Selfies are not self-expression

Brian Droitcour writes:

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.

I have a similar feeling about Facebook use: hardcore narcissists are put off by it because it reveals that they are not the center of everyone else’s universe. Facebook caters more to “jerks,” at least as Eric Schwitzgabel defines them here. A jerk is, he writes,

someone who fails to appropriately respect the individual perspectives of the people around him, treating them as tools or objects to be manipulated, or idiots to be dealt with, rather than as moral and epistemic peers with a variety of potentially valuable perspectives.

It might make sense to say Facebook tries to cure narcissism by turning narcissists into jerks. To put that in the bland jargon of economism, it “builds social capital.”

Selfies don’t betoken narcissism; do they indicate self-centeredness? Do they exemplify an instrumental attitude toward the self that presents an obstacle to intersubjectivity? You can alter or change me, “flake or refract” me, selfies say, but only at the level of these images. It sets the terms of interpersonal engagement at the level of the superficial image.

This “superficial” level of engagement may be more generative politically, if it helps us set aside the idea that the ultimate purpose of politics is to secure one’s right to maximum autonomous self-expression as an atomized individual — to be as big a jerk as one wants to be.

Selfies, when they enter circulation, aren’t a matter self-expression but self-surrender, which seems a requisite precursor to collective action. But at the moment of their production, they may be mistaken for autonomous self-expression: one can try to recuperate precarity in the present moment through an assertive selfie-taking gesture, declaring the self through the communication/surveillance tools that by and large have been deployed to control the self. The selfie, however, doesn’t express a suppressed inner essence; it manufactures a self to present to the world as an artisanal product —one that the world can then use as it sees fit, extracting utility from it however they can.

The selfie may be the moment when external control — which, in a “communicative capitalist” economy, generally takes the form of the pressure to transform oneself into a tradeable image — is internalized as crypto-defiance. I’m not going to consume their images, I’m going to make one of my own! We can think we are escaping control by showing ourselves off in a way we stage, though this is actually the exact mechanism of control: producing ourselves as an object for the network, performing the work of identity construction in a captured space.

The post-hoc unification of the self in the external circulation of images has succeeded the exhumation of the “true” or “authentic” self through depth psychology. We can explicitly look for coherence of self in the reactions of our audience, amalgamate them into an ad hoc narrative that defines us for a moment or two, rather than try to look within and expect to find some unique essence there from which all our expressiveness has stemmed.

But self-commodification, through selfies or whatever use of social media, even if it has moved past the political limitations of possessive individualism (and I don’t think it has) and the “culture of narcissism,” doesn’t impede capitalism’s drive to subsume and commodify everything, to impel a production of the self as a kind a capital stock, as a resource. Selfies represent the availability of the self to the network; this is partly why they often have the affect of pornography. The selfie is the apotheosis of self-commodfication; subsequent serialized selfies then determine whether the self will coalesce into a coherent brand.

And the practice of selfie-making doesn’t eradicate the infrastructure of identity that is embedded in the media tools for “expressing” it.

In The Interface Effect, Alex Galloway argues that

Whenever a body speaks, it always already speaks as a body codified with an affective identity (gendered, ethnically typed, and so on), determined as such by various infrastructures both of and for identity formation. The difficulty is not simply that bodies must always speak. The difficulty is that they must always speak as.

The selfie doesn’t invent a language of identity; it marks a voluntary entry into established codes, reinforcing their validity even if a particular selfie tries to subvert them, repurpose them.

Galloway goes on to claim that the subsumption of everyday life through networks of affective capture and the economic mobilization of self-production are prompting a new “politics of disappearance”:

What was once a logic of supercession is now a logic of cancellation. Seek not the posthuman, but the nonhuman. Be not post identity, but rather subtractive of it. The operative political question today, thus, in the shadow of digital markets, is not that of confrontation on equal footing, not “what are they going to do to us?” or even “what are we going to do to them?,” but rather the exodus question: first posed as “what are we going to do without them?” and later posed in a more sophisticated sense as “what are we going to do without ourselves?”

Maybe selfies are a step in the direction of answering that last question. But they are not an answer to it, as Droitcour seems to optimistically suggest. Social media allow users to put identity in circulation and experience that as a kind of liberation, as a serviceable replacement for social mobility, but this dissolution doesn’t imply a readiness to inhabit subjectivities that are not about the “I,” that are not predicated on the consumption of images and status signifiers, or on elaborating taxonomies of the social and winning hierarchy games. The generation of an audience for oneself is not the same as joining a collective.

The selfie may be a bid to break out the cage of identity and let go of anxious control over it, but when others consume and comment on the selfie, they aren’t helping you destroy that cage but are shoving you back in it. They are affirming that you are a discrete self, one baseball card in the pack, and your statistics alone will always be printed on the back.


52 thoughts on “Selfies are not self-expression

  1. QRG/ Elly

    I disagree.

    I think ‘selfies’ are expressions of (often young) people’s ‘desire to be desired’ – and not necessarily in such a complicated way as you suggest.

    Also isn’t always the case that in presenting ‘typologies’ of faulty humans, the author never identifies as any of those types?

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  3. Ashana M

    Fascinating analysis. I seriously cannot imagine why anyone I know would want to look at my “selfie.” They know what I look like. If they forgot, maybe they’ve forgotten who I am as well.

    I think people who are most invested in producing images of themselves are quite easily able to ignore the reality of the individuals consuming that image. Distributing images of ourselves is self-surrender, but there’s a lot we can simply choose not to know. I think that may be one of them.

  4. Syd - The EssWhyDee Blog

    Hmm..I never understand selfies…do people take moments of their days out in isolation and actually self pose for themselves for their 5ish mega pixel cameras just to share? Being a Nineteen year old male, I fail to understand how to do this whole procedure. I tried it a few times and it just feels awkward…very….weird….hm.

  5. seeker

    Interest point of view. I have been trying to find a word for an intruder in my site and I am still unsure where “it” falls in this category. Congratulations by the way.

  6. allthoughtswork

    I don’t use Facebook. I don’t use Twitter. The cameras I own are for wildlife, weather, and landscapes. My phones are phones. When I want to contact a friend, I contact them personally. When I get bored, I change my thoughts. My life is ALREADY a 3-D, HD reality show and every new idea I have is a fresh “app” for me to enjoy. If anyone “Likes” me, it’s none of my business; if I have any “Followers,” they can come and go as they please, they’re on their own just like me. I’m doing the backstroke through total freedom and the water’s just fine. Best part of it all: no fees.

  7. Mercedes

    When I was a kid, I never allowed others to take photographs of me because I had extremely low confidence. Now that I am 20 years old, I regret that a lot because I don’t even remember what I looked like 9 years ago. Unlike a lot of people, I don’t have the luxury of opening up a photograph album and flipping through the pages to see how much I’ve changed because there are no photographs for me to look at.

    With that said, I admit that when the “selfie” became a “thing” I was a bit confused. Like many have said across the Internet, “What’s the point of taking a photograph of yourself when the people you know obviously know what you look like?” To that I say, “Fair enough”. But coming from my point of view, it is almost essential that I document myself and events in my life because I don’t want to forget them. I don’t want to be 80 and have nothing to look back on when my memory has reached its capacity. This thought has motivated me to document things at a high frequency. Aside from photographs taken on my phone, I’ve even bought a point and shoot camera just so I could develop photographs.

    Sorry for the personal junk. But this was a great read and really had me thinking. Congrats on the Freshly Pressed!

  8. consciousnesses

    Reblogged this on sincerelylife and commented:
    The real narcissists are the ones who never take selfies. They imagine their self as autonomous, hermetic—too precious to be shared.
    Never Thought About Pictures So Literally…

    1. LiveMore

      Interesting thought and I agree in a way, but its not too precious to be shared in my opinion, its that those who have true confidence, self value and awareness in real life – don’t feel the need or have the time to seek constant validation, attention and feedback thru pics in a digital world, executed in a way to somehow show what they view to be their best “side”.
      They know who they are and thats good enough for them, they are their own “selfie”.
      I feel like this is something teens to early 20 yr olds do and if you are doing it past that age, its even sadder. Same goes for those who seem to have to always prove to the world they are having a fabulous amazing day, night, weekend, life, etc. Or let the world know every hour what they are doing. Just live it and be it.

      Live more, post less. 🙂

  9. seventhvoice

    I wrote a post on the whole selfie phenomenon a few weeks ago….. I think it’s both an unhealthy narcissistic and nasty trend within our society. One that does not particularly bode well for the advancement of mankind……

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  11. jumpforjoyphotoproject

    I think selfies are fun.. I love taking photos of people in general.. when I don’t have someone else to take photos of I do self-portraits… my favourite are jumping self-portraits. It makes me laugh and once and a while a get a good shot. I suppose you can read whatever you like into it, it is a creative and fun outlet for me.

    1. terrefirma

      Exactly. Personally, I am happy to see my preteen daughter occasionally doing this with her friends. At her age I would not have dreamed of posting spontaneous, not-so-pretty pictures of myself for ANYONE to see (even myself!) Her and her friends acceptance of their appearance is a relief. It’s amusing when I see a statement from someone that uses ‘all, never, or even most’ to dismiss an entire generation, by presuming what they have no basis for.

    2. Emily

      I agree that selfies are a great way to let off some stress. For me at least, I make most of my pictures silly. It’s incredible how many different expressions I can have with just moving my nose… 😀

  12. carrickjason

    All of social media is a way to show only the good parts of life. It gives a false hope of happiness that is unfounded in the self but rather founded in the views and opinions of others. But we can’t blame the youth. They are taught early to look for success outside themselves. They are taught to mimic. Most never find authenticity.

    1. terrefirma

      I must point out the arrogance of your faulty statement. If ‘they’ are youth, how have you already determined that most never find authenticity? Sounds like you’ve had limited engagement with the many optimistic, creative, self-assured kids that are nurtured and encouraged by mentors and role models all the time. True, MANY WILL never find authenticity, esp. with discouraging and posturing adults in their lives. which are you?

  13. Emily Murtha

    #selfies are introspective – that’s why they appeal so much to teenagers and younger adults who don’t know themselves and who are trying to figure out what they want their reflection of the world to be.

  14. tiredella

    I think most people who post selfish are doing it out of low self esteem, and those who don’t aren’t neccesarrily full of themselves- they just don’t need constant reassurance that they look a certain way

    1. beckyneave

      I disagree. Me being 19 years old, I’ve always used selfies for my accounts. The majority of teenagers do. Does that mean we all have low self esteem? Since when did uploading a picture of ourselves mean that we need reassurance? If anything it makes more sense that if people arent posting pictures of themselves then they have low self esteem because they don’t want to share “their hideous self” to the world in fear of being judged and getting negative feedback.
      When someone says something about my selfies (which isnt very often) I just say “thanks” appreciate the compliment and that’s it. Please don’t generalise a whole generation based on whether they take a picture of themselves and post it.
      Sorry if this comment comes across as quite snappy and rude, but this whole blog post is just over-analysing selfies. It’s just a photograph of someones face.

  15. dmchale writes: Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. I enjoyed reading your post and will spend some additional time on your blog in the hopes of experiencing some more of your talented and “authentic” voice. Thank you for sharing this with all of us. It was fabulous!

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  18. cozyblanketsnowflakerepetitioncompulsion

    Great post. It made me reflect, yet again, on the failures of social networking. It doesn’t seem to offer a whole lot of good, and we have so many new problems because of it — and yet it persists and probably always will — is this a step back in social evolution?

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  20. katmphotography

    interesting read. coherently written. interesting viewpoint. i enjoy posts that stimulate, stir and shake up peoples’ preconceptions and misconceptions.

    as a social media whore – i have twitter, instagram, facebook, blogspot, deviantart, wordpress, youtube and reverbnation accounts – i stand in defense of the right to self-expression and have a large depository of #selfies (as a professional photographer/film-maker and musician). i firmly believe that ‘selfies’ ARE a means of self-expression – as in any other art form. but is it always a true impression? social media platforms are a highly effectual means of often hiding the true ‘self’ and ‘creating’ a public persona. is it a means of escaping from ‘self’ and inhabiting the identity of how we want to be perceived. i mean, we only tag and share ourselves in the ‘good’ pictures of ourselves, right?


    fascinating piece of writing. i really enjoyed reading it. as a matter of interest, which social media outlets do you frequent?


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  23. iiiiiiiii

    Rob, I noticed you finally put a selfie up on your Facebook

    p.s how do all the comments asking you to dumb down your writing define you?

  24. Bert

    I find Mr Droitcour’s opinion that, ‘The real narcissists are the ones who never take selfies. They imagine their self as autonomous, hermetic—too precious to be shared.’ a trifle offensive. I’m not a narcissist… I just find the whole idea a bit odd. “Hooray, I’ve taken a picture of myself! Erm… hey everyone, look at me, look at me!”.
    Right, I’m off to stare at my resplendent visage in the mirror. You proles will never get to share in the wonder.


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