by Mark Featherstone, Senior Lecturer in Sociology
What is a selfie? Why do people take pictures of themselves and then post them on Facebook or Instagram? When I was a kid my parents took photos of me and my brother and hoarded them in biscuit tins stored in the backs of cupboards, but today we tend take as many pictures of ourselves as we do of each other. Why is this the case? If we take pictures of other people in particular situations in order to remember, why do we take pictures of ourselves? Is this in order to remember ourselves? Perhaps if we did not take pictures of ourselves in particular situations – at the beach, at a party, and so on – we might forget we were ever there. Perhaps if we did not take pictures of ourselves in banal, everyday, situations we might forget ourselves completely? We might forget we ever existed.
By nature the selfie tends to screen out the situation we find ourselves in – the distance between the hand and face means that it is only possible to capture so much background in the shot. As a result, the face, or if the photographer uses a mirror, the body, tends to dominate the shot. Thus, I’m not sure anybody takes a selfie to remember their friend’s party. Perhaps some people do, but I think the clue to the meaning of the selfie resides in the word itself – selfie. This is about the self. For this reason, I think that the majority of selfies are taken simply in order to assert the photographer / subject’s presence in the world. What does the selfie say to other people? It says ‘look at me, I am here’. This is why the celebrity, most especially the precarious celebrity, the celebrity who fears they may be forgotten tomorrow, really needs the selfie. The selfie tells everybody that they’re still around, they still exist. Of course, nobody cares about seeing a minor celebrity’s face over and over again, so what we find is that the celebrity selfie will tend to involve more and more exposure and in the end what the French writer Paul Virilio calls, over-exposure. Over-exposure is an effect of a kind of celebrity arms race – show more and more in order to try to attract more and more hits.
But what is over-exposure? Over-exposure occurs when the private sphere over-flows into public space and everything is on show. Another famous French post-modernist thinker, Jean Baudrillard, talks about this idea in terms of obscenity, which refers to a situation where what should remain off scene suddenly intrudes and flashes into view. In terms of the internet, this is exactly why hard-core pornography is obscene in Baudrillard’s use of the term – everything which would usually take place in private is here placed in full public view. We see everything.
Neither Virilio or Baudrillard place value judgements upon their ideas of over-exposure or obscenity – it’s not that they think saying too much or showing too much is morally bad, but rather that they understand that civilization has evolved through ideas of public and private discourse which are now in the process of being undermined by digital communication and social media. This is clearly problematic. What we know about Facebook, for example, is that we can very easily say too much. In a sense social media compels us to speak, to affirm our existence and our situation, to everybody and anybody who will listen. But this is problematic when what we say is not framed in the correct register – for example, when I become abusive or violent online. Or it may simply be the case that I am over-exposed in some other way that impacts upon my life in ways that I could not have foreseen or imagined. Consider a drunken night – I am photographed drunk with friends who post my image on Facebook. What impact does this have upon my future employment prospects and so on? The issue here, of course, is not that my behaviour is somehow morally offensive in itself, but rather that it becomes problematic and even deviant when it is captured, recorded, and transposed from private space into the public arena.
In response to this situation, Google recently announced ‘a right to forget’, where I can ask them to remove information relating to my name from its internet searches. In a sense this seems like a basic legal innovation relating to the right to privacy and so on, but in my view there is more at stake here connected to the reason we are ever over-exposed in the first place. There are, of course, many instances where people have had their name and image violently abused on the internet, and these people should no doubt have a ‘right to forget’, but what interests me here is the more general idea of the concept of a right to forget in the context of a technological society where it seems to me that we are desperate to remember, to the extent where we need to take photos of ourselves and post them on our Facebook pages in order to remember that we even exist.
The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman tells us that we live in a liquid modern world. Everything flows, and moves very quickly, and there is no permanence about the world. Life is precarious. Paul Virilio explains that speed is the measure of all things today. We live in what he calls a dromocracy. In other words, speed is what separates the winners from the losers. Life is a race. For Virilio’s French colleague Baudrillard, our world is characterised by a blizzard of signs. Everything flows through the media. What mattered today, 12 hours ago, 6 hours ago, 3 hours ago, 20 minutes ago, is now meaningless. Old news is no news. I am sure everybody can recognise elements of this world, the post-modern world, Bauman, Virilio, and Baudrillard theorise, but what has this got to with the selfie? My view is that in the face of this lightning fast, liquid society characterised by a blizzard of signs and information, everything begins to collapse and merge into an undifferentiated flow of opinions, perspectives, and general noise. How can we make ourselves heard under these conditions? How can we convince ourselves that we matter? How can we convince ourselves that we exist? The answer is that we must take to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram in order to reconstruct our world on a virtual platform which paradoxically confirms our concrete existence. Ironically, I know I exist because I can see my photograph on the Keele website. This digital image confirms my here-ness.
The problem with this is, of course, that this photo no longer really looks like me. This is a common, rather banal, complaint that we all have about our lives in photos, but the deeper meaning of this protest holds. In psychoanalysis my image is not me – it is an alienated version of me, my ego, which I use to imagine myself. This is necessary in order to give myself some sense of self, and identity over time, but it is also important that I do not begin to confuse myself with a two dimensional image, and collapse my life into some kind of virtual persona. However, it may be the case that this is exactly where we are today. We are lost in our lightning fast, liquid society, and buried in signs, symbols, ideas, and information that we cannot process, simply because of the speed which characterises their production, consumption, and redundancy. In the face of this situation, the cost of my survival is the banal practice of making myself heard and seen – I assert myself on the internet in the most basic way I can. I post a picture of my face with some snappy caption which confirms that I am an interesting person who deserves to exist or, if even this is beyond me, I simply affirm my existence without any symbolic support. Here, I simply exist because I exist – ‘here I am, and that is all’.
In his recent article in the London Review of Books, ‘On Selfies’, the writer Julian Stallabrass explains that the problem with the selfie and Instagram is that the image itself is obsolete, redundant, and subject to a kind of logic of disappearance from almost the moment it appears online. In this respect, my image disappears into obscurity the moment I upload it, and I find myself back to square one. As a result I must endeavour to transform myself into a kind of living image where I upload myself, my every thought, and every image, onto some social media platform or other in order to keep myself viable. Of course, this work, and this is work, does not come without its own costs. As we know success and over-exposure opens me up to constant surveillance by friends who sit in judgement about the value of my life, opinions, haircuts and so on. At this point, I exist, but unfortunately, I am now an object of public scrutiny. Here I exist in a kind of critical space – my existence condemns me to the possibility of violent critique.
Although the above describes the general condition of online identity, for the psychoanalyst the constant obsession with self-identity represents a particular condition - pathological narcissism or what is sometimes called narcissistic personality disorder. Named after the Greek mythological figure, Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image, pathological narcissism is a reflection of ego weakness, which leads the narcissist to seek to repair their self through constant construction and reconstruction of an ideal self. Moreover, this ‘exhibitionist self’ is also prone to seek to devalue others in order to boost their own self-esteem and position in relation to everybody else. As a result, the narcissist is not only self-obsessed, but also prone to violent outbursts against others.
However, what is interesting about the current discussion is that what I have sought to suggest is that the selfie is not the result of individual pathology, where particular narcissists seek to post images of themselves all over the internet, but rather that this is somehow a general cultural condition today, caused by the nature of our high tech global society that makes us feel very small, insignificant, and almost non-existent. The result of this situation is that in a sense we all become narcissists who have to reaffirm our identity constantly. This is what I think the selfie discloses about our contemporary world. But what can we do about this condition? Against this situation, which has become as normal, bland, and banal as the selfie itself, the truly radical act would be to become less ‘other centred’. The problem with the selfie is that although we take snaps of ourselves, the purpose of these photos is to assert our existence to the world of others. Everything relies on being seen by others. The generalised other, the other out there, the other I have never met, holds the key to my existence.
Against this situation, I think a better move would be to look inwards, and affirm yourself to and for yourself. Thus, I think that what would be truly radical today would be to avoid the selfie, avoid Facebook, and avoid Twitter, and focus on true reflexivity, where you can think, and be by yourself, and no longer have to rely on the cybernetic other to ‘like’ your existence.