The self beyond the selfie

Subliminal Signification

You’re sitting on one of those uncomfortable, but fancy-looking, metal chairs outside of a cafe, the perfect spot for romance and pretension. The guy next to you, clad in dark brown Clarks and extra big Warby Parkers, holds his decaf soy latte in one hand and whips out his smartphone with the other. The corners of his mouth begin to rise awkwardly, showcasing his perfect pearly whites and stubbled chin. He stretches his other arm out, his phone facing him. You guessed it: That handsome fella over there just took a selfie. As he sifts through the multiple filters available to him on Instagram, you sit there silently judging him, although you’ve probably done the exact same thing before, if not multiple times.

How tacky, you might snootily think. Or, you might not think about it at all and uncritically accept it as a pervasive part of our culture. If Taylor Swift and Hillary Clinton are entitled to selfies, then dammit, so is he. When I started writing this article, I sought to condemn selfie culture and criticize the monster of vanity that has consumed all of us. After all, I own a DSLR camera (even if I don’t completely know how to use it) and produce artistic (except not really) photographs. But then I came to the crashing realization that I, too, engage in this act of self-documenting. I have shamelessly taken countless grainy webcam pictures of myself for profile pictures on Facebook. Shockingly, I have even taken selfies just for kicks.

So how could we engage with the selfie phenomena? The French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, engages with the idea of the mirror stage. In this stage, a young infant looks at itself in a mirror and perceives a sense of wholeness. This perception of bodily wholeness solidifies the perception of the ego. The self, finally, fits into a larger environment. But for Lacan, people never lose that sense of discordance and fracturing that preceded the formation of the ego. As much as we fight our sense of reliance on the psychoanalytical Other, we are always, in actuality, trying to fulfill its desires by fitting ourselves into social conventions. So perhaps a depressing Lacanian analysis of the selfie indicates how people view themselves as whole individuals through a snapshot, which belies their fight to fit within society. Whether or not you find psychoanalysis valid, this notion of constantly trying to impress those around us isn’t too farfetched. When we select the right picture, we can sift through several shots and filters before we settle on the image that we believe will collect the most likes or appeal to most people. As a consequence, selfies might not only perpetuate narcissism but also perhaps unhealthy and unrealistic standards of beauty.

This is demonstrated in a Slate article entitled, “Selfie-Loathing,” where Hanna Krasnova, a researcher at Humboldt University in Berlin, is quoted saying, “If you see beautiful photos of your friend on Instagram, one way to compensate is to self-present with even better photos, and then your friend sees your photos and posts even better photos, and so on. Self-promotion triggers more self-promotion, and the world on social media gets further and further from reality.”

But maybe the idea of selfies being driven by insecurity is overstated, and perhaps we could adopt a less cynical view of this cultural phenomenon. Even if they are cheesy and not as haute couture as we would like them to be, selfies, just like language, allow us to form narratives about our lives. As PBS Idea’s YouTube channel host Mike Rugnetta contends, selfies are a speech act, which are utterances with a performative function in language — and of course, by language, I mean visual language. Selfies aren’t quite perfect reflections of reality. Behind every selfie is deliberate angling, exposure and lighting. Nonetheless, selfies reveal something about us. Through images, we document our daily lives and showcase our expressions.

Moreover, these self-portraits can be proliferated to mass audiences. Decades ago, culture critic Walter Benjamin pointed out in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that reproducing original artwork takes the piece of art outside of its original context, which causes it to lose its aura or its authenticity. And perhaps this is a very optimistic interpretation of art because it follows that art loses its dependence on tradition, or “ritual,” as Benjamin puts it. Art becomes a public phenomenon, no longer closed off for only elite audiences. And maybe we could apply the same idea to selfies. Their medium is so inauthentic that selfies too hold power for political subversion. Perhaps this is naive point of view. You decide.

But whether or not you hate them, you can’t deny that selfies are a huge part of our culture, so take it easy on that guy you see at the cafe. If you’re thinking along the lines of Lacan, you might tuck your smartphone or close your computer’s Photo Booth. But if you can accept selfies as a speech act, then keep calm and selfie on.

Stacey Nguyen writes the Friday blog about the cultural significance of everyday visual and verbal language. You can contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @staceytnguyen.