking that everywhere I went and lots of conversations I was having and cultural criticism I was reading had to do with accusations about other people’s narcissism,” Kipnis said. “It’s always someone else who is a narcissist, not you.”

In the lecture, Kipnis excavated the rich history of narcissism in a way that touched on the evolution of the concept throughout history. She asked questions that would provoke the audience to revisit their attitudes toward the phrase and any aversion to identifying with it. She spoke about classification of a narcissist in terms of self-love; some say narcissists have an excess of self-esteem, where others have argued that the narcissist emerges from having too little self-esteem.

“There’s this really interesting history of who first gets diagnosed as a narcissist, who the term first gets invented about, which ends up interestingly being independent women,” said Kipnis.

She explored the work of cultural historian Christopher Lasch, who wrote extensively on the ways in which American culture has the tendency to normalize narcissistic behaviors. He saw himself as exempt from his own critique of narcissism, which was characterized by the blame of individuals for collective faults and bottomless repressed rage.

Kipnis also lectured on Sigmund Freud, unpacking his idea of primary narcissism — the innate self-involvement of infants that turns into secondary narcissism, an infatuation with the ego—now coined a narcissistic personality. Kipnis posed the question of whether this increased self-love has devalued the ability to love others.

She additionally dove into discussion of the Narcissism Personality Inventory (NPI) — a test meant to measure quantity of narcissism in one’s personality. She suggested that the test was controversial as in what it truly measures, unclear, hard to agree upon and overused. Kipnis said the varying types of narcissism classifications she encountered in her research, from the “aggressive” to the “paranoid” to the “craving”, to the “phallic” to the “exhibitionist,” supported her claim that narcissism in our world takes a myriad of forms and functions that encompass more of our cultural identity than we’d like to admit.

Kipnis asked her audience to consider whether rampant narcissism was a problem of competition for limited resources or simply the way we construct our character, summing up her points when she asked, “What are we entitled to?”

“Everyone’s ex is a consummate narcissist,” she joked when exploring narcissism in the context of romantic relationships.

In the Q&A portion Kipnis was questioned on the notion of “entitlement” which she referred to as “demand on steroids” and a term that the right side of the political spectrum liked to throw around to describe those who expected different forms of government aid.

Kipnis’s tricky past of expressing discontent with the sexual politics on college campuses resurfaced when she responded to a question that asked whether entitlement came as an expectation to be protected from harm.

“I have to think more about that,” she said. 

Kipnis raised interesting points and with thorough research, broadened the scope of the ways in which our culture has given in to self-interest.

“Rather than just point fingers at every one else, just take a look in the mirror,” she said on Tuesday.

Her statement, albeit jaded, held some truth yet left me hoping for a further investigation of the empathy, justice and compassion that any definition of narcissism fails to encompass. 

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