Selfies and Selfiehood

I love the word “selfie”!

People used to call pictures of themselves GPOY—Gratuitous Pictures Of Yourself. But that tag has disappeared from the vernacular, displaced by selfie. Maybe it was because people realized that these pictures weren’t gratuitous—they were important for sustaining contact with the people in their social environments. Or maybe they intuitively realized how hard it was to take a picture of your self—gratuitous or otherwise—because the self isn’t really there.

Lots of people still want to imagine that the self is there. A product of Victorian romanticism and Freudian psychologizing, the self-important phantom self requires consistency and autonomy, limits and boundaries. For a long time that self has set the parameters of the modern worldview.

“Selfie” is a diminutive of “self.” Diminished, debased, made cute, it leaves room to acknowledge the flux of personhood, the reality of a living body that renews all of its cells every seven years, of a living mind that revises its ideas at least as often.

(People who cling to liberal subjecthood are terrified by the bodily and mental potentials for change, the inconsistency of personhood. They want to keep it all inside in the boundaries… that’s what “conservative” is.)

The selfie is abject, the residue of personhood’s digital and physical molting—images shed in square, flat flakes like bits of a snake’s skin, recording a body’s change.

(This fall dozens of people told me they didn’t recognize me because I’d grown my hair long, and I wanted to tell them: Pay more attention to my selfies.)

Is the selfie a signifier of narcissism?

No—narcissism is a pathological obsession with the self that inhibits the recognition of others. The figure of narcissism is the body before its reflection, unable to look away. Social media is a house of mirrors built around transmissions. Producing a reflection of your image in Instagram always involves an awareness of the presence of others, the knowledge that your selfie is flaking and refracting in their phones. Labeling this reflection #selfie tacitly recognizes the horizontal proliferation of reflections, the dissolution of personhood in the network. The real narcissists are the ones who never take selfies. They imagine their self as autonomous, hermetic—too precious to be shared.



  1. ja1827
    Posted April 6, 2014 at 4:42 pm | Permalink | Reply

    You have more work to do here- Crediting narcissists with the tacit knowledge that selfies involve the “dissolution of personhood in the network” is an absurd estimation of their conscious capacity. And there is no “dissolution of personhood” in sharing selfies, anyway, so it also seems like you’ve missed the point of social networks.

    Likes, views, shares, etc are currency, figuratively and literally. Offering a selfie on that market is a chance (demand?) to be reminded of how much others value you. Even folks who take casual selfies recognize the value in them- they’re a chance to gain esteem and prestige among peers, not detritus casually discarded, as you suggest. Processing and retouching selfies is a multi-billion dollar software industry. Do you really think that’s possible if we were polishing trash?

    Check your work this way- start with an undeniable narcissist and work backward, running through Kim Kardashian, Justin Ross Lee, etc.’s Instagram. According to your account, what should we be seeing? Celebrity or not, narcissists need external validation, and selfies are a quick way to do that. The idea of a narcissist who’s afraid loses self-capital by sharing their image is silly, because being seen (by themselves and others) and valued is how narcissists find meaning.

    Perhaps you confused the broadening and democratization of the means of communication, which we know has weakened the achievements of traditional media, with their having similarly weakened message content. (I’m not sure how else you could have arrived at that dissolution idea.) Already that would be an overly broad assumption, and social networks in particular illustrate how that idea would be wrong.

    • culturetwo
      Posted April 6, 2014 at 5:19 pm | Permalink | Reply

      I appreciate your thoughtful comment but I’m not going to take your advice. I don’t want to prove that selfies are narcissistic, because that’s the assumption that most people start with. Furthermore, I don’t like describing things as narcissistic because all too often that’s done to pathologize people who don’t conform to bourgeois expectations of what’s appropriate to share in public, and shame women who don’t feel embarrassed by their bodies or compelled to treat themselves as sex objects at all times. The point of this post was to provoke people into thinking about what selfies could be other than narcissistic.

      of course there are people who retouch selfies, and celebrities who take them to perpetuate their value. But that’s not who I’m interested in. I really have very little interest in celebrities. I’d rather run through the #selfie hashtag and see what’s happening there than look at Kim Kardashian’s account, and it was that kind of observation that led to this post. Yes, even among regular people there are those who retouch their pictures or try to pose like models and acquire prestige and admiration. But that’s not the universal and absolute function of the selfie. It’s certainly important to explore those ideas–but I think those are the most common explanations of selfies, and so I wanted to do something else.

      Selfies are narcissistic when they’re taken by narcissists. But there’s nothing inherently narcissistic about them.

      This article by Jenna Wortham does a great job of describing of how selfies function in everyday communication, outside of concerns about markets of likes and accumulation of social capital:

      • Joel Arellano
        Posted May 2, 2014 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

        Narcissism may not inhere in or be the absolute function of a selfie, but it certainly seems to predominate. So while investigations of self are an intriguing possibility, I’m afraid the common connotation of the genre would overwhelm even sincere applications. The hall-of-mirrors reflexivity of the form alone is overwhelming… Even with Manet, the collapse of the audience’s conscious remove from the art object created anxiety and confrontation, which seems to narrow the field of options available for artistic expression, even to the point of caricature.

        I look forward to hearing more about your exploration.

  2. boobman
    Posted October 1, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Permalink | Reply


  3. Posted December 5, 2014 at 9:15 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Reblogged this on My WordPress Notepad.

8 Trackbacks

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