Selfie!

“I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention. I believe that one should become a person like other people”  – Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver (1976)

 

 

I’m on the internet.

I mean I have access to the internet.

Duh. How else would I be writing?

What I mean is that besides being on the internet writing right now, I use social media.

Am I supposed to put social media in quotes or capitalize it or something?

I wouldn’t say that I have an internet “presence” (I am putting quotes around that word) or something.

I’m no Jenna Marbles.

But I’m sure I’ve been on the World Wide Web long enough to suspect that the government might have looked at what I’ve posted online at least once.

At least that’s what I assume from everything that Edward Snowden says.

 

 

I suppose Rockwell was right. Someone is watching me.

I suppose Rockwell was right. Someone is watching me.

 
If you’re on the internet. Someone has watched or is watching you.

Internet “presence” not required.

This seems a little weird to me.

 

I don’t have the investigatory curiosity of the NSA, but I know for most people peeping into the average person’s email box wouldn’t seem worthwhile. After all, who wants to spend all day sifting through unintentionally forwarded messages (usually off-color, potentially job-losing jokes), a marginal friend’s political rants, inappropriate vacation pics, video of someone’s cousin’s niece’s goddaughter’s 2nd birthday party, or Grandma Jean’s old borscht recipe?

Wouldn’t watching someone who actually has a “presence” on the internet be much more useful?

At least it would be more entertaining.

Right, NSA?

My philosophical inclinations tells me that ultimately I know nothing, but I know even if my online activity isn’t being monitored by the NSA, that whatever I post is likely to be seen by someone, somewhere.

 

At least that’s what I assume.

 

But is a 43 year-old single man in Toledo, Ohio who posts pictures of his cats dressed as characters from popular TV shows on Facebook really more likely to be an Al Qaeda operative?
Now, I know be truly watch-worthy on the internet (to have a “presence”), the first indicator that someone is worth watching is that one has posted pictures of one’s self.

Lots of pictures.

Too many pictures.

Preferably taken in a bathroom.
Those who are familiar with the internet identify this type of self-portraiture as is commonly called: the selfie.

Whether you’re Justin Bieber or a 15 year-old Justin Bieber fan, the internet is an infinite digital reservoir for one’s self portraits.

 

bieber selfie

 

 

Who knew there could be something worse than glam shots?

Who knew there could be something worse than glam shots?

 

 

 

Duckface not optional

Duckface not optional

 

 
This is me doing a selfie:

 

 

This is as close as I get to a selfie, folks.

This is as close as I get to a selfie, folks.

 

 

If you think about it, the selfie isn’t such a new thing.

All the great artists painted self portraits.

Those are selfies, right?

 

 

rembrant selfie

 

 

 

van gogh selfie

 

 

 

Cindy Sherman does nothing but self portraits.

 

This is Cindy Sherman. This is also the most expensive photograph ever sold. And it's a selfie!

This is Cindy Sherman. This is also the most expensive photograph ever sold. And it’s a selfie!

 
If you really think about it, is there really a difference between a van Gogh and a selfie?
That’s not a rhetorical question.

 

You see, there’s a real philosophical conundrum here.

Sure, posting pics of ourselves online is a fun way to catfish meet other people or to stay in touch with friends. Or even as an art or means of self-expression.

But what does the selfie say about us philosophically?
Certainly devoting one’s online presence (oops, “presence”) exclusively to self portraiture may be viewed (and perhaps rightly so) as narcissistic. And it may be difficult to argue that you’re not inordinately self-centered when most of your photographs look like this:

 

“I DEFINITELY HAVE A PENCHANT FOR DOUCHEBAGGERY”

“I DEFINITELY HAVE A PENCHANT FOR DOUCHEBAGGERY”

 

 

Ok you say. We need to get a philosophical grip of ourselves. Selfies are innocuous. They’re nothing more than young folks with their smart phones posting harmless pictures online. But here’s the thing: have you noticed that there is an immoderate amount of self portraits online? That people seem to be overcome with the urge to snap photos of themselves everywhere, in any situation – no matter how inappropriate photo-snapping may have been?

 

We all know you want a presence on the internet, but do we all have to see this?

We all know you want a presence on the internet, but do we all have to see this?

 
Given the volume of online self portraits, one could argue that our cultural fixation on posting images of ourselves is exactly the kind of vain self indulgence that gets in the way of thinking and acting in ways that benefits more than us. Bertrand Russell says:

 

One of the troubles about vanity is that it grows with what it feeds on. The more you are talked about, the more you wish to be talked about.

 

We post pictures of ourselves to show others our massive hotness. We post selfies to show off our new tattoos. Or our ability to pose for pictures cleverly. Our selfies show others how hip we are. That we have a presence on the internet.

 

That we’re relevant.

That we matter.

That we are important.

That we exist.

All eyes on me.

 

Go ahead and post it. Nobody's going to see it, anyway.

Go ahead and post it. Nobody’s going to see it, anyway.

 

 

When you get down to it, the philosophical problem with the selfie is that when we spend too much time thinking of ourselves, who we are, or how we are perceived by others – if we reduce ourselves to nothing more than mere images, we get caught in the trivial; as mere visual beings we lack substance. We become a society that values style over substance.

In particular, our own style.

Only our own style.

We fall in love with our own reflection.

 

narcissus

 

 

Think of it this way: can a narcissist truly do any good for others? Of course, the answer is no. A narcissist lacks the ability to identify or sympathize with others. A narcissist lacks empathy. A narcissist, by definition, cannot fix his attention to anyone or anything beyond himself.

 

Now imagine an entire culture of people where a fixation on the self is encouraged.

A culture of psychologically solipsistic people, encouraged to think (and sometimes act) as if we are the only people who exist can never be a good thing. A successful, if not philosophically adept, society requires that people pay attention to other people at least some of the time.

Ok, you say. Sure, someone who is overly fascinated with their own image may have some narcissistic issues. And the internet is undoubtedly saturated with amateur self portraiture. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that an internet full of selfies is indicative of a culture that is self absorbed and lacks philosophical depth or awareness. Blogs, pod- casts, personal YouTube channels, and DIY porn sites are better examples of online self-indulgence. Even if we never personally post pictures of ourselves, there’s plenty of us out there in cyberspace.

Have you ever been horrified to see yourself tagged in a photo you didn’t know someone took?
For some, the selfie isn’t all about the image. It represents the philosophical act of self expression.

 

Don’t scoff. I’m being serious here.

When we post pictures of ourselves online, we are in control if the image that we display to the world. We can use visual images as a means of communication when we are unable to express ourselves in words. A person may be forced to hide particular aspects of their identity or preferences in the real world, but on the internet, a person can freely communicate exactly what they think, feel, or how they want to express themselves.

But if we control the image others see, we are free to post whatever image of who we want to be. Perhaps more importantly, we are free to post images of who we truly are.

Selfies are acts of existentialist expression.

Yes they are.

I use this image as my Facebook profile pic:

 

cat as heisenberg

 

 

It’s obviously not a selfie (although I will insist that it is).

But what does this image say about me?

The image might say that I am a fan of the TV show Breaking Bad. And that I like cats. And perhaps it shows that I have a sense of humor. The fact that it’s not a picture of me says a great deal about me as well. It may say that I’m intentionally and/or maliciously hiding something like my age, race or gender.
It may say that I’m shy and am afraid of being judged before someone gets to know me.

It could also say that I’m a cat person who identifies with the methamphetamine-dealing, anti-hero, Walter White and am looking for others who share my proclivities and point of view.

What does a selfie say about any of us?

If I was Cindy Sherman, my selfies would critique and deconstruct media images of femininity.

 

obnoxious selfie

 

 

You might think this picture is nothing more than an expression of obnoxious vanity, but someone else may see a kindred spirit or philosophically like-minded individual.

If we think of selfies as a personality compatibility gauge, we can quickly determine who we may or may not be attracted to or want to associate with or friend on the internet.

A person who posts a selfie like this:

 

 

creepy_gun_dude

 

Sends us a message: The message tells us this is a man who likes his guns and likes his Guitar Hero guitars.

His message will either appeal to or repel us.

If you think about it, selfies are kind of like those old notes we used to pass around in elementary school.

 

do you like me note

 

The thing about selfies is that it’s not just solipsists and Randian objectivists who think that they’re the center of the universe. People are not only fascinated with images of other people, we’re fascinated with images of ourselves. We think in images. It would be quite un-human if the internet did not reflect our innate fascination with images.

And even if the selfie is nothing more than an exercise in narcissism, it doesn’t mean that selfies can’t be philosophically useful. Here are a few philosophically worthy things we can learn from selfies:
A fan of Kant’s ethics would not post naked pics (there’s no way you‘d want to universalize that).

A Cartesian dualist knows not to post pictures taken in a bathroom.

It’s highly unlikely that an Aristotelian-type magnanimous man would post pictures of himself smoking weed.

A nihilist would never do duckface.

A Marxist is not inclined to show off his bling.

 

 

50 cent and his money

 

 

Philosophers have a intrinsic ability to read a deeper meaning into anything.

 

Remember: There’s a meaning to everything… unless you’re a postmodernist.

I Keeps It REAL

Ever met a straight shooter?

Someone who calls it like they see it? Believes honesty is the best policy? Insists that what you see is what you get? Claims they’re the real deal? The real McCoy?

That say they am what they am no matter what anyone has to say about it?

You know, the kind of folks who like to keep it REAL.

In case you hadn’t noticed, all of these claims have one thing in common: they are all claims of authenticity.

When we deal with a keeps it real type of person, we’re assured that we’re dealing with someone who won’t manipulate, dupe, swindle, con, lie to or bamboozle us.

They am what they am, and that’s all that they am.

 

There's a reason why Olive Oyl liked Popeye -- and it wasn't because of his massive forceps.

There’s a reason why Olive Oyl liked Popeye — and it wasn’t because of his massive forceps.

 

 

We want to surround ourselves with people who are authentic. No one really wants to deal with con men, bullshitters, and liars. We don’t like being deceived or having our trust in others tested. When we put our trust in people who are not real with us, at best we end up looking like fools.

At worst, someone can get hurt.

And we tell others that we’re the real deal to distinguish ourselves from those who are disingenuous and not to be trusted.

 

This is Bill O'Reilly. He's totally a straight shooter. His TV show is called a "No Spin Show".

This is Bill O’Reilly. He’s totally a straight shooter. His TV show is called a “No Spin Show”.

 

Even in our most tangential relationships, the genuine is preferred. We believe that we cannot develop full relationships with others who are not authentic with us.

And if we cannot develop full relationships, we cannot become fully developed people ourselves.

If we are not fully developed, we cannot lead a full life.

At least that’s what a philosopher will tell you.
Authenticity, philosophically speaking, is a pretty big deal. Not just being authentic with others, but especially when we deal with ourselves. The most important kind of authenticity is authenticity of the self.

So, if it’s so important for us to be authentic, what does it mean to be authentic?

What does it mean to be as Polonius said in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true”?

 

To live authentically one must live life on his own terms, refusing to accept the expectations of others. We are not (and should not) be subject to the dictated ideas of what others want us to be or become. Who we are is not predetermined by God or biology. Neither is who we are the product of our family or society. We choose to “accept or revise the paths that have been laid down for us by others.”

To be authentic means that we are the sole origin of who we are and what we become. The Existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), wrote:

Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself… I am creating a certain image of man of my own choosing.

 

This means that when it comes to who we are and how we live our lives that it is up to us to give our lives meaning; we are responsible for ourselves and what we do with our lives.

So if you’re a complete douche bag, don’t blame your parents. It’s all you.

 

sartre quote
There’s something kind of funny about authenticity, though. I think we’ve all noticed it.

Have you noticed that so many people’s authentic self-expression looks just like everyone else’s authentic self-expression?

This is especially true in certain subculture/counterculture movements. Especially when the idea of authenticity is tied to a particular ethnic, racial or political ideology. Or even a particular genre of music.

It’s kind of difficult to argue that you’re being true to yourself and you’re resisting the mainstream when you and everyone else you hang out with looks like this:
goths in a parking lot

 

Or this:

 

metal heads

 

 

Or this:

 

hipsters

 

 

I mean, come on. How many guys have you seen dressed like this?

 

tupac

 

 

Here’s at least one:

 

justin bieber sexy photo shoot

 

 

Ever notice how much hippies all looked alike?

 

hippies

 

 

There are many ways of self-expression. And we want to express ourselves authentically. But how can we express our authentic self to other unless we can identify what our authentic self looks like? Obviously, there is a clash between individual self expression (or our want to live according to our own rules) and the set of characteristics that we use to identify with a particular identity or culture. You may feel that you are genuinely all about living the hip hop lifestyle, but to identify yourself as a true baller, you may have to affect a look that screams “conformist” rather than “authentic individual”.

You might have to look like this:

 

fool in hip hop clothing

 

Because no one will take you seriously if you’re dressed like this:

 

white guy in a suit

 

 

Vernon Reid, former guitarist of the early ‘90s alternative rock band, Living Colour, says of hip hop, “ …no other music is as peer pressure intensive as hip hop.”

Reid’s statement isn’t just true to hip hop culture.

The pressure to conform is a society-wide problem.

Of course that’s a problem for straight shooters who want to keep it real.

In our pursuit to live a truly authentic existence, we are caught between our personal want to express our authentic self and the countervailing (societal) pressure to conform to a preordained image of what the real deal is (and is supposed to look and act like). We are often skeptical of someone who claims that they’re “keeping it real” if they don’t look like the real deal.

 

IT’S CLEAR THIS GUY COULDN'T POSSIBLY BE A CANNIBAL CORPSE FAN. HE DOESN'T LOOK LIKE A FAN. IF HE SAYS HE IS HE’S BULLSHITTING YOU

IT’S CLEAR THIS GUY COULDN’T POSSIBLY BE A CANNIBAL CORPSE FAN. HE DOESN’T LOOK LIKE A FAN. IF HE SAYS HE IS HE’S BULLSHITTING YOU

 

 

If we don’t conform to the image how can anyone know we’re the real deal?

That’s the problem with authenticity. People won’t perceive our authenticity if we don’t look authentic. A part of how we view ourselves is inexorably tied to how other people perceive us. Sartre writes:

 

By the mere appearance of the Other, I am put into the position of passing judgment on myself as an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the Other… I recognize that I am as the Other sees me.

 

A part of our perception of ourselves, our sense of who we are, is formed by our interactions with others. The philosopher, Paul C. Taylor, writes there is a:

 

“tension between individual identity and the… scripts of social identity.”*

 

The tension between individual and social identity rises to more than a minor inconvenience when, in an effort to prove how authentic we are, the need to keep it real leads us to act in a way that may be detrimental to ourselves or our non-incarcerated status.

 

stereotypical black guy meme

 

Most of the time, we can maintain our (authentic) identity against the societal pressure to conform to predetermined expectations. As long as we know who we are and for what reason we act, even if no one else sees or knows it, we can be assured that we are living according to our own script. The key is to being authentic is to know when to ignore what others may want us to be, and when to adopt those cultural scripts that enable us to function in society.

Only you know if you are living a truly authentic life.

 

cartman

 

 

If you aren’t, realize you may be the biggest douche bag in the room.

 

Just sayin’

 

‘Cause I’m a straight shooter.

 

I keeps it real.

 

 

 

 

* Taylor is specifically referring to racial identity in this instance, but Taylor’s statement can be equally applied to any cultural/personal identity conflict.

 

 

 

Sources:
Jean-Paul Sartre. “Hell Is Other People”. Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy. 1988. Eds. G. Lee Bowie, Meredith W. Michaels, Robert C. Solomon, and Robert J. Fogelin. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. p. 620

Jean-Paul Sartre. “Existentialism”. The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Expository Prose. 5th Edition (shorter). Eds. Arthur M. Eastman, Caesar R. Blake, Hubert M. English, Jr., Joan E. Hartman, Alan B. Howes, Robert T. Lenaghan, Leo F. McNamara, James Rossier. NY: W.W. Norton & Company. p. 659.

Paul C. Taylor. Race: A Philosophical Introduction. 2004. Malden, MA: Polity Press. p. 130.

“Steely Dan: Understood As the Redemption of the White Negro: A Conversation Between Greg Tate and Vernon Reid”. Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture. 2003. Ed. Greg Tate. NY: Broadway Books. p. 113.