What's the Deal with the Selfie Generation?

On selfies, Lacan, and the modern mirror stage.

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Aug 25 2015, 2:00pm

Russian social media group Селфи с покойными (Selfie with the Deceased) is being investigated for offering money for the best selfies with the dead. Source: VK

Every morning, Snow White’s stepmother stares into her magic mirror and asks, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” “My Queen,” it replies. “You are the fairest one of all,” and she is pleased; it never lies. Human beings have always been fascinated by their own reflections, initially gazing at themselves in pools of water until they were able to polish stones or volcanic glass. The process that allowed the mirror to be mass produced into the product we know today was invented in 1835, two years before Robert Cornelius took the first selfie, a daguerreotype or photographic image etched with chemicals onto a sheet of polished silver-plated copper. Painters had been depicting their own likenesses on canvas for centuries, but the coincidental nature of these two moments is historic: at the same time as we began to see our reflection in the home, the car, the elevator and the gym, we began to capture and keep our image with a camera. It shifted the ability to record one’s portrait out of the hands of only the artisan and eventually into the smartphone of the everyman.

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan was also interested in the mirror. He believed that the human ego started forming during what he called the mirror stage, a period of human development beginning when a child first starts to recognize its reflection in a mirror. In an attempt to alleviate the tension created in the mind between the disjointed movements of the body in reality and the idealized image seen in the mirror, the child identifies with its reflected image and the ego is formed. This moment of self-identification is both exciting and depressing: on one hand, it instigates a sense of self-mastery. On the other, it alienates the child from itself in reality, creating a lifelong desire in the subject to unify itself with its image. Rather than the Cartesian, “I think, therefore I am,” Lacan seems to be saying, “I see, therefore I must be.”

The first selfie taken by Robert Cornelius in 1837. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Despite its 19th century invention, the selfie is a distinctly modern phenomenon. As human connection and community began to extend beyond physical space and into the immaterial on the internet in the early 2000’s with the rise of social networking technology, the ability and need to identify and define the self began to evolve also. In order to individuate our online selves, we had to imagine and create our own existence. Thus, the profile picture became our alter ego avatar. When camera and screen fused with the smartphone, the ability to see, snap and share the self became immediate and mobile. Suddenly, the self-portrait was no longer constrained to the photo album or the gallery, and the mirror had moved off the bathroom wall. The screen now serves as modern mirror, and the selfie the point at which the ego forms; an attempt to affirm the body’s fragmented existence in reality and unify it with the imagined self seen on screen.

A selfie in a Jeff Koons Balloon Dog on the roof of The Metropolitain Museum of Art. Photo by the author

The scrolling feed of social networking sites like Facebook, Tumblr and Instragram serve this search for self, preserving the self portrait only until another image or post is made to take its place. The imagined self is transient and disposable, and we’re addicted to it. Yet seeing the self reflected is not essential to self-identification or the formation of the ego. (The visually impaired and those who don’t snap selfies have egos, too.) Instead, it is the act of actualization, the taking and posting of the selfie, that is important. I see myself, therefore, I exist. I share my image, therefore I am seen. The selfie is a celebration of life and an attempt at immortality, a way of acknowledging our fear of non-existence, and our fear of death. This manifests in various forms, most explicitly with the #funeralselfie, and depends on how one wants to be recognized. The selfie is a framing device. I am alive, and:

#nudeselfie = I am free

#hotselfie = I am attractive

#sexyselfie = I am eager to please

#museumselfie #artselfie = I am cultured

#fashionselfie = I am fashionable

#celebrityselfie = I am popular

Sometimes this attempt at self-actualization is self-defeating. Where is the line between self-expression and self-affirmation, and subjugation and sexual stereotyping? Instagram has a strict no-nudity policy, and regularly removes offending photos, but nude selfies proliferate Tumblr, sometimes even crossing the legal line. When sexual selfies expose underage nudity or sexually explicit acts, their subjects and those receiving and sharing the offending image risk prosecution under the child pornography laws. By default, this raises questions about the ethics of our Internet-based Age. What is the impetus behind taking and sharing a sexually provocative or pornographic picture of oneself, with little regard for privacy? If freedom and pleasure are the purpose, then under what value system? And freedom and pleasure for whom?

Lacan might argue that these voyeuristic images are merely an attempt to unify the fragmented sexuality of the self in reality and the sexuality of the self seen on screen. Perhaps they are a reflection of a crisis in sexuality, or a reaction to the erosion of privacy. In general, selfies do create a certain kind of self-imposed alienation: the self the subject is ultimately connecting with on screen is a projected image imbued with certain socio-cultural ideologies and expectations. The irony is that these facsimilies have come to inform reality, manifesting a kind of social Darwinism. Does he “like” my selfie? Did she #followback? But could we glean some insight into ourselves in this process, some greater understanding of the connection between body and mind? In Snow White, the queen’s insecurity is her demise. When she is not seen as she wants to be, she commits murder and ultimately dies. For the selfie generation, the question still remains as to what message about humanity we'll leave behind.

Follow Heidi Harrington-Johnson on Twitter: @h_h_j_

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