‘Know thyself.’ – ancient Greek aphorism
When Robert Cornelius took a photo of himself – reportedly the first selfie in history – outside his father’s gas and lighting business in the North American autumn of 1839, what did he see? On the back of the photo of him looking sideways with hair tousled and arms crossed, he wrote, ‘the first light picture ever taken.’ Other self-portraits soon followed, and it wasn’t until less than a century later, when capitalism finally became the dominant force in the global economic system, that the term ‘narcissism’ emerged.
‘What one can be, one must be!’ – Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality (1954)
In Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs, self-actualisation is something to which we aspire after all basic needs (safety, love, food and shelter) are met. The fragments are complete after self-esteem is realised, when the need to feel respect from others is fulfilled and the individual feels a sense of self-worth. The value of the self becomes inextricably intertwined with the actualisation of the self, the apex of self-improvement.
The rise of the selfie today may be indicative of this very pursuit. On Instagram alone, the hashtag #selfie collects more than 172 million images, a number increasing daily. The figure is not counting the others that litter the social media landscape: a sea of portraits that swing from notions of anonymity to authenticity and back again, creating a gaze where the subject, photographer, and audience are one and the same, circumnavigating an endless loop.
Wendy Squires’ recent Age article ‘Nude selfies a symptom of a self-obsessed generation’ rehashes an argument that has been debated with fervour since the late-2000s. The front-facing camera that we take for granted has become synonymous with the omnipresence of technology in our lives, its ubiquity proof of the device’s role as a carrier of our identities. When does the quest to define a self – its lines delineated by western neoliberal capitalist society – spill over into self-obsession?
The discussion surrounding selfies and self-obsession usually suggests a disconnect between the virtual and the real, with the latter seen as ‘authentic’ and the former deemed ‘inauthentic’. To be obsessed with oneself in the form of Internet selfie-taking is to detract from the real world, Squires suggests; it’s to believe in an illegitimate self that is performed for others’ consumption. To be self-obsessed (narcissistic) is to inhibit the recognition of others, like Narcissus when he contemplated his own image in the water and drowned. When selfies are transmitted via the web, we have everything to prove to others as much as we are proving ourselves to ourselves. In the pursuit of identity on technology and social media, we know others are looking but we are looking at ourselves as well.
‘[T]o take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability, precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it’ —Susan Sontag, On Photography
It is interesting to note that, during the time of Cornelius and his ilk, most of the self-portraits produced were by men, taken of themselves. Today, the selfie as we know it, has been largely co-opted by the feminised body and its various iterations. What used to be considered self-assured is now construed as vain. If criticisms like Squires’ about ‘self-obsession’ are attempts to cast shame at women, young people and gender non-conforming folk, then who is allowed to embark on a journey towards self-actualisation? This too, brings into consideration the dichotomy between amateurship and professionalism, long used to pit the under-represented against the privileged.
At the same time, it is difficult to talk about selfies without first considering the logic of the camera, which is that reality is absolute only to the extent that it is photographable. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes illuminates this ephemerality:
Until this day no representation could assure me of the past of a thing except by intermediaries; but with the Photograph, my certainty is immediate: no one in the world can undeceive me.
In the context of the selfie, photo-taking becomes a powerful act, as anyone with a camera can make themselves visible. When someone takes a selfie and puts it up on the Internet, authentic individuality and performative self-branding become interchangeable, as the subject becomes one who projects an image of the object for others to take in.
When we’re looking at ourselves simultaneously in a first- yet third-person perspective in an era of late-stage capitalism, what do we see? We are bent on creating uniqueness, while at the same time conforming to the status quo. We are confessing a present while speculating on the future, using several pasts as benchmarks. When accusations are made about the Internet causing us to become more interested in ourselves, the question begs itself: which came first, the collective ego or the Internet?
The selfie is another function of the self as much as we have plenty of selves: amongst friends, in the workplace, with lovers, and alone, by ourselves. Our selfhood is hardly there until someone else recognises it, and the need to continually demonstrate who we are, who we were, and who we want to be, in any given moment for a specific audience, has existed long before selfies and social media. The Internet is merely an auxiliary amplifier to announce our arrival.