The journey from self to selfie

A new book interrogates the fragile nature of contemporary selfhood.

Jennie Bristow

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Once upon a time (that is, before the millennium), there was no such thing as a ‘selfie’. People used cameras to capture an image of the world or the people around them. The closest they got to a selfie was when they persuaded someone else to take their photo. But the idea that photography could exist as a relationship between one person and his or her miniaturised, handheld computer would have seemed quite bizarre to those 20th-century dinosaurs who regarded mobiles as cordless telephones, and photographs as images frozen in fixer.

The ‘selfie’ emerged as a description in 2002, but took another 10 years to become A Thing. By late 2013, explains the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, ‘selfie’ was appearing frequently enough to be chosen as Oxford Dictionaries’ ‘word of the year’ – a development that, in turn, led news organisations to increase its use. A further boost came when then US President Barack Obama ‘was caught taking a selfie’ with the Danish and British prime ministers at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Indeed, the word ‘selfie’, ‘with its suggestions of self-centeredness and self-involvement’, was, as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary explains, ‘particularly popular with critics who saw this moment as a reflection of the president’s character’.

This symbolic selfie is the focus of From Self to Selfie, an insightful collection of essays seeking to understand and critique ‘contemporary forms of alienation’. Based on lectures delivered at the 2017 Academy, a two-day summer school organised by the Academy of Ideas, and edited by Angus Kennedy and James Panton, this ambitious book considers the movement from a model of the self as ‘an autonomous agent, the author of their own being’, to a model of ‘a more heteronomous individual whose existence is realised through continuous external validation’. In its contemporary cultural form, argues Panton, ‘the self really only exists as a selfie, and its existence becomes more determinate the more likes it receives’.

This diagnosis of the movement ‘from self to selfie’ distinguishes these essays from the standard critique levelled at today’s ‘selfie culture’. Rather than understanding the selfie as a manifestation of excessive self-centredness, with the individual positioned as the centre of their world, the contributors focus on the needy, insecure sense of selfhood expressed by contemporary processes of identity construction.

In the continual updating and reposting of mugshots and other body parts, and the frantic updating of one’s every activity and interaction on social media, selfies are not looking to tell the world how great their subjects are. Rather, they show subjects yearning for the reassurance that they exist, and seeking feedback on the image they are presenting to others, so they can edit their way to a more popular selfie.

This kind of attention-and-affirmation-seeking behaviour is most clearly expressed on social-media platforms, which are often portrayed as the domain of young people – despite the ubiquity of social media among people of all ages. But social media did not create selfie culture. As From Self to Selfie shows, it is merely amplifying trends that have been developing for several decades.

This becomes clear in the course of chapters from the first part of From Self to Selfie, which chart the emergence and development of the self. As Panton notes, questions as to what constitutes the individual are neither new nor straightforward. He explains that ‘classically liberal accounts of the self as seen in philosophy, economics, law and politics’ reach a high point in late Enlightenment accounts, which ‘emphasise the primacy of individual reason, self-determination, natural rights, freedom and autonomy’.

Such ideas developed from the social, economic, political and economic struggles of their time, gaining meaning and expression through the development of the individual as a political and legal subject. In developing its social and political existence, the self developed its independence and autonomy. It became more itself.

This relationship between the individual and his or her context therefore accounts both for the constitution of selfhood, and its enduring existence as a problem. Panton writes:

‘The capacity for the self to exist beyond the boundaries and determinations of itself is, on the one hand, the foundation for the dynamic and creative potential that we as individual human beings represent. On the other hand, it explains the fact of our alienation: our dislocation from the world we inhabit as our world; our tendency to experience our freedom as unsettling, and our facticity as all determining.’

Even as the self emerged, it was already unsettled – and the second part of the book wrestles with the forces behind contemporary forms of dislocation. Where early manifestations of the self engaged in a struggle to overcome the challenge of alienation, through seeking to make meaning in the world beyond the individual, writes Panton, ‘the peculiarity of the present is the extent to which contemporary culture encourages us to embrace and to celebrate our alienation’.

Since the mid-20th century, an apparently contradictory set of trends have shaped a newer form of selfhood in Western culture. Culturally, the self appeared to gain more significance, as the legacy of the ‘permissive Sixties’ placed a primacy on individual freedom, experimentation and choice. Casting off the constraints of traditional convention, self-actualisation became the guiding principle of human endeavour.

Yet this apparently inflated sense of selfhood was symptomatic of the diminishing importance attached to individual autonomy and action in the social and political domain. What Christopher Lasch famously described, back in 1979, as a ‘culture of narcissism’, was the product of an ‘age of diminishing expectations’ about the possibilities of social change. In 1984, Lasch developed the concept of the ‘minimal self’, or ‘beleaguered selfhood’, to express how the retreat into the personal was a defensive mechanism, born out of a growing sentiment that the world could not be changed, only survived.

Frank Furedi’s post-Laschian discussion, in Therapy Culture, of diminished subjectivity captured how the beleaguered self became the basis of a new form of political agency, in which formerly political subjects were recast as mere pawns in a process out of human control. Furedi’s chapter in From Self to Selfie traces the development of ‘a shift, or slide, from the romantic idea of self-authorship as something taken seriously, to a weak, fragile conception that finds nothing to discover and no direction to take other than getting in touch with something that is already pretty much like myself’.

Claire Fox’s chapter, ‘Narcissism and identity’, revisits Lasch’s critique, arguing that the trends he identified nearly four decades ago have achieved their most potent expression in the rolling, incoherent quest for authenticity and validation exhibited by contemporary youth culture. Selfie culture demands that young people engage in a constant performance of presenting themselves to the world around them, exhibiting carefully sculpted (sometimes surgically enhanced) bodies and obsessively edited photos, and frantically logging their engagement with others (‘likes’, ‘streaks’, or whatever the latest social-media platform uses).

This is a tension also explored in The Happiness Effect, Donna Freitas’s insightful 2017 study of students at elite US colleges, and their relationship with social media. Aware that their every encounter may be monitored by college authorities, potential employers and their peers, these young people experience intense pressure to present a ‘happy face’ to the world at large, which is often at odds with their real experiences and feelings. Freitas’s concern is about the resulting schism between young people’s authentic selves and the ersatz selfies that they feel the need to parade and perform.

But even authenticity has been co-opted by selfie culture. The same imperative that drives young people to show off their ‘best self’ also demands that they disclose their darkest fears and feelings; to confirm that they are presenting their ‘real’ selves, rather than their ‘fake’ self-presentations. As Fox notes, although the relentless project of selfie-improvement can look like a desire to engage with others and make more of one’s self, these efforts often ‘take alienated, warped, and deviant forms, hemmed in by narcissistic tendencies’. She cites ‘exponentially growing modern pathologies, such as eating disorders and self-harm’, as examples of this trend.

Chapters by Tim Black and Josie Appleton trace the philosophical roots of the current cult of authenticity, and the rise of identity politics. The authenticity performed by the modern self is paradoxical: those wanting to display ‘the real me’ follow a script no less prescriptive than those who craft their bodies into an image of their ‘best self’, and both are engaged in a competition for recognition and validation from others.

In this regard, Black argues, authenticity has travelled so far from its roots that it has become its opposite. The notion of authenticity that emerged during the Enlightenment was a ‘close twin’ of moral autonomy. To think and act for oneself, and therefore to develop a truer, more authentic expression of the self, required one to be independent of the judgement of others. But in its modern, politicised form, authenticity has been institutionalised as a ‘social aspiration’ – something that people are expected to cultivate, and which therefore depends on validation by others. ‘[T]his new form of dependency, generated by the ethic of authenticity, has another name: narcissism’, writes Black:

‘After all, what else is the demand that others constantly recognise your true self, your authenticity, other than the demand that they reflect back to you, unchallenged, your own sense of yourself?’

In its quest for authenticity, the desire for a deeper, truer sense of self is led into a trap. The very things that give the self distinction and meaning – the web of commitments, experiences and engagements with the outside world – are rendered insignificant, even ‘inauthentic’ or ‘fake’, by the demand that authenticity is won through detaching oneself from this social web, and becoming self-consciously ‘unique’. But the unique does not count unless it is validated through the recognition of others; a difference that is comprehensible because others feel the same. ‘We are all individuals!’, cried the crowd in unison in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 40 years ago. Today, we all ‘dare to be different’, but in the same way.

The authenticity trap makes it impossible to find meaning within oneself. Its insecure sibling, the identity-politics trap, closes down the possibilities for finding meaning outside oneself. Here, the public sphere is recast as a Tower of Babel, in which people are stripped of their individuality and left to jostle for position as social categories. As Appleton explains:

‘In the phrase “I identify as”, the category is not internal to the self, but rather external. You are putting yourself in a box, or pinning something to a lapel, rather than expressing a social determination as an inner determination, which is the case when you say “I am”. In saying “I identify as”, you are pinning these two levels of social reality together – they are pinned together – but as separate items.’

By reducing the self to a category, identity politics reveals the extent to which ‘selfie culture’ effectively seeks to obliterate the individual. People are thwarted in their search for meaning within either their personal or political lives, by the contention that they are merely ciphers for a disembodied set of cultural categories. Lived reality is rendered illegitimate by the swirling demands of a symbolic universe in which alienation is offered as something to be embraced rather than overcome.

If there is anything positive to be gleaned from all this, it is that selfie culture is also increasingly experienced as deeply unsatisfying. ‘[T]he conundrum is not that we have socialised a generation of egoists, but that we have a generation which yearns for a more rooted, anchored, and substantial sense of self’, writes Fox. We are not content to be merely players on a stage; today’s roving, unsettled self is no more content to settle down into its latest role than were its historical forebears.

This is no simple task. From Self to Selfie’s historical exploration of the processes by which selfhood has been made and remade shows that the alienated self is not a problem that can be ‘solved’ simply with a new script, or the assignation of different characters. Nevertheless, the human determination truly to be ourselves and to change our circumstances for the better is a vital mode of resisting the increasingly shrill, contradictory and destructive imperatives of identity politics.

Jennie Bristow’s Stop Mugging Grandma: The ‘Generation Wars’ And Why Boomer-Blaming Won’t Solve Anything, is published by Yale University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

From Self to Selfie: A Critique of Contemporary Forms of Alienation, edited by Angus Kennedy and James Panton, is published by Palgrave MacMillan. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Getty Images.

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