Monday, November 25, 2013

Selfie: A New Word and Experience

My only selfie so far.  Me and Jennifer in Alaska in June 2008. 

I don't own a smart phone. I have a 12-year old flip phone that does nothing except make phone calls. Imagine a cell phone that is just a phone. Absurd, right? So, I have not taken many selfies, which are largely a phenomenon of phones that take photos. I remember taking a selfie of Jennifer and myself in Alaska just before we had our grizzly bear encounter (see pic above). I shot it from a low angle with the camera out at arm's length and waist level. Above us in the background there was a rock cropping and a cloud passing in an otherwise mostly sunny summer sky.

Now selfie has become an official word. It is new karma generated by iPhones and similar devices. It has become so commonplace that a word reflecting the behavior has entered the evolution of the English language, so the behavior, in turn, is now officially a force in the world. Selfie beat out another new action word consideration, twerk. Maybe twerk will eventually make it. It depends upon whether or not it is a lasting influence in society. Selfie has been around for awhile. The first one was apparently taken in the 1839. But that does not really count, because hardly anyone had cameras then and no one thought of it as a selfie.

My daughter started taking the inevitable teenage bathroom mirror selfies early on. We thought it was cute at first. Later we had to try to limit her exposure, both of her body and of selfies in general, on Facebook and the like. Her favored method of selfie deployment these days is Instagram and Vine. She does not visit her Facebook page much anymore. Too much drama out there.

But selfie is far from a teenage phenomenon. Arguably the most famous selfies to date were those brought out in the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal. Grown-ups take lots of selfies. That is why the word was adopted, it describes something almost everybody does or knows about. It is a pervasively obvious force in our society where, unlike the more cultish twerking, not officially naming it would be absurd.

One article covering the selfie phenomenon accentuated how the new word is a reflection of the expansion of human individualism within reality. That is an interesting take. It shows the strength of the illusionary selfhood. The selfie is a obvious self-affirmation. Here I am. Look at me look at you looking before you are even there to look. That is what a selfie is. It is perhaps the ultimate example of the brilliant insight by Jean-Paul Sartre known as "The Look." The selfie is me looking at you before before you look at me, it objectifies not only the person in the photo but the viewer of the photo by the person looking at it.

The design of most phone-cameras is to display what the viewfinder sees on the phone's screen. So many selfies are taken with people looking at the screen instead of the straight into the viewfinder. Most people experience taking a selfie as watching their physique on a phone monitor. But in reality the viewer of the image is the viewfinder, the tiny opening that captures the image to be looked at. You have to look away from the monitor and into the viewfinder to get the proper eye contact of looking at the future viewer of this photo. In that way both photo taker and looker are objectified by each other.

Selfie shows us that my camera is not just for the world, rather it is for me to show myself being in the world. Having other people take the photo is by definition not allowed. A selfie needs no one else, no one to take it nor possibly even look at it since we are taking it of ourselves for ourselves many times showing no one or a chosen few. When we share a selfie it projects intimacy in the public sphere and is therefore a bold absurdity. I am looking at myself in this photo of myself and I may choose to show it to you or not. Either way it is of me and by me and for me.

But to print it out for show or turn it loose in cyberspace is giving it away, and it is no longer mine. Rather, it becomes an object for others, just as the photo of me and Jennifer becomes as I post it in this blog; as Sartre writes about with "The Look" which is a recent human experience. The Look has not always been around. It is a modern human experience and demonstrates how human experience, like language itself, is not static. The Look is the nature of all photos but all photos are not selfies. Selfies are photos we take of ourselves in context, perhaps intimate, perhaps in public but I always take it to show me in context, always to myself, sometimes to you.

So selfie reflects human experience on the move. There were no selfies ten centuries ago. The experience and the expression were impossible.  Unless you consider the hand paintings on cave walls from the Neolithic to be a selfie. Of course, all painted self-portraits are selfies of a kind. But a self portrait is not a selfie per se. A selfie is a photograph and it shows how human experience and photography become intertwined to the point where the photo is the experience.

We are who we are without selfies. But with selfies we become something else. The digitized object of ourselves to ourselves and to others.   Is this the same as, say, a self-portrait by Rembrandt? Those brilliant and meticulous brushstrokes are an attempt to render the artist as a person in a given moment. But, these are attempts by the human hand to portray the self whereas a selfie is an instantaneous expression captured by a machine meant to be created and objectified by whoever takes a selfie. Only certain human hands can paint legitimate self-portraits whereas the camera allows anyone to create a selfie. The camera and the dissemination of the selfie changes the nature of the act from a painted work into a representation of humanity by any person, in this sense selfies are the empowerment of the self.

As you know, I hold grammar and spoken language to be a reflection of human experience itself. By officially entering our vocabulary, selfie represents a small shift of human consciousness, and probably a validation of Sartre's The Look. It may not seem like much today or tomorrow or even since I snapped that bi-selfie in Alaska in 2008, but, compared to the time of Rembrandt it is a larger change. And the change is more powerful as it continues to generate new karma.

Selfie will play a growing role in shaping our experience and our expressiveness and turning what used to be something directly known (myself in context) into the object of someone else's desire and projection (myself as representation) on a vast scale that was, until recently, impossible.  It can no longer be Rembrandt by Rembrandt. Now we are all Rembrandt. There may be nothing so adept at the expression of individual freedom and paradoxically so potentially objectifying as a selfie.

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