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Looking for depth in the selfie


Young woman taking selfie

I take a lot of selfies. Some of them are silly, coquettish, dramatic, others are just my face looking into my computer, sitting where I work, dressed in work clothes.

They’re like a diaristic record of my location and my day. It might be simple to say that they mean more or less nothing, that they’re just an inane collection of data on my laptop, or self-portraits made easy by the tools I use for work anyway. But nothing means nothing. Everything says something about the culture that produces it.

When photography first entered the modern world, it was taken up as a hobby by the wealthy and obsessed. Then with industrialisation the means of photography proliferated, making it available to regular folks in developed economies.

It started to transform the everyday – families, holidays – into memorable events. How could you say you’d been on a holiday if there were no photos to show the family? How important could the wedding have been if photographic documentation didn’t exist? The function of recording became also a function of working, of being active in those moments that drew people away from work inside and outside of the home.

In her famous text on photography, Susan Sontag wrote that it was the early-comers to mass photography (as opposed to art photography) – Japanese, Germans, and Americans – who also were also the most work-obsessed. 'Using a camera', she writes, 'appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly reminder of work: they can take pictures.' Selfies perhaps take this further, in that they commemorate the self in its various stages.

This idea of photography as work positions photography inside capitalism, inside a culture that has to be busy and productive, archiving minutes of life for later consumption. The self that exists in a selfie is a labourer, too. But making selfies is not just a 'friendly reminder of work', it’s real work, which generates a use-value for the person taking the selfies, and actual money for social media platforms.

Making and posting selfies on social media is a bit like working for Instagram, Facebook, or Tumblr, but without a wage. At least, not one you can live off. Remuneration is rewarded in the currency of ‘likes’, which are attached to social status, which always have something to do with class. And although ‘likes’ seem to be distributed frivolously, arbitrarily, they quite predictably repeat dominant modes of gender and class.

The altar of celebrity, too, derives value from the ubiquity of selfies. With the possibility of self-generating fame, ‘Tumblr-fame’, ‘Facebook-fame’, selfie culture furthers the value of the institutions of celebrity by endorsing the notion of fame via self-creation. And it’s this facet of selfies that I find the most telling, and possibly the most radical, because in it I see how the means of cultural capital are produced. Selfies expose the shallow underpinnings of how social status is created and enforced. Status is frivolous, and staged; it’s fake-it-till-you-make-it phony. And when that appears to be the foundation of many cultural exchanges, the cracks begin to show. 

The mythology of the kind of capitalism that dominates our culture lies somewhere between the 'American' (or Australian) Dream' and a belief in the “self-made” individual. The self-made person generates celebrity, and social value, from their self-made image.

A far cry from the ‘hard-work’ logic of the American Dream, this form of capital is functionally cultural. In eschewing the material foundations of capital (but in turn requiring their existence), selfie culture exposes the origins of success inside capitalism: inherited privilege, which depends on the global exploitation of labourers who produce the means of privilege, and the hardware required for selfies to even exist. Success inside capitalism needs factory hands to work for us, the hands of ghosts who never get to be celebrities, or rich, or privileged.

So if the exploitation of global labourers is required for selfies to exist, for celebrities to exist, and for us to believe in our ability to be self-made people just doing the hard work with no help from anyone, how could anything just or equitable ever come from this? It’d be inane to suggest that the copious library of selfies inside my laptop, the pictures of my face sitting and standing, working, eating, and posing, have some seed of dissent in them. They’re just data, created by a person with too much time for self-documentation.

But in working for free for Facebook, as I do, in working for free for the cultural institutions of celebrity, I am made aware of the conditions required for celebrity and privilege to even exist. It is all predicated on various forms of slavery, made manifest in factory labour and voluntary work for social media companies, which all begins and ends with a dream for social mobility. Social mobility never looked so loaded. Or maybe it is nothing. Maybe a selfie is just a selfie.

Ellena SavageEllena Savage is a Melbourne writer who edits Middlebrow, the arts liftout in The Lifted Brow. Twitter: @RarrSavage

Selfie image by Shutterstock

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, selfie, culture, internet, photography, social networking, work, Susan Sontag



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Existing comments

This article is a selfie - and you can only hope the irony is intended. Bring back the passion, Elena.

Steve | 31 October 2014  

You have to look at history as an evolution of society: http://loreleibeckstrom.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/DSC3458.jpg

Annoying Orange | 31 October 2014  

To be The Ultimate Selfiest, Ellena, you would have to be an extreme narcissist, like the Kardashians, or one or more former prominent Australian politicians. You are decidedly not. I am not really part of the selfie, Twitter or Facebook world. A sort of personal reticence I learnt from my father and my "English public school in South Yarra". The people who control the new internet based empires are not so much people of inherited wealth but a little like the factory owners in England during the Industrial Revolution with all that entails. Some have a social conscience, some have none. In countries like China, with their dreadful factory system, some of the New Rich are awful. We in Australia were actually enjoying cheap goods from what are, basically, sweated workshops, long before the internet. My hope is that, like during the Industrial Revolution, the conditions for workers in the sweated workshops will improve and that they, or their descendants, will one day enjoy the sort of society and lifestyle we have, which is an enviable one and sometimes downplayed by Luddites and those on the Extreme Left.

Edward Fido | 31 October 2014  

Ellena: " Everything says something about the culture that produces it." Steve:"This article is a selfie." Although the Earth is miniscule compared to the Sun, it is inaccurate to say the Earth simply revolves around the Sun. They both revolve around their common centre of gravity. They both affect each other. Each individual (read 'Self') affects Society. And the Society we make up affects each self. Current Society has made it easier for each Self to have an exaggerated idea of their own self. To paraphrase an old saying:'Man (Self) is the measure of all things.' And in this capitalistic age, 'all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell'... We, or later generations will be affected by how we shape self, and how this shapes our culture or Society. Over-indulgence in self always come back to haunt us.

Robert Liddy | 31 October 2014  

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