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Narcissism, Late Capitalism and Tamil Television: A Freudian Perspective

Sigmund Freud made a signal contribution to psychoanalysis through his 1914 paper “On Narcissism: An Introduction”. As a concept, narcissism has been employed in diverse ways to examine a range of socio-political leaders, movements and phenomena. In recent times, the rise of reality television provides ample scope to deal with the concept of narcissism in an entirely different mediascape and a different age of modernity, late capitalism.

According to Freud, “…repression, we have said, proceeds from the ego; we might say with greater precision that it proceeds from the self-respect of the ego. …For the ego of the formation of an ideal would be the conditioning factor of repression.This ideal ego is now the target of the self-love which was enjoyed in childhood by the actual ego. The subject’s narcissism makes its appearance displaced on to this new ideal ego, which, like the infantile ego, finds itself possessed of every perfection that is of value. As always where the libido is concerned, man has here again shown himself incapable of giving up a satisfaction he had once enjoyed. He is not willing to forgo the narcissistic perfection of his childhood; and when, as he grows up, he is disturbed by the admonitions of others and by the awakening of his own critical judgement, so that he can no longer retain that perfection, he seeks to recover it in the new form of an ego ideal. What he projects before him as his ideal is the substitute for the lost narcissism of his childhood in which he was his own ideal.”

To make the Freudian complex simple, narcissism refers to self-love and the term is taken from the story of Greek character, Narcissus, who falls in love with his own reflection in the water and starts talking to it. According to Freud, among the several preconditions for normal human development, the stage of primary narcissism and its repression is crucial for the formation of its substitutes: the internalised self ideal and the external objects of love, Taking a classical Freudian trajectory, one would hence assume that the failure of the repression stage would in effect mean the emergence of primary narcissism in its original diverse flavours such as megalomania, hypochondria, envy etc.,

One of the critical thinkers of our times, Fredric Jameson, dealt with the age of late capitalism in a strikingly different manner than its original proponent, Mandel. Jameson said: “I have already pointed out that Mandel’s intervention in the Postindustrial debate involves the proposition that late or multinational or consumer capitalism, far from being inconsistent with Marx’s great nineteenth-century analysis, constitutes, on the contrary, the purest form of capital yet to have emerged, a prodigious expansion of capital into hitherto uncommodified areas. This purer capitalism of our own time thus eliminates the enclaves of precapitalist organization it had hitherto tolerated and exploited in a tributary way. One is tempted to speak in this connection of a new and historically original penetration and colonization of Nature and the Unconscious: that is, the destruction of precapitalist Third World agriculture by the Green Revolution, and the rise of the media and the advertising industry. At any rate, it will also have been clear that my own cultural periodization of the stages of realism, modernism, and postmodernism is both inspired and confirmed by Mandel’s tripartite scheme.”

According to Jameson, contemporary versions of media capitalism are one of the important markers of late capitalism. Even though this version of late capitalism is not far from the Frankfurt school’s notion of culture industry, it enables us to see through Jameson’s critical perspective what is unfolding in a land Jameson has not probably heard or seen, Tamil Nadu. What I often call as the the strange political economy of media in Tamil Nadu (pl.read earlier posts) is what is emblematic of the media capitalism Jameson relates to in his 1991 work. The political economy of media in Tamil Nadu is strange because it is in the age of late capitalism, where new relationships of the old capitalist processes and their subjects are performed through the simultaneous control of diverse capitals which neither Marx nor Neo-Marxists could envision. These are media capital, political capital, electoral capital and policy capital = all capitals trying to transform as one large monolith CAPITAL in the age of late of capitalism. This new version is not tied down by the factors of labour or class. It makes a mockery of such old blocks.

In a sense, the age of late capitalism also mimics a strong nostalgia for the past: the pre-industrial phase of capitalism or the feudal age in Tamil Nadu/India. Not surprisingly, in a dramatic shift of sorts, late capitalism in Tamil Nadu expresses itself in more astounding ways than any other part of the world in the media space. Here even ordinary holidays are made to look like extraordinary days by the television channels’ penchant for packaging their very routine fare of filmi programmes in deceitful festive colours and moods. When the holidays have traditional markers such as Pongal or Deepavali, channels like SUN TV almost make a killing. The SUN media conglomerate is a good example of a late capitalist media enterprise trying to wreck the boat of pluralism and choices in the media space. On days like Pongal, SUN TV cleverly packages content sourced from their film releases as special programmes of the day, deceitfully promoting their own films, even as they earn tonnes of money through an endless list of sponsors of the day’s programming.

On the day of Pongal (15 01 2011), Tamil television channels also sought to give vent to the narcissistic forays of their owners/sponsors: the politicians, actors and the associated ilk in a manner that smacks of a mockery of democracy and pluralism one expects in the media sphere.As I was zapping the remote around 9.00 am on the D Day of Tamils, I was dumbstruck to watch a live Pattimandram (Public Debate Forum) programme in Kalaignar TV, which featured many unprecedented markers for the first time ever in Tamil television. Pattimandram, as a programme genre, has been gainfully employed by a number of Tamil television channels, particularly, SUN TV, during the past decade. The genre has transformed two ordinary personalities into bankable celebrities (Solomon Pappiah and Leoni). The genre that once belonged to the space of literary public platforms has over the years metamorphosed into an attractive genre of television media in the age of late capitalism. This is where the the USP of the leading performers in television Pattimandrams shakes hands with the love of the audience in late capitalism to long for a tradition/literary laden substitute to deal with their everyday chores along with the greed of the channels to rake in more ad rupees in the garb of special pongal day programming. There was a routine Pattimandram chaired by Solomon Papaiah on SUN TV. It had a contemporary topic relating to the burden of school children and their parents.

In contrast, the programme on Kalaignar TV was titled: “What Contributed to DMK’s Growth and Development: Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s Administrative Prowess or Artistic Abilities or Literary Talents?. The programme was a recorded version and had DMK senior leader, K Anbazhagan as the president of the Pattimandram. Three groups of persons were arguing their own versions in front of not only the president of the Pattimandram, but also the subject of the Pattimandram, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu M Karunanidhi aka Kalaignar (Artist), who was seated in the front row of the audience. The debaters were none other than the ministers in the cabinet of the present chief minister, his daughter Kanimozhi, party functionaries and a close acquaintance from congress party. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first instance of a television Pattimandram or real Pattimandram debating the virtues of a person who is defined by the Deleuzian notion of multiplicity: Kalaignar was in the title, in the audience as well as in the logo of the channel (as the owner/sponsor of the channel).

The persons on the dais did not mince words and went on a eulogising spree about their leader seated in front of them. Every smile on the leader’s face brought more vigour to their supposed merits of their versions of debates. The subject of the programme was obviously enjoying every moment of the show as it was about his life as a DMK chief in three career trajectories – administrative, literary and cinema fields. It was also about what could not be divorced from his personal life, his party’s growth and development. This programme did not hide anything for the subject of narcissism to enter the phase of primary narcissism again albeit in the company of television cameras, visible audience (made up of close party acquaintances and family members) and the invisible television audience who happened to watch the programme on the D Day of Tamils, Pongal. There could not be a more opportune moment for Freud’s primary narcissism to stage a comeback in the convoluted setting of Tamil television in the age of late capitalism. Here was a programme that chose as its subject the very person who is the supposed owner of the channel as well as the chief minister of the state of Tamil Nadu. The programme also chose him as another subject, as a star member of the audience as well as the very subject of every sentence uttered by the persons who were debating the merits of only one person, their leader. Given the title, “What Contributed to DMK’s Growth and Development: Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s Administrative Prowess or Artistic Abilities or Literary Talents?, the scope for comparison with any other merits of any other leader, past or present was instantly erased with a classical narcissistic strategy of self-love. The programme, like the leader and their wards, assumed that there could not be any other leader or source for the key term in the title: “”What Contributed to DMK’s Growth and Development.”

According to Freud, repression of primary narcissism enables the entry into the normal state of human development and the failure of the process of repression results in the onward march of the primary narcissism with the defining symptoms megalomania, envy etc., History of social movements and political parties in India and abroad have glaring examples of cultist transformations of parties and movements because of the narcissistic forays of their leaders. There is a need to study the history of parties and movements in India through the prism of Freudian narcissism. The plethora of statutes of leaders, living and dead; roads and residential colonies, named after the same; and buildings named after the rulers of the past and present are the symptoms of the primary narcissism of leaders staging virulent comeback in the public space. And if the public space is the one that is shrinking very rapidly because of the multiplicity of the sources of the primary narcissism which are the same as the owners of the political and media capital, then it becomes an interesting albeit sad connecting point between Tamil television, late capitalism and what is supposedly the D Day for Tamils, Pongal.


1.Freud, Sigmund, “On Narcssism: An Introduction,” 1914

2.Ernest Mandel. Late Capitalism, Humanities Press, 1975

3.Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,
Duke University Press, 1991


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