and come to mean something like “selfishness” or “self-obsession”, thereby obscuring Freud’s more direct reference to the Greek myth: just as Narcissus” exclusively scopic pleasure in his own reflection led him to starve to death, so Freud refers to the megalomaniac dimensions of paraphrenia and the radical withdrawal of libido from the “external world”. Moreover, and not by chance, “On Narcissism” is also the text in which Freud first postulates the “ego-ideal”, precursor of the superego which he will locate at the core of the discontents of modern civilization.
One hundred years on, in a competitive consumer culture in which egotistical individualism has become the very mark of mental and social “health”, these Freudian lessons are more timely than ever.
Is it mere coincidence, then, that Twitter also declared 2014 the year of the “selfie”? We can agree in our Lacanian terms: social media and smartphones have elevated the imago to a precarious yet near ubiquitous existential condition. For many engaged in the constant digital capture of experience, it would be no exaggeration to declare “no selfie, no self”! “No picture, no reality”! “No “likes” or “pokes” or comments, no validation via the imaginary other! In the absence of a stable symbolic Other to pin the egoic image of unity with a structuring “thou art that”, there is a frantic and endless semblantisation of the ephemeral present. It is as if a consistent identity might be fused together from bits and pieces of data rather as the projection of 24 frames per second gives cinematic experience its seeming solidity – a struggle to animate the self, then. Yet as evidence of the new modality of the superego in our era, intrinsic to the selfie is the staged spectacle of Hollywood enjoyment: the selfie self is invariably smiling, laughing, displaying tireless sociability. That a suffering selfie would be more or less oxymoronic demonstrates that jouissance is not in the frame. Nor is this practice the exclusive preserve of technologically savvy teenagers: recall President Obama at Nelson Mandela’s state funeral posing for a selfie with fellow world-leaders.
Obama has also made very public use of the recent prosthetic extension of this “selfie” phenomenon, the “Selfie Stick”. This is an extendable length of lightweight metal that grips a mobile phone at the far end, but also, thanks to a connecting wire, places the button for operating the camera at one’s fingertips at the near end. So what “problem” is being solved by this device, and what does it reflect about changing forms of subjectivity? Two related problems, perhaps: firstly, the physical limitation of the length of the average arm in the standard selfie, and secondly, the difficulty of capturing the “group shot” when one’s friendship circle is large enough to demand a panoramic viewpoint otherwise out of arm’s reach. A third benefit, is the possibility of filming the highlight reel of one’s life in real time.
With the selfie stick then, we are in a very different phenomenological field from the classical and fundamentally Cartesian visual space of portrait painting. In Seminar XI, Lacan notes the links between Descartes’ Cogito and developments in both the science of optics and anamorphosis in painting. Yet that whole system depended on the fact that the imaginary space constructed by means of the laws of perspective also situated the viewer in a particular position: the lines that converged on the so-called “vanishing point” on a picture plane implied an infinity secured by God. Yet those same lines also assured the position of the viewer him or herself, whose subjective locus was therefore effectively divinely ordained. As the tired narrative of western art history has it, this picture plane was fragmented by the rupture of aesthetic modernism, when representational depth gave way to surface abstraction and the corollary idea of the “new man” became thinkable. Arguably however, iconoclasm in any era is a form of worship in reverse. Today in our so-called postmodern epoch, things are more fundamentally disorientating. Compared to the old painting tradition of vanitas, in which Lacan rightly situates the Holbein painting he discusses, the selfie and its extendable version is of an entirely different order. Vanitas was an attempt at dignitas. It appealed to a third, a symbolic Other, one that both denied and yet included mortality as the common denominator uniting humanity. Holbein’s inclusion of the anamorphic skull only spelt out the inner logic of vanitas as a genre. Because painting created objects lasting beyond the sitter’s lifetime, vanitas resonated with trans-individual duration and notions of “lineage” often linked to family names and thus to symbolic time. This desire to leave an image to posterity hardly corresponds to today’s understanding of “vanity” or “narcissism”, for it already implied a deep grasp of the relationship between signifier and semblance, lack and loss, that has largely dwindled with the decline of the symbolic Other today.
Where the medieval conventions of perspective created an imaginary geometry within the painting, situating the viewer in front of it but also within a world of divinely guaranteed coordinates, the front-facing camera of the smartphone has radically different effects. Firstly, it seems to facilitate the “I see myself seeing myself” that Lacan critiqued in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of visual perception. Secondly, the relationship to temporality is transformed: the instant nature of the “snap”, and the ever-present audience enabled by social media, impose a kind of limitless democratization on what was once referred to as “subject matter”, but which should be designated as such only with caution today. How else can we explain the nauseating monotony of photos of people’s dinner plates on Facebook? Or indeed the more or less indiscriminate quality of the selfie, for which any social occasion suffices as a pretext? The banalisation of “subject matter” also makes the (speaking) subject matter less. Thirdly, the selfie stick undoes the physiological bodily schema retained within the unassisted selfie by prosthetically extending the perceptual field beyond “arm’s reach”.
The ongoing alienation of the ego is discernible in the paradoxical structure of the selfie stick: in reaching for the ideal point from which to capture the essence of identity, it also underlines the constitutive nature of the lack in being. Perhaps in the near future the selfie stick will get longer and longer …? Parlêtre would be better served reaching for that other prosthesis that props life up, speech.