The Selfie: Existential Despair in the 21st Century
The twenty-first century condition is one of fracture. We live in a world that is fragmented; our present is one that is not whole. Like the twentieth century did before us, we try to shore these fragments against our ruins. However, unlike the preceding century, we truly live in what we can now call the digital age. Widespread broadband and wifi, online news and camera phones, Facebook, Twitter, social media in general, WhatsApp and Snapchat are all twenty-first century concerns.
The Internet, the effective heart, spine and nervous system of the digital age, has irreversibly redefined fragmentation. It has also changed how we shore our fragments. The Internet, and the fact that we can be, and often are, always logged onto it, has, through online news, newsfeeds and social media notifications, allowed us to live constantly in the present.
But rather than providing us with everything together in a unified package, which is what we seek, it instead offers such a continually updated present, one that seems to experience time faster than we do, that the present is more fractured than ever. The Internet took what was fragmented and made it transient, ephemeral and impossible to keep track of.
“The Internet has allowed me an existence wherein I feel the control that the modern world has lost. The Selfie is a microcosm of this. The Selfie offers complete control of presenting oneself, of being oneself in a fragmented world.”
The deception of the Internet is that, while continuing the process of fragmentation that the twentieth century began, through social media it allows us to feel the opposite, that we are secure. The Internet, through our engagement with it via social media or commenting on online news, appears as the new bank of experience, the guardian of the present. It offers continual presentness.
If modern life is a series of disconnected experiences then the Internet has made that twofold while giving the impression of stability. My Facebook feed is just as unpredictable and inconsistent as life but I feel like I am in control of it. I decide if I want to be tagged in certain photos. I decide who can see what. I decide who I am friends with. Ultimately, I feel that I decide the “me” that is presented to the digital world.
In a world of digital media we cannot trust (à la Jean Baudrillard’s “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”) we need more than ever to assure ourselves of reality. Social media, ironically, with ourselves as publishers, provides the assurance of “reality” that we no longer have in the mainstream media. We are sure of our online selves.
I present myself through what I like, what I listen to, how I look. The Internet has allowed me an existence wherein I feel the control that the modern world has lost. The Selfie is a microcosm of this. The Selfie offers complete control of presenting oneself, of being oneself in a fragmented world.
“The Selfie allows me to present myself to the present. I am both object and subject; I am a whole, in a way I could never be in the real world. I post myself on Facebook and there I stay. People see me and the Internet banks me.”
In the Modern Digital age, our “here and how” is now the “nowhere and everywhere” as we try and make sure that we are “here” in “time”, and that everyone else knows that we are here too.
In the fragmented Modern world, the Internet, “online”, hyperreality, however you choose to label it, allows us to constantly cobble together constant and fleeting moments to make a present, while also recording it at every instance so that we feel we have a semblance of a past.
Because the Internet has led to a less fixed present, the present becomes “history” faster. We now worry for our past. Our future can be set too. Tweet Deck allows us fix the future. We can set posts to go up online at any point in the future.
The Selfie allows me to present myself to the present. I am both object and subject; I am a whole, in a way I could never be in the real world. I post myself on Facebook and there I stay. People see me and the Internet banks me. I am present, I will always be there for posterity (I have thus secured a future) and in the continual sweeping presentness of the Internet, I immediately become the past (I therefore secure myself a history).
Ultimately, the Selfie, as a condensed representation of the twenty-first century’s online migration and social media in general, is the modern person’s attempt at existential certainty and fulfilment.
The Selfie & The Gaze
What I have written above about the Selfie allowing one to be both object and subject is the reason for the phenomenon’s popularity. It offers a resolution to the issue of “the Gaze”. The Gaze is the idea that we are aware that on being viewed by other people we become an object. This unsettles us as we feel less free because we exist as an object, no longer fully independent. We are aware of being an object to the point that we can see ourselves as an object. We don’t know how the Gaze sees us so we become unsure of how we see ourselves.
The Selfie resolves, or at least would appear to resolve, the issue of the Gaze. The Gaze is, of course, as present online as it is in the real world. Online however, we are much more in control of how we appear as an object. In the real world, in the presence of people, we cannot escape the Gaze. Online we only put up what photos we approve. We apply the Gaze we see others with to ourselves. If we approve of the object that is ourselves, the photo goes online.
“The #nomakeupselfie and the “It’s alright not to feel OK” campaign just highlight the image of self that social media is not meant for.”
The Gaze online only sees what we allow it to see. We untag ourselves from images of our physical selves that we don’t approve of. We say no, that is not me. The Gaze is only allowed to see us having fun and being presented with awards. The #nomakeupselfie and the “It’s alright not to feel OK” campaign just highlight the image of self that social media is not meant for.
The Selfie is symptomatic of this deception of the Gaze. With the Selfie, people can only see me as I see me. People do not see me in a Selfie. They see me seeing me. They observe me but they observe me as subject, never as object. The Gaze is broken. We are seen as subjects. We are no longer objectified because we are objectifying ourselves.
I love to be seen (now that Gaze can be circumvented). I love myself (not necessarily narcissistically, but humanly). What is more perfect then, than me seeing me?
The Selfie, like any photos we consign to the Internet, also assures us of our position in the present. But what makes it more potent is that it is what we see as a whole and perfect version of ourselves. Posting Selfies online is the modern person’s ultimate attempt at validation in the modern world, the digital age’s means of dealing with existential dread.
The AntiSelfie & Freedom in the Digital Age
In the fragmented Modern world, where nothing is certain, not even ourselves, the Selfie is an opiate. The danger of the Selfie is that of any opiate to existential angst, it hinders free will. It usurps the freedom we are offered in a Modern fragmented world, free of the narratives of the past.
When staring into the abyss, humankind’s first reaction has always been to seek comfort. However any comfort sought (religion, the Enlightenment project), when blindly clung to, has proved to be found wanting, if not harmful.
The Internet, with the immediate “tangible” and “perfect” reality that is offers, is an opiate that will prove difficult in overcoming. The Selfie offers a perfect world but the Selfie is fiction. The Selfie claims the real you in exchange for the “ideal” you that goes on the digital record.
If we despair at the idea of a limitless, meaningless universe we ironically try to quell our fears with the idea that the Internet is equally boundless but more secure and knowable. If we can maintain ourselves online we secure our presence, assure ourselves a past and guarantee a future.
The reason that hyperreality as an opiate is so insidious is that it hides the problem, as if it never existed, rather than remedying it. The Selfie is a simulacrum: it depicts something that had no reality to begin with. The idealised me, my “Selfie”, is an image of a fiction. Worse, the more I invest in my Selfie, the more the original me recedes into the background. As Baudrillard writes, the Selfie becomes “the truth which conceals that there is none.”
“The AntiSelfie is the embrace of self. It is the twenty-first century’s photographical recognition of the renouncement of meaning, a depiction of Sartre’s axiom that ‘Life begins the other side of despair.'”
The Selfie, though it shows me, has no original. We strive to imitate our own Selfie and in doing so the imagined becomes the reality, and the real is forgotten. The Selfie, ironically, is a denial of self and therefore a denial of life.
Freedom can only be found in the renunciation of the Selfie, in the embrace of the fear and despair of the Modern world. Here we have the birth of the AntiSelfie.
The AntiSelfie is the embrace of self. It is the twenty-first century’s photographical recognition of the renouncement of meaning, a depiction of Sartre’s axiom that “Life begins the other side of despair.” I face away from the Internet and towards the unknown and the void. I stare both back to the past and forward to the future. I take one AntiSelfie and I let that be that.
The twenty-first century human must embrace the nothingness of their surroundings, this time digital. Following in the footsteps of God and the Author, the Selfie too must die in the march towards existential freedom.
“…on the sand
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies…
…stamped on these lifeless things,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains.”
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias