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.