Selfie(sh) or the power of the self-portrait

… there is no self-portrait without confession. The author of the self-portrait does not show himself, … does not lead one to knowledge, he admits a fault and asks for forgiveness… At the moment when the self-portraitist fends off the temptations of sight and calls for this conversion from the light to the light, from the outward realm to the realm within, it is a theory of the blind that unfolds.

Jacques Derrida, Memoires of the Blind (1990)

It could almost sound apocryphal to approach the question on selfie with a quotation from Derrida. In fact, it is. And I figure out right now, while I am writing, that the implemented dictionary of my computer does not recognize the world selfie even though the Oxford Dictionary declared it world of the year in 2013. So here we go, selfie is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a Smartphone or webcam and shared via social media”. According to this definition, this particular type of self-portraiture needs to be shared in order to exist. A selfie is not only a technologically advanced technique of photographical portraiture but something that has to be collective and public to attest its value, and consequently producing discourses on itself.

Andrea_solario,_testa_del_battista Andrea Solario, Head of St John the Baptist, 1507. Musée du Louvre
coypel, l'errore Antoine Coypel, The Error, 1702. Musée du Louvre

Historically, each self-portrait (narrative and visual – both pictographic and photographic) seems to come from an almost anthropological necessity of bringing outside something which is naturally personal and intimate. Creating and communicating to the others a private image or the story of the self could be considered as a human necessity of identification, a need to establish the subject as public or political. But behind the possibility of “giving back”, externalize the very identity of the self there is another call to action which brings the being out of his body, thus becoming a foreign, and otherness. In order to be able to represent himself, the subject needs to identify the other which he is.
The Freudian psychoanalysis has first dealt with this specific movement of the self and Julia Kristeva was probably referring to it when evoking the image of heads without body in relation to an unconscious desire of abscission – fundament of all self-portrait. [1] The cut separates the self from the image that represents him, opening a distance that avoid to consider the resulting image as a simple double or a duplicate of the author. In this wake we could also refer to the decisive text written by Derrida in 1990, Mémoires d’aveugle. L’autoportrait et autres ruines (Memoirs of the Blind) [2]commissioned by the Musée du Louvre (Paris) in occasion of an exhibition curated by Derrida himself and part of the Parti Pris cycle conceived by Françoise Viatte and Régis Michel. Studying the history of blind’s portraiture such as Rembrandt, Rubens, Caravaggio etc., Derrida assumes that the figure of the blind is the representation of the original impotence of the eye, unable to catch the reality. To depict himself in the memory losing the capacity of seeing :  this is the self-portrait. “Ruins is that which happens to the image from the moment of the first gaze. Ruin is the self-portrait, this face looked at in the face as the memory of itself, what remains or returns as a specter from the moment one first looks at oneself and the figuration is eclipsed […] Ruins, rather, this memory open like an eye, or like the hole in a bone socket that lets you see without showing you anything at all, anything of the all.” [3] Trying to produce the presentation of the self, the subject fails and offers to the eye only the ruins of a gaze, an open memory carrying the spectrum of a face. The self-portrait is a distance unable to conserve and to present the self of the being, is a cut which at the same time separates the face from the self and unites them. Something remains.

durerAlbrecht Dürer. Self-Portrait, 1500.
francoJames Franco’s selfie

The selfie as we know it today – taken with the front or back camera of a Smartphone and shared on social media – dramatizes and intensifies some of the aspects mentioned above, typical of the self-portraiture. Beyond the aesthetically substantial difference between self-portraits such as the famous by Albrecht Dürer, Van Gogh or Frida Kahlo and the selfies that we may find in, their need of existence (ontological reason) in relation to their authors probably belong to the same domain. Nowadays, the power of images has become so invasive and important for each individual being that a sensible part of the population is daily involved in the care of the illusion to manipulate and control his own images. Therefore, the main tendency so far has been to refer and justify the phenomenon of selfie with narcissism, as testify articles from The Guardian and The New Yorker but mostly the voice of James Franco, who is probably one of its most known defender simply because it makes feel good. [4] In fact, in taking a selfie the subject perpetuates the illusion of being the only creator and modeler of his proper identity, handler of his own image both private and public. This is quite evident today, thanks to the possibility of taking almost infinite number of photos, in the over production and circulation of self-portraits that are exhibited on the screens of computers or mobile phones as in a shared mirror. It is the fear of the self that is seen without being seen in search of filling the void, the distance, that still remains open. The copious presence of selfie due to the diffusion of technology, accessible to a large number of people, may not be a consequence of a mass narcissism, rather, a sign of the extreme need to establish and impose a strong identity to affirm the self in the world and among the others. Curious in this regard is the reflection of American sociologist Alice Marwick who considers the social media as technologies of the self helping the users to find popularity in our postmodern consumerist society. In social media, people are invited to learn how to promote themselves, how to maintain an high trend and popularity, how to become stars in their micro environment. Referring to some notions defined by the last Foucault, Marwick declares that, through the social media, the individual is able to self-govern himself, dictating his own principles, thus his own subjectivity. Using the same vocabulary and references as Marwick, considering the Internet and specifically the social media as a sort of heterotopia having its own defined space and rules, regulations and actors, connected but at the same time isolated from other social contexts, we are tempted to consider the phenomenon of the selfie more as the moment of the confession or production of discourse rather than as an aprioristic creative act of subjectivity. Externalizing our own thoughts and desires, in the case of the selfie, the act of showing ourselves how we would like to be seen – under a specific light, from a defined perspective and angle, with a chosen filter of colors etc. – takes place within a frame mediated by the dominant power and its own discourses. Finally, it seems that it would require a further practice and a more critical posture towards the ruling society to call a selfie the result of a technology of the self. So, what does remain, James Franco ? As Roland Barthes suggested, we might never find the zero degree of our body, of our identity, of our selfie(shness).

What I want, in short, is that my (mobile) image, buffeted among a thousand shifting photographs, altering with situation and age, should always coincide with my (profound) “self”; but it is the contrary that must be said : “myself” never coincides with my image; for it is the image which is heavy, motionless, stubborn (which is why society sustains it ), and “myself” which is light, divided, dispersed; like a bottle-imp, “myself” doesn’t hold still, giggling in my jar; if only photography could give me a neutral, anatomic body, a body which signifies nothing ! Alas, I am doomed by (well-meaning) photography to have always an expression : my body never finds its zero degree, no one can give it to me…

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (1980)

[1] J.Kristeva, Visions capitales : Arts et rituels de la décapitation, Éditions de la Martinière, 2013.
[2] J. Derrida, Mémoires d’aveugle. L’autoportrait et autres ruines (1990), Memoirs of the Blind. The Self-Portrait and other RuinsThe University of Chicago Press, 1993.
[3] J. Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind. The Self-Portrait and other Ruins, The University of Chicago Press, 1993, pp.68-69.
[4] J. Franco, The Meanings of the Selfie, The New York Times, December 26, 2013.


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