A friend of mine recently declared that "all women over the age of 30 should be wearing Spanx." I spluttered something like, "I believe in exercise!" and, checking my ass out in the nearest mirror, waddled away determined to expose Spanx as another outmoded tool of oppression, like corsets or girdles. Like corsets or girdles, they are a prop for the body, giving shape to a perfected self moulded by technology. They both retrieve the skin you used to have and augment the skin you're now stuck with, smoothing you over and holding your guts in place. A perfect Technostalgia topic! But just as I was about to stuff myself into a pair of Spanx to test the hypothesis, another friend blurted out:"Selfies! Surveillance! Extended android minds grope for a familiar referent that might afford a sense of time and space!"
Ever the opportunist, I dropped the Spanx as if in a fit of ecdysis and let it lie there as so much exuviae. He had cracked it. Selfies! Of course! You know, the Spanx behind the Spanx! That is, if you think of selfies as an exoskeleton the teneral self naturally covers itself with in order to maintain a sense of personhood in the digital environment. They are the props of reality, if you will. How else to keep oneself separate from the abyss?
Think of Salvador Dalí's Soft Self-Portrait with Fried Bacon, or any number of his paintings that include wooden crutches and sticks holding up sagging skin and body parts in unlikely, subjective landscapes beyond space and time. Dalí suggests there are consequences when we insert the persona into an endless visual field, and strip it of its perspectival moorings. The threat of alienation from one’s own embodied life as we succumb to the blue glow mandates the construction of scaffolding, of a personal architecture. Yes, your growing urge to self-contextualize, to archive your face and curate your own image, frame by frame, is a prop for your own reality... lest you ooze away in the dream. Your face has become a totem of remembrance.
Perhaps the selfie is about TURNING INTO A FACE. Deleuze and Guattari [PDF], those grand mystical euro-poets of the 1980s, declared the face "a horror". At the time, mechanization was giving way to high technology, and it prompted them to suggest that during this stage of human civilization, the face was taking over the body entirely, expanding into the world as the ultimate exploratory organ. This consuming "facialization" shared some attributes with 19th century concepts of "erotomania". According to their paradigm, the face effectively turns into an "inhuman" unit groping the world itself. "Face, my love," they write, "you have finally become a probe-head" (A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalization and Schizophrenia, 1987).
At the end of 2013 the word "selfie", perhaps coined by a drunk Australian in 2002, reached obsolescence and entered the kingdom of the Oxford Dictionaries (but not THE dictionary) on a high note as "word of the year". An informal statistical survey reveals an explosion of articles on the topic from 2009 onwards, with 2014 being the year the academics really got on board dissecting the phenomenon. The selfie could be considered an extension of the replication/cloning craze represented in the visual advertising of the naughts, fortified by the personal branding craze of the (post) social media world. Emergent theories on the "dos and don'ts" of Selfie-ism are on the rise in all quarters, and the race to nail down definitive infographics is on. From Wired to Time, we’re going ape for selfies.
The selfie was once the domain of lonely travellers, artists, and the megalomaniac leaders of various ancient empires, now it's everybody's gig. The first portrait coins date to about 400 BC. These personal images were tools of power. Today the selfie is part of the currency of daily life, and arguably, behaves in much the same way, adding to and subtracting from an individual’s value in predominantly digital forums. Like the heads of ancient coins, selfies more often than not resemble a cubist's dream of distorted facial components mixed with grotesque exaggerations of expression.
Picasso once said that "art is the lie that tells the truth", meaning that the intrigue of metamorphosis is the oddest prop for reality going, but somehow, it works. A painter, let's call him Rembrandt or Van Gogh or Picasso or Malevich, creates numerous self-portraits over the course of his career in various styles, exploring the self through various lenses and filters of technique, and what does he discover? Public viewings. Masks. Personas. And they are himself.
Today we are prompted by interaction with high technology to explore ourselves in ways that in the past would have been considered absurd, at least for the likes of us. Nevertheless, this interaction is characterized by creative involvement in our own identity. Artists. Players upon a stage. "All the world's a stage." Spying on ourselves as audience members, as patrons in an art gallery. Total broadcast. The selfie may be one way of "expressing in a tangible manner, of making us perceive physically the paradoxical, the form of the unformed, the face of a world without a face" (Friederich Dürrenmatt).
Maybe we’re more or less just tooling around in a funhouse, keeping tabs on Narcissus' lover.
Is it because we can, or because we have to? Or both?
|Anonymous 19th century daguerreotype|
Jen Reid is an academic and writer living globally. Read all of her posts here.