Selfies without the self

These are my remarks from an American Studies Association panel on selfies on November 6.
Taking selfies is routinely derided as narcissistic, a procedure of solipsistic self-regard in which one obsesses over one’s own image. But selfies are not solipsistic; they are only selfies if they circulate. The term selfie not only labels an image’s content (though this usage is slipping, as when TD Bank invites me to “take a check selfie” to deposit it), but it also describes a distribution process. Selfie is shorthand not just for pictures you take of yourself but instead for one’s “self in social media” – one’s self commoditized to suit the logistics of networks.

As art critic 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.

If selfies are not narcissistic, sometimes they are perceived to be the opposite, too performatively strategic. Posting selfies is often seen as part of an effort to build social capital, an effort to deploy the self in a social network to gain attention, reputation, influence, and so on. It instrumentalizes self-representation; selfies are a way to explicitly conflate ourselves with objects to be manipulated. If Droitcour is right, selfies, when they enter circulation, aren't a matter self-expression (as their defenders sometimes claim) but self-surrender. This could be a precursor to moving past the political limits of individualism, yet selfies nonetheless exemplify an instrumental attitude toward the self that may block intersubjectivity. You can "flake or refract" me, selfies seem to say, but only at the level of these images. This locks the terms of interpersonal engagement at the level of image exchange.

Selfies may be mistaken for autonomous self-expression: an assertive, short-circuiting gesture that recuperates the communication/surveillance platforms that otherwise contain the self. But selfies don’t tap a suppressed inner essence; they develop the “self” as an artisanal product line. What they express depends less on what they depict then on how well they circulate, what uses they are put to within networks.

The selfie commemorates the moment when external social control — the neoliberal command to develop a self as a kind a capital stock and serially reproduce oneself in self-advertisements — is internalized as crypto-defiance. I'm not going to consume their images, I'm going to make one of my own, take control of how I’m seen!

With selfies we can think we are asserting an agency that escapes control, though this is control’s exact contemporary mechanism: producing ourselves as an object for the network, performing the obligatory work of identity construction in a captured, preformatted space. Selfies, then, primarily signal the availability of the self to the network.

The practice of selfie-making doesn't eradicate the infrastructure of commercially exploitable identity that is embedded in the media tools for "expressing" it. 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.

Alexander Galloway claims that the economic mobilization of self-production that selfies epitomize have prompted a new "politics of disappearance":

The operative political question today, thus, in the shadow of digital markets is … 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. The selfie is sometimes condemned for its inauthenticity, but in its explicit constructedness, the selfie may herald the emergence of a postauthentic self: a overtly manufactured self that is confirmed and rendered coherent in an audience’s reactions and always changing with each image, as opposed to a static “real self.”

In other words, selfies assault the notion of autonomous, persistent, transcendent identity. Intentionally or not, the willingness to take them and share them demonstrates you don’t believe in the “authentic” self inside but instead in the desire to be remade anew in any given moment. Selfie taking recognizes that the notion of the “self” always implies another’s point of view on it, a perspective that generates it. The act of taking a selfie simulates and evokes that outside point of view. It makes our self real to us, something we can experience and consume, at the expense of pretending to be someone else as we look.

The selfie breaks us out of the cage of static identity, but the platforms they are posted to shove us back in, associating and attempting to integrate all the data they generate. The platforms affirm that I’m a discrete self, one baseball card in their pack, with my statistics always printed on the back.