In a recent blog post for the Fotomuseum Winterthur (Switzerland), American cultural critic Jodi Dean makes a case for the Selfie as a common – or even communist – form of visual communication. Her argument is that by taking pictures of ourselves, and then uploading them (a Selfie is not simply a self-portrait – it is a networked self-portrait), we are participating in a collective project. The point is that the Selfie is not individualistic: “Multiple images of the same form, the selfie form, stream across our screens, like the people we might pass walking along a sidewalk or in a mall. When we upload selfies, we are always vaguely aware that someone, when it is least opportune, may take an image out of its context and use it to our disadvantage. But we make them anyway as part of a larger social practice that says a selfie isn’t really of me; it’s not about me as the subject of a photograph. It’s my imitation of others and our imitation of each other.” (For Dean’s complete post go here.)
Dean goes on to update Walter Benjamin’s influential essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” arguing that just as photography in the 1930s made paintings more accessible to the masses, so the Selfie today makes our own face into a circulating image, one that is collective precisely because it is like everyone else’s. When we pose (and post) like Kim Kardashian West, we are part of the collective, we are common property, and that, for Jodi Dean, is a good thing. (Actually, she doesn’t mention Kim Kardashian, that’s my own example).
I think that in some ways Dean is on to something crucial here in terms of the Selfie: this genre of photography is important because of its mass appeal, because Selfies are for the most part not made by professional photographers. But Dean is not an art critic or aesthetician, she is a political theorist (which would be why she mentions her own concept “communicative capitalism” so often in the blog), and so she misses out on the aesthetic dimensions of the Selfie. More surprisingly, she makes what is a common error when she begins her post by saying she disagrees with the “critical reflex” to call Selfies an example of narcissism. This is surprising because Dean knows a lot about psychoanalysis (she is the author of books on Slavoj Zizek and Jacques Lacan) and so she knows, or should know, that she is using the concept of “narcissism” incorrectly. She is using it in a moral sense (someone who is narcissistic is vain and doesn’t care about others) rather than a clinical or structural sense.
I think we can only understand the Selfie, and its importance today, if we understand that the genre not only is the narcissistic form par excellence, but also that it is a critical form, its very pervasiveness demonstrating the narcissism of contemporary media and culture. To understand this we have to unpack, carefully, the logic and practice of the Selfie – what does it mean, or, rather, how does one make a Selfie?
The Selfie – a photographic self-portrait, often made with a smartphone, that is then posted to social media. We can trace a history of self-portraits in traditional painting – Parmigianino’s is only the most famous, but also Rembrandt – then in photography, many of which are also examples of “mirror Selfies.” This latest aesthetic form is marked by being networked, being shared, made with the digital device (“handheld,” which then means touched), and made by the subject viewing his or her own image as part of making the image.
The Selfie is made with a digital device: that is, the phone is a mirror. This is both a specific function and a practice – you can get a make-up mirror on your phone. But you can also now realize that the device is entirely a mirror. From the narcissism of social media to its proliferation of visual media, the smartphone is the thing/frame through which we gain access to the digital imaginary.
The device, however, is also, like money or our underwear, insistently carnal, nestled as it is in our purses or pockets, next to our genitals or wallets.
With the selfie, the mirror acquires agency: the mirror here does something, it makes the picture happen. The mirror as agent means that when you look at the picture of yourself before you take the picture, (“I do not take pictures, I make pictures – Alfredo Jaar), you are “composing” the picture, your face, what is in the background, your expression (or not, of any of the aforementioned). Your eye is working (or not) in the way of the modernist photographer – Hannah Hoch or Walker Evans.
Then the finger moves – it swipes or pushes or clicks (a movement makes a sound and a picture) and the photograph is taken – the Selfie exists, a performance, an event, a document that is now in the digital archive.
Now (and maybe later) you look at the photograph, engage in whatever go-to pragmatic aesthetics of keep it or trash it.
Then, what happens to the file, the object, the photograph, the Selfie? Maybe: no one sees it again (much/many?) Some: are sent around, posted, seen by hundreds or thousands (most of whom are seeing many images every day). A few: go viral
They are shared, commented upon, sometimes other visual responses. It goes beyond (but still …) “liking” or the haters – the two extremes of online commentary – it participates in that online culture. (But they are also touched again). They are touched, and the touching, that neurotic flicking (the smartphone is a nipple or a breast) akin to scratching a dog or a horse behind the ears.
That online culture, appropriately enough, is extremely caught in a narcissistic Imaginary – sometimes because its members are quite young, but one encouraged by the apparent democracy of online commentary practices (as though everyone can talk to/listen to everyone).
The Selfie, then, can be thought of as a genre or practice that actually diagnoses or analyzes (it is an analytical discourse) the constitutive narcisissism, the Imaginary, of social media, of the digital. Here Kim Kardashian West is exemplary: her practice of the Selfie, as practice, as book, as ongoing digital meme, bears the brunt of that analysis (is an analysis of its own practice even as it carries out a critique of the larger digital Event), and bears it, it should be said, on its own body, on her (and her posse’s, her child’s, Kanye’s) body as that Imaginary “sack of organs,” a body or face that transforms into a “duck face” but also that, most recently, must be the body of the barred subject. If, during the Renaissance, Italians could “consume” art by commissioning altarpieces and portraits, displaying their cultural capital as a performance, now we produce art by consuming it.
My argument, then, is that first, the Selfie as a narcissistic practice functions as a mirror, a reflexive critique of our mediated present. Secondly, that it does so not just as image but as something we touch, we feel (what is also called the “haptic”). Like Tim Lee’s 2002 photograph Duck Soup, The Marx Brothers, 1927, in which we think Lee is looking at a mirror (but what is actually a photograph), we think we are looking at a Selfie, but we are also confronting a critique of ourselves.
Clint Burnham teaches at Simon Fraser University and will be speaking on the Capture 2016 Writing with Light “Liking vs Critiquing” panel on April 26 at Inform Interiors.