Monday, 4 August 2014

What’s So Wrong With The Selfie?

Paleolithic handprints, Argentina (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

With the help of devices like smartphones and tablet computers it has never been easier to produce photographs, and with the rise in social media it has never been easier to share them. But is this availability of media a neutral influence? Does it empower or corrupt? Does it enable us to express ourselves in new ways and to discover new things about the world or does it cultivate narcissism of a previously unknown kind or degree?

It is certainly no bad thing that the means to produce depictive representations is no longer the exclusive preserve of a privileged few. But with the wider availability of media has come an unprecedented proliferation of representations clamouring for our consideration. Of course there are many ways to skim, filter or ignore this information, so there is certainly no requirement that we treat each call to our attention with equal regard. In fact, to bemoan the proliferation of content is perhaps an admission of a lack of selectivity. Nonetheless,  distractions can sometimes be an important source of unexpected discovery — why else would we be so susceptible to them in the first place if they were only ever a disadvantage?

But perhaps the problems lie elsewhere — not with the quantity or kind of information on offer but with its quality. A good example of this problem is to be found in the cultural phenomenon of the "selfie"? Selfies are what would once have been called "self portraits", but the shift in terminology is telling. Dropping the word "portrait" and appending the suffix "ie" not only trivialises the practice, it infantilises it. It takes a term most closely associated with artworks and replaces it with the language of the nursery. This alone wouldn't be so bad — defenders of the selfie might well argue that the attraction of the term is precisely its lack of pretension and the break it makes with the pomp of the artworld. The desire is as understandable as it is naive.

Much as depictions are capable of prompting sophisticated thoughts and associations, they are not fundamentally conceptual objects. Pictorial images do not rely on our skills in the use of abstractions for their efficacy, which is presumably why infants have no difficulty recognising them. Self-hood, on the other hand, is an abstract concept — it does not lend itself to being recorded on film or sensor. Self-hood can only be represented by allusion, analogy, reference, or signification — all of which are fundamentally symbolic strategies for the communication of meaning. In other words, a picture of someone can only be about them if it makes use of one or more of these codes, associations, references etc. and these are inextricably enabled and informed by culture. A picture of a person is not intrinsically about them. So a picture can never be of the self — which is why portraits need not actually depict the person portrayed. Such is the power of allusion.

So where do these thoughts bring us as regards selfies? For the most part, selfies seek to be light-hearted, uncomplicated depictions with as few pretensions to the world of portraiture as possible. Selfies rarely, if ever, seek to articulate meanings. They seek to record the presence of their makers and to share simple pleasures and conviviality of a playful kind. To this extent selfies are the most naive form of depiction. 

Whilst selfies seek to rid themselves of artworld references they are nonetheless steeped in unintended meanings. Culture not only enables artists to articulate and allude to meanings but it also enables everyone to 'read' images; to interpret them via the many codes and clues of which culture is formed. Selfies expose all kinds of subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, information about the people depicted, from their sexual orientation to their social class, from their political views to their emotional state and sometimes even the state of their relationships. Even the quantity of images produced by some individuals can be strongly suggestive about the maker's need for attention and approval. And whilst our interpretations may not always be accurate we are nonetheless unavoidably drawn to treat these images as information, as indicators about the drives, intentions and preoccupations of others.

In their infantilising rejection of content, the champions of the selfie have lost touch with the very thing that gives portraits meaning. Ironically, selfies are almost exclusively focused on appearances and have practically nothing interesting to say about the self.


Felix K said...

You make use of the word 'depict' rather casually, as if it were a bit of trouble-free ordinary language. But alas it is also a term of art among the theorists of pictorial representation. Could you clarify your position about whether you take depicting X to be illusionistically attributed to a picture, or to be allusively attributed to it. Or both. Does van Gogh's "self portrait with a bandaged ear" depict a person with his right ear bandaged, or a person with his left ear bandaged?

Jim Hamlyn said...

The question of whether Van Gogh's most famous self portrait is a depiction of a man with his left ear bandaged or his right ear bandaged does put some heavy strain on the of/about distinction that I have been toying with recently and which I have discussed most fully in a previous post (here). I'd like to insist that Van Gogh's depiction is of a man with his right ear bandaged whilst being about a man with his left ear bandaged but I think my stipulation would be contested by some. I might then add that the image depicts a man with his right ear bandaged and in that specific respect is indiscriminable from any other depiction of a man with his right ear bandaged. The historical fact that a mirror was used is not a visible part of the depiction and can only be inferred or ascertained through supplementary information or knowledge. Further to this I would also contend that anyone claiming the depiction is of a man with his left ear bandaged is using the preposition "of" in a manner more consistent with the use of the preposition "from", i.e. in the sense of being derived like a cast from its source. When we use the preposition "of" in relation to depictions the "of" usually designates what the depiction represents, not necessarily what it is from — so Van Gogh's self portrait is not derived from a man who had his right ear bandaged. It is derived from a man who had his left ear bandaged.

Perhaps a more straightforward way to make the point is this. If we took a photograph of the word "mood" in a mirror, the depiction would be of the word "boom". If some form of supplementary information stated that the depiction was made using a mirror we might deduce that the original word was "mood", but it would be unreasonable to insist that the picture was of the word "mood" in spite of the obvious fact that "boom" is represented (notwithstanding the telltale sign of the ascender on the "m").

So, to answer your question, I take depicting X to be fundamentally illusionistic—that is to say sensorily indiscriminable from the thing represented in certain circumstances and certain respects—AND (although not fundamentally) allusive (by dint of our conceptual powers).

Post a Comment