Nature has not been kind to narcissists. Among the parts of their own bodies that human beings cannot look at directly, the face and eyes are the most cruelly placed — open for all but their owner to see. But life would have become impossibly self-reflexive if people could look directly into their own eyes without the help of mirrors. It is sad enough that they cannot help seeing their own faces when they look into other people’s eyes. But maybe this is not so sad after all. Shakespeare, Donne and Proust would have all agreed that their own faces are precisely what lovers unconsciously hope to see when they feed deep, deep upon each other’s peerless eyes. The Self certainly needs the Other, but is the Self really interested in the Other? So, what would these great anatomists of self-love have made of the ‘selfie’ — a self-portrait made on a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website?
The word itself is about a decade old, but has been used so much this year that Oxford Dictionaries Online has declared it the 2013 Word of the Year. Of course, the keyword here is ‘online’, for the current popularity of ‘selfie’ has been measured entirely from its frequency of use on the internet. The taking of selfies got its biggest boost when the iPhone evolved its front-facing camera, followed by most other smartphones, and this had a momentous effect not so much on photography (already revolutionized by the advent of digital), as on how it could be used to present oneself to that parallel universe in which people look at and talk about one another — and therefore, themselves. A random search on, say, Instagram with ‘selfie’ brings up more than 20 million photographs, and more than 50 million with ‘me’. So, the chroniclers of contemporary selfhood must look now, not at the real world, or even at the world of books, films and paintings, but at this other unstoppable democracy of posting and tweeting, of liking and sharing and commenting.
Self-portraits are not new in the history of image-making. But the most memorable pieces of Western self-portraiture, from Rembrandt to Warhol, stand in a kind of loftily silent apartness from their viewers, whereas the point of the Facebook selfie is not just its subject but also reactions, from adulation to outrage to indifference, that the image invites or provokes, and which become essential to the instant and continual validation of the self. This is what the technology of smartness makes so wonderfully quick and easy.
There is something comforting about the rise of the selfie. The world seems to have found, at last, the right medium in which to be unabashed about its hunger for attention, and to make the need to be seen and liked part of the addictive sweetness of life. There is no Other, only others, lots and lots of others — and they are all friends. Isn’t this the best thing that could have happened to that dreary old bore, the Self?