Visual Culture Approaches to the Selfie [1 ed.] 0367206080, 9780367206086

This collection explores the cultural fascination with social media forms of self-portraiture, "selfies," with

227 25 14MB

English Pages 224 [237] Year 2021

Report DMCA / Copyright


Polecaj historie

Visual Culture Approaches to the Selfie [1 ed.]
 0367206080, 9780367206086

Table of contents :
Half Title
Series Page
Title Page
Copyright Page
Introduction: "The Selfie as Visual Culture: A Methodological Quandary"
Technologies of the Selfie
A Methodological Challenge
Looking Ahead
1. Counter-Selfies and the Real Subsumption of Society
Selfies, Visibility, Agency, Surveillance
The Formal and Real Subsumption of Communication and Community
Selfies, Social Media, and the Real Subsumption of Communication and Community
Transparency and Opacity in Counter-Selfies
2. Self-Portraiture and Self Performance
Excellences & Perfections
The Pictures Generation
Leeson and Wearing; Intimacy and Masking
Switching Lives With...
3. Proliferating Identity: Trans Selfies as Contemporary Art
The Cult of Portraiture
The Trans Tipping Point: A Misleading Misconception
Selfies: Highlighting the Politics of Portraiture
Prolific Self-Imaging as Contemporary Interventions
Constructed Vernacular and Expanding Visual Regimes of Gender and Racialization
Aesthetics of Flatness, Decolonizing Photographs
Concluding Thoughts
4. The Evolution of the Selfie: Influencers, Feminism, and Visual Culture
The "Selfie" and Its Discontents
The Social Media Influencer and the Rise of Instafame
On Post-Feminism and the "Selfie"
Post-Feminism and Social Media in the Blogging Era
Technologies of the Self(ie)
"Selfie" or Self-Portrait?
Social Media Self-Fashioning and the "Selfie" as Political Activism
5. How Selfies Think: The Cognitive Dimensions of Digital Photography
Selfies as Traces of the Thought to Take a Selfie
Selfies as Part of What One Is Saying to That Other Self That Is Just Coming into Life in the Flow of Time
Selfies as Thoughtless
6. Domestic Snapshots: Female Self-Imaging Practices Then and Now
Selfies as Visual Texts
Formal Problems: Selfies as Poor Images
Sherman, Self-Making, Performativity
The Gendering of Technology and Its Role in the Public Imaginary of the Selfie
Photographic Performative Self-Representation: Lee and Nakadate
Negotiating the Commercial
7. The Selfie in Consumer Culture
Self-Portraiture, Selfies, and the History of Photography
Artistic Background of Contemporary Self-Portraits
Promotional Aspects of Selfies
Two Iconic Selfies
8. Selfie Narcissism, Consumerism and the Pathologizing of Women
Who's Afraid of the Selfie?
Technology, Mental Health, and Pathologizing of Women
The Selfie as Contagion
The Confidence Gap
Recent Issues in Gender and the Tech Industry
The Selfie and Consumer Validation
Conclusion: Wielding the Selfie in Advanced Capitalism

Citation preview

Visual Culture Approaches to the Selfie

This collection explores the cultural fascination with social media forms of selfportraiture, “selfies,” with a specific interest in online self-imaging strategies in a Western context. This book examines the selfie as a social and technological phenomenon but also engages with digital self-portraiture as representation: as work that is committed to rigorous object-based analysis. The scholars in this volume consider the topic of online self-portraiture—both its social function as a technology-driven form of visual communication, as well as its thematic, intellectual, historical, and aesthetic intersections with the history of art and visual culture. This book will be of interest to scholars of photography, art history, and media studies. Derek Conrad Murray is a Professor of the History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Cover: Vivian Fu, Self Portrait at Childhood Home, 2015, Giclé e print, 11 in x 14 in. Used by kind permission of the artist.

Routledge History of Photography

This series publishes research monographs and edited collections focusing on the history and theory of photography. These original, scholarly books may take an art historical, visual studies, or material studies approach. Experimental Self-Portraits in Early French Photography Jillian Lerner The Camera as Actor Photography and the Embodiment of Technology Edited by Amy Cox Hall Jeff Wall and the Concept of the Picture Naomi Merritt The Materiality of Exhibition Photography in the Modernist Era Form, Content, Consequence Laurie Taylor The Image of Environmental Harm in American Social Documentary Photography Chris Balaschak Hybrid Photography Intermedial Practice in Science and Humanities Edited by Sara Hillnhuetter, Stefanie Klamm and Friedrich Tietjen The Selfie, Temporality, and Contemporary Photography Claire Raymond Photography in China Science, Commerce and Communication Oliver Moore Visual Culture Approaches to the Selfie Edited by Derek Conrad Murray For more information about this series, please visit:

Visual Culture Approaches to the Selfie

Edited by Derek Conrad Murray

First published 2022 by Routledge 605 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10158 and by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, OX14 4RN Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business © 2022 Taylor & Francis The right of Derek Conrad Murray to be identified as the author of the editorial material, and of the authors for their individual chapters, has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data Names: Murray, Derek Conrad, editor. Title: Visual culture approaches to the selfie / edited by Derek Conrad Murray. Description: New York, NY: Routledge, [2022] | Series: Routledge history of photography | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: LCCN 2021025681 (print) | LCCN 2021025682 (ebook) | ISBN 9780367206086 (hbk) | ISBN 9781032132662 (pbk) | ISBN 9780367206109 (ebk) Subjects: LCSH: Selfies (Photography)‐‐Social aspects. | Portrait photography‐‐Psychological aspects. | Popular culture. Classification: LCC TR575 .V57 2022 (print) | LCC TR575 (ebook) | DDC 778.9/ 2‐‐dc23 LC record available at LC ebook record available at ISBN: 978-0-367-20608-6 (hbk) ISBN: 978-1-032-13266-2 (pbk) ISBN: 978-0-367-20610-9 (ebk) DOI: 10.4324/9780367206109 Typeset in Sabon by MPS Limited, Dehradun


List of Illustrations List of Contributors Introduction: The Selfie as Visual Culture: A Methodological Quandary

vii x




Counter-Selfies and the Real Subsumption of Society




Self-Portraiture and Self Performance




Proliferating Identity: Trans Selfies as Contemporary Art




The Evolution of the Selfie: Influencers, Feminism, and Visual Culture




How Selfies Think: The Cognitive Dimensions of Digital Photography




Domestic Snapshots: Female Self-Imaging Practices Then and Now S ORAYA MUR R A Y


vi Contents


The Selfie in Consumer Culture




Selfie Narcissism, Consumerism and the Pathologizing of Women









2.2 2.3

3.1 3.2

3.3 3.4 4.1



Plate illustrating the “dazzle” painting method for camouflaging ships. From volume 30 of the 1922 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, located between pp. 540 and 541. Public domain. Screen capture from Jillian Mayer’s “Makeup Tutorial: How to Hide from Cameras.” Source: YouTube. Screenshot by author, published under fair use. A screenshot of Amalia Ulman’s Instagram page during her Excellences & Perfections performance. Screenshot by author, published under fair use. A screenshot of Cindy Sherman’s Instagram page. Screenshot by author, published under fair use. A screenshot of Cindy Sherman’s Instagram page showing a Gillian Wearing work, Self Portrait as My Sister Jane Wearing (2003). The irony at play in relation to image rights of photographed artwork versus screen capture is not lost on the author in this particular image choice. Screenshot by author, published under fair use. Weegee (Arthur Fellig) The Gay Deceiver (1939), Gelatin silver print, © International Center of Photography, NY. Laverne Cox, screenshot from Laverne Cox's Twitter page, Twitter. @Lavernecox. May 29, 2014. 71985221555195904. Published under fair use. Alok Vaid-Menon Instagram feed. Screenshot by author, published under fair use. Alok Vaid-Menon bathroom mirror selfie. Screenshot by author, published under fair use. Hong, Vanessa (2020), “Paris, France,” @vanessahong, March, 1, URL. March 22, 2020. Screenshot by author, published under fair use. Hong, Vanessa (2020), “New York, New York,” @vanessawantstoknow, March 21, URL. March 22, 2020. Screenshot by author, published under fair use. Colin Powell, former United States Secretary of State and Retired Four Star General, 1954. archive/2014/03/colin-powells-selfie-everything-you-could-everhope-selfie/359133/ Screenshot by author, published under fair use.



43 51

52 63

65 71 74






4.4 Francesca Romeo, Ryan, 2009. ©[Francesca Romeo] Reproduced by permission of artist. 4.5 Francesca Romeo, Self portrait at the bar, in between coasts, 2013. ©[Francesca Romeo] Reproduced by permission of artist. 4.6 Vivian Fu, Me and Yui, Castro, April 2014. ©[Vivian Fu] Reproduced by permission of the artist. 4.7 Vivian Fu, Me and Wenxin, Mission, April 2014. ©[Vivian Fu] Reproduced by permission of the artist. 4.8 Vivian Fu, Bruise, Mission, July 2014. ©[Vivian Fu] Reproduced by permission of the artist. 4.9 Vivian Fu, Self Portrait Taking Selfie, December 2014. ©[Vivian Fu] Reproduced by permission of artist. 6.1 Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #30, 1979, Gelatin silver print, 8 × 10 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. 6.2 Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #84, 1978, Gelatin silver print 8 × 10 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. 6.3 Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #56, 1980, Gelatin silver print 8 × 10 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. 6.4 Cindy Sherman, @cindysherman, cindysherman/?hl=en, October November 2019, accessed April 1, 2020. 6.5 Nikki S. Lee, The Seniors Project (26), 1999, C-print © Nikki S. Lee, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. 6.6 Nikki S. Lee, The Hip Hop Project (1), 2000, C-print © Nikki S. Lee, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. 6.7 Laurel Nakadate, February 9, 2010 from the series 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears, 2011 © Laurel Nakadate, Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York. 6.8 Laurel Nakadate, December 19, 2010 from the series 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears, 2011, © Laurel Nakadate, Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York. 6.9 Rupi Kaur, @rupikaur_, hl=en, March 24, 2015. Accessed April 1, 2020. Screenshot by author, published under fair use. 6.10 Arvida Byström, @arvidabystrom, arvidabystrom/?hl=en, June 2017. Accessed April 1, 2020. Screenshot by author, published under fair use. 6.11 Molly Soda, @bloatedandalone4evr1993, bloatedandalone4evr1993/?hl=en, January 2017. Accessed April 1, 2020. Screenshot by author, published under fair use. 7.1 Ilse Bing, Self-Portrait with Leica, 1931. Copyright Estate of Ilse Bing. Photographer Ilse Bing appears in a self-portrait that shows her small Leica camera, 1931. 7.2 Tseng Kwong Chi, Paris, France, 1983, from the self-portrait series East Meets West, 1979–1989. © Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc. Tseng Kwong Chi poses for a self-portrait in front of the famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France in 1983.

109 112 115 116 117 118 144 145 146

147 152 153








Illustrations 7.3











Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait, 1500, Collection of the Alte Pinakothek, Germany. German artist Albrecht Dürer, in an influential self-portrait painted in 1500. Maje “#MajeMyDogandI,” website screenshot, 2019. A 2019 advertisement for the French clothing brand Maje which shows a model taking a selfie with a dog. Screenshot by author, published under fair use. Beyoncé and JAY-Z, Mona Lisa selfie, posted on Tumblr, 2014. Married celebrities Beyoncé and JAY-Z pose for a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa painting in the Louvre Museum in 2014. Screenshot by author, published under fair use. Roger Federer and Serena Williams selfie, posted on Twitter, 2019. Tennis champions Roger Federer and Serena Williams pose for a selfie after a mixed doubles match in Australia in 2019. Screenshot by author, published under fair use. The Atlantic article entitled “Selfies Are Art,” November 22, 2013, selfies-are-art/281772/. Screenshot by author, published under fair use. Fortune Magazine article entitled “CONTAGION”, August 22, 2014, Screenshot by author, published under fair use. “Selfitis is the new mental disorder afflicting the smartphone generation – here’s how to test yourself,” by Alexander Britton. Screenshot by author, published under fair use. Article: “Selfies Aren’t Empowering. They’re a Cry for Help” by Erin Gloria Ryan, Jezebel. November 21, 2013. selfies-arent-empowering-theyre-a-cry-for-help-1468965365. Screenshot by author, published under fair use. Atlantic Magazine’s expose on “The Confidence Gap,” Kay and Shipman, 2014. 014/05/the-confidence-gap/359815/. Screenshot by author, published under fair use. “Sorority Girls Took Selfies at a Baseball Game… And Grown Men Mocked Them For It” in October 1, 2015. https:// .TpQXuSmPG. Screenshot by author, published under fair use. “Narcissistic Personality Disorder: A Guide to Signs, Diagnosis, and Treatment,” in December 21, 2017. https:// Screenshot by author, published under fair use.














Grant Bollmer is an Associate Professor of Media Studies at North Carolina State University, where he teaches in the Department of Communication and the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media Ph.D. Program, and is an Honorary Associate of the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney. He is the author of the books Inhuman Networks: Social Media and the Archaeology of Connection (2016) and Theorizing Digital Cultures (2018). Katherine Guinness is a theorist and historian of contemporary art. She is an Assistant Professor and Director of Art History in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Her first book Rosemarie Trockel: Schizogenesis is forthcoming in Spring 2019 from the University of Minnesota Press. Ace Lehner is an interdisciplinary artist and scholar specializing in critical engagement with identity and representation; history, theory, and criticism of contemporary art; visual studies; photography theory and queer and trans theory. Lehner’s artistic practice primarily utilizes photography and video and often embraces collaboration to mine the complex relation between representations and the constitution of identities. Lehner holds an M.F.A./M.A. in fine art/visual and critical studies from California College of the Arts and a B.F.A. in studio art with a minor in social anthropology from Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada and also studied fine art and art history at Middlesex University in London, UK. Derek Conrad Murray is an interdisciplinary theorist specializing in the history, theory, and criticism of contemporary art and visual culture. Murray is a Professor of History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He works in contemporary aesthetic and cultural theory with a particular attention to technocultural engagements with identity and representation. Murray is coeditor of Visual Studies, the official journal of the International Visual Sociology Association. He is also an Associate Editor of Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Third Text. He is the author of Mapplethorpe and the Flower: Radical Sexuality and the Limits of Control (Bloomsbury, 2020) and Queering Post-Black Art: Artists Transforming African-American Identity After Civil Rights (I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury, UK, 2016).

Contributors xi Soraya Murray is a visual culture theorist with an interest in technological representations of difference, as well as the imaging of advanced technology, science, and innovation in video games and film. Murray holds a Ph.D. in art history and visual studies from Cornell University. An Associate Professor in the Film & Digital Media Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Murray is the author of On Video Games: The Visual Politics of Race, Gender and Space (I.B. Tauris, 2018), which focuses on post-9/11 era mainstream games and how they both mirror and are constitutive of larger societal fears, dreams, hopes and even complex struggles for recognition. Kyle Parry is an Assistant Professor of History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz. An interdisciplinary scholar, Parry’s research in visual and media studies broadly concerns the impacts of digital media and networked technologies on art, visual culture, and democracy. Parry is developing a book manuscript on critical representational practices around events of environmental violence titled The Elements of Witness: A History of Disaster Representation. He is also co-organizing a symposium for April 2018 at the University of Rochester on the history of photographic ubiquity called Ubiquity: Photography’s Multitudes. His research has appeared or is forthcoming in Critical Inquiry, Debates in the Digital Humanities, and Archive Journal. Jonathan Schroeder is the William A. Kern Professor in the College of Liberal Arts at Rochester Institute of Technology. He has a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Michigan and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, and he did postdoctoral work at Rhode Island School of Design. He has published widely on visual culture, consumer aesthetics, and identity. His books include Visual Consumption (Routledge, 2002), the Routledge Companion to Visual Organization (with Emma Bell and Samantha Warren, 2014), and Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America (with Janet Borgerson, MIT Press, 2017).

Introduction: “The Selfie as Visual Culture: A Methodological Quandary” Derek Conrad Murray

As I write this introduction, the term selfie has become firmly grounded in the public consciousness. For better or worse, the act itself has now assumed a dominant place in our online lives in the twenty-first century. By now we’re all familiar with its aesthetic characteristics: a lone subject facing directly into a mirror or reflection while holding up a cell phone or more traditional analog or digital camera. It is more formally defined as a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically captured with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media. The selfie has become a kind of visual language that conveys a range of cultural concerns and antagonisms, yet it is most commonly regarded as a social problem—and as a sign that society has become too obsessed with technology. In November 2013, Oxford Dictionary announced the term selfie as the word of the year: a distinction that came with both prestige and intense ridicule. And in the wake of that announcement, CNN declared the selfie as “the most embarrassing phenomenon of the digital age.”1 This project originated in 2009, about two years after I began my tenure at the University of California, Santa Cruz. During that period, I was invited to co-teach two senior photography seminars. Essentially, I was brought in as a critic to help the advanced photography students develop their thesis projects. Most students were producing photographic series within the conventional genres: landscape, documentary, street photography, and portraiture—though there was a tendency among many of the female photographers toward self-portraiture. But it was the style of these images that struck me. They were less composed, more snapshot-oriented, always produced with film, and there was a self-conscious embrace of photographic imperfections. Essentially, they were constructing a very grainy, nostalgic form of intimacy that was meant to feel spontaneous and authentic. Mirrors factored heavily in their compositions, the colors were very saturated, and many of the photographs contained light leaks, visible dust, and time stamps. But what was most extraordinary was the focus on a range of identity-related themes: sexual desire, body positivity, gender construction, racism, and feminism. There was an overt social engagement and politicization being conveyed, combined with a very brash ownership of individual sexuality. I had overheard a few students use the term “selfie” when describing their self-portraits, and I eventually asked what it meant. It was selfexplanatory, but this was the beginning of a social media shorthand that was taking hold in online circles. As an art historian and visual studies scholar with particular expertise in cultural theory, as well as theories of identity and representation, I was intrigued by this very youth-driven engagement with photography and the self-image. This work was brash and forceful in its messaging and resistant to shaming, and the DOI: 10.4324/9780367206109-101

2 Derek Conrad Murray students were fully immersed in a new set of possibilities for creativity and community-building. The response to this work by the students’ peers was primarily ridicule and judgment. Sometimes this was aimed at the overt sexualization conveyed in the images, or what was perceived to be self-obsession or narcissism. This response was persistent and derisive, but also coming primarily from male students, who tended to disregard the body in their own photography, focusing instead on landscape or ethnographic forms of social documentary work. But the image production by these young women was driven by more than aesthetic concerns. There was a distinct activist element that took the form of an insular and urgent dialogue between them. It was a very private conversation, with visual cues and puns that only those in the know would understand. What I was witnessing was the genesis of a social media movement. For these students—among them Vivian Fu, whose work I discuss in this volume—there was a desire to break into the worlds of fine art and commercial photography, both of which were dominated by men. What I learned very quickly from having conversations with these young photographers was that they were all active online, they were blogging—primarily on Tumblr, and they were forming online communities with likeminded image producers around the world. But what unified them was a shared engagement with the self-image, which was itself a powerful form of visual communication and a means to assert an agency that was both personal and communal. For me, this discovery thrust me into pondering not just this new world of social media communication, but also the self-portrait itself, which was never truly taken seriously within the histories of art. It was the sheer ubiquity of self-imaging online that has fueled a reappraisal of the genre, and a more robust engagement with the visual rhetorics, as well as the compulsions that encourage the activity. My first foray into writing on selfies was at the invitation of Jonathan Schroeder to deliver a paper on self-imaging at the Communicating Identity/Consuming Difference conference, held at Rochester Institute of Technology in 2014. This led to my inclusion in a special issue of the journal Consumption Markets & Culture in 2015, which at the time was edited by Schroeder. The paper I published, “Notes to Self: The Visual Culture of Selfies in the Age of Social Media” had a significant impact on a new, yet increasingly vibrant conversation. Since then, the discourse has grown dramatically, and become more complex and multidisciplinary—while also remaining methodologically adrift from the highly individualized complexities of selfimaging—despite the very personalized and intimate dimensions of the selfie-taking act. In fact, the primary vexation I have with the discourse is its big data approach to studying the selfie phenomenon, as it tends to necessitate a general disregard for the personal. In my estimation, there must be a greater understanding of the psychodynamics of self-imaging and sharing online, while simultaneously researching it as a big-tech-driven, consumer-capitalist-fueled movement with global ramifications. It is true that the most fascinating aspect of self-portraiture today is its ubiquity, driven initially by photo-sharing websites like MySpace and Facebook, both of which created a new visual language where the photograph emerged as a more central form of communication—or put more aptly, as a mode of speech. Users could send specific images without text and largely rely upon visual cues. Ultimately, what we were witnessing was a new form of vernacular photography. Despite its reluctant cultural acceptance, selfie-taking is largely regarded as a puerile gesture: something that is trivial and childish—suggesting that those who



engage in this behavior are too concerned with their self-image. Moreover, the evolution of the public discourse on online self-imaging has also taken a troubling turn: from a lighthearted discussion concerned with the vernacular uses of technology to a serious conversation about mental health. The latter is arguably the most disturbing dimension because the rhetoric has a tendency to malign those who may actively engage in online image cultures. The general focus on women, as the primary selfietakers, is a common feature of popular journalistic approaches to the topic: mostly young women from their teens to those in their thirties. Recent efforts by researchers and medical professionals to establish a link between selfies and mental health disorders (like Narcissistic Personality Disorder, [NPD]) have become more fervent. And while these studies tend not to focus entirely on women, it is within the public debate, that women take center stage as the primary participants in selfie culture. This core contradiction defines a conversation that vacillates contentiously between technology, mental health, and gender dynamics. Healthline writer Linda Hagen-Miller considers the uptick in efforts to officially characterize selfie-taking as a legitimate medical condition: “The American Psychiatric Association (APA) had established a new mental disorder called ‘selfitis’ and stated that obsessive photo taking and posting is a way to gain attention, compensate for low self-esteem, and compensate for lack of intimacy.”2 The precedent referenced by Hagen-Miller refers to a research study conducted by Janarthanan Balakrishnan of the Thiagarajar School of Management in Madura, India and Mark D. Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University in Nottingham, UK. Their findings on selfies were published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction in 2017.3 The study went on to have a rather significant impact and was widely embraced. But it was the name Selfitis, that wielded the most influence. Hagen-Miller rightly underscores that “Selfitis” is a term coined to describe the cultural habit of taking an overabundance of photos of oneself and posting them on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and other social media sites.4 However, she highlights that despite its official-sounding name, the APA has yet to formally establish a firm link between the cultural practice and psychiatric disorders.5 Forbes writer Bruce Y. Yee points out that the APA did not, in actuality, establish “Selfitis” as a new mental disorder6 Yee’s article states that the APA never solidified such criteria; that the media reporting was all a hoax. Still, according to the study published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, there are legitimately established markers for Selfitis: Borderline Selfitis: “taking photos of one’s self at least three times a day but not posting them on social media.” Acute Selfitis: “taking photos of one’s self at least three times a day and posting each of the photos on social media.” Chronic Selfitis: “uncontrollable urge to take photos of one’s self round the clock and posting the photos on social media more than six times a day.”7 All of this may seem silly, yet there is a concerted effort to characterize selfie-taking as a disorder. These approaches to self-imaging online tend to vacillate between ridicule of the act itself, to more serious medical and research-based findings. Overall, the general loathing toward the technology usage of certain demographics is a source of

4 Derek Conrad Murray consternation, but the medical turn is somewhat perplexing. The introduction of Selfitis as a new disorder followed other efforts that are widely referenced in medical journals, such as a 2018 article in Psychology Today that cites various studies focused on selfie-taking. The article, entitled “The Kind of Selfies Most Often Taken by Narcissists,” by Wendy L. Patrick details the findings of three research studies, each of which locates a direct link between selfie-taking and narcissistic tendencies.8 One of the studies referenced in the article delineated two different types of narcissists; grandiose and vulnerable. Selfie-takers apparently tend to fall into the category of grandiose narcissists, which is linked with taking and posting a greater number of selfies (especially ones with only themselves in the photo). They also tend to be motivated by self-presentation and are very concerned with having a large number of online followers and “likes.”9 Studies like those mentioned earlier are contrasted by other efforts of scholars and researchers such as Theresa Senft’s Selfie Research Network, an international group of academics studying social and cultural implications of the selfie. Its membership is methodologically diverse and international; comprising educators, students, journalists, and visual artists. Another example is Lev Manovich’s SELFIECITY, a digital humanities research project that investigated selfies in five cities around the world (Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow, New York, and Sao Paulo).10 According to the studies website, the project “investigates selfies using a mix of theoretic, artistic and quantitative methods.”11 The study and its findings consider demographics, facial expressions, social media methods, datasets—and includes theoretical essays that discuss selfies in the history of photography. A related study is Why We Post, a global anthropological research project at the University College London (UCL), that studies the uses and consequences of social media.12 There have also been several books published that discuss selfies; most of which are non-academic.13 However, there is an exceedingly vast spectrum of selfie-related academic articles published across multiple disciplines, from Sociology and Communications to Media Studies.14 Especially, the International Journal of Communication has published numerous substantive articles on the topic.15 In popular journalism, selfie-related articles spring up weekly, if not daily in major publications like The New York Times, The Guardian, Newsweek, Forbes, CNN, among multiple others. They have inspired fictional novels, television sitcoms, and articles written by notable art critics like Pulitzer Prize recipient Jerry Saltz, and actor James Franco.16 Arguably, Saltz wrote one of the more impactful popular journalistic articles about selfies, a move that imbued the subject with a certain intellectual and cultural legitimacy. Up to that point art historians and critics had not given any real attention to the topic—even despite its relation to the tradition of self-portraiture in the histories of art. Saltz explained: We live in the age of the selfie. A fast self-portrait, made with a smartphone’s camera and immediately distributed and inscribed into a network, is an instant visual communication of where we are, what we’re doing, who we think we are, and who we think is watching. Selfies have changed aspects of social interaction, body language, self-awareness, privacy, and humor, altering temporality, irony, and public behavior. It’s become a new visual genre—a type of self-portraiture formally distinct from all others in history. Selfies have their own structural autonomy. This is a very big deal for art.17



Saltz is definitely onto something here, yet I am uneasy with the widespread notion that contemporary self-imaging cultures on the Internet are directly in alignment with the self-portraiture in the histories of art and photography—though I do understand the comparisons. The vital concerns around technology, surveillance, privacy, consumerism, and mental health create complications when attempting a more art historical analysis of these contemporaneous images. Furthermore, notions of medium specificity, genre, narrative, social engagement, identity politics, and intentionality, increasingly blur our methodological choices. Even Saltz asks, “what art-historical and visual DNA form the selfie’s roots and structures.”18 His knowledge of art history is clear, even as his historical references are rather expected and conventionally Eurocentric. Saltz conjures comparison between widely-known historical selfportraits such as M. C. Escher’s 1935 lithograph Hand With Reflecting Sphere and Parmigianino’s (Girolamo Maria Mazzola) 1523–24 Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and the many self-portraits of Vincent Van Gogh and others: I discern strong selfie echoes in [Vincent] Van Gogh’s amazing self-portraits— some of the same intensity, immediacy, and need to reveal something inner to the outside world in the most vivid way possible. [Andy] Warhol, of course, comes to mind with his love of the present, performative persona and his wild Day-Glo color. But he took his own instant photos of other subjects, or had his subjects shoot themselves in a photo booth—both devices with far more objective lenses than a smartphone, as well as different formats and depths of field. Many will point to Cindy Sherman. But none of her pictures is taken in any selfie way. Moreover, her photographs show us the characters and selves that exist in her unbridled pictorial imagination. She’s not there.19 The above sentiments have framed the limited discussion of the selfie in art discourse, which in a manner, is sensible (at least in art historical terms), while not really getting to the heart of the issue. Are the critical framings and methodologies of visual and historical analysis enough to make sense of such a discursive phenomenon? I would argue they are not—though it is also true that object-based analyses are essential for truly understanding these images. Ana Peraica holds a similar view that, to approach selfies from the perspective of art history is difficult, as selfportraiture was hardly ever a major art genre, but more a kind of art curiosity. There are hardly any anthologies of people’s self-portraits. In interpretative art history, a common obstacle is connected to the mystification of the artist’s relationship to the self.20 Peraica’s perspective tends to echo my own, but media scholar Nicholas Mirzoeff’s take on selfies is more in alignment with Jerry Saltz: The selfie resonates not because it is new, but because it expresses, develops, expands, and intensifies the long history of the self-portrait. The self-portrait showed to others the status of the person depicted. In this sense, what we have come to call our “own” image—the interface of the way we think we look and the way others see us—is the first and fundamental object of global visual culture. The selfie depicts the drama of our own daily performance of ourselves in tension

6 Derek Conrad Murray with our inner emotions that may or may not be expressed as we wish. At each stage of the self-portrait’s expansion, more and more people have been able to depict themselves. Today’s young, urban, networked majority has reworked the history of the self-portrait to make the selfie into the first visual signature of the new era.21 Mirzoeff’s approach, with little exception, is similar to Saltz’s in terms of its very European approach to art history. He references some very interesting and eclectic examples, from Velázquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas, Hippolyte Bayard’s SelfPortrait of a Drowned Man (1839–40), in which he pretended to be a drowned man—to Gustave Courbet’s painting The Wounded Man (1845–54), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1882 painting Self-Portrait Before a Mirror, and others by artist’s Marcel Duchamp, Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, and Samuel Fosso. I cite these examples with some attention because they exemplify the direction that selfie-related research is headed within the arts. But I would say the critical writing emerging from the arts thus far, has yet to go deep enough to truly intervene into the topic. Granted, Mirzoeff is a media and communications scholar, but there is a very conventional set of critical approaches that visual studies scholars tend to rely upon. It would be a missed opportunity to utilize the rise in popularity of self-imaging in the Internet age, only to reignite interest in Western art history. There is, needless to say, a rich pictorial legacy, as well as a toolkit of well-worn methodological interventions to draw upon—but the selfie is more discursive in its underpinnings. A similar challenge presents itself among sociologists, media, and communications scholars—which is the tendency to research selfies in the aggregate, as big data, but to ignore the intimacies, visual particularities, and personal motivations behind specific images. The more cynical interpretations of the selfie debate share a central conceit that concerns me, which is not simply what I would characterize as a careless, or callous, disregard for the deeply personal motivations for self-imaging—but rather a disdain articulated around the private desires expressed in individual images. There is much more cultural interest in viewing the selfie judgmentally, as a social scourge, and as a representational phenomenon defined by a society where private citizens don’t feel they exist without photographic evidence. Within this particular discussion, such attitudes take the shape of expressed misgivings about the rapaciousness of technology, surveillance, neoliberal capitalism, and mental health—while ignoring the very human longings and desires for recognition that emanate from these forms of representation. What intrigues me about online self-imaging is the tension between consciousness and self-consciousness that offers up the intimacies and longings of an individual. The photographic self-portrait is an intensely psychological image that mobilizes (or more aptly weaponizes) the returned gaze in the process of selfconception. That is not to say big data research has no place in the discussion—of course, it does—but it can only reveal so much.

Technologies of the Selfie In our technology-crazed society, we have witnessed what could be described as an elevation of the individual; or perhaps more aptly, a cultural fixation with the self. The intensity with which new image-making technologies have engendered the ability to generate and share images is truly unprecedented and remarkable. But on the other



hand, the ubiquity of these technologies, calls into question the ever-expanding reach of a very rapacious capitalist techno-scape that wields even greater power over the masses. There is a kind of utopian optimism around the greater visibility digital imaging technologies create—especially for the minoritized and voiceless, who have historically found themselves shut out of representation, or willfully misrepresented, stereotyped, or caricatured. The ease with which images can be created and disseminated online has been culturally transformative, affording the opportunity to forge counter-narratives that speak directly against erasure, maligning, and degradation. Furthermore, these technologies of imaging have been utilized to document atrocities, social antagonisms, and forms of violence that, under different circumstances, would have gone unseen. The cell phone camera has been weaponized against state violence and has functioned as a crucial form of witnessing against extrajudicial police killings. In particular, the public executions of unarmed African-American citizens in the U.S. have been made visible and broadcast online for the world to see. These images have become sites of justice in many instances, giving those without a voice the opportunity to be heard and believed. I am profoundly intrigued by the cell phone camera as a means for individuals to be present in the world; as a platform to construct identities, and to create a sense of value around subjectivities whose lack of visibility relegates them to the margins of society. There is a certain value in this, despite the more troubling realities of neoliberal capitalist aggression and the growing perniciousness of corporatization. While the cell phone can function as a kind of countersurveillance against the forces of social authority, it has also fostered the formation of counterpublics, particularly among young women, who have utilized the power of the Internet to address a range of social issues. Scholar Henry Giroux has leveled one of the more cynical critiques of this phenomenon, arguing that “surveillance has become a growing feature of daily life wielded by both the state and the larger corporate sphere”:22 American society is in the grip of a paralyzing infantilism, marked by a crisis of history, memory, and agency. Everywhere we look, the refusal to think, interrogate troubling knowledge, and welcome robust dialogue and engaged forms of pedagogy are now met by the fog of rigidity, anti-intellectualism and a collapse of the public into the private. A politics of intense privatization and its embrace of the self as the only viable unit of agency appears to have a strong grip on American society, as can be seen in the endless attacks on reason, truth, critical thinking and informed exchange, or any other relationship that embraces the social and the democratic values that support it.23 Giroux is correct that there is something troubling about our cultural moment: an abiding sense that technology’s increasing grip on society has led to a crisis of consciousness, and to a descent into lies, fake news, fraudulent identities, hoaxes, and deep fakes—while encouraging the citizenry to indulge in an ever-more rapacious consumerism that elevates materialism, greed, and wealth to levels of religiosity. Moreover, the assaults on truth during Donald J. Trump’s Presidency became the new normal. The daily spreading of untruths by government officials and news pundits was normalized, even lauded, while the spreading of misinformation and disinformation on the Internet emerged as a legitimate political tool. But the consequences of these developments are even more widely felt and potentially dire. As art historian Janet Kraynak

8 Derek Conrad Murray argues, despite her personal misgivings about the increasing ubiquity of digitization, we nonetheless “inhabit a digital world: one where digitization is not a technology, confined to the hardware or software of the computer, but represents an operative ideology, a powerful, and a transformative force of everyday life itself.”24 Kraynak pinpoints something very significant about the ideological underpinnings of technology, which is not always about innovation itself, but a shifting value system predicated upon a “firm belief in the emancipatory possibilities of computers and information technologies, whose proponents have long promoted the creation of a more egalitarian society.”25 This tendency toward what can best be described as digital utopianism, has long been defined by its cyber utopic rhetoric that trumpets the emancipatory potentiality of technology—even despite the very stark cultural realities that innovation has led to greater inequity, exclusion, political injustice, and division.26 On the other hand, Kraynak does acknowledge that there is some merit to these cyber utopic claims, which is evidenced in the widespread impact of digital platforms. Facebook and Instagram, in particular, have had such a massive effect on the cultural landscape—and they have led to the formation of like-minded subcommunities that enjoy “rapid, if not instantaneous and widespread communication.”27 Among the concerns brought to bear by the rapidly expanding and all-consuming invasiveness of technology, is its assault on personal privacy. The dismantling of privacy—brought about by the seductiveness of social media, as well as increasingly sophisticated new technologies (cell phones, tablets, laptops, and GPS systems)—has encouraged private citizens to willfully divulge personal information: to essentially open up their lives to the world without criticality. Giroux, in his writing on the selfie phenomenon, argues that the surveillance state has successfully commoditized and privatized society: Surveillance has become a growing feature of daily life wielded by both the state and the larger corporate sphere. This merger registers both the transformation of the political state into the corporate state and the transformation of a market economy into a criminal economy. One growing attribute of the merging of state and corporate surveillance apparatuses is the increasing view of privacy on the part of the American public as something to escape from rather than preserve as a precious political right. The surveillance- and security-corporate state is one that not only listens, watches, and gathers massive amounts of information through the data mining necessary for monitoring the American public—now considered as both potential terrorists and a vast consumer market—but also acculturates the public into accepting the intrusion of surveillance technologies and privatized commodified values into all aspects of their lives. Personal information is willingly given over to social media and other corporate-based websites, such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other media platforms, and harvested daily as people move from one targeted website to the next across multiple screens and digital apparatuses.28 In our social media age, the tension between personal privacy, online sharing, and surveillance is perhaps not reconcilable—but these concerns have emerged as major considerations that create certain methodological challenges. There is a tendency—and Giroux exemplifies this—to caution us about the rapaciousness of global techno-capitalism’s unrestrained ability to surveil and extract data from the



masses. He is correct in his assessments yet, there are other approaches as well that are more attuned to the fragilities of intimacy, as they become entangled with mass consumer technologies. One such concern is related to the voyeuristicallypornographic dimension of selfie consumption. There is voyeurism at the heart of self-imaging that brings with it a sense of discomfort and awkwardness in viewers. The desire to see oneself; or at least create a type of fictional selfhood, encourages a specific kind of gaze, but it also compels those who consume selfies to look upon the private intimacies of others. That conjunction of desires: the interplay between the observer-photographer and the viewer-consumer is where much of the tension arises. But it is also where forms of resistance and activism can be mobilized. The convergence of desires is what makes the selfie a powerful, if not also fraught, a form of visual communication. Giroux admits that while self-imaging online walks a perilous line with increased corporatization, technologies of data harvesting, and surveillance, it can also be mobilized as a means to generate and disseminate counter-images that will transform the socio-political landscape: The good news is that selfie culture can also be used to rewrite the relationship between the personal and the political, and in doing so expand the vibrancy of public discourse and work to prevent the collapse of public life. In this case, selfie culture moves away from the isolation and privatization of neoliberal culture and further enables those individuals and groups working to create a formative critical culture that better enables the translation of private troubles into public issues and a further understanding of how public life affects private experiences. In contrast to the mainstream appropriation of selfie culture, this more empowering use of selfies becomes part of what might be called an emergent public … And at its best it becomes an act of empowerment and a vehicle for social change. What selfie culture will become presents a crucial site of struggle to address both the collapse of the public into the private, and the rise of the punishing and surveillance state—a fight desperately worth waging.29 I agree with Giroux that selfie culture is a crucial site of struggle that grapples with a collapse of the public into the private, or perhaps vice versa, but my concern is more one of methodology, as I work toward locating an approach that brings together methods from a range of disciplines. In the following section, I sketch out a set of concerns that impact how this discussion can progress, as well as some points of tension or awkwardness that prohibit the discussion of selfies from generatively moving forward.

A Methodological Challenge In order to understand the depth of this discussion, there must be an engagement with scholarly, journalistic, and medical assessments of this phenomenon. The technological implications of imaging practices are central, as are the socio-economic and political ramifications as well. There are a multitude of approaches being generated in scholarly journals within various disciplines—though, as will be discussed in this volume, the majority of research has been conducted in the social sciences. Art History and Visual Culture Studies, as of yet, have not fully taken on this topic—despite the rather lengthy history of self-portraiture in the visual arts. In many

10 Derek Conrad Murray respects, the more canonical methodologies of Art History are not entirely sufficient to unravel the larger social, political, technological, and economic dimensions of visuality on the Internet. In the U.S., the methods of Visual Studies have largely remained sutured to art historical models and approaches, though this is beginning to loosen. There is, to a large extent, a broader Visual Studies, which can best be described as an expanded field that spans the arts, humanities, and social sciences. But the methods employed within these arenas vary greatly and are informed by the particularities of one’s disciplinary training, as well as an increasing emphasis on cross-disciplinary research. In my own writing on the topic, I tended to combine methods from Media and Communications Studies, Sociology, Art History, and Visual Studies, while actively citing research from both arenas. I found this approach productive and it led me to seek an editorship with the Sociology journal Visual Studies, which is the official journal of International Visual Sociology Association. My time with the journal thus far has been, in many respects, a unifying effort, as I have endeavored to bridge the disciplinary and methodological gaps between the practitioners of visual culture studies. Having roots in Visual Sociology, the journal actively publishes writing in Sociology, Anthropology, Media Studies, Communications Studies, Art History, and the visual arts. What led me to these arenas was the selfie debate itself, because there was no sufficient contemporaneous method for dealing with the conjunction of technology, capitalism, and mental health that was shaping the discussion. I did find scholarship in feminist visuality particularly useful, but also not entirely suited to the topic. Social sciences methods, on the other hand, generally do not engage in the formal analysis of visual objects, which is an essential method for art historical and visual culture studies work. Close, semiotic reading of images is what I find most sustaining and fruitful about Art History, so I’ve endeavored to utilize what is nourishing and generative from various methodological approaches. As I write this, the editors of Visual Studies (Susan Hansen, Gary Bratchford, Julie Patarin-Jossec, and myself) are embarking on a new initiative: a questionnaire that asks the vital question: What is visual studies today? The aim is to bring together a broad spectrum of scholars and practitioners to ponder a set of questions about the current state of the field. The diversity of participants is key to this investigation, not just in terms of gender and ethnicity, but also geography, methodology, and discipline. Along those lines, we endeavored to create a much more diverse list of participants than were included in previous conversations in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The methodological questions that inform this book, are reflected not just in its approach to the subject matter, but also to Visual Studies’ critical project, which is to breach the gap between disciplinary and methodological approaches to the visual that have been rendered distinct. Many of the queries we posed to the questionnaire participants are reflected in this introduction. According to visual studies scholar Margaret Dikovitskaya, in the arts and humanities, it is understood that visual studies was “born to the marriage of art history (a discipline organized around a theoretical object) and cultural studies (an academic movement echoing social movements).” This formation is often discussed as resulting from the “cultural turn.”30 As mentioned, previously, there are other discursive practices engaged in visual studies (i.e. Sociology and Anthropology), that divert from the centrality of the art object, in favor of empirical research study that engages with a broader spectrum of visual objects. With this in mind, how might we define “the



object” of visual studies in the midst of varied methodological approaches? These are the types of questions I’m asking while gesturing toward that expanded, crossdisciplinary field of Visual Culture Studies. Without a doubt, Visual Studies has developed into a vibrant interdisciplinary field of study, one that spans the social sciences, arts, and humanities. As interrelated intellectual arenas, visual studies and visual culture tend to view images as central to the formation of meaning in the social world. And as visual studies/visual culture programs proliferate around the world, its methods, objectives, and value systems vary greatly based on the disciplinary formation from which each visual investigation arises. Looking closely at visually-based research across the academy, it became clear that the varying approaches are siloed from one another; sometimes due to methodological and historical differences or the result of tribalism and the policing of disciplinary boundaries. That said, there are more similarities than differences and this disjuncture should not preclude collaboration. In my recent engagement with Visual Sociology, it is evident that it deviates from the arts and humanities in its specific approach to visual information. The social sciences are distinct in their approach to understanding the visual social world through empirical information. For example, the incorporation of visual methods that gather and analyze data is central to its approach, whereas the arts tend to be more concerned with a semiotic engagement with the sensuousness of the art object, and the humanities often utilize cultural theory to analyze popular forms of representation.31 The shift toward interdisciplinarity in the academy has led to an explosion of interest in visual culture across disciplines and methodologies. But, as Marquard Smith has discussed, this has also ushered in a critique that visual studies is intellectually rudderless: that it fundamentally lacks the disciplinary standards (not to mention the historiographic consciousness) needed for intellectual integrity: Already in its short lifetime, Visual Culture Studies has been accused of ahistoricism. That is to say, Historians and theorists of the study of visual culture are said to often concentrate their attention on the objects, artefacts, media and environments of recent and contemporary visual culture: photography, film, video, the Internet, as well as other visual spectacles of entertainment, information, and commodity circulation. The positive “take” on this accusation—and this is certainly the case—is that Visual Culture Studies has played a key role in exploring and explaining our contemporary visual culture as it takes place in an ever-changing global context.32 I agree with Smith, that Visual Culture Studies, tend to be viewed, at least by many art historians, as fundamentally ahistorical, which is clearly a disciplinary bias—though there remains a need to reach beyond our own disciplinary formations to learn what is possible in other arenas. And arguably, I tend to reject the more disciplinary approach that advocates for a central set of critical rubrics, or particularized methodologies—while I also acknowledge that methodological openness and a diversity of approaches is the field’s greatest strength. To that end, there remains a critical impasse between the practices of empirical social sciences research versus theories of the visual emerging from the arts, humanities, and the interdisciplinarity of cultural theory. My aim is to break through this barrier, though there are pressing concerns that subtend this discussion. One of which is related to identity and

12 Derek Conrad Murray representation. Part of my interest in Visual Culture Studies is the sense that it (as a result of its perceived social justice leanings, diversity, and interdisciplinarity) is threatening the traditionalism of more formalist disciplines. These debates emerged in the late 1990s to early 2000s in a series of conversations; most notably in two journals: October and the Journal of Visual Culture. In 1996, October published its “Visual Culture Questionnaire,” which brought together 19 influential scholars to discuss, which at the time, was an emergent scholarly movement with deep roots in Cultural Theory in the UK.33 In a similar vein, a related dialogue appeared in the Journal of Visual Culture in 2003. Inspired by Mieke Bal’s polarizing essay, “Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture,” the journal published a range of impassioned responses to Bal’s argument about the rigid essentialism that defines the proper/improper object/s of Visual Culture Studies.34 One of the tensions engendered by Bal’s essay was her charge that Western art discourse had defined its object of study too rigidly and restrictively. Though, it was her use of the term essentialism—especially when considering her critiques of eurocentrism—that was particularly triggering because of its allusions to entrenched biases and disciplinary (and methodological) tribalism. Bal’s particular approach touched a nerve because it highlighted a set of entrenchments within the art history/visual studies formulation that was deeply problematic: Perhaps it is bad form to begin a programmatic reflection on an allegedly new endeavor with a negative note, but then, critical self-reflection is an inherent element in any innovative, progressive academic endeavor. It is from within this self-critical perspective, that is, from within the aim to contribute to visual culture but not as a firmly believing acolyte, that I wish to submit that the term, or would be concept, of visual culture is highly problematic. If taken at face value, it describes the nature of present-day culture as primarily visual. Alternatively, it describes the segment of that culture that is visual, as if it could be isolated (for study, at least) from the rest of that culture. Either way, the term is predicated upon what I call here a kind of visual essentialism that either proclaims the visual “difference”—read “purity”—of images, or expresses a desire to stake out the turf of visuality against other media or semiotic systems. This turf-policing is visual culture’s legacy, its roots in the paranoid corners of the art history to which it claims, in most of its guises, to offer a (polemical) alternative.35 The questions Bal asks are similar to those posed by Lisa Cartwright and Marita Sturken in their influential 2001 book Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture.36 Influenced by John Berger’s landmark 1972 book Ways of Seeing, Cartwright and Sturken’s approach to the visual was informed by major cultural shifts that necessitated a broadening of what constitutes an object of visual study.37 However, they admit that the field of visual studies was motivated by political movements and their multimodal forms of practice, as well as by a commitment to recognizing and studying images and imaging technologies at work in a host of institutions and practices beyond fine art, popular media, and art cinema during a period of extraordinary technological transformation around the visual.38



These transformations were brought about by a confluence of destabilizing events; from the technological boom to the AIDS crisis. AIDS had a particularly dramatic impact on visual culture, and Cartwright and Sturken cite October’s Volume 43 special issue, edited by Douglas Crimp, entitled AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism. The authors are correct that the October issue was a watershed that brought AIDS activism to visual culture, which had the effect of politicizing “art practice and critical theory in ways that made clear the role of art and media theory, in contemporary queer, feminist, and radical movement politics.”39 But as Cartwright and Sturken highlight, it was really the rise of UK-based cultural theory that served as the most significant antecedent to Visual Culture Studies. The Birmingham School’s Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies, led by Stuart Hall, “brought the discipline of Cultural Studies squarely into the realm of visual theory.”40 While visual culture studies have also been informed by the interrelated fields of visual communication, visual anthropology, and visual sociology, it is the very notion of culture itself that was troublesome and formed the basis for ideological division. In fact, it was the problem of culture, that informed Bal’s formulation of visual essentialism. It, therefore, goes without saying that the tensions around Visual Culture Studies, are perhaps more related to culture, than its visual dimension. That culture is the source of antagonism is not a huge surprise. Cultural studies in Britain, most notably associated with Stuart Hall’s post-Gramscian theoretical approach to hegemony, has gone on to define current conceptualizations of visual culture studies across the arts and humanities. However, Hall’s writings on cultural identity, tended to view identity not as static but determined by a process of perpetual transformation. The notion that identity is not a fixed essence—but rather a chosen identification, or a means of positioning—had a profound impact on the development of visual culture studies in the U.S. But, among its many interventions, cultural studies enabled for the study of visuality to be expanded in terms of its objects, its geographic scope, and the deepening of its engagements with identity and representation.41 However, British cultural studies, despite its early formulations in the 1950s–60s, really took shape as a multicultural-era response to the horrors of political conservatism under Margaret Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister (1979–90). And among its lasting interventions, it solidified a set of theoretical and methodological approaches for the consideration of race, gender, and sexuality. The rise of identity discourses in U.S. universities, and an increasing presence of departments in the arenas of gender and sexuality studies, African/African-American and Black Studies, as well as Chicano/Latinx and Asian Studies (among other disciplinary formations), have brought with them needed change within the academy—while also facing persistent institutional instability. A dimension of that instability is, at least in part, due to an increasing sentiment both in academia and within cultural politics that the academy has become irrecoverably entrenched in a very toxic brand of liberalism. In the U.S., this debate continues without resolution, yet it would appear, that cultural theory approaches to the visual have gained a certain dominance, especially when surveying the broader landscape of visually-based research. Throughout the arts and humanities especially, the impact of Hall is widely felt. Though, an influential cohort of scholars have emerged within the U.S. context who have broadened the discussion: W.J.T. Mitchell, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Lisa Cartwright and Marita Sturken, Amelia Jones, Michael Ann Holly, Gen Doy, and Marquard Smith, to name a few.

14 Derek Conrad Murray Mitchell’s lucid take on the visual culture studies debate ponders its very definition: What is “visual culture” or “visual studies”? Is it an emergent discipline, a passing moment of interdisciplinary turbulence, a research topic, a field of subfield of cultural studies, media studies, rhetoric and communication, art history or aesthetics? Does it have a specific object of research, or is it a grab-bag of problems left over from respectable, well-established disciplines?42 Mitchell further elaborates: Visual Studies stands in an ambiguous relationship to art history and aesthetics. On the one hand, it functions as an internal complement to these fields, a way of filling the gap. If art history is about visual images, and aesthetics about the senses, what could be more natural than a subdiscipline that would focus on visuality as such, linking aesthetics and art history around the problems of light, optics, visual apparatuses and experience, the eye as a perceptual organ, the scopic drive, and so on? But this complementary function of visual studies threatens to become supplementary as well, first in that it indicates an incompleteness in the internal coherence of aesthetics and art history, as if these disciplines had somehow failed to pay attention to what was most central in their own domains; and second, in that it opens both disciplines to “outside” issues that threaten their boundaries.43 Mitchell rightly explicates the contradictions of Visual Culture Studies, but he does not directly discuss the fact that identity and representation factor significantly into the rise of visually-based research in the U.S. What Visual Studies does is create a means to, not just broaden the object of study beyond Art History’s essentialism, but also break from the predominantly white ethnic and cultural discourses that had dominated visual study in North America up to that point. That is the blind spot or void that Visual Studies fills, as well as what threatens disciplinary boundaries. As the child of cultural theory in the UK, Visual Studies in the U.S. (not unlike its forbear) evolved toward a greater emphasis on feminism, queer studies, and race and representation, while also embracing linguistics, semiotics, psychoanalysis, and postcolonial theory as key methods of visual inquiry. Hall’s legacy is widely felt today because it addresses questions around culture and ideology, as well as the complexities of representation, subjectivity, and identity politics, ultimately granting these concerns a central place in our contemplation and understanding of visual culture.44

Looking Ahead If there is a central aim in my explication of this challenge, it is that digital cultures—and particularly the phenomenon of self-imaging online—are slippery subjects. In my view, the selfie is what Mitchell has termed an objectionable object: which appears to be (based upon popular or mainstream discussions) its cultural role.45 In a broad cultural sense, these images exist as symbols of both individual and societal folly—and as a sign of an ethically bankrupt, consumer obsessed, and narcissistic public sphere. In other words, the selfie offends, not because it is obscene (at least not in the traditional sense), but because it exposes the vulgarity, fragility,



longing, and often the superficiality of humanity. Selfies can be hard to look at. They often embarrass us, but more importantly, they force us to look directly into the eyes of others: to see their desires, longings, hang-ups, and neuroses—even as they coerce us into confronting these qualities in ourselves. Selfies are mirrors. As scholars, how should we approach them? What methodology should be employed? These questions are not easily answered, though I find the visual culture studies debate is a useful means to address the methodological challenges posed by the subject matter. In many respects what led me to my current position as co-Editor of the journal Visual Studies, was its evolution from its former name Visual Sociology to its current iteration—which was motivated by the editor’s desire to move beyond the rigid disciplinarity of sociological inquiry. It was in 2000, that the journal’s editor, Luc Pauwels, wrote an impassioned statement expressing the need to foster dialogue between disciplines: Images and other forms of representations are ubiquitous in almost every sector of our highly visual cultures. Advances in technology seem to make it even easier than ever to create, transform, and communicate visual representations almost instantaneously. How have the human and natural sciences been challenged as a result of these developments? Are visual representations opening new ways in which the sciences and scientists “see” their respective subject matters? Are visual methodologies truly new ways of examining the world or are scientists simply using imagery and visual manifestations of culture without much reflection on whether they are being interpreted adequately? What challenges and opportunities will future developments in the scientific use of visual images pose for both scientists and the citizenry in general? For both the similarities and the differences make the sharing of ideas, problems and solutions a potentially rewarding experience to all who take part in a dialogue across borders of disciplines and across the growing divisions within some disciplines. Often too much effort is put in trying to stress what sets one discipline or theoretical field apart from another, a tendency which many times proves counter-productive as it diverts the attention from the real interesting questions and research opportunities. However, remaining blind for essential differences and epistemological incompatibilities between different visions and approaches can prove likewise harmful.46 I cite Pauwels at length here because his words speak most directly to my specific approach to visual research, which is cross-disciplinary—but is also reflective of my mode of engaging with online culture. And as I mentioned previously, it was my research on self-imaging online that led to an interest in a conjunction between media studies, communications, sociology, and visual studies. To that end, Jonathan Schroeder and Mehita Iqani’s co-authored writing on selfies modeled a productive interdisciplinarity that opened up new interpretive possibilities.47 Their research generatively contextualized the interrelated concerns that self-imaging online have engendered: Although selfies may appear to be the latest fad, their popularity has had a transformational influence on contemporary culture. Selfies invoke important

16 Derek Conrad Murray issues in communication, photography, psychology, self-expression, and digital media studies—as they bring up a host of concerns about identity, privacy, security, and surveillance.48 This book models the convergence of approaches to visual study and represents expanded modes of intellectual inquiry that enables us to ponder the larger social and cultural implications of the selfie as a means of self-analysis and self-contemplation. The following chapters represent a panoply of concerns related to the terrain I have described. Two of the chapters included in this volume are re-assessments of research I previously produced on the topic of selfies. One ponders the feminist motivations subtending female self-imaging online. The other explores the continued pathologizing of the female selfie-taker specifically, charting efforts to link selfies with mental health disorders. Both of these interventions bring new perspectives to the conversation, from the historical pathologizing of women in the medical fields to the rise of the influencer economy. Both have been revised and expanded. Ace Lehner’s chapter utilizes postcolonial theories of photography and feminist visual theory to understand selfies as performative self-making for trans and nonbinary subjects. Building on Judith Butler’s theorization of gender as performance and Alexander Weheliye’s racializing assemblages, Lehner reveals how these images challenge the tradition of photographic portraiture and self-portraiture. Urgently underscoring the significance of trans selfies on the constitution of identities, contemporary photography, and art theory, this essay reveals the kinds of multifaceted critical work that selfies contribute to the visual field. Kyle Parry’s chapter on “How Selfies Think” makes introspective and theoretical inquiry into three dimensions of selfies: as reflexive, generative, and mindless. He carefully unpacks the notion of a selfie as “an index of the thought to take a selfie”—as self-centered activity, yet one that contributes to a larger collective thinking and orientation toward the self-image. Interestingly, Parry considers the role of selfies that do not end up in social media circulation but reside instead in texts or remain altogether unshared. And he turns, finally, to the thoughtless dimension of selfies, and the glimmer of what might be made possible through them. Grant Bollmer’s “Counter-Selfie” proposes the coming of a new type of selfie, one that exploits the limits of what digital technology can perceive. Building on previous work in collaboration with Katherine Guinness, Bollmer considers figure-background relations and the differences between machine and human vision for the eventuality of this new counter-selfie. Bollmer proposes a phenomenology of machine perception, wrought from the inequivalence between these two kinds of “seeing.” Katherine Guinness’s “Self-Portraiture and Self-Performance” compares works by contemporary artists who utilize social media, with the so-called “Pictures Generation,” whose work between 1974 and 1984 repurposed and critically engaged with mass-media imagery. These loosely associated artists questioned the role of the photographic image and played with their status as authentic or inauthentic documents. Engaging with artists like Gillian Wearing, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Amalia Ulman, Guinness asks what these images tell us about the tenuous fidelity between the image and its referent. In “Domestic Snapshots: Female Self-Imaging Practices Then and Now,” Soraya Murray mobilizes a feminist visual studies approach to unpack the intra-conversational ways that women use selfies to make space for themselves in the world. Through the ideas of Tina M. Campt and Hito Steyerl,



Murray especially draws attention to the consideration of the gendered dimensions of what it means for women to be making choices and demonstrating intention in their use of photographic technologies to self-image. Touching on historical images, contemporary photographers, and social media users, Murray also points to how selfies, as “poor images” associated with consumerism, constitute highly problematic objects of study for art history. Jonathan Schroeder’s generative chapter on the selfie in consumer culture considers the key importance of contemporary branding strategies as a mode of representing identity. Understanding selfies as a participatory consumer culture of social media, Schroeder asserts that the strategic functions of such photographs have shifted from that of documenting information, persuading and representing, to forms of social currency. Presenting three facets of the selfie as socio-historical phenomenon, identity work, and marketing tool, this chapter highlights the promotional dimensions of the “authentic” image and its monetization for brand communication. Each of the intersecting chapters in this volume model a distinct approach to understanding the visual grammar of this very unique, and at times perplexing and frustrating, genre of photographic production. Selfies are representational paradoxes that conjure a dizzying convergence of references that, as I have argued, necessitate a broadening of the parameters of visually-based research methods. I would hope that a convergence of methodologies can facilitate a deepening of our collective understanding of this social phenomenon—but also bridge disciplinary gaps and enable visual culture studies researchers to find productive commonalities that can foster a more cooperative future for the expanded field.

Notes 1 Ben Brumfield, “Selfie named word of the year for 2013,” Wed November 20, 2013, 2 Linda Hagen-Miller, “Do You Know Somebody Who Suffers From ‘Selfitis’?” April 4, 2018, 3 Janarthanan Balakrishnan and Mark D. Griffiths, “An Exploratory Study of ‘Selfitis’ and the Development of the Selfitis Behavior Scale,” International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction 16 (2018): 722–736. 4 Ibid., Hagen-Miller, “Do You Know Somebody Who Suffers From ‘Selfitis’?” 5 Ibid. 6 Bruce Y. Yee, “What Is ‘Selfitis’ And When Does Taking Selfies Become A Real Problem?,” Forbes. December 26, 2017, 7 Ibid., Balakrishnan and Griffiths, “An Exploratory Study of ‘Selfitis’” 8 Wendy L. Patrick, “The Kind of Selfies Most Often Taken by Narcissists,” Psychology Today. August 24, 2018, 9 Ibid. 10 Lev Manovich, SELFIECITY, 11 Ibid. 12 Why We Post, 13 For popular writing on selfies, see: Will Storr, Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2019); Alicia Aler, The Selfie Generation: How Our Self Images Are Changing Our Notions of Privacy, Sex, Consent, and Culture (New York: Skyhorse, 2019); Nathan Jurgenson, The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media (New York: Verso, 2019).

18 Derek Conrad Murray 14 For additional research on selfies within Sociology, Communications and Media Studies, see: Serena C. Lin and Miles C. Coleman, “(Selfie)ishness: Using the I-It/I-Thou Distinction to Parse an Ethics of Self-portraiture,” Consumption Markets & Culture 23, no. 5 (2020): 429–438, DOI: 10.1080/10253866.2019.1586679; Jonathan D. Schöps, Stephanie Kogler and Andrea Hemetsberger, “(De-)stabilizing the Digitized Fashion Market on Instagram–dynamics of Visual Performative Assemblages,” Consumption Markets & Culture 23, no. 2 (2020): 195–213, DOI: 10.1080/10253866.2019.1657099; Alice T. Friedman, “American Glamour 2.0: Architecture, Spectacle, and Social Media,” Consumption Markets & Culture 20, no. 6 (2020): 575–584, DOI: 10.1080/10253866.2 017.1316349; Margaret Matich, Rachel Ashman and Elizabeth Parsons, “#freethenipple – Digital Activism and Embodiment in the Contemporary Feminist Movement,” Consumption Markets & Culture 22, no. 4 (2019): 337–362, DOI: 10.1080/10253866.2 018.1512240; Hester Baer, “Redoing Feminism: Digital Activism, Body Politics, and Neoliberalism,” Feminist Media Studies 16, no. 1 (2016): 17–34, DOI: 10.1080/14 680777.2015.1093070; Ruxandra Looft, “#girlgaze: Photography, Fourth Wave Feminism, and Social Media Advocacy,” Continuum 31, no. 6 (2017): 892–902, DOI: 10.1 080/10304312.2017.1370539; Reena Shah and Ruchi Tewari, “Demystifying ‘selfie’: A Rampant Social Media Activity,” Behaviour & Information Technology 35, no. 10 (2016): 864–871, DOI: 10.1080/0144929X.2016.1201693; Roberta Biolcati and Stefano Passini | Jens F. Binder (Reviewing Editor) “Narcissism and Self-esteem: Different Motivations for Selfie Posting Behaviors,” Cogent Psychology 5, no. 1 (2018), DOI: 10.1080/23311908.2 018.1437012; Betul Keles, Niall McCrae and Annmarie Grealish, “A Systematic Review: The Influence of Social Media on Depression, Anxiety and Psychological Distress in Adolescents,” International Journal of Adolescence and Youth 25, no. 1 (2020): 79–93, DOI: 10.1080/02673843.2019.1590851; David G. Taylor, “Putting the ‘self’ in Selfies: How Narcissism, Envy and Self-promotion Motivate Sharing of Travel Photos through Social Media,” Journal of Travel & Tourism Marketing 37, no. 1 (2020): 64–77, DOI: 10.1080/10548408.2020.1711847; Edgar Gómez Cruz and Helen Thornham, “Selfies beyond Self-representation: The (Theoretical) F(r)ictions of a Practice,” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 7, no. 1 (2015), DOI: 10.3402/jac.v7.28073; Susie Khamis, Lawrence Ang and Raymond Welling, “Self-branding, ‘micro-celebrity’ and the Rise of Social Media Influencers,” Celebrity Studies 8, no. 2 (2017): 191–208, DOI: 10.1080/19392397.201 6.1218292. 15 For academic articles on selfies, see: International Journal of Communication (IJOC). 16 James Franco, “The Meanings of the Selfie,” The New York Times, December 29, 2013, 17 Jerry Saltz, “At Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie,” Vulture, January 26, 2014, https:// 18 Ibid. 19 Ibid. 20 Ana Paraica, Culture of the Selfie: Self-Representation in Contemporary Visual Culture (Amsterdam: Institute of Networked Cultures, 2017), 8. 21 Nicholas Mirzoeff, “How To See Yourself,” How To See The World: An Introduction to Images, from Self-Portraits to Selfies, Maps to Movies, and More (New York: Basic Books, 2016), 29–30. 22 Henry Giroux, “Selfie Culture in the Age of Corporate and State Surveillance,” Third Text 29, no. 3 (2015): 156. 23 Ibid., 405. 24 Janet Kraynak, “Introduction: Digitization and Anti-Democracy: The Perils of Digital Utopianism,” in Contemporary Art and the Digitization of Everyday Life (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020), 1. 25 Ibid., 2. 26 Ibid. 27 Ibid. 28 Ibid., Giroux, “Selfie Culture in the Age of Corporate and State Surveillance,” 156. 29 Ibid., Giroux, 164.



30 Margaret Dikovitskaya, “Theoretical Frameworks: Genealogy and the Object(s) of Visual Studies,” in Visual Culture: The Study of the Visual after the Cultural Turn (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 47. 31 Parts of this section contain excerpts of questions from the following: Derek Conrad Murray, Susan Hansen, Gary Bratchford and Julie Patarin-Jossec, eds., “Visual Studies Questionnaire: What is Visual Studies Today?” Visual Studies (Forthcoming, Spring 2021). 32 Marquard Smith, “Preface,” in Visual Culture Studies: Interviews with Key Thinkers (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2008), ix. 33 Svetlana Alpers, “Visual Culture Questionnaire,” October 77 (Summer, 1996): 25–70. 34 Mieke Bal, “Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture,” Journal of Visual Culture 2 (2003): 5. 35 Ibid., 6. 36 Lisa Cartwright and Marita Sturken, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). 37 John Berger, Ways of Seeing (New York: Penguin Books, 2001). 38 Cartwright and Sturken, Practices of Looking, 9. 39 Lisa Cartwright and Marita Sturken, “Practices of Visual Pedagogy,” in A Concise Companion to Visual Culture (MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2021), p. 10. 40 Cartwright and Sturken, Practices of Looking, 13. 41 See Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), 220–237 and Hall, “Cultural Studies and It’s Theoretical Legacies,” in The Cultural Studies Reader, ed. Simon During (London: Routledge Press, 2007), 33–44. 42 W.J.T. Mitchell, “Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture,” in What Do Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 336. 43 Ibid., 339. 44 Chad Elias, “Representation,” in A Concise Companion to Visual Culture (MA: WileyBlackwell, 2021), 422. 45 W.J.T. Mitchell, “Offending Images,” in What Do Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 125. 46 Luc Pauwels, “Visual Cultures & Visual Literacies: Fostering the Dialogue Between Disciplines,” Visual Studies 15, no. 1 (2000), p. 3. 47 Mehita Iqani and Jonathan Schroeder, “#selfie: Digital Self-portraits as Commodity Form and Consumption Practice,” Consumption Markets & Culture 19, no. 5 (2016), p. 1. 48 Ibid.


Counter-Selfies and the Real Subsumption of Society Grant Bollmer

Counter-selfie names a variant of selfie; in taking a counter-selfie one strives to be­ come visibly present to other people but simultaneously works to render oneself in­ visible to systems of computational, digital surveillance. Its form accounts for how digital images shared over social media are not only circulated and viewed by other human beings but are also visual documents disseminated and analyzed by digital platforms—both in terms of the automated agencies of infrastructures and the pre­ carious, often exhausted employees who labor as part of the apparatus of social media monopolies1—beyond the awareness or intent of the individuals taking them and sharing them. It is a political-aesthetic practice insofar as we describe the “pol­ itics” of aesthetics in the terms given by Jacques Rancière; “politics” is the policing and reinvention of the boundaries of what can be sensed and what can be said.2 Questions of visibility and invisibility are, here, about a distribution of the sensible where the visibility of “persons” is only enacted for the sensation of other “persons,” but ideally made impossible for the identification techniques which are presumed to be based entirely on the potentials of computer vision to see and identify. Thus, who (or what) is included as part of a collective space of circulating and judging images is founded on a distinction that delineates “personhood” through varied capacities of vision. In this context, digitally automated vision is presumed to arrange bodies, ei­ ther to identify for purposes of state control, or to extract economic value by way of visual classification, prediction, and preemption. Creating social relations outside of state control or capitalist exploitation requires a visual ratio that circumscribes through the ability to see or not see. In this chapter, I want to both define counterselfie practices and also highlight how the politics of counter-selfies are contradictory and presume a separation between human and nonhuman that reproduces a division between (human) user and (technological) platform—a separation that is only par­ tially correct. This claim requires a rather roundabout structure, and the vast majority of this chapter is dedicated to questions about the political economy of commu­ nication and relation under social media, along with the potentiality of selfies—which are most commonly disseminated via the platforms of social media monopolies—to exist beyond the strictures of capitalist accumulation. The contradictions of counter-selfies relate to concerns central to digital culture writ large; they depict the limits of conceptualizing and enacting politics as relational and democratic; they demonstrate the impossibility of particular political acts when structures of capital have moved from what Marx termed “formal subsumption” to “real subsumption;” they substitute for political action when resistance to capital seems to be articulated in a profoundly anti-democratic and anti-communist frame DOI: 10.4324/9780367206109-1

Counter-Selfies and the Real Subsumption 21 (“communist,” here, referring to the self-determination and sovereignty of an egali­ tarian community defined by mutualistic relations of collective ownership). In making these claims, I’m following Jacques Camatte in his argument that, in contemporary capitalism, there exists a “real subsumption” of all social relations by capital: capital exercises an absolute domination over society, and tends to become society: the final state in the development of its social character. The opposition is no longer between capital and previous modes of production, but between a fraction of capital and capital itself, the presupposition of the production and circulation process.3 Camatte’s view of the real subsumption of labor by capital—embodied in his claims about absolute domination—is profoundly pessimistic,4 though I agree with his general assertion that the resistance to capital can neither be found in directly chal­ lenging capital nor in looking for an immanent potential through which capital un­ dermines itself. Rather, it must be found in abandoning capital and working for a new kind of community that exists beyond capitalist categories of production and exchange, and thus cannot be enacted by subverting (or misusing) technologies de­ signed to perpetuate relations of capitalist exploitation.5 Selfies—which speak to both a potential of a kind of communal announcement of presence and also to voluntary participation in “surveillance capitalism”6—and counter-selfies—which depend on the “policing” of boundaries of visibility and invisibility—speak to the desire for, but also represent the ultimate impossibility of, relating to a larger community outside of that which has been not only captured but produced for the sake of judging and extracting value from individuals using digital technologies. Likewise, they speak to an inability to phenomenologically orient oneself toward a world (and community) beyond that which has not been captured by (and represented through) capital.7 In theorizing the politics of the counter-selfie, I’m relying on a definition of a selfie that Katherine Guinness and I developed previously. A selfie should be understood as a self-reflexive and autopoietic production of a “self” as a figural image distinct from a “background.” In the act of taking a selfie, the “self” (as a “person” who can be visibly identified by others) is produced as distinct, and in front of, the background upon which it appears. In this process, however, the background is itself rendered invisible for the one taking a picture, and thus the relationality of the selfie is one in which the person taking a selfie is directed toward both themselves and toward others, but not toward the physical environment in which they are immediately lo­ cated, and not toward those who do not visually appear as a representation.8 While still obeying most of these formal, phenomenal claims about selfies, in a counter-selfie the figure disappears through specific techniques employed, such as make-up, ca­ mouflage, or dress. This disappearance is itself relational; it is only intended for specific observers. If, with a selfie, the background disappears to the one taking a picture but remains in the image itself, to be viewed by others, in a counter-selfie the figure remains sensed by the one taking a picture, by other “people” viewing the picture (both of whom make the figure-background distinction that characterizes a selfie), and additionally disappears to a technological system observing the image, which cannot differentiate between figure and background successfully because of material qualities of visual sensing built into specific hardware/software assemblages. A counter-selfie, then, is essentially a variant of CAPTCHA, a negative “Turing Test”

22 Grant Bollmer of sorts that defines “humanness” through the ability to make a visual distinction between figure and ground.9 As I mentioned earlier, the majority of this chapter discusses political-economic questions about the larger context in which discussions of selfies (and their politics) take place. I begin by summarizing some broad perspectives on selfies and surveil­ lance, moving toward an outline of real subsumption and why this concept matters for the discussion of selfies, before turning, at the end of this chapter, back to con­ ceptualizing counter-selfies as a contradictory practice. I should note that some readers may consider my emphasis here to refer to things that are not selfies, properly speaking. But my discussion here presumes that selfies—as facial images of a district “self”—cannot be separated from more general concerns about surveillance and fa­ cial recognition in social media. One of the points of this chapter I’m trying to make is that selfies must be framed in relation with the rise in various forms of automated surveillance which take the measurement and identification of the face as a means to link data profiles with a specific person, either for the purposes of economic ex­ ploitation or state control.

Selfies, Visibility, Agency, Surveillance The usual debates surrounding selfies, debates that have been unfolding over the past ten or so years at this point, oscillate unceasingly between two general perspectives. I want to begin by summarizing some of these debates and framing them in terms that, in this chapter, will eventually be understood as evidence of how social media is a technical form of sociality inextricable from the real subsumption of capital. “Selfies can be read as a necessary proof-of-presence,” Geert Lovink tells us, “not as evidence of electronic solitude, let alone a symptom of a personality disorder. They do not exemplify who we are, but rather show we exist, at this very moment.”10 For Jodi Dean, selfies are “a communist form of expression,” a generalized mimetic practice signified by the formal fungibility of selfies-in-general, “the emancipation of the commonality of the object from the commodity form.”11 Or, this first perspective suggests, selfies should be thought of as a kind of phatic communication, a kind of visual small talk equivalent to modes of communication that serve to announce one’s presence and bond one to another.12 While theorists such as Dean make larger moves about repetition and gesture, arguing for a communism of form—moves which I’ll be returning to later in this chapter—the point is to define selfies as a visual means of being together which operates through the act of documenting presence and sharing that presence over social networking platforms. In making this argument political, this perspective shares claims advanced by some variants of second-wave feminism, stressing the role selfies have in reframing the opposition between public and private.13 For instance, as one illustration of these feminist arguments, Catherine MacKinnon claims that the elimination of “privacy” is essential for feminist struggles: For women the measure of intimacy has been the measure of oppression. This is why feminism has had to explode the private. This is why feminism has seen the personal as the political. The private is the public for those for whom the personal is the political. In this sense, there is no private, either normatively or empirically.14

Counter-Selfies and the Real Subsumption 23 In the current context, selfies are thought to visualize intimate, private space, dis­ playing this privacy for the observation of an online public sphere (if one not formed around the traditions of rational-critical debate that defined the opposition of public and private to begin with), refusing a (mystifying, ideological) spatial arrangement that renders particular (usually gendered) acts and bodies beyond the space of public regulation and citizenship.15 Selfies are thus assumed to participate in a politics that overthrows the public-private boundary if with considerable ambivalences16 since challenging the public-private divide in the 1970s and 1980s did not inherently lead to a more just world in terms of a range of struggles over civil rights and citizenship. Regardless, the idea is that taking a selfie, documenting presence, and circulating an image online, contributes toward entering into public and staking a claim that links visibility with the capacity of public speech, becoming a public subject whose interests and desires can be acknowledged and debated within the public sphere. Any attempt to equate “greater visibility” with “greater political agency” must also examine the many factors of a particular conjuncture that associates issues of identity and the relationality of bodies and images with the ability of capital to extract value from aspects of daily life heretofore “outside” of the boundaries of exchange and valorization. Visibility and political agency cannot be equated, though the articula­ tion of the two should not be severed, either. As Lauren Berlant has shown, for instance, in the 1980s the particular interests of feminists like MacKinnon were ar­ ticulated to a conservative politics which circumscribed the political addressability of intimacy and privacy entirely in terms of the (heterosexual, nuclear, petit-bourgeois) family and the rights of children, marginalizing struggles over sexuality and the rights of gays and lesbians.17 Similarly, Eva Illouz has shown that the rise of therapy and the seeming “success” of feminist struggles in revising the lines of public and private coincided with the ability of capital to extract value from emotion, in fostering “emotional intelligence” and other disciplinary tactics designed to reframe an em­ bodied capacity for relation and feeling in, among other contexts, the workplace.18 Or, there’s a significant amount of evidence that “progress” on these fronts coincides with a seeming “revolution” of capital in discovering new forms of primitive accu­ mulation and new techniques for extracting value from the (often gendered) human body, be it through therapy or through a transformation of domesticity that, rather than render housework beyond a wage because of its “private” location, incorporates childcare and chores as part of the social factory.19 If this first perspective argues for phatic presence—an argument that is pro­ blematized by the relationship of capital toward undermining the public-private distinction—the other perspective decries, of course, “narcissism,” though most employ a frustratingly limited understanding of “narcissism” in their claims.20 One of the most interesting variants of this argument is advanced by Henry Giroux, who sees selfies as indicative of a failed form of sociality in which “self-obsession and in­ dividual posturing” is the norm, “driven by the search for new forms of capital that recognise no boundaries and appear to have no ethical limitation,”21 forms of capital determined by social media surveillance and the valorization of circulating images as a measure of social worth. Yet Giroux also acknowledges how “selfie culture can … be used to rewrite the relationship between the personal and the political, and in doing so expand the vibrancy of public discourse and work to prevent the collapse of public life.”22 Giroux wants both the promise offered by reinventing the publicprivate distinction but also worries about how these distinctions have been remade

24 Grant Bollmer entirely because of the demands of contemporary capitalism. His argument is thus not too far removed from that of Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days, which claims that many of the practices so disdained about “millennials,” and here the act of taking selfies is exemplary, are simply responses to an environment that requires the gen­ eration and care of “human capital,” or the invention of “a different kind of person, one whose abilities, skills, emotions, and even sleep schedule are in sync with their role in the economy.”23 Practices of visibility are merely one element of a larger context that includes the normalization of constant work, burnout, anxiety, extreme competition, and the necessity of building a personal brand to stand out and even be employable in the first place. As with how Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello described a “New Spirit of Capitalism” in the 1990s, which stressed temporary, flexible pro­ jects that required an individual to work on their personal human capital rather than any form of class consciousness or solidarity as a worker,24 selfies should probably be seen as a tactic in the service of visibility (and self-valorization) for the reproduction of networked capital. The point here is to identify that positive interpretations of selfies (that they re­ present a phatic form of indexical documentation and an erosion of public and pri­ vate that coincides with specific demands of second-wave feminism—an erosion which, retrospectively, resulted in an ambivalent reframing of the politics of intimacy and emotion in the 1980s, a struggle that continues today, through selfies, because of this ambivalence) and negative interpretations of selfies (that they represent an in­ creased kind of self-absorption in the crafting of a personal image or brand, fostered by the demands of contemporary capital in its flexibility and precarity) are both, in one sense or another, about the capture of a range of human experiences that were once beyond the scope of capitalist accumulation. The shifting of boundaries between public and private, if we follow the arguments of Eva Illouz, along with Italian Operaist and Autonomist theorists who make similar arguments about the role of communication and identity in “immaterial labor,”25 coincided with a reinvention in capitalist accumulation in the 1970s toward information, creativity, and labor that was often considered “feminized” because of the administration of precarity, the requirement of worker mobility, and the increasing reliance on pittance wages, along with centrality of personal relationships, emotions, care, and domesticity in the re­ production of capital.26 Selfies, then, represent a particular articulation of capital, in which image and in­ formation possess value in several different ways—both on the side of the person taking a selfie, who manufactures an image that is of particular worth when it comes to attention and visibility, maintaining personal relationships via the circulation of images, and on the side of social media platforms, who can use selfies as evidence to judge “engagement” and attention, targeting advertisements toward a range of po­ tential consumers who follow or otherwise interact with the person taking selfies. There are, of course, numerous potential side-effects that “escape” the boundaries of a totalizing and restrictive definition of immaterial labor. This potential of selfies to exceed the boundaries of capital grounds, for instance, why Jodi Dean can argue that they are a form of communist expression. But, I want to argue, following this line of thought requires a detour through questions about the ability of capital to subsume that which previously existed outside the cycle of capitalist accumulation and re­ production, which can move in two directions—the optimistic vision given by Dean, which is similar to that offered by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, or the

Counter-Selfies and the Real Subsumption 25 pessimism of Jacques Camatte, which ultimately abandons the teleological arguments that characterize much Marxist historicism. This turns us now to a discussion of formal and real subsumption, and how these authors see the limits and potentials of political agency after the “real subsumption” of communication, emotion, and identity by capital, represented by social media platforms.

The Formal and Real Subsumption of Communication and Community Marx outlined his distinction between “formal” and “real” subsumption in an in­ complete manuscript drafted for, but ultimately not included in, the first volume of Capital. “The Results of the Immediate Process of Production,” the title of this manuscript, reframes and adds to numerous claims found in Capital and the Grundrisse, especially arguments about the “objective socialization of labour by capitalism,” which can be found in, among other places, the chapter on “Cooperation” in Capital.27 The key revision of these published claims revolve around the distinction Marx makes between formal and real subsumption in the pages of this manuscript. At its most basic, this distinction is as follows. There are forms of labor and production that preexist capitalism, or otherwise can be found beyond our outside of capitalist forms of production. When capitalism makes use of these forms of labor, then they are “formally subsumed” by capital, which is defined as “the takeover by capital of a mode of labour developed before the emergence of capitalist relations.”28 As Marx describes it, A man who was formerly an independent peasant now finds himself a factor in a production process and dependent on the capitalist directing it, and his own livelihood depends on a contract which he as commodity owner (viz. the owner of labour-power) has previously concluded with the capitalist as the owner of money.29 Or, for instance, to use another of Marx’s examples, the relationship between a master craftsperson and an apprentice was, once, a relation determined not (com­ pletely) by ownership of capital and employment, but by education and training. The master in this situation is only master because of their skill as an artisan. While the master can, and often does, act as a capitalist in this relationship (owning the means of production, extracting surplus-value from the labor of those they train), the re­ lationship is not originally one of an opposition of capital and labor, and thus this relationship is “formally subsumed” by capital. Surplus-value is “absolute” with the formal subsumption of labor by capital, meaning that it has a fixed relation with time and increases for the capitalist only by increasing the length of the working day for the worker. The “real subsumption” of labor by capital, on the other hand, is characterized by the development of relative, rather than absolute, surplus-value, which involves the reduction of wages, the reduction of time in the working day by increasing pro­ ductivity (be it through machinery or cooperative techniques of production—such as an assembly line in which the tasks of the worker are fragmented and de-skilled, and require little, if any, training), and the reduction of costs of production, all with the

26 Grant Bollmer intent of increasing the amount of surplus-value extracted from labor. “With the real subsumption of labour under capital a complete (and constantly repeated) revolution takes place in the mode of production, in the productivity of the worlds and in the relations between workers and capitalists.”30 These relations exist and originate from “within” capital itself; they accelerate the circulation of capital and increase pro­ ductivity, reducing wages as much as possible. The “individual product should contain as much unpaid labour as possible, and this is achieved only by producing for the sake of production.”31 While the various tasks and social arrangements of production here may resemble those that existed with the formal subsumption of labor by capital, the increased scale of production is a total reinvention of labor, which likewise has the effect of “so­ cializing” productive forces; labor becomes less a task for individual, distinct, skilled workers (for instance, in the craftsperson-apprentice relationship) than a task un­ dertaken by a mass of relatively fungible workers collaborating through the use of machinery and scientific forms of management in the factory,32 increasing the scale of capitalist production far beyond that which was possible with the formal subsump­ tion of labor. Because of the massification of labor, the products of labor increasingly appear as a result of capital and not labor, intensifying the alienation of the worker from the produced commodity.33 It is in this massifying process that workers come to view themselves as a class in opposition to capital. Under the formal subsumption of labor by capital, “Being independent of each other, the workers are isolated. They enter into relations with the capitalist, but not with each other.” Under the real subsumption of labor by capital, by contrast, Their co-operation only begins with the labour process, but by then they have ceased to belong to themselves. On entering the labour process they are incorporated into capital. As co-operators, as members of a working organism, they merely form a particular mode of existence of capital.34 This massifying cooperation can be understood in several different ways. The move from formal to real subsumption is often theorized as a singular teleological devel­ opment, rather than a variable process that occurs in different ways at different moments. It is more accurate to claim that, rather than one shift from formal to real subsumption (often situated as an effect of the Second Industrial Revolution), dif­ ferent aspects of social life and labor are formally subsumed, and then really sub­ sumed, in different ways and at particular historical conjunctures.35 But, perhaps more significantly for us here, it could be interpreted that this form of worker co­ operation, which Marx argues is essential to capitalist production, is what he and Engles are referring to when they state, in the Manifesto, “But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into ex­ istence the men who are to wield those weapons—the modern working class—the proletarians.”36 The dialectical coming-to-consciousness of proletarians, which fol­ lows Hegelian arguments characteristic of the “master-slave” dialectic, can only occur after the production of “workers” as a unified class, which exists through the massifying qualities of industrial labor and the real subsumption of social existence by capital. Thus, the hope for a communist revolution originates through the in­ tegration of workers into capital. It is through the capital that the potential of overcoming capital comes into being. I think a similar logic grounds claims such as

Counter-Selfies and the Real Subsumption 27 those made by Jodi Dean or Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri—capital generates its own contradictions through which it transcends itself dialectically. The version of subsumption offered by Camatte, however, sees little to no possibility for an internal transcendence of capital—only a machine that is able to constantly absorb that which was previously beyond its limits. Since the 1970s, one of the mechanisms of capital has been, first, the formal subsumption of communication and emotion by capital (in the rise of, say, various forms of service work, therapy, “emotional intelligence,” human resources, etc.). Social relations, care, and communication are not obviously an essential part of ca­ pital and were long excluded deliberately from labor. In the context of the Fordist factory, for instance, “humming, whistling or even smiling on the job were, in the judgment of the Ford Service, evidence of soldiering [deliberate resistance to speedup] or insubordination.” Employees were fired for smiling and laughing with others, and the Fordist factory was one in which any and all experience of emotion was assumed to be detrimental to work.37 But in the rise of the varieties of the “in­ formation society” or the “network society,” or “postmodernity,”38 all of which depend on the fostering of flexible and fluid social relations maintained through the creation of personal relationships and, often, a demand for “authenticity” as some­ thing that “feels real” rather than “manufactured” as a product,39 that which was outside of—or even completely opposed to—capitalist production became integrated as a central facet of valorization, seen in the increasing role of images and branding in adjudicating the value of a commodity.40 The earlier integration of emotion, communication, and social relationships into capital (i.e. the rise of therapy, the emergence of “immaterial labor” in the 1970s) constitute their formal subsumption. Social media, then, represent the real sub­ sumption of communication (and community, in the form of networked relations) by capital, in which the collaborative sharing and “connecting” enabled by social media platforms only exists in a form that can be commodified from the outset by media platforms, which likewise reduce social relations to that which can be communicated online, and in which communication and social relations can be easily transformed into “free labor” exploited by the platform.41 While there is a history here—which would include, for one, the tendencies of broadcast media writ large to transform masses of what appear to be consumers into an “audience commodity” to be pack­ aged and sold to advertisers, and, for another, the fact that imagining social relations as networked connections has a lengthy, difficult history that predates social media42—the internet can be seen as a technological infrastructure which articulates and conflates a range of disparate biological, social, technological, and economic relationships as equivalent and fungible.43 Unless one desires to claim that selfportraiture and selfies are interchangeable, a claim that a range of writers have worked to challenge,44 then we should accept that selfies exist within a particular context in which social media platforms, as well as smartphone cameras—both of which are intrinsically capitalist forms at the present moment, which involve glo­ balized supply chains and internationally distributed forms of labor in their manu­ facture and management45—serve to dictate and define the possibilities for social, communicative relations. Any social relation performed through social media is, thus, one that has a material grounding in techniques through which platforms extract value from communication, and also through which individuals turn themselves into

28 Grant Bollmer commodities (as “influencers”) for the purposes of attracting “investment” in the form of corporate sponsorships and networking opportunities.

Selfies, Social Media, and the Real Subsumption of Communication and Community The demand for communication and the exchange of information is central to con­ temporary versions of the formal subsumption of labor by capital. The operations of platforms, “digital infrastructures that enable two or more groups to interact,”46 are designed to the extract surplus-value from social, communicative activities and re­ lationships, hinging on the “free labor” of active audiences compensated through affective attachments and emotional investment into community.47 Jodi Dean terms this intensification of digital communication in the service of capitalist accumulation “communicative capitalism,” which undermines democracy by displacing the desire for political and revolutionary action onto the generation of more information and data, which can be used by platforms in the name of extracting value from individuals and communities engaging with each other.48 “Communicative capitalism,” she says, subsumes communication into digital networks premised on access and imme­ diacy. Almost any feeling, image, or thought can be shared with another, instantly added to the larger flow of feelings, images, and thoughts. In this setting of ubiquitous media, where we are enjoined to participate, contribute, and share—and where we enjoy participating, contributing, and sharing—the means of literary and artistic production, reproduction, and distribution have converged.49 While in her earlier work Dean was exceptionally critical of the corrosive effect of communicative capitalism on community and democracy, she seems today to want to look for a positive dialectical potential immanent in some of these online commu­ nicative forms. “Brands are a commercial version of this repetition,” says Jodi Dean, referring to the repetition of messages, images, and gestures online, which fill much of today’s “user-generated content” in a way to make it difficult, if impossible, to dis­ tinguish between native advertising and a message originating from beyond categories of exchange. But, she contrasts, “Hashtags, emojis, memes, and selfies are the peo­ ple’s version, one way that we try to produce meanings in a setting where capitalism has turned our basic social interactions into a storable, mineable resource.”50 Or, the potential of what she terms “selfie communism” is found in the “common” re­ presented by sharing selfies, which exists less in terms of the specific content of any one selfie than the broad reproduction of the entire genre of image, circulating col­ lectively online. In fact, for her, it seems that the ultimate irrelevance of selfies (that is how, at a singular level, they seem to be banal or excessive, and disdained by so many) is indicative of their status as outside of accumulation, perhaps akin to a Bataille-like expenditure of wasted energy.51 What is the “common” assumed here? In the case of the cooperation of workers, it would seem to be produced through capitalist exploitation. The common, unified ex­ istence of workers only happens after the real subsumption of labor by capital, pro­ ducing co-operation through the division of labor in the factory and the large number of de-skilled, interchangeable workers operating the large-scale machines described by

Counter-Selfies and the Real Subsumption 29 Marx. Yet, the common is often thought to exist as something intrinsically opposed to capital, outside of it, that is constantly appropriated by capital (as that which is in­ tegrated through formal subsumption), be it the “general intellect” or some form of collective property that is stolen through (primitive) accumulation-by-dispossession. The “common,” for Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, for instance, includes “those results of social production that are necessary for social interaction and further pro­ duction, such as knowledges, languages, codes, information, affect, and so forth,” which leads them to argue that particular libertarian and neoclassical social forms—like that of free and open-source software—is “communist” because of its emphasis on sharing and collaboration.52 Sharing is, perplexingly, assumed to be a liberation of communist social potential rather than a capacity for capital to exploit social, communicative, cognitive capacities of labor online. Regardless, the argument here would be that the potential of overturning or surpassing capitalism comes from collaborative potentials, which either preexist capitalism or that emerge within the capitalist system, though where one falls here would completely change the strategies one would take in working to challenge the capitalist order. This argument ignores the seemingly limitless potential of social media platforms to mine and generates value from pretty much any human activity performed online, and it ignores how selfies overtly contribute to the crafting of personal images that possess economic value through distinction rather than a communal relation (i.e. the selfies of influencers are foundational for tactics designed to attract brand sponsor­ ships through the performance of a specific “lifestyle” image). Selfies, especially those Alice Marwick terms “luxury selfies” intended to foster “Instafame,” are not in­ tended to identify commonalities or foster mutual sharing, but work to “reproduce conventional status hierarchies of luxury, celebrity, and popularity that depend on the ability to emulate the visual iconography of mainstream celebrity culture,” which “calls into question the idea that social media are an egalitarian, or even just a more accessible, way for individuals to access the currency of the attention economy.”53 The desire to perform luxury, and efforts to deceive to do so, has led to the creation of Instagram accounts (such as one named @BallerBusters) and hashtags (i.e. #FlexOffenders) intended to identify those who falsely represent wealth as a means to scam and deceive followers in the name of attracting attention and sponsorships.54 In short, practices associated with what Marwick calls “microcelebrity,” developing an earlier line of thought from Theresa Senft,55 are less about identifying and performing commonality than performing class distinction and envy, to the point of engaging in practices designed to deceive others—practices that rely on going into debt and mortgaging one’s future. Some of the wannabe influencers targeted by @BallerBusters, for instance, were found to be renting luxury properties on Airbnb and passing them off as their own homes, with the intent to incite attention and envy—a strange, but perhaps unsurprising, reinvention of Thorstein Veblen’s classic understanding of “conspicuous leisure” and “conspicuous consumption.”56 It is this seemingly limitless potential of subsumption that guides the pessimistic arguments of Jacques Camatte and his eventual abandonment of Marxist teleologies given the tendency of Marxists (like Dean, Hardt, and Negri) to look for an im­ manent potential within real subsumption with which, following the historical di­ rection assumed by traditional Marxism, capitalism will produce a class that ultimately undermines and surpasses the potentialities of capital itself.57 Camatte’s reading of Marx, which foregrounds the “Results” manuscript as a central key in

30 Grant Bollmer understanding all of the claims of Capital, sees the direction that Marx takes in much of his later writings as deeply pessimistic, one that theorizes capital as capable of an almost limitless absorption of society, the state, and much else, moving from the massifying tendencies of real subsumption (de-skilling, etc.) toward a world in which workers are a “problem” to be eliminated by mechanization and automation. As Camatte argues: In other words, the tendency of capitalism is to reduce the proletarian to such dependence that the greatest part of his activity is realized in surplus labor. Despite this, capitalism still finds him superfluous. The worker is thrown out of production. Then it becomes necessary to find new productive prances for this liberated variable capital, not just to extract surplus-value from it, but also to stop it rebelling. Capital thus finds itself obliged to create artificial industries so as to be able to guarantee a production process.58 Camatte’s writings—the above was originally published in 1976—are prophetic, as, today, we see a double ascendency of, on one hand, what David Graeber terms “bullshit jobs,” which seem to have little to no point beyond keeping people occu­ pied, jobs that even the people who perform them believe ought not to exist,59 and on the other, the rapid expansion of what the Endnotes Collective terms “surplus po­ pulation,” the mass unemployment that characterizes much of the world (at least beyond the Global North) where “capital produces a relatively redundant population out of the mass of workers, which then tends to become a consolidated surplus po­ pulation, absolutely redundant to the needs of capital.”60 Endnotes sees the rise of debt, precarity, desperation, anxiety, and depression as a range of conditions that has led “the proletariat [to] become indifferent to its misery” and, in much of the world, this “surplus humanity” exists to be “managed” by segregating it into prisons or otherwise abandoned and left to die.61 This matters for a discussion of selfies because, if we take Malcom Harris’s ar­ guments seriously, along with Alice Marwick’s arguments about Instafame and luxury selfies, then practices like obsessively taking selfies must be thought of as an attempt to maintain and communicate a personal brand rather than a useless “ex­ cess” or a pathological form of self-absorption.62 Selfies, in documenting presence, attempt to valorize one’s identity as that which can possibly be exploited by capital, rather than an act dedicated toward a contribution to the “general intellect” or a common body of gestures and images to be shared. While certainly there exists some collective, egalitarian motivation in “sharing” through the dissemination of an image, it’s difficult to claim that these practices have a political valiance because of their “wastefulness” or because of their “pointlessness,” if merely because they obviously have a point. Selfies contribute to both the goal of “becoming an influencer” and to the goal of being identified, tracked, and “known” by social media metrics. In short, the option presented via social media is to perform personal value through the dis­ semination and management of self-images, documenting oneself in front of inter­ esting (or, often, bland and quotidian) backgrounds (that are not phenomenologically experienced) for the sake of brand management and target marketing, or to poten­ tially become “surplus population,” outside of the boundaries of capitalism, unable to be reabsorbed, abandoned as “life” that has no exploitable function. The dis­ tinction here is similar to the one Joseph Turow identified in his political economy of

Counter-Selfies and the Real Subsumption 31 social media advertising—a distinction between “targets” and “waste.”63 Not all users are equally valuable to social media marketing, which desire to identify in­ dividuals who have either the potential to consume a product or the potential to serve as an influencer, advertising the product for their own fan base. The alternatives here are not particularly satisfying. Camatte ultimately concludes that human workers are useless from the point of view of capital, and the only hope for humanity is to abandon “this world we must leave,” the world of capital, which includes the theoretical critique of capitalism, to discover “another life where the gestures, the words, the imaginations, and all the feelings of human beings will no longer be chained, where senses and brain will unite…”64 Camatte resigns himself to a complete rejection of Marxist teleology, its (latent and explicit) Hegelianism, in­ stead arguing for the necessity of a total break with any and all capitalist form.65 Marx himself seemed to come to a similar conclusion, albeit one that placed its hope on the future development of technology, which would work to undermine itself (thus maintaining a kind of dialectical teleology).66 Dean, Hardt, and Negri place their hope in “common” gestures that exist beyond the boundaries of capitalist accumu­ lation, or that wrest back common property from its appropriation by capital.

Transparency and Opacity in Counter-Selfies This returns me to questions of counter-selfies. This chapter so far has been a pro­ legomenon to my elaboration of this concept as a subset of the broader genre of selfie photography. In these final pages of this chapter, I want to argue that the counterselfie is a technique that attempts to claim a space outside of contemporary capitalism by creating a visual form, within the exchangeability of images on social media, that can only be properly seen by other human users, while working to refuse an auto­ mated identification (and valorization) of an image as being of a “person” that can then be analyzed by social media metrics. But, at the same time, there are limits to this politics because it prevents the possibility for mediated encounter, and likewise as­ sumes the operations of platforms (and their economic order) to exist entirely as automated and algorithmic, thus missing an encounter that could lead to a possibility of community beyond individual acts of obfuscation. Thus, my argument is that the counter-selfie both understands—and acknowledges—the limits of sociality under conditions of the real subsumption of communication by capital, but in adopting individualistic tactics in which community requires one to remain invisible to an assumed (technological) observer, acting primarily through tactics of obfuscating computer vision, it fails to grasp the varieties of alienated, separated labor employed by social media platforms, instead assuming vision to be neatly articulated along human/non-human lines. Olga Goriunova has recently sketched what she terms the “digital subject,” the general bearer of “personhood” today, at least when it comes to the operations of capital and practices of state surveillance. The digital subject exists as representative abstraction comprised of data (i.e. “a subject of a data profile or of a Facebook stream, a history of browsing or search engine queries, mobile phone positioning records, bank transactions, sensor data, facial recognition data, biometric movement recognition data, or email inboxes, among other things”67), and refers to a physical, biological body. Yet the digital subject cannot be equated to the body it supposedly represents, and is rather an “entanglement of physical, legal, sensual, and cultural

32 Grant Bollmer elements”68 that “rarely corresponds to a classically constituted individual: it is always more and less than a human.”69 The digital subject is similar to what I’ve previously termed the “nodal citizen,” which is a legal fiction (legal here in the sense of End-User License Agreements) which defines the rights and responsibilities of ci­ tizenship as little more than connecting to others through digital means, generating and circulating data, working to maintain the tentative (and obscured) linkage be­ tween online data and the body it supposedly represents.70 Both Goriunova and I argue that typical understandings of personhood and digital citizenship tend to as­ sume an equivalence between data and the “person” it supposedly represents, which we both claim is an impossibility. The digital subject or nodal citizen are abstractions of personhood under the real subsumption of society through social media. The inequivalence between data and body tells us that this subsumption is partial. This does not mean that attempts to link data profiles and bodies do not exist—which is why selfies are central to my claims here. Techniques of facial recognition (along with other forms of biometric surveillance, such as gait analysis) serve as a visual means for quantifying the body, rendering a data abstraction equivalent to (often automated, visually originated) representations of corporeality.71 Strategies of dis­ torting or obscuring the face, such as playing “with a camera’s image filters, probing the limit at which the face would become non-recognizable,”72 ensures the separation between body and data, refusing the ability of the “digital subject” to become useful as a means of establishing “personhood” for either legal reasons or economic exploitation. The tactics of the counter-selfie are designed to sever the possibility of linking the “person” produced by data analytics from the “self” recorded in an image, refusing the subsumption of self and community through tactics that are designed to render oneself visible to other people, but invisible toward technological means of gathering data through digital, automated means. Exemplified by artistic projects such as Adam Harvey’s CV Dazzle, Leonardo Selvaggio’s URME Surveillance project, Zach Blas’s Facial Weaponization Suite, and other works such as those of Trevor Paglen and Jemima Wymen, these examples of art are often framed as a challenge to broader systems of facial recognition such as those that link the maintenance of state (police) power with border security and the public visibility enforced by CCTV cameras—projects that share similarities with those of other artists, such as Hito Steyerl, Lizzie Fitch, and Ryan Trecartin.73 Digital culture seems marked by an intensification of visibility for the purposes of surveillance, legitimated by a demand for “transparency.” For theorist Byung-Chul Han, transparency is a term that characterizes the present and its flattened “posi­ tivity,” where dialectical complexities are eliminated through visibility to rectify an absence of trust.74 Suggestions to refuse this politics of visibility often argue for a turn to invisibility or inexistence. Yet, according to Zach Blas, invisibility too easily dis­ regards the politics of race, gender, and sexuality, and instead suggests a turn to Édouard Glissant’s conceptualization of opacity. Opacity does not refuse visibility, but strategically negotiates a relational politics and poetics that is neither visible nor invisible.75 Or, in other words, Blas’s opacity suggests an aesthetic politics that dif­ ferentiate through a capacity to link visibility and community. The figure is identi­ fiable as a “person” to other “persons,” but remains part of a background, indistinct, to techniques of computer vision and identification. Those who can see (and can identify the figure as distinct from a background) are included in a community, those

Counter-Selfies and the Real Subsumption 33 who cannot (who cannot separate figure from background—and the presumption is that this an algorithm) is beyond the boundaries of the common. In short, opacity, as defined by Blas, is there to generate a form of commonality and community through an aesthetic politics that resurrects community at a time of total alienation through the real subsumption of capital, working to both use social media as a means to relate and communicate, but to render what is communicated as beyond identification by platforms and automation. Harvey’s CV Dazzle, or “Computer Vision Dazzle,” is probably most instructive for what I’m suggesting. It employs techniques derived from a World War I technique developed by the British, where ships were painted in abstract, conspicuous shapes that would interfere with the targeting mechanisms used by German U-boats (Figure 1.1). Harvey uses conspicuous makeup and hairstyling to create an analo­ gous technique in which one appears quite visibly to other people, but cannot be clearly identified by technologies of facial recognition or identification, a technique that has been demoed by artist Jillian Mayer in a relatively popular YouTube makeup tutorial video (Figure 1.2). In becoming ultra-visible,76 these techniques—along with those of similar projects such as those of Blas’s Facial Weaponization Suite—deny, in the words of surveillance theorist Torin Monahan, “the legitimacy of a market of discrete identities and the systems that would reduce people to them,” instead rendering the person “nonexistent and invisible to institutions.”77 Monahan is correct to note that these projects are questionable in terms of their politics—as in, they tend to replace individual agency and aesthetic self-fashioning for larger institutional change. But, we can still say, following Goriunova, these projects refuse the collapse of digital subject and the “person” it posits to represent, becoming invisible to computers but remaining visible to other people. While they refuse the legitimacy of institutions (namely the state and social media platforms), they still presume the necessity of visibility to other humans in the founding of a communal relation. Or, in other words, we could argue that these projects work to realize what Dean claims in her description of “selfie communism”—the production of a collective community through the sharing of gestures that operates through, but nonetheless undermines, the possibility of platforms to extract value from the visibility of the face. The problem, however, is the presumption of delineating community and per­ sonhood on the basis of human and computer vision. As Sarah Roberts has shown, practices of online content moderation are not just simply automated but performed by human workers employed by platforms to examine and analyze the visual content of social media. These workers are still “outside” of the community of visibility because the boundaries of community cannot be bifurcated based on the articulations presumed by counter-selfie practices. In short, these laborers can still see (and dif­ ferentiate) figure from background in these images, but can never be included in this community because of their function as an appendage of the social media machine, acting to police boundaries by never themselves becoming visible. The community produced through the circulation of these images is ultimately “spectacular” in the sense given by Guy Debord—a system that relies on isolation, and, through visibility, “unites what is separate, but it unites it only in its separateness.”78 The invisibility of labor—of content moderation, for instance—is never even potentially united; it merely remains separate. A focus on the visibility of users and consumers, which is the only visibility assumed in these projects, cannot acknowledge how the infra­ structural means of social media prevent many of those laboring on the side of the

34 Grant Bollmer

Figure 1.1 Plate illustrating the “dazzle” painting method for camouflaging ships. From vo­ lume 30 of the 1922 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, located between pp. 540 and 541. Public domain.

Counter-Selfies and the Real Subsumption 35

Figure 1.2 Screen capture from Jillian Mayer’s “Makeup Tutorial: How to Hide from Cameras.” Source: YouTube. Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

platform to remain perpetually invisible to those who only see what appears on the screen of a computer or smartphone. Or, in the real subsumption of sociality, practices of opacity work to refuse the ability of platforms to extract value from images of a face. But, at the same time, a new “community” or “class” comes into being, a community that can only ac­ knowledge the labor of those in front of the camera. Those who remain faceless to those taking selfies—moderators; Turkers; “cleaners”—are conflated with the op­ erations of infrastructure, a form of life assumed beyond the struggles addressed by counter-selfies.

Notes 1 Sarah T. Roberts, Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019). 2 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, ed. and trans. Gabriel Rockhill (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2004). 3 Jacques Camatte, Capital and Community, trans. David Brown (New York: Prism Key Press, 2011), 123, emphasis mine. 4 Camatte’s version of these claims is quite different from those of other Marxist theorists, who—from an Autonomist perspective—tend to see the move from formal to real sub­ sumption to ultimately give way toward the formation of a “general intellect” or

36 Grant Bollmer

5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

13 14 15 16 17 18 19

20 21 22 23 24 25


“multitude” and a new (cognitive) power beyond capital. For instance, see Carlo Vercellone, “From Formal Subsumption to General Intellect: Elements for a Marxist Reading of the Thesis of Cognitive Capitalism,” Historical Materialism 15 (2007): 13–36. Jacques Camatte, The World We Must Leave and Other Essays, ed. Alex Trotter (New York: Autonomedia, 1995), 120. Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2019). These claims are, in part, why I follow Camatte’s version of this argument than the one indebted to Autonomist theory, and are points I’ll return to near the end of this chapter. Grant Bollmer and Katherine Guinness, “Phenomenology for the Selfie,” Cultural Politics 12, no. 2 (July 2017): 156–176. Grant Bollmer, Inhuman Networks: Social Media and the Archaeology of Connection (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 134–155. Geert Lovink, Sad by Design: On Platform Nihilism (London: Pluto Press, 2019), 103. Jodi Dean, “Images without Viewers: Selfie Communism,” Foto Museum, published February 1, 2016, images_without_viewers_selfie_communism Also see Paul Frosh, The Poetics of Digital Media (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019), 129–131; Anne Jerslev and Mette Mortensen, “What is the Self in the Celebrity Selfie? Celebrification, Phatic Communication and Performativity,” Celebrity Studies 7, no. 2 (2016): 249–263. Derek Conrad Murray, “Notes to Self: The Visual Culture of Selfies in the Age of Social Media,” Consumption Markets & Culture 18, no. 6 (2015): 490–516; Adi Kuntsman, ed., Selfie Citizenship (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Cited in Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2002), 33. Kuntsman, Selfie Citizenship. See the essays collected in Amy Shields Dobson, Brady Robards, and Nicholas Carah, eds., Digital Intimate Publics and Social Media (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997). Eva Illouz, Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007). Among others, see Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland: PM Press, 2012); Mario Tronti, Workers and Capital, trans. David Broder (London: Verso, 2019), 27; Roswitha Scholz, “Patriarchy and Commodity Society: Gender without the Body,” in Marxism and the Critique of Value, ed. Neil Larsen, Mathias Nilges, Josh Robinson, and Nicholas Brown (Chicago: MCM’ Press, 2014), 123–142. See Bollmer and Guinness, “Phenomenology,” 169–170. Henry A. Giroux, “Selfie Culture in the Age of Corporate and State Surveillance,” Third Text 29, no. 3 (2015): 158. Giroux, “Selfie Culture,” 164. Malcolm Harris, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2017), 5. Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2007), 93–94. The exemplary text here is Maurizio Lazzarato, 1996. “Immaterial Labor,” trans. Paul Colilli and Ed Emory, in Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, ed. Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 132–147, but also see, among others, Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and SocialistFeminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 149–182; Christian Marazzi, Capital and Affects: The Politics of the Language Economy, trans. Giuseppina Mecchia (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011). See Cristina Morini, “The Feminization of Labour in Cognitive Capitalism,” Feminist Review 87 (2007): 40–59.

Counter-Selfies and the Real Subsumption 37 27 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 439–454. 28 Karl Marx, “Results of the Immediate Process of Production,” in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 1021. 29 Marx, “Results,” 1020. 30 Ibid., 1035. 31 Ibid., 1038. 32 While Marx describes this tendency in the “Results” manuscript, and in Capital, they would eventually be solidified as Taylorism in the modern factory system, which clearly post-dates Marx. 33 Marx, “Results,” 1024. 34 Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, 451. 35 This singular historical trajectory characterizes both Camatte’s writings and the claims of Hardt and Negri, among others. I find the Autonomist use of this teleology to be deeply questionable, as these writers often appear to assume that “cognitive capitalism” and “immaterial labor” completely replace the factory system around 1970, which is an absurd conclusion given how manufacturing clearly still exists and plays both a real and imagined role in understanding current debates about globalization and state power. For a critique of this teleological interpretation of subsumption (and the emergence of a “general intellect”) see Endnotes Collective, “The History of Subsumption,” Endnotes 2 (April 2010): 130–152. 36 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” trans. Samuel Moore, in Karl Marx, The Political Writings, ed. New Left Review (London: Verso, 2019), 67. 37 Alan Liu, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 94. Liu is citing Keith Sward, The Legend of Henry Ford (New York: Russell & Russell, 1968), 312; and Ray Batchelor, Henry Ford: Mass Production, Modernism, and Design (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), 53. The interpolation in this quote is Liu’s. 38 David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990); Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Volume 1: The Rise of the Network Society, 2nd Edition (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000). 39 Boltanski and Chiapello, New Spirit, 449. 40 See Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, trans. Charles Levin (London: Verso, 2019). 41 Tiziana Terranova, “Free Labour,” in Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age (London: Pluto Press, 2004), 73–97. 42 Dallas W. Smythe, “Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism,” Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory 1, no. 3 (Fall 1977): 1–27; Grant Bollmer, “Networks before the Internet,” Journal of Cinema and Media Studies 59, no. 1 (Fall 2019): 142–148. 43 See N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). 44 Ana Peraica, Culture of the Selfie: Self-Representation in Contemporary Visual Culture (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2017). 45 Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller, How Green in Your Smartphone? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019); Christian Fuchs, “Social Media’s International Division of Digital Labour,” in Culture and Economy in the Age of Social Media (New York: Routledge, 2015), 207–245. 46 Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017), 43. 47 Terranova, “Free Labour.” 48 Jodi Dean, “Technology: The Promises of Communicative Capitalism,” in Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 19–48. 49 Dean, “Selfie Communism.” 50 Ibid.

38 Grant Bollmer 51 Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, Volume 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1988). 52 See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), viii, 280–282; see Hardt and Negri’s Assembly (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), xix, for another version of this argument; cf. Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006). 53 Alice Marwick, “Instafame: Luxury Selfies in the Attention Economy,” Public Culture 27, vol. 1 (2015): 139. 54 Taylor Lorenz, “On the Internet, No One Knows You’re Not Rich. Except This Account,” New York Times, November 12, 2019, The kind of activities undertaken by the @BallerBusters account resembles a kind of “paranoid” reading into images with the explicit intent to expose the fraudulent performance of wealth. It speaks to a widespread dissemination of disbelief on­ line, and the dominance of paranoid, conspiratorial frames of interpretation common both on Instagram, but in conspiracy theories as well. Compare this to my arguments in Grant Bollmer, “The Sense of Connection, or, Complex Narratives and the Aesthetics of Truth,” Frame: Journal of Literary Studies 31, no. 2 (November 2018): 53–70; and also Alice Marwick and Will Partin’s forthcoming work on QAnon as a form of critical rationality. 55 Theresa M. Senft, Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in the Age of Social Networks (New York: Peter Lang, 2008). 56 Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Penguin Books, 1979). 57 This is, of course, one reading of Marx. Amy Wendling’s work on Marx and technology argues that the later work of Marx, like Capital, shifts the revolutionary potential away from workers and toward the liberation of machinery, opening up Marx’s arguments to­ ward an accelerationist politics that embraces, rather than resists, the impact of technology on production. See Amy E. Wendling, Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 170; compare to Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London: Verso, 2015). 58 Camatte, Capital and Community, 175. 59 David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018). 60 Endnotes Collective, “Misery and Debt,” Endnotes 2 (April 2010): 30. 61 Endnotes Collective, “Misery and Debt,” 50–51. 62 Though there’s potentially an argument to be made about the relationship between the uselessness of luxury and the kinds of excesses Bataille discussed. Cf. Mark Featherstone, “Luxus: A Thanatology of Luxury from Nero to Bataille,” Cultural Politics 12, no. 1 (March 2016): 66–82. 63 Joseph Turow, The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011). 64 Camatte, The World We Must Leave, 71. Cf. Bollmer, Inhuman Networks. 65 Camatte has been influential for a number of theories of “communization,” which see a complete rejection of value, exchange, money, and so on, as necessary for the realization of communism. For examples of key texts in this debate, see Gilles Dauvé, From Crisis to Communisation (Oakland: PM Press, 2019) and the texts collected in Endnotes 1 (October 2008). 66 Wendling, Karl Marx. 67 Olga Goriunova, “The Digital Subject: People as Data as Persons,” Theory, Culture & Society 36, no. 6 (2019): 126. 68 Goriunova, “The Digital Subject,” 126. 69 Ibid., 133. 70 Bollmer, Inhuman Networks, 7. 71 Goriunova, “The Digital Subject,” 127. Goriunova, however, asserts the difference be­ tween data and body by claiming that the relation between digital subject and body is “speculative” rather than indexical (“The Digital Subject,” 136). Yet this seems, to me, to reassert the old ontology-of-photography argument in film theory that descends from Bazin, which has already been problematized by writers such as Mary Ann Doane and Tom Gunning. I would say that this distinction comes from the determining relationship of

Counter-Selfies and the Real Subsumption 39

72 73

74 75

76 77 78

documentation (or, more broadly, discourse) in maintaining particular power relations (legal, economic, etc.) rather than one of a medial ontology hinging on the indexical lin­ kages between data and a body. See André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” trans. Hugh Gray, Film Quarterly 13, no. 4 (1960): 4–9; Mary Ann Doane, “The Indexical and the Concept of Medium Specificity,” differences 18, no. 1 (2007): 128–152; Tom Gunning, “Moving Away from the Index: Cinema and the Impression of Reality,” differences 18, no. 1 (2007): 29–52. Also see Grant Bollmer, “The Kinesthetic Index: Video Games and the Body of Motion Capture,” InVisible Culture 30 (2019), https:// Goriunova, “The Digital Subject,” 130. For analyses of these artists in relation to surveillance and facial recognition, see, among others, Torin Monahan, “The Right to Hide? Anti-Surveillance Camouflage and the Aestheticization of Resistance,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 12, no. 2 (2015): 159–178; Patricia de Vries and Willem Schinkel, “Algorithmic Anxiety: Masks and Camouflage in Artistic Imaginaries of Facial Recognition Algorithms,” Big Data & Society (January–June 2019): 1–12; Claudio Celis Bueno, “The Face Revisited: Using Deleuze and Guattari to Explore the Politics of Algorithmic Face Recognition,” Theory, Culture & Society (forthcoming); Jana Johanna Haeckel, “Masks, Drones, and Facelessness—Digital Face Culture in the Work of Hito Steyerl and Ryan Trecartin/Lizzie Fitch,” in The Photofilmic: Entangled Images in Contemporary Art and Visual Culture, ed. Brianne Cohen and Alexander Streitberger (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2016), 281–296. Byung-Chul Han, The Transparency Society, trans. Erik Butler (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015). Zach Blas, “Opacities: An Introduction,” Camera Obscura 31, no. 2 (2016): 149–153. As an aside, I find Blas’s use of Glissant to be deeply questionable. Glissant’s description of opacity is obviously not about anything visual (especially given his focus on language) but is about an enlightenment projection of knowledge onto a colonized subject, legitimating normative participation in the bourgeois public sphere through a “transparency” of equivalent knowledge. Opacity, in this context, is less about visibility than it is about an inability of the colonist to know or understand subjects of imperialism along with their creative, “poetic,” linguistic practices. See Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997). Along with Blas’s arguments about opacity, compare this to the arguments in Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum’s Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015). Monahan, “The Right to Hide,” 168. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1994), 22.


Self-Portraiture and Self Performance Katherine Guinness

I begin with what some may imagine to be a provocative claim, especially in a book dedicated to the analyses of selfies: the selfie is little more than a blip in a larger history of a mediated production of the self.1 They are not simply another occurrence of self-portraiture, and many emergent practices—for instance, videos associated with YouTube—seem like they could be defined as selfies but, I claim, are relatively dis­ tinct.2 In a previous article, Grant Bollmer and I presented a phenomenological analysis of selfies to describe their ontology—which, we argued, was about a figurebackground distinction that performed the self, literally “making” the self through an autopoietic distinction between self and background in which the background dis­ appears to the person taking a selfie. This allowed us to propose a different definition of narcissism than usually used in discussions of selfies—one less interested in “selfabsorption” than in the self-reflexive formation of an “I” which can relate to others.3 Here, however, I am moving away from these ontological arguments towards situ­ ating particular interpretations of selfies—and especially artworks that can be said to employ selfies as a medium—as well as the work of artists that have been framed as genealogical forebears of art made with selfies. While I’m building on my past claims—I’m still interested in how selfies produce a “self”—the point here is to highlight (and differentiate) a range of artistic practices and interventions into mediated understandings of the self. This means that my claims are not ontological, properly speaking, but contextual and related to various statements of artistic intent and broader cultural interpretations of meaning and significance. In this chapter, I want to explode the concept of “selfie” through a particular genealogy that inter­ twines contemporary art and digital culture, one in which I do not presume the centrality of selfies, but rather seek to position them as a conjunctural form that emerged out of a range of other practices, a form we see fading away with the rise of YouTube influencers in the political economy of digital culture. This chapter will attempt to differentiate and not conflate ways of depicting the self and the production of alter egos or personas through photography, performance, masking, and the medium of social media. While there are historical lineages, there are no totalizing historical teleologies. Many defenses of selfies locate them as a continuation of a larger history of self-portraiture,4 but I am interested in differences between portraiture at specific historical moments; more specifically, contrasting work by artists such as Amalia Ulman (b.1989) that utilize social media platforms, especially Instagram, with that of the “Pictures Generation,” the group of artists who gained notoriety between 1974 and 1984 for their subversion of mass-mediated imagery through its reuse, including Richard Prince (b.1949) and Cindy Sherman DOI: 10.4324/9780367206109-2

Self-Portraiture and Self Performance 41 (b.1954). I argue that these differences, when it comes to the Pictures Generation and the present, have little to do with the specific formal composition of a selfie or selfportrait, but are instead about changing attitudes towards the authenticity of per­ formance and the linkage of an image and its referent, and may actually be more about the history and context of reception, critique, and canonization of artworks. The artists of the Pictures Generation are characterized by distance from their subjects, which, following Douglas Crimp’s initial theorization, “liberates” the image from what it represents.5 But this distance has been criticized with recent work by Prince, who has appropriated images from Instagram in his New Portraits, and does not seem to fit Cindy Sherman’s use of Instagram to disseminate not only images similar to her past work but, additionally, personal images, such as those of her in a hospital bed when she fell ill. The seeming necessity to differentiate between authentic and inauthentic, grounding the image to its referent, is constantly looming on plat­ forms such as Instagram. Ulman’s Excellences & Perfections, a performance docu­ mented via Instagram, has been labeled a “hoax” in spite of its clear connection to the work of Sherman, Joan Jonas, and Lynn Hershman Leeson (b.1941). Along with Sherman, Prince, and Ulman, this chapter discusses the self-portraiture of Gillian Wearing (b.1963) to examine the relation between digital imagery, masking, and the authenticity of that which is represented, ending with the exploration of selfproduction through the popular “life-swap” YouTube genre.

Excellences & Perfections Depictions of the self (of which a “selfie” is one of many forms that help us determine the spectrum of self and construction) have become inescapably linked to notions of authenticity. While we live in an age far removed from perceptions of authenticity tied to anti-capitalist ideals of not “selling out,” this takes a new form when viewed through social media platforms such as Instagram.6 Creating an authentic self for followers to consume has looped back around to the trend of creating a “truly” authentic self for followers to watch fall from grace of the initial authentic self. (And very few seem bothered if these authentic selves sometimes include a #ad.) The New Yorker wrote about this occurrence in October of 2019, labeling the increasingly ubiquitous posts as the “getting real” moment and tracking its popularity amongst internet superstars such as Tavi Gevinson and Garance Doré.7 The need to ground images to their referent is both contra postmodernism (in the vein of Jean Baudrillard and, as I will discuss later, the manner in which Rosalind Krauss read the work of Cindy Sherman) and against the concept of “digital dualism” which purports that the distinction between on and offline is either impossible or false.8 What I find to be most useful, for my specific argument in this chapter and in how we might try to pursue the selfie or production of the self beyond a momentary blip, is Olga Goriunova’s concept of “the digital subject.” Goriunova describes the “return of the subject in the computational context … [which] encompasses a digital identifier, cor­ relations in data or a data profile, moving between biological characteristics and sym­ bolic expression.”9 She tells the story of a research student finding her through advertising analytics, and when faced with this “subject mapped” onto herself, she asks: What exactly is this digital entity that she identified as me? What relation does it have to me? How do I relate to it? How is it able to stand in for me and

42 Katherine Guinness construct a me that attracts advertisements and thus alters me, while still being reliant on my activity? How is it produced outside of my awareness, mobilized, and recruited? It is clearly not I, and yet it is no one other than I. What other ‘I’s are out there, labouring in the legal, medical, industrial, and aesthetic spheres? To engage with this encounter, I propose the term digital subject.10 For Goriunova the digital subject is “an abstracted position, a performance, con­ structed persona from data, profiles, and other records and aggregates.” We should not, however, attempt to separate the living/physical self from this digital persona.11 With this in mind, I want to begin my exploration—unpacking ideas of selfies, au­ thentic selves, how mass-mediated images live or die on social media platforms, and the timeline of the reception of these works and events—with the question of: Are Amalia Ulman’s images within her work Excellences & Perfections selfies? The artwork Excellences & Perfections was a series of images posted to Ulman’s Instagram page for five months, beginning on April 19, 2014 with a post-reading “PART I” in nondescript black letters on a white background. (It ended on September 14, 2014 with a black and white photo of a rose.) For the five months, Ulman took on a different persona, with an arcing narrative, all shown through images on Instagram. The posts were Instagram posts (and still live on her page, although the work is also now hosted by Rhizome and the New Museum); they could be commented on, liked, etc., Because of this interactivity (and the large amount of narrative planning required on Ulman’s part) calling the work a performance seems almost too simplistic, although the New Musuem’s page lists Excellences & Perfections as an “Instagram Performance.”12 The work was active creation and embodiment of a persona, the posting of that creation to Instagram, and then the interactivity of comments and other relations that comes with the media platform itself. To speak of the narrative, or the images in a singular way is to do an injustice to the entire body of the work—but is also necessary to describe it. The developing persona and narrative Ulman created over those five months was a young woman who moved to Los Angeles seeking modeling work and fame, soon became a sugar baby with increasingly expensive taste and shopping habits, started undergoing plastic surgery (including breast augmentation), dyed her hair at least once, partied too hard and suffered addiction issues which sent her on a health kick and eventually back home to live with her parents. Each section (the narrative of the work is sometimes described as different personas, the “girl next door” “sugar baby/ghetto girl,” and “life goddess”13) is, again, complete with its own perfectly crafted and copied stereotypes. It seems fairly obvious to say that images of a self-posted to Instagram are selfies. Although, to push my own agenda of the “blip” of the selfie, I would argue that many academic definitions which involve, for example, an arm in the frame or a selfie-stick on display are becoming increasingly rare.14 The flip function of a smartphone camera enables one to take a photo without awkwardly including their arm, or needing to rely on a mirror, and the rise of tropes such as the “Instagram husband” who take the photo for you are increasing.15 A November 2019 article in the Wall Street Journal reports that you should “Forget Selfies, On Vacation Hire a Pro…” and discusses how many travelers are booking “Instagram tours” in which they hire tour guides to take scenic photos of them.16 One exemplary traveler shared how she had been previously burned, putting her photo-memories into the hands of a complete non-professional: “I was in Paris with my sister once, and we asked just another

Self-Portraiture and Self Performance 43 person out-and-about to take our photo in front of the Eiffel Tower and they legit missed the Eiffel Tower, they just zoomed in on me and my sister…”17 The im­ plications for figure/ground formations at play here are fascinating, especially if we assume that the interviewee had told the passerby to take her and her sister’s photo and not a photo of the Eiffel tower. Putting these implications aside, however, the selfie as a formal image is becoming obsolete. Simply put—you either post images that aren’t of “you” or you have others take your photos for you. But, according to academic definitions of selfies from only a few years ago—can we call Ulman’s images selfies? Of course, we can. Ulman does use these increasingly outmoded forms of capturing her image—framing the shot through bathroom or other mirrors, arms, and phone squarely in frame (Figure 2.1). She has more recently stated of the work, made at the height of selfie theorization, “It couldn’t be done now, it was very specific to its time.”18 Part of what makes Ulman’s work so effective is how well she absorbs and enacts the various stereotypes of Instagram models at the time. As she moves from one stage of her narrative to another, she captures all of the accompanying tropes and accessories and (sometimes literal) baggage perfectly; whether she’s snapping a selfie in an elevator mirror with an armful of designer shopping bags, posing with an aesthetically placed piece of cake or in her underwear, or sharing her favorite smoothie recipe under an inspirational quote image that reads “start each day with a grateful heart,” Ulman knows just how to provide all the details to make the world of her persona, and the persona itself, entirely lived-in and real. In fact, Ulman has said that she received criticism for capturing these roles too well, stating: “the criticism is that I have depicted archetypes that should be destroyed rather than perpetuated. The

Figure 2.1 A screenshot of Amalia Ulman’s Instagram page during her Excellences & Perfections performance. Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

44 Katherine Guinness idea was precisely to use the most mainstream archetypes, generally attributed to a 25-year-old girl…”19 For anyone seeing these images on Instagram, defining them as anything other than selfies would be difficult. In order to hold up the selfie as a non-marginal topic of research, some scholars will relate it to self-portraiture and argue that all self-portraiture could be a selfie. Even beyond my initial definition of figure vs. ground in the selfie, we have to separate out what kinds of self-portraiture exist, and how, and why. For now, I’m referring to Ulman but will turn this question soon to Cindy Sherman who, because of her preexisting oeuvre is not allowed the same response to her Instagram feed as Ulman. There is the ontological specificity of the selfie as an image, but then there is also the question of the self within that image. Ulman was not capturing the life and times of Amalia Ulman (herself ), but of the persona, she created for Excellences & Perfections. In this way, as I will reiterate, her work is the same sort of postmodern critique as provided by Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. So, visually, Ulman’s images are very much the stuff of selfies. But, if a selfie is about a “self” distinct from a background, then we cannot call these images selfies. Ulman is very carefully constructing the background of her images to better create the self within them. Instead of the distinctive dirty room or unflushed open toilet in selfies where the background disappears and is accidentally left in because the focus is on the “self,” Ulman is aware of all those things and is in fact putting them there on purpose to most convincingly create her personas. Even more interestingly, to me at least, this construction is not in service to Ulman, but to her persona. Can an image of a persona be a selfie? If a selfie is about a “self” distinct from a background, what are the limits of the self? Is the issue here not being able to differentiate the self, thus becoming all other people because of an inability to maintain a stable ego? As Bollmer and I argue in our previous article, selfies, all too often labeled negatively narcissistic, are not narcissistic enough unless they allow the self to come into being. On this point, Bernard Steigler claims that it is only through a specific process of individuation—which he relates to the Freudian discussion of primary narcissism—that allows the I to be distinct from a larger collective body, the we, and thus allows the I to have an ethical relation with another, different person.20 Or, one has to have a narcissistic relation with oneself to have a relationship with another. With the figure/ground of a selfie, blocking out the background is necessary in order to maintain the boundaries of the self—otherwise, it becomes fragmented. The act of ignoring the background becomes part of this process—the act of taking a selfie is, ideally, though not always, an act of primary narcissism in which we must understand ourselves as bounded. Ullman is creating, not ignoring the background of her images, but I contend that this is not an inability or failure, but a very purposeful enactment. In fact, the construction of this persona could be seen as an anti-selfie or inverted selfie in which Ulman is allowing the self of Ulman to become that which is background invisibility. Excellences & Perfections was created shortly after Ulman was hospitalized and suffered permanent injuries as the result of a Greyhound bus accident in 2013. Creating the persona that existed in Excellences & Perfections allowed Ulman to become background to the persona, the boundedness extends beyond the visible image, and she can make the “self” of her selfie completely disappear into an in­ accessible, uncapturable space. (Surely an incredible feat in our digital world where we as selves are almost always accessible.) This is why keeping the work on Ulman’s

Self-Portraiture and Self Performance 45 own Instagram page, and not changing her name for the sake of the persona was especially important. Here she is able to hide in plain sight, not unlike, I propose, other feminist artists who attempt neutral forms of “positive nonidentity” through an embrace of a multiplied singularity of “self.”21 It is also in line with Peggy Phelan’s politics of visibility which she outlines in her book Unmarked: The current contradiction between “identity politics” with its accent on visibility, and the psychoanalytic/deconstructionist mistrust of visibility as the source of unity or wholeness needs to be refigured, if not resolved … There is real power in remaining unmarked; and there are serious limitations to visual representation as a political goal. Visibility is a trap.22 What are the digital implications of visibility? This foreground/background re­ lationship of self/persona within Ulman’s work is further evidenced when editor Rob Horning states, “Virality buys a temporary break from the ongoing work of selfconstruction.”23 Ulman has said that she saw this work as a “boycott of her own online persona.”24 Goriunova writes, of Ulman’s work, “Characteristic of work by feminist artists working with digital media is the notion of a self to be overperformed, and a distance to be filled in with such baroque eagerness that it becomes a place to hide.”25 How to discuss selfies in terms of self-construction online and purposeful personas? How artists use digital media, social media platforms, and the internet writ large inherently changes the self. To put it another way, in the words of Grant Bollmer (referencing arguments of Virginia Heffernan and Boris Groys): Either the internet is a massive form of performance art … or art today bleeds into the practices of documentation that characterize social media, in which the most significant work of digital art is our own identity … At the same time, this aspect of digital media—and the internet in particular—has been noted by art theorist Boris Groys as “Maybe the most interesting aspect of the Internet … precisely the possibility of decontextualization and recontextualization through the cut-and-paste operations that the Internet offers to its users…”26 Ulman was able to utilize this “most interesting aspect of the internet” to create not one or the other (either a massive form of performance art or art bleeding into documentation) but both, and in addition, a space of hiding in plain sight—an in­ verted, anti-selfie where she could go offline while always being online, accessible and untouchable. But reactions to this work were, again, largely about issues of au­ thenticity and fraud. I will repeat an earlier question: If a selfie is about a “self” distinct from a background, is the issue here about not being able to differentiate the self? Or maybe I’m hiding my true question in the background (please, let’s not have it be an unnoticed open toilet bowl). Is it possible for artists today to make an image of the self divorced from the self? And maybe I’m hiding my answer back further still: a wholly authentic and stable self and self-image does not exist, and a concept of the self is always produced simultaneously alongside both a visual and phenomenological image. But, if you’re following along and nodding your head, let me show you the foreground of my question and answer background: the initial response to

46 Katherine Guinness Excellences & Perfections was primarily one of anger and upset. There was outcry over the “hoax” that Ulman had perpetrated on her followers. One BBC article about the work is indicative of dozens more: “The Instagram artist who fooled thou­ sands.”27 The work was seen as unnecessary, deceitful, a ploy to gain followers, etc. Whether it was the artist hurting the authenticity of Instagram, or Instagram hurting the authenticity of the artist, people were mad. Ulman states, “People started hating me. Some gallery I was showing with freaked out and was like, ‘You have to stop doing this, because people don’t take you seriously anymore.’”28 Even those in Ulman’s “real” life didn’t entirely believe the work was an artwork, and had to be convinced that the posts were purposefully staged (some never believed her, claiming she lucked her way into a nervous breakdown she later repackaged as art). According to a description of the work on the New Museum’s website, “By repeating a lie for three months, she created a truth that she was unable to dismantle.”29 Now acquired by a prominent museum, with a full monograph accompanying it, the work has begun to settle and garner the canonical new-media acclaim it deserves. Instead of “hoax” most articles discussing the book use phrasing like “now-iconic Instagram performance.”30 But the merging of persona onto Instagram, of con­ structed self onto selfie, caused backlash (even though almost anyone you ask would agree that all Instagram images are constructed in some way). Ulman writes, The idea was to bring fiction to a platform that has been designed for supposedly “authentic” behavior, interactions and content. The intention was to prove how easy an audience can be manipulated through the use of mainstream archetypes and characters they’ve seen before.31 It becomes increasingly clear that we can read Ulman’s work as following a modernist “orthopedic” tradition—one in which the goal of art is to correct the perception of the viewer (an inherently flawed subject who requires correction) through negative critique and then gain knowledge about the world as it “truly” is.32 Goriunova helps assert this perspective writing about Excellence & Perfections: “The project has caused significant debate precisely because it re-enacts the dominant repressive visual regime, and its satiric nature rests solely in the author’s claim that it is a critical art project.”33 Looking for an authentic self in a selfie is unproductive, looking for an authentic self is unproductive, and yet, we still want boundaries for our authenticity. Even when we know it isn’t wholly the case, many would agree with Ulman’s assertion that Instagram is a platform that “has been designed for supposedly ‘authentic’ behavior.” There is a form of inauthentic authenticity that Ulman pushed beyond. She did not create a persona totally detached from herself with a different name, she didn’t create a new account. She did, in many ways, what the Pictures Generation did—there is no self-recognition. The point is not the image is “me,” the point is “the image is not me, yet everyone thinks it is,” the image is false and something outside of it is real—Ulman played with formalized, archetypical versions of mass-mediated ima­ gery, and by adhering to them well, created an overidentification. Like many artists of the Pictures Generation, Ulman was working to undermine the idea that the image is anything other than mediated, and not a referent to the self. But as we will see in the next section, and as Goriunova proposes,

Self-Portraiture and Self Performance 47 The digital subject is neither necessarily an extension of the human into digital networks (it is not a self), nor a representation of the I, but comes into being at a distance between the living being and the data pointers, profiles, models, and active propositions that it may prompt.34 At the same time, this distance is not “liberated” from the self, having no relation to what it posits to represent. As we now turn to discuss The Pictures Generation, we can see some of the problems in conceptualizing what these artists were doing can be found in attempts to have things both ways—images are both ungrounded, referring to nothing but themselves, and also supposedly critical interventions into media culture. Attempting to have things both ways has political and conceptual con­ sequences, which shapes how the descendants of this movement—such as Ulman—are understood.

The Pictures Generation The Pictures Generation, as previously described, is the name given to a broad group of artists working primarily in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s. The name comes from a 1977 group exhibition organized by Douglas Crimp, Pictures, and an article of the same name he wrote for October two years later. Its legacy was reified in 2009 when the Metropolitan Museum of Art ran a major exhibition titled “The Pictures Generation 1974–1984,” curated by Douglas Eklund. To say the categor­ ization of “Pictures Generation” is broad may be an understatement; as critic Gary Indiana writes, “‘The Pictures Generation’ has become a ubiquitous, awkward catchall term, probably abrasive to the artists themselves, for something that was less an organized movement than a heterogeneous expression of a zeitgeist.”35 The zeitgeist Indiana speaks of was, generally, a response to capitalist culture through the use of mass-mediated images. Often the artists would remove these images from their original context to both embrace and criticize the flatness and meaningless of the visual in late capitalism. More simply, they sought to subvert mass media imagery through its reuse. For example, in Untitled (Cowboy), when Richard Prince removed the photograph of the Marlboro man cowboy from its advertorial context, appropriating Norm Clasen’s original photograph, he was showing the mediated image as a distortion. When Cindy Sherman costumed herself and posed as a stereotypical cinema starlet in her photographs, she showed the falseness of the mediated image (and, we must assert, as she does, created an image that was not autobiographical). Sherman is not appearing as “herself” in her photography, but as a mediated form from film (which Rosalind Kraus argues is a simulacrum).36 Prince is not showing us the Marlboro man, but a decontextualized cowboy we will all still be able to place. Ulman, for her part, is doing the same; not appearing as herself in Excellences & Perfections, but as the mediated, visual form of “influencer.” A broad swath of Ulman’s audience became angry because of the expectation (or necessity) that an influencer is “real” or au­ thentic in their self-representation, while for Sherman and Prince, these expectations of artist-authenticity did not hold. (At least according to Crimp’s assessment of how these works operated, in which they are postmodern.)37 I reassert that the link between authenticity and self (or how it is theorized) is changing in relevant ways since the 1980s. In his “Pictures” essay Douglas Crimp

48 Katherine Guinness writes, “according to [Jack] Goldstein, it is only through a distance that we can understand the world. Which is to say that we only experience reality through the pictures we make of it.”38 This reality we make through our pictures remains, but the distancing is changing. He continues, Next to these pictures firsthand experience begins to retreat, to seem more and more trivial. While it once seemed that pictures had the function of interpreting reality, it now seems that they have usurped it. It therefore becomes imperative to understand the picture itself, not in order to uncover a lost reality, but to determine how a picture becomes a signifying structure of its own accord … The actual event and the fictional event, the benign and the horrific, the mundane and the exotic, the possible and the fantastic: all are fused into the all-embracing similitude of the picture.39 For Crimp, then, pictures could create a reality in and of themselves, and be divorced from context through the work of artists like Prince and Sherman. But Crimp seems to want to have it both ways; the collapse of representation and the referent (like Baudrillard’s conception of Simulacrum) and to say that the art remains critical. There was no looking for the reality behind the picture; the picture created reality in the manner of third-order simulacrum. But again, Crimp speaks to both; the collapse of representation and the referent and says that the art remains critical. This “both ways” shows the problem Ulman faces—If this was the case, Ulman’s persona would be enough, we would not need to know if there was a reality or “hoax” behind it. There is no longer a one-to-one acceptance of mass-mediated imagery as only false, as simply products of commercialism there to be deconstructed. There is also the issue of media and context, Sherman’s images live on film, Ulman’s on Instagram. Additionally, we can look at how distancing plays into Goriunova’s concept of digital subjects. She writes, “A digital subject is neither a human being nor its representation but a distance between the two.”40 Interestingly enough, some see the Pictures Generation as the vanguards for an age in which work like Ulman’s, (or an edited collection about Selfies in art) can even exist. Indiana writes, “Our present bedazzlement-by-pixels was anticipated by a loosely affiliated group of artists who emerged in New York in the mid-1970s and early ’80s—before iPhones, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram.”41 Many artists from the Pictures generation, such as Richard Prince, still attempt to re-use digital images as detached from their original context, but with new responses. Prince garnered large criticism and contempt for his use of Instagram images in his 2014 exhibition New Portraits. This exhibition included enlarged Instagram posts, printed on canvas, with different comments created by Prince swapped for the originals. The images themselves, however, and the accounts which made them, were all real and appropriated (in his usual manner). Prince’s Untitled (Cowboy) series didn’t credit the original photographer either, and while this dismayed Clasen (who has said of his photos being copied, “it has always been a hollow feeling for me…”42), there were never lawsuits. (The New Portraits are not, however, the first time Prince has been sued over his work.) Several of the Instagram account holders, or those who held the rights to the photographs within the Instagram posts, brought suits and cease-anddesist orders against Prince and his gallery.43 As of 2017, although Larry Gagosian had asked for the case to be dismissed, Judge Sidney H. Stein refused, claiming, “The

Self-Portraiture and Self Performance 49 primary image in both works is the photograph itself. Prince has not materially al­ tered the composition, presentation, scale, color palette and media originally used…”44 Prince glibly responded through his Twitter account that “artists don’t sue other artists” and “Phony fraud photographers keep mooching me. Why? I changed the game.” He did, however, later disable his Instagram account.45 Prince may have changed the game, but invariably the game changes. A better representation, outside of lawsuits, might be to view how another group, the SuicideGirls, dealt with his appropriation of their material. One issue with bringing lawsuits, of course, is that once an image is uploaded to Instagram, the artist doesn’t retain rights to it, anyway. And so, in response to their image and brand being sold through Prince’s show for upwards of $90,000 the group of online models and photographers began to sell copies of the work Prince had copied from them for $90. The wording of their sales pitch included that, with Prince’s work, the profits “go to rich gallery owner and millionaire ‘artist’” while their work is “sold by the actual people who created the image and profits go to charity.”46 Prince later retweeted a post by the group’s founder Missy Suicide (Selena Mooney) which read, “Do we have Mr. Prince’s permission to sell these prints? We have the same permission from him that he had from us.)”47 Jokes and emoji aside, the group saw Prince’s actions not as appropriation but outright stealing. Vanguards can become old guards if they don’t watch out. Missy Suicide said “The thing about Prince’s theft of the images is that it feels like such a violation by someone who doesn’t get it,” and, “Instagram is such an expression of our identity and to have an old dude steal them and get paid such a significant fee for them hurt…”48 Times and games change. Through the digital, context has returned in various forms, and again this has new repercussions for how identity and authenticity are formulated and linked. Prince is treating Instagram in the exact same way as any other past work or past mediated image, but he simply can’t. Those who create and exist on Instagram are a far cry from the corporation behind Marlboro cigarettes. In the words of Missy Suicide, “Andy Warhol was stealing from a corporation and Prince is stealing from a kid.”49 Prince isn’t using mass-mediated images anymore, he’s using people’s liveli­ hood; image and brand and economics are interconnected. He isn’t appropriating the labor of big admen, but the precarious labor of microcelebrities.50 Again, the Pictures Generation existed in a moment where authenticity of self and image did not have to be linked. Representation did not equal realism. Crimp ex­ plains that representation, is not, therefore, relegated to a relationship to reality that is either secondary or transcendent; and it does not achieve signification in relation to what is represented, but in relation to other representations. Representation has returned in their work not in the familiar guise of realism, which seeks to resemble a prior existence, but as an autonomous function that might be described as “representa­ tion as such.” It is representation freed from the tyranny of the represented.51 While the work that Ulman created in Excellences & Perfections is, I argue, similar to how Sherman was operating through her Untitled Film Stills, it was referred to as a hoax and not a simulacrum. Both women created convincing archetypes and pro­ duced images that were not of themselves in order to critique contemporary culture in various ways. They are not of the women themselves, and they have no original,

50 Katherine Guinness serving as productive simulacrum. Rosalind Krauss writes (of Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills): “The condition of Sherman’s work in the Stills and part of their point, we could say—is the simulacral nature of what they contain, its condition of being a copy without an original.”52 This collapse between the context of art and life can be seen through various outlets’ increasing attempts to tie Sherman to Selfie culture. recently dubbed her “The original selfie queen”53 and a 2016 New York Times article by Blake Gopnik stated, “The deliberate shape-shifting that goes on in an Instagram selfie stream has roots in the infiltration of Shermanalia into our culture.”54 (Although in that article Sherman noted that social media “seems so vulgar to me”).55 Vulgar or not, less than a year later, Sherman joined Instagram and made her account public, which The Guardian met with more selfie vanguard praise, its headline reading: “How Cindy Sherman’s Instagram selfies are changing the face of photography.”56 Unlike her fellow Picture Generation artist Prince, Sherman’s use of Instagram was seen as iconic and revolutionary, not tired theft. And unlike Ulman, her assumed collapse between art and life was met with immediate celebration. Sherman’s ac­ count, which had previously been private for a few months, went public to much applause and then confusion over whether it was an Instagram account (it was) or a groundbreaking new series. Salon’s headline heralded the account with “Cindy Sherman’s Instagram account may be the best art exhibition of 2017,”57 and Rolling Stone proclaimed: “Sherman’s most recent experiment: a social commentary on the self-exhibitionist tendencies of the selfie generation.”58Artnet wrote that the posts, “echo photographs typically reserved for gallery walls. Not only does this provide a generous look into her process for her fans, it also raises the question: Is Cindy Sherman using Instagram to make new work?”59 Some of the images Sherman posted were in line with her transformative photographs, so covered in face-tune filters and grotesque distortions that she was her recognizably unrecognizable self (Figure 2.2). Others, however, were entirely banal and completely expected Instagram fare: images of chickens on her farm, a quick snap of a Gillian Wearing artwork she enjoyed seeing at a museum (Figure 2.3), a throwback photo of her dressed up for Thanksgiving. Why did so many want to see these as artworks and not an Instagram account (seemingly the inverse of Ulman’s problem)? Salon, even when acknowl­ edging that they were inarguably Instagram posts, wanted them not to be Sherman’s, writing, “Whereas a gallery print, say one from her ‘Disasters and Fairy Tales’ series, renders the subject (often a character, often played by Sherman) into a work of confrontational art, these snaps seem more like moments stolen from those char­ acter’s lives sometimes created by those characters.”60 While Sherman’s work, especially the Untitled Film Stills can and should be seen as orthopedic, here we are seeing a move from that confrontational reading to one where the audience wants the work to be intimate and personal. Sherman’s Instagram feed is radically different from her previous series of photo­ graphs, not so much because of their content but because of their location. While images from her Untitled Film Stills and Pin Up Series demonstrate Crimp’s belief that “The picture is thus shown to be separable from that which it might be said to picture,”61 (in this case, Sherman herself) her new photos on Instagram, which in­ clude the artist (albeit radically transformed by digital filters) in a hospital bed when she fell ill in “real” life challenge this separation, questioning whether such a dis­ tinction is even possible anymore. The change from performance to self-performance

Self-Portraiture and Self Performance 51

Figure 2.2 A screenshot of Cindy Sherman’s Instagram page. Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

(and the inability to pry the two apart) is constantly looming on platforms such as Instagram. Even when this connection is inverted or inauthentic, there are certain ties to reality we just seem indebted to on social media platforms. Sherman, who is no­ tably skeptical of social media, acknowledges this when she explains, “I have friends I follow [on Instagram] who I can sort of tell when they’re feeling vulnerable or in­ secure because that’s when suddenly they’re posting all of these pretty photos of themselves.”62 The consideration of Sherman’s feed as art has vastly different critical implications than the accusations leveled against her fellow Pictures artist Richard Prince for being an old man and a thief. Whereas Prince is seen as out of touch, outlets such as Salon praise Sherman’s ability to adapt with the times. Gabriel Bell writes, “it shows a kind of wily adaptiveness, openness and facility with one’s own abilities that Sherman’s generational peers … have lacked as they mature into their late periods. If only more artists could be so fun-seeking and malleable in their 60s.”63 Prince wants to be a “game changer” who detaches images from meaning, but, at the same time, can still ground the “original” in a way to make his work a critical comment on mass culture—to be both critical and free from criticality. Sherman is working to critique via simulacrum (as Ulman does, through archetypes), and then both Sherman and Ulman receive a form of misunderstood critique in response to the intimacy or or­ thopedic nature of their work.

52 Katherine Guinness

Figure 2.3 A screenshot of Cindy Sherman’s Instagram page showing a Gillian Wearing work, Self Portrait as My Sister Jane Wearing (2003). The irony at play in relation to image rights of photographed artwork versus screen capture is not lost on the author in this particular image choice. Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

Leeson and Wearing; Intimacy and Masking Perhaps we should move away from selfies and Instagram for a moment, and look at the work of self-production, personas, and masking created by Gillian Wearing and Lynn Hershman Leeson. I want to argue that their forms of critique may not be “critical,” and are not so much about the failure of mediated images, but a failure to access or know another (a failure of intimacy, perhaps). These artists are interested in the collapse of image/construct, body/image, identity/authenticity. (Which is not to say this does not hold true for Ulman and Sherman, just that their work is often not read that way.) In a manner I want to read as both similar and dissimilar to Sherman and Ulman, artist Lynn Hershman Leeson (known for her pioneering work with digital art) created a long and ongoing body of work in which she (and eventually others) posed as an alter-ego named Roberta Breitmore. During the run of the work (roughly four years not including digital continuations), Leeson not only physically transformed into Roberta, but developed a fully realized, legal and physical presence belonging to Roberta. This included bank accounts and checks, medical records, driver’s license, and other identifying information, as well as psychiatric correspondence. The work

Self-Portraiture and Self Performance 53 evolved into “Three Robertas” when Leeson hired performers to also become Roberta (through her characteristic blonde hair and specific body language, which Leeson charted as part of the work). They went on dates as Roberta, medical ap­ pointments, etc. The performance officially ended in an exorcism at the grave of Lucrezia Borgia, but was resurrected from 1995 to 2000 via CybeRoberta, an AI presence on the web, and then again in 2006 as a character in Second Life. The gathering of material evidence of Roberta’s existence was highly Foucauldian, in that Breitmore existed first and foremost (and arguably most easily) for and through the state apparatus and surveillance technology (security camera footage, legal documents, bank records, etc.). The physical, material documents proving Breitmore’s existence are all that is left of the work now (excluding Second Life), and precede more contemporary forms of “proof of life” or digital traces, including the manner in which one must hold up a piece of paper with the date and their username to be “verified” on various message boards and social media platforms. Leeson gathered proof of Breitmore in this way but also attempted to make sure a wide variety of people “knew” Breitmore by posting ads for roommates and dates in local newspapers. One of these encounters apparently ended with Breitmore being solicited to join a prostitution ring, causing her to become suicidal, which can be seen in the work Roberta Contemplating Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge (1978).64 If we are to consider liberation through intimacy or postmodern meaninglessness, the Roberta Breitmore works are both incredibly intimate—they allow viewers access to details of her life including psychiatric treatment and dates—and yet detached in the same way as Ulman and Sherman; Breitmore is not Leeson. Gillian Wearing is a conceptual artist who works most often in video and photo­ graphy. She won the Turner Prize in 1997 and is considered part of the Young British Artists (YBAs). Wearing is often compared to Cindy Sherman, most often through her silicone mask photographs. These works, which stretch across an extensive period of time and content, generally consist of Wearing donning a mask (she creates them with the help of experts trained by Madame Tussauds in London, they take around four months to make) and then photographing herself wearing the mask. The mask is, of course, different from the prosthetics (and more recently, digital effects) which Sherman uses. Wearing has discussed this, noting “some people tried to direct me to use prosthetics, but I was adamant it had to be a mask, something that transforms me entirely, something that was not grotesque but real, like a trompe l’oeil.”65 This transforming can be linked to “becoming” other people, or speaking to the necessity of knowing another person through literally becoming/performing them (which is not limited to Wearing’s mask work). These mask photos include family members such as Wearing as her father: Self-Portrait as my Father Brian Wearing (2003); her sister: Self Portrait as My Sister Jane Wearing (2003); her brother: Self Portrait as my Brother Richard Wearing (2003); and her grandfather: Self Portrait as My Grandfather George Gregory (2006). They also include Wearing masked as other artists including Albrecht Dürer: Me as Dürer (2018); Diane Arbus: Me as Arbus (2008); and Claude Cahun: Me as Claude Cahun Holding a Mask (2012). And as various versions of herself: Self Portrait (2000), Self Portrait at 17 Years Old (2003), Self Portrait at Three Years Old (2004), and Me as My Ideal Self (2012). Although her work is often said to “extend the tradition of photographic por­ traiture” and compared to artists such as Walker Evans and Diane Arbus (and, again, Sherman),66 Wearing may identify more with the statement that “her oeuvre may be

54 Katherine Guinness understood as a harbinger of reality television.”67 Wearing has described her work as “editing life” and cites documentary influences such as Michael Apted’s Seven Up series and The Family by Grant Roddam and Paul Watson. For her, however, doc­ umentary (or “pure” documentary as she puts it) isn’t at the heart of her work: For me, one of the biggest problems with pure documentary photography is how the photographer, like the artist, engineers something to look like a certain kind of social statement—for instance, you can make someone look miserable, when this is just one side, a nuance of their personality. They might just be looking away at something, but their expression could be read as showing a kind of depression in their overall behavior. I couldn’t bear the idea of taking photo­ graphs of people without knowing.68 This unbearableness of voyeuristic documentation can be seen in the lengths of re­ performance Wearing went through for her work Homage to the Woman With the Bandaged Face Who I Saw Yesterday Down Walworth Road (1995). As the title suggests, the work is inspired by a woman Wearing saw from her car, walking down the street with a bandaged face. Instead of documenting the woman, Wearing created a seven-minute video in which she herself walks down the street wearing a bandaged mask, a small camera housed inside capturing passersby’s reactions. She did this again in the work Dancing in Peckham, where she dances in a shopping center to no music. Wearing had seen a woman at a music festival dancing out of rhythm and was inspired, noting: All of these conformities pile on top of you, and you want this other side of life, to do that once in your life, to get over your inhibitions. I’m just seduced by people who are able to do that. I stopped myself from asking her to dance on camera because I thought it would have been patronizing, really. You have to draw the line somewhere. So I had to do the dancing on tape myself. Plus I enjoyed doing it. I couldn’t bear looking at it for a couple of years, but now I don’t mind it. It feels quite good.69 This refusal to force another subject through her own creating/artistic lens usually leads Wearing to use herself within her work, just as she does with her masking photographs. This recontextualization, as contemporary art writer John Slyce de­ scribes it, creates a unique method of representation in which Wearing “frame[s] herself as she frames the other.”70 To frame yourself as you frame another (or, more true to the wording—and an important distinction—“the other”) might be a pro­ ductive way of self-production.71 Wearing photographs herself wearing the faces of those closest to her, of herself at different ages, or as idealized. It is the ultimate form of looking through a family album, in which you want so badly to dive into the photos of your parents’ lives before you existed or remember memories of yourself you’ve lost to young age/old age. They point out the alienating, not connecting as­ pects of photography. And while experiences of alienation may not be as common, at least among academics who talk about photo albums and scrapbooks,72 I would like to argue for their specific and convincing role within Wearing’s work. More speci­ fically, an alienating feeling in which one can look at oneself or a loved one in a photograph and realize that there are moments and people you have no knowledge

Self-Portraiture and Self Performance 55 of, no memory of, no history to or connection with. Wearing recreates these photos with herself, not as herself, in the center. The subject of the photograph is the original photograph, but with Wearing’s own connections and memories at play. This same relationality exists in the fact that Wearing will not document, but will embody and reperform the acts of strangers on the street she finds engaging or curious. It’s as if by donning their (silicone) skin she can know what they are thinking, or at least know what she thinks about them better, as them as herself.

Switching Lives With… How can we discuss these frames of self and the other through the selfie? As Grant Bollmer and I have written, “A selfie does not depict the self. It does not document the self. A selfie makes the self, and performs the self through a technical, visual dis­ tinction that differentiates the self from the environment…”73 And of course not every self-portrait or self-image is a selfie. But I would like to think about differ­ entiation between the self and environment when the environment is other bodies and other-selves. And by other bodies and other-selves, I’m speaking to both Stiegler’s ideas on (the failure of) individuation, in which the environment becomes a mass of bodies without clear relations,74 but also very specifically to the environment of YouTube where one of, if not the primary, subjects is personalities or microcelebrity. This is not so much the aesthetic/visual form of a traditional selfie in which the image of the photographer is foregrounded to make the background recede, but the pro­ duction of the self through a myriad of other ways (some of which we have already discussed), which makes it possible for identities to be donned and images captured, “lives” to be condensed to a visual image or mask almost as easily as Wearing’s masks. Am I still talking about selfies? Probably not, but that’s the point. Let me give you an example. On September 17, 2019, two videos were uploaded to YouTube that has received (as of the writing of this chapter) over 28 million views. One was uploaded to the bodybuilding puppy-like Dolan Twins channel, titled “Switching Lives with Jeffree Star,” and the other, titled “Switching Lives with the Dolan Twins,” was uploaded to the makeup mogul and former myspace microcelebrity Jeffree Star’s channel. Each video, as their name implies, showed the YouTube stars switching lives with one another. While each video involved going through the “normal” routine of each YouTuber (drinking protein shakes and avoiding dairy and carbs while attempting a high-intensity workout for Star-as-Dolan Twin; drinking energy drinks and eating fast food while going on a shopping spree and attending to business at factory headquarters for the Dolan Twins-as-Star), the real focus of the videos was on the intense and detailed dedication of each participant in recreating the others’ “look”—in “becoming” them. Jeffree Star, known for his gender-fluid alien beauty looks, was unrecognizable in gym shorts and furry dark eyebrows, growling “Fuck yeah what’s next!” after tackling a rope-climb fueled by the Twins’ upbeat, intensely masculine energy. He appeared, they joked, to be a long-lost Dolan triplet. When the three went out for non-dairy frozen yogurt after their workout, fans asking for photos were completely nonplussed and seemed to absolutely believe that he was, in fact, their brother “Jeff Dolan” and included him in their shots. Jeffree Star, in turn, transformed the Dolan Twins through his signature long, glossy, candy-colored hair, gifting them each a human-hair wig, the price of which shocked the two to his clear

56 Katherine Guinness delight. They then received hours of makeup application, and again, signature looks through Star’s own JSC label (Jeffree Star Cosmetics) tracksuits. (Star is known for wearing designer tracksuits, primarily Gucci). The final touch was a JSC mirror, which they waved and pointed with the easy mimicry of those who have seen Star open his videos in the exact same way hundreds of times.75 What is of most interest to me is not the convincing way that all three actors morphed into one another, but the sheer popularity of this genre of YouTube video. On August 2, 2018, YouTube celebrity Shane Dawson uploaded a video titled “Becoming Jeffree Star” (which, to date, has received more views than the two aforementioned videos combined). In this video, part of a larger series focusing on “The Secret Life of Jeffree Star,” the same fate met Dawson as met the Dolan Twins: he was fitted with a long, shiny, expensive wig, custom tracksuit, hours of makeup, and then made to gasp and agog at the huge displays of wealth inherent in a “typical day in the life” of Star. The “becoming” is clearly what these videos are about, but not becoming to form a better understanding of, becoming to strengthen their own self-image, their self-production, their brand. These videos prove that the identity of Star is so strong that it can be placed onto other bodies and not collapse, not lose itself. Ulman, when being criticized for the fact that the archetypes in Excellences & Perfections might be damaging and that she was merely perpetuating unhealthy ideals, stated that she meant to “show their construction: how these are not natural patterns of behavior but something acquired, and therefore, exchangeable.”76 Ulman may be following exchangeable archetypes, but Star is creating them. Becoming videos and personas such as Star’s are, then, an intensification that emerges out of the failure of selfies to produce a self, exceeding selfies by becoming another person as yourself, so one can finally see their own self in ways not given by selfies, whether this means through an impossible self-recognition or more likely, cultural and economic commodification. Wearing is the predecessor here, not Sherman or even Ullman. Or perhaps we should not look for predecessors, but simply look at older traditions rather than newer ones and study the lineage of taking over the bodies of others in the name of a lack of self-recognition. We are always now, and for the future I foresee, tied to our digital selves, we will have digital subjects to contend with. As Goriunova says, “A digital subject comes after the subject, requiring new ways to understand how it connects to the subjectivities of living persons.”77

Notes 1 A blip not to mean selfies are insignificant, but that they are specific to a time already passed. 2 For example, Ana Peraica, Culture of the Selfie: Self-Representation in Contemporary Visual Culture (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2017). In this book, Peraica explores the “continuity of contemporary selfie culture with the tradition of self-portraiture in art” (Peraica, 8). She asserts the important differences between self-portraiture across the history of art and selfies. 3 Grant Bollmer and Katherine Guinness, “Phenomenology for the Selfie,” Cultural Politics 12, no. 2 (July 2017): 156–176. 4 Jerry Saltz, “Art at Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie,” Vulture, January 26, 2014, 5 Douglas Crimp, “Pictures,” October 8 (Spring, 1979): 75–88. 6 For more on the politics of selling out see Thomas Frank, ed., Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from the Baffler (New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1997).

Self-Portraiture and Self Performance 57 7 Carrie Battan, “The Rise of the ‘Getting Real’ Post on Instagram,” The New Yorker, October 1, 2019, 8 See Nathan Jurgenson, The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media (New York: Verso, 2019) and Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994). 9 Olga Goriunova, “The Digital Subject: People as Data as Persons,” Theory, Culture & Society 36, no. 6 (2019): 125. 10 Goriunova, “The Digital Subject,” 126. 11 Ibid. 12 Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections, New Museum Online Exhibitions https:// 13 Cadence Kinsey, “The Instagram Artist Who Fooled Thousands,” BBC Culture, March 7, 2016, 14 See, for example, Paul Frosh, “The Gestural Image: The Selfie, Photograph Theory, and Kinesthetic Sociability,” International Journal of Communication 9 (2015): 1607–1628. 15 Taylor Lorenz, “The Instagram-Husband Revolution,” The Atlantic, January 11, 2019, 16 Harriet Torry, “Forget Selfies, On Vacation Hire A Pro—For the Best Photos, Travelers Book ‘Instagram’ Tours,” Wall Street Journal, Eastern Edition, New York, NY, November 21, 2019. 17 Ibid. 18 Alicia Eler, “Amalia Ulman’s Instagram Performance Exposed the Flaws in Selfie Culture,” CNN Style, March 29, 2018, 19 Francesca Gavin, “Interview with Amalia Ulman,” Kaleidoscope, Issue 23, Winter 2014/ 15. 20 Bernard Stiegler, Acting Out, trans. David Barison (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008). 21 Katherine Guinness, Schizogenesis: The Art of Rosemarie Trockel (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 175. 22 Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London: Routledge, 1993), 6. 23 Rob Horning, “Perpetual Provisional Selfies,” in Excellences & Perfections, ed. Amalia Ulman (New York: Prestel, 2018), 24. 24 Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections, New Museum Online Exhibitions. 25 Goriunova, “The Digital Subject,” 140. 26 Grant Bollmer, Theorizing Digital Cultures (London: Sage, 2016), 187. 27 Kinsey, “The Instagram Artist Who Fooled Thousands.” 28 Ibid. 29 Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections, New Museum Online Exhibitions. 30 Rosalind Duguid, “Excellences and Perfections,” Elephant.Art. 31 Gavin, “Interview with Amalia Ulman,” Kaleidoscope. 32 Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013). 33 Goriunova, “The Digital Subject,” 141. 34 Ibid., 142. 35 Gary Indiana, “These ‘80s Artists are More Important Than Ever,” T: The New York Times Style Magazine, February 13, 2017, 36 Rosalind Krauss, “Cindy Sherman: Untitled” in Cindy Sherman: 1975-1993 (New York: Rizzoli, 1993). 37 For more on Postmodernity and how it can apply to advertising, in particular, see Ron Beasley and Marcel Danesi, Persuasive Signs: The Semiotics of Advertising (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2002).

58 Katherine Guinness 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49

50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65

Douglas Crimp, “Pictures,” Artists Space Exhibition, 1977, 17. Crimp, “Pictures,” 17–18. Goriunova, “The Digital Subject,” 128. Gary Indiana, “These ‘80s Artists are More Important Than Ever.” Alina Cohen, “Who Actually Shot Richard Prince’s Iconic Cowboys?” Artsy, https:// This includes Donald Graham, for his photo “Rastafarian Smoking a Joint.” Andrew R. Chow, “Copyright Case Over Richard Prince Instagram Show to Go Forward,” The New York Times, July 20, 2017, richard-prince-instagram-copyright-lawsuit.html. Ibid. Cait Munro, “Payback for Richard Prince as Models Reappropriate Stolen Instagram Images and Sell Them for $90,” artnet, May 27, 2015, Hannah Ghorashi, “$90 vs. $90,000: SuicideGirls Selling Their Richard Prince Appropriated Instagram Photos,” ARTnews, May 27, 2015, Emerson Rosenthal, “We Talked to the Suicide Girls About Richard Prince’s ‘Appropriation Art,’” Vice, May 28, 2015, Jessie Heyman, “SuicideGirls Respond to Richard Prince in the Best Way Possible,” Vogue. Ironically, Warhol and Prince were working in identical ways in the scenario Suicide lays out. Again, it seems to be the new use of Instagram in particular that has upset people. See Theresa M. Senft, Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in the Age of Social Networks (New York: Peter Lang, 2008); and Alice Marwick, “Instafame: Luxury Selfies in the Attention Economy,” Public Culture 27, no. 1 (2015), 138. Crimp, “Pictures,” 19 Krauss, “Cindy Sherman: Untitled.” Courtney Tenz, “Cindy Sherman: The Original Selfie Queen,” DW, February 12, 2019, Blake Gopnik, “Cindy Sherman Takes on Aging (Her Own),” The New York Times, April 21, 2016, Ibid. Noah Becker, “How Cindy Sherman’s Instagram Selfies are Changing the Face of Photography,” The Guardian, August 9, 2017, 017/aug/09/cindy-sherman-instagram-selfies-filtering-life. Gabriel Bell, “Cindy Sherman’s Instagram Account May Be the Best Art Exhibition of 2017,” Salon, August 3, 2017, Joyce Chen, “Cindy Sherman Makes Instagram Account Public, Rolling Stone, August 3, 2017, Caroline Elbaor, “Cindy Sherman Just Made Her Instagram Account Public and It’s Amazing,” artnet, August 2, 2017, Bell, “Cindy Sherman’s Instagram Account.” Crimp, “Pictures,” 22 Elbaor, “Cindy Sherman Just Made Her Instagram Account Public.” Bell, “Cindy Sherman’s Instagram Account.” Jori Finkel, “Pardon Me, but the Art is Mouthing Off,” The New York Times, November 27, 2005, “Gillian Wearing Takeover: Behind the Mask –the Self Portraits,” The Guardian, March 27, 2012,

Self-Portraiture and Self Performance 59 66 “Gillian Wearing,” The Guggenheim Collection Online, artwork/artist/Gillian-Wearing. 67 Ibid. 68 Donna De Salvo, “In Conversation with Gillian Wearing,” in Gillian Wearing (London: Phaidon, 1999), 1–31. 69 Grady T. Turner, “Gillian Wearing by Grady T. Turner,” BOMB, April 1, 1998, https:// 70 Sandy Naime, et al. Twenty-first Century Portraits (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2013), 72–74. 71 Cf. Byung-Chul Han, The Expulsion of the Other: Society, Perception, and Communication Today, trans. Wieland Hoban (Cambridge: Polity, 2018). 72 Katie Day Good, “From Scrapbook to Facebook: A History of Personal Media,” New Media & Society 15, no. 4 (2012): 557–573. 73 Bollmer and Guinness, “Phenomenology for the Selfie,” 174. 74 Brian Rotman, Becoming Besides Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Beings (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008). 75 Star opens most of his YouTube videos holding one of these mirrors (available for pur­ chase), which he then waves like a wand while saying “Hi, how are ya?!” 76 Gavin, “Interview with Amalia Ulman,” Kaleidoscope. 77 Goriunova, “The Digital Subject,” 126.


Proliferating Identity: Trans Selfies as Contemporary Art Ace Lehner

A search on Instagram for #transgender reveals over 9.1 million images.1 These images are predominantly selfies, and even a quick perusal of the search results re­ veals myriad intersectional, radical corporealities of self-identifying trans-self-image makers. The massive proliferation of trans self-images represents a plethora of nonbinary gender identities, including a vast array of ethnic and racial identifications and a wide variety of body types, abilities, and self-image makers who reside in numerous geographic and subcultural locations and offer a variety of self-representations of many sexual orientations, ages, and self-imaging aesthetics. The images reflect countless ways to be trans and constitute a visual field of trans-self-representations. Trans selfies are significant because they allow trans people to picture themselves as they want to be seen. They counteract both misrepresentations and the reductive ways that dominant culture depicts trans people. Trans selfies are also mobilized to raise critical questions about the intersections of hybrid identities, to build commu­ nity, and to mobilize politically.2 The diversity of self-images found when searching #transgender and #trans reveals that selfies are being used to create selfrepresentations that are exponentially diverse and often visually and ideologically disruptive of mainstream culture, while also critically and creatively engaging with the politics of aesthetics of representation. The growing genre of trans selfies de­ monstrates the radical potential of selfies—that they facilitate the visualization of new identity constituencies, challenge the indexicality of the photograph, and illustrate how gender and racialization are articulated and regulated in the visual encounter. When trans femmes and non-binary trans people deploying femme aesthetics create self-representations, the very act of self-imaging is an intervention in the visual field. These representations push back against dominant visual culture, asserting their lives as intersectional, shifting, and unlike the trans stereotypes prevalent in mainstream culture. In efforts to create self-representations otherwise unseen and to explore identities and corporealities otherwise unimaginable, trans and gender nonconforming individuals prolifically develop self-representations and co-constitute new identity categories via social media. These political, artistic acts transpire most pro­ lifically on social media. Selfies are a potentially radically disruptive form of self-imaging. They challenge established modes of production, circulation, and con­ sumption.3 Producing representations within the relatively democratized space of the Internet, selfies defy established systems of power. Art historian and visual studies scholar Jennifer Gonzalez has observed that, increasingly, contemporary forms of activist art utilize the Internet and mass media while also interrogating “the politics of representation, the politics of corporeality, and the politics of the gaze.”4 Visualizing DOI: 10.4324/9780367206109-3

Proliferating Identity 61 new subjectivities outside of sanctioned parameters and critically reflecting upon a variety of power structures that have historically marginalized and dehumanized them, unprecedented trans and non-binary self-images of radical intersectional sub­ jectivities circulate prolifically on social media. Enacting what Gonzalez observes, trans selfies are intervening in the politics of representations, corporeality, the gaze, and more, as will be discussed in the coming pages. This chapter forwards that not only are trans selfies a necessary intervention into visual culture forwarding self-representations of under-imaged and over-determined stereotypic representations of trans and non-binary people, but the aesthetic practices are on par with contemporary self-imaging practices, and they forward an aesthetic that pushes discourses of photography, portraiture, and discursive formations of identities. In order to make clear these interventions, it is necessary to situate trans and non-binary selfies art historically as well as in the current moment of visual culture.

The Cult of Portraiture Ideologically, the portrait in the Western European and North American context is bound up with a cultural belief that, through a masterful representation, one can transmit the essence of the person depicted. In Self/Image: Technology, Representation, and the Contemporary Subject, Amelia Jones writes: “Europeanbased cultures conceive of representation as both collapsing and maintaining the gap between subject and object.”5 Jones observes that our cultural tendency—especially when it comes to portraiture—is to conflate the representation, the image, and the portrait with the person it represents.6 In his text Portraiture, art historian Richard Brilliant observed that “there is a great difficulty in thinking about pictures, even portraits by great artists, as art and not thinking about them primarily as something else, the person represented.”7 Brilliant argues by equating portraits to semiotics: the portrait becomes the word, the person becomes the referent, and the portrait itself is a complex relationship in which meaning is created.8 Even when we know that the image has been craftily rendered, highly fabricated, and intentionally produced, we tend to view the image not as an image, but as the person depicted. The culturally constructed belief in the ability of a portrait to convey something about the identity of the subject, beyond the surface aesthetics, is a cultural construction bound up with dominant cultures’ exercising of regulatory systems via visual culture. The culturally held belief in the “truth value” of photographs is both long-standing and socially and intellectually problematic. While photographs are in some sense “indexical” and thus facilitate a belief in their ability to transmit information about that which is pictured, the myth of indexicality is deeply enmeshed with the cultural conception of looking in general in the North American context. The early photo theorist and scientist Charles Sanders Peirce was influential in framing our cultural conception of photography in modernist ideologies. He argued that nonphotographic images operate symbolically, while photographs are “effects of the radiations from the object.”9 Pierce was arguing that because photographs are made in some sense mechanically, they are not influenced by subjectivity. This is also sometimes discussed as the “aura of machine objectivity,” which originates with the mechanical produc­ tion via the camera.10 The cultural belief in the “truth value” of photography becomes particularly powerful when dealing with images of people. Elaborating on this issue, Abigail

62 Ace Lehner Solomon-Godeau notes that the supposed transparency, indexicality, and “truth” of the photograph has made it an “especially potent purveyor of cultural ideology—particularly the ideology of gender.”11 Solomon-Godeau, along with other postmodern photography scholars such as John Tagg, John Berger, and Susan Sontag, has sought to attend to photography’s relation to cultural ideologies and power structures.12 Their scholarship has challenged the naturalized belief that through informed and astute looking we can come to know something about the person pictured. The photographer and visual culture theorist Allan Sekula poignantly ar­ gued that, while pictures are not actual representations of the lived world, the cultural belief in the truth value of photography leads most people to consider photographs “congruent with knowledge in general.”13 In “The Body and the Archive,” Sekula traces several ways bodies have been both symbolically and physically possessed. He traces some of the histories of photography through the trajectory of physiognomy and phrenology and police use of photography to reinforce racial and class hier­ archies.14 He writes: “The archive [of police photographs] could provide a standard physiognomic gauge of the criminal, could assign each criminal body a relative and quantitative position within a larger ensemble.”15 Sekula also contends that this racist classification or physiognomy is an impulse in photography that is difficult to repress.16 A brief art historicization of the imaging of trans femmes in mainstream culture reveals a longstanding tradition of mobilizing trans feminine people as spectacular, while also using photographs to demonstrate the cultural and aesthetic expectations of trans feminine people. Even when under the guise of “inclusion” or “acceptance,” representations of trans people throughout western art history have been proble­ matic. Transmasculine people have rarely appeared in dominant visual culture, while trans feminine people have periodically been the subject of mainstream cultural fascination. The ensuing representations of trans femininity are rooted in arthistorical traditions of feminine people as objects of the gaze and dominant cultural beliefs that trans femmes are spectacularizations of femininity. One of the most notable photo-historical examples of how mainstream culture regulates trans identities is Arthur (Weegee) Fellig’s The Gay Deceiver, circa 1939 (Figure 3.1). Weegee is best known for his dramatic photographs of crime scenes in lower Manhattan. His title frames our encounter with his subject as engaged in dishonest behavior. The black and white photograph depicts a portrait of a white femme, dressed in a fur coat with a small hat tipped back above her blonde curls. She daintily hoists her skirt above her thigh-highs as she grins and lifts a thin leg to step off the back of a police van into the dark night. Weegee’s harsh camera flash brightly lights her face, and behind her, we can see a few frightened femme faces peering out of the shadowed interior of the police van. We surmise that they were also arrested in conjunction with a police raid of a queer bar, for wearing clothes that failed to conform to social expectations, based on their assigned sex at birth.17 In the 1930s it was illegal to wear clothes associated with masculinity if you were perceived as fe­ male, and it was illegal to wear clothes associated with femininity if you were per­ ceived as male. Weegee’s photograph is part and parcel of cultural ideologies that sanction the sensationalizing, exploitation, and delegitimizing of trans and gender nonconforming people. This complex process of visually producing and reinforcing such ideologies is well articulated by Susan Sontag, who observed, “to take a picture is to

Proliferating Identity 63

Figure 3.1 Weegee (Arthur Fellig) The Gay Deceiver (1939), Gelatin silver print, © International Center of Photography, NY.

have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged.”18 Describing the subject as a man and photographing them posing on the back of a police paddy wagon in conjunction with the subject’s arrest, Weegee not only ar­ ticulates trans femmes as men, but he also visually demonstrates that trans identities

64 Ace Lehner are illegal and explicitly shows how subjects who disrupt binary gender and cisnormativity will be legally persecuted. The ideological work that Weegee’s image does not only articulates trans identities as deceptions but also explicitly shows how subjects who disrupt binary gender and cis-normativity will be legally persecuted. His title and subject not only conflate sex and gender, or “gay deception,” for gender expression but also visually reinforce the policing of such unacceptable embodiments of queer gender performances.19 The work reflects and upholds ideologies of the time. Cultural beliefs about trans people and discourse around trans representations shift, contingent on place and time and the viewing perspective of the image-maker. In making the image, Weegee participates in the discourse that contends that trans femmes’ lives are illegal, putting them at risk. Trans stereotypes as extensions of biopower, like Weegee’s Gay Deceiver, both reflect dominant cultural ideologies about trans folks popular at the time and reinforce them by further circulating them. As dominant culture and dominant cultural ideologies create representations of trans people that perpetuate, the resulting discourse presents reductive, fixed icons and sutures meaning to images that solidify already disseminated beliefs about various groups to a reductive representation of said constituency. Suturing about groups sets more concretely the ways that culture expects such groups to appear, behave, and be treated. The heightened sense of sexualization and exploitation of trans femmes outstrips their humanity in ways that go beyond even the exploitation of cis women. In her text, Trans-misogyny Primer, trans scholar, and activist Julia Serano observes how mainstream culture mobilizes trans femmes in ways that depict them as sexualized bodies in “titillating and lurid fashion.”20 Serano’s observation that trans femmes are mobilized in visual culture as simultaneously obscene and objects of sexual fantasy (or at least arousal) resonates with Homi K. Bhabha’s observations of the production and circulation of stereotypes. For Bhabha, stereotypes are often contradictory, constructed forms of meaning attached to visual icons, that reflect and perpetuate problematic beliefs and are invested in maintaining established and uneven systems of power. Writing specifically about postcolonial cultural condition and racist stereo­ types, Bhabha’s insights are applicable in thinking through the circulation of trans stereotypes: “the stereotype, which is a major discursive strategy, is a form of knowledge that vacillates between what is always ‘in place’ already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated.”21 Photographic representations have often been deployed as fixtures, of producing and maintaining expectations about groups of people and for maintaining power structures; thus, part of what enables stereotypes to function as producing discourse and ideologies is the concept of “fixity.” Stereotypes function when limited and problematic ideas about con­ stituencies are fixed to visual icons through anxious repetition of specific types of images, allowing a suturing of ideas to aesthetics and corporealities. These stereotypic representations are flattened essentialization and, as such, their simplicity and lack of nuance is easily affixed to ideas about said groups.22 What these representations demonstrate is the interconnection of the discursive framing of the photograph as inherently factual, the mobilization of the presumed facticity to uphold stereotypes about trans constituencies and the perpetuation of the notion that gender is ne­ cessarily binary.

Proliferating Identity 65

The Trans Tipping Point: A Misleading Misconception In June of 2014, a full-body portrait photograph of Laverne Cox, trans actress and star of Orange Is the New Black, appeared on the cover of Time magazine (Figure 3.2). She was photographed by Gillian Laub for the article that coined our current moment as “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier.” Written by Katy Steinmetz, the cover story positioned America as being “in transition” and argued that we were living in the newest civil rights battle. As the first and oldest weekly news magazine published in the United States, Time holds a sig­ nificant amount of cultural weight as a medium of transmission of cultural ideologies. Thus, when Cox is quoted as saying, “more of us are living visibly and pursuing our dreams visibly, and because of this people can say, ‘Oh yeah, I know someone who is trans,’”23 the takeaway suggests that, culturally, we are on the brink of a new day for acceptance of trans folks, as evidenced by reinvesting in an inaccurate and unfounded belief that an increase in representation of trans characters and a handful of trans celebrities in mainstream culture equals political and social progress. The problematic conceptualization behind this move—forwarding the belief that visibility equals progressive or radical social change—is that representations are far more complex than they may seem, and the proliferation of trans representations needs to be ser­ iously attended to in order for their impact and significance to be fully comprehended. Visual analysis is critical to understanding trans visual culture. Regarding her cover image, Cox’s mobilization as the face of the “trans tipping point” can be read as Cox embodying all that mainstream culture requires of trans folks if they are to reach a point at which they are accepted (a tipping point on a personal level, so to speak). The image suggests that the trans tipping point is contingent on each trans individual’s ability to replicate as closely as possible what Cox has achieved. Set against an

Figure 3.2 Laverne Cox, screenshot from Laverne Cox’s Twitter page, Twitter. @Lavernecox. May 29, 2014. Published under fair use.

66 Ace Lehner off-white background, standing with one foot crossed in front of the other, wearing a form-fitting indigo dress, small black shoes, and sporting long, dirty blonde hair, is none other than Laverne Cox. She has been lit from above so that her face and golden hair are well illuminated, and our attention is directed toward her large brown eyes, blue-gray eye shadow, and parted lips. Her chin is turned up, ever so slightly, so that she is looking down the bridge of her nose at us. Her right hand makes a gesture that feels contrived and graceful at the same time, a gesture that one might associate with tropes of womanhood viewed in film noir or classic cinema; it is both feminine and performative. The photograph is shot from a relatively low vantage point, and this, coupled with the way she’s been composed so that her vertical form stretches across the height of the frame, makes Ms. Cox appear as a large physical presence, even though, in reality, she measures only about 11 inches tall on the cover of the magazine. For those readers of Time magazine who do not know this already, the headline story effec­ tively outs Laverne Cox as transgender by the deployment of the title and its inter­ action with the way readers have been culturally taught to read or decode titles concerning images. Again, the title of Ms. Cox’s cover story reads, “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier.” Laverne Cox has been mobi­ lized as a token trans person and as embodying middle-class values—an example of the triumph of the American myth that anyone can make it if they work hard enough. While the current moment of increased trans representations has been broadly embraced as the “Trans Tipping Point,”24 many trans scholars, artists, and activists have critiqued this as not only a misnomer but politically dangerous. In the recently published book Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability, Jack Halberstam makes the pointed remark that, in the current moment of trans pro­ liferations, we are witnessing the attempted co-option of trans representations by mainstream culture.25 Similarly, trans artist Juliana Huxtable has suggested that a more fitting term for what is transpiring currently might be “neoliberal spotlight,”26 underscoring the theatricality and fleetingness of the phenomenon. For cárdenas, trans people are a new object of dominant cultural fascination, mobilizing trans icons to “sell magazines.”27 Rather than facilitate social progress, as the term trans tipping point fictively suggests, the appearance of trans icons in mainstream culture seems to be motivated not by any interest in effecting political or social change, but by an apolitical commitment to capitalism.28 Trans scholar and artist micha cárdenas argues that the increased mainstream visibility of transgender people, like Cox, has brought about solidification of who is an acceptable trans person and who is disposable. “Now more than ever,” cárdenas writes, “it is evident that visibility is a trap.”29 Similarly, visual studies scholar Nicole Archer views that in the current moment, trans bodies and desires are outlined by mainstream culture.30 In other words, much of what trans scholars are observing today about trans visual culture is that stereotypic representations promote certain “acceptable” ways of appearing as trans in the world while sanctioning acts of ag­ gression toward those who fail to replicate stereotypical representation or passable versions of binary gender identities. Furthermore, African American trans femme activists CeCe McDonald and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy discuss how the hypervisi­ bility of Laverne Cox has in many ways led to the increased violence perpetrated against other trans femmes of color. McDonald and Griffin-Gracy suggest that be­ cause Cox is presumably unreachable, racist, transphobic would-be aggressors of

Proliferating Identity 67 Cox turn their acts of violence against those who come into their proximity.31 GriffinGracy suggests that femme people, in general, are subjected to heightened social regulation.32 She notes that to be feminine, folks need to fit into highly regimented molds reflecting rigidly predetermined physical traits, voice parameters, and overall aesthetics.33 Using portrait photographs to demonstrate the acceptable or neoliberal in­ corporation of some trans subjectivities by making invisible other forms of trans subjectivities, Cox’s portrait on the cover of Time is sutured to the notion of a trans tipping point. It outlines the parameters into which trans-femmes must fit in order to be viewed by society as incorporable. To imagine that one may have a successful life as a trans person means striving to appear as normative as Laverne Cox. Moreover, coincidentally, if you are trans-feminine, you should look like Laverne Cox. Thus, when you do not, you are a disruption to cultural life.34 The belief in the truth value of the photograph often enables portrait photographs to be mobilized by heteropatriarchal, transphobic, and racist powers to create ste­ reotypes of various constituencies to legitimize ill-treatment of those constituencies and to further racist, misogynist, colonialist, and transphobic agendas. This is due in large part to conceptions of portrait photography in European and North American contexts being rooted in the legacy of portrait painting dating back to the Renaissance, which has led to the cultural belief and investment in the notion that a portrait reveals something of the person pictured.35

Selfies: Highlighting the Politics of Portraiture Selfies are potentially a radically disruptive form of self-imaging. They challenge es­ tablished modes of production, circulation, and consumption.36 The massive impact that selfies are having across a vast array of aspects of contemporary life is illustrated by the growing corpus of research on selfies from scholars in disciplines ranging from psychology to anthropology to art history and beyond. A significant portion of the research on selfies deploys intersectional methods to unpack their indelible impact on art, self-portraiture, social life, and visual culture. The establishment of the Selfies Research Network, conferences like the Kern, which is based at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and research focusing on the complexity and specificity of selfies reflect the growing interest in selfies. Art historian and visual studies scholar Derek Conrad Murray argues that the power of selfies lies in their ability to enable new forms of self-representation and their redistribution of the power of selfimaging.37 The shift in the power of self-image facilitated by the advent of social media networking and smart devices networking cameras to the internet has been exponentially pronounced when it comes to trans and non-binary people, particularly those of color, whose identities have historically been not only underrepresented but have also been overdetermined.38 The question of whose self-portraits have been considered legitimate, along with the expected aesthetics, canonized methods, and respected media, have remained constant points of contention throughout Western Art History and discourses of selfportraiture. In Western Art, this translates into the canonization of self-portraits by recognized artists produced using traditional and established materials.39 While not always explicitly articulated, in the Western European and North American arthistorical context, self-portraiture has been associated with the work of canonized

68 Ace Lehner artists made within specific media-based, aesthetic and conceptual frameworks, and visual traditions. Visual studies scholar Mieke Bal frames the polemic that it is via the canon of portraiture in the Western European and North American contexts that ideological value systems are continually reified. Bal insightfully argues that “the dominant classes set themselves and their heroes up as examples to recognize and to follow, and it is barely an exaggeration to say this interest is visible in the cult of portraiture.”40 Defined as a self-image made with a hand-held mobile device and shared via a social media platform, the popularity of online users sharing selfies on social media sites such as Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram led Oxford Dictionaries to proclaim selfie as its 2013 word of the year. Not only are they a ubiquitous part of con­ temporary life, but selfies are also a complex form of social interaction and an emerging aesthetic, and they are having an irrevocable impact on the discursive framing of self-portraiture. Indeed, selfies—and particularly those produced by and about image-makers from historically under imaged constituencies—are causing significant upheaval in how self-portraiture is defined and understood. In its very definition, self-portraiture is both specific and amorphous. It is a representation, a production, and a creation of someone made by that same individual, but the specifics of how and why are unarticulated. The advent of the selfie has highlighted the pro­ blematic politics of this fickle definition. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a self-portrait as “a portrait of oneself done by oneself,”41 while Oxford Dictionary defines self-portrait as “a portrait that an artist produces of themselves.”42 What a self-portrait is and what its aims are remain up to the maker. The distinction about who is authorized to create a selfportrait—“oneself” or an “artist”—is at the core of the contention around selfportraits and selfies. At the heart of the contentions around selfies is a discomfort over the massive shift in imaging power that selfies have facilitated.43 While there may be some need for distinctions between self-portraiture and selfies, I want to suggest that we should view this distinction as technological and not qualitative. That is to say, selfies may be made via smartphones and tablets, while self-portraits are made in other media, and it is necessary to realize that the derision of selfies is precisely about their accessibility to numerous people, not necessarily about their quality. It is ne­ cessary then to redefine the terms by which we articulate the distinctions between selfportraits and selfies and view them as in the same category of self-imaging. This discursive and ontological reframing will facilitate and encourage productive and rigorous study of what is transpiring in the visual culture of self-imaging today. Furthermore, it is critically necessary to stress that some selfies may be categorized as self-portraits and that self-portraiture needs to be more clearly defined. I propose a slightly more nuanced definition of self-portrait: a self-portrait is an image re­ presenting oneself made by oneself, engaged in a critical practice reflecting on and expanding established definitions of identity categories. In redefining self-portraiture in this way, a direct effort is made to emphasize critical engagement with re­ presentational politics and to avoid a hierarchy of equipment used to produce the images. I posit that some selfies are also self-portraits made using social media. When gender non-conforming trans and trans feminine people prolifically insert their self-images into the canon of self-portraiture, they radically disrupt the visual repertoire of which constituencies have been granted the privilege of self-imaging, and they intervene in the cult of portraiture, thus suggesting that not only are power

Proliferating Identity 69 dynamics around self-imaging shifting, but the identities that are worthy of reverence, consideration, and admiration as aesthetically pleasing are markedly changing. Gender non-conforming and transfeminine people are often intimately aware of the lived implications of not being reflected in visual culture and art history. Such imagemakers are often critically aware of how representations can be problematic, re­ ductive, and overdetermined, due to the ideological framing of photographs and portraiture and, as such, not only are trans and gender non-conforming self-portraits interventions into the visual field, but they often mobilize aesthetics and praxis that work to undo the dominant conceptual framing of portraiture and photography. Image-makers with intimate knowledge of how photographs can fix identities and work to create stereotypes out of under-imaged and reductively imaged constituencies often use portrait photos to ends different than those who would seek to represent stereotypically, not just in the idea behind the image, but in the very aesthetics of the image. We see how gender is communicated and perceived through visual, gestural, embodied performances. It is aesthetic and corporeal. Gender is always being con­ structed and reconstructed and subverted and perverted, played with, and everevolving.

Prolific Self-Imaging as Contemporary Interventions The aesthetics of Instagram as a platform present their viewers/users with the option of viewing one image after another in a linear, top-down feed or perusing a set of images three-square pictures across and a variable number down (depending on the size of one’s device). The frame of the viewing device almost always contains an­ other partial image (or images) and text. Even on the few occasions when the device frames a solo image, the interactive capacity to “heart” or make comments, coupled with the understanding of the feed as continually scrollable, suggests ever more images to peruse. By its very design, Instagram lends itself to the production of multiple versions of oneself—a constantly shifting representation of the imagemaker. This capacity offers a radical break from how we have conceptualized portrait photography up to this point, and with what portraits can do and how we understand them. Visually decolonizing current regimes of gender and Caucasian supremacist het­ eropatriarchal notions of beauty, trans and gender non-conforming image-makers often create Instagram feeds in which they demonstrate gender as performative and as a free signifier, contingent on aesthetics, gestures, and glamour. The photographs often visually assert gender as a free signifier, not necessarily in the domain of any particular biological characteristics. In mobilizing platforms such as Instagram, trans and non-binary image-makers are able to create self-portrait feeds made up of mul­ tiple individual self-portraits, forwarding a multiplicity of trans and/or nonbinary, intersectional corporealities. Thus the field of representations mobilized by trans and gender-non-conforming image-makers expands visual examples of gender presenta­ tions for subjects to emulate and brings new modes of intersectional identities into being.44 This work begins to create space for new aesthetics of beauty, not measured against dominant systems but celebrated as beautiful and worthy of life in their very transgressiveness.45 Alok Vaid-Menon is one of the most prolific and preeminent non-binary trans femme self-image-makers today. Currently based in NYC, Vaid-Menon graduated

70 Ace Lehner from Stanford University and uses the non-binary pronoun “they.” Vaid-Menon presents themselves as a hip fashion visionary, wearing edgy, retro fashions that are full of color and attitude that not only counter stereotypic representations of trans femmes as produced by mainstream US culture but provide a plethora of corpore­ alities that push open the trans visual field and confound the way stereotypes of marginalized constituencies are established. The specifics of and necessity for this type of aesthetic and cultural intervention are easily seen via the responses to their selfimaging and observable in comments posted in response to their self-reorientations. Vaid-Menon has a prolific selfie-making practice. They fully control and produce their images, engaging critical questions of representation and performativity. VaidMenon’s work also intervenes in the trans visual field, opening up how we think about intersectional identity formations while challenging assumptions about binary gender and underscoring how matrixes of gender and racialization are affixed to bodies via visual encounters. Vaid-Menon’s selfies are emblematic of critical shifts transpiring in culture and exemplary of the mobilization of selfies as avant-garde contemporary art. Alok Vaid-Menon is a gender non-conforming trans femme, Indian American writer, and performance artist.46 Vaid-Menon has been featured on HBO, MTV, The Guardian, BBC, CNN, and the New York Times. They have presented their work in over 500 venues in over 40 countries around the globe.47 As a young person growing up in rural Texas, Alok Vaid-Menon constantly had to deal with the threat of “erasure, invalidation and hostility.”48 Growing up, Vaid-Menon was met with daily reminders of their outsider status due to being brown and non-binary, and Alok turned to creativity as a mode of survival.49 They are also a prolific selfie maker with over 250,000 Instagram followers. (Their account has grown by approximately 90,000 followers in the last few years since I have been researching and writing about them). Their images are emblematic of critical shifts transpiring in culture, are re­ flective of the complexity of trans identities, and are exemplary of the mobilization of selfies as avant-garde contemporary art.50 Alok Vaid-Menon describes their selfie-making praxis as “showing the world that it is possible to claim space as a visibly gender non-conforming transfeminine person of color.”51 Through their use of self-imaging on Instagram, deploying a process they describe as “femmifesting,” Alok Vaid-Menon not only brings into being a visual commitment to self-conscious self-creation, but they continually and consistently intervene in the visual field of trans representations and engage in a praxis that re­ defines understandings of contemporary self-portraiture. Through performative iterations of self, their Instagram feed pushes open non-binary trans femme of color representations (Figure 3.3). Alok Vaid-Menon has performed at La MaMa Experimental Theatre, the Brooklyn Museum, Nuyorican Poets Café, and the Asian American Writer’s Workshop.52 In 2017, in conjunction with winning the Performance Act Award at Centrale Fies,53 Vaid-Menon toured 27 countries performing their recent poetry chapbook “Watching you / Watch Me.” Vaid-Menon’s performances are evocative, instructive, and a radical and pertinent form of cultural production. Vaid-Menon’s performances are a mixture of spoken word and performance art, often using personal experiences of living as non-binary and brown to critically, humorously, and emotionally engage with issues of trans-misogyny and racism.54

Proliferating Identity 71

Figure 3.3 a and b. Alok Vaid-Menon Instagram feed. Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

72 Ace Lehner Looking at Alok Vaid-Menon’s Instagram feed, the images en masse mobilize a self-portrait made up of multiple images, visually demonstrating that they are a nuanced individual whose gender shifts from one frame to the next. Continually selfimaging on a venue where all self-portraits are visible concurrently creates a radical challenge to stereotypes of trans femmes of color, as it mobilizes a multi-faceted selfportrait of a subject in a state of perpetual production resisting the ability to be fixed and essentialized. For example, in some images Vaid-Menon appears wearing long skirts and dresses, lipstick, and long hair (aesthetics associated with feminine iden­ tifications); in other images, they strut in T-shirts touting “Call Me They” (urging viewers to see them as a person who identifies with gender-neutral pronouns); while in other images, Vaid-Menon sports facial hair and purple lipstick (aesthetics typi­ cally viewed as signaling masculinity and femininity, respectively and separately). The complexity of the deployment of gendered aesthetics both disrupts expectations about the way gender works and how it can be mobilized—often imaging a subject whose juxtaposition of gender aesthetics creates representations held by art history and visual culture to be incompatible on one body. Via their feed, Vaid-Menon presents themself as a hip fashion visionary, wearing edgy, retro fashions that are full of color and attitude—not only countering stereotypic representations of trans fem­ inine people but providing a plethora of non-binary and brown corporealities, pushing open the trans visual field. Shifting their gender from one image to the next, the stream of performative iterations of self suggests that gender has no necessary correlation to biological sex or to sexual orientation. Femininity is unfixed and exists in relation to bodies, people, place, and time, class, ethnicity and racialization, and various other identity categories such as subcultural affiliations. Prolifically selfimaging on Instagram, Alok Vaid-Menon creates aesthetics otherwise unseen and images an ever-evolving image of self. Vaid-Menon’s choice to continually self-image on a venue where all past self-portraits are visible concurrently creates a new form of self-portraiture that disrupts how we have come to conceptualize photography and portraiture. Vaid-Menon fully controls and produces their images, engaging critical questions of representation and performativity. When self-imaging trans nonbinary brown subjectivity, such artistic interventions are significant, for they not only bring sub­ jectivities into being in the present, but they also directly counter stereotypic re­ presentations of trans femmes. The postcolonial scholar and astute observer of culture, Homi K. Bhabha, describes a stereotype as “a fixed reality which is at once an ‘other’ and yet entirely knowable and visible.”55 While Bhabha was not writing about trans subjects, the operation of the stereotypic representation functions similarly when it comes to trans constituencies. Thus, when trans and nonbinary people selfimage on Instagram, they create aesthetics otherwise unseen and image ever-evolving versions of self, thus creating new and unfixed identity categories that are not es­ sentialized. Self-imaging in a very public way brings into existence identities that are otherwise unimaginable. Indeed, the choice to use Instagram in the way Vaid-Menon does, by continually posting self-images on a venue where all past self-portraits are visible concurrently, creates new representations that are not simple, essentialized stereotypes, but rather a multifaceted self-portrait of a subject continually evolving—a self-portrait that is in a state of perpetual becoming constantly aug­ menting and ever changing.56

Proliferating Identity 73

Constructed Vernacular and Expanding Visual Regimes of Gender and Racialization Practices of performative self-portraiture often engage in critical self-reflection, selfawareness, and interrogation of self in relation to broader discourses and identity formations. The photography scholar Susan Bright has observed “the deliberately ambiguous strategy of ‘performed’ portraiture is just one of many approaches that artists have adopted to deconstruct and question what a portrait can do and how it functions.”57 Practices of performative self-portraiture also intervene in the way photography functions, calling to attention the very ontological contradictoriness of pictures and pointing to a discussion about the complex relation between photo­ graphy’s performativity and indexicality. In recent years, artists have increasingly turned to the photographic portrait to interrogate both the limits and advantages of working with photographs and the complexity of identity formations.58 This is precisely what Vaid-Menon’s feed and images do. I would like to suggest that beyond simply mirroring the aesthetic practices of contemporary performative self-portrait photography, Vaid-Menon’s images and trans selfies, in general, make a shift that can be best described as “constructed vernacular.” The setting is a small, faux-marble-tiled bathroom, replete with toothbrush and hand towel, set perfectly in frame (Figure 3.4). They frame themself from the thigh up, wearing a striped, three-quarter-length, 90s-era top with gold buttons down the front, tucked into a black-and-white, polka-dot skirt; they don red lipstick, gold earrings, and a gold septum ring. Beneath the poof of dark hair on their head is a round, reddish-orange bindi. Vaid-Menon does not meet our gaze, deciding instead to watch their pose in the LCD screen of their smartphone, intent on considering how their corporality will appear when posted on social media. Intentionally fashioning and performing self-representation in an intimate moment of solitary self-reflection, Vaid-Menon collapses the space of the bathroom mirror—with its palpable privacy—into the possibility of mass audience perusal the moment the work is posted online. Vaid-Menon uses mise-en-scene, pose, gesture, and self-fashioning to con­ struct an image of themself for social media. The bathroom connotes a moment of intimate self-reflection while also providing a minimal, monochromatic stage for the flamboyant, glamorous, performance of self. The central location and foregrounding of the camera phone focus attention on the act of image-making, while the stance, dress, and accessories juxtapose aesthetics with diverse connotations. The direction of Vaid-Menon’s gaze, coupled with the central position of their smartphone, highlights the image-making process and the performativity of the photograph. Performative portraiture engages a politics of re­ presentation invested in challenging the alleged “truth value” of the photograph. It is deployed to deconstruct the photograph’s ability to create objects out of subjects and to challenge the ideologically structured practice of assigning people values based on their corporealities.59 Presenting a complex juxtaposition of aesthetics and confronting viewers with a representation not legible within pre-existing frameworks, Vaid-Menon’s selfie sug­ gests we take it at its surface rather than peruse it to glean notions about the subject based on their physical attributes.60 Rather than synthesizing or essentializing the diverse assemblage of aesthetics, Vaid-Menon allows the complex deployment of visual signifiers to be perused, while keeping attention on surface aesthetics,

74 Ace Lehner

Figure 3.4 Alok Vaid-Menon bathroom mirror selfie. Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

confounding any impulse to essentialize. Wearing a vintage skirt and blouse, VaidMenon deploys aesthesis commonly associated with femininity, albeit with ironic retro overtones. By wearing lipstick and nail polish, they mobilize aesthetics typically associated with femininity, while their hairy arms and their facial hair are morphologies typically associated with masculinity.61 Vaid-Menon’s gold earrings and septum ring culturally clash with the aesthetics of their clothing, while their Bindi signals references to Indian culture and makes allusions to Hinduism, Buddhism, and

Proliferating Identity 75 the third eye, and the image’s mashup of aesthetics alludes to cultural conceptions of gender not interested in Western colonial gender binaries. Posing in contrapposto stance, Vaid-Menon inserts their self-image into conversation with Western Art History62—a history that has historically marginalized brown and non-binary people. Vaid-Menon’s work proposes a radical reconsideration of whose bodies should be viewed as beautiful, reworking the aesthetic hierarchies we have been trained to take as given in the West. In looking at Vaid-Menon’s mirror selfie, one at first seems to be witnessing an intimate moment of self-perusal, a vernacular photograph; but on further review, it seems that the picture—like many selfies—is deliberately performing a candid in­ timacy, a performed vernacular. While the setting, posture, and deliberately aesthe­ ticized outfit could be interpreted as candid, the pursed lips, the self-perusal in the LCD screen, and the posting of the image with the re-posted aggressive comment make the image an intentional construction, a mobilization of constructed verna­ cular. Considering this point further, it is helpful to review that scholars have ob­ served that performative self-portraits historically have often been used in efforts to undo the modernist assumption that the photograph can deliver “truth” about a subject,63 and that, as James Hall has observed, self-portraiture is often intertwined with moments of cultural significance, often being mobilized to influence society and ideas about identity.64 In this light, constructed vernacular self-imaging is a way to signal intimacy to one’s viewer/audience while also constructing the image and mo­ bilizing the self-image to ends that align with one’s artistic and political goals. The canonization and proliferation of Caucasian masculinity as the predominate subject position endowed with the authority to self-image throughout art history has instructed cultures rooted in this visual culture tradition to view such subjectivities as aesthetically pleasing and to find disgust in those corporealities that are farthest from Caucasian masculinity. The specifics of how this transpires can be understood through unpacking the way gender and racialization function in the visual field and in relation to Alok Vaid-Menon’s self-imaging praxis. Alok Vaid-Menon experiences implications of the matrix of gender and racializing assemblages in their daily life and uses selfies to expose how their corporeality triggers responses informed by racializing assemblages and the matrix of gender, demon­ strating the interconnection between racialization and gender regulation and how we assign meaning to people in the visual encounter. Vaid-Menon’s visual culture in­ tervention into processes of racialization and gender actively works to disrupt these regimes and continually assert their aesthetics as desirable. Mobilizing themself as a multiplicity speaks back repeatedly to systems of racism and gender oppression that would visually erase them, eradicating their existence and removing the possibility of their life from view. Vaid-Menon’s selfies expose how their corporeality triggers responses informed by assumptions about them based on the visual encounter. The stakes of Vaid-Menon’s work are made clear in this bathroom-mirror selfie and the accompanying comment made by the enraged viewer (“sorry, but no, I’d beat your ass if you came up on me”): the complex ideologically informed process of making meaning based on the visual encounter becomes clear. The reactive comment reflects what often occurs to VaidMenon in physical space and online when a viewer is confronted with Vaid-Menon’s corporeality, which embodies a manifestation of the inability of gendered and ra­ cialized systems to contain us.65 Creating this representation, Vaid-Menon intervenes

76 Ace Lehner in systems of gender and racialization—systems which, otherwise unchallenged, mark Vaid-Menon’s corporeality and performance as inhuman, and suggest that their life is unliveable. Judith Butler’s research investigating regulatory practices that govern gender and culturally intelligible notions of identity reveals that some identities must not exist for the system of gender to exist. For example, she writes that identities in which “gender does not follow from sex,”66 threaten to expose limits of the regulatory system.67 Those who live outside the domain of the matrix of gender upheld by dominant culture are what Butler deems “abject,” describing their lives as “unlivable.”68 She calls this phenomenon an exclusionary matrix.69 For the binary gender system to remain intact, those people whose identities are viewed as challenging the system must be punished and made examples of as offenders of the system. This idea is also demonstrated in visual culture when we see trans subjects who most fully reflect dominant cultural ideologies as being marginally accepted (Laverne Cox), while subjects existing too radically outside sanctioned genders become demonstrable as not only expendable, but as necessarily eradicable (Alok Vaid-Menon), and as ex­ emplified by the countless acts of violence and aggression perpetrated against nonbinary people, gender-non-conforming folks, and trans women of color.70 According to Judith Butler, gender is highly governed by visuality, and there is a point at which certain gendered subjects fail to fit into culturally sanctioned gender performances. Butler illustrates this process via a scene in a mirror, when the subject in question sees their reflection as something “nameless” and “freakish”—what she refers to as “something between norms.” In this visual moment of self-reflection, Butler asks, is this subject not “the spectre of the freak?”71 Vaid-Menon’s bathroom mirror selfie captures an intimate moment of self-reflection and performativity that showcases visual signifiers that, when taken together, create a gender performance that is not easily understood via the binary gender matrix. Vaid-Menon has visible stubble on their face and dark hairy arms (physical traits often associated with masculinity in the north American binary gender structure), while they stand in a contrapposto stance, hip thrust out gently to the side. They purse their purple lips and wear retro femme fashion—all aesthetics associated with femininity in the binary gender system. In Butler’s framework, such an embodiment of disparate gender sig­ nifiers converging on one body might cause the subject to see themself as a “freak,” due to their inability to fit into one of two gendered categories. Butler’s “freak” can also be understood as dysphoria—which may occur in front of the mirror or may come in daily life.72 Dysphoria is a term forwarded by physicians and psychologists to name trans subjects’ feelings of discomfort in the bodies they inhabit—ostensibly because they do not identify with the biology and anatomy of that body. However, as demonstrated by Alok Vaid-Menon’s praxis, subjects actually feel dysphoria because they are not receiving the gendered treatment and social interac­ tion that they desire. In other words, it is not their bodies that do not fit so much as the way society is treating them, based on viewers’ perception of their aesthetics.73 Looking at Alok Vaid-Menon’s self-image, considering their pose, stance, and selfperusal, the picture does not appear to be one in which Vaid-Menon views themself as a “monstrous parody of femininity.”74 No; the viewing of Vaid-Menon via the lens of transmisogyny comes from the external world, from abusive and aggressive comments made by hostile viewers who interpret the juxtaposition of their corporeal aesthetics to be a disruption of norms that are not acceptable. Vaid-Menon’s mirror

Proliferating Identity 77 selfie materializes Butler’s scene, but Vaid-Menon’s selfie makes clear that it is not the subject that self-inflicts dysphoria, but rather that dysphoria is thrust upon the gender non-conforming subject through acts of gender policing perpetrated by others. In Vaid-Menon’s mirror scene it becomes clear that dysphoria is an act of binary gender regulation inflicted on the non-binary or trans subject by the external world. Alok Vaid-Menon’s bathroom mirror selfie not only demonstrates dysphoria as a short­ coming in observers’ abilities to process complex, hybrid gender identities, but it also reveals how gender and racialization are intimately intertwined and how it is in the visual encounter with photographs and people that meanings are ideologically assigned.75 Redefining how we view processes of identification and racialization, Alexander G. Weheliye writes about alternative ways of thinking about race as racialized assem­ blages, the politics of which, Weheliye argues, are implicated in global power structures and should be understood as being defined by intersections of neoliberal capitalism, racism, settler colonialism, immigration, and imperialism. He states fur­ ther that if we want to understand and abolish our extremely uneven global power structures, we need to challenge the creation and maintenance of systems of dom­ ination, criminalization, exploitation, and violence. Moreover, we must see how all of this is predicated on racial, gender, sexual, and political inequities. Weheliye defines racializing assemblages as a “set of sociopolitical processes that discipline humanity into full humans, not quite humans, and non-humans.”76 Weheliye forwards that the “hieroglyphics of the flesh” can be understood as corporeal markers, visually dis­ cerned and assessed through ideological and naturalized processes via which the looker selects and deselects certain corporealities as possessing or not possessing the status of human. Relying on scopic drives and stereotypes, racial assemblages ulti­ mately naturalize the expulsion of some humans from the category of human, which works to sediment racializing assemblages into political relations.77 Weheliye’s scholarship on the complex interconnectedness of violence, racializa­ tion, and corporeality proves instructive in thinking through the specificity of visual culture, life, and ideological processes of racialization. The notion of assemblage (French for arrangement), building on Deleuze and Guattari, considers networks and shifting relations that exist in horizontal and vertical axis. Weheliye urges that race be viewed as a political relation and assemblage, not as a biological descriptor. Weheliye’s conception of “hieroglyphics of the flesh” mark and include some bodies in the realm of the human-based on the aesthetics of their corporeality while de­ marking other bodies based on their visual descriptors as outside the realm of human.78 Weheliye’s formulation of the process of racialization is instructive and revelatory when it comes to the relationship between visual culture and real-life en­ counters with trans femmes and gender-nonconforming people of color. His for­ mulation highlights how this is an active process linked to the physiology of individuals and ideologically sutures culturally specific concepts of humanity and values assigned to constituencies as necessarily tied to visual appearance. Relying on stereotypes, racial assemblages ultimately naturalize the expulsion of some humans from the category of human. This visual and cultural process works to sediment racializing assemblages into political relations, normalizing racism, and racial in­ justice. Weheliye fervently urges that race be viewed as a socio-political relation and not assumed to be a de-politicized visual descriptor. Weheliye is concerned with the ways that visible human differences have been considered within black studies to

78 Ace Lehner better understand the political, economic, and social exploitation of noticeable human differences. Visuals and aesthetics often mark signifiers of difference and belonging. Racializing assemblages, however, rely on the permanent fixing of iden­ tification to the body. The use of this concept of difference as attached to the body is informative in thinking through the political and social situation surrounding trans women and trans femmes of color. Alok Vaid-Menon’s selfie and the reactive comment demonstrate just how pro­ vocative their likeness is and shows the deep relationship between visual encounters and the regulation of identities. Vaid-Menon’s likeness and the reactive comment materialize that lived experience of intersectional oppression and regulation of gender non-conforming trans femmes of color. In Vaid-Menon’s mirror scene it becomes clear that dysphoria—or Butler’s moment of the “freak”—is an act of binary gender regulation inflicted on the non-binary trans subject by the external world, and that identity regulation is exponentially compounded when one’s corporeality disrupts more than one visually-enmeshed ideological regime. Bathroom mirror selfies have been especially persecuted by dominant discourse and written off as the penultimate form of narcissistic behavior. Scholars looking at the underlying politics of how mirror selfies are discredited observe the dama­ ging impact this rhetoric has. For example, in “Self(ie)-Discipline: Social Regulation as Enacted Through the Discussion of Photographic Practice,” Anne Burns observes the current disdain aimed at selfies as having “disciplinary effect,” which not only ridicules, devalues, and feminizes selfie-makers, but also reinforces sexist attitudes and “justifies” the “denigration” and “punishment” of selfiemakers as “socially accepted.”79 These defamations themselves are rooted in pa­ triarchal misogynist ideologies and visual culture. Such debasements not only seem unfounded, but they seem completely out of touch when one considers the recent debates and aesthetics development in Art Photography since the conceptual turn and the increase in the mobilization of performative self-portraiture in Contemporary Art. Such arguments also seem deeply political when one considers the earlier argued points about the interventionalist praxis that Vaid-Menon is engaged in via Instagram.

Aesthetics of Flatness, Decolonizing Photographs In their bathroom mirror selfie and throughout their Instagram Feed, Alok VaidMenon emphatically wears loud and patterned clothing full of surface textures and visual noise. They often don color-blocked outfits and bold, fashion-forward and retro stylings.80 This recalls photography practiced in post-colonial locations, which engages a different relationship between the surface of the picture and the relation to that which is imaged. Offering a vastly different notion of photographs, these images challenge what we have come to take for granted about pictures in the west—that is to say, the ideologically constructed, “indexical” relationship between the surface of the picture to the thing itself. In postcolonial locations (geographically, politically, and ideologically), as constituencies and communities reaffirm their agency and selffashion, the use of photographs often intentionally refuses the notion of the “depth” of the photographic portrait in favor of calling attention to the surface of the pic­ ture.81 Such photographic methods exist in these contexts precisely to fight objecti­ fication and disenfranchisement.

Proliferating Identity 79 In postcolonial locations, photographers have used props, backdrops, patterned clothing, and other visuals to call attention to the surface of the picture plane. In doing so, these photographs defy the notion that a picture is a window into a world and thus confound the belief in the photograph as being able to convey insight about the person pictured.82 Christopher Pinney describes this as resisting the “colonial schematic,” or a visual culture apparatus using images to create fixed categories from which colonized subjects could not mobilize, which positioned people as objects via visual discourses. Pinney sees postcolonial photographic practices bringing focus to the surface to keep a subject’s likeness on the surface of the picture, resulting in subjects that are less ideologically fixed.83 Nicole Archer has noted that con­ temporary trans artists often use a technique that she describes as “pattern jamming.” In discussing the art of several contemporary trans visual artists, Archer notes that pattern jamming is a successful tactic that deploys patterns to defray the ability to read through the image, keeping viewers’ interests on the aesthetics of the surface of an image.84 The way that Vaid-Menon mobilizes their likeness in conjunction with fashion enables a continually augmenting self-articulation that reflects what Christopher Pinney and Nicole Archer have observed, as surfacist practices and pattern jamming respectively deployed as aesthetic strategy and intervention in the space of portrait photographs call attention to the two-dimensionality of the picture plane, visually reminding viewers that the photo does not and cannot contain depth, that it is two dimensional—physically and conceptually.

Concluding Thoughts Photography is informed by ideologies of image-makers, which impact processes of image-making and create discourse as the icons circulate. Representations in and of themselves are part and parcel of the fabric of culture and the construction of identity constituencies and cultural beliefs.85 Photography is reflective of the cultural belief systems of the image-maker, while simultaneously re-articulating such beliefs in discourse. Thus, to have an unbalanced view continually rearticulate itself through images only serves to proliferate the same cultural ideologies, stereotypes, mis­ conceptions, and facilitating self-imaging across constituencies creates a dynamic field of diverse representations and forwards new praxis, new aesthetics, and new dis­ cursive framings. Vaid-Menon’s self-imaging praxis, as exemplary of trans and nonbinary self-imaging praxis utilizing selfies via social media platforms, provides visual studies a methodology that moves beyond binary structures, de-essentializes how we think about photography and identity, and encourages continually malleable, selfreflexive methods. Trans visual praxis facilitates an opening up of new ways of ap­ prehending photography’s relationship to assumed truth, revealing that the in­ dexicality associated with photographs is similar to essentialist beliefs about assuming that the exteriority of a subject matches their self-identification, which are western ideological constructions that need to be decolonized, and trans-self-image forwards praxis and methods that facilitate such reworkings. Vaid-Menon demon­ strates that selfies can, in fact, be sophisticated, performative self-portrait photo­ graphs and critical avant-garde art.

80 Ace Lehner

Notes 1 This figure is as of August 2019. In September of 2018, it was 7,000,000. A search for “#transgenderwoman” reveals 94.6 thousand images, and a search for “#transgendermale” yields 43.5 thousand posts, as of August 2019. 2 See Michael Cade Hughes, “Bathroom Selfies and the Messy Politics of Passing,” HuffPost December 6, 2017, (accessed December 1, 2019). 3 Circulation, production, consumption, and regulation are the concerns of Cultural Studies, the underlining methodology I employ for this project. For a fuller discussion on cultural studies see Graeme Turner, British Cultural Studies: An Introduction, Media and Popular Culture (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990), 7. 4 Mary Flanagan et al., “Feminist Activist Art, A Roundtable Forum,” 24–31, August 2005, NWSA Journal 19, no. 1, Feminist Activist Art, John Hopkins University Press Spring, 2007, 1–22. 5 Amelia Jones, Self/Image: Technology, Representation, and the Contemporary Subject (London: Routledge, 2006), 2–5, 13–14. 6 Western art-historical and social conceptions of representation originated in the Renaissance. It was during this time that the belief in the ability of the artist to render truth and insight into a subject through representational likeness was established. For more on the discussion of conception of representations as subject originating in the Renaissance, see Jones, Self/Image. See also Allan Sekula, “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning,” in Photography against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works, 1973–1983 (Halifax: Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1984), 3–21, 6716-6_5. See also Stuart Hall and Open University, eds., Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (London: Sage in association with the Open University, 1997), 15–64. 7 Richard Brilliant, Portraiture (London: Reaktion Books, 1991), 23. 8 Ibid., 26–31. 9 Charles Saunders Peirce (1839–1914) was an American philosopher, theorist, mathema­ tician, and scientist. He was influential in developing philosophies about photography. For more on these debates see: Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” October 39 (1986): 55, 10 Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 16. 11 Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Photography at the Dock: Essay on Photographic History, Institution, and Practices (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 257. 12 For postmodern scholarship on photography and its relation to power dynamics and ideology, see John Berger and Geoff Dyer, Understanding a Photograph, 1st Edition (New York: Aperture, 2013); Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador USA, 2001); Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009); John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993). 13 Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” October 39 (1986): 56, 07/778312. 14 Ibid., 10–11. The eugenics discussion is on pages 51–56. Physiognomy is generally un­ derstood as the assessment of a person’s character or personality from their outer ap­ pearance, especially one’s face. Sekula describes at length the racist underpinnings and evolutionist tendencies of this assessment. Phrenology is generally described as what is now understood to be a racist pseudoscience that once believed a person’s skull could determine their character. 15 Ibid., 17. 16 Ibid., 62. 17 Susan Stryker and Aren Z. Aizura, eds., The Transgender Studies Reader 2 (New York: Routledge, 2013), 15–18. Also see: Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 91–99. For more

Proliferating Identity 81

18 19


21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28

29 30 31


33 34

discussion on the relationship between photography, cultural ideology, and gender reg­ ulation, see: Beatriz Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era (New York: Feminist Press, 2013). Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador Press, 1973), 12. Gender is something entirely different than biological sex and yet, historically, the two have often been inaccurately conflated. For more in-depth discussion of gender, see: Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997); Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge Classics, 2006); Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, (New York: Routledge, 2004); Beatriz Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era (Feminist Press, 2013); Jay Prosser, Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality (New York: Columbia University Press 1998). Julia Serano, Trans-misogyny Primer, accessed October 19, 2016, http://www. Also see Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (Emeryville: Seal Press, 2007). Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London; New York: Routledge, 1994), 66. Bhabha, The Location of Culture. See chapter 3: “The Other Question: Stereotype, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism.” Katy Steinmetz, “The TransGender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier,” Time, June 9, 2014, 40. Katy Steinmetz, “The Transgender Tipping Point,” Time, June 9, 2014. Halberstam, Trans*, 53. Che Gossett and Juliana Huxtable as quoted in “Existing in the World: Blackness at the Edge of Trans Visibility,” in Gossett, Stanley, and Burton, Trap Door, 42. micha cárdenas, “Dark Shimmer,” in Gossett, Stanley, and Burton, Trap Door, 173. Marcia Ochoa, Queen for a Day: Transformistas, Beauty Queens, and the Performance of Femininity in Venezuela (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014). Ochoa has written extensively about the complexities of fitting into nationally and medically recognizable embodiments of gender. cárdenas, “Dark Shimmers,” 170. Nicole Archer, “Dynamic Static,” in Gossett, Stanley, and Burton, Trap Door, 298. Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and CeCe McDonald as quoted in Toshio Meronick, “Cautious Living: Black Trans Women and the Politics of Documentation,” in Gossett, Stanley, and Burton, Trap Door, 29. McDonald points out that she herself does not readily fit the narrow prescription of what a trans femme should be and look like. For more on McDonald, see Sabrina Rubin Erdely, “The Transgender Crucible,” Rolling Stone, July 30, 2014, https://; and Dee Lockett, “The Traumatic Reality of Getting Sent to Solitary Confinement for Being Trans That Orange Is the New Black Can’t Show,” Vulture, June 28, 2016, 6/06/cece-mcdonald-as-told-to-orange-is-the-new-black.html. See also CeCe McDonald, “I Use My Love to Guide Me through Those Fears,” BCRW,; Selena Qian, “Activist CeCe McDonald Takes Allies to Task in Public Talk,” Chronicle, Duke University, November 11, 2017, 7/11/171129-qian-cece-mcdonald; CeCe McDonald, cárdenas discusses how heightened imaging of trans people has solidified who is acceptable as a trans person and who is a disposable trans person. See cárdenas, “Dark Shimmers: The Rhythm of Necropolitical Affect in Digital Media,” in Gossett, Stanley, and Burton, Trap Door, 170–173. Griffin-Gracy and McDonald as quoted in Meronick, “Cautious Living,” 32. Marcia Ochoa, Queen for a Day: Transformistas, Beauty Queens, and the Performance of Femininity in Venezuela, Perverse Modernities/a Series. Edited by Judith Halberstam and Lisa Lowe (Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2014). See Ochoa’s discussion throughout the text on sanitary citizenship. Also see: Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle. Reprint. (Detroit: Black & Red [u.a.], 2010). Debord argues that the spectacle is inseparable from the modern state; it is invested in class domination and managing the conditions of existence. It is also an expression of what is permissible socially (24–25). It is

82 Ace Lehner

35 36

37 38


40 41


capital to such a degree that it becomes image, and (34) it aims to equate goods with satisfaction (44). Amelia Jones, ed., The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2010). See also Amelia Jones, Seeing Differently: A History and Theory Identification and the Visual Arts (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2012); and Bhabha, Location of Culture. Circulation, production, consumption, and regulation are the concerns of cultural studies, the underlining methodology I employ for this project. For a fuller discussion of cultural studies, see Graeme Turner, British Cultural Studies: An Introduction (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990). See Derek Conrad Murray, “Notes to Self: The Visual Culture of Selfies in the Age of Social Media,” Consumption Markets and Culture 18, no. 6 (2015): 490–516, https://doi:10.1 080/10253866.2015.1052967. Some of the key tenets of gender non-conforming, trans femme self–imaging praxis include a critique of ideology, rethinking oppressive frameworks, a critical look at histories of erasure, viewing politics and theory as intersecting with lives lived, attention to inter­ sectionality, and self-imaging that often use the body as raw material and intervening critically in discourses of photography, much of which seems to be shared with feminist scholarly and artistic projects of the past. However, unlike earlier feminist interventions that were concerned with offering a much-needed critique of dominant visual culture and the problematic representations of women, trans feminist praxis of femmifesting or bringing into being via self-imaging creates trans feminist intersectional, expansive antiessentialist, de-colonial performances self-disinterested in directly taking on critiques of reductive and stereotypic imaging in mainstream culture. Beyond building on a linage of radical feminist interventions into visual culture, trans selfies are also in discourse with post-feminist photographic practices, as trans and non-binary self-imaging practices today reflect what Derek Conrad Murray has observed transpiring with young women’s practices of self-imaging on social media. In “Notes to Self: The Visual Culture of Selfies in the Age of Social Media,” Murray offers an insightful theorization of what he views as a postfeminist movement reflected in the ethos of many young women self-imaging on social media. The selfies of the post-feminist movement are characterized by a disinterest in taking on the problems of mainstream depictions of one’s constituency in favor of self-imaging in ways that mobilize the self as sexual, empowered, and engaging in imaging practices in discourses with others from one’s community. Derek Conrad Murray, “Notes to Self: The Visual Culture of Selfies in the Age of Social Media,” Consumption Markets & Culture 18, no. 6 (November 2, 2015): 490–516, doi:10.1080/10253866.2015.1052967. The postfeminist ethic moves beyond earlier feminist projects and, rather than offering a critique of dominant media representations, creates new aesthesis via viewing perspectives disin­ terested in debates about the “dominant male gaze” and investing in projects of worlding. The art-historical tradition of the canonization of self-portraits of Caucasian, masculine corporealities is highly disproportionate and suggests that these subjects should be deeply considered and understood as infinitely nuanced, complicated, and revered. Sidelining and erasing representations of other subjects from the canon of self-portraiture in this arthistorical tradition symbolically marks non-imaged constituencies as not valuable to said culture. Cultural studies scholars Stuart Hall and Kobena Mercer and visual studies scholars Mieke Bal and Richard Dyer, among others, have observed that it is in the visual field that identity constituencies and livable subjectivities are negotiated. See Stuart Hall, “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular.’” in People’s History and Socialist Theory, ed. R. Samuel (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981). Mieke Bal, “Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture,” Journal of Visual Culture 2, no. 1 (2003): 22. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Dictionary (Originated with the Eleventh Edition of Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary, the online dictionary con­ tinues to be updated and expanded. They claim it is “specifically designed for the digital user.”) See: and (accessed September 19, 2019). Oxford Online Dictionaries, Accessed through Lexico, definition/self-portrait,

Proliferating Identity 83 September 15, 2019. Edition Nr, s.v. “self-portrait.” 43 Art historian and visual studies scholar Derek Conrad Murray argues that the power of selfies lies in their ability to enable new forms of self-representation and their redistribution of the power of self-imaging. Looking predominantly at selfies made by women, he ob­ serves, “taken en masse, it feels like a revolutionary political movement—like radical co­ lonization of the visual realm and an aggressive reclaiming of the female body.” Derek Conrad Murray, “Notes to Self: The Visual Culture of Selfies in the Age of Social Media,” Consumption Markets & Culture 18, no. 6 (November 2, 2015): 490–516, doi:10.1080/1 0253866.2015.1052967. Murray thoroughly demonstrates that selfies disrupt dominant traditions in Art History and visual culture that privilege representations of and by Caucasian men. Overall, selfies are facilitating the exponential circulation of a diversity of subjectivities in visual culture. Several subgenres of selfies have fostered watershed mo­ ments of change in the politics of representation. For example, it has been widely observed that representations of women in visual culture in the Western Art tradition have produced subjects without agency as viewed through the consuming gaze of heteropatriarchal ideologies. Women’s bodies have primarily been subjected to display and perusal. Moreover, the artistic merits of women artists have been sorely undervalued and their perspectives overwhelmingly sidelined. Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been no Great Women Artists?” in Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness, ed. Vivian Gornick and Barbara Moran (New York: Basic, 1971). 44 Appiah, Ethics of Identity, 21–22. 45 For more on creating new aesthetics of trans beauty that are not measured against dominant systems, but celebrated as beautiful and worthy of life in their very transgressiveness, see Riki Wilchins, “Is Trans Beautiful?,” Advocate 7, March 2017, commentary/2017/3/07/trans-beautiful. 46 Ariana Marinin, “This Trans-Feminine Poet Shares What It’s Like to Exist Outside the ‘Gender Binary,’” A Plus News, 29 (June 2015), (accessed December 22, 2018). See also “The Pain & Empowerment of Choosing Your Own Gender: Alok Vaid-Menon,” The What’s Underneath Project, StyleLikeU presents, 22 (June 2015), watch?v=j7Gh2n9kPuA&spfreload=1 (accessed December 22, 2018). 47 See the about them section on their website:, also see the press section on their website: 48 Dakota Smith, “How Art Created Alok Vaid-Menon,” Wussy, June 19, 2019, https:// (accessed August 5, 2019). 49 Dakota Smith, “How Art Created Alok Vaid-Menon,” Wussy, June 19, 2019, https:// (accessed August 5, 2019); Monica Sarkar, “Life as a Transgender Person of Color: I Erased A Part of Me,” CNN, May 22, 2019, (accessed August 5, 2019); Jeena Sharma, “Alok: ‘Beauty Is About Looking Like Yourself,’” Paper, March 1, 2019, http:// 50 In addition to their live performances, Vaid-Menon’s Instagram presence is another per­ haps even more prolific way that they intervene in culture. With 181,000 followers at the time of writing this, it is by far the venue of their cultural production that reaches the largest audience at one time. For a scale comparison as of March 10, 2019, Cindy Sherman’s Instagram account has 241,000d followers and Nikki S. Lee’s has 2,455 fol­ lowers. 51 Personal interview with Alok Vaid-Menon on January 9, 2018. 52 Vida Weisblum, “Dark Matter(s): Meet One Half of the Trans Performance Duo College Kids Love,” Observer, 24 (August 2016), (accessed December 22, 2018). See also “DarkMatter Poets: Moving Past Trans and Gender Nonconforming Stereotypes,” in Mashable News, 25 (March 2016), (accessed December 22, 2018). 53 Alok Vaid-Menon, personal interview, January 10, 2018.

84 Ace Lehner 54 Alok Vaid-Menon, “You Don’t Need to Be a Boy or a Girl/Get Real,” Refinery29, October 7, 2015. 55 Bhabha, Location of Culture, 23. 56 See A. Lehner, “Trans Self-Imaging Praxis, Decolonizing Photography, and the Work of Alok Vaid-Menon.” Refract: An Open Access Visual Studies Journal 2 (2019), http:// 57 Susan Bright, Art Photography Now, 2nd, rev. and expanded ed. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2011), 19–21. 58 For more scholarship on artists using photography to explore identity formations, see Charlotte Cotton, The Photograph as Contemporary Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004). See also Bright, “Portrait,” in Art Photography Now; Fillipo Maggia, “Banzai! Banzai! Banzai! Banzai! Long Live Art! Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!,” in Yasumasa Morimura (Milan: Palazzo Casati Stampa, 2008). See also Liz Wells, “Image and Identity,” in The Photography Reader (London: Routledge, 2003); Bailey and Hall, “Vertigo of Displacement”; Samantha Noel, “Putting on a Bold-Face: How Renee Cox and Sonia Boyce Pull Ethnographic Art Apart,” Third Text 28, no. 2 (2014): 163–176; Larry Qualls, “Performance/Photography,” Performing Arts Journal 17, no. 1 (1995): 26–34. 59 For more scholarship on artists using photography to explore identity formations, see: C. Cotton, The Photograph as Contemporary Art (London and New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004). Also see: S. Bright, “Portrait.” Art Photography Now (New York: Aperture Foundation, 2005). See also: F. Maggia, “Banzai! Banzai! Banzai! Banzai! Long Live Art! Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!” Yasumasa Morimura (Milano: Palazzo Casati Stampa, 2008). See also: L. Wells, “Image and Identity,” in The Photography Reader (London: Routledge Press, 2003). See also: D.A. Bailey and S. Hall, “The Vertigo of Displacement,” in The Photography Reader (London: Routledge Press, 2003). See also: S. Noel, “Putting on a Bold-Face: How Renee Cox and Sonia Boyce Pull Ethnographic Art Apart.” Third Text 28(2): 163–176. See also: L. Qualls, “Performance/Photography,” Performing Arts Journal 17, no. 1 (1995): 26–34. 60 J. Hall, The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2014). See also: L. Wells, “Image and Identity,” in The Photography Reader (London: Routledge Press, 2003.) See also: D.A. Bailey and S. Hall, “The Vertigo of Displacement,” in The Photography Reader (London: Routledge Press, 2003.) 61 J. Halberstam, Trans: A Quick and Quirky Guide to Gender Variability (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018), 58. 62 A term describing an aesthetic stance of a figure that originated with ancient Greek sculpture and has been used throughout Western Art history, contrapposto has been used to describe a representation of a human figure standing with most of their weight on one foot, creating a dynamic appearance. The emergence of figures rendered in contrapposto stance signaled a shift in the development of sculpture and marked a style that was believed to render art more lifelike and more beautiful. A notable example of sculpture deploying contrapposto is Michelangelo’s David circa 1501. 63 For more on contemporary photographic discourse and practices on performative selfportraiture, see Amelia Jones, “‘The Eternal Return’: Self-Portrait Photography as a Technology of Embodiment,” Signs 27, no. 4 (2002): 947–978; and Bright, “Portrait,” 19–21. For more on deskilled look invested in the performance, see Charlotte Cotton, The Photograph as Contemporary Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004). See also Wells, “Image and Identity,” 375–379. 64 Hall, Self-Portrait. 65 Vaid-Menon’s performances frequently describe the personal experience of aggression en­ acted and spoken against them in public. Vaid-Menon, “When I Wear Women’s Clothing,” (accessed September 12, 2017). 66 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge Classics (New York: Routledge, 2006), 24. 67 Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York; London: Routledge, 2004), 67 and 42.

Proliferating Identity 85 68 Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993). 69 Butler, Bodies That Matter. Butler’s personal situatedness and allegiance to philosophy and semiotics frames her argument in that she roots her observations in the way these practices are played out in language. This is interesting, but it would be more fitting for this project to apply visual culture as a means of applying Butler’s observations, rather than language. Butler observes that, via language, identities are brought into being, while at the same time also inscribing us into discourses of gender and sex. Thus, naming delimits and reinforces the norm while granting the quality of humanness. This observation is deeply informed by speech act theory, which traces the performative as a practice that enacts and produces at the same time. Butler then cites Derrida to elaborate on how these utterances are successful only because they reiterate what is already known within the discursive framework. Furthermore, Butler famously argues that performativity (building on Lacan) is a citational practice. In Undoing Gender, Judith Butler works to critique pervasive heterosexism in feminism and to think about how to live at “some distance from gender norms.” She saw French feminism as reproducing essentialism and reproducing differences between mas­ culine and feminine (with the exception of Monique Wittig). This text deals with asking questions about undoing gender and sex regarding normative ways of being. Significantly, Butler observes that gender is a historical category and terms like masculine and feminine are notoriously changeable and contingent on time and place. Gender is social in that it is “for others” and observing that gender is about social negotiation and desire for re­ cognition. 70 When depicted in mainstream culture, trans femmes of color are overwhelmingly imaged as stereotypes, as conflations of various problematic, reductive, and unfounded beliefs. They are often imaged as working in dangerous professions, marginally housed, and often vic­ tims of sexual assault and various hate crimes. Sites such as violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2019, https:// track the disproportionate acts of violence perpe­ trated against trans femmes of color. 71 Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 69. 72 The Transgender Studies Reader has more information on experiences and theorization around dysphoria as a pathologizing discourse. See Susan Stryker and Aren Z. Aizura, eds., The Transgender Studies Reader 2 (New York, NY: Routledge, 2013), 18–19, 263, 275, 500, 515–516, 645, 647. 73 Judith Halberstam, Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018), 47. 74 Sara Ahmed forwards that trans women often face trans misogyny and are viewed as a “monstrous parody of femininity.” Sara Ahmed, “An Affinity of Hammers,” in Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility, Critical Anthologies in Art and Culture, ed. Tourmaline, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2017), 221–234. 75 For discussion of looking being an ideologically saturated process, see: Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (Oxford University Press, 2001). It is also worth mentioning that the bathroom itself has been a place of contention for trans folks and, in and of itself, the binary bathroom structure is an extension of gender as regulatory apparatus. See Halberstam’s discussion of the bathroom as “a technology of gender” in Judith Halberstam, Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018), 133. This could also be taken up further in conversation with what Bell Hooks has discussed regarding the way systems of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy are maintained by all of us who “internalize and enforce the values of the regime.” B. Hooks, Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (New York: New Press: Distributed by W.W. Norton, 1995). p. xii. 76 Alexander G. Weheliye articulates that this thinking is indebted to the work of Horten Spiller and Sylvia Winters for their correction to Agamben’s and Foucault’s considerations of racism and biopolitics. Some of the questions motivating Weheliye’s rigorous inquiry are

86 Ace Lehner

77 78 79 80

81 82

83 84 85

about subjection, agency, and resistance. Arguing that all the foundational Western thin­ kers of post-structuralism have ignored race, Weheliye asks what different modalities of human come to light when we do not take the liberal humanist figure of man but consider a different center of humanness, such as those who have been excluded from this domain? As such, he locates his text within black studies, as he sees this field as a non-disciplinary field that is defined by bringing to the fore both blackness and racializing assemblages. Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014). Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014). Ibid. Anne Burns, “Self(ie) - Discipline: Social Regulation as Enacted Through the Discussion of Photographic Practice,” International Journal of Communication 9 (2015): 1716–1733, They have often spoken about fashion being both political, about safety, and as a “form of armor.” “DarkMatter Poets.” See also Alok Vaid-Menon, “Pain & Empowerment of Choosing Your Own Gender”; and Dylan Thomas, “The Ordinary Non-Binary Life of Alok,” SYRO, Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson, eds., Photography’s Other Histories (Objects/ Histories). (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003). Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson, eds., Photography’s Other Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003). See also Okwui Enwezor, International Center of Photography, and Exhibition Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography, eds., Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography (Göttingen: Steidl, 2006), 5. Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson, eds., Photography’s Other Histories (Objects/ Histories). (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003). Nicole Archer, “Dynamic Static,” in Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility, Critical Anthologies in Art and Culture, ed. Tourmaline, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017), 293–319, p. 314. Susan Sontag observed, “to take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged.” Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador Press, 1973), 12.

Bibliography Appiah, Anthony. The Ethics of Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008. Archer, Nicole. “Dynamic Static.” In Tourmaline, edited by Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton. Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility, Critical Anthologies in Art and Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017. Bailey, D.A., and S. Hall. “The Vertigo of Displacement.” In The Photography Reader. London: Routledge Press, 2003. Bal, Mieke. “Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture.” Journal of Visual Culture 2, no. 1 (2003): 5–32. 10.1177/147041290300200101. Berger, John, and Geoff Dyer. Understanding a Photograph. New York: Aperture, 2013. Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. 10.4324/978020382 0551. Bright, Susan. Art Photography Now, 2nd, rev. and expanded ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011. Brilliant, Richard. Portraiture. London: Reaktion Books, 1991. Burns, Anne. “Self(ie) – Discipline: Social Regulation as Enacted Through the Discussion of Photographic Practice.” International Journal of Communication 9 (2015): 1716–1733 (

Proliferating Identity 87 Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York: Routledge, 1993. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 2006. Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York; London: Routledge, 2004. cárdenas, micha. “Dark Shimmers: The Rhythm of Necropolitical Affect in Digital Media.” In Tourmaline, edited by Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton. Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility, Critical Anthologies in Art and Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017. DarkMatter Poets: Moving Past Trans and Gender Nonconforming Stereotypes,” Mashable News, March 25, 2016, Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Reprint. Detroit: Black & Red [u.a.], 2010. Enwezor, Okwui. International Center of Photography, and Exhibition Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography, eds., Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography. Göttingen: Steidl, 2006. 10.1215/9780822384717. Feinberg, Leslie. Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. Flanagan, Mary, et al., “Feminist Activist Art, A Roundtable Forum,” 24–31, August 2005, NWSA Journal 19, no. 1 (2007): 1–22, Feminist Activist Art, John Hopkins University Press Spring. Halberstam, J. Trans: A Quick and Quirky Guide to Gender Variability. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018. Hall, J. The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2014. Hall, Stuart. “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular.’” People’s History and Socialist Theory, edited by R. Samuel. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981. 10.4324/9781315617091 Hall, Stuart, and Open University, eds., Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage in association with the Open University, 1997. Hooks, B., Art on My Mind: Visual Politics. New York: New Press: Distributed by W.W. Norton, 1995. Jones, Amelia. Self/Image: Technology, Representation, and the Contemporary Subject. London: Routledge, 2006. Jones, Amelia. Seeing Differently: A History and Theory Identification and the Visual Arts. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2012. Jones, Amelia, ed. The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2010. Lehner, A. “Trans Self-Imaging Praxis, Decolonizing Photography, and the Work of Alok Vaid-Menon.” Refract: An Open Access Visual Studies Journal 2 (2019): 45–76. 10.5070/ R72145857. Marinin, Ariana. “This Trans-Feminine Poet Shares What It’s Like to Exist Outside the ‘Gender Binary,’” A Plus News 29 (June 2015). (accessed December 22, 2018). McDonald, CeCe. “I Use My Love to Guide Me through Those Fears,” BCRW, http:// Murray, Derek Conrad. “Notes to Self: The Visual Culture of Selfies in the Age of Social Media,” Consumption Markets and Culture 18, no. 6 (2015): 490–516. 10.1080/10253 866.2015.1052967 Nichols, James Michael. “#WeJustNeedToPee Trans Bathroom Selfies Campaign Goes Viral,” HuffPost Gay Voices, March 12, 2015. (accessed April 20, 2015). Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been no Great Women Artists?” In Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness, edited by Vivian Gornick and Barbara Moran. New York: Basic, 1971.

88 Ace Lehner Ochoa, Marcia. Queen for a Day: Transformistas, Beauty Queens, and the Performance of Femininity in Venezuela. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014. 10.1215/97808223 76996 Pinney, Christopher, and Nicolas Peterson, eds. Photography’s Other Histories (Objects/ Histories). Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. Qian, Selena. “Activist CeCe McDonald Takes Allies to Task in Public Talk.” Chronicle. Duke University, November 11, 2017. Qualls, L. “Performance/Photography.” Performing Arts Journal 17, no. 1 (1995): 26–34. Roney, Chris. “Trans Teen Snap 1,400 Selfies to Document His Transition.” In Passport Blogs, October 7, 2015. (accessed December 22, 2018). Sarkar, Monica. “Life as a Transgender Person of Color: I Erased A Part of Me.”­ dex.html?no-st=1558461739 (accessed August 5, 2019). Sekula, Allan. “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning.” In Photography against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works, 1973–1983. Halifax: Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1984. 10.1007/978-1-349-16716-6_5. Sekula, Allen. “The Body and the Archive.” October 39 (1986): 55, 56. 10.2307/778312. Serano, Julia. Trans-misogyny Primer. (accessed October 19, 2016). Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Emeryville: Seal Press, 2007. Sharma, Jeena. “Alok: ‘Beauty Is About Looking Like Yourself.’” Paper, March 1, 2019. Smith, Dakota. “How Art Created Alok Vaid-Menon.” Wussy. all/2019/6/19/how-art-created-alok-vaid-menon (accessed August 5, 2019). Solomon-Godeau, Abigal. Photography at the Dock: Essay on Photographic History, Institution, and Practices. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador USA, 2001. Steinmetz, Katy. “The TransGender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier.” Time, June 9, 2014. Stryker, Susan, and Aren Z. Aizura, eds. The Transgender Studies Reader 2. New York: Routledge, 2013. Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Tagg, John. The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. Turner, Graeme. British Cultural Studies: An Introduction, Media and Popular Culture 7. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990. Vaid-Menon, Alok. “The Pain & Empowerment of Choosing Your Own Gender.” The What’s Underneath Project, StyleLikeU presents, 22 (June 2015). v= j7Gh2n9kPuA&spfreload=1 (accessed December 22, 2018). Vaid-Menon, Alok. Personal interview, January 10, 2018. Vaid-Menon, Alok. “When I Wear Women’s Clothing,” entry/transfeminine_b_7788560.html (accessed September 12, 2017). Vaid-Menon, Alok. “You Don’t Need to Be a Boy or a Girl/Get Real.” Refinery29, October 7, 2015. Weheliye, Alexander G. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Proliferating Identity 89 Weisblum, Vida. “Dark Matter(s): Meet One Half of the Trans Performance Duo College Kids Love.” Observer, 24 (August 2016). (accessed December 22, 2018). Wells, L. “Image and Identity.” In The Photography Reader. London: Routledge Press, 2003. Wilchins, Riki. “Is Trans Beautiful?,” Advocate 7, March 2017, commentary/2017/3/07/trans-beautiful.


The Evolution of the Selfie: Influencers, Feminism, and Visual Culture Derek Conrad Murray

The phenomenon of compulsive self-representation on social media sites has been written about in major news outlets like The Guardian and The New York Times, among many others.1 However, most talk of “selfies” is focused (unfairly) on young women, and critiques their apparent narcissism as a type of regressive personality trait. The young women themselves often characterize the “selfie” (on social media sites) as a radical act of political empowerment: as a means to resist the maledominated media culture’s obsession with and oppressive hold over their lives and bodies. This notion takes on great significance in social media culture, when confronted with the sheer volume of self-representations by women in their teens to mid-20s. Viewed individually, they appear rather banal, commonplace and benign. Taken enmasse, it feels like a revolutionary political movement—like a radical colonization of the visual realm and an aggressive reclaiming of the female body. Even if there is no overt political intent, they are indeed contending with the manner in which capitalism is enacted upon their lives. That reading of the selfie revolution may seem more than a bit charitable, because the gesture itself has been popularly characterized as some­ thing rather pitiful: as an expression of narcissism and self-loathing—or even as a consequence of profound loneliness. It has no positive or redeeming connotations and appears to personify all that is trivial about the human condition. As noted in a New York Times article on October 19, 2013, writer Jenna Wortham attempted to present a more generous viewpoint of “selfie” culture, situating it within the context of social media and emergent internet-based technologies: But it’s far too simplistic to write off the selfie phenomenon. We are swiftly becoming accustomed to—and perhaps even starting to prefer—online conversa­ tions and interactions that revolve around images and photos. They are often more effective at conveying a feeling or reaction than text. Plus, we’ve become more comfortable seeing our faces on-screen, thanks to services like Snapchat, Skype, Google Hangout and FaceTime, and the exhilarating feeling of connect­ edness that comes from even the briefest video conversation. Receiving a photo of the face of the person you’re talking to brings back the human element of the interaction, which is easily misplaced if the interaction is primarily text-based.2 This chapter aims to give insight into a very contemporary discussion about the impact of technology and social media as a means to disseminate and share images. The term “selfie,” in its popular usage, is meant to delineate a very particular DOI: 10.4324/9780367206109-4

The Evolution of the Selfie 91 engagement with technologies of image-making—specifically, the spontaneous selfportrait, taken with a range of consumer-based devices: smart phones, tablets, laptop computers, as well as digital and film cameras. In the digital era, personal cameras have become so ubiquitous that compulsive self-imaging is engendering a new consumer-based language in the visual realm. In addition, social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr enable the easy and spontaneous dissemination of images—a phenomenon that has led to public debate about the potential corrosive effects of technology on our individual and collective selves. Often discussed as a negative consequence of capitalist consumer-based con­ sumption, the “selfie” appears to represent a critique of youth who have become subsumed within a troubling consumerist fixation with the superficiality of selfimaging and the cult of personality. The consequences of this characterization are what concern me most, specifically the gendered implications that link young women, self-obsession, and what could be described as an insatiable consumerism—that ac­ cording to Joan Acocella has “made Americans, especially women, dependent on commercial products,” consumed by narcissism, and ultimately deprived of selfreliance.3 New York Times writer David Carr echoes Acoella’s sentiment that “selfies” are the product of a combustible mixture of media fixation, capitalism, and narcissistic self-absorption.4 In this investigation, my aim is to produce a productive counterreading of the “selfie,” one that advances the possibility that popular forms of female self-imaging may offer the opportunity for political engagement, radical forms of community building—and most importantly, a forum to produce counterimages that resist erasure and misrepresentation.

The “Selfie” and Its Discontents Oxford English Dictionaries’ definition of “selfie” defines it as a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website. According to Oxford Dictionaries, the term isn’t a new one and is believed to have originated on an Australian online forum in 2002. Cultural fascination with this phenomenon led Oxford Dictionaries to proclaim “selfie” their 2013 Word of the Year: a distinction that has inaugurated its introduction into the public consciousness. The pseudo-controversy surrounding the imaging of US President Barack Obama in the act of taking a selfie pic (along with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt) while at Nelson Mandela’s memorial on December 10, 2013 speaks to the media-fueled characterization of the gesture as a gratuitous and excessive expression of narcissism. The casual gesture received widespread scrutiny; especially on social media, where the President’s behavior was likened to that of a petulant, self-absorbed, and mannerless 14-year-old girl.5 Like one journalist, Christine Erickson proclaimed, “It looks like Barack Obama has taken a few pointers from Sasha and Malia“ (the US President’s two teenaged daughters).6 Comments like this one were the general sentiment ex­ pressed in the media in the wake of the Mandela event. There has been a steady stream of female journalists and psychologists quick to condemn the supposed navel gazing of over-indulged teenage girls. According to psy­ chologist Jill Weber, the selfie is an expression of those with a poor self-outlook: “In my experience, girls who repeatedly post selfies struggle with low self-esteem.”7 In a November 19, 2013, New Yorker article, journalist Sylvia Killingsworth wrote that

92 Derek Conrad Murray selfies are everywhere these days. They feature prominently in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013) as a cinematic trope—the main characters take dozens of pictures of themselves partying at Hollywood clubs and wearing pilfered designer clothing and upload them to Facebook.8 Kate Losse makes similarly ridiculing assessments in a June 5, 2013, New Yorker piece, stating that “Self-portraits shot with cell phones, or ‘selfies’—cheap-looking, evoking the MySpace era—became a sign of bad taste.” She goes on, “The subject of the MySpace bathroom selfie—with its tableaux of bathroom counter, mirror, face, and upper body—always looked alone. Selfies were for people without friends; the savvy moved on to more advanced networks.”9 Most of the selfie-related articles posted in major news outlets focus on the personality flaws of the over-indulged, namely, sub­ urban teens and celebrities. It is a terminology overflowing with judgment, sarcasm, and derision. However, one of the more perplexing dimensions of the “selfie” craze is a contradiction between the cultural legitimation of the term, and the complete and utter condemnation of the act itself. There continues to be a concerted effort to ground the term “selfie” into the cultural consciousness: there are now books on the subject, dedicated blogs, and a television sitcom—but despite the media attention, the com­ pulsion to take and share “selfies” continues to be the butt of the joke.10 The legitimation of the term “selfie” is a type of ideological scapegoating that synthesizes a range of fears about technology’s creeping infectiousness into a legible subjectivity: a new Otherness designed to absorb our judgment and condemnation. Like the demonized single parents of former UK Prime Minister John Major’s socially conservative “Back to Basics” campaign, or the enduring social blame of parasitism placed on single African-American welfare mothers in the United States—the young white female is the perfect foil for a menu of clichéd anxieties about technology’s uncanny ability to make fools of us all. In Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl by the French journal Tiqqun, the young girl is theorized as consumer society’s total product and model citizen: she is the object and subject of late capit­ alism: she can only seduce by consuming.11 Her body is a commodity.

The Social Media Influencer and the Rise of Instafame While I understand the more pessimistic framings recounted earlier, there is some­ thing about the selfie that continues to tug at the cultural fabric: a quality that is perhaps more unruly, more intimate, and profoundly psychological. Though I am also skeptical of the apparent critical discomfort with the personal nature of the selfie—and with the unavoidable psychic intimacies, desires, and longings expressed within the gesture to self-document. It is, in fact, a deeply personal act—one so often enacted in private and in moments of contemplative self-reflection. There hasn’t been enough critical engagement with these expressed intimacies and longings, as well as the aesthetic peculiarities of the images. Selfies are disturbing images because they make a private moment public, which perhaps imbues them with a pornographic quality: a psychic dimension that is more exhibitionist, and indulgent in spectacle, than violently voyeuristic. In other words, something is given, more than taken or extracted. The differences here matter, and if for no other reason than we must en­ gage with the notion of desire itself: desire for recognition, desire for visibility and self-worth, or perhaps a desire to obtain simple humanity. These concerns are of

The Evolution of the Selfie 93 special significance when charting the self-imaging habit of minoritized subjects; those for whom the stakes of representation are particularly high. The influencer phenomenon has brought even more complexity, as it has facilitated the possibility for economic opportunity individuals traditionally neglected by mainstream media. The rise of the social media influencer and online self-branding has emerged as a prominent feature of digital culture in the twenty-first century. Scholars Susie Khamis, Lawrence Ang, and Raymond Welling define the social media influencer as engaged in the act of self-branding or personal branding, which “involves individuals developing a distinctive public image for commercial gain and/or cultural capital.”12 Khamis, Ang, and Welling argue that central to this practice of self-branding is an individual who economically capitalizes on “having a unique selling point, or a public identity that is singularly charismatic and responsive to the needs and interests of target audiences.”13 There is a concern that the human brand, which is essentially a personality with cultural capital, is the quintessential subject of neoliberal in­ dividualism at its most insidious. However, self-branding via social media is entirely based upon a desire for material gain, fame, celebrity, and most of all, recognition. Khamis et al. point out that “Social media is driven by a specific kind of identity construction—self-mediation—and what users post, share and like, effectively creates a highly curated and often abridged snapshot of how they want to be seen.”14 This need for a kind of micro-celebrity has permeated all facets of online cultures, yet I am interested here in the evolution of selfie-taking (as an individualized and private act) into what we now know of as the influencer economy. Many young women, in particular, gained significant online followings by taking selfies in their bedrooms and bathrooms—engaging in online conversations with their peers who were often great geographic distances from them. The selfie emerged as a kind of visual language that provided a forum to communicate and discuss a range issues, from race, gender, and sexuality, to body positivity, fashion, and consumer habits. It was a logical pro­ gression that companies, both large and small, would take notice, eventually seizing on the popularity of private citizens who had unwittingly generated a significant viewer base. The enlisting of individuals with large social media followings as brand ambassadors was therefore a logical progression. The internet and especially the rise of social media have served to bolster the glo­ balized reach of advanced computer capitalism—and the rise of self-branding has been particularly rapacious, encouraging an often-distorted notions of subjectivity and in­ dividual success that are subsumed by a consumerist logic. The gendered dimension of this phenomenon is particularly disturbing, particularly in regard to young women, who often aggressively construct an online presence, with the intention of monetizing their personal image through self-branding. One need only gaze upon their surroundings and they will surely see pairs of young women engaging in planned photo shoots, doc­ umenting their outfits and meals, in an effort to produce the ultimate vision of a chic and opulent existence. The social media app Instagram, with its massive user base, has created the possibility of achieving what is increasingly being labeled Instafame: a condition of social currency and economic opportunity, derived from garnering a large base of followers on the app. While there is a growing sense that influencers are exploited workers, toiling on a corporate leash—they often self-identify as an emergent creative class of content creators and cultural entrepreneurs. The truth might lie somewhere in the middle of these characterizations: that the influencer promotes brands in hopes of one day becoming one. The characteristics of this phenomenon are well-

94 Derek Conrad Murray known, specifically among youth cultures online that “appear convinced that good looks, good living and conspicuous consumption (through artfully composed images of outfits, makeup, meals, holiday resorts, etc.) warrant adoration and emulation.”15 This shift in celebrity culture has led to what Joshua Gamson argues is a heightened consciousness of everyday life as a public performance—an increased expectation that we are being watched, a growing willingness to offer up private parts of the self to watchers known and unknown, and a hovering sense that perhaps the unwatched life is invalid or insufficient.16 Gamson’s concern is the collision of a rapacious corporatized fixation with democratized fame combined with an increasing adherence to the logics of selfsurveillance. The fact that celebrity has been opened-up to a larger public, the influencer, Gamson argues, is pursued as entertainment as publicity technologies.17 The increasing digitization in the twenty-first century has created new and exciting mediums to generate meaning, which in turn, has been particularly generative for minoritized groups. For example, the phenomena of online forms of en­ trepreneurialism, what Konrad Ng terms “digital life,” have “become a compelling thread of the Asian American experience”18: Asian American culture has become a vibrant online popular culture with social consequence and creative possibility. Asian America is the most wired and engaged online community in the United States, and Asian Americans form a core constituency of America’s “creative class” of professionals in the arts, sciences, and fields of technology, education, entertainment, and design. In sum, digital Asian America has become a cultural laboratory for popular meaning production and consumption; digital platforms have become the place to fashion a cultural economy with in-the-world, offline impact and activity.19 Despite his more optimistic view of Asian American digital participation, Ng reasons that we must resist the temptation to view this phenomenon through a neoliberal lens as “evidence of some post-racial, multicultural Internet in our democratic society. In other words, some might suggest that Asian Americans are the model minority of the web.”20 In contrast to this mischaracterization, Ng references the writings of Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, who argues for a more nuanced engagement with digital forma­ tions of racial identity, paying specific attention to how identity takes shape online.21 However, digital cultures have created the space for both self-representation and shared racial experiences for people of color: constituencies who have been histori­ cally underrepresented by the various culture industries. Along those lines, Ng notes that digital representation for minority communities “means wider opportunities for creative and critical expressions, new ways to manifest community and identity, and the chance to imaginatively engage with race in alternative spaces of meaning.”22 In sum, he argues that the “Asian American thread in digital popular culture inflects digitalization discourses and the politics of race.”23 Ng offers some unique insights that help to illuminate how the politics of race may inform our understanding of the influencer phenomena. Asian influencers, in parti­ cular, have been both extremely active and impactful in the evolution of creative expression online—often utilizing social media platforms to make powerful

The Evolution of the Selfie 95 statements about, race and nationhood. Among these influencers is an apparent understanding that race, cultural identity, and visual representation are inextricably bound. The spectrum of Asian female influencers is incredibly diverse and encompasses a vast range of interests and industries—from lifestyle, wellness, travel, and food cul­ tures, to beauty and fashion. Among the notables are Chriselle Lim, Aimee Song, Nicole Warne, Margaret Zhang and Ellen V. Lora. It is worth noting that some of these influencers have emerged as major media figures, while others have parlayed their image into lifestyle and fashion brands. Chinese-Canadian Fashion and lifestyle blogger Vanessa Hong, for example, has garnered a significant following via her website The Haute Pursuit, as well as her Instagram account. Like many of her contemporaries, Hong’s blogging straddles the worlds of self-help, wellness, fashion, beauty, and travel—while self-consciously and meticulously constructing an image of professional and material success, health and style. In many respects, Hong’s public persona is that of a fashion insider and lifestyle guru. This highly curated image expresses a range of desires and longings that have racial implications, not least the expressed fixation with European high culture as the barometer for social worth, access, and acceptance. However, within these longings is also an acknowledgement of the persistent structural inequalities within the culture industries (Figure 4.1). The worlds of fashion, in particular, have historically resisted racial and ethnic diversity, so the apparent fascination (among female influencers of color) with

Figure 4.1 Hong, Vanessa (2020), “Paris, France,” @vanessahong, March, 1, URL. March 22, 2020. Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

96 Derek Conrad Murray gaining access and mastering the industry’s eccentricities is a common feature of their blogging output. Hong’s aesthetic channels what has been described as fashionforward cool, defined by its minimalism. With her svelte frame and dyed blonde hair—a look that has become de rigueur among many Asian style and fashion bloggers—Hong’s Instagram and website are filled with carefully constructed pho­ tographs of her in the act of strutting fashionably through the streets of Manhattan. These photographs are meant to replicate the types of paparazzi images printed in the pages of fashion magazines like Vogue, featuring fashion designers, stylists, celeb­ rities, and various insiders attending prestigious industry events. Looking at these influencer blogs, it is rather easy to cast a harsh critical lens on the influencer economy, considering that it commoditizes individuality and encourages the perfor­ mativity of everyday life. However, it also inspires self-aggrandizement through blatant acts of fakery and embellishing: behaviors that are not considered deceptive or disingenuous but have become the culture of online self-imaging. In many respects, the popular perception of influencers is that they engage in a lot of online hustling, posturing, and self-mythologizing—while wielding the self as a saleable object. Indeed, anti-capitalist misgivings about the increasing dominance of neoliberal techno-capitalism are apropos here—though Hong and many of her peers do speak openly in support of various issues of social urgency, from destructive wildfires and ecological crises to labor exploitation, as well as expressing misgivings around their complicity with a rapacious capitalist economy. In 2019, Hong launched a podcast called Vanessa Wants to Know in which she interviews influential figures in the worlds of fashion and media: a move that gestures towards greater substance while also maintaining the integrity of her brand. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Hong has attempted to directly address her racial identity, dedicating the first season of the podcast to spotlighting Asian excellence: We launched season one of Vanessa Wants to Know (VWTK) earlier this year, which I dedicated to Asian excellence. I felt, for our opening season, it had to be a topic extremely important to me. Growing up first generation Chinese-Canadian, I never had an example of what an Asian in mainstream media, killing it, would look or sound like. VWTK gave me that opportunity. Many of the guests I spoke with are not only stars in their respective fields, but true visionaries—whether it be Phillip Lim redefining what it means to be a designer today in 2019, or Michelle Lee, editor-in-chief of Allure magazine, using beauty as a vehicle for deeper cultural conversations.24 While not politicizing her subjects, Hong does speak about the paucity of Asians in high fashion, especially in top positions, as well as the need for greater visibility, diversity and structural change in mainstream media. I acknowledge that most scholarly reflections on the influencer economy characterize it as the underbelly of global techno-capitalist superficiality and that very well may be true. Although, as stated, I’m more interested in the psychodynamics of self-imaging as it expresses both individual and collective desires for recognition—especially among the minoritized (Figure 4.2).

The Evolution of the Selfie 97

Figure 4.2 Hong, Vanessa (2020), “New York, New York,” @vanessawantstoknow, March 21, URL. March 22, 2020. Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

On Post-Feminism and the “Selfie” For the purpose of this chapter, I characterize this phenomenon in terms of postfeminism: a controversial and polarizing terminology often used to delineate genera­ tional and political shifts amongst feminists. Post-feminism began in the early 1980s, during the rise of Third Wave feminism. A contingent of leading feminists in academia began proclaiming that feminism is dead; a move believed to assert the obsolescence of feminism in the face of its radical revision. The basic idea behind the movement is that feminism had achieved its goals. Third Wave feminists had for some time, critiqued early expressions of feminism for ignoring the plight of women of color, as well as women outside the West. Since its early formulation, the term post-feminism has been used in a myriad of ways. This chapter appropriates the term in the service of un­ derstanding the representational strategies of women in what could be characterized as the post-feminist moment (post-Second and Third Wave).25 Nevertheless, my aim is not to assert that feminism is dead, nor am I suggesting that gender inequality is a thing of the past. On the contrary, I am interested in critically unpacking how young selfproclaimed feminists negotiate a space for political action that breaks from Second and Third Wave Feminism—and seeks to create a radical new aesthetics of the female body. In their edited volume, entitled, Interrogating Post-Feminism, scholars Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra claim that “post-feminism is defined by class, age, and racial

98 Derek Conrad Murray exclusions; it is youth obsessed and white and middle-class. Anchored in consumption as a strategy and leisure as a site for the production of the self,” post-feminism associates itself with pleasure and lifestyle, and the notion that feminism has accomplished its goals and is now a thing of the past.26 The authors are critical of post-feminist consumer culture, which they characterize as a fixation on an affluent elite that elevates con­ sumption as a means to contend with the dissatisfactions of daily life. However, their real claim is that post-feminist culture works in part to incorporate, assume, or natur­ alize aspects of feminism—to commoditize it via the figure of woman as empowered consumer.27 In the book’s introductory pages, the authors make a clear distinction between feminist politics and post-feminist culture; a delineation meant to interrogate the impulse to think that post-feminist media representation somehow signals the widespread rejection of feminist oppositional politics on the part of young, entitled women. Post-feminism does have politics deeply embedded within it, but it takes a certain privilege as self-evident; a fact that is perceived as annihilating of feminism. In this regard, Tasker and Negra suggest that post-feminism is very similar to other “posts,” particularly post-Civil Rights discourse in the United States. Both movements can be defined as having a moral ambiguity that is rooted in consumer culture, excess, and commodity fetishism. There is no overt politics of the margins, no rhetoric of vic­ timization. Rather, there is an implicit understanding that the victories of Civil Rights and the victories of the Feminist Movement have liberated their respective generations; affording them the privilege to image themselves beyond trauma, while still under­ standing and mobilizing the oppositional and radical force of self-representation. In African-American discourse, the term post-black was used as a means to char­ acterize a generational shift in artistic production that rejected a politics of the past. Curator Thelma Golden, who coined the term, described it in contradictory terms: It [post-black] was a clarifying term that had ideological and chronological dimensions and repercussions. It was characterized by artists who were adamant about not being labeled as “black” artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested in redefining complex notions of blackness.28 For Golden, post-black is not a rejection of blackness, nor is it a post-racial stance (as it is often mischaracterized) but rather a means to resist accepted notions of blackness that are hetero-patriarchal at their core—and have relegated women and those who are queerly identified to the margins of its political, cultural and representational imperatives.29 Having been raised in a period of post-Civil Rights optimism, Golden endeavors to create an expanded understanding of black identity that transcends the limitations of past resistance movements: As a child born in the mid-1960s, I imagine I hold a certain degree of nostalgia for the passion and energy that created the nationalist/aesthetic dogma of the 1970s Black Arts Movement… which allowed me to thrive in the words and actions of late 1980s multiculturalism.30 I reference post-feminism because it is a conflicted terminology that, like postblackness, does not signify the end of feminism (or the notion that gender inequity is a thing of the past) but rather is an effort to redefine its parameters and step out beyond the dogmas of the past.31 Emanating from the “selfie” movement is a feminism that is

The Evolution of the Selfie 99 aggressively oppositional, yet takes on different forms and has new agendas and commitments. In this formulation, the feminism in post-feminism is not simply an umbrella term signifying a history of political activism but is actually a direct re­ ference to a specific regime of representation that privileged the experiences of certain women over others. If we think about post-feminism as a theory of representation, it becomes possible to understand how young women (particularly those of color) seek to redefine the parameters of feminism in a manner that grants them recognition. The idea that post-feminism is inherently annihilating of feminism, or is a form of willful naiveté, is perhaps too simplistic and dismissive of young women who are struggling for self-definition. Indeed, post-feminism is a problematic term and one that has been mobilized in troubling ways. However, my aim here is to think about it in relation to other posts that have functioned as space clearing gestures: as a means to make room for new identities, new politics, and new forms of visual expressiveness.

Post-Feminism and Social Media in the Blogging Era Social media is now inundated with blogs by young women in their late teens to early 20s, who self-consciously and aggressively describe themselves as radical feminists, while posting pictures of themselves in various states of dress or undress—or at times completely nude, or engaged in sexual and/or pornographic activity.32 The production of the self takes center stage, but also a contradictory mix of vulgarity and radicalism; one where a young girl will post a sexually provocative self-portrait and then defiantly follow-up with an impassioned written diatribe about rape and the abuses of women. Often a pinup-style “selfie” will be followed by re-blogged images of iconic women of the past. The “selfies” are fascinating because they are almost always tinged with nostalgia for 1940s/50s fashion aesthetics for women, mixed with the Betty Page-style pinup. Many of the women wear tattoos as an ironic contrast to the hyper feminine, sexual fantasy that defines the ideal woman of the 1940s–1950s.33 Constantly bom­ barded with objectifying and unattainable images of beauty in popular media, young girls in the blogosphere respond by constructing an image of themselves as a sexual fantasy, to be consumed online, and in the public domain. But I argue this gesture is not meant as titillation for the male gaze, rather it is designed to embrace femininity and sexuality; celebrate the history of women; reject unhealthy beauty standards promoted by the media; and advance a body-positive attitude. This is explored by Julia Schuster, who suggests that sexual activism is among the political concerns of the socially en­ gaged post-feminist bloggers.34 The contradiction, of course, is that the images they produce explore what Tasker and Negra characterize as formulaic female sexualities, where these young women “enthusiastically perform patriarchal stereotypes of sexual servility in the name of empowerment.”35 Among the representational tropes of post-feminist oppositional politics is the imaging of menstrual blood: a defiant gesture that is meant to be confrontational and to elicit a condemning response in viewers. For many young female image-makers, the perceived cultural revulsion for menstruation—and to a lesser degree, female body hair—symbolizes the historical abuses of patriarchy and the oppressive social control often exerted over female bodies. To image what for many may be perceived as the intimacy of personal hygiene is an act of willfulness and a means to claim agency—despite the fact that one’s distaste for images of blood may arguably stem from an array of other issues.

100 Derek Conrad Murray There are numerous female bloggers who have built considerable reputations making snapshot-style photographs documenting their personal lives and intimate relationships. Among the visual tropes popularized by these individuals are gritty images of menstrual blood: self-portraits often presented in the context of sexual encounter—or images of the artist’s contending with the banalities of feminine hy­ giene products and the often-hidden routines of menstruation.36 Contemporary artist/ blogger Sandy Kim is one exemplar as is the controversial young photographer Petra Collins, who generated debate for a t-shirt she designed for the similarly controversial clothing company American Apparel.37 Collins is known for her photographic work that regularly depicts nude adolescent-looking girls in a sexually provocative manner. American Apparel, the popular clothing outfitter, has been accused of creating sex­ ualizing images of youth that border on the pornographic, leading to public legal battles and charges of sexual harassment.38 For American Apparel, Collins created a t-shirt design consisting of a crudely rendered line drawing of a hand caressing the lips of a woman’s splayed vagina (with ample pubic hair), while red blood flows from within it. The image presents female genitalia and pubic hair and what appears to be a masturbating and menstruating woman of indiscernible age. The culture of “selfies” is intriguing when taken en mass, because the sheer number of such images is staggering. On the social media sites Tumblr and Flickr alone, there are innumerable blogs containing self-portraits by young women, usually standing alone, frontally and facing a mirror, holding a camera at their midsection. The cameras range from iPhones and small digital point & shoots, to film and digital SLRs, to medium format film cameras. And the range of quality is broad from the pixilation of cheap cameras, to the lushness of professional film. What unifies these images, however, is a shared obsession with self-fashioning; an embraced narcissism that turns navel gazing into high culture and leisure-based consumption into a virtue. Fashion plays an important role in “selfie” culture. Many of the personalized blogs feature young women taking on various personas through alterations in dress, hair, and makeup; sometimes in an effort to recreate iconic fashions of the past, or to mimic looks that are ubiquitous in commercial beauty culture. The intentions of these young women undoubtedly vary greatly, but as we will see as this article progresses, the aim of some female bloggers is to achieve some sort of recognition; to make themselves present in the world, and to create the kind of unique style and person­ hood that would not be represented otherwise. Criticisms of this phenomenon wrongly suggest that racial diversity is almost completely absent in this world: characterizing it as a white and middle-class culture of personal excess—where young women grapple with their privilege and kept status, by considering their place in the world, and musing about the effects of patriarchy on their lives. Their heroes range from artists Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman and most recently Laurel Nakadate, to the iconic self-portraits of Francesca Woodman; the late photographer who committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22. Goldin and Woodman are probably the most influential visual references, and many photography-inclined female bloggers attempt to recreate the aesthetic and melancholic self-obsessions of their heroes. The striking prevalence of young female photographers attempting to replicate the snapshot aesthetic of Goldin is stag­ gering, as articulated by photography curator Susie Bright: One only has to teach a class of undergraduate photography students to realize [Goldin’s] influence. Her ideas infuse all new work that deals with close family

The Evolution of the Selfie 101 members, friends or ideas of community. She gave legitimacy to an approach that has crudely been adopted and understood as “snapshot style” or “diaristic.” I would go as far as to say her work has come to represent an entire style.39 The blogging format allows not just for the display of personal images and “selfies” but also the re-blogging and sharing of erotica found on other blogs. This forms the core of sites like Tumblr, which enable like-mined folks to find each other and form communities: intellectual, sexual, political, and otherwise. A component of a blog­ ger’s ability to self-construct is to take on the role of curator; the one who under­ stands the zeitgeist and can make sense of the media deluge. To do so is to be empowered and develop loyal online cult following. In an article from 2013, jour­ nalist Greg T. Spielberg considers the phenomenon of popular women’s blogs dedi­ cated to showcasing sexual content: Women aren’t just the dominant subject of the Internet, they’re increasingly the controllers. Ladies make up more than half of the U.S. social media population: 58 percent of Facebook, 64 percent of Twitter and 82 percent of Pinterest. They post, share and comment more than men… …The moral neutrality and the huge rise of women’s voices means a more balanced, and much larger, erotic representation on the Web. There’s no better example than on Tumblr, where women are showcasing their sexual voice.40 In her brilliant essay “A Phantasmagoria of the Female Body,” Laura Mulvey charts the emergence of feminist aesthetics—and what she terms a new politics of the body that arose in the 1970s. During this crucial period, women artists contributed to widespread efforts dedicated to undoing the preponderance of gender inequity in the United States. As Mulvey asserts, “artists were arguing for a politics of the margins” and they utilized the female body in an activist mode in an effort to expose how representation (and misrepresentation, for that matter) plays its part in the main­ tenance of inequality.41 Cindy Sherman’s infamous self-portraits are widely under­ stood to have been instrumental to feminist efforts concerned with interrogating what Mulvey calls “dominant meanings” (in images of women) that are ubiquitous in popular visual culture. Sherman’s aesthetics recuperates a politics of the body (a political aesthetics) that employs masquerade and mise-en-scène to construct oftendisturbing representations of the feminine.42 There is no doubting the importance of Sherman’s contribution to our under­ standing of the ideological function of images. It would not be a stretch to suggest that the artist wields the female body in a politically oppositional manner that has both influenced and emboldened young women artists for over three decades. And Sherman is not alone. There is a lengthy history of female self-representation: espe­ cially in photographic history (Germaine Krull, Marianne Breslauer, Ilse Bing, Vivian Maier, and Sally Mann are early examples). Artists Cindy Sherman, Adrian Piper, Lynda Benglis, and Hannah Wilke (and most recently LaToya Ruby Frazier) have each employed performative self-portraiture in an approach that essentially laid claim to the kind of creative dominance and authority usually associated with male artists. Nevertheless, the pioneering work of these individuals (with the exception of Cindy Sherman) remains marginal in many respects and are all too often lumped into the

102 Derek Conrad Murray amorphous category of postmodern conceptualism—or dismissed as pretentiously liberal and academically stilted musings on oppression.43 While feminist representational politics are as important today as they ever were, there are visible changes in the aesthetic and conceptual strategies of artists working in what is often termed the post-feminist moment. Whether intentional or not, the work of many young female artists expresses an exhaustion around the rallying cry to continue the charge against the objectification of women in popular visual culture—and wearied by an activist obsession with male desire and the scopophilic violence of its gaze. This shift is most present in the production of many young female photographers. In their artwork, an interest in the fetishized female imago remains but is subverted and rendered less overtly politicized.44 I do not believe this change signals a rejection of feminism but perhaps a radical rethinking of its visual rhetorics. In many respects, their images can be accessed without a prehistory of feminism and feminist aesthetics. And for lack of a better term, this production could be labeled post-feminist art—as problematic as that demarcation may prove to be. This article is therefore concerned with the problem of “post” as it plays out within art discourse. There is a great skepticism around the notion of post-feminism—and rightly so. However, within the realm of African-American visual art, the concept of post-blackness is embraced, despite the stubborn persistence of a few detractors. Post-Feminism and Post-Black in the visual arts does not signal that we’re in a post-feminist or post-racial moment per se: that the presence of gender inequity and racial intolerance are no longer with us. These are widely held misperceptions subtending our understanding of their presence. As I have mentioned previously, both signal a shifting aesthetics and a shifting usage of black and female bodies as subjects of representation. The post-feminist label has many definitions, uses, and applications and is symptomatic of warring agendas and divergent notions around the efficacy of feminism altogether. There should indeed be concern with the deployment of the post-feminist label—which is so often utilized to signal feminism’s obsolescence or to depoliticize it altogether. My central aim, however, is to examine what are problematically re­ garded as the post-political conceptual and visual strategies of young female cultural producers—without casting them as incommensurate with the aims of feminism. The images in question are preoccupied with the female gaze—as ill-defined and elusive that term has proven to be.45 Ultimately, the female gaze is a somewhat controversial notion because, while its consideration is potentially empowering, it also places the female image-maker in the position of objectifier. The feminist critique of images has always been preoccupied with locating and deconstructing the gendered aspects of visual culture—particularly as it relates to patriarchy, inequality, and female dis­ empowerment. In many respects, the notion of the male gaze has become somewhat cliché in academia—it’s thrown around a bit too casually (especially in art history and studio art programs). Part of the skepticism around the female gaze emerges from the acknowledgement that women still face such incredible amounts of inequality—that it remains the power dynamic (socially/culturally) that truly defines the negative power of the gaze. However, post-feminists might claim that it’s a bit simplistic to suggest that if men hold the power (politically, economically, institutionally) their gaze is inherently objectifying, voyeuristic, and ideologically violent—and that women could therefore not occupy such a power position. Such attitudes might very well constitute the disempowerment of feminism or perhaps a negation of the ideo­ logical functions of representation as they pertain to women’s struggle for equality.46

The Evolution of the Selfie 103 Nevertheless, my concern here is with the potential presence of a new set of visual practices employed by a contingent of emerging artists. The post-feminist moniker, if applied in our current cultural context, suggests a binary between what would be construed as “progressive” versus “regressive” art practices.47 Falling under the re­ gressive would certainly be the continued preoccupation with masculinist desires and phallocentrisms—contrasted against a progressive move towards an aesthetics that naturalizes feminist agency and claims a certain privilege as a matter of fact. In that regard, would the presence of a female gaze disrupt the traditional empowerment/ disempowerment binary (in terms of the interaction between the image-maker and the subject)? Amelia Jones is adamant that any universalist reading of women’s art rely “on the maintenance of certain modernist and ultimately masculinist models of artistic value.”48 While I certainly agree with Jones that critiques of feminist art by mainstream (and largely white male) critics and scholars tends towards the uni­ versalist, which is ultimately an undermining gesture—there is still a decisive shift in the visual practices of women artists that foregrounds the female gaze. Whether or not this shift can be decisively characterized as universal is yet to be determined, but in my formulation, it does not inherently constitute an act of disempowerment.

Technologies of the Self(ie) The photographic object (and photographic act) characterized here as the ubiquitous “selfie” (regarded derisively as celebrating the self over others) is often confused for other similar forms of portraiture: namely, the group portrait. In popular discourse on the phenomenon, group images where one individual (among the group) is holding the camera and pushing the shutter are often characterized as selfies. On the contrary, I believe this is a mischaracterization. The term selfie is essentially an abbreviation of the term self-portrait, which Webster’s Dictionary defines as: “a portrait of oneself done by oneself.” Webster’s defines the selfie in the following way: “an image of oneself taken by oneself using a digital camera especially for posting on social net­ works.” The selfie (as a self-portrait) is ultimately an image of a “lone” subject who is visibly holding a camera (again, a portrait of oneself done by oneself)—therefore, it is a highly personalized photographic engagement with the self. The visual, structural, and aesthetic specificities of the selfie are very important to understanding its intent and social function. This point is crucial because many of the images discussed in the popular domain are both structurally and aesthetically not selfies (or self-portraits) and should fall under a different designation. The selfie has a very particular set of structural specifics; primarily, the image-taker must be alone (or seemingly alone, in the sense that no one else is visible). This is significant because most commenters (particularly within the social sciences) generally do not visually analyze the images, in favor of focusing on selfies as an economic, technological, social, and cultural phenomenon. In reality, every image is distinct, with its own particularities (racial/ ethnic; class-based; structural specificities/mise-en-scène; and individualized intent), rendering it an expression of interiority—even if it is shared online. The fault line around the perceived progressive vs. regressive reading of selfies (politically oppositional vs. narcissistic vacuity) could potentially be illuminated via a more pointed engagement with art historical/theoretical writing on the history of photographic self-portraiture, particularly artwork created in the late twenty-first century. Scholar Cynthia Freeland proposes some urgent questions about portraiture

104 Derek Conrad Murray in regard to its critical neglect within art historical discourse. In her characterization of photography as a profoundly psychological form of art, Freeland suggests that within the genre there are two fundamental, yet conflicting, aims: “the revelatory aim of faithfulness to the subject, and the creative aim of artistic expression”49: The portrait encompasses distinct and even contradictory aims: to reveal the sitter’s subjectivity or self-conception; and to exhibit the artist’s skill, expressive ability, and to some extent, views on art. But historically this second aim was more restricted than we now imagine, and reciprocity was not the dominant paradigm for the painter/sitter relationship.50 Freeland’s intent is to illuminate the dualities of portraiture and to better understand its psychological dimensions. What is it about portraiture that is so compelling; from where does its gravitas issue—is it in its ability to reveal the essence of the sitter, or does it perhaps reside in the more technical and/or formal dimensions and char­ acteristics that are unique to the image-maker’s gaze? In regard to the selfie, my in­ terest lies in the self-portrait’s ability, as Freeland articulates, to reveal the subjectivity (the essence) of the subject of representation: a characteristic that is more fraught and intellectually (and representationally) complicated in its self-obsessions. Does the selfie reveal essences about the subject, or does it reveal something about the culture that produces it? For Freeland, the core tension in portraiture resides in the genre’s demands on truth (the veracity of the photographic image) versus the expressive vi­ sion of the image-maker. But how is this conflicting relation transformed when the image-maker is also the subject? I would agree with Freeland that, above all things, the portrait is meant to convey the person-ness of the subject, which she characterizes as the central aim of modern conceptions of portraiture—that the image-maker: …Seeks to convey the subject’s unique essence, character thoughts and feelings, interior life, spiritual condition, individuality, personality, or emotional complexity. Just how this is done involves use of the varied techniques of portraiture to show many significant external aspects of a person, such as physiognomy, in addition to the depiction of features such as status and class through the use of props, clothing, pose and stance, composition and artistic style and medium. But ultimately we expect a good portrait to convey the person’s subjectivity. The sitter should appear to be autonomous and a distinct person, with unique thoughts and emotions. As a person, the sitter is embodied, but the self is there “in” the embodiment and the artist must “realize,” “concretize” or “objectify” it in the image.51 The ease with which the selfie concretizes and objectifies perhaps taps into those as­ pects of self-portraiture that generate the most suspicion and ire—not least because of the image-maker’s apparent inward turn, or the so-called narcissistic compulsion, where adulation becomes self-obsession. It is in this turning inward, in its more per­ formative dimension, that the selfie (or self-portrait) deviates so dramatically from traditional portraiture. In this sense, the selfie—as a form of self-reflective imagemaking—bears more in common with a lineage of performative self-portraiture within the history of art. Feminist art historian Amelia Jones, in her essay “The Eternal Return: Self-Portrait Photography as a Technology of Embodiment,” discusses a range of artists whose highly conceptual engagements with self-portraiture establishes

The Evolution of the Selfie 105 an exaggerated mode of performative self-imaging that opens up an entirely new way of thinking about photography and the racially, sexually, and genderidentified subject. (And, surely, it is no accident that the practitioners of such dramatically self-performed images are all women, not aligned with Euro-U.S. whiteness, and/or otherwise queer-identified in some way.52 In her engagement with performative self-portraiture in identity art practices, Jones discusses the work of several artists, namely: Cindy Sherman, Hannah Wilke, Lyle Ashton Harris, and Laura Aguilar—artists who in their own way utilized the photo­ graphic medium to create narrative-based and highly stylized images. In the process, they reimagined the genre of self-portraiture, as they wielded the self in an activist mode: These performative images are still “self-portraits” in the sense that they convey to the viewer the very subject who was responsible for staging the image and yet—through their very exaggeration of the performative dimension of the self (its openness to otherness and, especially clearly in representation, its contingency on the one who views or engages with it)—clearly, they profoundly shift our conception of what a self-portrait is.53 Jones’ reading of these artworks suggests something rather meaningful to our everevolving understanding of the selfie: that these exaggerated forms of self-portraiture stage the body; that they in essence freeze the body “as representation and so—as absence, as always already dead—in intimate relation to lack and loss.”54 The claim being made here is that the photograph is essentially a death-dealing apparatus in its ability to “fetishize and congeal time” (Jones 2002). This point is useful to our reading of online self-imaging, because selfies, in their exaggerated theatricality (to borrow Jones’ language), highlight the fact that self-portraiture is inherently per­ formative, and by extension, it has a tendency to rejuvenate or reanimate the genre. The selfie has productively restored the photographic self-portrait, particularly its ability to foreground the self, as well as the creative “mobilization of technologies of representation, by performing the self through photographic means.”55 In relation to Jones’ assessment of performative self-portraiture in high art, the selfie foregrounds how identities become constituted in representation, in that online self-imaging thrusts otherness outward—projecting it into the foreground. To a large degree, a selfie does not only foreground the representational complexity of the self in relation to the other but also the self as other. Along these lines, Jones claims that the performance of the self is not “self-sustaining or coherent in itself, not a pure, uni­ directional show of individual agency, but always contingent on otherness.”56 In essence, the selfie objectifies the sitter, rendering the self as irrecoverably other: a spectacle. For that reason, the selfie is the perfect representational medium for challenging regulatory norms around race, gender, sexuality, class, and national identity. And therefore, the staging of the body as cultural critique is perhaps the driving force of the most progressive and oppositional forms of self-imaging online. However, Jones’ notion of the self-portrait as projecting difference or alterity out­ wards also gives some potential insight into the tendency towards judgment, pe­ jorative insult, and the apparently gendered pathologizing of the selfie-taker as narcissistic, in that the spectacle of difference (in representation) is always read through the lens of incoherence and lack—and therefore as a form political troubling.

106 Derek Conrad Murray Bodily spectacle is all too often read reductively as alterity, and its fetishization, if perceived as excessive and fixated, is often read (at best) as a neurosis, if not as entirely irrational and pathological. Curator and writer Deborah Irmas, in a similar vein as Jones, advances the notion that there is a profound difference between the photographic self-portrait and the selfie: that the photographic self-portrait in visual art reveals not only the imagemaker, but also “who we are as a culture.”57 For Irmas, the selfie “seldom reaches beyond its documentary function of presenting the physical circumstances of its photographer-subject.”58 It is becoming an increasingly common notion that the photographic self-portrait, so ubiquitous within the history of art, contains a certain polemical gravitas that is apparently absent in the assumed narcissistic frivolity of the selfie. Mehita Iquani and Jonathan Schroeder’s consumer-based explication of the selfie considers its ubiquity as a means to document the banality and everydayness of domestic life: that the selfie, while so often mobilized in an activist or politically oppositional manner, is arguably most commonly utilized to record what is most commonplace and prosaic about life: We propose that selfies can be productively conceived as both a sub-genre of the snapshot and as an important form of self-expression at once enabled by digital technologies and constrained by the political economy of consumer media. Building on this, we have argued that selfies need to be theorized as existing at the interface of objectivity (in terms of their commodity form) and subjectivity (in terms of their role in a variety of forms of self-expression and self-branding, as well as claims to authenticity). Selfies are fascinating objects not only due to their explosion within the popular culture domain, but also in terms of how they allow us to think about modes of making public and claiming authenticity. As well as this, selfies are an intriguing empirical object because they combine questions of subject and object, as well as questions of identity, agency, and power. Furthermore, turning to the selfie’s rapid uptake as a branding and marketing tool, the selfie reveals shifts in the traditional functions of the advertising photograph, from sources of information, persuasion, and representation to emblems of social currency.59 Since the rise of the selfie in popular journalism, there has been a litany of old pho­ tographic self-portraits (primarily of notable figures), dug up from the archives of historical marginalia, yet presented as a form of evidence that the selfie is, in fact, as old as the camera itself. This suggests, as Iquani and Schroeder remind us, we must begin to examine the selfie “not as a postmodern anomaly but as a type of image with a history”— one that existed long before the dawn of digital culture.60 That said, the tension between the self-portrait and the selfie is fascinating because it tends to demark a slippage between what are perceived to be the heady artistic/intellectual aspirations of the former and the narcissistic and consumer-based obsessions of the latter. In other words, the artist/genius takes the self-portrait; the foolish and the puerile take the selfie. Ideologically speaking, it is women, primarily young women, who bear the brunt of this apparent selfie-ridicule—a troubling fact that persists largely un­ acknowledged and completely unchallenged. This dimension of selfie discourse is rendered even more disturbing by the introduction of N.P.D. and psychopathy into the

The Evolution of the Selfie 107 discussion: the notion that young women engaged in this practice may simply be mentally compromised. It is important to remember that how we perceive the selfportrait is largely contingent upon whom the subject is (Figure 4.3).

“Selfie” or Self-Portrait? While Tasker and Negra are quite harsh in their assessment of post-feminist media culture, I find there to be something much more salient and meaningful: namely, the rise of a newly politicized and empowered female presence. Many young women in the blogsphere self-consciously characterize themselves as “intersectional feminists”: as women concerned with gender equality, but not at the expense of other oppressions—namely, racial, sexual, and class-based. The term “selfie” has complicated and reframed cultural understandings of photographic self-representation in such a way that it perverts and stigmatizes a gesture that is mobilized for a diversity of reasons. There is perhaps a distinction to be made between the popular notion of the “selfie”: the visual expression of vanity that is ubiquitous on social media sites like Facebook—and the more artistically motivated photographic self-portrait. As a visual form they can be totally indistinguishable, but the intentions that drive their production

Figure 4.3 Colin Powell, former United States Secretary of State and Retired Four Star General, 1954. Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

108 Derek Conrad Murray and social function vary greatly. Photographer Francesca Romeo, an active blogger and self-portrait taker, exhibits her work in galleries, yet she is also an avid user of social media—specifically Tumblr and Instagram: both online forums where she can dis­ tribute an array of images from spontaneously taken cell phone shots to lushly com­ posed photographs taken with a medium format film camera. Born in 1976 in Fremont, California, Romeo’s images are beautiful, if not brutally frank explorations of addic­ tion, indulgence, friendship, death, and the complexities of intimacy. Her photographic series and accompanying documentary Mars (2000–2002), chronicled her time as a bartender at the legendary Mars Bar, located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.61 The photographs are black and white, and have a gritty, saturated tonality that gives them a harrowingly timeless quality. Elegy, the artist’s follow-up series of color pho­ tographs, picks up where Mars leaves off and intimately follows the lives of close friends as they struggle with everyday life.62 Her subjects, many of which are men, are clearly suffering from some form of addiction—and the excesses of their daily routine, combined with the extremity of bar life, is clearly visible in their expressions. Many of the bar’s regulars have since succumbed to their addictions and Romeo captures the horrors of these experiences with a heartbreaking clarity. In certain instances, Mars is deceptively reminiscent of Nan Goldin’s famous series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, though the young photographer’s work is less narratively romantic and intentionally aesthetic. A more apt comparison might be Swedish photographer Anders Petersen’s infamous series Café Lemintz. There is something unapologetically authoritative, and disquietingly exploitive about Romeo’s suite of images. Mars is often difficult to process, because the photographs reveal a problematic set of relations between image-maker and subject. Romeo is simultaneously participant, enabler, and exploiter. She often speaks about the pro­ blematic nature of being an entitled white female both engaging in and documenting the self-destructive activities of largely disempowered individuals. Her ability to re­ move herself from those circumstances at any given time—and fall back on a support system unavailable to her subjects—creates a palpable source of tension that permeates the entire series. And that objectifying distance is disturbingly contrasted with the extreme intimacy necessary to construct such images. If anything, issues of social class, and a certain sense of entitlement that I felt in commenting upon my environment were at play in the mars bar work. Because I had the perspective of the bartender, and dysfunction was the norm, I held this incredibly complex position of being at once: enabler, critic, confidant, friend, lover, voyeur and participant (as well as deriving my income from all the people that I was documenting). I was also generally, more educated than my subjects, which lends itself to further complications. I derived my power from knowing that the people around me were disenfranchised, and that the majority of them would not progress out of the bar and into productive lives (though I don’t think I was entirely conscious of this at the time). And because I was trusted, because I had built relationships with my customers prior to filming them, it was with relative ease that I was able to make the work. Other filmmakers and photographers had tried to do projects about the mars bar, but they never got very far because they didn’t understand the incredibly volatile dynamics of the environment, so they would always end up taking what amounted to “slumming it” type tourist snapshots. I actually knew the life histories of most of my subjects.63

The Evolution of the Selfie 109 I mention Romeo’s more formal portraits, because it is within this work where a distinctly female gaze is established: one where the artist forcefully constructs an al­ ternative way of looking that is unapologetically female. In other words, it aggressively asserts a specifically female visual experience and aesthetic point of view. It is a gesture that personifies the political dimensions of “selfie” culture as a young woman’s form of visual expressiveness. Romeo’s portraits of others reveal an intimacy and interiority that she demands of her own self-representations, and therefore the “selfie” enables for the most intimate dimensions of private life to be revealed and exposed. The forced candor is where the exploited force of her photographic practice emanates from—though it is also where her feminist agency is established as a form of re­ sistance. There are those who might suggest that, as a young woman in a maledominated society (and art world), the agency Romeo wields as an image-maker is ultimately undermined—or less effective. That reading would be reductive, and surely, power functions in more complex ways than that. It would be more accurate to suggest that the agency she claims is aggressively feminist, while her gaze embodies the kind of exploitive force most often associated with male photographers (Figure 4.4). Perhaps more important is that Romeo’s photography envisions a space (and working method) for women artists that is not concerned with talking back to men. When looking carefully at the photography of Francesca Romeo, it’s hard not to think about Laura Mulvey’s famous essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in which she explores the voyeuristic tendencies in mainstream Hollywood cinema. Mulvey was rightly concerned with the manner in which women were portrayed

Figure 4.4 Francesca Romeo, Ryan, 2009. © [Francesca Romeo] Reproduced by permission of artist.

110 Derek Conrad Murray (all-too-often as hyper-sexualized fetish objects for male viewing pleasure; that women functioned as the “image,” or the object of representation, that is subject to the now-mythical male gaze). There is little argument there. But how do we begin to think about the manner in which women see beyond the traditional power dynamic (active male image-maker/passive female subject)? Is there any other way to think about what and how women see that builds upon these dynamics? For example, it would be hard to imagine a more uneven power relationship than that between Romeo and her subjects in Mars. This isn’t to say that her work is intentionally exploitive or demeaning of her subjects. But there is a sense of bravado—or a type of authorial ease that permeates the work. There is nothing restrained or apologetic about her gaze. The way Romeo sees has force and that quality defines both her photography and filmmaking efforts. The issue of female agency in feminist re­ presentational strategies has long been debated. As a result, an argument could be made that for many feminist intellectuals, it is unsettling to think of a young entitled female fully embodying the exploitive authorship traditionally associated with male artists.64 That notion is relatively new. In fact, these attitudes are similar to the cri­ ticisms of exploitation directed toward Nan Goldin in the 1990s. Golden is often credited (or perhaps blamed) with creating the heroin-chic aesthetic that emerged in fashion circles in the 1990s.65 This problematic is repeatedly evidenced in the conceptual strategies of female photography students—where their work could be read as perhaps too concerned with critiquing and subverting the male gaze—while failing to ponder the complex power dynamics that impact their own acts of looking. Should they consider that there is such a thing as empowered female looking? In that regard, Romeo’s pro­ duction does not need to claim, emulate, or appropriate the agency or brashness that is so synonymous with male artists (particularly photographers) as a form of affec­ tation. Her work embodies this quality inherently. Both Mars and Elegy are dis­ quieting precisely because of the agency she wields over her subjects. Her portraiture functions as a staging to explore the very nature of authorial power—and often as a platform to reassert that authority over her male subjects. In so doing, she harnesses the potency of photographic portraiture as a means to reclaim what was taken or lost in past moments of intimacy. Considering Romeo’s con­ ceptual approach in terms of the power she wields over her sitters—can female photographers dominate their subjects (particularly men)… can they exploit, sex­ ualize, or simply objectify? If women wield “the power of the look” then are they in turn non-exempt from the perils of image-making? Romeo speaks openly about in­ tentionally embodying and wielding the gaze of an imagined male viewer—or simply wrestling with her sexual past through the camera: The female gaze…I find that when I shoot men that they look like children to me. They become vulnerable in a way that is always unexpected, no matter how old they are. And it’s such a strange experience for me, because almost all of the men I have photographed, I have also had sex with at some point in my life. I only state that because oftentimes my impulse to photograph these guys is born of some unvoiced desire on my part to revisit something intimate, or create a context that might lend itself to eroticism, and that’s what in fact happens when I am looking at them, is that my maternal impulse emerges, and in some way, the act of photographing them becomes a way of taking care of them…

The Evolution of the Selfie 111 …The gaze that I use to look at myself, is almost always in reference to an imagined male viewer and is constructed from years of feeling confused about my own supposed femininity - both denying it and amplifying it, because that is what we are taught implicitly as women - that somehow our sexuality should be wielded as a force in any given situation to get what we want. And so much of my photography is rooted in a history of responding to male artists with their brash, raw, irreverent and misogynist impulses, and wanting to somehow emulate them and destroy them at the same time. At the basis I think are common threads (at least I find) of vulnerability, a desire to get close, a need to rebel and a constant process of having to assert oneself in response to male domination while concurrently wanting to feel “safe” in the presence of men.66 The relation between image-making and female self-empowerment is a dominant fea­ ture of Romeo’s photographic practice and the self-portrait is always present. Romeo’s intervention (which can be characterized as type of feminist representational politics) seeks to break from a fixation with the male gaze; a gesture that she describes as a means to claim agency, while still acknowledging the struggle against a patriarchal logic. Romeo, like many young female photographers of her generation, has been in­ fluenced by Second Wave Feminist critiques, most notably Laura Mulvey’s afore­ mentioned canonical writing on the male gaze and female representation in the cinema. In it, Mulvey introduces the term “male gaze” and critically explores how gendered power dynamics are evidenced, maintained and consumed in popular ci­ nematic representation.67 On her Tumblr blog Notes on the Divine, Notes on Despair, the photographer posts a mix of portraits and self-portraits that are inter­ spersed with written diaristic entries that poetically recount the intricacies and ban­ alities of her life. Romeo’s “selfies” are more self-consciously aesthetic than what we might associate with social media: they are beautifully lit, with warm and saturated tones, and sculptural light. Combined with the diary entries, Romeo’s self-portraits bring a sense of drama and melodramatic grandeur to the everydayness of life—which highlights the self-aggrandizing and myth-making force of the internet as a powerful means for self-definition and creative reinvention. However, the tension between the “selfie” and the self-portrait converges in her image-making practice in interesting ways, because, while feminist agency drives much of her work, the trivializing of the “selfie” tends to reduce or diminish her more heady aesthetic aspirations. That said, Romeo has always taken self-portraits, even though she rejects the term “selfie,” which for her has negative and belittling connotations: Selfies to me are something entirely different than self-portraiture, though technically they are exactly the same. I was surprised when I first heard the term, because it was voiced in a comment under a picture I posted on Instagram and phrased as an insult, “Ha, I never thought you would be the kind of girl to take selfies.” Which struck me as odd and made me feel embarrassed, and a part of me wanted to justify myself by claiming that I was a photographer and have been taking self-portraits since I was 7 years old and why couldn’t the person that left that comment just fuck off… I think the big shift for me between my work as an artist and whatever I post on Instagram is that the art is considered, has depth, is contextualized by themes and

112 Derek Conrad Murray metaphors that run throughout a body of work, while the Instagram stuff may look the same as my other work because I have a certain style, or are attracted to certain ways of lighting an image, but that the format doesn’t lend itself to profundity because my audience is preconceived before I even make an image – so there is no spontaneity – it is merely an advertisement68 (Figure 4.5).

Social Media Self-Fashioning and the “Selfie” as Political Activism While Romeo makes a distinction between the “selfie” and the self-portrait, Vivian Fu rejects this difference and therefore their work tends to blur the line between these designations. The enigmatic work of the Taiwanese-American photographer has in­ trigued me for over a decade and has been instrumental in my ever-evolving interest in internet-based forms of self-portraiture. Fu is part of an emergent generation of photographers that has developed almost exclusively within social media circles. Fu is a master at self-promotion and is keenly aware of the needs and interests of young women who spend considerable amounts of time online. Blogging culture has become an extremely powerful force that has created complex social networks and affiliations between individuals who, in most instances, live great distances from each other. In fact, one of the most remarkable features of blogging culture is the way that complete strangers—often separated by great geographic distances—form communities and lasting bonds that inspire creative collaboration.69 Fu has become known for her self-

Figure 4.5 Francesca Romeo, Self portrait at the bar, in between coasts, 2013. © [Francesca Romeo] Reproduced by permission of artist.

The Evolution of the Selfie 113 portrait work that focuses on her sexuality and her relationship with her Caucasian boyfriend, who she met while attending art school at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Fu, like many of her fellow female photographers, is obsessed with the work of Nan Goldin and seeks to create her own facsimile of the elder artist’s sa­ turated, gritty, realism and intimacy. Goldin’s snapshot, heroin-chic style, has be­ come the standard for lifestyle photography and hipster aesthetics of the internet generation. Fu’s photography bears a similarity to other young female artists of her generation like Petra Collins and Sandy Kim, both of whom are protégés of photo­ grapher Ryan McGinley.70 McGinley built his representation as a chronicler of youth culture, with his grainy, saturated images of young people who populated New York’s urban underworld. Blurring the lines between documentary, fine art, and fashion, McGinley perfected an aesthetic that could be defined as a type of sub­ cultural chic that has its roots in the photography of Larry Clark, Goldin, and the late artist Dash Snow (a friend and collaborator of McGinley). Working in a similar mode to her forebears and contemporaries, Fu shoots ex­ clusively in film, preferring the 35-mm point-and-shoot camera aesthetic. For more formal and conceptual work, she uses a medium format camera, however, like Romeo, she is extremely active on the social networking sight Instagram, sharing cell phone pics that document her life. It is her snapshot “selfie-style” self-portraits that have garnered the most attention—specifically the images that explore the intimacies of her romantic relationship. Fu is rather outspoken about the importance of the “selfie-style” self-portrait as a radical form of self-definition: one that enables for the undoing and interrogation of painful ethnic stereotypes: I have always been aware of racialized stereotypes. Self-portraiture became a way for me to own my identity as an Asian-American woman. I wasn’t really any of the representations of Asian women that were being shown to me, which were either highly submissive and infantilized or very aggressive femme fatale types, and really, those ideas of Asian women probably only really exist because they are archetypes made up by white dudes. I wanted to show myself as an Asian woman the way that I was that differed greatly from these pre-existing ideas about Asian women. I am also a sexual person and self-portraiture and the documentation of my romantic relationships was also a way to own my sexuality as MINE and not as something that was to bring my partner pleasure… …I want to show my strength and vulnerability, I want to be defiant of the visual imagery that I was presented with that sought to make me feel proud of my culture from the perspective of white men, whose sole intentions were to objectify and sexualize and eroticize me. I wanted to shake the ideas that were placed upon me and my body and my identity because my parents came from the east and my eyes were slanted and my skin is yellow that seemed to overshadow the person that I actually am. My photographs, although quiet, are my rebellion. During my early 20s in the mid 2000s to mid 2010s, I was very interested in selfportraiture as a means of speaking about issues relating to gender and representation – in my case, surrounding Asian-American female representation. This was during a time when representation of women in media was very limited, particularly of women like myself. Typically, Asian women were represented as secondary characters, usually best friends of the white protagonist. I also often

114 Derek Conrad Murray felt that these depictions were, although not ill-intentioned, one dimensional. At the time, I felt that these types of representations lead to a myriad of microaggressions and macroaggressions I experienced on a regular basis. As an adult, I felt very angry about the way people treated me, particularly when I remembered how people would interact with or speak to me as a teenager. It very much felt as if people saw me as an object of desire, and would speak to me that way, as if it wouldn’t be upsetting. These experiences informed why I was drawn to self-portraiture. I wanted to create my own narrative and to dispel the one I felt was already pre-determined for me by culture and media.71 Fu’s self-portrait work extends beyond “selfies” and snapshot-style images, into the realm of constructed narrative in her ongoing series, Asian Girls. The series was inspired by the artist’s discomfort around other Asian women, who she perceived as a threat and intrusion when among her predominantly white friends. In an interview, Fu stated that she was antagonistic and rejecting of her Chinese background in her youth, which she believed stemmed from feelings of internalized racism: I think that this was also sort of heightened by the fact that I had very few Asian friends growing up, mostly because I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, but also because I carried (and probably still do carry) some level of internalized racism. I think I viewed myself as “different” from the other Asian girls I knew because I at the time viewed myself as more “westernized” and interested in “white people stuff,” which was probably the product of some stupid juvenile rebellion against my parents which translated stupidly into rebellion against the culture that my parents tried to impart onto me.72 In the Asian Girls series, Fu takes full-color photographic portraits of herself with another Asian woman. Taken with the lushness of medium format film, the images are subtly evocative of hidden tensions between people of color that are engendered by societal racism. In each photo, Fu and her sitter gently touch each other: a gesture that, in another context, would seem benign, but here it represents a profound re­ jection of the forces of intolerance that create lasting divisions and self-hatreds. In Me and Yui, Castro, April 2014, Fu and a friend sit closely together on a porch, each gazing into the camera) (Figure 4.6). The mise-en-scene is purposefully mundane, but the interaction between the two youthful subjects conveys a tension that is palpable but not overtly articulated. It is a series about the subtleties and psychological complexities of intra-ethnic conflict. There is something extraordinary about Fu’s contradictory engagement with the gritty realism of Goldin, which she rearticulates as a young 20-something Asian woman’s assimilationist narrative—and her more po­ litically self-aware Asian Girls series, that seems to interrogate her own racial long­ ings. Even the aesthetic greatly differs between the two bodies of work. The documentary-style images have a DIY feel about them that compliments what ap­ pears to be a self-consciously hipstery documentation of her descent into the reckless abandon of subcultural whiteness. Grainy and often out-of-focus images of her heavily tattooed friends, nude self-portraits, and heavily saturated shots of domestic intimacy, populate her blog and professional website. However, the Asian Girls series has the pristine aesthetic of professional fine artwork: it is at once austere, in­ tellectual, and serious in its self-awareness.

The Evolution of the Selfie 115

Figure 4.6 Vivian Fu, Me and Yui, Castro, April 2014. © [Vivian Fu] Reproduced by per­ mission of the artist.

Carefully composed and conceptualized, the Asian Girls series has none of the overt sexuality that Fu plays with in her documentary-style work. She resists playing with stereotypes of Asian women, imaging her herself and her sitters with a hint of modesty and conservatism in dress. We see this in another image from the series entitled Me and Wenxin, Mission, April 2014 (Figure 4.7), a beautiful photograph of Fu and friend imaged frontally and standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Framed hor­ izontally, the image captures its two subjects as they peer downward at the camera. The visual effect creates a tone of defiance, willfulness, and strength, as the subjects’ gaze is directed seriously and imposingly at the viewer. Based in San Francisco, Fu utilizes the city in every shot, in this instance, a city block within the Mission neighborhood. In a sense, Fu and her subject are engulfed by congested buildings and power lines, but they still manage to convey an intensity that is imposing in its af­ fective resonance. The contrast between each series is exemplified in a photograph entitled Bruise, Mission, July 2014 (Figure 4.8), a cropped image of the artist lying on her stomach and skirt hiked up just enough to expose a large heart-shaped bruise. Her head fully cropped out of the image, Fu’s portrait is a take on Nan Goldin’s similarly composed 1980 photograph Heart-Shaped Bruise, NYC—though the

116 Derek Conrad Murray

Figure 4.7 Vivian Fu, Me and Wenxin, Mission, April 2014. © [Vivian Fu] Reproduced by permission of the artist.

younger artist’s reimagining is more self-consciously aesthetic and is reminiscent of the reclining nudes and Orientalist odalisques immortalized in the history of modern Western painting. The red and blue stripes of her blouse, bright purple skirt, and turquoise, black, and purple leopard-print panties, have a contrasting eloquence that appears more aware of its desire to find beauty in banality—yet, Fu is attempting to both construct and mythologize her physical attractiveness in such a manner that deviates dramatically from the psychological harshness of Goldin’s abjection.

Conclusion The philosopher Slavoj Žižek once said that fantasy is not about an individual creating a scenario in which they get everything they want. On the contrary, an in­ dividual’s fantasy is about creating a scenario in which “he or she is desired by others.”73 When Žižek uttered these words, he was thinking critically about the re­ lationship between ideology and popular cinema—however, his rather playful ex­ plication of fantasy continues to find resonance when I consider the self-imaging strategies of young women in the age of social media. The “selfie” is so often regarded as a form of narcissism in the Freudian sense: a perversion whereby an individual

The Evolution of the Selfie 117

Figure 4.8 Vivian Fu, Bruise, Mission, July 2014. © [Vivian Fu] Reproduced by permission of the artist.

“treats his own body in the same way in which the body of a sexual object is usually treated… he strokes and fondles it till he obtains complete satisfaction.”74 In its most pessimistic characterization, to take “selfies” is to stroke and fondle the self in a masturbatory display of self-aggrandizement. Freud’s pathologizing of narcissism was concerned with the relation between the ego and external objects—and we might surmise that popular understandings of the “selfie” suggest a dysfunctional taking of oneself as a sexual object as a means of achieving validation and pleasure. In “The Young-Girl as Technique of the Self,” Tiqqun asks, “What is pleasure?” It is an important query when considering the role of pleasure within the bizarre world of social media egoism—particularly the largely female driven landscape of “selfieladen” blogging culture, where the spectacle of female bodies is the dominant driving force. The visual power of online self-portraiture is rooted in a type of pleasure that is voraciously claimed: an oppositional desire and enjoyment in oneself as a response to a culture of devaluing and misrepresentation. Tiqqun suggests that “[t]here is nothing in the Young-Girl’s life, even in the deepest zones of her intimacy, that escapes alienated reflexivity, that escapes the codification and the gaze of the Spectacle…For the Young-Girl, what is most secret is also most public.”75 Vivian Fu’s photograph, Self Portrait Taking Selfie, perfectly embodies these notions in its self-conscious and highly constructed engagement with the artist’s own prolific and sexualized practice as a selfie-taker (Figure 4.9). Fu is well attuned to the public discourse on this mode of image-making, stating: “To me this photograph is about myself awareness in myself portraiture. This is about my performance of imaging

118 Derek Conrad Murray

Figure 4.9 Vivian Fu, Self Portrait Taking Selfie, December 2014. © [Vivian Fu] Reproduced by permission of artist.

myself, but also about controlling even the image of myself imaging myself.”76 Freud’s problematic formulation of narcissism—the idea of taking oneself as a sexual object—is only useful in its most cynical and judgmental dimensions—but it also allows just one entry point into the contemporary phenomenon of internet-based self-imaging. Fu’s intervention here is more satirical and more meaningfully holistic in its critique of a society dominated by an obsession with images. And it’s important to remember that Self Portrait Taking Selfie is not a “selfie” but rather a constructed narrative photo­ graphic tableau that wields its self-conscious mise-en-scene in the service of making a meta-commentary on what, for many, is actually a meaningful and thoughtfully rea­ lized gesture. The image plays with the fraught matrix of seeing and being seen that the late writer Susan Sontag wrote of in her influential book, On Photography.77 The “selfie” doesn’t simply comment upon a narcissistic need to see oneself in an idealized state, rather it makes one aware of the predatory nature of looking: the voyeurism in gazing at others and the implied pleasure in knowing that one is being gazed upon. As Neil Evernden recounts in his critical reassessment of On Photography, Sontag states the following: “there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To pho­ tograph people is to violate them… it turns people into objects that can be symbolically

The Evolution of the Selfie 119 78

possessed.” In this photo, Fu turns herself into an object to be viewed and adored, while simultaneously engaging in the predatory act of voyeurism. Like Žižek suggests in his thoughts on fantasy, Fu creates a scenario in which to be desired; but most importantly, she creates a scenario in which she can begin to desire herself. In their notes to self, the young female photographers discussed in this essay claim a representational agency that transcends the gender-specific slights and ideological trivializing of young women’s efforts to define themselves; to make themselves visible, in a cultural climate that continues to negate, ridicule, malign, and sexualize them. Maybe the “selfie” is an instinct of self-preservation: a survivorship reflex—and perhaps it is in the young woman’s representational contending with the most de­ humanizing conditions of late capitalism, that they are able to envision themselves anew and to transcend the depreciatory vision that is so often imposed upon them.

Notes 1 David Carr, “Selfies on a Stick, and the Social-Content Challenge for the Media,” The New York Times, January 4, 2015, sec. Business, business/media/selfies-on-a-stick-and-the-social-content-challenge-for-the-media.html. 2 Jenna Wortham, “My Selfie, Myself,” The New York Times, October 19, 2013, sec. Sunday Review, 3 Joan Acocella, “Selfie: How Big a Problem Is Narcissism,” The New Yorker, May 12, 2014, 4 Carr, “Selfies on a Stick, and the Social-Content Challenge for the Media.” 5 Lucy McCalmont, “Obama Takes Selfie with World Leaders,” POLITICO, December 10, 2013, 6 Christine Erickson, “Dear Obama: Funerals Are No Place for Selfies,” Mashable, December 10, 2013, 7 Melissa Walker, “The Good, the Bad, and the Unexpected Consequences of Selfie Obsession,” Teen Vogue, August 8, 2013, 8 Silvia Killingsworth, “And the Word of the Year Is…,” The New Yorker, November 19, 2013, 9 Kate Losse, “The Return of the Selfie,” The New Yorker, June 5, 2013, https:// 10 For popular culture references to the “selfie” phenomenon, see: Kim Kardashian, Kim Kardashian Selfish (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2014). The television show Selfie show original run was scheduled for September to December in 2014, but was canceled by ABC on November 7, 2014. Kevin Fallon, “‘Selfie’ Is Both a Brilliant and Terrible TV Show,” The Daily Beast, September 30, 2014, sec. entertainment, https:// 11 Tiqqun (Collective) and Ariana Reines, eds., Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, Semiotext(e) Intervention Series 12 (Los Angeles: Cambridge, MA: Semiotext (e); Distributed by MIT Press, 2012). 12 Susie Khamis, Lawrence Ang and Raymond Welling, “Self-branding, ‘Micro-celebrity’ and the rise of Social Media Influencers,” Celebrity Studies 8, no. 2 (2017): 191–208. 13 Khamis, Ang and Welling, “Self-branding, ‘Micro-celebrity’ and the rise of Social Media Influencers,” 191. 14 Ibid., 196. 15 Ibid., 199. 16 Joshua Gamson, “The Unwatched Life Is Not Worth Living: The Elevation of the Ordinary in Celebrity Culture,” PMLA 126, no. 4 (October 2011): 1061–1069. 17 Gamson, “The Unwatched Life Is Not Worth Living,” 1069. 18 Konrad Ng, “Online Asian American Popular Culture, Digitization, and Museums,” in

120 Derek Conrad Murray

19 20 21

22 23 24 25

26 27 28 29

30 31



Global Asian American Popular Culture, eds. Shilpa Davé, Leilani Nishime, Tasha Oren (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 139. Ibid. Ibid. Key studies include Lisa Nakamura, Digitizing Race: Visual Culture of the Internet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008); Lisa Nakamura and Peter ChowWhite, eds., Race after the Internet (New York: Routledge, 2012); and Kent Ono and Vincent Pham, Asian Americans and the Media (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2009); Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “Race and/as Technology, or How to Do Things to Race,” in Nakamura and Chow-White, Race after the Internet, 38. Ng, 139. Ibid. Vanessa Hong, “A Moment with Vanessa Hong,” in Live the Process, December 18, 2019. For a comprehensive and fascinating breakdown of post-feminism’s emergence in in­ tellectual culture, see Elaine J. Hall and Marnie Salupo Rodriguez, “The Myth of Postfeminism,” Gender and Society 17, no. 6 (2003): 878–902. The authors unpack the origins of the term post-feminism as it was introduced and eventually debated within popular media circles of the 1908s. In their analysis of past debates, the authors identify four postfeminist claims: support for the feminist movement has dramatically eroded; many women are becoming increasingly anti-feminist; there is an increasing sentiment that the movement is irrelevant; a new version of feminism has emerged that breaks from the past. Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, eds., Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 2. Tasker and Negra, 2. Thelma Golden, “Post…,” in Freestyle (New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2001), 14. For critiques of post-blackness, see: Houston A. Baker and Merinda Simmons, eds., The Trouble with Post-Blackness (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015) Baker et al argue that the term “post-black” represents the post-racial aspirations of an entitled black elite. The popular book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What it Means to Be Black Now by Touré inspired Baker’s collection of essays. Touré argues that popular notions of blackness are too rigidly defined; creating a notion of racial authenticity that excludes and demeans large segments of the African-American community. Despite Touré having never claimed a post-racial stance, there is a growing discourse that characterizes his arguments in such a manner. Golden, “Post…,” 14–15. Hall and Rodriguez, “The Myth of Postfeminism”; Chris Holmlund, “Postfeminism from A to G,” Cinema Journal 44, no. 2 (2005): 116–21; Michelle S. Bae, “Interrogating Girl Power: Girlhood, Popular Media, and Postfeminism,” Visual Arts Research 37, no. 2 (2011): 28–40, Various scholars have studied the phenomenon of young women actively participating in online social media culture in the twenty-first century. One notable example is Schuster, who in her study of young women’s online activism and feminist engagement in New Zealand, argues that there is a generational divide that separates young women from Second and Third Wave Feminism. She further suggests that the technological divide be­ tween generations, has the effect of concealing young women’s political participation from older feminists who are disconnected from internet culture. Blogging culture and social media platforms like Facebook thus enable young women to connect despite significant geographic distances and demographic differences. For an example of a popular blog on the social media platform Tumblr, see: Margot Darling, Having amassed a significant following on social media, Margot regularly posts selfies depicting herself nostalgically as a 1950s-era pinup. Heavily adorned in theatrical makeup and costuming, she often poses in lingerie and other provocative outfits—while also discussing fashion, grooming, makeup routines, sex, and the daily banalities of her life.

The Evolution of the Selfie 121 34 Julia Schuster, “Invisible Feminists? Social Media and Young Women’s Political Participation,” Political Science 65, no. 1 (June 1, 2013): 8–24, 0032318713486474. 35 Tasker and Negra, Interrogating Postfeminism, 3. 36 Chris Bobel and Judith Lorber, New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2010); Emma Arvida Bystrom, “There Will Be Blood,” Vice, May 17, 2012,; Kira Cochrane, “It’s in the Blood,” The Guardian, October 1, 2009, http://; Morgan Hecht, “Sm{art}: 5 Menstrual Blood Artists/Projects Worth Seeing,” Bitch Media, March 28, 2012, 37 Carlos Santolalla, “Art Star Sandy Kim Is On the Rise,” Paper Magazine, October 16, 2013,; Ariel Zambelich, “Sandy Kim Puts Fresh Spin on Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll (NSFW),” Wired, May 9, 2012,; Patrick McGuire, “Chatting with Petra Collins About Her Menstruating-Vagina Shirt,” Vice, December 8, 2013, https:// 38 Frank Bruni, “A Grope and a Shrug: Dov Charney, American Apparel and Sexual Harassment,” The New York Times, June 30, 2014, sec. Opinion, https://; Meghan Daum, “American Apparel’s Ick,” Los Angeles Times, August 25, 2007,; Michael Hiltzik, “American Apparel Saga: Why Did It Take So Long To Sack Dov Charney?,” Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2014, la-fi-mh-dov-charney-20140620-column.html; Jessica Misener, “American Apparel ‘Sexualizes’ Child Models, Rules Britain’s ASA,” HuffPost, December 5, 2012, https://; Rheana Murray, “American Apparel Ad Banned in UK for Sexualizing ‘Model Who Appeared to Be a Child,’” The New York Daily News, December 14, 2012, https:// 8; Mark Sweney, “American Apparel Ads Banned for Using Overtly Sexual Images,” The Guardian, April 10, 2013,; Emma Tilda, “American Apparel Ads Take Female Objectification To New Heights (And Skirt Lengths To An All-Time Low),” Bust, August 11, 2014, http:// 39 Sean O’Hagan and Susie Bright, “Nan Goldin: ‘I Wanted to Get High from a Really Early Age,’” The Guardian, March 23, 2014, mar/23/nan-goldin-photographer-wanted-get-high-early-age. 40 Greg T. Spielberg, “How Sex on Tumblr Will Change Media,” Nerve, June 14, 2013, 41 Laura Mulvey, “A Phantasmagoria of the Female Body,” in Cindy Sherman, eds. JeanPierre Criqui and Régis Durand (Paris: Flammarion/Jeu de Palme, 2006), 285. 42 Mulvey, 285. 43 For an in-depth critical unpacking of Cindy Sherman’s influence on younger generations of female photographers, see Jennifer Dalton et al., “Look at Me: Self-Portrait Photography after Cindy Sherman,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 22, no. 3 (2000): 47–56, Dalton explores the evolution of performative selfportraiture as a conceptual gesture that many female photographers wield as a politically urgent and oppositional manner. 44 In her exploration of late artist Hannah Wilke’s [who died in 1993] photographic work documenting her battle her cancer, Amelia Jones locates a turn in performative selfportraiture away from a male gaze-centric critical approach, towards a very personal in­ vestigation into death and the complexities of identity (2002). For additional writing on

122 Derek Conrad Murray



47 48 49

50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69

feminist self-portrait photography in the postmodern age, see Ina Lowenberg, “Reflections on Self-Portraiture in Photography,” Feminist Studies 25, no. 2 (1999): 398–408. Glenn Adamson, The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World, ed. Anna C. Chave and Robert Cozzolino (Philadelphia: Marquand Books, 2013); Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Aruna D’Souza and Tom McDonough, eds., The Invisible Flâneuse? Gender, Public Space, and Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris, Critical Perspectives in Art History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008). As evidenced in online journalism and blogging circles online, there is a growing sentiment among young self-proclaimed feminists that the notion “male gaze” is outmoded and should be abandoned. The argument is that women should resist an over-fixation with the power dynamics and gendered complexities of male viewing—in favor of a more assertive claiming of female agency. See Maria X. Liu, “Obstructing the Male Gaze in a GazeDependent Culture,” HuffPost, 24:03 500, Amelia Jones, “Postfeminism, Feminist Pleasures, and Embodied Theories of Art,” in New Feminist Criticism: Art, Identity, Action (New York: Icon Editions, 1993), 25. Jones, 25. Cynthia Freeland, “Portraits in Painting and Photography,” Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition. Vol 1. 135, No. 1, Proceedings of the Thirty-Seventh Oberlin Colloquium in Philosophy: Aesthetics (August 2007): p. 95. Ibid., 97. Ibid., 98. Amelia Jones, “The Eternal Return: Self-Portrait Photography as a Technology of Embodiment,” Signs 27, no. 4 (Summer 2002): 948, Ibid. Ibid., 949. Ibid., 950. Ibid., 971. Deborah Irmas, “This is Not A Selfie” in This Is Not A Selfie: Photographic Self-Portraits from the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection. San Jose Museum of Art (2017), 8. Ibid., 12. Mehita Iquani and Jonathan E. Schroeder, “#selfie: digital self-portraits as commodity form and consumption practice,” Consumption Markets & Culture 19 (2015): 8. Ibid., 1. Francesca Romeo, Mars, 2009, 26-page catalog with documentary film DVD, edition of 50, 2009. Francesca Romeo, Elegy, 2009, 54-page catalog, edition of 50, 2009. From interview with Romeo 2010. Jones, “The ‘Eternal Return’: Self‐Portrait,” 947–78. Joanne Leonard, “Being in (Feminist) Pictures,” Feminist Review 99, no. 1 (November 1, 2011): 98–105, 7/fr.2011.40. Sheryl Garratt, “The Dark Room,” The Guardian, January 6, 2002, http://www. From interview with Romeo 2010. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Visual and Other Pleasures (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), 14–30. From interview with Romeo September 25, 2013. For a detailed investigation into feminist blogging and politically engaged social media activity by young women in New Zealand, see Schuster. Schuster charts the growing po­ pularly of the internet as a forum for feminist activity, although she suggests that a divide is growing between elder (Second Wave) and younger (Third Wave) feminists, due in large part by the latter’s embrace of technology. Schuster also explores the internet (and social media) as a means for young feminists to build online communities and to develop a sense of belongingness.

The Evolution of the Selfie 123 70 Nate Freeman, “Ryan McGinley, the Pied Piper of the Downtown Art World,” The New York Times, November 20, 2013, sec. Fashion, fashion/Ryan-McGinleys-Apprentices-cool-kids-in-the-downtown-art-scene.html. 71 From interview with photographer Vivian Fu on September 28, 2013 and March 25, 2021. 72 From interview with photographer Vivian Fu on September 28, 2013. 73 Sophie Fiennes, The Perverts Guide to Ideology, Documentary (Zeitgeist Films, 2012). 74 Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” in Freud’s “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” eds. Joseph Sandler, Ethel Spector Person, and Peter Fonagy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 3. 75 Tiqqun (Collective) and Reines, Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, 48. 76 From interview with Fu February 14, 2015. 77 Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 2001). 78 Neil Evernden, “Seeing and Being Seen: A Response to Susan Sontag’s Essays on Photography,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 68, no. 1 (1985): 73.


How Selfies Think: The Cognitive Dimensions of Digital Photography Kyle Parry

In thinking through the rise of selfies, it is tempting to try to say something essential and enduring. We might, for instance, attempt to pin down what selfies basically are. We might say: although selfies take many different forms, they are, at the end of the day, those self-authored images we post on social media in order to make ourselves present in a public way.1 Alternatively, in more theoretical fashion, we might attempt to pin down what selfies tell us about digital culture. We might say: although selfies play many roles in people’s lives, they ultimately point to something important about the recent democratization of photography. Visual power has inverted. We now make our own image.2 Of course, the reality of things frustrates such attempts at distillation. With regard to establishing what selfies basically are, for instance, it might have once been the case that selfies were mainly about public self-presentation. Now, however, many selfies involve making other people (as well as one’s relationships with other people) present. Not only that, quite a few selfies, maybe even most of them, never make it to public media channels. Instead, they stay hidden in personal camera rolls, or they are shared in texts, snaps, and direct messages, whether to evoke an emotion, document an event, communicate a reaction, or seduce. Selfies are, in other words, far less individual, far less public, and far more varied than we might think. A similar critique could apply to the second example of attempted distillation—selfies as democratization (or what André Gunthert calls “autonomization”).3 Although this is an enticing notion, it also seems fair to insist that selfies are increasingly caught up in systems of exploitation and extraction. Indeed, as with any kind of digital photograph, the capacity of states and corporations to condition who and what and where and how frequently we make and share images looms large.4 So too do the habits and expectations of more ephemeral figures like trolls and influencers.5 My point is not that it is wrong to generalize about selfies. It is that the subject of selfies is, like most contemporary cultural subjects, much more uneven and unwieldy than our usual modes of criticism and analysis are prepared to admit. Selfie essentialism is selfie rhetoric rather than selfie truth. Making this point could seem a bit ornery. (Indeed, couldn’t we say this about any topic? And here I am saying it with regard to something as frequently light-hearted as digital self-imaging.) I don’t open with it in order to dismiss the many essays that offer singular theses on selfies; I do so in order to defend the somewhat eccentric form of inquiry I pursue in these pages. I, too, am seeking to shed light on the phenomenon of selfies. I, too, am after a worthwhile “take.” But just as selfies tend to defy impulses toward essentialism, so too does the topic this chapter puts on the table: thinking. Are DOI: 10.4324/9780367206109-5

How Selfies Think 125 there reliable definitions of thinking? Yes. Have essays offered useful theses on thought, cognition, and mind? Of course. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of thinking remains subject to widely varying interpretations. Is thinking, for instance, that special thing we do when we put the whole world in question, or is this merely an elitist fantasy that restricts the act to a privileged few? Is it admissible to claim that nonhuman organisms think, or does this idea stretch the definition of thought beyond recognition? Acknowledging the difficulty and abundance of questions like these shouldn’t have us running the other way, nor should it have us pushing onward with fundamentalist takes. It should have us fashioning avowedly pluralist taxonomies. And that is exactly what I do here. I frame selfies in three different ways: as reflexive, as generative, and as mindless. And I call upon three different concepts of thinking in the process: anticipatory, distributed, and critical.

Selfies as Traces of the Thought to Take a Selfie There is at least one way we must frame selfies. It is to say that a selfie is a type of photograph with a novel feature. That feature is relatively simple: the selfie includes some trace of the one taking (some would say receiving) the photograph.6 That trace is usually the selfie-taker’s face. It could also be the front half of their body, with or without the face, such as in a gym mirror, or it could be one or the other part of the body, such as toes, as in a “beach feet brag” or in any number of other, more esoteric selfie types. The trace might even be something right next to the body, such as a notepad in which one is writing, close enough to count as a trace of the self. In any case, at the heart of any selfie deserving the name, even when other people (or other creatures) join in, is the fact of making a photograph that includes some visible trace of the photographer. That gesture is the difference that makes a difference. It is what makes selfies selfies. Now, concerned as I am with the practice of thinking in relation to digital photography, my response to this framing of selfies has to be to ask whether there are any significant relationships between this defining feature of selfies—the self having made a photograph that includes a trace of the self—and the phenomenon of thinking. There is at least one such relationship. We needn’t rely on any scientific or philosophical account of thinking to see it. We can simply build on certain thought-based accounts of how creative acts come into being. Especially pertinent are these words from the novelist Toni Morrison: Writing for me is thinking, and it’s also a way to position myself in the world, particularly when I don’t like what’s going on… I wrote the first book because I wanted to read it. I thought that kind of book, with that subject—those most vulnerable, most undescribed, not taken seriously little black girls—had never existed seriously in literature. No one had ever written about them except as props. Since I couldn’t find a book that did that, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll write it and then I’ll read it.’ It was really the reading impulse that got me into the writing thing.7 What we can draw from these words isn’t an idea that selfie-takers pursue their projects of photographic production with the same zeal and moral clarity as the great author. It is that the cultural artifacts we make and share are traces of the

126 Kyle Parry thoughts—however, carefully or minimally thought-through—that these cultural artifacts ought to exist. And what we can then say about selfies is that they exhibit this general quality in a slightly more intensive way. That is, they are a type of expressive object that especially exhibits their having been thought. Selfies are traces of the thought to take a selfie (that particular kind of photograph). They are also traces of the thought to take this selfie (the photograph that eventuates in whatever way it does).8 I can say this all again but in a different way. Think of certain quite ordinary selfies. (I think, for instance, of photographs of people grinning for their followers because they have finally arrived somewhere they have long wanted to go, like the top of a mountain or a Beyoncé concert.) As much as such selfies contain some trace of the self photographing, they also serve as an index of that self thinking to produce such an image. The selfie is, in part, the thought there embodied. This is not to say that the why of the photograph—its reason for being—is clear and legible in the photograph. (Without very particular captions, the why is rarely clear, and of course many captions contain their fair share of embellishments.) This also isn’t to say that the selfietaker thought about the photograph in a deep way. (With selfies, in most cases, they probably didn’t.) It is to say that, between the characteristic trace of the self and the prototypical smiling face, selfies carry the trace of the thought in an especially noticeable way. We read the photo as a visual document of that self (and of whomever or whatever else is its subject). But we also read the photo as that self’s thought to take (and share) both a selfie and this particular selfie. The thought of the image, or at least the question of the thought of the image, is there with this image of the self that had (or, in some cases, was subject to) the thought. Part of the significance of this cognitive dimension of selfies is evident when we invoke something Morrison herself invokes in 2015. The statement comes amid a response to a question from the critic Hilton Als about what it was like for Morrison to write a book on the contemporary world, which was a departure. Morrison says, I couldn’t write about now, I felt, because it was so… slippery. There was no—it wasn’t definite enough. Until I thought, I realized, that what was very definitive about now is so powerfully, powerfully self-reverential. Selfies. Look at me! Novels about me. Stories about me.9 What we hear in Morrison’s account of her writerly thinking is the most ready-athand way in which selfies have been interpreted. They are emblems of collective selfreverence. They are narcissism framed. It is part of the significance of the feature I am identifying—this way in which selfies are traces of the thought to take a/this selfie—that it feeds into exactly that perception. We see, in other words, a key part of why they seem so self-involved. This is because they transmit an impression of a redoubled and durable solipsism (the theory that the self is all that can be known to exist). After all, there is not only the self looking at the self, as in the classic narcissistic image, but there is also the self taking and sharing a visual object (and attendant text) that announces the thought to image (and share the image of) the self imaging the self. Indeed, it is as though photography were manifestly philosophical for the first time, and that philosophical quality consisted in a visual performance of the meme worthy Cartesian declaration, “I think, therefore I am.” (Sure enough, among the many attempted hot takes and click bait titles around selfies, there is

How Selfies Think 127 exactly the play on words we would expect: “I selfie therefore I am.”) My point is not that this is true, that selfies reveal themselves with narcissistic and solipsistic views of self and world. It is that selfies, by virtue of this specific, pervasive quality, make this image of endless loops of self-concern and self-centered activity all the more available. When critics argue against the essentialist view of selfies as narcissism—a welcome argument, in my view—part of what they struggle against is the force of this particular feature. The significance of this feature of selfies—their indexing their having been thought into existence—doesn’t stop there. It can also feed into ideas quite removed from an overriding impression of narcissism and solipsism. I look to a particular digital visual artifact for evidence. It is a Pinterest board made by the writer and researcher Nancy Tolson.10 (Pinterest is, as of 2020, a platform that allows users to pin images they discover or upload to shareable, self-curated boards.) Clicking into the board, one first perceives a gridded display of selfies, several dozen at first, and several more dozen if one scrolls down. What one sees on closer inspection is surprising. In one image after another, the selfie-taker, most often alone, but sometimes with someone else, displays for the camera one or more books. The title of the board, “We Need Diverse Books Selfies,” indicates the types of books we see. Tolson elaborates: To promote the true visibility of diverse books across this country I have made a request for Book Selfies. This page will celebrate books that are written (and if it is a children’s picture book - illustrated) by a person of color. This collection will continue to grow. My goal is 400 Book Selfies by February 30th (LOL). Solo selfies, friend selfies, class selfies, or family selfies.11 As this last sentence indicates, the mix of selfies is indeed diverse in kind. There are many in which people smile in prototypical selfie fashion. There are poses in which books partly cover faces. There are children of color. There are children’s books about Black and brown lives. And there are some images in which the person photographing looks quite reserved. In one case, the selfie-taker covers half their face with a collection of Audre Lorde essays and speeches titled Sister Outsider. And in another the photographer obscures the lower half of their face with a page bearing a photograph of Morrison and the first line of her most famous novel, Beloved. That novel opens by introducing the ghost named for the number of the house she haunts, the place where her mother, who was escaping slavery, took her life: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” What is the thought-related thing we see in an artifact like this? Consider an alternative board with the same theme. It would likewise take the name We Need Diverse Books (the name is drawn from the movement and attendant nonprofit organization that centers on diversity in children’s literature). But, rather than selfies with books, it would only show photographs of books. Such a board could be interesting and useful. But it would lack what Horton’s board activates by way of selfies. Much of what is activated has little to do with thought as such: expressiveness, individuality, personality, the appeal of faces, the sense of joy and abandon, some sense of who is reading these books, what they look like, how they dress, how they like to take selfies. But one crucial dimension is distinctly cognitive. Each of these selfies is an index of the thought to take this selfie for this project, which is, part and parcel, the thought to endorse Holton’s original thought. The full fabric of each given

128 Kyle Parry thought—the reasoning, the concept, the interpretation—is not available to us. What is available is both the individual register—the trace of the thought—and the consequential co-appearance of one register after another in this digital visual assembly. It matters that this gathering of photographic thoughts is highly particular. It matters that these thoughts melded not only with self and scene but also with title and author and cover, each of these themselves registers of thoughts to write these books, in this way, at this time. Morrison tells us that writing is thinking, and that it can be a way to position oneself in the world, especially when one doesn’t like what is going on. Here we see the way in which selfies index their takers’ own flows of photographic and social thinking, now directed toward a charismatic and affecting display of collective thinking. The board is the result of a thought, however explicitly thought through, that selfies provides a means through which various people can collectively position themselves in a world they find insufficiently inclusive and unjust. The board positions the selves as immersed in their own thinking and that of others as well. Part of what these selfies say is that we need diverse images like we need diverse books. They also say it matters that these particular people here think as much. And they argue it matters that you think so, too. Selfies as a trace of the thought to take a selfie (and this selfie)—it is important to conclude this first framing of selfies qua thought by addressing two objections to what I am saying. In one sense, someone might claim I am ignoring the cultures of hyperself-reverence in which many selfie-takers participate. And in another sense, one might claim I am advancing an unrealistic picture of cultural and photographic freedom—as though whatever photographs we produced were strictly the result of our isolated and considered cognizing. But neither of these is the case. For one thing, as other writers have argued, the self-directed things selfies offer, such as selfreverence and self-exploration, are not necessarily bad; in fact, they are quite often good, and they can be highly enabling and empowering. Secondly, these kinds of objections misread my focus. My emphasis in this first of three framings of selfies qua thought is an apparently unnamed confluence of signification and thought that selfies distinctly exhibit—this way in which, even when they are hardly thought through, selfies signal their having been thought. My first point was that this aspect of selfies feeds into the perception of selfies as an inherently self-involved phenomenon. And my second point was that this feature also does something quite different from that: it has a role to play in digital photography serving to mobilize collective thinking and positioning. I’ll close with one more thought. It is not just possible but highly probable that the selfies we think to make, even those that seem most intensively self-involved, are not, in fact, selfies we think to make on our own. Indeed, we are creatures that think and act under circumstances of inevitable and considerable constraint.12 We live confusion; we live cooptation; we live coercion. (Maybe part of what makes the culture of self-imaging so divisive is the way it stages the contradictions of selfhood.) Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly important to recognize that photography in the hands of networked publics is undeniably awake, aware, and alive. My suggestion is that the cognitive dimensions of photography—dimensions which are embodied in a direct way by the selfie as a trace of the self that thought this photograph ought to be—are a deep indication of this. The thought to produce a certain kind of photograph comes to someone (or someone has the thought that an accidental act of selfimaging is worth sharing), and that thought then becomes others’ in other moments

How Selfies Think 129 as well. The thought that went into taking and sharing exactly this photo is revealed in the block of annotative language that, in the past, would rarely been attached. My feed of photographs is partly an accident of events and circumstances, but it is also an ongoing reflection of my conception of what my followers think I can, should, and will offer them, or it is a reflection of the degree to which my thoughts about my photographs are not really my own but really have to do with what others now think is necessary, valuable, or profitable.13 Between these dynamics of thought and many others, we come to the unexpected idea that thought pervades photographic practices in the networked era. Conceiving the possible, reconceiving the necessary, questioning the given—in intensive and passing ways, such operations of thought are a digital photographic constant. Image sharing is also thought sharing.

Selfies as Part of What One Is Saying to That Other Self That Is Just Coming into Life in the Flow of Time Selfies are traces of the thought to take a selfie. This is among the more ready-at-hand ways of interpreting selfies. It derives from a contemplation of the ones we see circulating through public social media channels. A second important way of interpreting selfies has a very different source. It is those selfies that do not end up circulating widely, if at all. These are the selfies that stay put in camera rolls, or that we upload to hard drives before deleting them off our phones, or that we only share in ephemeral snaps. Prototypically such selfies would be the ones in which we do not look quite right by one measure or another. (Not tough enough, not pretty enough, not queer enough, not happy enough, not sad enough, not Christian enough, not socialist enough, not ironic enough—whatever the case may be.) But there could be other reasons that these photos do not travel. Maybe they are not worth sharing, but they seem worth keeping. Or maybe they are not worth sharing, but you would have occasion to share them with somebody else at some point (especially if they were to look at the selfie as you held up your phone, and they were therefore not able to share that selfie with someone else). In any case, these are the selfies that stay, as it were, “cloistered.” My contention is that these cloistered selfies point to a second significant relationship between selfies and thought: selfies aren’t just traces of thoughts; they can themselves be thoughts. It’s a strange thing to say. One doesn’t get to the idea by cloistered selfies alone. One has to also reframe thinking itself. As I indicated before, there is no shortage of concepts of thinking across scholarly fields. The relevant reframing of thinking in this case is found in two sentences written by Charles Sanders Peirce, the philosopher more often cited in visual studies for his concepts of index, icon, and symbol. Peirce starts by making a philosophical claim against the monism of selves. (Monism involves ascribing a quality of oneness to a given something.) Peirce writes: “[A] person is not absolutely an individual.” He then proposes one means through which the only partial individuality of the self can be discerned. It involves seeing the thinking self in a new light. Peirce tells us that a person’s “thoughts are what he [sic] is ‘saying to himself,’ that is, is saying to that other self that is just coming into life in the flow of time.”14 The claim has been cited many times across philosophy and semiotics. One useful instance is Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond

130 Kyle Parry the Human. Having just quoted the pair of sentences, Kohn expands on Peirce’s claim: Because all experiences and all thoughts, for all selves, are semiotically mediated, introspection, human-to-human intersubjectivity, and even trans-species sympathy and communication are not categorically different. They are all sign processes. For Peirce, the Cartesian cogito, the “I think,” is not exclusively human, nor is it housed inside the mind, nor does it enjoy any exclusive or unmediated purchase on its most intimate object: the self that we commonly think of as the one doing our thinking.15 What I like about Kohn’s elaboration is that he uses the reframing to effectively redistribute thought. We might think thinking is something stuck inside the individual. But it is a “semiotic”—sign-driven— process. It is sign exchange. Thinking certainly takes place at and within the site of the self, but it is better understood as spread across space and time as well as other people and other creatures. For present purposes, I’ll hold on to this idea from Kohn while also adding a further emphasis. Peirce is not only calling attention to the non-individuality of the self and the distributed nature of thinking. (Notably, the latter idea is taken up in the field of distributed cognition.)16 He is also calling attention to the highly dialogic nature of thinking. It is highly dialogic because it involves many kinds of communicative back and forths between selves and others. There is self engaged in its inner monologue that is not actually a monologue—self to new self to new self. There is self in engaged in outer dialogue—world to self to new self to world, or page to self to new self to page, or phone to self to new self to phone. And there are all those unplaceable mixes, which is many things “said” at once, not in some neat way, but in untidy and unpredictable cascades. In any case, meld this angle on thinking with Kohn’s and Peirce’s, and what you get is a lively picture of internal and external worlds engaged in vast dramas of incessant thought exchange among a vast array of entities. Thinking is pervasive, mediated, signifying dialogue. That these philosophical turns of mind should occasion an assertion that selfies can themselves be thoughts—this is not obvious at first blush. To see how this is so, we return to the kind of selfie with which I began, what I am somewhat playfully calling the cloistered selfie. This kind of selfie cues something that widely shared kinds don’t. It cues the iterative process that takes place apart from public display. This is the process of selves taking, retaking, viewing, and reviewing their digital self-images. We have just seen how thinking can be understood as an open-ended choreography of selves engaged in message exchange with selves, others, and the surrounding world. If we accept that proposition, it isn’t a leap to posit selfies playing a role in that thinking process as well. How is this so? One basic but not therefore insignificant thing is that we can have this or that new thought inspired by an old, unshared selfie. (Indeed, a selfie can even serve as a stage for that timeless thought that it is strange to be here in this world.) A more elusive angle on selfies as participants in cognition involves holding to the Peircean and Kohnian concepts of thinking qua distribution and exchange among selves and others. Should we think from this angle, we will hold to the admittedly strange idea that the selfie has a cognitive capacity. Like a thought, it participates in thinking without itself being a thinker. Selfies think, just not in the way we think.

How Selfies Think 131 Partly because of the problem of other minds, and partly because of the confines of my humanistic training, I can’t now proceed to reliably illustrate how iterative selfie thinking plays out for others. What I can do, however—albeit at the risk of publishing something cringe-worthy—is speak from my own experience. I have a single selfie in mind. I thought to take it somewhere around 4:53 pm on March 14, 2019. It was added to my phone at 4:54 pm. I’m at the southern entrance to UC Berkeley, where I studied as an undergraduate. I’m holding my five-month-old daughter in my right arm. She is lightly touching her mouth, looking out at something off camera. I’m gazing into the front-facing camera lens. I’m squinting a bit, not smiling, not scowling. Visible behind us are some students, some trees, some bikes, and the eastern edge of the Student Union. The light is pleasant. Now, I don’t put this selfie on the table because it is remarkable (it isn’t). I put it on the table because I can use it to think through what it is like to see a selfie as a thought. First things first, it is clear that, if this selfie is a thought, it is not a simple one. (Think, by contrast, of a clearer thought, spurred by seeing someone take a selfie at a funeral: “Photography is everywhere now!”) No: if this selfie is a thought, then it has to be a thought of a different kind. It is a contingent confluence of thoughts, most of which stay still and obscure, some of which, in this case at least, achieve a kind of hidden transit between image and mind, and one of which is quite pronounced. Those that seem to achieve transit are mostly about me and directed at me. (You were here. You should remember this. You have a daughter. You were a student. You look tired. You were lucky. You forgot so many of their names. You are there in this photo but not there anymore. You didn’t know what you would become then. You had more poetic days then. You have more poetic days now.) Others among the mobile thoughts are fragmented and seemingly directionless. (Polka dots for a backpack, children interested in certain things at certain ages, trees I cannot name, the lack of fear about taking such photos, the question of narcissism, the uses of student centers, showing this to my daughter someday, my daughter being happy about it, my daughter not being happy about it.) And the one pronounced thought that effectively links all of these is both personal and public. It is the thought that I see a self—myself—that has come into being here, or that is at least on its way to arriving. This is the self that is no longer of this place where he is. He is elsewhere. He is a parent, a father, a person with a young person. The thought doesn’t go much further. It is simply that: the fact of a new parent held in a self-image with a held child. For reasons that will become clear, I’ll quickly veer to a thinker who managed to speak of himself and photography with verve, namely Roland Barthes. What matters in Barthes for present purposes is not that he speaks of self-imaging in his oft-cited book on photography, Camera Lucida. He doesn’t. What matters is that Barthes, maybe unwittingly, offers a book’s worth of evidence that photographs do indeed think in the way I am proposing. Although not providing direct statements to this effect, Barthes constantly and convincingly engages photographs and photography through the lens of thought. Examples are several. Photography, he writes, is subversive “not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.”17 The essence of photography is, in Barthes’ vocabulary, its “noeme,” which is a term derived from the ancient Greek word for thought, perception, idea, or concept. The single photograph from which he finally derives this thought, namely the “Winter Garden” photograph of his mother that he does not publish, is a photograph that induces in him a desire to “outline the loved face”—the

132 Kyle Parry face of his mother—“by thought, to make it into the unique field of an intense observation.”18 The noeme he identifies is itself a kind of thought; it is that every photograph “says” of its subject That-has-been. There are yet other ways that Camera Lucida gives us photography as thought.19 But the upshot is already visible. I am not alone in finding that photographs serve as part of what one is saying to that other self that is just coming into life in the flow of time. Barthes, concerned as he was with certain cloistered photographs, says the same. And this thought—in a gesture Barthes might have opposed had he lived to see the rise of selfies—is now the noeme I hear in my self-image with my daughter. What is the broader significance of this additional way of seeing selfies? One important thing is that we are in a position to slightly shift the way we go about, as Kohn puts it, “understanding relating.”20 Kohn tells us that the implications of a Peircean approach to thought and self are as follows: “There is no inherent difference between the associations of living thoughts that constitute the living thinking knowing self and those by which different kinds of selves might relate and thereby form associations.” With cloistered selfies as the focus, I would rework Kohn’s assessment and say this for selfies: “There is no clear borderline between the associations of living thoughts that animate the living thinking knowing self and those by which certain kinds of photographs, such as selfies, might speak and thereby form associations.” Such a perspective has the potential to change not just how we see but also how we make and engage selfies.21 It is also quite possible, of course, that that perspective will fall away at the next notification. In that case, a potential for selfphotographic thought exchange fails to take hold. Too many other exchanges, thought and un-thought, are taking place. Nevertheless, there is good reason to think subversively pensive photographs are still possible, even if not always necessary or desirable.

Selfies as Thoughtless Say what you will about selfies as thoughts, they are pretty damn thoughtless most of the time. This is a thought I can’t shake. It is a thought I shouldn’t shake. After all, at least at the time of writing, the Internet welcomes ever-more evidence to that effect on a millisecond by millisecond basis. I expect most readers already have examples in mind. These would be those moments in which selfies seem like the embodiment of what John Tagg calls “mindless photography.”22 Exhibit A might be the everexpanding list of “selfie-related injuries and deaths” listed on the eponymous Wikipedia page as of 2019. (These include death by electrocution, mauling, and falling. The fact that the number of selfie-related deaths per year now exceeds sharkrelated deaths made headlines.) Exhibit B might be the staggering quantity of jovial selfies taken at memorial sites and shared to public social media accounts. A notorious project called Yolocaust replaced the backgrounds of smiling selfies taken at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin with horrific images from the camps.23 (I’ll say more about this below.) And what we might call Exhibit Xn might be a more heterogeneous array of quite ordinary selfies. These would be selfies that were necessarily thought about in one way or another, but that nevertheless carry no evident trace of forethought around how they will be received, or that seem to embody nothing more than an uncritical adherence to externally imposed expectations about what constitutes a worthy use of time on this planet.

How Selfies Think 133 The question is how one responds to all this when committed to a direct engagement with the cognitive dimensions of digital photography. One could easily look at things like selfie-related deaths and jovial memorial selfies, slap the label “mindless scourge” on the whole selfie phenomenon, and move on. But this essay is asserting the need for a non-reactive and non-monist—in other words, an avowedly pluralist— approach to thought qua photography. The question is how that approach responds to the remarkable quantity of instances in which the hallmark feature appears to be sheer absence of thought. One tempting route would be to apply the approach to thinking found across the work of the political philosopher Hannah Arendt. For Arendt, it is important to separate the act of thinking from other kinds of mental activity in a way that I have so far refused to do. The activity of thinking is, in her view, a specific practice by which the self retreats into an inner dialogue or “two-in-one” that characteristically puts things—such as an idea, a plan, the human condition—in question.24 Other mental activities consist in the distinct practices of willing and judging, and they also include a whole suite of activities that deserve the name “cognitive.” These cognitive activities are distinguished, Arendt says, by the fact that they are about definite means and ends. That is, unlike thinking, they do not put the world nor its institutions nor the self in question. Instead, cognition belongs to all, and not only to intellectual or artistic work processes; like fabrication itself, it is a process with a beginning and end, whose usefulness can be tested, and which, if it produces no results, has failed, like a carpenter’s workmanship has failed when he fabricates a two-legged table.25 And it is in this latter sense that the question of thinking is, as Arendt contends in her still controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem, relevant to the question of evil.26 Acts of evil can be “banal” inasmuch as they do not involve the kind of conscious and intensive reflection and questioning Arendt pins to thinking. Instead, their power (and their evil) is the dominance of an absence—a distinct thoughtlessness. Is that a way of saying there is literally a lack of mental activity? No: it is a way of saying that mental activity has been largely reduced to the instrumentalism of cognition. These thoughts are like cogs. They are instruments. For the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism and other influential texts, this cognitive problem is not restricted to a few instances of unimaginable horror. It is pervasive and long-standing. As she puts it in The Life of the Mind, “Absence of thought is indeed a powerful factor in human affairs, statistically speaking the most powerful, not just in the conduct of the many but in the conduct of all.”27 What is tempting about this perspective on thinking for present purposes is the way it can so easily slot into a generalizing account of digital self-imaging. We simply apply the distinction between thinking and cognition to the production of selfies. Some selfies emerge out of reflective processes, even very quick ones. They serve to convey questions. They involve novel perspectives or critical angles. At the same time, so this perspective would go, the overwhelming majority of selfies are, as it were, mere cognition. They are means to ends. They are habits. And in this way they join a long history of cultural acts and artifacts that either do not involve thought or that serve to shield us from thought. Arendt insists on the existence of this latter category: “Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression

134 Kyle Parry and conduct,” she writes, “have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.”28 It can be easy to imagine adding selfies to this list. It can also be easy to read some of the most upsetting scenes of selfie production through the Arendtian lens. Indeed, when my wife, daughter, and I visited the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in Summer 2019, we found that the selfie-taking lambasted by Shahak Shapira, the artist behind Yolocaust, is not some kind of surprising aberration. Rather, my wife and I watched as one visitor after another focused on getting their smiling selfie just right, then left, seemingly entirely ignorant of—or unconcerned with—the horrific history that made this place a painful necessity. Whereas we had expected a scene of quiet reflection and mourning, we found nothing other than an energetic collective performance on repeat. This was a seamless staging of contemporary thoughtlessness without need of director or hashtag. It seemed all too fitting that a street abutting the memorial is named for Arendt. The thinker’s name—whose account of the banality of evil is an enduring emblem of the power and also the risk of thinking—literally overlooks this selfieridden landscape. Standing there at Hannah Arendt Straße, watching people smile at their photographic communion with the murder of 6 million Jews (or, perhaps, in many cases, continuing to pursue their typical, superficial, touristic photographic habit without registering the gravity of their surroundings), I found it exceedingly difficult not to dispense with the pluralism I am espousing in this essay, and which Arendt espouses throughout her work. In fact, I found myself dimly attempting to rework her theses into various angles on the essential awfulness of a digital photographic culture that eviscerates minds while funneling cash into the pockets of a select few: the corrosive banality of historical erasure; the brute force of photographic cliché; our gleeful collapse into mere cognition. I also thought of writers who would have us look beyond the content of given images to the entrenched systems in which they circulate. I thought, for instance, of a line from Jonathan Crary’s book on the 24/7 grip of digital media. “Visual and auditory ‘content,’” Crary writes, “is most often ephemeral, interchangeable material that, in addition to its commodity status, circulates to habituate and validate one’s immersion in the exigencies of twenty-first century capitalism.”29 Was I witnessing yet one more scene in a pervasive, flat, mindless culture of exchangeability? Was this all just one after the other moment in which selfies served as vectors for hyper-cognitive—and radically non-affective— habituation to ahistorical, superficial, solipsistic consumerism? And, most importantly, amid all this, where (as one person we passed among the concrete slabs asked their companion) was the Holocaust? Now thinking through these matters at some distance from this scene, I maintain a felt need to honor the intense sense of dread those acts awakened. I also see good reason to avoid stopping there. For one thing, the appeal of Arendt’s scheme—the way it, as it were, makes un-thinking newly thinkable—is also its weakness. Simply put, thought is too plural, too dynamic, and too distributed to be confined to that singular cast of the self retreated into a holy posture of two-in-one. (In repeatedly insisting on that version of thinking, Arendt enacts the monism she critiques.) A second reason to keep thinking through selfies in spite of the thoughtlessness of many selfies—to avoid simply labelling it a mindless scourge—is of a different order. It might be the case that very little constructive thought goes on in those moments (or

How Selfies Think 135 minutes!) when certain selves labor over selfies that are variously offensive, uninteresting, arrogant, or fatal. But we would be misthinking if we built our account of selfies, much less digital photography in general, on such a foundation. Indeed, it is stark elitism to suggest that those taking basically mindless selfies have sacrificed their critical and intellectual capacity. Life surely forces them to act on that capacity. And that capacity surely acts on them. Thinking pursues people as much as people pursue thinking. And manifestly thoughtless acts remain open to later reflection. In any case, I don’t pretend to have answers here. Instead, I share a process of ongoing reflection.30 And in that process I find myself pursued by one final thought. The thinker in question is Vilém Flusser. (Incidentally, like Arendt, Flusser was heavily influenced by the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Flusser likewise managed to escape the Nazi regime to which Heidegger offered support.) The thought appears in his second book on photography, Into the Universe of Technical Images. Here is a highly pluralist text in which Flusser both celebrates and casts warning after warning around the power of “technical images.” (This is Flusser’s eccentric name for images produced with cameras and computers.) The thought goes like this: “The penetrating force of technical images drives their receiver into a corner, puts him under pressure, and this pressure leads him to press keys to make images appear in the corner.”31 My sense of why this thought pursues me here is not that I ought to insist on a world in which we are tragically “alone together,” as Sherry Turkle puts it.32 (Flusser resists this idea, too.) It is the fact that there is a basic bridge here. The person taking the selfie, contending with the pressure that comes with the increasing pervasiveness of images, makes for themselves a temporary photographic corner, as if to temporarily relieve that pressure. The physical terminus of this corner is the photographic apparatus. The selfie-taker faces the corner. They press keys in that corner. And they can share that image to others in other corners, who themselves press keys in response. In elaborating this thought, Flusser insists on a coincidence of circumstances. There is, on the one hand, the marked incapacity of the cornered photographic subject to escape the aggregate pressure of images, cameras, and photographic culture. To try to do so would mean social peril.33 On the other hand, the cornered photographic subject still enjoys partial visual cultural freedom. They can engage images and image cultures. They can change those images and their attendant cultures, either on their own, or by way of what they do and don’t consume. At the same time, this freedom is also circumscribed and managed. In Flusser’s terms, people are stuck in a restrictive feedback loop with the images that saturate their worlds. Flusser speaks of the possibility of interrupting this feedback loop. He says, “…a rupture of the magical circle between image and person is the task we face, and this rupture is not only technically but above all existentially possible. For images are beginning to bore us, in spite of the contract we have with them.”34 But this is about as optimistic as Flusser gets. Leaping to the present, we could see people taking selfie after selfie as even more cornered than those television-watching, magazine-reading, and desktop-using audiences Flusser had in mind while writing in the early 1980s. Indeed, with the introduction of the mobile camera and the social photograph, it could easily seem as though the world has become a polluted fortress of pressured corners. The acceleration and dissemination of photography have not occasioned Flusser’s desired rupture. If anything, this “magical circle between image and person” is all the more powerful.

136 Kyle Parry My response to all this is, once again, avowedly pluralist. It is part Flusser, part Arendt, part Barthes, part Kohn, part Peirce, part Holton, and part Morrison. We are aware that the world is not right. We are aware that many selfies, particularly those that involve little thought, serve to index something, or many things, about what continues to go wrong. We want to position ourselves differently. We want a new and better world to come into life in the flow of time. Perhaps part of what we can learn to do to this effect is to rethink the photographic corners in which we find ourselves. We can, for instance, ask in whose corner we stand when we make and share selfies and other photographs. Is it our own corner alone? Or is it also that of others likewise making their way in the world, likewise fighting their daily fights, likewise pursuing and being pursued by their thoughts and dreams and fears and ambitions, likewise subject to unjust conditions that well exceed their control?35 The truth is that selfies don’t merely serve as reflexive signs of sprawling self-regard. And the hope—or at least my hope—is that they can, at least once in a while, and in necessary partial and imperfect ways, participate in collective efforts to think and act toward actual, possible, and livable versions of what Kristin Ross, echoing the thinking of the 1871 Paris Commune, calls communal luxury. I like how Ross puts it in her book of the same name: The world is divided between those who can and those who cannot afford the luxury of playing with words or images. When that division is overcome, as it was under the Commune, or as it is conveyed in the phrase “communal luxury,” what matters more than any images conveyed, laws passed, or institutions founded are the capacities set in motion. You do not have to start at the beginning—you can start anywhere.36

Notes 1 I am paraphrasing a point made by Hagi Kenaan, who writes, “A selfie…is a mode of making oneself present in the public domain, a visual mode of self-presentation.” See Hagi Kenaan, “The Selfie and the Face,” in Exploring the Selfie: Historical, Theoretical and Analytical Approaches to Digital Self-Photography, eds. Julia Eckel, Jens Ruchatz, and Sabine Wirth (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 114. 2 This point is made by André Gunthert in his essay “The Consecration of the Selfie: A Cultural History,” also in the collection Exploring the Selfie. Gunthert writes, “…the answer of the selfie is that, from now on, it is the user who decides how to write the relationship to notoriety. Celebrity has changed: Rather than being called to passively attend a show, as in the time of the Sun King, the audience slips within the frame and affirms its interest by playing as actors, then shares these images via its own social media… Well beyond an extension of the self-portrait, the selfie has become a symbol of a powerful movement of the autonomization of cultural practices, encouraged by the digital transition” (43). 3 Ibid. 4 On this point, see Trevor Paglen, “Invisible Images (Your Pictures Are Looking at You),” The New Inquiry 57 (December 8, 2016). Here is Paglen on the influence of artificial intelligence systems: “The more images Facebook and Google’s AI systems ingest, the more accurate they become, and the more influence they have on everyday life. The trillions of images we’ve been trained to treat as human-to-human culture are the foundation for increasingly autonomous ways of seeing that bear little resemblance to the visual culture of the past.” An angle on selfies and thought not pursued in this chapter is suggested here: the mutual “thinking” between machines and sentient actors in the form of artificial intelligence systems, algorithms, actors, and sensors.

How Selfies Think 137 5 There is a wide literature on pernicious dynamics of influence and habituation in selfie culture. It is worth also pointing to selfie research that doesn’t focus on the pernicious, but instead focuses on what is generative and empowering. See, for instance, Crystal Abidin,“‘Aren’t These Just Young, Rich Women Doing Vain Things Online?’: Influencer Selfies as Subversive Frivolity” Social Media + Society 2, no. 2 (2016) and Derek Conrad Murray, “Notes to Self: The Visual Culture of Selfies in the Age of Social Media,” Consumption Markets & Culture 8:6 (2015): 490–516. 6 On photography as “receiving” rather than taking, see Kaja Silverman, The Miracle of Analogy, or The History of Photography, Part 1 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015). 7 Further excerpts from this 2014 interview with Rebecca Sutton for the NEA Arts Magazine are available here: 8 Albeit without emphasizing the dimension of thought, Eckel emphasizes how selfies bear the distinct feature of “displayed authorship.” See “Selfies and Authorship: On the Displayed Authorship and the Author Function of the Selfie” in the Exploring the Selfie collection. 9 For a transcript of the interview, see 10 As of November 2019, the board was available here: we-need-diverse-books-selfies. 11 I like the parenthetical “LOL” here, but it is Holton’s addition, not mine. 12 One of these sources of constraints is the smartphone. Wirth notes as much: “The smartphone screen… is not just a mirror image, live video, or moving picture but a user interface with operative signs and diagrammatical structures—it is a visual regime of navigation, which enables as well as limits my possibilities to act” (232). See “Interfacing the Self: Smartphone Snaps and the Temporality of the Selfie” in the Exploring the Selfie collection. 13 Among thinkers who have addressed selfies along similar lines is Nathan Jurgenson. Notably, in discussing selfies and identity, Jurgenson invokes thinking. Here is an example: “The selfie captures how the self has long been understood in sociology, offering the thirdperson mirror view that Charles Horton Cooley articulated more than a century ago with his foundational concept of the ‘looking-glass self.’ His definition of the self is sometimes summed up like this: I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think you think I am. The uncomfortable implication of this is that we come to know ourselves as selves precisely by taking on a third-person perspective on ourselves. That is, there is no ‘self’ without other people—no intrinsic, essential, or natural authenticity to our own identity without a mirror or camera to reflect it.” See Nathan Jurgenson, The Social Photo: On Social Media and Photography (New York: Verso, 2019), 57, author’s italics. 14 Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (Cambridge: MA Harvard University Press, 1932), 5.421. 15 Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley: University of California Press), 87. 16 A recent project linking distributed cognition and humanistic concerns across historical periods will span four volumes. The first is Distributed Cognition in Classical Antiquity, eds. Miranda Anderson, Douglas Cairns, and Mark Sprevak (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018). 17 See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), 38, author’s italics. 18 Ibid., 99. 19 For instance, Barthes is often cited for this account of the experience of being photographed by other people. This is couched in cognitive terms: “In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art. In other words, a strange action: I do not stop imitating myself, and because of this, each time I am (or let myself be) photographed, I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of

138 Kyle Parry

20 21

22 23

24 25 26 27 28 29 30

31 32 33

34 35


imposture (comparable to certain nightmares)” (13). In another instance, Barthes says, “Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image” (10). See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980). Kohn, 87. Among those who seem to have imbibed such a perspective is musician, poet, and memoirist Patti Smith. The name she gives selfies is “self-pictures.” For nearly the entire existence of her Instagram account, Smith has started her captions with “This” or “This is” and what follows are reflections, formatted with purposely truncated line breaks, that blend a bit of context on the photo with poetic reflections and gentle wisdom on myriad personal, political, philosophical, and aesthetic subjects. John Tagg, “Mindless Photography,” in Photography: Theoretical Snapshots, eds. J.J. Long, Andrea Noble, Edward Welch (New York: Routledge, 2002), 28–42. As of the time of writing, the artist, Shahak Shapira, had removed the photographs from the project website. In their place were several things: a note from Shapira reflecting on the experience; a selection of notes to Shapira from some of the selfie-takers whose images had been included; and a selection of reactions from various other people. See http:// Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt, 1978). Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 171. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking, 1963). Arendt, The Life of the Mind, 71. Ibid., 4. Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (New York: Verso, 2013), 52. Hannah Arendt speaks to the endlessness ferment of thinking: “…the business of thinking is like Penelope’s web; it undoes every morning what it has finished the night before. For the need to think can never be stilled by allegedly definite insights of ‘wise men’; it can be satisfied only through thinking, and the thoughts I had yesterday will satisfy this need today only to the extent that I want and am able to think them anew.” See Arendt, The Life of the Mind, 88. Vilém Flusser, Into the Universe of Technical Images, trans. Nancy Ann Roth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 53. See Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011). Flusser puts it this way: “The energy required to withstand the penetrating force of technical images would project such a person out of the social context. Technical images do isolate those who receive them in corners, but they isolate those few who flee from them even further” (ibid.) Ibid., 60. Jodie Dean puts forward a fundamentally social and collective view of selfies: “The subject is the many participating in the common practice, the many imitating each other. The figure in the photo is incidental.” See Jodie Dean, “Images Without Viewers: Selfie Communism.”, February 1, 2016. articles/26420_images_without_viewers_selfie_communism. Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (New York: Verso Books, 2015), 45.


Domestic Snapshots: Female SelfImaging Practices Then and Now Soraya Murray

This chapter takes an intersectional feminist visual studies approach to female selfportraiture, situating the “selfie” within a larger art historical tradition of women engaging with technology, and circulating images of themselves to each other and the world. This consideration addresses itself to the intra-conversational ways in which women cleverly signal to each other, share everyday experience, convey the conditions of their lives, and counter prescribed gender roles within society. How are young women critically using “selfies” to make space for themselves, or crack open temporary new publics? How are they broadening the continuum of female self-representation while also contributing to an expanded notion of what may constitute a legitimate form of image production as demonstrative self-invention, personal branding, and creative performance? How can this be understood in the matrix of advanced capitalism and the constant struggle to negotiate one’s position in relation to the tendency of com­ modity to absorb and translate everything and everyone into its logics? In particular, this chapter explores the connection between strategies of female selfportraiture in contemporary art, and its connection to the image production of sev­ eral female bloggers, who integrate the unique affordances of computational media into their photographic self-imaging strategies. These include Rupi Kaur, Molly Soda, and Arvida Byström, who creatively mobilize the selfie in sometimes iconoclastic ways. Though their work exists in the matrix of social media platforms, these young women’s self-portraiture should be considered in relation to earlier artistic-based interventions, and contemporary artistic engagement with self-portraiture such as the work of Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Laurel Nakadate and Nikki S. Lee. But more precisely, this chapter creates a continuity between this contemporary work and a much longer art historical tradition of women visualizing the interior lives of them­ selves and others by capturing the private and domestic—sometimes their most un­ flattering dimensions—and bringing them into public view. Through a consideration of the selfie as congruent with its artistic counterpart—even while it erodes clear boundaries between the so-called “high” and “low”— this work offers intellectual pathways for understanding the everyday performance of the self as seen within the domain of social media-based self-portrait.

Selfies as Visual Texts The “selfie” or self-portrait, usually taken with a webcam or cell phone camera and circulated within social media platforms, has been studied overwhelmingly from a sociological perspective, as a phenomenon to be considered from the standpoint of DOI: 10.4324/9780367206109-6

140 Soraya Murray the corrosive effects of technology, user habits, or perhaps the narcissistic tendencies it purports so indulge. While the sociological or communications studies-based ap­ proach is useful in terms of quantitative analysis around the social function of imagesharing, the selfie’s relation to a continuum of artistic self-imaging practices also demands close attention to the images themselves. There have even been those who suggest that the best way to understand selfies is in fact not to look at the selfie as a representational image of but as a “socio-technical phenomenon” that speaks to larger matters of mediated digital communication.1 From a conventional media and communications studies perspective, this might make a certain sense. For example, Edgar Gómez Cruz and Helen Thornham have advocated for a meta-view of selfies as the proper approach, and specifically against a visual culture-oriented one: The first [trend] positions them within a long tradition of visual culture where the images are read as representations to be interpreted. Seen here, selfies seem to evidence “visual probes” of “depicted realities” (see, for example, Manovich’s project selfiecity), and they are claimed as evidence of an intentional author (a political convergence of object and subject, for example, or a “documenting of the self”) or seen as an objective window into cultures and communities, values, and ideologies (a neoliberal, narcissistic identity affirmation). We find this problematic, not least because it bleeds into a discourse of individualism but also because it centres and elevates both the visual image “itself” and the methods for analysing the image, which we argue undermines—if not negates—the wider practices, discourses, and ideologies that constitute the selfie phenomenon.2 Theirs is a concerted effort to place the selfie phenomenon firmly in the realm of the chat, the SMS and socio-technical practices—while attempting to wrest it from a visual studies context. It connotes a territoriality around the selfie that is simply unnecessary. And, as evidenced in the quote earlier, they naturalize a relation between a concern for identity and a neoliberal form of narcissistic fixation that is in fact highly constructed—a point to which I will return. Visual texts are broadly understood within academia to be approachable from a wide variety of disciplines, with the value of such investigations often bearing intellectual fruit across the boundaries of methodology. Theirs is a false and unnecessary opposition. It is, however, impossible to ignore that which is at the very center of every single selfie ever taken: namely, a subject looking out at us as viewers, engaging us through self-representation. Looking closely into the nature of the in­ dividual expression does not, as Cruz and Thornham argue, necessitate that the study of wider practices of the selfie phenomenon be negated; it is simply not an either/or cir­ cumstance. This also denigrates the potency of what it means—particularly in the case of a socially defined minority—to be represented, and likewise to engage with that re­ presentation as both maker and consumer of those images. Interdisciplinary art theorist Derek Conrad Murray has proposed a connection between the photographic self-representation before and after the existence of the digital camera and social media. In particular, his work on feminist selfrepresentation by female artists makes a strong argument for their work as more than mere content-creation for social media platforms. As he writes: Many young women in the blogosphere self-consciously characterize themselves as “intersectional feminists”: as women concerned with gender equality, but not

Domestic Snapshots 141 at the expense of other oppressions – namely racial, sexual, and class-based. The term “selfie” has complicated and reframed cultural understandings of photo­ graphic self-representation in such a way that it perverts and stigmatizes a gesture that is mobilized for a diversity of reasons.3 Murray looks deeply and meticulously into the self-portraits made by the women artists in question, connecting them with earlier photographers but also recognizing the impact of blogging culture for creating social networks, even between those who may not be geographically close. Murray underscores the ways that these women build alliances through like-minded efforts, claiming a “representational agency that transcends the gender-specific slights and ideological trivializing of young women’s efforts to define themselves; to make themselves visible, in a cultural climate that continues to negate, ridicule, malign, and sexualize them.”4 Part of the importance of Murray’s research lies in according these young women the recognition they deserve as having made critical interventions, in a climate of overwhelming disdain for their legitimacy as authors. Journalism scholar Jessica Leigh Maddox similarly characterized selfies as tools by which “Others turn photography into acknowledgments of their lived experience.”5 Building upon the work of Anne Burns, Terri Senft, Nancy Baym, and Katrin Tiidenberg she suggests: This acknowledgement, in turn, gives selfie-takers, and by extension Others, agency and control in their own image production because they are no longer relying on an extra person (or, outside photographer) to take the picture for them. This makes selfie-taking mature and deliberate, and deliberation is linked in particular to the defining aspect of the selfie—the removal of the outside photographer.6 Importantly, she also points out that by removing the dynamics that would exist between the person taking the image and the object of the photograph, greater fidelity to the subject’s own sense of themselves is achieved. This is all to say that contrary to what Cruz and Thornham propose, the granularity of these images does matter, and it is through close analysis that something of worth can be gleaned–along with the more quantitative sociological analyses that also contain merit. Both micro- and the macro-approaches have value, offering varied insights. This is also not about psy­ chologizing the subject, so much as it is about understanding the selfie as a document of expressivity, made within a context, and with purpose.

Formal Problems: Selfies as Poor Images In the title of this chapter, I self-consciously chose the word “snapshot” to reference a particular (and sometimes mistaken) sense around the selfie as a poor consumer image. I use this term in relation to an apt characterization made by R. Sarvas and D.M. Frohlich of how The word “snap” resonates with a simplicity of consumer cameras with which the operator of the camera needs only to point the camera and squeeze a single button: the image is captured in an instant with the sound of a shutter snapping.7

142 Soraya Murray The snapshot, then, is ideologically loaded with the notion of the popular, of lowculture forms and the amateur. Certainly, part of the challenge involved is that the form of the selfie is often relegated to the notion of a “poor image” or in other words a kind of visual detritus of the social media era.8 In relation to another kind of image, such as those contained in spam mail (unsolicited junk email) or resaved denigrated images, Hito Steyerl writes: “Poor images are poor because they are not assigned any value within the class society of images—their status as illicit or degraded grants them exemption from its criteria. Their lack of resolution attests to their appropriation and displacement.”9 Steyerl speaks primarily of the filmic image, and the dissemination of its lesser duplicates online, as imperfect cinema that provides access to the many – thus en­ tering into the popular realm.10 Poor images, as she explains, are intended to circulate fast. They are propelled into global networks, provoking debate, creating new pub­ lics, new translations and mistranslations as they potentially disperse across world­ wide audiences. The poor image is no longer about the real thing—the originary original. Instead, it is about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities. It is about defiance and appro­ priation just as it is about conformism and exploitation. In short: it is about reality.11 Can the selfie not also be seen in similar ways—as a poor image that operates on the level of the popular, the debased, and dematerialized? Is it not also, as Steyerl says, “perfectly integrated into an information capitalism thriving on compressed attention spans, on impression rather than immersion, on intensity rather than contempla­ tion”?12 Is it no wonder, then, that most scholarly examiners of the “selfie” would treat it as a symptom of this information capitalism, and read the work in its various aggregations, rather than as the individual expressions of subjects who are making intentional choices about how they wish to present themselves in that digital dis­ persion? To be sure, the selfie is widely thought of as narcissistic, in bad taste, and as an image made to be re-presented, through re-blogging and other kinds of sharing—with the idea that it may give rise to a kind of contagion.13 Its value then lies not in its unique value as an artwork, located in a particular place and time but only in its ability to move across contexts, to travel, to catch on, and to speak to our reality. And it is true: most selfies cannot by any stretch of the imagination be thought of as “good” photographs by conventional standards of the medium—and in most cases the pursuit of great photography isn’t really the point. Particularly, as seen on plat­ forms like Instagram, photos are not even of a resolution that would render them of a quality akin to art photography, to be presented in galleries and museums. One thinks of Richard Prince’s New Portraits series (2014), in which the artist presented thirtyeight blown-up prints of other people’s Instagram photos, reproduced without per­ mission, on the walls of the illustrious Gagosian Gallery. The critic Peter Schjeldahl responded to this in his New Yorker review with belly-aching: “Possible cogent re­ sponses to the show include naughty delight and sincere abhorrence. My own was something like a wish to be dead—which, say what you want about it, is the surest defense against assaults of postmodernist attitude.”14 That said, in the digital

Domestic Snapshots 143 pixilation that is their materiality, these images do speak to a moment—both viewed in aggregation, as well as individually. Selfies are not merely problematic neoliberal narcissistic expressions of identity affirmation. These images refuse quality or pre­ ciousness, and proudly announce themselves as poor images, circulating swiftly, potentially globally, while still effectively pronouncing “I am here.” What, then, can be known from a selfie? In Tina M. Campt’s Image Matters, the author discusses photography in terms of its capacities as a document. Campt writes: …it is important to read photographs not only as records of choices but also as records of intentions. The question of why a photograph was made involves understanding the social, cultural, and historical relationships figured in the image, as well as a larger set of relationships outside and beyond the frame— relationships we might think of as the social life of the photo. The social life of the photo includes the intentions of both sitters and photographers as reflected in their decisions to take particular kinds of pictures. It also involves reflecting historically on what those images say about who these individuals aspired to be; how they wanted to be seen; what they sought to represent and articulate through them; and what they attempted or intended to project and portray.15 Campt’s work makes substantive intervention into the vernacular images of the black European subject, namely, the domestic snapshots and portraits of Afro-Germans and West Indian immigrants involved in processes of self-fashioning through their imagemaking practices and self-stylings. However, the insight into the ways of seeing historical domestic imagery holds equal import for the selfie, which may also be un­ derstood within these terms. This chapter proceeds from the notion that a selfie is a record of choices, as well as intentions. Even in considerations of selfies tied to the commodity form and the behavior of consumers, it is important to remember, as Mehita Iqani and Jonathan E. Schroeder assert, that the selfie “communicates some kind of message about the self”; they are at root expressive forms made by individual subjects, and this cannot get lost in their study.16 They are, as they argue, both com­ modity objects, and also forms of authentic self-expression.17 This is an important acknowledgement, and one that requires much more attention, particularly from visual studies scholars. What I see when I look at selfies, are images that document women making choices, and images that have been made with intention. However, as they enter into the matrix of images and circulate, they become enmeshed in the goings on of a visual culture of consumerism, gendered ideologies of technology, and the politics of representation. Thus, their possible meanings enter into a circuit of exchange that may outstrip their original intention. They also potentially give attention and build com­ munity around issues not attended to within dominant discourse.

Sherman, Self-Making, Performativity Cindy Sherman (b. 1954, American) is likely the most well-known and inter­ nationally celebrated exemplar of the turn toward self-imaging in photography as a play between self-making and performativity.18 In her series of early works, Untitled Film Stills (1977–1980) comprised of black and white photographs, Sherman de­ cidedly embraces the inauthentic, role-playing an array of movie types: desperate women, the broken-hearted, floozies, working girls, and other varieties of female

144 Soraya Murray

Figure 6.1 Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #30, 1979, Gelatin silver print 8 × 10 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

characters typically imaged in films from the 1950s and 1960s. These are small works no larger than 8” × 10”, inviting the viewer in for an intimate look, but a view onto a scene that is not self-portraiture in the sense of revealing the authentic artist herself. Instead, we are met with highly performed versions of women, often placed in sce­ narios in which they are alone, and caught in internal turmoil. In one image, Untitled Film Still # 30 (1979), a subject with a bruised face and tousled dark hair looks just to the left of the frame, the close-up revealing wetness around her longing eyes, and a troubled gaze (Figure 6.1). In another, Untitled Film Still #84 (1978), a woman with a severe brown bob, a trench coat and knee-high boots is captured in a small kitchen setting (Figure 6.2). She seems to speak with someone off-camera, while reaching down toward a paper bag of groceries that have torn open and tumbled to the floor. There are women strewn across beds, caught in private moments of smoking or inspecting themselves in the mirror, posing, sleeping, gardening, crying, dwarfed by city architecture, seemingly incognito, on a highway alone, or captured mid-contemplation. Untitled Film Still # 56 (1980) is a close-up of Sherman as a young woman, her blonde hair trained back (Figure 6.3). Her face comes close to a mirror, so close her nose almost touches. She looks deeply into her own reflection. Though we see her from behind, the mirror offers a three-quarters view of her expressionless look, which is partially obscured by the light. Through their mise-en-scène, such images suggest a

Domestic Snapshots 145

Figure 6.2 Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #84, 1978, Gelatin silver print 8 × 10 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

larger drama, a narrative of which we can only see one loaded glimpse. However, it is important to remember, as curator Eva Respini has put it, “Cindy Sherman’s pho­ tographs are not self-portraits.”19 Rather, these are constructions, re-presented within the context of art to hold such phantasms of womanhood—the images and performances that arise up around them—up to scrutiny. Less discussed in the context of the selfie, but equally significant, is Sherman’s color series Rear Screen Projections (1980) which does a similar kind of cinematic narrative work, but through a series of female filmic types captured against obviously projected backgrounds. Photographed mostly as medium shots or extreme closeups, these works heighten the artificiality with their dramatic and unnatural colors, blurred cinematic backdrops, and inaccessible female protagonists. They are clearly types or tropes: a woman on a park bench, another in a bar, an older woman in the city, an ingénue presented against a vaguely desert-like backdrop. These have an even more amplified sense of artifice, and a more distilled sense of Laura Mulvey’s sense of tobe-looked-at-ness that identified a paradigmatic filmic dynamic of a presumed male viewer who looks, and the female as passively viewed.20 In one especially iconic example, Sherman is captured in a medium shot, holding a bicycle by the handlebars. She has cropped blonde hair and a camel-colored coat with its lapel popped up.

146 Soraya Murray

Figure 6.3 Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #56, 1980, Gelatin silver print 8 × 10 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

She faces right but cuts her eyes pensively to the left. The projected street scene behind her has a blue cast, and vignetting around the edges. It is incongruous with the rather sharp side illumination of the figure, which heightens the overall artificial look. Again, this is a mysterious character as captured from a film of unknown origin. These portend a major trend in selfies; namely, the use of photoshopped background locations, either to hoodwink or merely amuse observers. Douglas Crimp described Sherman’s work as using art not to reveal the artist’s true self but to show the self as an imaginary construct. Here there is no real Cindy Sherman in these photographs; there are only the guises she assumes…The purpose of authorship is dispensed with no only through the mechanical means of making the image but also through the effacement of any continuous, essential persona or even recognizable visage in the scenes.21 Selfie-takers often similarly reject the notion of an essential or consistent persona, cycling freely between them, or iterating and evolving as needed. Viewing Sherman’s two photographic series, they seem self-consciously slightly trashy or kitschy, while eloquently speaking to media-based fabrications of wo­ manhood through their seriality and highly constructed nature. Embracing the popular and mass culture, Sherman made use of an earlier kind of “poor image” to connect with viewers and capitalize upon an existing rich visual literacy learned from

Domestic Snapshots 147 movies. These works often appear to be low-culture promotional snapshots but are in fact highly premeditated. Of course, this points to the truth that snapshots are themselves equally intentional formations—not to mention the profoundly con­ structed nature of femininity, which the artist so harshly reveals. Interestingly enough, Sherman was slow to join Instagram, but eventually started an account in October 2016; she made it public in 2017 and quickly garnered hundreds of thousands of followers.22 Her account is a combination of snapshots from her daily life, and hideous caricatures that combine costuming, digital manip­ ulation, and selfie-retouching apps like Facetune.23 Sherman frames selfies on social media largely as tied to attempts to construct one’s self as attractive in a conventional sense or to in other ways conform to social expectations: “The thing I hate most about selfies” she says, “is the way most people are just trying to look a certain way; often they look almost exactly the same in every pose, and it’s a pose that is aiming to be most flattering.”24 And there is a lot of this online, to be sure. The janky selfies with distorted faces and clownish makeup give evidence of this position, particularly in their abject dimensions (Figure 6.4). Parul Sehgal has written of these latest online works as a departure from the previous photographs, and potentially more of a meditation on rebelliousness around aging. But these works seem to my eye entirely continuous with Sherman’s previous work—simply manipulation by another means. It is important to underscore that Sherman certainly does not consider her own photographs to be self-imaging at all. Instead, she uses herself more or less as a prop

Figure 6.4 Cindy Sherman, @cindysherman, hl=en, October November 2019, accessed April 1, 2020.

148 Soraya Murray within her creative practice. In fact, she finds selfies “so vulgar” and would likely bristle at the idea that her photographs are in conversation with—or worse, in­ spiration for— the kinds of self-making proliferating on social media.25 Nevertheless, her name is synonymous with an aspect of critique with which a young feminist generation of selfie-takers is engaged: namely, a critique of femininity as thoroughly performed and constructed, and naturalized through representation.

The Gendering of Technology and Its Role in the Public Imaginary of the Selfie Parallel to this consideration of female (digital) photographic self-representation is an overarching social attitude regarding women engaging with advanced technology. It is important to recognize the manufacturing of gendered conceptions of technology, and how this has profoundly impacted the reception to digitally produced self-portraits. Certainly, the gendering of advanced technology is neither new nor natural. Historians of technology have made interventions into the persisting mainstream understanding of men as the drivers of technological innovation.26 Ruth Oldenziel’s Making Technology Masculine: Men, Women and Modern Machines in America, 1870–1945, for example, painstakingly details the ways in which the field of engineering constructed and per­ petuated notions of technology that were masculinist, and how women pushed back on those narratives. As Oldenziel writes, “the links between technological change and gender relations developed neither in isolation nor independently.”27 Arguing that the idea of men as the masters of the domain called “technology” was shored up by higher education practices of excluding women from key forms of training that would qualify them for leadership positions in engineering, a male sociality within the field, ideolo­ gical biases, and a gendering of innovations associated with the domestic as “useful arts” rather than technology. In fact, the very term “technology” which was coined in 1829 by a Harvard professor,28 as Oldenziel unveils, has been shaped into an explicitly male construct through within the technical training and corporate realms, through government propaganda, the exclusion from memberships in the professional sphere, and in potent cultural narratives propagated in literature and world fairs. In these ways, despite their persisting presence at the center of engineering and inventiveness from the beginning, women became socially defined as “bystanders to the technological enterprise.”29 This research is incredibly insightful in revealing some of the ideological meta-structures upon which the use of photographic and computational technologies such as those in social media platforms sit. This starkly illustrates how identification of one as “consumer” rather than “author” of such tools has consequences, and that the increasing centrality of those technologies for societies who identified computational technology as a tool for power and advancement. The sense that modern computing, specifically, was initially a menial undertaking suitable for women has held an interesting place in history. Mar Hicks has written of the critical role of gender in the development of the British electronic computing industry, and how gender bias ultimately played a devastating cost for its business.30 They describe a connection between gender, technology, and power that marked the failure of Britain to exploit the skilled assets to be found in their female programmers: In the early days of electronic computing, however, the work was strongly associated with women. It was feminized because it was seen as deskilled and

Domestic Snapshots 149 unimportant. This quickly began to change as computers became indispensable in all areas of government and industry. Once it became clear that those who knew how to use them would have great power and influence, female programmers lost out despite having all the requisite skills.31 This is consistent with Oldenziel’s characterization of the United States in terms of the concentration interests in technology around the male subject, in education, industry and culture. However, Hicks makes more direct assessments about how this neglect and sidelining of women in the industry played a direct and profound role in Britain’s waning dominance in computational technology. As a technological form, photography has similarly been enmeshed with gender issues, particularly in relation to the construction of women as consumers of pho­ tographic products. In her research on the radical restructuring of the paradigm of vernacular photography from a conventional photographic model to a digital-socialmedia model, Marita Sturken illustrates several key factors that shed light on this turn.32 Sturken correlates the “intersection of these business histories (Kodak, Polaroid, Facebook), the family and personal photograph, and the selling of a par­ ticular set of personal and family photographic practices.”33 Particularly, with the coming of less costly and more portable photographic devices, women, domestic life and the capture of family moments became the target of companies such as Kodak, which ushered in snapshot photographic culture and the proliferation of family photos. Sturken assesses: “Kodak helped to define the key role of amateur photo­ graphy as domestic photography with its concepts of ‘Kodak moments’ — birthdays, childhood gatherings, family gatherings and rituals that could form the platform of nostalgia.”34 Further, in the 1950s, this form of domestic snapshot became even more monetized and popularized through photography magazines which, in the view of Susan Murray and others, encouraged amateurs to sell their images to advertisers.35 Likewise, Polaroid, with its instant, darkroom-free products that, according to Sturken, prefigure the instantaneity of the digital image, were tied by its targeted marketing to “parties, celebrations, youthful gatherings, and collective viewing” as well as intimacy and the imaging of sex.36 This becomes immediately significant when considering the way that instant images are deeply connected to the intimate, the domestic, the youthful, the spontaneous—and thus give rise to the potentialities of female photographic self-imaging. And, it is worth mentioning here that in these early attempts particularly by Kodak to codify everyday photography as the preservation of family memory, women were directly targeted in advertising as the ideal archivist historians of the household.37 Of course, the key differentiation of the self-imaging possibilities of the Polaroid, versus the digital image, rests in the potentially global circulation of that image through social media. Photo sharing made possible by the combination of social media, camera phones and platforms like Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, Instagram have given rise to potentially vast accumulations of imagery and—perhaps more importantly—the drastically expanded capacity for anyone with a smartphone and social media access to circulate their own likeness. And, with the utilizing of metrics of “likes” and “followers,” these sites (particularly Instagram in relation to the selfie) create value around the popularity of particular personas, encouraging a culture of updates and online community-building around shared interests. In discussing this, Susan Murray has argued that the onset of social media photo sharing sites like Flickr

150 Soraya Murray has leveled certain binaries between professional and amateur photographer and changed our relations to the very notion of a photograph and its object. She writes the everyday communal aesthetic that has been constructed is one that privileged the small, the mundane, the urban, and/or the industrial. While digital photo­ graph has not revolutionize photography or led to a loss of the authenticity of an image as predicted early on, it has significantly altered our relationship to the practice of photography (when coupled with social networking software), as well as to our expectations for and interactions with the image and an everyday aesthetic.38 It is not my goal to impose a narrative onto these female photographers as necessarily operating in full awareness of the gendered technological history I have outlined. However, it is clear that the predominant online culture of selfies associated with women and other socially defined minorities signals a desire to create room for themselves in the form of visual representation. This speaks to a politics of re­ presentation in which the subject advocates for their own interests, seizing re­ presentation, as opposed to demanding it from a larger media entity who possesses the means of production. “Today,” as Jonas Larsen and Mette Sandbye have written on the advent of digital photography and social media, “the private snapshot has indeed left its hidden home shelter. Now, personal narratives, represented by private snaps, are omnipresent and widely accessible by the general public.”39 The pro­ fundity of such a paradigm shift cannot be overstated. However, this history bears down on the very use of photographic technologies by women, as well as the use of social media platforms to circulate their images. And, the intensity of the constructed ideological prohibition is broached again and again by the taking up of these forms by women, and the broad reach of their images.

Photographic Performative Self-Representation: Lee and Nakadate Feminist art historian Amelia Jones’ significant work on the artistic self-portrait in light of modern technologies of representation, from the analogue photograph to digital media and performance, presciently unveils a core tension within these images: the reliance on their ability to deliver the subject up wholly through the visible, while in actuality re-inscribing the reality that such apparent fidelity can never be com­ plete.40 In her Self/Image: Technology, Representation and the Contemporary Subject, Jones writes: Because the photographic portrait documents the embodied trace of the self (with the mind made visible only through its body-sign), it highlights both the inextricability of body and mind and the fact that we often access the self via its visible—corporeal—form, a form we want to serve as guarantor of the body. The photographic portrait seems to reaffirm the body’s never-ending “thereness,” its refusal to disappear, its infinite capacity to render up the self in some incontrovertibly “real” way.41 Jones wishes to throw into question the presumption that a self-portrait made with a technology of visual representation necessarily renders the subject imaged knowable

Domestic Snapshots 151 or can in any sense to be thought of as effectively capturing them. And yet, she admits, “We don’t know how to exist any more [sic] without imaging ourselves as a picture.”42 Some aspects of ourselves escape signification in the process of image capture—the reality of which, as Jones points out, signals deeply anxiety-producing ambivalences for the rational mind around what can be known. In the re-presentation of the self, we can never know the self, “in itself” but only its image. I highlight this because it points to a core distinction to be kept in mind when looking at selfies: they are self-representations, yes. But it should not be forgotten that they are never the self, “in itself” but a re-presentation that cannot be assumed to provide unfettered access to the person imaged. That is why Campt’s work is so useful in its delineation: the image is understood in advance, according to her work, to be a document of choices and intentions. Artist Nikki S. Lee’s (b. 1970, South Korea) performative self-reinvention follows in the footsteps of Cindy Sherman’s work, while contributing a suite of significant series that bear much closer resemblance to practices associated with the kinds of vernacular self-representation popularized through the selfie phenomenon. Trained in photo­ graphy in Korea, at Chung-Ang College of the Arts, University of Korea, then later at the Fashion Institute of Technology and NYU, Lee has earned international recogni­ tion. Her practice follows in the tradition of a substantive artistic precedence of female artists engaging with performance and photographic self-documentation such as Ana Mendieta, Carolee Schneemann, Hannah Wilke, Francesca Woodman and Nan Goldin, among many others. For the sake of this consideration, particularly of interest is Lee’s Projects series (1997–2001) in which the artist embedded herself in different subcultural American communities, adopting their manners and mode of dress, as well as building trust with each group over a duration. Then, Lee would provide a common point-and-shoot camera to her friends, or to a passerby, which they’d use to provide date-stamped snapshots. The series included projects on punks, tourists, young Japanese East Villagers in New York, lesbians, Hispanics, yuppies, swing dancers, seniors, Ohio trailer-park locals, exotic dancers, hip-hop enthusiasts and schoolgirls. It is clear when looking at each of these series that the artist is a conceptualist who uses photography as documentation. The works speak to the fluidity of identity and the artist’s ability to assimilate into each group, gaining trust and manifesting those various personas as an extension of herself.43 Especially key to this is Lee’s use of the consumer camera, which flouts the notion of herself as an artistic photographer, instead focusing on the process: a delicate negotiation of acceptance into these groups. Interestingly, the artist shares her intentions with each of the groups, but this seems to have little con­ sequence on her ability to wriggle her way into their lives.44 Russell Ferguson describes this process not as one of chameleon-like transforma­ tion, but an earnest negotiation of her own identity in flux, as she comes into contact with others. “Lee is on one level never playing a role at all,” he suggests. Her activities could be seen simply as a self-conscious process of making friends, learning to fit in with people she likes, reflecting their style. The ultimate implication is that she might just stay in one of these groups, with one the personae she has created.45 The most nihilistic possible reading of these images is that there is no “there” there – that there is no “real” Nikki Lee, only a series of constructions among which the artist

152 Soraya Murray moves in a cynical and opportunistic manner. But this feels too harsh an interpretation, as there is more than mere tourism happening in these projects. What emerges is an exploration of getting to the place where realness manifests itself in the most banal forms of image capture: groups of friends facing the lens, posed, perhaps smiling, but never fully unaware of the camera. These are groups imaging themselves intentionally making choices about how they want to be seen and how they wish to remember the moment. The meaning of the work resides in its aggregation, with the strength of the work emerging from the connectedness between, for example, The Seniors Project (1999) and The Hip Hop Project (2001). In the former project, Lee presents herself as a senior citizen, with prosthetic makeup, a wig, orthopedic shoes, loose stockings, glasses and lavender overcoat. In one group photo, she leans toward two elderly women on an urban city street corner (Figure 6.5). One of them stares through her glasses sternly at the camera; the other holds a busily-patterned umbrella in hand, squinting into the camera and smiling. They are huddled together, one grasping the other by the arm, suggesting camaraderie. In the latter project, the artist envelops herself in a subculture of young women affecting the bravado and poses associated with global hip-hop cul­ ture, in Lee’s case even darkening her skin. The iconic image of this series features the artist and another woman with the East Coast hip hop group Mobb Deep (Figure 6.6). The amateur-looking image resembles a fan photo or spontaneous party snapshot. In it, Lee performs a seductive pose, while snuggled between up between the knees of rapper Prodigy, who gestures toward the camera. Her friend, another party girl, pops her shades down and offers her best smolder look.46

Figure 6.5 Nikki S. Lee, The Seniors Project (26), 1999, C-print © Nikki S. Lee, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Domestic Snapshots 153

Figure 6.6 Nikki S. Lee, The Hip Hop Project (1), 2000, C-print © Nikki S. Lee, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Together, the projects begin to build a conversation around the construction and performance of self. At face value, each of Lee’s project contains banal snapshots, completely unremarkable in their form. But their meaning snaps into focus when one realizes that the same woman—however transformed—is present in every single image. The bleach-blonde woman leaning out of a mobile home doorway in a pink top, cutoff jeans, and flip-flops is one iteration. The ratty-haired skate girl in oversized street clothes sits on a street corner in the city, watching her friend perform a trick, is another. A seemingly young girl poses in the aisle of a Korean church, her school uniform slightly disheveled. The heavily made-up stripper slouching in her chair with her platform heels kicked up, her hair tumbling down over her exposed breasts, smoking a cigarette, is yet another. It’s all fake, and it’s all real. Lee’s images, while not strictly “selfies,” are extremely significant artistic cor­ ollaries to the dynamics of self-performance that is rampant on social media. All of the complex engagements with identity and presence exist in these works, as well as the postmodern (perhaps post-identity) bent toward the collaging of imagery in order to build toward a vision that becomes greater than any individual image. Her series also speaks to the construction of one’s self when facing the prospect of be­ coming American. This is consistent with the kinds of intense considerations of identity formation and presence that have since been taken up by young women, particularly women of color and other socially defined minorities who have created space for themselves using social media. In many ways, Lee’s Projects series presages

154 Soraya Murray social-media-based strategies for personal branding, self-invention, and the complex negotiation of choice and intention. Laurel Nakadate (b. 1975, American) is another artist whose work becomes ex­ tremely important in this regard. In particular, her 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears (2010–2011) consists of an endurance performance of crying each day for one year, cataloging her sorrow in photographic form. First presented at MoMA PS1 in 2011, the works seem to bridge conversations between public and private disclosure, the persistent disclosure encouraged by social media, and the pressure to present a happy, well-adjusted and coherent self to the Internet. Imaging herself while crying in transit, in bathrooms, in her childhood room, her New York apartment, and all over the world. The very plan to weep daily for a year suggests performance and pre­ meditation; it flouts the notion of weeping as a spontaneous emotional response. The images within the series vary stylistically, some seeming like snapshots, other more premeditated or self-consciously aesthetically considered. There’s a lot of journeying documented in these images, and one cannot help but think of the corporeal miseries and mental stresses of travel. However, I would add that while the selfie’s interpretation might be limited by the choices made by the subject, its meaning should not be limited to the intention of the maker—though intention may play its part in interpretation. Once the selfie enters into the circuit of culture, its meanings move beyond pure maker intention. And, with the potential global circulation of social-media-based selfies that circuit of culture may be quite sweeping. That is to say, merely psychologizing the individual presented within the selfie is certainly not my aim and is, in my view, not an approach that would reap the most benefit from a visual studies perspective. Rather, understanding those representations in context can open up critical possibilities for how such images may signify, while always understanding, as Jones ultimately asserts, “that re­ presentation can only deliver what we think we (want to) now about the other, which is never real but always (somewhere) Real in its ‘indefatigable expression.’”47 Nakadate’s work, for example, enters into a cultural mediascape of oversharing in social media—a point that was satirically taken up by the Webcamtears Tumblr collaboration project that collated webcam videos of girls crying for an online au­ dience.48 Critics have noted the connection between Nakadate and some of the odd expressive eventualities of social media, Rick Moody noting: This is the story on the Web, in millions upon millions of blogs, and Facebook pages, and online sites advocating activities both wholesome and dangerous. The bulk of these online photographs of strangers, these accounts of self, are bad, are awkward, dimly lit, haphazard, consumer-grade, hopeless, and Nakadate plays with and against this constructed femininity; she includes the bad photos of herself, the ones where her eyes are nearly swollen shut, where the running makeup does not look like what you might find in the fashion photos of the ‘90s; there are running noses, inflammations, unsightly grimaces, things out of focus.49 These qualities of the awkward, the bad, the poorly lit, the consumer grade and the unflattering are all significations of the “real” for the very reason that they have not been edited out. These elements become components of another kind of intentionality that is an unavoidable hazard in the dynamics of social validation that have arisen in online culture. Nakadate’s self-portraits – which often veer into selfie territory— are

Domestic Snapshots 155

Figure 6.7 Laurel Nakadate, February 9, 2010 from the series 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears, 2011 © Laurel Nakadate, Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

indeed exactly as Moody describes, but also about representational agency. These photographs documenting the performance of weeping also function to create room for and normalcy around the common lived experience of crying. They are a spaceclearing gesture. For example, in one image from her 365 Days series, February 9, 2010, the sobbing artist takes a mirror selfie in an oval mirror (Figure 6.7). Her long hair partially obscures her face, and her red shirt stands out against the cool grey bathroom walls and fittings. She seems to be in transit, perhaps aboard an airplane or train. Her image from December 19, 2010 features the artist in the dark, a vertical shaft of light illuminating the center of her face out of the blackness. Shot in ultraclose-up, the image reveals Nakadate with furrowed brow and parted lips, her wet eyes glinting (Figure 6.8). Lee and Nakadate’s works tread into the arena of the snapshot, which, by virtue of its lowly status, confounds conventional art historical value systems. Geoffrey Batchen has bluntly articulated the interpretive problem underlying the study of the snapshot for art history: namely, that the sheer ubiquity, often generic, and mundane nature of most domestic snapshots present challenges for art historical models of assessment.50 “[M]ost snapshots,” the art historian writes,

156 Soraya Murray

Figure 6.8 Laurel Nakadate, December 19, 2010 from the series 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears, 2011, © Laurel Nakadate, Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

are cloyingly sentimental in content and repetitively uncreative as pictures, having little value in the marketplace of either ideas or commodities. For all these reasons, they don’t easily fit into a historical narrative still anxiously, insecurely, focused on originality, innovation, and individualism.51 As he well identifies, qualities like the photograph’s reproducibility, questions of authorship and origin, as well as the connections between photography, mass pro­ duction, and consumerism, all complicate art historical notions of quality, originality, and provenance. And, of course, there is the thorny issue of conformity in which masses of snapshots repeat, rather than innovate on poses and representations, pre­ senting what he calls a need to “deal with this visual and political economy of ‘same but different’.”52 The provisional answer to this methodological quagmire is Visual Culture, which he accords as having the flexibility to address vernacular photo­ graphy, and to open up new prospects. The “same” elements, that is to say the tendency toward performing certain poses to conform to particular social expecta­ tions, indicate, for Batchen, how snapshots “work to reconcile personal and mass identity.”53 Batchen ultimately advocates that art historians of the snapshot mobilize an “analytical oscillation” as he calls it,

Domestic Snapshots 157 a back and forth between whatever orphaned examples of snapshot culture we encounter in the world and our own prized photographic reliquaries, between cliche ́ and sublimity, sameness and difference, truth and fiction, public and private, infinity and zero, without letting either term ever rest on its laurels.54 This is an admirable ideal, but easier said than done—especially given the over­ whelming ideological bent of the selfie as a kind of gendered snapshot. The problem of selfies for art history emerged in the conceptualization of a 2017–2018 exhibition, This is Not a Selfie: Photographic Self-Portraits from the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection.55 Exhibited at the San Jose Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the project was strongly oriented toward work that would be strongly understood from an art historical perspective as artistic self-portraiture. The exhibition contained notable photographs by artists like Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Lisa Anne Auerbach, Herbert Bayer, Anne Collier, Hans Bellmer, Cindy Sherman, Gillian Wearing, Nan Goldin, Douglas Gordon, Lyle Ashton Harris, Catherine Opie, Lorna Simpson, Jennifer Moon, and Yasumasa Morimura, among many others. Surely, as a collection of artist self-portraits, it was impressive in its array of works that invited an insightful look into the selfrepresentational strategies of artists dealing, in many cases, with pressing concerns of their time. The exhibition’s conceptual framing fell into trap of creating an unnecessary and false binary between the vernacular selfie snap and the self-portrait with artistic as­ pirations. Deborah Irmas, in her curatorial statement for the exhibition, suggested a clear differentiation exists between the selfie and the artistic self-portrait. She wrote: Even if the selfie can be considered a vernacular subset of the self-portrait genre, self-portraiture, especially in the hands of artists, is often a vastly different enterprise. An artist’s self-portrait can reveal ideas inherent in her (or his) ongoing or future practice…In many cases, a self-portrait can also be a pertinent autobiographical assertion about the artist—who she is as a human being.56 Irmas reinforced this position in an interview: From the beginning of the practice until today, artists have used their bodies to comment on personal concerns, political ideas, or creative expression. Catherine Opie has said she makes a self-portrait when she wants to say something bold; any one of the other artists in the collection could easily have made the same assertion. This is the fundamental difference between these works and most of the selfies on your cell phone or your Instagram feed.57 In fact, selfies often contain the exact elements identified in Irmas’ version of a selfportrait: the use of bodies to address personal concerns, political ideas, to make creative expression, say something bold, or reveal something about who the subject is as a human being. Further, the only differences might be in the conversation in which the “selfie” participates, and the literal context of its circulation. In fact, there are many selfie-takers whose knowing mobilization of the self is highly premeditated and curated. Their selfie-taking is less about an authentic disclosure of the self, as a performance of a specific politics or positionalities, for many reasons that might

158 Soraya Murray include complex engagements with the construction of self, the visualizing of underor completely un-represented personhoods, and an expansion of what can be un­ derstood as normative. Again, these, too, are subjects making choices and displaying intentionality. The meaning and significance of these “selfie” works would only re­ double across time, when the once-mundane, everyday aspects captured become idiosyncratic to a past moment.

Negotiating the Commercial According to Batchen’s work, then, the selfie taker who circulates their images in social media networks enters into the fray to reconcile “personal and mass identity” by par­ ticipating in a push and pull between individuating and conforming, between asserting themselves as knowing subjects and offering themselves up as objects to be consumed. Media scholar Lisa Nakamura has described this polemic in another way, in terms of the object of interactivity – that online personalities present themselves in dual roles of “the star and the knowing object of the interactive gaze.”58 The phenomenon of selfietaking operates in the wake of that push and pull between subject and object, such as Nakamura describes. This is tied up in the commercial—both the embrace of and struggle with the capacity for capitalism to absorb just about anything into its aims. Creative responses to this pressure vary greatly. Photographer and model Petra Collins walks the line between commercial fashion photography and art. Operating seemingly in awareness of the Lolita-like sexualization young girls in mass culture, Collins plays within those aesthetic languages of pink, lip gloss, stickers, soft light, flowers, glitter, and other iconic signifiers of girlhood.59 The influence of that con­ versation between young women negotiating the popularized girlish aesthetic is felt in the work of innumerable selfie-takers online. Rupi Kaur, an Indian-born Canadian writer and poet, has presented herself on her four million follower Instagram page as a creative from the beginning, staggering her posts between illustration, poetry, portraits, and family photographs.60 While her curated images were initially more raw, concerned with presenting herself as an artist and addressing matters of selfacceptance and the expanded field of beauty, her self-imaging has become ever more commercial and mainstream. For example, in one image that was banned and re­ posted several times, Kaur images herself in a tank top and leggings, stretched out on a bed. She is turned away from the camera, and a small menstrual stain is visible between her legs and on the white sheet below (Figure 6.9). Kaur indicates in an accompanying comment that she presents the image in protest of the Instagram community guidelines prohibiting such imagery, as a phobic response to a woman’s body.61 In another post from December 1, 2015, Kaur presents a black and white close-up of a curvy hip with brown skin striated by a network of stretch marks that would conventionally thought of as blemishes, as flaws to be concealed. In a third image from a June 26, 2015 post, Kaur images herself wearing shorts with unshaven legs. These three examples, in particular, are very much in conversation with an ongoing young feminist discourse taking place on social media. Between 2013 and the present, Kaur’s feed slowly evolves toward more professional, increasingly polished, glamorous, and cohesive aesthetic portraiture. It becomes focused on the cultivation of her branding as a poet and public persona. Others have sought to re-appropriate the tendencies of social media toward selfbranding and the commercial into an opportunity for iconoclasm and

Domestic Snapshots 159

Figure 6.9 Rupi Kaur, @rupikaur_,, March 24, 2015. Accessed April 1, 2020. Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

activism—particularly around the rejection of normativity. For example, mining the faultline between commercial fashion and feminist body politics is Arvida Byström. Originally from Stockholm, she cultivated a large fanbase on Instagram with her photographic investigations of gender norms and body acceptance, usually oscillating between selfies and still lives.62 Like Collins, Byström embraces a girlish aesthetic but one much more oriented toward a progressive vision of inclusiveness, particularly around sex positivity and body awareness (Figure 6.10). Obsessed with peach creases, lace, cherries, and all things pink, Byström is overtly critical of the idea that a bodypositive revolution can ultimately happen on the Internet: I’m going to be all anti-capitalist and say: it is very hard to achieve body acceptance in a society built on the idea of selling more products faster and faster. There is a problem with companies buying into the body acceptance because they only do it as long as it’s sellable. It’s good for the general public to see more diverse bodies though, but I just wish this wouldn’t have to come with the idea about having to buy something.63 Within this uneasy relation to consumer culture, Byström plays with its parlance, curating images that are highly concentrated responses to hypercapitalist culture and constructed normativity. While embodying that normativity to great extent, she also flaunts her body hair, and elements of herself that would be otherwise hidden or re­ touched out of the fashion image: dark roots, cellulite, and chest pimples. In her Instagram page, these images are intermittently paired with cheerfully colored sex toys, peaches fitted with lacy panties, and a tidal wave of powdery pinks, purples and neon. Giving evidence of the presence of an ongoing conversation around the body,

160 Soraya Murray

Figure 6.10 Arvida Byström, @arvidabystrom, hl=en, June 2017. Accessed April 1, 2020. Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

representation, and its connectedness to contemporary art discourse, these young female selfie-takers are signaling to each other and collaborating both online and in more conventional artistic venues. For example, Byström has had an ongoing colla­ boration with Molly Soda, whose Instagram page, @bloatedandalone4evr1993, is aesthetically distinct from both Byström’s. Soda’s embraces a more self-consciously sad sack and sometimes grotesque approach, while still tackling issues of body ac­ ceptance.64 Soda’s feed combines mostly unflattering selfies with short videos of her dancing alone in her apartment, pictures of her body hair, dental plaque and the general goings on of her not-so-camera-ready everyday life (Figure 6.11). One post, revealing a direct engagement with art discourse, displays a page from Chris Kraus’s 1997 novel I Love Dick, which references performance artist Hannah Wilke (whose work famously engaged the body) as well as Cindy Sherman. Soda’s art has been shown alongside Byström’s in the 2018 exhibition Virtual Normality: Women Net Artists 2.0, the first museum exhibition in the German speaking region “devoted to the female gaze in the age of digital stagings of identity.”65 Among the other artists included were LaTurbo Avedon, Nakeya Brown, Juno Calypso, Izumi Miyazaki, Signe Pierce, Refrakt, Nicole Ruggiero, Stephanie Sarley, and Leah Schrager. Soda and Byström also co-edited a volume of images banned from Instagram, called Pics, Or It Didn’t Happen, published in 2017 and with a foreword by Kraus.66 The

Domestic Snapshots 161

Figure 6.11 Molly Soda, @bloatedandalone4evr1993, dalone4evr1993/?hl=en, January 2017. Accessed April 1, 2020. Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

hardbound volume published by Prestel is a compendium of censored images, which, when aggregated, speak to how banal aspects of the body become taboo or abject through the community guidelines of the social media platform. Byström’s earlier performative video collaboration with artist Maja Malou Lyse, Selfie Stick Aerobics (2015), shown at the Tate Modern in London & Moderna Museet in Stockholm, satirically engages with the way women who take selfies are perceived. Lyse describes herself as “a sex-critical artist” with like-minded concerns around body-positivity as is evidenced in her Instagram feed.67 Both playing into stereotypes and cheekily sending them up, Lyse and Byström appear in tight, bubblegum pink track suits, sporting ponytails and pink makeup. Embracing cheesy, digital aesthetics and the exercise video, they provide what they call “high-energy selfadmiration.” Against a rosy simulated gym space, a perky selfie-stick instructor (Lyse) keeps the beat and demonstrates a series of rhythmic selfie gestures, narrating simple instructions in a cheerful voice. Soothing, upbeat electronica plays in the background. The instructor’s assistant (played by Byström) repeats the moves, with a series of pleasant and encouraging looks to the camera while sporting a prominent camel toe. Digital simulations of lipstick, thongs, lollipops, hoop earrings, navel jewelry, hair brushes, press-on nails, Diva Cups, and pink selfie-sticks float about, rotating among sparkles in a horizonless pink space. The video culminates in a

162 Soraya Murray hypnotic, repeated mantra: “I am beautiful, and everyone around me is beautiful.” It is a perfect combination of mortifying and sardonic, in its performance of a tragic girly pink conformity. It gleefully breaks viewers with its relentless cheer. Speaking on the art video, Lyse commented on the selfie as connected to the in­ tervention into a presumed male gaze: We [Lyse and Byström] view selfies as an effective medium for self-expression and a tool for resisting the male-dominated media culture,” Lyse said, “by reclaiming the feminine identity and female body—taking ownership of our own images instead of subjecting themselves [sic] to the male gaze. In this sense, a selfie can be a radical act of political empowerment.68 The notion of whether change is possible from within mainstream media culture—or from within a social media platform—can certainly be contested, but their inter­ vention indicates self-awareness of what is at stake in their work. But by under­ standing these kinds of interventions as records of intentional self-imaging, of choices self-consciously made, the “selfie” can be understood as an extension of a long his­ tory of women mobilizing their own self-images in the service of creating space for themselves in the world. This is evidenced in Byström’s wish, expressed on the oc­ casion of the Virtual Normality exhibition: “May our lives finally become ac­ knowledged as real and even written into art history.”69 That space of possibility is provisional, to be sure, and requires continual re­ invention. This kind of work suggests those possibilities of how the “everyday” performance of the self can grapple with advanced capitalism and negotiate a space within commodity culture, using its tools and detritus. While the works of these women may eventually be absorbed into a commodity logic, or merely ridiculed and rejected as “low” culture or in other ways rejected as a narcissistic display, in fact these concerns are consistent with the concerns of artists across time, whose works have combined the use of technological mediums, with self-imaging strategies. These strategies are about much more than simply performing for simple praise or adula­ tion, or in an attempt to disclose an authentic self. These selfies issue from an imagesaturated media environment of unprecedented proportions, with which these crea­ tive practitioners are continually grappling. All of these creative practitioners works move swiftly across contexts, some even traversing the barriers between so-called “high” and “low” spheres of culture. In new ways, these works speak to long and ongoing conversations around the vernacular image, and the selfie as an expressive form made in awareness of context, and with purpose.

Notes 1 Edgar Gómez Cruz and Helen Thornham, “Selfies beyond Self-Representation: The (Theoretical) f(r)Ictions of a Practice,” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 7, no. 1 (January 1, 2015): 1–2, 2 Cruz and Thornham, “Selfies beyond,” 2. 3 Derek Conrad Murray, “Notes to Self: The Visual Culture of Selfies in the Age of Social Media,” Consumption Markets & Culture 18, no. 6 (November 2, 2015): 10, https:// 4 Murray, “Notes to Self,” 23. 5 Jessica Leigh Maddox, “Fear and Selfie-Loathing in America: Identifying the Interstices of

Domestic Snapshots 163


7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

16 17 18

19 20 21 22 23 24 25


Othering, Iconoclasm, and the Selfie,” The Journal of Popular Culture 51, no. 1 (February 2018): 31, Maddox, 31; Theresa M. Senft and Nancy K. Baym, “What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon,” International Journal of Communication 9, no. 0 (May 15, 2015): 19; Anne Burns, “Selfies| Self(Ie)-Discipline: Social Regulation as Enacted Through the Discussion of Photographic Practice,” International Journal of Communication 9, no. 0 (May 15, 2015): 18; Katrin Tiidenberg, “Bringing Sexy Back: Reclaiming the Body Aesthetic via Self-Shooting,” Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace 8, no. 1 (March 1, 2014), CP2014-1-3. See also: Risto Sarvas, From Snapshots to Social Media - the Changing Picture of Domestic Photography, Computer Supported Cooperative Work (London; Springer, 2011), 6. “In Defense of the Poor Image,” in The Wretched of the Screen, by Hito Steyerl (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), 31–46. “In Defense of the Poor Image,” 38. “In Defense of the Poor Image,” 40–41. “In Defense of the Poor Image,” 44. “In Defense of the Poor Image,” 42. Derek Conrad Murray, “Selfie Consumerism in a Narcissistic Age,” Consumption Markets & Culture 23, no. 1 (January 2, 2020): 21–43, 67318. Peter Schjeldahl, “Richard Prince’s Instagrams,” The New Yorker, September 30, 2014, Tina M. Campt, Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 6. Likewise, Campt cites Laura Wexler, Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism, New edition edition (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000). Mehita Iqani and Jonathan E. Schroeder, “#selfie: Digital Self-Portraits as Commodity Form and Consumption Practice,” Consumption Markets & Culture 19, no. 5 (September 2, 2016): 405, Iqani and Schroeder, “#selfie: Digital Self-Portraits,” 413. Cindy Sherman et al., Cindy Sherman, English-language ed (Paris: Flammarion/Jeu de Palme, 2006); Eva Respini et al., Cindy Sherman (New York: Museum of Modern Art: Distributed in the United States and Canada by Artbook/D.A.P, 2012); Johanna Burton, ed., Cindy Sherman, October Files 6 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006). Eva Respini, “Will the Real Cindy Sherman Please Stand Up?,” in Cindy Sherman, by Johanna Burton, John Waters, and Eva Respini (New York: Museum of Modern Art: Distributed in the United States and Canada by Artbook/D.A.P, 2012), 12. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Visual and Other Pleasures, ed. Laura Mulvey, Language, Discourse, Society (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 1989), 14–26,–19798-9_3. Douglas Crimp, “The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism,” in Cindy Sherman, ed. Johanna Burton, October Files 6 (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2006), 35. Cindy Sherman, @cindysherman,, ac­ cessed April 1, 2020. Derek Blasberg, “Why Cindy Sherman Thinks Selfies Are a Cry for Help,” Wall Street Journal, October 29, 2019, sec. Magazine, Blasberg. Parul Sehgal, “The Ugly Beauty of Cindy Sherman’s Instagram Selfies,” The New York Times, October 5, 2018, sec. Magazine, magazine/instagram-cindy-sherman-ugly-beauty.html, interactive/2018/10/05/magazine/instagram-cindy-sherman-ugly-beauty.html; Blake Gopnik, “Cindy Sherman Takes On Aging (Her Own),” The New York Times, April 21, 2016, sec. Arts, There are many excellent examples, but please see: Alison Adam, Artificial Knowing:

164 Soraya Murray

27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48

49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57

Gender and the Thinking Machine (London; New York: Routledge, 1998); Ruth Oldenziel, Making Technology Masculine: Men, Women, and Modern Machines in America, 1870–1945, 1 edition (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004); Janet Abbate, Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2012); Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, 2016; Marie Hicks, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing, History of Computing (Cambridge, MA London, UK: MIT Press, 2018). 4/17/20 9:36:00 PM Oldenziel, Making Technology Masculine, 23. Oldenziel, Making Technology Masculine, 17. Hicks, Programmed Inequality. Marie Hicks, “Why Tech’s Gender Problem Is Nothing New,” The Guardian, October 12, 2018, sec. Technology, Maria Sturken, “Facebook Photography and the Demise of Kodak and Polaroid,” in Images, Ethics, Technology, ed. Sharrona Pearl (London and New York: Routledge, n.d.), 94–110. Sturken, “Facebook Photography,” 96. Sturken, “Facebook Photography,” 100. Susan Murray, “New Media and Vernacular Photography,” in The Photographic Image in Digital Culture: Revisiting Flickr, ed. Martin Lister, Second edition (London; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013), 170. Sturken, “Facebook Photography and the Demise of Kodak and Polaroid,” 101–3. Sarvas, From Snapshots to Social Media - the Changing Picture of Domestic Photography. Murray, “New Media and Vernacular Photography,” 179–80. Jonas Larsen and Mette Sandbye, Digital Snaps: The New Face of Photography, International Library of Visual Culture 7 (London: IBTauris, 2014), xviii. Amelia Jones, Self/Image: Technology, Representation, and the Contemporary Subject (London; New York: Routledge, 2006), xiv. Jones, Self/Image: Technology, xiv–xv. Jones, Self/Image: Technology, xvii. “Nikki S. Lee,” National Museum of Women in the Arts, accessed March 25, 2020, https:// Russell Ferguson, “Let’s Be Nikki,” in Nikki S. Lee: Projects, ed. Nikki S. Lee and Gilbert Vicario (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2001), 13. Ferguson, “Let’s Be Nikki,” 17. For more on this work see: Derek Conrad Murray, “Hip-Hop vs. High Art: Notes on Race as Spectacle,” Art Journal 63, no. 2 (2004): 4–19, Jones, Self/Image, 248. Marina Galperna, “Girls Are Crying for Webcams on Tumblr Because It’s Art: Thanks a Lot, Laurel Nakadate!,” ANIMAL (blog), March 30, 2012, 012/girls-are-crying-for-webcams-on-tumblr-for-art-thanks-a-lot-laurel-nakadate/; Dora Moutot, “Webcam Tears,” Webcam Tears (blog), 2012, Rick Moody, “The Weeping Breviary,” Modern Painters 23, no. 2 (2011): 56. Geoffrey Batchen, “Snapshots,” Photographies 1, no. 2 (September 1, 2008): 121–42, Batchen, “Snapshots,” 123–124. Batchen, “Snapshots,” 125. Batchen, “Snapshots,” 133. Batchen, “Snapshots,” 137. Deborah Irmas, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and San Jose Museum of Art, This Is Not a Selfie: Photographic Self-Portraits from the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2016). Irmas, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and San Jose Museum of Art, 8. Lisa Gabrielle Mark, “Interview with Collector Deborah Irmas on ‘This Is Not a Selfie:

Domestic Snapshots 165

58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69

Photographic Self-Portraits from the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection,’” LACMA Unframed, March 22, 2017, Lisa Nakamura, Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet, Electronic Mediations 23 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 19. Lizzie Widdicombe, “The Female Gaze of Petra Collins,” The New Yorker, accessed January 25, 2020, Rupi Kaur, @rupikaur_,, March 24, 2015. Accessed April 1, 2020. Grace Banks, “Pics Or It Didn’t Happen: Reclaiming Instagram’s Censored Art,” The Guardian, April 10, 2017, sec. Books, pics-or-it-didnt-happen-reclaiming-instagrams-censored-art. Arvida Byström, @arvidabystrom,, June 2017. Accessed April 1, 2020. Monique Todd, “You Can’t Censor This: Photography Roundtable,” Dazed, August 26, 2015, Molly Soda, @bloatedandalone4evr1993, evr1993/?hl=en, January 2017. Accessed April 1, 2020. Museum der bildenden Künste, “Virtual Normality: Women Net Artists 2.0,” Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig, December 1, 2018, stlerinnen-2.0/. Arvida Byström and Molly Soda, eds., Pics or It Didn’t Happen: Images Banned From Instagram (Munich: Prestel, 2017). Incidentally, the title of this book, according to the acknowledgements, was suggested by Maja Malou Lyse. See page 299. Maja Malou Lyse, @habitual_body_monitoring2, body_monitoring2/?hl=en. Accessed April 1, 2020. Priscilla Frank, “Selfie Stick Aerobics Is A Fun & Subtle Way To Promote Body Positivity,” HuffPost, October 14, 2015, d71a2e4b050c6c4a341d0. Arvida Byström, Instagram, January 9, 2018.


The Selfie in Consumer Culture Jonathan Schroeder

This chapter analyzes the selfie from interdisciplinary perspectives, focusing on the selfie as branding tool. I draw upon conceptions of the selfie as commodity form and aesthetic practice to analyze the selfie as a complex and provocative visual element in contemporary branding. The selfie’s incessant focus on identity mirrors the corporate embrace of identity as a core branding component. Further, as selfies generally appear within branded social media platforms, the logic of branding pulses through them, as they serve to draw attention to websites, capture data, and create clickstreams. Considering how brands appropriate, deploy, and promote selfies provides insight into the flows between high and low forms of visual culture, in particular, into how photography—and self-portraiture—interacts with, supports, and enhances corpo­ rate strategy, and how visual trends articulate certain assumptions about consumer culture and social media. I argue that digital self-portraiture cannot be understood without reference to branding and strategic communication. The selfie represents a contemporary manifestation of the self-portrait, a longstanding genre in visual culture, and as such, selfies constitute a tremendously ex­ panded range and number of self-representations. Summing up the power of selfportraits, a trio of art historians posit that they “are no less innovative today when—for better or worse—‘selfies’ are demotically altering our ideas of what it is to be alive; self-portraiture is now effortlessly available to all.”1 The categories “selfie” and “self-portrait” include pictures that are not produced by the “self” shown in the image. For example, famous self-portraits from Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, and Andy Warhol were produced by their assistants, and yet are generally described as self-portraits—although Sherman often disavows the term. Many selfies include other people, leading to somewhat awkward terms like group selfies, family selfies, and team selfies, united by consisting of a picture that includes the picture taker. Consider one iconic selfie: talk show host Ellen DeGeneres’ group selfie at the 2014 Academy Award Ceremony. In what first appeared to be a celebratory gesture, DeGeneres attempted to take a selfie on stage, along with actor Meryl Streep. Apparently, she had trouble taking the shot, and actor Bradley Cooper stepped in to help, as “he had longer arms.”2 DeGeneres immediately tweeted the result, with the caption “If only Bradley’s arm was longer. Best photo ever. #oscars,” in what turned out to be an enviable advertising coup for Samsung. DeGeneres used the company’s phone for the stunt, and the brand was prominently displayed in the program’s televised DOI: 10.4324/9780367206109-7

The Selfie in Consumer Culture


“selfie moment.” Samsung has been coy about the extent of the planning, but its public relations firm acknowledged its value could be as high as $1 billion.3 Of course, Samsung is not the only brand that benefitted from the DeGeneres selfie—Twitter gained enormous attention, as well as the Academy Award show, along with the individual stars in the widely reproduced and retweeted photo. Strikingly, this “Oscar selfie” is a group portrait, and DeGeneres often gets credit for the image that Cooper captured.

Self-Portraiture, Selfies, and the History of Photography A few years ago, I attended a curator’s gallery tour on selfies at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester. The talk was held in conjunction with their History of Photography exhibit, which, due to the sensitive nature of photographs, changes several times a year. Usually organized around a theme, or a subtle thread, this particular exhibit featured images about photography, including photographic equipment, processes, and self-portraiture.4 Many of the photographs included the photographic equipment necessary to produce them, such as a camera reflected in a mirror. Some were photographic self-portraits that clearly would have been called selfies if produced today. The Eastman museum show included Ilse Bing’s Self-Portrait with Leica, from 1931, which shows the photographer taking her own picture, along with the image reflected in a mirror, capturing both front and profile views of her and her iconic camera (Figure 7.1). Bing was an early adopter of the landmark 35-mm Leica; in her hands its small size and optical quality produced innovative, spontaneous, and re­ velatory images. In this photograph, the camera partially obscures her face in the frontal view, and of course, the profile view also contains a profile of the camera. As in so many photographer’s self-portraits that include a camera, one cannot help but seeing the camera as an eye. The image, too, references the photographic reproduc­ tion of imagery with its multiple views of Bing and her camera. Another self-portrait in the exhibit was Lee Friedlander’s Philadelphia, 1965, which shows the photographer taking his own picture, in what appears to be a bathroom, with a medicine cabinet mirror lit by a spare light fixture.5 One of his eyes looks through his camera’s viewfinder, the other closed in concentration. His hair is a bit scruffy; he’s not wearing a shirt. The surrounds seem spare, almost blank. Although the focus is clearly Friedlander, his camera blocks much of his face. This photograph reveals his camera as a companion, and underscores his close relationship with photography, as do many of the examples in the Eastman gallery. Today, of course, this type of self-portrait would be called a selfie, and the inclu­ sion of the camera—or phone, in most cases—appearing in a mirror, would be commonplace. Fueled by smartphone technology, social media, and digital networks, the selfie has emerged as a powerful mode of expression and self-knowledge. Indeed, selfies shape the ways of knowing, understanding and experiencing their bodies. Taking and sharing selfies, combined, make possible to experience a body in ways that merge elements of both how we experience our bodies in photographs taken by others and how we observe our bodies in mirrors.6

168 Jonathan Schroeder

Figure 7.1 Ilse Bing, Self-Portrait with Leica, 1931. Copyright Estate of Ilse Bing. Photographer Ilse Bing appears in a self-portrait that shows her small Leica camera, 1931.

The mirror, that ancient symbol of vanity, self-knowledge, and truth, continues to occupy an important role within contemporary representational practices, and it embodies a key vehicle for strategic uses of photography.7 At the gallery talk, the curator, who, tellingly, was joined by the museum’s social media manager, provided a concise overview of self-portraiture and pointed out highlights of the exhibit. She then suggested attendees think about self-portraiture in light of selfies. Specifically, she asked how self-portraits were different than selfies. Most answers pointed out the parallels between self-portraits and selfies. One person wondered why draw distinctions?—aren’t selfies the same as self-portraits? Another pointed out similarities between selfies and the self-portraiture exhibited in the gallery. Many seemed content to blur boundaries, if any existed, between selfportraiture and selfies. No one seemed to connect with the sense that self-portraiture represented a long-standing tradition in photography, and indeed the visual arts, that predates and prefigures selfies. The attendees were thoughtful and interested; they just didn’t seem acquainted—or comfortable—with the curator’s art historical concepts. Although many of the exhibit’s photographs were produced by professional photo­ graphers, and intended as artistic work, several were snapshots, with anonymous photographers, and many were unattributed vernacular photographs, which un­ doubtedly further obscure categorical boundaries. Frankly, the gallery visitors didn’t seem to care much about careful art historical distinctions. I piped up to try to reinforce a sense that self-portraiture was somewhat distinct from selfies, and that there are good reasons to think of selfies and selfportraits in different ways. This did not spark much agreement. After the talk, I spoke with the curator—we agreed that is was interesting—ok, frustrating—that the

The Selfie in Consumer Culture


Figure 7.2 Tseng Kwong Chi, Paris, France, 1983, from the self-portrait series East Meets West, 1979–1989. © Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc. Tseng Kwong Chi poses for a self-portrait in front of the famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France in 1983.

attendees seemed to lump selfies in with the long, distinguished history of selfportraiture. And I have been thinking about this interaction ever since, wondering what it meant about the art historical background of contemporary selfies. Several photographs in the George Eastman Museum’s exhibit share similarities with contemporary selfies. Many feature the photographer as the subject of the shot, like many selfies. Some reveal the photographer’s surroundings in a way that provides narration for the image. For example, Tseng Kwong Chi’s photograph, Paris, France, from 1983, shows the photographer formally and theatrically posed in front of the Arc de Triomphe, dressed as a Communist official, in traditional Mao suit, sun­ glasses, and identification badge (Figure 7.2). Thus, although clearly a self-portrait, the photograph reveals other aspects of his identity, inscribed in his portrayal of a stereotyped character, his choice of a wellknown, photogenic location, and the monumental pose and composition of the photograph: Tseng, the actor, suggests that the viewer consider both the “reality” and “story” portrayed in his photographs. What the artist selects to include tells the viewer about the imagined and real nature of the person photographed, as well as his purpose in being in the picture. The Chinese dignitary is our guide, and we move from image to image to see where he will show up next, looking for clues to Tseng Kwong Chi’s identity.8

170 Jonathan Schroeder Like many selfies, Tseng’s work emphasizes the setting, proclaiming “I am here,” and captures the subject posing, in a choreographed manner, rather than simply ap­ pearing before the camera.

Artistic Background of Contemporary Self-Portraits Artistic self-portraits offer an instructive starting point for thinking about the his­ torical context of today’s selfie. In the West, self-portraits emerged as an important visual genre around the sixteenth century, typified by painters such as Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt van Rijn, who used self-portraiture to enshrine themselves as artists and reveal their inner depths. Self-portraits have been called “products of a highly staged encounter between an artist and his or her ‘self’.”9 Selfies are often highly staged, as well, but many are taken quickly, without much reflection. Selfies are meant to express some aspect of the self at a certain moment, often in the mode of “I was here,” I witnessed this,” or “I am with great people.” I would argue that much of the singularity—a focus on individual identity—is often missing from typical selfies, including group selfies and selfies that do not contain one’s face. Selfies are underpinned by the ideology of the self-portrait—that such selfrepresentation constructs a meaningful image of the self. But selfies transcend the historical notion of a self-representation, as they can be considered “assemblages which connect self, space, technology and social networks.”10 The selfie’s integration with the internet constitutes a key transformation of its self-portrait heritage, chan­ ging how we think of the cultural, representational, and visual dimensions of identity. In other words, In the digital age, image making is but one element of several connective processes, inclusive of the power dynamics, design of, and normative practices of social networks. Seen here, photography through mobile phones is especially relevant because of its ubiquity, mobility, and seamless integration with social networks.11 The image is only one, albeit crucial, component of the selfie. How that image cir­ culates, is commented upon, and ultimately consumed constitutes key considerations of how selfies work. Visual artists, including painters and photographers, dominate how art historians think of self-portraiture. Self-portraits can be seen as “in the vanguard of cultural developments, influencing their own society’s sense of identity and selfhood.”12 Generally completed with particular representational goals in mind, such as por­ traying pathos, genius, or non-conformist innovation, many artist self-portraits build upon Romanticist notions of artists that emphasized the individual’s subjective ex­ perience, imagination, and skill.13 German artist Albrecht Dürer is often credited with elevating self-portraiture into the higher realms of art genres and thus provides a useful historical starting point for a discussion. His powerful self-portraits reveal multiple aspects of his identity, as he sought, and largely succeeded, to portray himself as an artist of genius. His selfportraiture exemplifies the artistic impulse to represent the self: “It is not only the question ‘Who am I?’ that drives the artist to the self-portrait, it is also the question ‘Where do I want to go, what would I like to be?’”14 Dürer’s Self-portrait of 1500,

The Selfie in Consumer Culture


painted when he was 28, has been described this way: “At once man and god, imago and creative prototype, representation and representer, the artist establishes himself as beautiful object…under a traditional system of ideal proportions.”15 Facing the viewer, unusual for the time, “the centralized pose and the absence of background emphasize the portrait’s level above the everyday. Not yet the Man of Sorrows, the Dürer-Christ image seems all the same to wait with dignified foreknowledge for in­ evitable betrayal.”16 The painting includes his inscription, stating: “Thus I, Albrecht Durer of Nuremberg, made an image of myself in appropriate colors in my 28th year.” His self-portraits often found him taking on particular, metaphorical roles, anticipating contemporary performative self-portraiture as well as selfies: “The artist as dandy, the artist as Christ, the artist as sufferer—Dürer’s trio of paradigms spawned flocks of extreme self-portraits”17 (Figure 7.3). Dürer’s experimentation with representing himself with varying identities marks a significant development in Western art. He pushed self-portraiture beyond selfexpression into self-presentation, a mode taken up by photographers centuries later.

Figure 7.3 Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait, 1500, Collection of the Alte Pinakothek, Germany. German artist Albrecht Dürer, in an influential self-portrait painted in 1500.

172 Jonathan Schroeder Photography’s development meant that individuals might possess various portraits of themselves, rather than one, definitive painting or sketch. Writing about how selfportraits function for writers of autobiography, literary theorist Linda Haverty Rugg observes: “photographs disrupt the singularity of the autobiographical pact by pointing to a plurality of selves; not only this image but this one, this one, and that one.”18 Certainly, the internet, with its abundance of images, propels photography’s plurality into a profound dimension.19 With a little imagination, one can imagine Dürer as a contemporary, deploying Instagram, filters, and—instead of the famous inscription from his 1500 Self-portrait—hashtags. For most viewers—and for most consumers of internet selfies—artist-produced work represents a small portion of their daily visual diet. Whereas a significant amount of selfie-related imagery may well emanate for celebrities, produced with explicit, promotional—and intentional—agendas, much of what appears online re­ mains in the realm of the amateur, or at least non-professional artist. In the George Eastman Museum gallery, however, an art historical imagination in­ fused the curatorial remarks. The museum visitors, interested though they were in photography, were not used to thinking about art historical categories and distinctions. To them, selfie was a familiar, everyday word. Self-portraiture, as an art historical concept, was not. Accustomed as there were with celebrities’ use of selfies, selfies as promotion, and selfies as personal expression, they had a difficult time thinking of selfies as distinct from a much longer historical lineage of art practice—and art his­ torical analysis. In some ways, selfies form a potent example of the boundaries and transitions between art historical and visual culture approaches to art objects. As wide-ranging as the George Eastman Museum’s exhibit was, it did not include contemporary work that engaged with selfies, let alone “amateur” selfies from Instagram or other social media platforms. The closest example was actor Jeff Bridges’ photograph of himself and his famous father Lloyd, taken during the filming of Blown Away in 1994, which closely resembles a selfie, and, if taken today, surely would be one.20 Selfies, however, were prominent in the museum’s efforts to engage visitors, who were encouraged to snap and post selfies in the gallery, as well as elsewhere within the museum. Thus, the promotional potential of the selfie reigned—as if the museum considered selfies more for their publicity and visitor engagement purposes than for their potential place in the history of photography.

Promotional Aspects of Selfies How selfies circulate is crucial for understanding their departure from artistic selfportraiture. Writing in 2014, soon after the selfie phenomenon’s emergence, Adrienne LaFrance, Executive Editor at the Atlantic pointed out: A selfie isn’t fundamentally about the photographer’s relationship with the camera, it’s about the photographer’s relationship with an audience. In other words, selfies are more parts communication than self-admiration (though there’s a healthy dose of that, too). The vantage point isn’t new; the form of publishing is. This explains why we call the photo from the Oscars “Ellen’s selfie”—because she was the one who published it. Selfies tether the photographer to the subject of the photo and to its distribution. What better way to visually represent the larger shift from observation to interaction in publishing power? Ultimately, selfies are a

The Selfie in Consumer Culture


way of communicating narrative autonomy. They demonstrate the agency of the person behind the lens, by simultaneously putting that person in front of it.21 In her quick recognition of selfies as an important cultural phenomenon, LaFrance, from the publishing world, stresses those aspects of the selfie that relate to publishing; who “posts” a selfie thus becomes a key site of creation, circulation—and copyright. She hints at a crucial aspect of the selfie, and a key difference between photographic self-portraits and selfies: selfies are not objects so much as something that is “pub­ lished,” circulated, liked, reposted, and distributed. In other words, “as a gestural image, then, the selfie inscribes one’s own body into new forms of mediated, ex­ pressive sociability with distant others.”22 Thus, the selfie implicates a host of concerns beyond the representational. Digital communication researchers Edgar Gómez Cruz and Helen Thornham argue: selfies should be understood as a wider social, cultural, and media phenomenon that positions the selfie as much more than a representational image. Approaching the selfie as a phenomenon rather than an artefact locates the practice withinalternative genealogies, which we would like to elucidate here. This, in turn, necessarily redirects us away from the object “itself” and instead understands selfies as a socio-technical phenomenon that momentarily and tentatively holds together a number of different elements of mediated digital communication.23 This turn toward representation resembles the similar turn toward visual culture that animate the past few decades of art history as an academic field. In my own ex­ perience, I have found that the selfie provides a ready topic for my research in visual culture. Prior to the selfie’s rise, I often found it difficult to explain my interest in visual aspects of consumer culture to both colleagues and acquaintances. Now that selfies are firmly established as a cultural, visual, and promotional phenomenon, they offer a useful example of the topics I am interested in. Indeed, I felt almost obliged to write about selfies, as if they are an obvious choice. In the past, I sometimes felt that I needed to go to great lengths to describe my interest in portraiture, for example, as an important element in contemporary strategic communication; now I mention selfies and the link seems self-explanatory, even necessary.24 Selfies serve branding in several ways. Organizations utilize selfies and a selfie aesthetic in their campaigns, producing selfie-infused imagery to lend a con­ temporary, and often “authentic” appearance to their advertising. To show someone taking a selfie, or indeed to take one yourself, indicates a contemporaneity, a being in the moment. The selfie has also been deployed to harness consumer engagement with brands, via hashtag themes that ask for user-generated selfies on a selected theme. Branded selfies may not always work in organization’s favor, or with intended results, however. In their study of “champagne selfies”—selfies tagged with wellknown champagne brands, featuring champagne consumption or (often empty) champagne bottles—consumer researchers Joonas Rokka and Robin Canniford re­ vealed “how assemblages of brands and the branded self intersect through hetero­ topian selfie practices: diverse, often transgressive images of consumers’ branded selves that intervene in ways that potentially destabilize meanings, uses and aesthetic ideologies constructed by brand managers.”25 In other words, personal selfies may

174 Jonathan Schroeder “interfere” or subvert—through parody, satire, or critique—with brands’ preferred identities, reflecting the co-constructed nature of brand identity, as well as the mul­ tifaceted nature of selfies. Selfie posting platforms are themselves corporate entities and include some of the most valuable brands in the world. As art historian Derek Conrad Murray observes: “As a technological and capitalist-driven form of visual representation, the selfie is as much a gateway into the economics of social division, as it is a highly personalized, affective vehicle for self-expression.”26 This transparent commodification offers several implications for understanding the selfie. The selfie, as a visual style, can be harnessed to communicate aspects of “authenticity.” Consumers brand themselves via selfies. In their analysis of how selfies function as consumer branding tools, consumer researchers Toni Eagar and Stephen Dann identified several types of selfies, including autobiography selfie, parody, propaganda, romance self-help, travel diary, and coffee table book selfies, that differ in formal features, thematic structure, and rhetorical function. They show how consumers deploy selfies to communicate coherent “selfie meta-narratives,” whose appeal varies as audiences became larger. For example, they found that the selfie’s structure—its basic content and tone, including humor, life events, social connections and selfportraits—influences audience response. In general, larger audiences respond less positively to subjective narratives, favoring images of attractiveness and mastery, aspects of cultural capital rooted in consumer culture and markets.27 They conclude: “Propaganda, self-help and coffee table book selfies are recognizable as commercial activity that is attractive to a wider audience who do not require prior engagement with the selfie-er, much akin to engagement with an artist’s work in a gallery.”28 Their typology reveals the complex motivations and outcomes of selfies and provides a useful distinction between commercial selfies—those conceived and posted as promotional tools—and more autobiographical, subjective selfies. But overall, the selfie’s (apparent) grounding in lived experience, or a “I was here-ness,” underlies its usefulness in brand communication. Photography—including digital photography, film and video photography, still photography, “snapshot” photography, and the ubiquitous selfie—permeates con­ temporary branding strategy and remains the key vehicle for representing identity. The selfie, rooted as it is in participatory consumer culture of social media, can be characterized as a significant form of consumer self‐expression, while at the same time serving as an increasingly important digital communication tool. The use of selfies in strategic campaigns signals an expansion from brand-generated to consumer-generated strategic imagery. The selfie reveals shifts in the traditional functions of strategic photography, from a source of information, persuasion and representation to an emblem of social currency.29 Selfies also have important con­ nections to Twitter (verbal snapshots), TikTok (short form humor and parody), YouTube (documentary aesthetics), blogging, live-streaming sites, and viral mar­ keting campaigns. From a brand communication perspective, selfies can present a “slice of life” or a visual testimonial within branding campaigns. Brands draw on the dueling codes and conventions of popular, home photography, as well as the artistic self-portrait, transforming the ubiquitous selfie into a powerful and persuasive strategic commu­ nication tool.

The Selfie in Consumer Culture


A 2013 “Designed by Apple in California” ad provides an early example of the strategic use of selfies. In the ad, a young women appears using an iPhone while riding in a car, neatly combining three of the most important technologies of the twentieth century—automobiles, photography, and computers. “This is it. This is what matters. The experience of a product” reads the ad, in a clear nod to photography’s strategic ability to document apparently authentic consumer experience.30 However, this Apple image seemed content to portray cell phone use and the capacity for selfies as self-expression. The selfie quickly became a core component of many brand cam­ paigns aimed at inspiring consumer engagement with brands via social media use. Brands began to ask consumers to provide their own images in response to specific hashtags, themes, and contests. For example, Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign, which encourages consumers to share shots of themselves sharing Coke bottles that featured popular first names, song lyrics, and tourist destinations with their friends, has been tremendously suc­ cessful in terms of social media metrics.31 Similarly, Calvin Klein’s “#MyCalvins” campaign offered their customers a chance to be featured on the company’s social media pages by sending a shot of themselves in Calvin Klein products.32 Many, but not all, of the images posted are selfies. Most would look right at home in a pro­ fessionally produced ad—it is obvious that consumers carefully craft the images they send in. These selfie campaigns depend upon the strategic appeal of selfies as au­ thentic self-expressions, serving multiple strategic purposes for both brands and consumers. Of course, the brands stand to gain more financially.33 Maje, a clothing brand that “appeals to the ultra stylish and effortlessly chic, whisking together delicate bohemia with strong confidence and purpose,” based their Fall and Winter 2019 collection and ad campaign on selfies. Their promotional video, “#MajeMyDogAndI,” features female models wearing the brand, all holding a cell­ phone, some filming themselves, others filming their dogs, often inside a small elevator—its bright, shiny metallic surfaces reflecting light, and framing the action (Figure 7.4). “Selfie” footage—obviously taken by the models—is interspersed with filmed footage, as the models pose, play with and take pictures of their dogs, as they dance in a minimalist interior dotted with midcentury furniture. After some in­ troductory sounds of the elevator, the soundtrack recalls James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” In a nod to “consumer engagement,” Maje’s website informs: With selfies, everyone, everywhere is talking the same language: the language of pictures. We filter out borders and share a moment, a mood, an emotion. #MajeMyDogAndI is the start of a conversation. Maje is simply providing the opening line—we didn’t choose a lift by chance, you know.34 Thus, by staging their campaign in an elevator (lift), Maje shrewdly utilizes a mun­ dane, pervasive aspect of urban life in an unusual, attention grabbing way—I rarely witness dancing (or cute dogs) in elevators. Elevators offer an enclosed, private space, yet one that is generally circumscribed by strict social conventions, including minimal conversation, aversion of eyes, and limited bodily movement. In Maje’s elevator, all these are broken down; it becomes a beautifully lit scene of celebration and com­ munity, as well as a promotional tool to communicate how the brand fits in with a glamourous, selfie-worthy life. The campaign demonstrates how effortlessly the selfie

176 Jonathan Schroeder

Figure 7.4 Maje “#MajeMyDogandI,” website screenshot, 2019. A 2019 advertisement for the French clothing brand Maje which shows a model taking a selfie with a dog. Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

merges with other forms of visuality to serve companies promotional agendas, as it taps into desires of self-expression, belonging (to the brand), and stylish living. The emergence of firms that monetize selfies represents a distinct turn in the way selfies and branding intersect. These companies offer photographers the opportunity to sell their selfies, along with other photographic subjects, by creating content for stock photo databases—content promoted as “authentic” for brand advertisers to deploy in their strategic campaigns. For example, one such firm, Candidly, posits: “Our photos share unique stories and are proven to be more successful in marketing campaigns than traditional stock photography.” Another, Stackla, claims: “Usergenerated content drives conversions, loyalty, and sharing at every marketing touchpoint.” Olapic, “The #1 Visual Commerce & Marketing Platform,” “turns consumer-generated content into your most valuable brand asset.”

Two Iconic Selfies In 2014, pop superstar Beyoncé posted a number of photographs of her posed in front of artwork in museums, galleries, and art shows. She and husband JAY-Z were granted a private tour of the Louvre, which resulted in several iconic shots, including posing in front of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Beyoncé uncannily mimics the Mona Lisa, as one writer described, “shoulders barely turned away from the camera, arms crossed, and lips pressed in a half-smile, Beyoncé does a strikingly accurate imitation of the most famous painting in the world.”35 The power couple returned to

The Selfie in Consumer Culture


the Louvre in 2018—as artists return to a favorite subject—to film their visually stunning video “Apeshit,” for the lead single of their first jointly credited album Everything is Love (as the Carters).36 In the video, shot almost entirely at the Louvre, they pose—reign, really—as the gallery is theirs alone, once again in front of the Mona Lisa, this time in more formal clothing, Beyoncé once again on the left, Jay-Z on the right. The video ends as the two gaze at the painting, back to the camera, the Mona Lisa in focus, Beyoncé and JAY-Z blurred in the foreground.37 The 2014 picture, generally referred to as a selfie, despite signs to the contrary, is credited with fueling a worldwide museum selfie movement (Figure 7.5). Beyoncé wears a dark t-shirt with an alternatively colored American flag; JAY-Z sports a silvery casual jacket. His face is rather blank, while hers reveals an enigmatic smile that matches the Mona Lisa so well. As art historian Martin Kemp points out about Da Vinci’s masterpiece, “she not only looks at the spectator, which is daring enough in terms of conventional manners, but she also regales us with an elusive and teasing smile.”38 Beyoncé managed to perfectly channel that famous smile, linking her to fine art, Western cultural achievement, artistic accomplishment, and global celebrity. Beyoncé and JAY-Z flank the painting, much in the same way that the couple in Jan van Eyck’s famous, but not Mona Lisa famous, Arnolfini Portrait, pose on either side of an enigmatic mirror. Thus, their double portrait acts as a triple portrait with the Mona Lisa, connecting these three superstars across the centuries as it enshrines them in the pantheon of celebrity. The Mona Lisa began as a portrait, albeit a remarkable one. Over the years it left behind the description of an individual and came to embody the full range of Leonardo’s poetic fantasia and philosophical scienza, expressing his deepest intuition about the bodies of earth and the woman herself.39 Similarly, this image transcends many notions of the selfie, as it embodies con­ temporary fame, power, and status. For non-famous museum goers, “while museum selfies may tap into and foreground the irreverent side of internet culture, they also function as important digital-age vehicles for conveying a user’s economic, culture, and social capital.”40 Their image spawned dozens of memes, often showing different faces, including the poster, switched out for the Mona Lisa. Transcending any particular, limited genre of selfies, Beyoncé and JAY-Z claim their role in global visual culture. Moreover, their presence in the gallery—alone—marks their fame, status, and corporate power. It is not a coincidence that Beyoncé and JAYZ, African American performers who often invoke issues of race, racism, and op­ pression in their work, chose to pose in a celebrated, bastion of white European wealth. As New York Times writer Jason Farago writes: the couple here present themselves as both outsiders in an elite institution and as heirs to it; as people excluded from its narratives but now possessors of it by virtue of their talent, their taste and, well, their money. Scenes that proudly emphasize racial difference—a woman combing a man’s hair with an afro pick in front of the Gioconda [Mona Lisa]—alternate with shots in which Beyoncé appears wholly at home, especially the one in which she is seated before the Winged Victory, with her long cream dress bundled around her legs.41

178 Jonathan Schroeder

Figure 7.5 Beyoncé and JAY-Z, Mona Lisa selfie, posted on Tumblr, 2014. Married celebrities Beyoncé and JAY-Z pose for a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa painting in the Louvre Museum in 2014. Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

As African Americans, standing aside what is perhaps Western culture’s most prized artifact, their commanding presence in the museum signals a political act, one that is expanded and elaborated upon in their 2018 video.42 Along with its iconic visuality, the Mona Lisa shot marks a complex intersection of celebrity, branding, and visual culture, with inherent political, ideological, and aesthetic complexity. An art historian eloquently describes Dürer’s Self-portrait of 1500:

The Selfie in Consumer Culture


The artist has painted his likeness with the symmetry and formality of a funeral effigy, his en face posture eliminating all contingencies of movement and viewpoint that might temporalize or localize his display. Prepared for posterity, Dürer looks ready to serve as a frontispiece for some future biography or “collected works.”43 Across the centuries, one sees connection with Beyoncé and JAY-Z’s remarkable portrait. Only the Mona Lisa, and its famous home, localizes their image, placing them within the realm of the timeless. The imagery serves many functions, not the least of which is to promote the subject. Tennis greats Roger Federer and Serena Williams posed for a celebratory selfie after their mixed doubles match at the Hopman Cup, in Perth, Australia in February 2019 (Figure 7.6).44 Federer and Williams, who have won a combined 171 career titles, including 43 Grand Slams, had never faced each other. In the match, Federer teamed up with Belinda Bencic and beat Williams and Frances Tiafoe 4-2, 4-3 in their mixed doubles match. The photo, taken by Federer with a selfie stick, was widely circulated in news and social media outlets, along with multiple shots by other photographers of the two posing for the selfie. In the shot, the pair clearly are enjoying themselves, both beaming broadly. Williams, even though she lost the match, which was “full with laughter,” remained upbeat: “I’m sorry it had to finish, I was just warming up. It was such fun, we grew up together. It was super cool. I wanted to take pictures.”45Federer

Figure 7.6 Roger Federer and Serena Williams selfie, posted on Twitter, 2019. Tennis cham­ pions Roger Federer and Serena Williams pose for a selfie after a mixed doubles match in Australia in 2019. Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

180 Jonathan Schroeder chimed in, saying the match was “great fun.”46 He posted the selfie with the caption “Oh what a night.”47 In the selfie, taken at midcourt, the bright blue playing surface in the background, the two hold similar racquets in front of themselves. The setting is ideal for photo­ graphy, as it is staged and lit for television cameras. They stand close but not touching. Each commands space, as adoring fans cheer in the background. On one level, the photograph celebrates two of the greatest athletes of the era and affords each equal status.48 However, Federer took the picture. Serena smiles more widely, and open mouthed than Federer, demonstrating sociologist Erving Goffman’s observation that women, especially in photographs, generally smile more, and more widely, than men, in what he terms “rituals of subordination.”49 One might argue that Federer is Swiss and stereotypically reserved, while Williams is American and lively, and that their smiles truly indicate their respective personalities. Goffman’s point is that smiles, as “ri­ tualistic mollifiers,” serve to signal appeasement, to reduce potential conflict. Of course, smiling varies across cultures, Americans tend to smile more than Germans, for example, and black models smile more than whites.50 Of course, within photo­ graphy, the smile is also temporally bound—early photographers insisted on their subjects not smiling due to the long exposure times. Moreover, the smiling habits of photographic subjects were influenced by industry convention. Media theorist Christina Kotchemidova argues Kodak played a leadership role in shaping the conceptualization and the cultural habits around photography at the time when the technology was becoming massconsumed. The Eastman Corporation actively and innovatively used the idea of consumer happiness in its persuasion work, skillfully exploiting visual code.51 The Federer-Williams selfie carries on a long tradition of photographic posing in which the smiling plays a central role, as promoted by the photography industry. The Federer-Williams selfie also marks a potent “co-branding” image, bringing together two of the most recognizable athletic brands in one shot. Although each focus on the fun aspects of the match, clearly they are at work, and on stage, per­ forming for the cameras—Federer’s cell phone, sports photographers, and television—as much as for themselves. Each tournament, then, is a branding event for these elite athletes, part of a strategic platform to build up recognition, fame, and corporate sponsorship. The Federer-Williams selfie blends personal, celebratory as­ pects with professional, promotional possibilities, the way so many social media snaps do. Thus, branding remains centered in this center court shot. In other words, selfies are always already branded.

Conclusion Writing with media theorist Mehita Iqani in 2016, I proposed that selfies can be productively conceived as both an important genre of visual culture and as a powerful form of self-expression at once enabled by digital technologies and constrained by the political economy of consumer media. Building on this, we have argued that selfies need to be

The Selfie in Consumer Culture


theorized as existing at the interface of objectivity (in terms of their commodity form) and subjectivity (in terms of their role in a variety of forms of selfexpression and self-branding, as well as claims to authenticity).52 I think I would add “selfies as data” to this formulation, to acknowledge growing concerns over facial recognition, geolocation, and other tracking technologies.53 Clearly, the selfie invokes multiple concerns in the realm of privacy, surveillance, and security, in part due to the enormous amount of information—data—posted selfies contain. Communication theorist Brooke Wendt argues that this aspect of the selfie sets them apart from self-portraits: In its digital state, the self-portrait is complex and full of visual and computa­ tional nuances as it is layered with information we have yet to decode or understand. The use of the smartphone and the presence of the network influences how we engage with and create our selfies. Filters and hashtags add new data to our selfies, which make them more than average self-portraits. The selfie, however, seems less like a self-portrait in a traditional sense, as it is formulaic, frequently produced, and ubiquitous on Instagram—it becomes indistinct on this image-sharing platform. These indistinct selfies appear to have turned users’ identities against themselves, as users generate images of themselves as though they are mass produced products. Essentially, Instagram diminishes one’s individuality.54 From design theorist Jessica Helfand’s point of view, selfies can be seen as a “booming industry” that drives everything from software development to plastic surgery to both the real and virtual cosmetics market. At once a behavior and a language, an economic driver and a cultural framework, that ‘love letter to yourself’ is part of a far more complex social apparatus that takes the distributed you and injects its own tags, prejudices, judgments, replications distortions, meanings, and multiple points of micro-harvested data, thereby subverting the you of your own bespoke narrative.55 In these ways, the branded commodification of the selfie poses existential concerns over agency, identity, and subjectivity. However, selfies have also been held up as potent communicative, ideological, and political tools, particularly for under-represented groups. Murray offers a productive counter-reading of the “selfie,” one that advances the possibility that popular forms of female self-imaging may offer the opportunity for political engagement, radical forms of community building—and most importantly, a forum to produce counter-images that resist erasure and misrepresentation.56 Thus, it remains important to focus on the visual and expressive aspects of the selfie—those that elevated selfies to such popularity in the first place. Certainly, selfies are branding tools, and the logic of branding threatens to permeate social media, as well as lived experience. However, as Beyoncé and JAY-Z’s powerful Mona Lisaselfies reveal, those tools may have the capacity for productive personal

182 Jonathan Schroeder expression, as well as potential political action, despite their inextricable links to branding.

Notes 1 Pia Müller-Tamm, Sylvie Ramond, and Michael Clarke, “Foreword,” in Facing the World: Self-portraits from Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei (Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland and Köln, Snoeck, 2016), 20. 2 Time, 100 Photos: The Most Influential Images of All Time, 2016, http://1 3 Ibid. 4 George Eastman Museum’s website offers some basic information, images, and a recorded curator’s talk about 2017–2018 “Self-portrait” rotation of their History of Photography exhibit. Eastman Museum, “History of Photography,” Thanks to Jamie M. Allen, Kate Myers Emery, and Lauren Lean at George Eastman Museum. 5 Self-portraits occupy a large place in Friedlander’s photographic corpus. See, for example, Lee Friedlander, In the Picture: Self-Portraits, 1958–2011 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011). 6 Katrin Tiidenberg and Edgar Gómez Cruz, “Selfies, Image and the Re-making of the Body,” Body & Society 21, no. 4 (2015): 94. 7 For more on the strategic deployment of mirrors, see Jonathan E. Schroeder and Detlev Zwick, “Mirrors of Masculinity: Representation and Identity in Marketing Communication,” Consumption Markets & Culture 7 (2004): 21–52. 8 “Tseng Kwong Chi Collection,” Center for Creative Photography, 2019, https:// 9 Eleanor Nairne, “Know Thyself,” in Self-Portrait, eds. Michael Juul Holm, Jeanne Rank Schelde, and Helle Crenzion (Humlebæk, Denmark, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2012), 15. 10 Richard Kedzior, Douglas Allen, and Jonathan Schroeder, “The Selfie Phenomenon – Consumer Identities in the Social Media Marketplace,” European Journal of Marketing 50, no. 9/10 (2016): 1767–1772. 11 Edgar Gómez Cruz and Helen Thornham, “Selfies beyond Self-representation: the (Theoretical) F(r)ictions of a Practice,” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture 7 (2015): 2. Gómez Cruz and Thorhman argue that selfies require new tools for understanding: more important than understanding the semiotics of the visual is understanding how the visual is becoming an essential element of a wider “semiotic algorithm.” We need to move from focusing on the narratives about the visual or the narratives of the users to focus on the socio-technical practices that constitute if not condition those narratives. These practices perpetuate power relations in ways that are sometimes celebrated and very often accepted rather than critiqued. We need a critical stance more than ever if we are to grasp the complexity of how technologies, bodies, the visual and the narratives about them, operate in digital culture. Selfies as self-representation, very bluntly, does not offer the scope for this. Ibid, 8. 12 James Hall, The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History (London: Thames & Hudson, 2014), 11. 13 Anna Reynolds, “The Cult of the Artist,” in Portrait of the Artist, eds. Anna Reynolds, Lucy Peter, and Martin Clayton (London, Royal Collection Trust, 2016), 203. 14 Helle Crenzien, “Self-Portrait: Introduction to the Exhibition,” in Self-Portrait, eds. Michael Juul Holm, Jeanne Rank Schelde, and Helle Crenzion (Humlebæk, Denmark, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2012), 7. 15 Joseph Leo Koerner, The Moment of Self-portraiture in German Renaissance Art (Chicago, University of Chicago, 1993), 158–159. 16 Michael Levey, Dürer (New York, Norton, 1964), 36. 17 Ariella Budick, “The Self-portrait: Genuine Introspection or Preening Self-regard?,” Financial Times, March 9–10, 2019, Arts 18.

The Selfie in Consumer Culture


18 Linda Haverty Rugg, Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 13. 19 For an insightful perspective on the contemporary “abundance” of images, see Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, “Photography: The Abundant Art,” Photography and Culture 9, no. 1 (2016): 39–58. 20 Jeff Bridges’ photograph, entitled “Lloyd and Jeff Bridges, Blown Away,” which clearly shows his arm extended toward his camera, selfie-style, can be seen here: George Eastman Museum, Collections Online, 2015, 21 Adrienne LaFrance, “When Did Group Pictures Become ‘Selfies’?,” The Atlantic, March 25, 2014, 22 Paul Frosh, “The Gestural Image: The Selfie, Photography Theory, and Kinesthetic Sociability,” International Journal of Communication 9 (2015): 1607–1628. 23 Gómez Cruz and Thornham, “Selfies beyond Self-representation,” 3. 24 For a pre-selfie discussion of potential relationships between portraiture and branding, see Jonathan E. Schroeder, “The Artist in Brand Culture,” in Marketing the Arts: A Fresh Approach, eds. Daragh O’Reilly and Finola Kerrigan (London: Routledge, 2010), 18–30. 25 Joonas Rokka and Robin Canniford, “Heterotopian Selfies: How Social Media Destabilizes Brand Assemblages,” European Journal of Marketing 50, no. 9/10 (2016): 1789–1813. 26 Derek Conrad Murray, “Selfie Consumerism in a Narcissistic Age,” Consumption Markets & Culture 23, no. 1 (2020), 41. Murray provides an alternative viewpoint on gendered critiques of selfies and their apparent relationship to narcissism. 27 Toni Eagar and Stephen Dann, “Classifying the Narrated #selfie: Genre Typing Humanbranding Activity,” European Journal of Marketing 50, no. 9/10 (2016): 1835–1857. 28 Ibid, 1851. 29 Mehita Iqani and Jonathan E. Schroeder, “#selfie: Digital Self-portraits as Commodity Form and Consumption Practice,” Consumption Markets & Culture 19, no. 5 (October 2016), 412. 30 The 2013 Apple ad can be seen here: Apple, Our Signature 1, Ads of the World, 2013, For a provocative cri­ tique of the Apple campaign, see Mark Wilson, “In 20 Years, We’re All Going To Realize This Apple Ad Is Nuts,” Fast Company, July 13, 2013, 020/in-20-years-we-re-all-going-to-realize-this-apple-ad-is-nuts. 31 Jay Moye, “Share a Coke: How the Groundbreaking Campaign Got its Start Down Under,” Coca-Cola Australia, July 16, 2016, news/share-a-coke-how-the-groundbreaking-campaign-got-its-start-down-under. 32 Calvin Klein, “Show Us How You #MyCalvins,” 2020, mycalvins. This site is “powered by Olapic,” which offers user-generated content for companies in a kind of stock photo agency. 33 For powerful critiques of selfies as part of “surveillance capitalism,” see Henry A Giroux, “Selfie Culture in the Age of Corporate and State Surveillance,” Third Text 29, no. 3 (2015): 155–164, and Shoshanna Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York, Public Affairs, 2019). 34 Maje, #MajeMyDogandI, 2019, The Maje campaign video can be viewed at: “#MajeMyDogandI – New Maje FW19 Campaign,” YouTube, 2019, 35 Leigh Silver, “The Real Power of Beyoncé’s #ArtSelfies,” Complex, November 14, 2014, 36 Film scholar Jenny Gunn provides an insight art historical and ideological analysis of Beyoncé and JAY-Z’s “Apeshit” video (rendered as Apes**t on their official Vevo channel): “If Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade (2016) and JAY -Z’s corresponding 4:44 (2017) stand as portraits to each as individuals, then Everything Is Love (2018) is the culminating testament to the couple. The opening image of the newly rebranded Carters in the album’s viral announcement video “Apeshit” (Ricky Saiz, 2018) underscores this change in pre­ sentation.” Jenny Gunn, “The Outside Meets the Institution: The Carters’ ‘Apeshit’ Video,” Black Camera 11, no. 1 (Fall 2019), 385.

184 Jonathan Schroeder 37 The Louvre now offers a “Visitor Trail,” that includes highlights of the Apes**t video such as Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Great Sphinx of Tanis, for those wishing to follow in Beyoncé and JAY-Z’s footsteps. See The popularity of the Mona Lisa led one writer to complain: “Leonardo’s painting is a security hazard, an educational obstacle and not even a satisfying bucket-list item. It’s time the Louvre moved it out of the way.” Jason Farago, “It’s Time to Take Down the Mona Lisa,” New York Times, November 6, 2019, 06/arts/design/mona-lisa-louvre-overcrowding.html. 38 Martin Kemp, Leonardo by Leonardo (New York, Callaway, 2019), 121. 39 Ibid., 127. 40 E. B. Hunter, “In the Frame: the Performative Spectatorship of Museum Selfies,” Text & Performance Quarterly 38 (1/2, January-April 2018), 57. Hunter offers an optimistic vi­ sion of museum selfies: “Museum selfies remind us that museums are places – real places, with physical addresses – that we want to visit. As museums grapple with a rapidly changing cultural landscape, museum selfies suggest the next important development in visitor engagement is already in the hands of the visitors themselves.” Ibid, 71. 41 Jason Farago, “At the Louvre, Beyoncé and Jay-Z Are Both Outsiders and Heirs,” New York Times, June 17, 2018, C1. 42 Gunn, “The Outside Meets the Institution: The Carters’ ‘Apeshit’ Video,” 396. 43 Joseph Leo Koerner, The Moment of Self-portraiture in German Renaissance Art (Chicago, University of Chicago, 1993), xv. 44 The Hopman Cup is an international tennis tournament featuring teams of two, one male and one female player, representing their country, the men and women play a singles match, and the team plays a mixed doubles match. 45 The Irish Times, “Roger Federer Topples Serena Williams in First Ever Meeting,” The Irish Times, January 1, 2019, 46 Reuters, “Federer, Serena Click ‘Greatest Selfie of All Time’ after Dream Clash,” Reuters, January 1, 2019, 47 Federer’s caption “Oh What a Night,” might color the picture with a curious hint of sexual innuendo. (The Four Seasons pop song “December 1963 (Oh What a Night),” in which the singer fondly reminiscences about his night with a woman through a nostalgic lens, comes to my mind, as it was a big hit during my teenage years.) However, the picture, is more easily read as focused on tennis, performance, and mutual respect. The setting—on the court, right after the match, subsumes the potential for sexual suggestiveness. As far as I can determine, there is no indication that the two have had any romantic or sexual interest in each other. Captions remind a crucial, often overlooked aspects of selfies—more than titles, they provide context and detail. 48 For an insightful discussion of racism in the world of tennis, see Sundiata Djata, “Racial Politics in the History of American Tennis,” in Routledge Handbook of Tennis: History, Culture and Politics, ed. Robert J. Lake (New York: Routledge, 2019), 392–401. 49 Erving Goffman, Gender Advertisements (New York, Harper & Row, 1979), 69–70. 50 Jisun An and Haewoon Kwak, “Gender and Racial Diversity in Commercial Brands’ Advertising Images on Social Media,” in Social Informatics. SocInfo 2019 [Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol. 11864], eds. Ingmar Weber, Kareem M. Darwish, Claudia Wagner, Emilio Zagheni, Laura Nelson, Samin Aref, Fabian Flöck (Springer, Cham, Switzerland, 2019), 79–94. For more on smiling, see Kuba Krys, et al., “Be Careful Where You Smile: Culture Shapes Judgments of Intelligence and Honesty of Smiling Individuals,” Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 40, no. 2 (2016): 101–116. 51 Christina Kotchemidova, “Why We Say “Cheese”: Producing the Smile in Snapshot Photography,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 22, no. 1 (March 2005), 2. 52 Iqani and Schroeder, “#selfie: Digital Self-portraits as Commodity Form and Consumption Practice.”

The Selfie in Consumer Culture


53 For a trenchant critique of how data, including data from selfies, is gathered, coded, and utilized, see Nick Couldry and Ulises S. Mejias, The Costs of Connection: How Data Colonizes Human Life and Appropriates It for Capitalism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019). 54 Brooke Wendt, The Allure of the Selfie: Instagram and the New Self-Portrait (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2014), 10. 55 Jessica Helfand, Face: A Visual Odyssey (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019), 238. 56 Derek Conrad Murray, “Notes to Self: The Visual Culture of Selfies in the Age of Social Media.” Consumption Markets & Culture 18, no. 6 (2015): 491.

References An, Jisun and Haewoon Kwak. “Gender and Racial Diversity in Commercial Brands’ Advertising Images on Social Media.” In Social Informatics. SocInfo 2019 [Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Vol. 11864], edited by Ingmar Weber, Kareem M. Darwish, Claudia Wagner, Emilio Zagheni, Laura Nelson, Samin Aref, and Fabian Flöck. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2019, 79–94. Budick, Ariella. “The Self-portrait: Genuine Introspection or Preening Self-Regard?.” Financial Times, March 9–10, 2019, Arts 18. Couldry, Nick and Ulises S. Mejias. The Costs of Connection: How Data Colonizes Human Life and Appropriates It for Capitalism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019. Crenzien, Helle. “Self-Portrait: Introduction to the Exhibition.” In Self-Portrait, edited by Michael Juul Holm, Jeanne Rank Schelde, and Helle Crenzion, 7–9. Humlebæk, Denmark: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2012. Djata, Sundiata. “Racial Politics in the History of American Tennis.” In Routledge Handbook of Tennis: History, Culture and Politics, edited by Robert J. Lake, 392–401. New York: Routledge, 2019. Eagar, Toni and Stephen Dann. “Classifying the Narrated #selfie: Genre Typing Humanbranding Activity.” European Journal of Marketing 50(9/10, 2016), 1835–1857. Farago, Jason. “At the Louvre, Beyoncé and Jay-Z Are Both Outsiders and Heirs.” New York Times, June 17, 2018, C1. Farago, Jason. “It’s Time to Take Down the Mona Lisa.” New York Times, November 6, 2019, Friedlander, Lee. In the Picture: Self-Portraits, 1958-2011. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011. Frosh, Paul. “The Gestural Image: The Selfie, Photography Theory, and Kinesthetic Sociability.” International Journal of Communication 9 (2015), 1607–1628. Giroux, Henry A. “Selfie Culture in the Age of Corporate and State Surveillance.” Third Text 29, no. 3 (2015), 155–164. Goffman, Erving. Gender Advertisements. New York: Harper & Row, 1979. Gómez Cruz, Edgar and Helen Thornham. “Selfies beyond Self-representation: the (Theoretical) F(r)ictions of a Practice.” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture 7 (2015): 1–10. Gunn, Jenny. “The Outside Meets the Institution: The Carters’ ‘Apeshit’ Video.” Black Camera 11, no. 1 (Fall, 2019): 385–398. Hall, James. The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History. London: Thames & Hudson, 2014. Hariman, Robert and John Louis Lucaites. “Photography: The Abundant Art.” Photography and Culture 9, no. 1 (2016): 39–58. Helfand, Jessica. Face: A Visual Odyssey. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019. Hunter, E. B. “In the Frame: the Performative Spectatorship of Museum Selfies.” Text & Performance Quarterly 38, no. 1/2 (January-April 2018): 55–74.

186 Jonathan Schroeder Iqani, Mehita and Jonathan E. Schroeder. “#selfie: Digital Self-portraits as Commodity Form and Consumption Practice.” Consumption Markets & Culture 19, no. 5 (October 2016): 405–415. The Irish Times. “Roger Federer Topples Serena Williams in First Ever Meeting.” The Irish Times, January 1, 2019, Kedzior, Richard, Douglas Allen, and Jonathan Schroeder, “The Selfie Phenomenon – Consumer Identities in the Social Media Marketplace.” European Journal of Marketing 50, no. 9/10 ( 2016): 1767–1772. Kemp, Martin. Leonardo by Leonardo. New York: Callaway, 2019. Koerner, Joseph Leo. The Moment of Self-portraiture in German Renaissance Art. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1993. Kotchemidova, Christina. “Why We Say “Cheese”: Producing the Smile in Snapshot Photography.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 22, no. 1 (March 2005): 2–25. Krys, Kuba, et al. “Be Careful Where You Smile: Culture Shapes Judgments of Intelligence and Honesty of Smiling Individuals.” Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 40, no. 2(2016): 101–116. LaFrance, Adrienne. “When Did Group Pictures Become ‘Selfies’?” The Atlantic, March 25, 2014, Levey, Michael. Dürer. New York: Norton, 1964. Moye, Jay. “Share a Coke: How the Groundbreaking Campaign Got its Start Down Under.” Coca-Cola Australia, July 16, 2016, Müller-Tamm, Pia, Sylvie Ramond, and Michael Clarke. “Foreword.” In James Hall, Wolfgang Ullrich and Pierre Vaisse (eds.), Facing the World: Self-portraits from Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei, 7–21. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland and Köln, Snoeck, 2016. Murray, Derek Conrad. “Notes to Self: The Visual Culture of Selfies in the Age of Social Media.” Consumption Markets & Culture 18, no. 6 (2015): 490–516. Murray, Derek Conrad. “Selfie Consumerism in a Narcissistic Age.” Consumption Markets & Culture 23, no. 1 ( 2020): 21–43. Nairne, Eleanor. “Know Thyself.” In Self-Portrait, edited by Michael Juul Holm, Jeanne Rank Schelde, and Helle Crenzion, 10–15. Humlebæk, Denmark: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2012. Reuters. “Federer, Serena Click ‘Greatest Selfie of All Time’ after Dream Clash.” Reuters, January 1, 2019, Reynolds, Anna. “The Cult of the Artist.” In Portrait of the Artist, edited by Anna Reynolds, Lucy Peter, and Martin Clayton, 203–221, London: Royal Collection Trust, 2016. Rokka, Joonas and Robin Canniford. “Heterotopian Selfies: How Social Media Destabilizes Brand Assemblages.” European Journal of Marketing 50, no. 9/10 ( 2016): 1789–1813. Rugg, Linda Haverty. Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Schroeder, Jonathan E. “The Artist in Brand Culture.” In Marketing the Arts: A Fresh Approach, edited by Daragh O’Reilly and Finola Kerrigan, 18–30. London: Routledge, 2010. Schroeder, Jonathan E. “Snapshot Aesthetics and the Strategic Imagination.” Invisible Culture 18 (Spring 2013), Schroeder, Jonathan E. and Detlev Zwick. “Mirrors of Masculinity: Representation and Identity in Marketing Communication.” Consumption Markets & Culture 7 (2004): 21–52. Silver, Leigh. “The Real Power of Beyoncé’s #ArtSelfies.” Complex, November 14, 2014, Tiidenberg, Katrin and Edgar Gómez Cruz. “Selfies, Image and the Re-making of the Body.” Body & Society 21, no. 4 (2015): 77–102.

The Selfie in Consumer Culture


Time. 100 Photos: The Most Influential Images of All Time, 2016, photos/bradley-cooper-oscars-selfie. Wendt, Brooke. The Allure of the Selfie: Instagram and the New Self-Portrait. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2014. Wilson, Mark. “In 20 Years, We’re All Going To Realize This Apple Ad Is Nuts.” Fast Company, July 13, 2013, Zuboff, Shoshanna. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Public Affairs, 2019.


Selfie Narcissism, Consumerism and the Pathologizing of Women Derek Conrad Murray

Who’s Afraid of the Selfie? In the introduction to the anthology Freud’s On Narcissism: An Introduction, au­ thors Joseph Sandler, Ethel Person, and Peter Fonagy elucidate how a pejorative use of the term “narcissism” has emerged in popular culture. We see this development in recent discussions about internet-based forms of self-imaging, popularly regarded as selfies.1 Within this context, the term is used primarily as an insult, yet this derisive language is not meant to denote an actual psychological disorder. In fact, Sandler et al. suggest that the term has moved significantly away from its original clinical meanings: Even to the casual observer of psychoanalysis it is abundantly apparent that in recent years issues of narcissism have taken center stage. The concept of narcissism is pivotal in revisions of theory, and the treatment of pathological narcissism central to technical innovations and to the evolving theory of technique. The growing interest in narcissism has found its way into popular culture as well, with the term being used in a pejorative sense to denote selfpreoccupation and to describe certain aspects of contemporary life (although this is quite different from what clinicians mean when they use the term).2 The opposition between popular and clinical definitions of narcissism (as they pertain to the selfie) is relevant for several reasons—not least because it highlights a need to position online forms of self-imaging as culturally corrosive, pathological, and even mortally dangerous. Much has been written about this popular cultural act. We see an array of perspectives contemplating its many forms, the most common being the ubiquitous bathroom selfie—a frontal self-portrait of a lone subject facing a mirror, cell phone camera at their waist, as they engage in the often-maligned act of self-imaging. Scholar Greg Goldberg has mounted one of the more robust critiques of the popular journalistic trend to link selfie-taking with narcissism, claiming that this charge is primarily media hype that ultimately functions as an insult. However, he simultaneously suggests that within that claim is a fundamental mischaracterization of narcissism. In contrast, Goldberg’s research: focuses on the “hype” of selfies as narcissistic in order to identify and ultimately trouble the political unconscious of this diagnosis, and to ask, what is the DOI: 10.4324/9780367206109-8

Selfie Narcissism 189 problem of narcissism such that it can serve as a means of devaluing, and what kind of politics might we find in the behaviors, proclivities, or attributes identified as narcissistic?3 Goldberg further suggests that: “the problem of narcissism is less an exaggerated focus on the self than it is a failure of responsibility for oneself, and/or an insufficient concern for the well-being of others to whom the narcissist ought to be responsible.”4 However, Goldberg sites the writing of noted American art critic Jerry Saltz who, in his own attempts to debunk the supposed frivolity of the selfie, also contends with the petulant silliness of the word itself: “The word ‘selfie’ bothers Saltz as a marker of immaturity—a discursive neighbor to narcissism insofar as children have not yet been fully socialized—as if the form (and its practitioners) needs to mature.”5 With these concerns in mind, why has the selfie’s inauspicious arrival been met with such an­ imus? What is so threatening about the selfie?

Technology, Mental Health, and Pathologizing of Women The recent trend towards establishing a link between selfie-taking and narcissism is particularly troubling—and perhaps dangerous—especially if the general public perceives the act to be encoded as more female than male. The evidence of this cul­ tural and ideological leaning is indeed pervasive, even though many research studies have also generated findings about male self-imaging tendencies. This essay is con­ cerned primarily with the visual culture produced by this very popular conversation. However, the problematic history around the medical research of women’s bodies (particularly pertaining to their sexuality) can shed significant light on the patholo­ gizing of women for their use of technology. Scholar Stephanie E. Libbon’s research compellingly unpacks a history of not just gender and sexual hierarchies but also an often-pathological set of efforts to establish a link between women, mental illness, and disease. Libbon argues that to trace the evolution of the female body as it has been compared and contrasted with the male body down through the ages is to reveal not only the prevailing ideologies of woman as she has been envisioned throughout the centuries in various societies, but likewise to trace the changing status of women and the patriarchal reactions to these changes.6 Libbon cites Sondra Farganis who argues that women have been subject to a “phallocentric construction of sexuality,” suggesting that for most of Western his­ tory, women have been envisioned based upon a very male-centric set of parameters.7 These parameters generated a set of normative standards for women and female sexuality in general. Libbon’s overarching argument is that the sciences, particularly the biomedical sciences, either willfully misused or altered findings to generate em­ pirical truths to “legitimate male superiority and maintain male authority.”8 These endeavors tended to specifically malign sexually independent women: claiming that very sexual, or autoerotic women, would take on masculine traits and drift away from their supposedly natural maternal instincts. Much of this research was produced in the early twentieth century by a diverse contingent of physicians,

190 Derek Conrad Murray including Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902), a renowned sexologist who ad­ vanced a conjunction between sexuality and mental illness in women: Along with the idea of physical disease came new theories of mental illness…. In Krafft-Ebing’s work, which did much to advance the study of sexual dysfunction, hysteria is an often-diagnosed malady responsible for a multitude of psycholo­ gical and physical ailments. As an accompanying symptom of nymphomania.9 At the time, as Libbon points out, for physicians like Krafft-Ebing, hysteria was a disease of the sexual organs, brought about by women’s unrepressed desires. This was contrasted by the false belief that so-called normal women lacked sexual desires. There are some parallels between the historical pseudo-science studies mentioned earlier, and recent research trends in technology, mental health and the pathologizing of women. Much of the current research on selfies explores the various popular forms of self-imaging, including the shooting and online posting of sexually themed selfies. There are many studies looking at body objectification, taking into consideration that traditionally, it “has been considered a gendered-process, valid and true exclusively for women in Western societies,” one that has been fueled by a mass media pro­ moting cultural standards of beauty that objectified female bodies.10 Researchers Valentina Boursier, Francesca Gioia, and Mark D. Griffiths recount that recent stu­ dies have reported a higher frequency of self-objectified self-images being produced and posted online by young adult women—and that there is a distinct relationship between photo investment and body dissatisfaction.11 Sarah Grogan et al. have lo­ cated similar findings that suggest a direct correlation between body image, sexuality, and self-esteem.12 How one feels about the conjunction between self-imaging online and mental health depends upon the larger social and psychological impacts of social media on users. There is a lack of consensus about the effects of social media usage. Greg Goldberg captures the contradictions of the debate very well: On one side of this debate, scholars and critics argue that social media are precisely antisocial, engendering a host of behaviors and attitudes that work to the detriment of communal, collective, and responsible forms of relationality. The problem is less that social media disconnect users from each other, though some have made this claim, but rather that they connect users in the wrong ways, for the wrong reasons, and with potentially disastrous social, political, psycho­ logical, and neurological consequences. On the other side of this debate, scholars and critics maintain that social media are in fact pro-social, democratizing cultural production, invigorating the public sphere, bolstering civic participation, and engendering collective governance.13 I tend to believe that the levels of investment in establishing a connection between selfies and mental health is part of a lengthy history of patriarchal investment in gender-based and sexual divisions. The supposed ideological differences in how genders wield social media—as well as their tendencies towards self-imaging—are bound up in very complex dynamics with historical roots. There is a pervasive notion that women and men use technology differently; that women, in particular, hold a greater investment in visual forms of self-display. It is in this heavily ideological

Selfie Narcissism 191 understanding that narcissism enters the conversation. In Goldberg’s formulation above, there is a binary at work in our cultural understanding of social media usage, whereby commentators see either peril or emancipatory possibility. Perhaps both are true. There is evidence that many women utilize self-imaging as a tool of personal empowerment, community building, economic opportunity, and social engagement. On the other hand, we can see the negative effects of toxic online cultures, such as: mis-information and dis-information, political propaganda, cyber-bullying, child pornography, surveillance, and identity theft among many other perils. The general over-usage of cellphones by consumers is startling, as is the related sense that society is becoming more antisocial. The binary Goldberg explicates impacts public per­ ceptions of selfie-taking as well, precisely because doing so is generally a solitary act. The selfie (in its primary form) is produced by a lone subject in an act of personal reflection. It is therefore viewed as an implicitly self-absorbed act, if not also a re­ flection of narcissism. It is antisocial, at least until the image is shared, and con­ versations are generated as a result. One of the problems that emerges here is related to the methodologies utilized to explore this phenomenon. There is a tension between the discomforts elicited by individual images (the personal as political), versus the more sociological methods of research analysis that chart selfies in the aggregate, as data-based evidence of major social transformations, or as symptoms of psychological disorders. Gender becomes a kind of ideological slippage, trapped between these contradictory approaches. The tendency by social scientists to ignore the highly individualized nature of self-imaging, in favor of a more detached research approach, disallows the ability to understand the personal motivations behind particular images. It also encourages looking at selfietakers as test subjects who are subsumed, controlled, and ultimately victimized by techno-capitalist hegemonies. As this complex cross-disciplinary conversation evolves, I am concerned that the perception of selfie-takers is that they are simply unwitting casualties of toxic socioeconomic forces—or are psychologically compromised, entranced, and ensnared by corporate rapacity. In many ways, the selfie-taker has become the subject of advanced techno-capitalism. But as I will unpack in this chapter, the perceptions of self-imaging online as corrosive are bound up in gendered assumptions about women’s mental health in a male dominated society. And these concerns intersect with tensions around women’s use of technology, as well as their often-tumultuous place within the tech industry. The conversation is about agency, who wields it, and how users are either agents of technology who creatively drive innovation, or simply victims of it. Culturally, the tendency is to view women, in particular, as uniquely controlled by technology—as essentially swept up psychologically and emotionally by the whims of the industry. A 2013 article in The Atlantic by Noah Berlatsky sums this up quite effectively in his breakdown of dueling feminist perceptions of the selfie phenomenon. Charting contrasting arguments by feminists, Berlatsky suggests there are warring viewpoints, one of which is the “standard third-wave-feminism, girl-culture-is-good” stance, contrasted by what he describes as the “old-school second-wave-feminism, culture-isoppressive argument: that selfies teach girls to obsess over their appearance and judge themselves on the basis of beauty rather than accomplishments.”14 Berlatsky is correct that both perspectives have their strengths and weaknesses, although for certain demographics, women of color in example, imaging the self can be an act of

192 Derek Conrad Murray personal empowerment. The answer is arguably in the specifics of the photographs themselves, and in the personal motivations and drives of the individuals who pro­ duce them. Where both scholarly research and popular journalism often fail is in their tendency to view selfies as a meta societal phenomenon, and not one driven my personal intimacies and fragilities. I tend to agree with Berlatsky that “instead of rushing to put every individual into one box, it would be nice if we could take the time to look at individual selfies as individual selfies—portraits that represent dif­ ferent people, rather than a single, monotonous, multi-headed self.”15 Berlatsky’s article is a fitting example of a popular conversation that suggests, in a very matter-of-fact way, that self-imaging online is a female issue—that it uniquely impacts women, especially the young. Arguably, this is most effectively commu­ nicated in the composite image that accompanies the article. The image is a diptych, one of Kim Kardashian taking a selfie with fans, and the other a photo actor Meryl Streep and Hilary Clinton caught in the act (Figure 8.1). As this chapter unpacks, one of the most ideological powerful dimensions of the conversation is the visual culture it generates: a litany of stock images mostly of women engaged in a behavior that is culturally viewed as petulant. That these images are psychologically manipulative is no small thing, particularly as we contend with the devolution of the conversation towards a troubling conjunction between gender, technology use, and mental health. As scholars, we must attend to this trend, because it has historical implications and precedents that continue to impact social norms. The deluge of articles in popular journalism citing studies advancing a link between selfies and narcissism are innumerable, yet a large number of these efforts have cited findings by the research study Selfiecity. The study, which is backed by the City University of New York, California Institute of Telecommunication and Information, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is exploring the impact of the selfie on our society. Researchers looked at selfies shared on Instagram in five major international cities, Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow, New York and Sao Paulo, over six months.16 Selfiecity found that, overall, more women than men take and post selfies—results that captured the interest of the popular press. While the findings of the study un­ veiled this tendency, it also found that men also actively self-image, especially those over 40. Needless to say, the conversation is still heavily gendered and leans towards what I would characterize as a soft pathologizing of women’s technology use, based upon questionable scientific and medical evidence. There is a lingering and pervasive sentiment that selfie-taking is a symptom of society’s downfall, of its moral decline, and such sentiments echo a lengthy history of similarly overwrought pronounce­ ments. Are we to believe that the selfie has produced a society of deviant, ruined, narcissistic women, suffering from a combustible mixture of low self-esteem and selfobsession, who are traumatized by a culture of constant misogynistic degradation? If our society that teaches young women to see themselves only as sexual objects for the desires of men, then perhaps there is some truth in all of this. As Stephanie Libbon argues, so many of the Western world’s social norms have been codified by centuries of gendered hierarchies and phallocentric values that have actively sought to pa­ thologize womanhood:

Selfie Narcissism 193

Figure 8.1 The Atlantic article entitled “Selfies Are Art,” November 22, 2013, https:// Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

Concerned that the New Woman and other recalcitrant women would lead to society’s downfall and the dissolution of the race, many scientists and physicians, adhering to a Baconian tradition that called for a virile science to conquer and control Mother nature, now sought to master human nature and woman’s sexual nature in particular. Having labelled woman as intrinsically diseased and debauched, experts and laymen alike now took institutional measures to impede any further social or political disruption on her part. Under the guise of “curing” her of her ailments and moreover protecting society in the process, the unruly woman was now forced either into compulsory hospitalization, often with

194 Derek Conrad Murray accompanying surgical mutilation, or incarceration. In both instances it was the woman who protested and rallied against male control and regulation of herself and her body who was locked away, sequestered from society, in an effort to compel her to return to the silent, submissive role man had eked out for her. Where science had aided in shifting man’s perspective of the human body from a one-sex model to a two-sex model, and in the process had elevated woman from an inferior version of the male sex to a different but complementary sex, it was now being employed towards a more nefarious aim. Exploited to legitimize the inequality of the sexes and hence the continued suppression of woman, science, for all its assertions of being a neutral search for empirical truth, had proven itself not immune to the powers of socio-political interests and cultural influence. Any rise in status woman may have gained with the advent of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, any hopes for greater liberties that she may have fought for in the French Revolution, had all but vanished by the late-nineteenth century as men once again defined and confined her as the deviant monster Aristotle had described over two thousand years earlier.17 I cite Libbon at length because her historical knowledge teaches us something valu­ able about the troubling relation between science, public health, and gender. This history bears down upon popular discussions, like the selfie debate, that unfold so casually in our midst. While we may think of selfies as an entertaining and low-stakes, it is vigorously being studied, tracked, quantified, and used as the basis for medical research. Therefore, we must pay close attention to the evolution of this conversation, because the stakes are indeed dire.

The Selfie as Contagion In an August 22, 2014 article in Forbes Magazine entitled “CONTAGION—How the “Selfie” Became a Social Epidemic,” journalist Jesi Hempel characterized the selfie—popularly understood as spontaneous self-portraits taken with smartphones and other consumer-based devices—as a type of social scourge, that has spread problematically through Western culture.18 It is now widely known that the word “selfie” was the Oxford Dictionary word of the year for 2013—which had the effect of legitimating the term and grounding it within the public consciousness. I have written before about a contradiction at the heart of this phenomenon that is dis­ turbing. On the one hand we see the cultural legitimation of the term, while on the other is the complete condemnation and ridiculing of the act itself. I belabor this point because much effort has gone into branding the selfie as the consumer-based preoccupation of the vain and self-obsessed—or as a violation of privacy rights and the increasing hegemony of state surveillance.19 For intellectuals like Henry Giroux, the selfie is a byproduct of larger abuses: Wall Street greed, imperialism, and neoli­ beralism, combined with (or exacerbated by) the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality—and he is not wrong.20 Needless to say, the group most readily as­ sociated with this cultural fixation is young women: particularly those in their teens to early thirties (Figure 8.2). This is evidenced in a litany of studies, often proclaiming scientific and medical legitimacy, even if their results are questionable. Even the images that accompany these articles have produced a powerful visual culture that focuses almost entirely on women in the act of a type of petulant vanity. In many

Selfie Narcissism 195

Figure 8.2 Fortune Magazine article entitled “CONTAGION”, August 22, 2014, http:// Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

respects, the selfie (and the cultural response to it) is an issue of great urgency and importance that masquerades (due to its popular framing) as a form of trivial entertainment—a media distraction. The gendered dimension of selfie culture is certainly troubling, particularly the demeaning and ridiculing tone that punctuates most articles on the topic. But what is most disturbing is the recent pathologizing of the selfie phenomenon, linking it to Narcissistic Personality Disorder (N.P.D.) and even psychopathy.21 Complicating efforts to link the selfie with narcissism is a vast history of medical and scientific attempts to pathologize women, particularly their sexuality, with Freud being the most obvious exemplar.22 Another dimension to the discussion is the general lack of scholarship on the complex visuality of the selfie as representation—in favor of analyses focusing on capitalism, consumerism, and technology. The vast majority of

196 Derek Conrad Murray selfie-related scholarship approaches the subject as a fascinating (if not also vital) social phenomenon—but there is little engagement with the selfie as an image, with its own unique formal and aesthetic qualities, identity politics, mise-en-scène, and overall visual rhetorics. The lack of analyses of individual images that considers their representational specificities suggests that the selfie is regarded as less of an image than as a means to gauge consumer habits—or more perniciously, as a gateway into the embattled psychology of the image-taker: a new social subject that is perceived as emotionally compromised, if not also entirely subsumed within the logic of consumerism. What concerns me here is that the popular discourse on selfies has evolved from a lighthearted discussion about the perils of technology and consumption, to the pa­ thologizing of those individuals as potentially suffering from serious mental health disorders. It is important to note that the popular journalistic take on selfies is fixated on women—though much of the official clinical research on the phenomenon has also considered the effect that this activity has on men. As referenced by Gwendolyn Seidman Ph.D., in a Psychology Today article, a 2015 study published in the journal Personality & Individual Differences “examined the relationship between selfieposting, photo-editing and personality.”23 According to Seidman, the study “ex­ amined self-objectification along with three traits, known as the ‘Dark Triad’: nar­ cissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.”24 The author points out that: “they’re called ‘dark’ because they have an almost evil connotation and are associated with a callous and manipulative way of interacting with other people.”25 In Seidman’s breakdown of the study, the interlocking characteristics of online self-absorption breakdown as follows: Narcissism: Extreme self-centeredness and a grandiose view of oneself. Narcissists have an excessive need to be admired by others and have a sense of entitlement. They’re likely to agree with statements like “I’m more capable than most people” and “I will usually show off if I get the chance”. Psychopathy: Impulsivity and lack of empathy. Those high in psychopathy are likely to agree with statements like “Payback needs to be quick and nasty.” Machiavellianism: Manipulative-ness without regard for others’ needs. Those high on this trait tend to have little concern about morals. Self-objectification: This is a tendency to view your body as an object based on its sexual worth. Those high in self-objectification tend to see themselves in terms of their physical appearance and base their self-worth on their appearance.26 As Seidman articulated, the Fox & Rooney study had a major impact on public perceptions of the selfie phenomenon, because it legitimated existing suspicions about the potentially corrosive effect that technology is having on our lives. Considering the gendered nature of the popular discourse, particularly the emphasis on young women, it is curious that the test group for the first major study consisted of 1,000 men between the ages of 18 and 40: the group least associated with selfies. The focus on men is perhaps a safer and less ideologically problematic entry into the legit­ imation of the act as communicative of personality disorders—although, the study was apparently no less effective in its outcome, garnering widespread press atten­ tion.27 In Seidman’s account of the study:

Selfie Narcissism 197 Results showed that both narcissism and self-objectification were associated with spending more time on social networking sites, and with more photo editing. Posting numerous selfies was related to both higher narcissism and psychopathy, controlling for the overall number of other types of photos posted. Machiavellianism was unrelated to photo behavior when taking these other variables into account… This study suggests that narcissists are more likely to show off with selfies and make extra effort to look their best in these photos.28 In a December 2017 article in The Telegraph, UK, writer Sarah Knapton referenced a recent study conducted by researchers at Nottingham Trent University, UK and Thiagarajar School of Management in India that’s findings claim that “Selfitis” is an actual mental condition, defined by “people who feel compelled to continually post pictures of themselves on social media”.29 According to Knapton, the term Selfitis was first used in a 2014 spoof story claiming that the American Psychiatric Association was in the process of having the alleged condition classified as a disorder. In response to the spoof, researches at Nottingham Trent University have apparently conducted a study that produced similar assessments: Dr. Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioral Addiction in Nottingham Trent University’s Psychology Department, said: A few years ago, stories appeared in the media claiming that the condition of selfitis was to be classed as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. Whilst the story was revealed to be a hoax, it didn’t mean that the condition of selfitis didn’t exist. We have now appeared to confirm its existence and developed the world’s first Selfitis Behavior Scale to assess the condition.30 The findings of the study were published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction in a 2017 paper entitled “An Exploratory Study of ‘Selfitis’ and the Development of the Selfitis Behavior Scale,” which was co-authored by Dr. Janarthanan Balakrishnan and Dr. Mark D. Griffiths.31 According to the researchers, the findings were framed as follows: The present study empirically explored the concept and collected data on the existence of selfitis with respect to the three alleged levels (borderline, acute, and chronic) and developed the Selfitis Behavior Scale (SBS). Initially, focus group interviews with 225 Indian university students were carried out to generate potential items for the SBS. The SBS was then validated using 400 Indian university students via exploratory factor analysis (EFA). Six factors were identified in the EFA comprising environmental enhancement, social competition, attention seeking, mood modification, self-confidence, and social conformity. The findings demonstrate that the SBS appears to be a reliable and valid instrument for assessing selfitis but that confirmatory studies are needed to validate the concept more rigorously.32 The Nottingham study, while indeed compelling, is also problematic for many of the reasons that fuel this research: primarily the very obvious and overt gendering of the selfie in popular discourse. As substantiated by the study, there is a concerted effort to pathologize selfie-taking, and the visual culture accompanying articles reporting on

198 Derek Conrad Murray

Figure 8.3 “Selfitis is the new mental disorder afflicting the smartphone generation – here’s how to test yourself,” by Alexander Britton. http:// Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

the study, skew perceptions of online self-imaging towards a female gendered reading. For example, this is evidenced by the primary stock image utilized in an article posted in the Mirror, UK about the apparent legitimacy of Selfitis (and the related study). The image is of a conventionally attractive, apparently ethnically European woman in her 20s, who is in the act of taking a selfie. She holds the camera just above her head with both hands while gazing upwards with a forced and rather awkward smile on her face. As in all such selfie-related stock images, it is slightly ridiculing—but also ideologically forceful in its gendered framing (Figure 8.3). The rather questionable veracity of Selfitis, according to Knapton’s reporting, was challenged by other professionals, including Sir Simon Wessely, Professor of Psychological Medicine at King’s College London, who argues that: “research

Selfie Narcissism 199 suggests that people take selfies to improve their mood, draw attention to themselves, increase their self-confidence and connect with their environment.”33 Along those lines, Dr. Mark Salter of The Royal College of Psychiatrists stated the following: “Selfitis doesn’t exist, and it shouldn’t exist.” There is a tendency to try and label a whole range of complicated and complex human behaviors with a single word. But that is dangerous because it can give something reality where it really has none.34

The Confidence Gap One of the contradictions in popular discussions of the selfie (in primarily journalistic venues) resides in a distinction between low self-esteem, which is most associated with a tendency towards self-objectification, and high self-esteem, which is often connected to narcissism. The conflation of self-objectification and low selfesteem—that the act of taking selfies appears to constitute—is perhaps questionable, when studies (like the one published in the journal Personality & Individual Differences) propose that high self-esteem, grandiosity, an overly inflated ego, and a lack of empathy for others are among the disorder’s primary features and indicators. What this impasse tends to articulate are rampant misperceptions about this now ubiquitous term narcissism: an apparent personality disorder that has regained cul­ tural relevance in the era of the selfie. But what does this ubiquitous narcissism charge really mean? If one were to make even a cursory search online, they would surely stumble upon a litany of selfie-related articles in which noted journalists, psychologists, psychiatrists and analysts proclaim that avid selfie-takers are narcissists. As we have seen, there are even studies by sci­ entists making this claim, yet there has been some legitimate skepticism that narcis­ sism is actually a disorder—a notion that was backed up by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM V) in 2010 when it attempted to question the validity of N.P.D. as a legitimate psychological condition (Zanor 2010).35 This was a polarizing move that divided many experts, especially Harvard psychiatrist, Dr. John Gunderson—who according to NY Times writer Charles Zanor is “an old lion in the field of personality disorders and the person who led the personality disorders committee for the current manual.”36 Despite the dissenting opinions of many es­ teemed psychiatrists like Gunderson, the downgrading of narcissism as a legitimate disorder achieved some degree of merit. As stated by Zanor: “For 30 years the DSM has been the undisputed standard that clinicians consult when diagnosing mental disorders.”37 The justification for its removal, as discussed by Zanor, was based upon research suggesting that narcissism is a personality trait that can be found across a vast spectrum of disorders—though it is, in fact, not a disorder. When asked about the potential elimination of N.P.D. by the DSM, Gunderson said the following: “They have little appreciation for the damage they could be doing.” He further ar­ ticulated that the “diagnosis is important in terms of organizing and planning treatment” and that the decision was “draconian.”38 It is interesting (if ultimately coincidental) that the debate (and subsequent medical research) linking selfies with narcissism would quickly follow debates around the potential removal of N.P.D. from the DSM—even though it currently remains intact. The “debates” around narcissism as a clinical disorder have not stopped journalists and experts across various fields from attaching it to the selfie—a gesture that could have devastating impacts on women, the constituency that is the driving force of

200 Derek Conrad Murray self-imaging culture on social media sites.39 An example of the common disparage­ ment of the selfie is articulated in a 2015 article that appeared in the popular website Daily Lounge. Writer Chris O’Shea labeled the selfie the “most annoying behavior in the social media world”: The selfie is reprehensible because it’s two levels of narcissism. First of all, you’re on a social media site. This, by itself, is a narcissistic thing to do. But for the selfie sender, this isn’t enough. No, they have to take their egos and lack of self-esteem to another level and post pictures of themselves on these sites. The worst selfie site is definitely Instagram. Take a look at the Most Popular pics sometime. Count how many are selfies. Then go ahead and worry about our society.40 O’Shea’s impassioned dismissal was echoed by 2016 Republican Presidential hopeful Ben Carson, the esteemed African-American neurosurgeon who, interestingly, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about the selfie—proclaiming that, “beyond the obvious narcissism of endlessly photographing oneself and blasting it over social networks for others to admire, selfies are dangerous.”41 The Carson op-ed was so inflammatory that it inspired a story by MSNBC entitled “Ben Carson Condemns the ‘Obvious Narcissism’ of ‘Selfies’ in Op-Ed.”42 Carson’s remarks highlight the somewhat carnivalesque tone the debate around selfies has taken, though in the popular press, the term has a somewhat nebulous meaning. Carson does not define what narcissism is and we see this lack of definition across the spectrum of articles that appear regularly on the topic—leading one to believe that the term functions merely as a generalized slight against those who are perceived to be self-obsessed. My assertion here is that the wielding of the term narcissism in selfie-related articles in popular journalism—even when substantiated by medical professionals—is not an official diagnosis but rather an ideologically skewed generality that is largely without meaning. What the wielding of this term does is create public sentiment that allows for the trivializing of a largely gendered form of visual expressiveness. In many respects the term selfie—and its subsequent debate—echoes a larger social ill: a phenomenon termed the “war against women” that has taken the form of legal efforts by certain Republican politicians in the United States to restrict women’s rights to reproductive health services and worker’s rights.43 The selfie is the seemingly more benign counterpart to political, legislative, and ideological attempts to manage women’s physical and mental health. This is an important point when looking at the larger debate about selfies because, as I mentioned previously, narcissism is clinically associated with an overly inflated, or exaggerated sense of confidence—a quality most associated with men and male success (even if this quality is ultimately deemed de­ structive). However, the largely female-centric conversation about online forms of self-imaging characterizes the act by women as a self-fixation borne of self-loathing and extreme low self-esteem—traits that are also linked to narcissism (and are be­ lieved my many medical professionals to be at the root of the behavior). Along those lines, the desire to take and share selfies is rarely characterized as motivated by an overly inflated sense of self, which is one of the primary (and most visible) char­ acteristics of the disorder. What this tends to communicate is that the issue is heavily informed by ideological perceptions: namely, that society tends to view men as confident and therefore their narcissism (while damaging) leads to greater profes­ sional achievement. Women, on the other hand, are perceived as lacking confidence,

Selfie Narcissism 201 so their narcissism expresses itself as low self-esteem, ultimately holding them back—or leading them to engage in allegedly obsessive forms of self-fixation (i.e. selfie-taking). In a 2012 article published in the Psychiatric Times by Giancarlo Dimaggio, MD, N.P.D is characterized in the following terms: Persons with NPD are aggressive and boastful, overrate their performance, and blame others for their setbacks; current editions of DSM portray them as arrogant, entitled, exploitative, embedded in fantasies of grandeur, self-centered, and charming but emotionally unavailable. Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is characterized by complex selfexperiences, including grandiosity, anger, self-derogation, and emptiness or apathy. Lack of empathy is a feature of the disorder. Frequently, there are impaired romantic and professional outcomes as well as co-occurring disorders.44 The ubiquitous misuse of the word narcissism—most often used to ridicule those pathetic selfie-taking women—tends to willfully abuse the presumed (but ultimately suspect) veracity of the term in its popular and journalistic usage, lending a fraudulent legitimacy to these assessments. Furthermore, it would be both impossible and un­ sustainable to diagnose the millions of people worldwide that compulsively self-image as suffering from N.P.D.: an activity that is engaged in for a variety of reasons (personal, political, activist, aesthetic, or otherwise). A perfect example of this trend is exemplified by an article in Jezebel by writer Erin Gloria Ryan that describes selfies as a cry for help. In the article Ryan cites writer Harry Wallop who says the following about the effect of internet-based self-imaging on young women: It is an act as modern as it is narcissistic, perfectly capturing the self-regard of our age. But it is also, some think, a worrying trend that could leave young girls, in particular, with low self-esteem.45 Ryan’s views on selfies are in agreement with Wallop on one central point: that this form of expression is the result of a culture that places a heavy premium on female beauty. In their assessment, girls are particularly vulnerable to this pressure, leading them to a conflicted relationship with their own identities and bodies.46 But again what we see here is convoluted and an ill-defined engagement with the term narcissism—one where young women are said to be both self-obsessed, yet wrestling with low self-esteem. Ryan echoes this contradiction in the close of her article, when she states “selfies aren’t empowering little sources of pride… They’re a logical technically enabled response to being brought up to think that what really matters is if other people think you’re pretty.”47 This notion of compromised female self-esteem and body issues largely dominates journalistic approaches charting the impact of selfimaging on young women. BBC writer Helen Briggs claims that “the more women are exposed to selfies and other photos on social media, the more they compare them­ selves negatively.”48 Briggs’ concerns are widely felt and based upon the realization that “young women are particularly high users of social networking sites and post more photographs of themselves on the internet than do men”.49 The self-esteem of women is not simply prevalent in the selfie debate but has also surfaced in a discussion about the dearth of women at the top of high-profile careers.

202 Derek Conrad Murray In an influential expose in Atlantic Magazine, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman took up a much-debated issue, often termed “The Confidence Gap”: a condition in which women are less assured than men, impairing their ability to break through the glass ceiling. In their 2014 bestselling book The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, Kay and Shipman encourage women to overcome their compromised sense of possibility and self-worth and achieve the success that they deserve.50 The public discourse on the relationship between self-assurance and professional success has predominantly become a gen­ dered discussion—one that both focuses on and is driven by women. However, the issue of self-confidence tends to always redirect towards young women’s embattled relationships to their own bodies. In the book Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem, and the Confidence Gap, author Peggy Orenstein suggests that the re­ lationship between self-esteem and self-image is the defining issue that affects young women: As I’ve crisscrossed the country, speaking to parents, teachers, college students, and young girls, I’ve become more convinced than ever that girl’s bodies have become the battleground for their conflicts. Hating one’s body, sometimes to the point of starvation, remains a tragic rite of passage for young women: among white girls in particular, appearance remains the most important determinant of teenage girls’ self-worth.51 In the aforementioned discourses, the onus tends to fall on women to improve their psychological outlook—though little attention is given to the structural inequities that demean and exclude women, ultimately impairing their self-esteem and sense of possibility (Figure 8.4).

Recent Issues in Gender and the Tech Industry In the last ten years there has been an increasingly visible and often contentious discussion about the role of women in technology fields. These discussions take an array of forms: from the absence of gender-based diversity within the tech sector, the apparent lack of professional and economic mobility for women working in tech, and workplace sexual harassment, to the online bullying and abuse of women. The issue of women in tech fields gained greater prominence resulting from the very public rise of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg is a noted technology executive, acti­ vist and author—and also the founder of the nonprofit organization LeanIn.Org (also known as Lean In Foundation). The iconic tech leader is also the author of the bestselling book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which has reignited a conversation about women in the workplace. is dedicated to taking on the problem of gender-based inequity in the professional sector, not simply in terms of the structural and ideological barriers that prohibit women’s advancement, but also the ways in which women hold themselves back. The term “lean in” became a somewhat divisive notion, in that it perhaps places undue pressure on women, as opposed to focusing energy solely on institutionally dismantling gender bias.52 In a 2017 interview with Sandberg in USA Today, the executive and activist said the following about the current state of women in tech fields:

Selfie Narcissism 203

Figure 8.4 Article: “Selfies Aren’t Empowering. They’re a Cry for Help” by Erin Gloria Ryan, Jezebel. November 21, 2013. Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

In terms of women in leadership roles, we are not better off. We are stuck at less than 6 percent of the Fortune 500 CEO jobs and their equivalent in almost every country in the world. There were 19 countries run by women when Lean In was published. Today there are 11. Congressional numbers have inched up a tiny bit. And so, overall, we are not seeing a major increase in female leadership in any industry or in any government in the world, and I think that’s a shame.53 The lean-in debate was preceded by the highly publicized gender discrimination lawsuit filed by Ellen Pao, currently an investment partner at Kapor Capital. Previously Pao was employed as Chief Executive Officer of Social Media Technology at Reddit and investment partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Despite great success in the Silicon Valley tech industry, Pao was openly critical of poor hiring and promotion of women and underrepresented minorities in Silicon Valley, leading to a very public lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins in 2012. While Kleiner Perkins received a favorable verdict, Pao’s lawsuit led to greater awareness of structural barriers in the technology fields and it thrust the discussion into the public conscious in an

204 Derek Conrad Murray unprecedented manner, becoming a major focus of national and international debate. Pao’s fight against bias culminated in the publication of her 2017 book Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change, a memoir that chronicles her experiences in intimate detail. Journalist Jessi Hempel, in her 2017 Wired article entitled “The Pao Effect Is What Happens After Lean In,” takes on the contradictions of Sandberg’s popular lean in concept—precisely because of the striking similarities between both women.54 Having both graduated from Harvard Business School (just three years apart), Pao and Sandberg’s fortunes diverge largely due to their identities (how they are perceived ideologically) but also by the different strategies each utilized as they negotiated the complexities of gender and race in the tech industry. Hempel rightly points out that while Sandberg’s lean in has been a motivating factor for many women (it has had the effect of reigniting feminism within the workplace), it has at best underestimated the complex intersection of race and gender in the tech industry: It makes sense that Sandberg’s message, which encourages young women to work within the existing system, came first, offering women and men a playbook for navigating their careers. She stood as the stunning example of proof that her strategy can work. Sandberg is a self-made billionaire! But it’s because we have spent five years talking about leaning in that Pao’s message can be so clearly received and validated: She did lean in. Leaning in doesn’t always work, she implies. And when that’s the case, it’s time to blow the system up. The challenge, of course, is that one person can rarely blow up—and reinvent—a system, especially one replete with the entrenched racism and sexism that pervade the technology industry. More often, in the attempt, a person is herself blown up.55 The debate about women in technology fields has continued to be divisive and contentious, as evidenced in the firing of James Damore, a male programmer at Google who circulated a memo within the company that challenged its efforts to combat workplace inequality. Titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” Damore’s 2017 memo argued that: “men and women have psychological differences that are a result of their underlying biology. Those differences make them differently suited to and interested in the work that is core to Google.”56 According to New York Times writer Daisuke Wakabayashi, the memo created a bind for Google, because it very publicly exposed the company’s failure to hire and promote women and minorities.57 Despite his bad ideas, Damore became a hero of the political Right, in some ways bolstering its attempts to combat the agendas of so-called “social justice warriors”: those constituencies who fight for diversity and against the structural barriers that are ubiquitous within the technology fields.58 The response to Damore among the extreme Right, online activists and Internet rabble-rousers was extremely venomous, recalling previous, related tech-industry frictions like the Gamergate controversy. Gamergate is the term given to a mostly right-wing, online harassment campaign directed towards women in the video game industry. While Gamergate supporters framed their efforts in terms of perceived corruption in the games press, this has widely been dismissed as a backlash against the diversification of the game industry and culture. In fact, the online threats of murder, rape, violence, and release of private information of individuals in order to incite harm were all part of a campaign, directed toward progressives and feminists perceived to be ruining video games.59

Selfie Narcissism 205 Cultural maligning of the selfie movement, particularly its gendered pathologizing, are seemingly connected to the aforementioned public debates and controversies—which in sum suggest that women and technology have been ideologically coded as a problem, as corrupting of its utopian, hyper-masculine mythmaking and self-aggrandized notions of genius. Should we then think of tech and innovation as inherently male: as a space where a toxic romanticism around the value of meritocracy serves as the justification for its inequities and abuses? For better or for worse, the online participation of women has emerged as a powerful and oppositional force, and self-imaging is among its most in­ cendiary interventions. On sites like Instagram and Tumblr, young women are utilizing self-imaging and the blogging format as a tool of political resistance—mobilized in the service of speaking out against a range of causes, from racism and sexism, to activism against queer and trans-phobia.60 Within the genre of photography, the self-portrait holds a certain fondness, even if its presence is thought of as somewhat marginal in its importance. Popular discourse on the selfie tends to characterize it at best as a trivial distraction, and at worst, as something rather pitiful—as an expression of narcissism, or even worse, profound loneliness. Ever since the term selfie was announced as the 2013 Oxford Dictionary word of the year, mainstream media has been obsessed with it—first characterizing it as a negative consequence of our techno-crazed consumer culture. Though (as I ar­ ticulated previously) it eventually morphed into a mental health issue, as journalists and health professionals rushed to establish a link between the practice and N.P.D. I want to reiterate that the use of the term narcissism in relation to the selfie is largely pejorative and is used to ridicule those most readily associated with the practice: overly-entitled young women, celebrities, and the obsessively vain. However, the archetype of the vain selfie-taker is contrasted by the popular characterization of the alienated and isolated subject, defined by the abject loneliness of those with no friends—those who turn to self-imaging as a salve for their crippling low self-esteem. I would argue, however, that this requisite dimension of solitude (derisively under­ stood as an aesthetics of loneliness) is perhaps the gesture’s most important char­ acteristic. Perhaps it is the specter of the lone subject in the act of self-absorbed, contemplative non-action that gives the self-portrait its gravitas. This may especially be the case when examining the self-portraits of historical figures whose legacies of greatness have been cemented. The self-portrait appears, at least ideologically, to grant some fraudulent accesses into the psychology of greatness: even if the vanity of the genius is taken as a matter of fact—but rarely regarded derisively.

The Selfie and Consumer Validation The social meanings implied by the selfie are of great interest to me—particularly the ideological dimensions that subtend our understanding of its social function. The relation between ideology and consumerism is especially significant to an in-depth analysis of self-imaging in the online age, if we are to ponder how forms of social authority engage us as citizens. I tend to view consumerism as the preferred (and demanded) condition of citizenship in neoliberal capitalism. In other words, it is through consumerism that our citizenship is both secured and validated. It is un­ derstood within visual culture studies that ideology is embedded within images—that it is imposed upon us, often subliminally, through forms of representation. However, I would argue that ideology is more connected to enjoyment than otherwise.61

206 Derek Conrad Murray Clearly, we are compelled to consume because it is gratifying, though there is also a sense of satisfaction to be derived from consumerist validation: the pleasure in having one’s citizenship as ideal consumer substantiated. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek makes this crucial point in his 2012 documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology: that we take pleasure in our ideology—so much so, in fact, that we will resist efforts to liberate us from its clutches.62 In regard to the selfie, the complex relations between identity, ideology, pleasure, consumerism, and citizenship are perhaps more overtly expressed than narcissism (which in its popular misuse has become a kind of semiotic black hole). We are not as self-absorbed, or individualized, as often characterized—in fact, our selfhood can often only be expressed through collective desires and wants that are imposed upon us. We cannot escape the collective, nor do we desire to. Perhaps the selfie is one of the powerful means by which we validate ourselves as consumers/citizens. Were I to formulate a cynical characterization of the selfie, I would say that, as a consumerist gesture, it is a means to stay nestled within the bosom of capitalism (as a powerful set of ideologies). It is as if to say: “I know that I am performing ideology, but I do it anyway!” How can we know this and still do it? Such is the logic of the selfie: an acknowledgment that the ultimate sin is to reject the logic of consumption; and in this instance, to use technology in a non-consumerist manner. In other words, we might say that pure consumerism is the only way to satisfy the dominant ideology. If we’re to think about social media through the lens of consumerism, the system of “likes”: the validation given selfies on sites like Facebook, Instagram, or Tumblr, may be much more than a positive affirmation of the image maker’s physical appearance or lifestyle. Perhaps the “like” is an acknowledgment and approval that one is ap­ propriately conforming; that one is properly assimilated and adequately consuming (i.e. properly existing within the boundaries of the dominant ideology). Social media participation, in many respects, denotes the degree to which we are adequately conforming to the logics of consumer capitalism. Because in most instances selfie-taking is a secluded act, we regard the selfie as expressive of the private fantasies and desires of individuals. But I disagree with that assessment. In fact, I believe there are two functions of the selfie: (1) to validate one’s citizenship through consumerism (the strict adherence to and performance of ideo­ logical norms) and (2) to perform resistance to the dominant cultural values. I have written in a previous paper on selfies that many young women wield the form in an activist manner—as a means to express politically oppositional or humanitarian sentiments, such as feminist, body positive, anti-racist, anti-queer, and anti-transphobic positions.63 However, it may be necessary to question the veracity of these approaches, especially if the aim is to establish a link between the selfie and con­ sumerism. In popular culture, we see the commoditization of activist sentiment, where political feeling finds its way onto t-shirts and promotional materials. All-toooften, capitalism absorbs the revolutionary act, and there is always a rush to monetize the energy and momentum generated by radical movements. There is truly no di­ mension of the selfie in which the act is able to resist the logic of consumption: from the tools necessary to participate and create, the corporate-owned platforms that render distribution of images possible—as well as the commercially generated desires that create a cultural need (on the part of individuals) to visibly perform their par­ ticipation in a very hegemonic form of consumerism.64 To return to Atlantic Magazine’s expose on “The Confidence Gap,” we might benefit from viewing this phenomenon through the lens of capitalism as an ideology:

Selfie Narcissism 207 one that is rooted in the creation and maintenance of a consumer-based logic, that is steeped in troubling ideological ideals of citizenship.65 These ideological notions are so often grounded in a binary logic that delineates privileged subjects from margin­ alized ones—and the visual modalities this relation constructs express themselves, not exclusively, but regularly, in gendered terms. The “confidence gap” should perhaps not be thought of as explicitly psychological but a condition that is deeply imbedded into the structural and ideological logics of capitalist consumerism—as a system of imposed norms. The selfie, as a gendered construct, communicates values around the social sub­ jectivity of the subject that is formed through complex relations of power: domina­ tion and subordination. I reiterate my earlier argument that through the selfie we perform our subjectivity, and by extension, perform our role as ideal citizen/con­ sumer. In this instance, the largely female-driven selfie culture produces an ideal ci­ tizen/consumer that is ideologically read as the personification of social dysfunction. Further, how we are viewed socio-politically is unavoidable and therefore the online self-image can never truly be a universalizing vision of humanness. The image above is a fascinating exemplar because it communicates not so much a man’s confidence and a woman’s apparent lack of this quality—but rather two gazes: one where the woman sees the man as self-confident, and contrarily, the man sees the woman as devoid of self-assuredness (Figure 8.5). Kay and Shipman’s article is meant to en­ courage us to ponder why women lack this necessary quality, although the image says something perhaps more meaningful: that the body is produced through relations of power, and therefore how we see others is profoundly bound up in how we see ourselves.66 There is something similar at work in the image accompanying the Jezebel article, “Selfies Aren’t Empowering. They’re a Cry for Help” by Erin Gloria Ryan.67 The rather stock-looking photograph exemplifies the growing archive of images that are now ubiquitous in popular journalistic commentary on the selfie phenomenon: depictions of young women in the act of so-called narcissistic selfreflection. In these images, the women make silly faces as they perform, what we are led to believe, is their misguided version of cuteness. The point of these representa­ tions is to trivialize, to ridicule, and to reduce an expressive form—yet what we see in the Jezebel image diverts from the standard depictions of conventionally or stereo­ typically attractive women who are usually white (or ethnically European). In this instance, the twenty-something young woman is of indiscernible ethnicity, though seemingly Asian, and her head is angled down, creating the most unflattering angle from which to self-image, while her hand extends outward to take the picture. Most telling perhaps is her awkward and visibly strained facial expression, un-retouched complexion revealing acne and skin discolorations, and her yellowing teeth. What is conveyed here is an insecure young woman of color’s desperate attempt to create an image of physical attractiveness—but more importantly, a vision of normativity and happiness. This is an image bristling with judgment, that much is true, yet it represents a turn in popular discourse towards a more scrutinizing vision of this cultural tendency; a shift that is more explicitly grounded in the terrain of psychological health (Figure 8.4). I want to contrast the aforementioned image with one that accompanied an article in the Internet-based media outlet with the headline, “Sorority Girls Took Selfies at a Baseball Game—And Grown Men Mocked Them for It.” Written by journalist Nicolas Di Domizio on October 1, 2015, the story was concerning an incident that occurred at a Major League baseball game between the Arizona

208 Derek Conrad Murray

Figure 8.5 Atlantic Magazine’s expose on “The Confidence Gap,” Kay and Shipman, 2014. 9815/. Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

Diamondback and the Colorado Rockies, where young female fans were caught in the act of taking selfies. The occurrence sparked a minor controversy resulting from, as Di Domizio recounts, “the off-color commentary by the game’s announcers, who are heard mocking selfie-taking college girls”68 (Figure 8.6) There is, as Di Domizio’s account suggests, more than a bit of sarcasm and humor to the story, yet the ridicule directed towards these women was palpable, if not crudely expressed: “Do you have to make faces when you take selfies?” one of the announcers said. “Every girl in the picture is locked into her phone. Every single one is dialed in. Welcome to parenting in 2015. They’re all just completely transfixed by the technology,” the other announcer added. “You know the beauty of baseball is you can sit next to your neighbor and have a conversation. Or you can just completely ignore them.” The men then started poking fun at the girls’ choices to take selfies with their churros and hot dogs. “Can we do an intervention?” one asked.69

Selfie Narcissism 209

Figure 8.6 “Sorority Girls Took Selfies at a Baseball Game… And Grown Men Mocked Them For It” in October 1, 2015. Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

The journalist characterized this behavior as “selfie-shaming” a terminology now quite prevalent in the ever-growing counterdiscourse that has emerged in response to the increasingly defaming and troublingly gendered tone of popular media discus­ sions. In the still image is a group of sorority girls playfully imaging themselves, while the nation looks on bemused by the banal spectacle unfolding on their TV screens. Again, the women make what are regarded as silly faces, as they perform the stan­ dards and ritualistic gestures meant to convey hetero-normative white femininity. However, the incident, as well as the image itself, conjures an array of issues related to gender, privacy, technology, surveillance, desire, and enjoyment in the act of looking at others. There is a tenuous interstice between horror and enjoyment at play here through the gendered and sexualized fixities that ideologically inform our un­ derstanding of this humorous event. In many respects, the female body is regarded with a kind of horror and revulsion: as an abject presence that wields consumer-based technology only to express insecurity, vanity, and self-doubt. However, this spectacle produces pleasure as well, in its voyeuristic logics that linger judgmentally and in unrestrained scrutiny upon the bodies of young women. Authors Sarah Brophy and Jance Hladki suggest that bodies come into view as fundamentally technological:

210 Derek Conrad Murray “Given the accelerated transmissibility of visual culture in the digital era and the related pervasiveness of bodily surveillance, critical inquiry into visual subjectivities and pedagogies has become more urgent than ever before.”70 Further, they ask: “what are the implications of these re-conceptualizations of embodiment for theo­ rizing visual self-narration and self-portraiture?”71 It is an important query, yet clearly, a new language is needed to make sense of technology’s impact on identity formation, and self-image that can illuminate the psychological, cultural, economic and political dimensions of this phenomenon. An example of this ever-increasing problem is made glaringly visible in the stock image preceding an article outlining the specifics of Narcissism on the website (Figure 8.7). Looming rather ominously over the article is an image of a middle-aged woman in the act of selfietaking. It contains what has become a standard representational formula: female subject with camera held above the head with one hand, the ubiquitous “duck-face” of pursed lips and a vain glare, devoid of affect. As in the other such examples

Figure 8.7 “Narcissistic Personality Disorder: A Guide to Signs, Diagnosis, and Treatment,” in December 21, 2017. narcissistic/. Screenshot by author, published under fair use.

Selfie Narcissism 211 discussed in this article, the image is meant to ridicule but also to ideologically (through representation) define a new pathological subject to be socially maligned.

Conclusion: Wielding the Selfie in Advanced Capitalism In the interconnection between “looking and being looked at, spectacle and specta­ torship, enjoyment and being enjoyed, lies and moves the economy of hypervisi­ bility.” The aforementioned quotation is from scholar Fred Moten’s explication of Saidiya Hartman’s meditations on racialized bodies and economies of value: the fraught relation between objectification and humanization.72 What we see in Moten and Hartman’s words is an acknowledgement that racial identity (as is discussed in this instance) is not so much biological, socio-political, or explicitly ideological but rather economic. In fact, relations of difference, whether racial, gendered, sexual, or class-based are at root economic distinctions. And therefore, how we see others (as visual spectacles) merely reinforces hierarchies of value that are explicitly economic. Ultimately, a more empathetic engagement with female bodies that ponders them—not through the capitalist-driven logics of gender division, marginalia, and mental health—but through what Lisa Cartwright has characterized as “material routes of feeling” that are embodied emotionally through media as an economy of sentience, are desperately needed.73 As a technological and capitalist-driven form of visual representation, the selfie is as much a gateway into the economics of social division, as it is a highly personalized, affective vehicle for self-expression. Among the many commitments that drive this investigation, is a desire to enhance our under­ standing of consumption practices beyond the selfie phenomenon: which is to say that the ramifications of this debate within the realms of consumerism technology and mental health have broad implications that shed light on the complexities of gendered power relations. In many respects, the aim of this essay is to reveal the peculiarly troubling and ideologically skewed representational schemas that continue to manage public per­ ceptions and malign young women who, through their efforts at self-expression, attempt to locate a sense of value and dignity in an increasingly contentious political, economic, cultural, and technological landscape. In the past, I suggested that the selfie is perhaps a survivorship reflex: that it is less premeditated and expected, than it is a natural response to a culture of devaluation and degradation. Yet, I’m beginning to revise that position because, as I have learned, the intentionality of women’s wielding of technology is far more thoughtful and premeditated than I initially understood. Therefore, the tendency to romanticize and mischaracterize women’s activism as entirely rooted in the reactionary emotionality, identity sermonizing, and the political sentimentality of pure spectacle ignores the polemical force of their highly tech-based self-representational strategies.

Notes 1 Greg Goldberg, “Through the Looking Glass: The Queer Narcissism of Selfies,” Social Media + Society (January-March 2017): pp. 1–11. 0.1177/2056305117698494 2 Joseph Sandler, Ethel Person and Peter Fonagy, “Introduction,” in Freud’s On Narcissism: An Introduction, eds. Joseph Sandler, Ethel Person, and Peter Fonagy (London: Karnac Books Ltd., 2012), ix.

212 Derek Conrad Murray 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31

Ibid., Goldberg, 1. Ibid. Ibid., 4. Stephanie E. Libbon, “Pathologizing the Female Body: Phallocentrism in Western Science,” Journal of International Women’s Studies 8, no. 4 (2007): 79. Ibid., Libbon. Also see: Sondra Farganis, The Social Reconstruction of the Feminine Character (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield. 1986). Ibid., 79. Ibid. Valentina Boursier, Francesca Gioia, and Mark D. Griffiths, “Selfie-engagement on social media: Pathological narcissism, positive expectation, and body objectification – Which is more influential?” Addictive Behavior Reports, February 19, 2020. https://, p. 3. Ibid. Sarah Grogan, Leonie Rothery, Jennifer Cole and Matthew Hall, “Posting Selfies and Body Image in Young Adult Women: The Selfie Paradox,” The Journal of Social Media in Society 7, no. 1 (Spring 2018): 16. Ibid, Goldberg, 1. Noah Berlatsky, “Selfies Art Art,” in The Atlantic, November 22, 2013. https:// Ibid. Kelly Wallace, “Who takes more selfies: women or men,” in October 7, 2014.­ dex.html. See also: Ibid, Libbon, 13. Jessi Hempel, “CONTAGION—How the “Selfie” Became a Social Epidemic,” Fortune, August 22, 2014, Henry Giroux, “Selfie Culture in the Age of Corporate and State Surveillance,” Third Text 29 (2015): pp. 155–164. .1082339 Ibid. Gwendolyn Seidman, “What is the Real Link between Selfies and Narcissism?” Psychology Today. August 6, 2015, what-is-the-real-link-between-selfies-and-narcissism. Annette F. Timm and Joshua Sanborn, Gender, Sex and the Shaping of Modern Europe: A History from the French Revolution to the Present Day (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). Gwendolyn Seidman, “Are Selfies a Sign of Narcissism and Psychopathy?” Psychology Today, January 8, 2015, 01/are-selfies-sign-narcissism-and-psychopathy. See also: Jesse Fox and Margaret C. Rooney, “The Dark Triad and trait self-objectification as predictors of men’s use and selfpresentation behaviors on social networking sites,” Personality & Individual Differences 76 (April 2015): 161–165. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. Carolyn Gregoire, “Study Links Selfies To Narcissism And Psychopathy,” Huffington Post, January 1, 2015, n_6429358.html. Ibid., Seidman; Fox & Rooney. Sarah Knapton, “‘Selfitis’ – the obsessive need to post selfies – is a genuine mental disorder, say psychologists,” The Telegraph, December 15, 2017, science/2017/12/15/selfitis-obsessive-need-post-selfies-genuine-mental-disorder/ Ibid. Janarthanan Balakkrishnan and Mark D. Griffiths, “An Exploratory Study of ‘Selfitis’ and the Development of the Selfitis Behavior Scale,” International Journal of Mental Health

Selfie Narcissism 213

32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43

44 45

46 47 48 49 50

51 52 53 54 55 56 57

and Addiction, no. 16 (November 29, 2017), 1007/s11469-017-9844-x.pdf. Ibid., 1. Ibid., Knapton. Ibid. Charles Zanor, “A Fate That Narcissists Will Hate: Being Ignored,” New York Times, November 29, 2010, Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. Greg T Spielberg, “How Sex on Tumblr Will Change Media,” Nerve, June 14, 2013, http:// O’Shea, Chris. 2015. “Science Confirms that Science is the Worst.” Daily Lounge. http:// Ben Carson, “Selfies,” Washington Post, April 9, 2015, sf/opinions/2015/04/09/spring-cleaning-2015/. Adam Howard, “Ben Carson Condemns the ‘Obvious Narcissism’ of ‘Selfies’ in Op-Ed.” MSNBC, April 4, 2015, Sarah Jones, “Proof of the GOP War on Women,” POLITICO, May 13, 2011, http://; Also see: Mark Baer, “Republicans Are Stripping Away Rights That Others Fought So Hard to Obtain,” The Huffington Post, July 7, 2014, 9545.html. Giancarlo Dimaggio, “Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Rethinking What We Know,” Psychiatric Times, July 18, 2012, narcissistic-personality-disorder-rethinking-what-we-know. Erin Gloria Ryan, “Selfies Aren’t Empowering. They’re a Cry for Help,” Jezebel, November 21, 2013, 68965365; Also see: Harry Wallop, “Selfies – How the World Fell in Love with Itself,” The Telegraph, November 19, 2013, 60202/Selfies-how-the-world-fell-in-love-with-itself.html. Ibid. Ibid., Ryan. Helen Briggs, “‘Selfie’ Body Image Warning Issues,” BBC, UK, April 10, 2014, http:// Ibid. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of SelfAssurance---What Women Should Know (New York: Harper Business, 2014). Also see: Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, “The Confidence Gap,” The Atlantic (May 2014): http:// Peggy Orenstein, Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem, and the Confidence Gap (New York: Anchor Books, 1995). Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Yes, You Can.” New York Times, March 7, 2013, http:// Jessica Guynn, “Sheryl Sandberg: Four years after ‘Lean In’ women are not better off,” USA Today, March 29, 2017, sheryl-sandberg-interview-lean-in-four-years-later/99749464/. Jessi Hempel, “The Pao Effect Is What Happens After Lean In.” Wired, September 20, 2017, Ibid. Kate Conger, “Exclusive: Here’s The Full 10-Page Anti-Diversity Screed Circulating Internally at Google,” Gizmodo, August 5, 2017. Daisuke Wakabayashi, “Google Fires Engineer Who Wrote Memo Questioning Women in Tech,” New York Times, August 7, 2017, google-women-engineer-fired-memo.html?_r=0.

214 Derek Conrad Murray 58 Abby Ohlheiser, “How James Damore went from Google employee to right-wing Internet hero,” The Washington Post, August 12, 2017, the-intersect/wp/2017/08/12/how-james-damore-went-from-google-employee-to-rightwing-internet-hero/?utm_term=.148a8912b976. 59 Soraya Murray, “Introduction: Is the ‘Culture’ in Game Culture the ‘Culture’ of Cultural Studies?” in On Video Games: The Visual Politics of Race, Gender and Space (London and NY: I.B. Tauris Press, 2018), 1–46. 60 Alicia Eler, “I, Selfie: Saying Yes to Selfies,” Hyperallergic, June 24, 2013, https:// Also see: Alicia Eler, “Theory of the Selfie,” Hyperallergic, November 20, 2013, 61 Slavoj Žižek, The Perverts Guide to Ideology, Directed by Sophie Fiennes, Narration by Slavoj Žižek. New York: Zeitgeist Films, 2012. 62 Ibid. 63 Ofra Koffman, Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill, “Girl Power and Selfie Humanitarianism” Continuum 29, no. 2 (2015): 157–168. 64 Henry Giroux, “Selfie Culture in the Age of Corporate and State Surveillance,” Third Text 29 (2015): 155–164. .1082339 65 Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, “The Confidence Gap,” The Atlantic (May 2014): http:// 66 Sarah Brophy and Janice Hladki, “Visual Autobiography in the Frame,” in Embodied Politics in Visual Autobiography, eds. Sarah Brophy and Janice Hladki (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 4. 67 Erin Gloria Ryan, “Selfies Aren’t Empowering. They’re a Cry for Help,” Jezebel, November 21, 2013, 68965365 68 Nicolas Di Domizio, “Sorority Girls Took Selfies at a Baseball Game — And Grown Men Mocked Them for It,”, October 1, 2015, .tiMJkEZYw. 69 Ibid. 70 Ibid., Brophy and Hladki, 13. 71 Ibid., 11. 72 Fred Moten, “Resistance of the Object: Aunt Hester’s Scream” in In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 1. Moten also refers to: Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). 73 Lisa Cartwright, Moral Spectatorship: Technologies of Voice and Affect in Postwar Representations of the Child (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 33.


A Abbott, Berenice 157 absolute domination 21 acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) 13 aesthetic characteristics 1 African-American discourse 98 Aguilar, Laura 105 AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism (ed. Crimp) 13 alienation 54 Allure magazine 96 Als, Hilton 126, 127 American Apparel 100 American Psychiatric Association (APA) 3, 197 Ang, Lawrence 93 anthropology 10 Apted, Michael 54 Arbus, Diane 53, 157 Archer, Nicole 66, 79 Arendt, Hannah 133, 134, 135, 136 “Are Selfies a Sign of Narcissism and Psychopathy?” (Seidman) 196 Arnolfini Portrait (van Eyck) 177 art discourse 5 art histories 4–5, 6, 9–10; problem of selfies for 157–158 artist-authenticity 47 Artnet 50 Asian Girls (photographic series, Fu) 114, 115 The Atlantic 173, 191, 193 Atlantic Magazine 202, 206 Auerbach, Lisa Anne 157 aura of machine objectivity 61 authentic self 41, 46, 174 autonomization 124 Avedon, LaTurbo 160 B Bal, Mieke 12, 13, 68 Balakrishnan, Janarthanan 3, 197

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (photographic series, Goldin) 108 Barthes, Roland 131, 132 Batchen, Geoffrey 155, 156, 158 Baudrillard, Jean 41 Bayard, Hippolyte 6 Bayer, Herbert 157 Baym, Nancy 141 “Becoming Jefrree Star” (video, Dawson) 56 Bell, Gabriel 51 Bellmer, Hans 157 Beloved (Morrison) 127 “Ben Carson Condemns the ‘Obvious Narcissism’ of ‘Selfies’ in Op-Ed” (MSNBC) 200 Bencic, Belinda 179 Benglis, Lynda 101 Berger, John 12, 62 Berlant, Lauren 23 Berlatsky, Noah 191, 192 Beyoncé 176, 177, 179 Bhabha, Homi K. 64, 72 binary gender identities 66–67 Bing, Ilse 101, 167 Blas, Zach 32, 33 The Bling Ring (movie) 92 blogging 2, 141, 174; as tool of political resistance 205 Blown Away (movie) 172 “The Body and the Archive” (Sekula) 62 body as commodity 92 Bollmer, Grant 16, 40, 44, 45, 55 Boltanski, Luc 24 Boursier, Valentina 190 branded selfies 173–174 Bratchford, Gary 10 Breslauter, Marianne 101 Bridges, Jeff 172 Bridges, Lloyd 172 Briggs, Helen 201 Bright, Susan 73, 100 Brilliant, Richard 61

216 Index British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) 46, 70, 201 British cultural studies 13 Brophy, Sarah 209 Brown, Nakeya 160 Bruise, Mission, July 2014 (Fu) 115 Burns, Anne 78, 141 Butler, Judith 16, 76, 77 Byström, Arvida 139, 159, 160, 161, 162 C Cable News Network (CNN) 1, 4, 70 Café Lemintz (photographic series, Petersen) 108 Cahun, Claude 53 Calypso, Julia 160 Camatte, Jacques 21, 25, 28, 29, 30, 31 Camera Lucida (Barthes) 131, 132 Cameron, David 91 Campt, Tina M. 17, 143, 151 Canniford, Robin 173 Capital (Marx) 25, 30 capitalist exploitation 21 Cárdenas, Micha 66 Carson, Ben 200 Cartesian declaration 126–127 Cartwright, Lisa 12, 13, 211 Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Birmingham University 13 Chi, Tseng Kwong 169, 170 Chiapello, Ève 24 Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong 94 Clark, Larry 113 Clasen, Norm 47, 48 Clinton, Hilary 192 Collier, Anne 157, 159 Collins, Petra 113, 158 colonialism 77 communal luxury 136 Communal Luxury: The Political Imagery of the Paris Commune (Ross) 136 Communicating Identity/Consuming Difference conference (Rochester Institute of Technology, 2014) 2 communicative capitalism 28 communism of forms 22 The Communist Manifesto (Marx & Engels) 26 computer capitalism 93 The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know (Kay & Shipman) 202, 206 the confidence gap 202, 206–207 consciousness 6, 7 consumerism 5, 17; ideology relationship to 205–206; selfie in culture of 166–167 Consumption Markets & Culture 2

“CONTAGION—How the “Selfie” Became a Social Epidemic” (Hempel) 194, 195 Cooper, Bradley 166, 167 Coppola, Sofia 92 corporatization 7 counter-selfies 20; contradictions 20–21; opacity in 31–33, 35; politics of 20–22; transparency in 31–33, 35; as variant of CAPTCHA 21; visibility and invisibility with 20 Courbet, Gustave 6 Cox, Laverne 65, 66, 67, 76 Crary, Jonathan 134 Crimp, Douglas 13, 41, 47, 48, 49, 146 Cruz, Edgar Gómez 140, 173 cult of portraiture 68 cultural artifacts 125–126 cultural consciousness 91, 92 cultural fixation with self 6 cultural identity 13 cultural phenomenon 173 CV Dazzle (Harvey) 32, 33 cyber-bullying 191 D Daily Lounge (website) 200 Damore, James 204 Dancing in Peckham (video, Wearing) 54 Dark Triad 196 “The Dark Triad and trait self-objectification as predictors of men’s use and selfpresentation behaviors on social networking sites” (Fox & Rooney) 196 data harvesting 9 Da Vinci, Leonardo 176 Dawson, Shane 55 Dean, Jodi 22, 24, 27, 28, 31 Debord, Guy 33 December 19, 2010 (Nakadate) 155 definition (of selfie) 21 DeGeneres, Ellen 166, 167 Deleuze, Gilles 77 democratization of photography 124 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) 199, 201 Di Domizio, Nicolas 207, 208 digital cultures 14–15, 94; counter-selfies and 20–21; surveillance in 32 digital dualism 41 digital life 94 digital photography 125–126; thought and 133 digital subject 31–32, 41–42, 47, 48, 56 digital utopianism 8 digitization 8, 94 Dikovitskaya, Margaret 10 Dimaggio, Giancarlo 201

Index Dolan Twins 55 Dore, Garance 41 Doy, Gen 13 Duchamp, Marcel 6 Dürer, Albrecht 53, 170, 171, 172 dysphoria 76 E editing life 54 Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Arendt) 133 Eklund, Douglas 47 Elegy (photographic series, Romeo) 108, 110 Engels, Frederick 26 Erickson, Christine 91 erotica 101 Escher, M. C. 5 essentialism 124–125 “The Eternal Return: Self-Portrait Photography as a Technology of Embodiment” (Jones) 104 Eurocentrism 5, 6, 12 Evans, Walker 53 Evernden, Neil 118 Everything is Love (Beyoncé & JAY-Z) 177 Excellences & Perfections (Ulman) 41, 42, 44, 46, 47, 49 exploitation 64 exploratory factor analysis (EFA) 197 “An Exploratory Study of ‘Selfies’ and the Development of the Selfitis Behavior Scale” (Balakrishnan & Griffiths) 3, 197 F Facebook 2, 3, 8, 31, 48, 68, 107, 149, 206 Facial Weaponization Suite (Blas) 32, 33 Farago, Jason 177 Farganis, Sondra 189 February 9, 2010 (Nakadate) 155 Federer, Roger 179, 180 Fellig, Arthur (Weegee) 62, 63, 64 female bloggers 99–103, 112–113 female gaze 102, 109–111, 160 female self-esteem 201 female self-portraiture 139 feminism 16, 191; post-feminism and 98–99; private vs. public debate by 22–23; representational politics 102; second-wave 22–23, 24 feminist visuality 10, 16 feminized labor 24 Ferguson, Russell 151 Fitch, Lizzie 32 Flickr 100, 149 Flusser, Vilém 135, 136 Fonagy, Peter 188 Forbes 3, 4


Forbes Magazine 194, 195 “Forget Selfies, On Vacation Hire a Pro—For the Best Photos, Travelers Book ‘Instagram;’ Tours” (Wall Street Journal) 42 formal subsumption of capital 20 formal subsumption of communication and community 25–28 Fosso, Samuel 6 Foucauld, Charles de 53 Fox, Jesse 196 Franco, James 4 Frazier, LaToya Ruby 101 Freeland, Cynthia 103, 104 Freud, Sigmund 44, 117 Freud’s On Narcissism: An Introduction (Sandler, Person & Fonagy) 188 Friedlander, Lee 167 Frohlich, D.M. 141 Fu, Vivian 2, 112, 113, 114, 117, 119 G Gagosian, Larry 48 Gamergate controversy 204 Gamson, Joshua 94 The Gay Deceiver (Weegee) 62, 64 gender as performance 16, 69, 76 gender construction 69, 207 gender discrimination 202–204 gender dynamics 3, 111 gendered dimensions 17, 195–196 gendered pathologizing 205 gendered technological history 149–150 gender governed by visuality 76 gender ideology 62 generative selfies 125 Gevinson, Tavi 41 Gioia, Francesca 190 Giroux, Henry 7, 8, 9, 23, 194 Glissant, Édouard 32 global positioning system (GPS) 8 Goffman, Erving 180 Goldberg, Greg 188, 190, 191 Golden, Thelma 98 Goldin, Nan 100, 108, 110, 113, 114, 115, 139, 151, 157 Goldstein, Jack 48 Gonzalez Jennifer 60, 61 “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” (Damore) 204 Gopnik, Blake 50 Gordon, Douglas 157 Goriunova, Olga 31, 32, 41, 42, 45, 46, 48, 56 gradiosity 199 Graeber, David 30 Gramsci, Antonio 13

218 Index Griffin-Gracy, Miss Major 66, 67 Griffiths, Mark D. 3, 190, 197 Grogan, Sarah 190 group portraiture 103 The Guardian 4, 50, 70, 90 Guattari, Félix 77 Guinness, Katherine 16, 21 Gunderson, John 199 Gunthert, André 124 H Hagen-Milller, Linda 3 Halberstam, Jack 66 Hall, James 75 Hall, Stuart 13, 14 Han, Byung-Chul 32 Hand With Reflecting Sphere (Escher) 5 Hansen, Susan 10 Hardt, Michael 24, 27, 29, 31, 33 Harris, Lyle Ashton 105, 157 Harris, Malcolm 24, 30 Hartman, Saidiya 211 Harvard Business School 204 Harvey, Adam 32 The Haute Pursuit (website, Hong) 95 Healthline 3 Heart-Shaped Bruise (Goldin) 115 Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich 26 hegemony 13 Heidegger, Martin 135 Helfand, Jessica 181 Hempel, Jesi 194, 204 Hicks, Mar 148, 149 highly-staged encounters 170 The Hip Hop Project (Lee) 151 History of Photography (exhibition, George Eastman Museum) 167, 169, 172 Hladki, Jance 209 Holly, Michael Ann 13 Homage to the Woman With the Bandaged Face Who I Saw Yesterday Down Walworth Road (Wearing) 54 Hong, Vanessa 95, 96 Horning, Rob 45 How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Kohn) 129–130 Huxtable, Juliana 66 hysteria 190 I identity construction 93 identity discourses 13, 23 identity-related themes 1 Illouz, Eva 23, 24 I Love Dick (Kraus) 160 Image Matters (Campt) 143

imaging technology 9–10 immaterial labor 24, 27 imperialism 77 Indiana, Gary 47, 48 individuation 44 information society 27 “In Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl” (Tiqqun) 92 Instafame 30, 92, 94–95 Instagram 29, 40, 41, 42, 43, 45, 48, 50, 60, 68, 72, 78, 93, 95, 108, 113, 142, 147, 149, 160, 161, 205, 206; aesthetics of 69 interdisciplinary methodology 15–16 International Journal of Communications 4 International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction 3, 197 International Visual Sociology Association 10 Internet age 4, 6; as political tool 7–8; power of 7 Interrogating Post-Feminism (eds. Tasker & Negra) 97 intersectional feminists 107–108 intimacy 22, 24 Into the Universe of Technical Images (Flusser) 135 Iqani, Mehita 15, 143, 180 Iquani, Mehita 106 Irmas, Deborah 106, 157 Italian Autonomist theory 24 Italian Operaist theory 24 J JAY-Z 176, 177, 179 Jezebel 207 Jonas, Joan 41 Jones, Amelia 13, 61, 103, 104, 105, 150, 151 Journal of Visual Culture 12 K Kardashian, Kim 192 Kaur, Rupi 139, 158 Kay, Katy 202, 207 Kern conferences, Rochester Institute of Technology 67 Khamis, Susie 93 Kids These Days (Harris) 24 Killingsworth, Sylvia 92 Kim, Sandy 100, 113 “The Kind of Selfies Most Often Taken by Narcissists” (Patrick) 4 Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers 203 Knapton, Sarah 197, 198 Kohn, Eduardo 129, 130, 132, 136 Kotchemidova, Christina 180 Kraus, Chris 160

Index Krauss, Rosalind 41, 47, 50 Kraynak, Janet 7, 8 Krull, Germaine 101 L LaFrance, Adrienne 172, 173 Larsen, Jonas 150 Las Meninas (Velázquez) 6 Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (Crary) 134 Laub, Gillian 65 Lean In Foundation (a.k.a. LeanIn.Org) 202–203, 204 Lee, Michelle 96 Lee, Nikki S. 139, 151, 152, 153, 154, 155 Leeson, Lynn Hersman 41, 52, 53 legitimization of term selfie 92 Lehner, Ace 16 Libbon, Stephanie E. 189, 190, 194 The Life of the Mind (Arendt) 133 Lim, Chriselle 95 Lora, Ellen V. 95 Lorde, Audre 127 Losse, Kate 92 Lovink, Geert 22 low self-esteem 3, 91–92, 192, 199, 201, 205 luxury selfies 29, 30 Lyse, Maja Malou 161, 162 M Machiavellianism 196, 197 MacKinnon, Catherine 22, 23 Maddox, Jessica Leigh 141 Maier, Vivian 101 Major, John 92 Making Technology Masculine: Men, Women and Modern Machines in America, 1870–1945 (Oldenziel) 148 male gaze 111 Mandela, Nelson 91 Mann, Sally 101 Manovich, Lev 4 Mapplethorpe, Robert 166 Mars (photo series and documentary, Romeo) 108, 110 Marwick, Alice 29, 30 Marx, Karl 20, 25, 26, 29 Marxist historicism 25 masking photography 52–55 mask work 53–54 master-slave dialectic 26 material routes of feeling 211 Mayer, Jillian 33 McDonald, CeCe 66 McGinley, Ryan 113 Me and Wenxin, Mission, April 2014 (Fu) 115


Me and Yui, Castro, April 2014 (Fu) 114 Me as Arbus (Wearing) 53 Me as Claude Cahun Holding a Mask (Wearing) 53 Me as Dürer (Wearing) 53 Me as My Ideal Self (Wearing) 53 Mendieta, Ana 151 mental disorders 3–4, 196; pathologizing of women and 190; self-imaging online and 190; sexuality and 190 mental health 3, 5 Merriam-Webster Dictionary 68 meta-view of selfies 140–141 Metropolitan Museum of Art 47 207, 209 mindless photography 132 mindless selfies 125 the mirror 168 Mirror 198 Mirzoeff, Nicholas 5, 6, 13 Missy Suicide (Selena Mooney) 49 Mitchell, W.J.T. 13, 14 Miyazaki, Izumi 160 modernist orthopedic tradition 46 Monahan, Torin 33 Mona Lisa (Da Vinci) 176, 178, 179 Moody, Rick 154, 155 Moon, Jennifer 157 Morimura, Yasumasa 157 Morrison, Toni 125, 126, 136 Moten, Fred 211 MSNBC 200 Mulvey, Laura 101, 109, 111, 145 Murray, Derek Conrad 67, 140, 141, 174, 181 Murray, Soraya 16, 17 Murray, Susan 149 Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) 154 MySpace 2, 92 N Nakadate, Laurel 100, 139, 154, 155, 156 Nakamura, Lisa 158 narcissism 2, 23, 44, 90, 91, 106, 117–118, 127, 140, 162, 196, 197, 199, 207; as clinical disorder 199–200; definition 40; mischaracterization of 188–189; pejorative use of 188; popular vs. clinical definitions of 188; types 4 Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) 3, 195, 199, 201, 205, 210 narrative 42 Negra, Diane 97, 98, 107 Negri, Antonio 24, 28, 29, 31 neoliberal individualism 93 neoliberalism 6, 7, 77 New Portraits (exhibition, Prince) 48, 142

220 Index “New Spirit of Capitalism” (Boltanski & Chiapello) 24 Newsweek 4 The New Yorker 41, 92, 142 The New York Times 4, 50, 70, 90, 177, 199, 204 Ng, Konrad 94 nihilism 151–152 nodal citizen 32 noeme 131–133 Notes on the Divine, Notes on Despair (blog, Romeo) 111 “Note to Self: The Visual Culture of Selfies in the Age of Social Media” (Murray) 2 O Obama, Barack 91 October journal 12, 13, 47 Oldenziel, Ruth 148, 149 online entrepreneurship 94 online self-branding 93 On Photography (Sontag) 118 ontology (of selfies) 40 opacity 32–33 Opie, Catherine 157 Orange is the New Black (television series) 65 Orenstein, Peggy 202 The Origins of Totalitarianism (Arendt) 133 O’Shea, Chris 200 Oxford Dictionaries 91 Oxford Dictionary 1, 68, 90, 194, 205 Oxford English Dictionary 91 P Paglen, Trevor 32 Pao, Ellen 203, 204 “The Pao Effect Is What Happens After Lean In” (Hempel) 204 “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (James Brown) 175 Paris, France (Chi) 169 Parmigianino (Girolamo Maria Mazzola) 5 Parry, Kyle 16 Patarin-Jossec, Julie 10 Patrick, Wendy L. 4 Pauwels, Luc 15 Peirce, Charles Sanders 61, 129, 130, 136 Peraica, Ana 5 Person, Ethel 188 Personality & Individual Differences 195, 199 personal motivations 6 personas (or alter egos) 40, 42, 44, 48 The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (documentary, Žižek) 206 Petersen, Anders 108

“A Phantasmagoria of the Female Body” (Mulvey) 101 phatic presence 23 Phelan, Peggy 45 Philadelphia (Friedlander) 167 photographic performative selfrepresentation 150–158 photographic portraiture 53–54 photography histories 5, 62; fondness for self-portrait 205; gender issues enmeshed in 149–150 Pics, Or It Didn’t Happen (eds. Soda & Byström) 160 “Pictures” (Crimp) 47 Pictures Generation 16, 40–41, 46, 47–51 “The Pictures Generation 1974–1984” (exhibition, Metropolitan Museum of Art) 47 Pierce, Signe 160 Pinney, Christopher 79 Pinterest 127 Pin Up Series (exhibition, Sherman) 50 Piper, Adrian 101 poor images 141–142 pornography 9, 191 portrait as cultural construction 61 portrait as person’s essence 61 Portraiture (Brilliant) 61 post-blackness 98–99, 102 post-Civil Rights discourse 98 postcolonialism 16, 41, 64, 79 post-feminism 97–99; bloggers 99–103; consumer culture criticisms 98; definition 97–98; shift in aesthetic and conceptual strategies in 102–103 post-feminist art 102 postmodernism 27, 62 Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (Cartwright & Sturken) 12 Prince, Richard 16, 40, 41, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 142 privacy 5, 22–23; dismantling of 8 private vs. public 22–23 progressive vs. regressive reading of selfies 103–104 Projects (series, Lee) 151, 153 promotional aspects of selfies 172–177 proof-of-presence 22 Psychiatric Times 201 Psychology Today 4, 196 psychopathy 196, 197 210 puerile gesture 2–3 pure documentary 54 R race as racialized assemblages 77

Index racial identity 211 Rancière, Jacques 20 real subsumption of capital 20, 21, 22 real subsumption of communication and capital 25–28; social media and selfies 28–31 Rear Screen Projections (series, Sherman) 145 reflexive selfies 125 Refrakt 160 Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change (Pao) 204 “The Results of the Immediate Process of Production” (Marx) 25 Rhizome 42 “The Rise of the ‘Getting Real’ Post on Instagram” (The New Yorker) 41 Roberta Contemplating Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge (Leeson) 53 Roberts, Sarah 33 Roddam, Grant 54 Rokka, Joonas 173 Rolling Stone 50 Romeo, Francesca 108, 109, 110, 111, 112, 113 Rooney, Margaret C. 196 Ross, Kristin 136 The Royal College of Psychiatrists 199 Rugg, Linda Haverty 172 Ruggiero, Nicole 160 Ryan, Erin Gloria 201, 207 S Salon 50 Salter, Mark 199 Saltz, Jerry 4, 5, 189 Sandberg, Sheryl 202, 204 Sandbye, Mette 150 Sandler, Joseph 188 Sarley, Stephanie 160 Sarvas, R. 141 Schjeldahl, Peter 142 Schneemann, Carolee 151 Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem, and the Confidence Gap (Orenstein) 202 Schrager, Leah 160 Schroeder, Jonathan E. 2, 15, 17, 106, 143 Second Industrial Revolution 26 Second Wave feminism 97, 111 Sehegal, Paul 147 Seidman, Gwendolyn 195 Sekula, Allan 62 self, depiction of 40–41, 153–154 self-confidence 202 self-consciousness 6 self-expression 180–181 Selfiecity research study 4, 192


“Self(ie)-Discipline: Social Regulation as Enacted Through the Discussion of Photographic Practice” (Burns) 78 Selfie Research Network 4 “Selfies Are Art” (Berlatsky) 191, 193 “Selfies Aren’t Empowering. They’re a Cry for Help” (Ryan) 207 selfie-shaming 209 Selfies Research Network 67 “‘Selfies’ – the obsessive need to post selfies – is a genuine mental disorder, say psychologists” (Knapton) 197 Selfie Stick Aerobics (video, Lyse & Byrström) 161 selfie theorization 43 Self/Image: Technology, Representation, and the Contemporary Subject (Jones) 61, 150 self-imaging 60, 68; female-centric ideas of 200–201; narcissism in 188; selfies as disruptive form of 67–68; used by women as tool of self-empowerment 191 self-imaging culture 128–129 Selfitis (mental disorder) 3, 4, 197, 198, 199 Selfitis Behavior Scale (SBS) 197 self-objectification 196, 199 self-obsession 2 Self-Portrait (Dürer) 170, 172, 178 Self-Portrait (Wearing) 53 Self-Portrait as my Brother Richard Wearing (Wearing) 53 Self-Portrait as my Father Brian Wearing (Wearing) 53 Self-Portrait as my Grandfather George Wearing (Wearing) 53 Self-Portrait as my Sister Jane Wearing (Wearing) 53 Self-Portrait at 17 Years Old (Wearing) 53 Self-Portrait at Three Years Old (Wearing) 53 Self-Portrait Before a Mirror (ToulouseLautrec) 6 Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Parmigianino) 5 Self-Portrait of a Drowned Man (Bayard) 6 Self-Portrait Taking Selfie (Fu) 117, 118 self-portraiture 40, 44; compared to selfies 68, 105–107, 111–112, 168–169; definition of 68, 103; dualities of 103–104; exact elements of in selfies 157–158; to explore authorial power 110; female empowerment relationship to imagemaking 111; gender non-conforming trans and trans feminine in 68–69; intersectional feminist visual studies approach to female 139; legitimacy of 67–68; performative as high art 105–106; practices of performative 73; selfie as contemporary

222 Index manifestation of 166–167; selfies underpinned by ideology of 170; snapshot selfie-style of 113–114 Self-portrait with Leica (Bing) 167 self-production 52 self-recognition 56 self-representation 171–172 self vs. background distinction 40 self vs. environment 55 Selvaggio, Leonardo 32 semiotics 61, 129–130 Senft, Theresa 4, 141 The Seniors Project (Lee) 152 Serano, Julia 64 Seven Up (documentary series, Apted) 54 sexualization 2 Shapira, Shahak 134 Sherman, Cindy 6, 16, 40, 41, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 56, 100, 101, 105, 139, 143, 144, 145, 146, 147, 151, 157, 160, 166 Shipman, Claire 202, 207 Simpson, Lorna 157 Sister Outsider (Lorde) 127 Slyce, John 54 Smith, Marquard 11, 13 Snapchat 3, 48 snapshot selfie-style self-portraits 113–114, 141–142; ideologically loaded 142 Snow, Dash 113 social engagement 1 social meanings implied by selfie 205–207 social media: commercials and 158–159; culture of selfies on 100–101; digital photography and 150; genesis moment 2; post-feminism and 99–103; privacy concerns in age of 8–9; as real subsumption of communication and community 27; selfies in fray to reconcile personal and mass identity 158; shorthand 1 social media culture 90 social media influencer 92–95; Asian female 95–96; definition of 93 social photograph 135 sociology 9, 10 socio-technical phenomenon 140 Soda, Molly 139, 160 Solomon-Godeau, Abigail 61–62 Song, Aimee 95 Sontag, Susan 62, 118 “Sorority Girls Took Selfies at a Baseball Game—And Grown Men Mocked Them for It” (Di Domizio) 207, 209 Spielberg, Greg T. 101 Star, Jeffree 55, 56 Steigler, Bernard 44 Stein, Sidney H. 48

Steinmetz, Katy 65 stereotypes 42, 43, 64, 72; racist 64; trans 64, 66 Steyerl, Hito 16, 32, 142 Streep, Meryl 166, 192 Sturken, Marita 12, 13, 149 SuicideGirls 49 surveillance 5, 8, 9, 32, 191, 194; counterselfie and 20; growing use of 7 survivorship reflex 211 “Switching Lives with Jeffree Star” (video, Dolan Twins) 55 “Switching Lives with the Dolan Twins” (video, Star) 55 T Tagg, John 62, 132 Tasker, Yvonne 97, 98, 107 technical images 135 techno-capitalism 191 technological changes and gender relations 148–149, 202–203 technology 3, 5, 6–9; imaging 7; invasiveness of 8 The Telegraph 197 Thatcher, Margaret 13 The Family (television series, Roddam & Watson) 54 thinking, phenomenon of 125–129 Third Wave feminism 97, 191 This is Not a Selfie: Photographic SelfPortraits from the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection (2017–2018 exhibition, San Jose Museum of Art & Lost Angeles County Museum of Art) 157 Thornham, Helen 140, 173 Thorning-Schmidt, Helle 91 thoughtless selfies 132–136 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears (Nakadate) 154, 155 Tiafoe, Frances 179 Tiidenberg, Katrin 141 Tik Tok 174 Time magazine 65, 66 Tiqqun 92, 117 Tolson, Nancy 127 Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri de 6 trace of one taking (receiving) selfie 125–129 traces of the thought to take a selfie 129–132 Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability (Halberstam) 66 trans femmes in mainstream culture 62 “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier” (Steinmetz) 65, 66 Trans-misogyny Primer (Serano) 64 transparency 32–33

Index trans self-images 60 trans visual culture 65–66 Trecartin, Ryan 32 Trump, Donald J. 7 truth value of photography 61–62, 67 Tumblr 2, 68, 100, 101, 108, 111, 149, 205, 206 Turkle, Sherry 135 Twitter 8, 48, 49, 167, 174 U Ulman, Amalia 16, 40, 41, 42, 43, 45, 46, 47, 48, 50, 51, 52, 56 understanding relating 132 Untitled (Cowboy) (Prince) 47, 48 Untitled Film Still # 30 (Sherman) 144 Untitled Film Still # 56 (Sherman) 144–145 Untitled Film Still # 84 (Sherman) 144 Untitled Film Stills (exhibition, Sherman) 49, 50, 143–144 URME Surveillance project (Selvaggio) 32 USA Today 202 Utopian optimism 7 V Vaid-Menon, Alok 69, 70, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79 Vanessa Wants to Know (VWTK) (podcast, Hong) 96 van Eyck, Jan 177 Van Gogh, Vincent 5 van Rijn, Rembrandt 170 Velázquez, Diego 6 Virtual Normality: Women Net Artists 2.0 (2018 exhibition) 160, 162 visual culture 13, 156–157, 173, 189; AIDS impact on 13; stock images in 192 visual culture studies 9, 11, 14; as ahistorical 11–12; ideology embedded in image 205 visual essentialism 13 “Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture” (Bal) 12 visual language 1, 2 “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (Mulvey) 109 visual research 15 visual sociology 11, 15 visual studies 9–10; in U.S. 14 Visual Studies journal 10, 15 visual theory 13 Vogue 96


von Krafft-Ebing, Richard 190 voyeurism 9, 54 W Wakabayashi, Daisuke 204 Wallop, Harry 201 Wall Street Journal 42 war against women 200–201 Warhol, Andy 49, 166 Warne, Nicole 95 The Washington Post 200 “Watching you / Watch Me” (poetry chapbook, Vaid-Menon) 70 Watson, Paul 54 Ways of Seeing (Berger) 12 Wearing, Gillian 16, 41, 50, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 157 Webcamtears Tumblr collaboration project 154 Weber, Jill 91 Webster’s Dictionary 103 Weheliye, Alexander 16, 77 Welling, Raymond 93 Wendt, Brooke 181 “We Need Diverse Books Selfies” (Tolson) 127 Wesseley, Simon 198 Why We Post research project (University College London (UCL)) 4 Wikipedia 132 Wilke, Hannah 101, 105, 151, 160 Williams, Serena 179, 180 Wired 204 women's role in technology 202–203 Woodman, Francesca 100, 151 Wortham, Jenna 90 The Wounded Man (Courbet) 6 Wymen, Jemima 32 Y Yee, Bruce Y. 3 “The Young-Girl as Technique of the Self” (Tiqqun) 117 YouTube 33, 40, 55, 174; life-swap 41 Z Zanor, Charles 199 Zhang, Margaret 95 Žižek, Slavoj 116, 119, 206