Today, if you were to enter the word ‘selfie’ into the hashtag bar on your Instagram account you may or may not find yourself as astonished as I, to discover that there are nearly 174 million photographs, posted on this particular social media app, with the hashtag selfie. And if, like myself, spurred by this staggering truth, you then decided to type in the word ‘me’ instead, you might very well find yourself dumbstruck. For there are currently two hundred and eighty-six million, six hundred and three thousand, four hundred and twenty posts of different, but oddly alike, ‘me’s’. From now on, it’s me, me, me, my selfie and I.
Pretty much everyone with access to some form of media outlet, will surely, by this point, have encountered the word ‘selfie’, be it online or offline. Not only have most of us become well acquainted with the term, but the face itself, which it presents, often seems all too familiar. When and how did you and I become the same?
Before we look further into this question, let us take a moment, for clarity’s sake, to establish what the definition of this modern phenomenon is. According to the bible of information, Wikipedia, a selfie is ‘a self-portrait photograph, typically taken with a hand-held digital camera or camera phone. Selfies are often shared on social networking services such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr and Twitter. They are usually flattering and made to appear casual. Most selfies are taken with a camera held at arm‘s length or pointed at a mirror, rather than by using a self-timer.’
Apt as this description may be, it also needs to be said that the very best way of securing a high rate of selfie likes, is by tilting your chin down somewhat, pouting moderately, meanwhile allowing one eye to look up playfully into the camera. Not to mention the crucial post- production work – a most delicate process that involves a variety of photo filters and fine adjustments to the selfie’s general fun factor and spontaneity levels.
All joking aside, the popularity of the smartphone self-portrait seems to have reached an unprecedented height across the globe. Hailed by some as a creative form of self-expression, an empowering platform for changing identities, or simply a natural evolution of our need to depict ourselves pictorially, others are more critical towards the trend, suggesting that it might be a sinister sign of our growing narcissism and self-obsession in capitalist consumer society. Whichever way we choose to look at the phenomenon, the reality of it confronts us with a question: what does is mean to be human in an age of electronic self-exposure?
In his remarkable book, The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark, the British psychoanalyst and literary theorist, Josh Cohen, explores some of the possible reasons as to why we find ourselves in constant need of displaying our own private lives and that of others in contemporary culture. Drawing on a number of philosophical, literary and psychoanalytic sources, Cohen refers to a particularly pertinent passage in Dostoevsky’s 1864 novella Notes from Underground. It reads as follows: „We find it a burden being human beings – human beings with our own real flesh and blood, we are ashamed of it, consider it a disgrace and are forever striving to become some kind of generalised human beings.“1
In light of this, it seems to me that a couple of very important but often neglected implications of our selfie-dominated culture could be discerned. Might the surge in anonymous self-portraits be the cultural manifestation of a deeper urge to rid the self of that which resists 1 Josh Cohen, The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark, (London: Granta, 2014), p. 198 standardization, and forever escapes visibility, and by virtue of this irreducibility is precisely what renders us unique.
The will to know is no doubt one of the essential driving forces of humanity. Our capacities for conceptualisation and clarification – in other words, to reveal the mysterious of the natural and social world – are integral to very structures of modern civilisation and technological progress. But what happens, I wonder, if the demands for transparency and universal applicability become the leading goals in society at large? Isn’t there a genuine risk that you – the person in front of me, on the bus, at work, on Facebook, lying next to me in bed – turns into an objective generality to which I have no real sense of ethical obligation or responsibility.
Switch off and keep swiping. There are plenty more matches in the sea. Needless to say, a carefully curated snapshot of the self can offer great satisfaction inasmuch as it grants us a comforting sense of self-certainty and control. We are the artist, critic and audience of our own being, as it were, and once we’ve mastered the tricks of the trade, the fleeting pleasures of instant gratification and self-affirmation are but a click, post, share, away.
I turn on the camera on the tube – take one, two, three – close but not close enough. Hair up or down? I smudge on some more lipstick to make sure they look deep red. You’re such a babe, Jess. Hah, if only I felt like one. Take four, five, I guess it’ll do. #selfie-on-the-go? Wait, two, three, four, five, six...approved. A sigh of relief. I feel the corner of my lip curl up. I’m OK.
‘The individualism of technological civilization relies precisely on a misunderstanding of the unique self’, writes the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. In his short but seminal text called The Gift of Death, Derrida gives a brilliant account of the paradox that appears to lie at the heart of our neo-liberal individualism today. ‘It is the individualism of a masque or persona, a character and not of a person [...] modern individualism concerns itself with the role that is played rather than with this unique person whose secret remains hidden behind the social mask.’ 2
Interestingly, when referring to the particularity or uniqueness of a person, Derrida invokes the notion of the secret. His thoughts on the logic of secrecy grant us a very different, and arguably better, understanding of what is really at stake in our relentless search for the perfect selfie. For Derrida, the secret of secrecy ‘does not consist in hiding ‘something’, in not revealing the truth, but rather in respecting the absolute singularity [of the other] the infinite separation of what binds me or exposes me to the unique’. Responsibility, Derrida claims, insists on what is apart, and kept secret’3. (Note also that the word ‘secret’ in English stems from the Latin sēcrētum, which means separated, set apart, or withdrawn).
While it is commonly believed that in keeping a secret I am actively withholding what I already know, Derrida seems to be saying of secrecy something which is far more complex. To keep a secret means to respond to what is kept apart and ‘exposes me to the unique’, he writes. In other words, the logic of secrecy is integral to our ethical responsibility in so far as it signals a mode of relation in which we allow the other to be what it is, namely withdrawn, hidden, secret, unknown.
To end, I’d like to suggest that we try thinking, briefly, Derrida’s thoughts on the bond between secrecy and responsibility in conjunction with the culture of the selfie vs. the self-portrait as a work of art. The selfie reveals. It feeds our desire to know and see the world in its nakedness, yet it never quite offers us the real secrets and satisfaction that we desperately crave.
I scroll down, keep scrolling; deeper and deeper into the abyss of envy and annoyed impatience. Selfie at the gym, selfie at the top of the Eiffel tower, selfie having an ice-cream, selfie going for a walk, selfie in Ibiza, selfie having a nap. I reach the bottom of the screen, pause, and resume the survey one last time. When done, I’m left with a strange feeling of discontent and wanting more.
In the space of the work of art, writes Maurice Blanchot, things are transformed into what cannot be grasped. While the utilitarian logic of our everyday communication wants primarily to rid words and images of their ambiguity, the work of art seems on the contrary to follow the curious logic of secrecy that Derrida describes. Within the art work, distance is kept and things are hidden from view. Interpretation is left open and the person or object whose infinite being we can never fully know is gently disclosed precisely by not being entirely exposed.
Is there a difference between the everyday selfie and the work of art? I think there is.
1 Josh Cohen, The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark, (London: Granta Books, 2013)
2 Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, 1995. Trans. David Wills, (London: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 37
3 Derrida, p. 28
Eugenia Lapteva is a London based writer. Born and raised in Stockholm she completed her BA in European Literature at University of Sussex and MA in Comparative Literature and Modern Literary Theory at Goldsmiths. She has written for notable publications such as Tank, The White Review, Sang Bleu, ELLE and Husk magazine. Her main research interests revolve around questions of art and technology in modern culture and their impact on the nature of our social and loving relationships today. She is currently pursuing her PhD at University of Sussex.