Art, Sex, Identity and Existence: A Dialogue on Selfies
Kim Lacey and Mike Mosher
In this age of too much information at a click of a button, the power to attract viewers amid the sea of things to read and watch is power indeed…Hell, it’s what everyone wants: attention. Attention is power.”
–James Franco, “The Meanings of the Selfie”
Just as Brendan Bryne’s 2013 Rhizome article questions what the new media novel would look like, we’ve been wondering what the new media article might look like. Sure, there are entire journals (like this one) published online, making it (technically) a “new media” publication. But as Bryne questioned how the epistolary novel needs updating, the same sort of questions bleed into the critical writing realm. Take our dialogue, for instance. We started chatting on Facebook and then moved into a pseudo-dialogue by exchanging emails and Word documents—a messy, albeit intriguing, venture. But how can we capture the actual back-and-forth of a dialogue about selfies? Snapchatting might defeat the purpose of “dialogue” (although, quite arguably, the visual back-and-forth might be more telling). How do we capture ourselves, in this moment, the “here I am” of the selfie in dialogue?
This dialogue was first intended as a contribution to Patrick Lichty’s Rhizome 2014 exhibition of selfies, but his project fell through. We continued and updated it into August, 2015.
In what follows, we attempt an understanding of the “selfie” as both an aesthetic piece and a point of entry, a “j’existe” for the new millennium. We don’t apologize for the scattered nature of this piece; instead, we embrace the impreciseness of the back-and-forth. We’re performing the selfie—and all its odd, glitchy, misunderstood, take-it-or-leave-it presence—in writing.
I. Selfie Art History
Ninety years ago Surrealism sought to liberate the inner, subjective psychological state of the artist.
Kim, do you think that's in the DNA of the ostensibly-objective, purely-exterior (ha ha) selfie?
Purely-exterior is (strangely) the most effective way to start thinking about selfies, right? After all, the point is to show yourself somewhere/somehow…but the superficiality of the photos is quickly becomes a side note, in a sense.
The greatest work of American Surrealism, IMHO, is Jim Shaw's 1995 book of drawings Dreams. In it, he meticulously drew two years worth of dreams, full of rich personal, L.A. art world, and Pop imagery. Sometimes Shaw’s family appears, or places in his hometown Midland, MI. Obviously Jim, the often nude protagonist, is depicted.
I'm not even going to approach photographs that artists have exhibited of themselves over the past forty years that document their performance works. That's how Shaw's good friend the late Mike Kelley (1954-2012) first established himself in Los Angeles, in performance art. And Kelley was from Michigan too. Is there something about Michigan that makes us want to kick out the jams in public?
Both of those guys were at U of M in the 1970s, where the Ann Arbor Film Festival made a big impression on young expressives. If we start talking about cinema, we could begin with Alfred Hitchcock's appearances in his own films. In one, through processing-darkroom tricks, he watched himself walk by.
Over the last 15 years or so, there seem to be an explosion (maybe that’s too intense) of “selfie” films: 127 Hours, Blair Witch Project, YouTube confessionals/tutorials (which I know you discuss briefly); Other directors/writers who appear in their films: John Favreau, Stan Lee. Then there's the cinema selfie, where someone like James Franco tries to separate the “celebrity” from screen—don’t see me as an actor, see me as myself (artist/writer/student).
I’m not sure if you've picked up on my love of Marina Abramovich, but I’m fascinated by her work. I’ve been struggling about whether it belongs in the selfie category or not. Her performances (and more specifically “The Artist is Present”) relies on the “look at me” feeling of the photo-selfie. But the more I think of her performances, the performance lies heavily in the person sitting across from her. The artist is merely “present” as a sounding board, per se, for the visitor. Could this be a Surrealist performance?
In 2013 I took a self-portrait photo, standing with a little Canon camera in front of the full-length mirror in our hallway. A painter friend in Los Angeles, Joyce Lieberman, did an expressionistic painting based upon it. But perhaps it's not really a selfie since it's from a handheld digital camera not a phone.
Neither are ones posed in front of my MacBook for Photo Booth, like the one in 2009, after weight loss when I had visible cheekbones for the first time I can remember, that I've used on facebook much longer than I should. One old girlfriend called it Shakespeare's Henry III.
The idea of symbolic self-portraits can go in a bunch of directions—in a good way. Have you seen Chris Buck’s Presence project? I’m working on another project about those photos. I like to think they’re playing on how we view celebrity—the celebrity is hiding behind objects in the photo (or, at least we’re to think they’re actually in the photo). It makes me question what it means to create/compose a self-portrait. Maybe Presence is the anti-selfie. The idea of “selfie” is very insular: I took/made a picture of myself by myself with my own tech/means. But it seems to stretch well beyond that—or maybe that’s a distinction that needs to be articulated. Is the selfie limited to “the person” or does the selfie exist in things about the self or things we see ourselves in/as?
I just realized, my world is so much hand-constructed imagery. When my Department Chair Hideki Kihata, a photographer, suggested a few years ago I take some pictures of some event, I sneered, only half-jokingly, "I don't TAKE pictures, I DRAW them."
The issue of selfies has gotten me reflecting on self-portraits, both in art history and my own practice. At 16, in an art class in high school, I drew two self-portraits. One was as a fetus in the womb (with my hair and aviator-style glasses), the other at age 100.
Eighteenth century French artists did self-portraits with bravado and panache, and Romantic painters like Gericault did anguished or moody ones. In the 20th century, Picasso drew or painted plenty of works that were symbolic self-portraits, featuring a painter, clown, or satyr character, which usually reflected his feelings about his relationship with a woman in his life.
The closest paintings to selfies may be those of the Photorealists, painters who hand-create artwork closely based on photographs. Chuck Close has done massive close-up self-portraits, while Robert Bechtle has included himself and his family, beside their cars or in their home. I thought I was a Photorealist, and enrolled in San Francisco State University to study with Bechtle and Richard McLean, and very quickly realized I wasn't one.
I’m reminded of Frida Kahlo’s drawings of herself in the womb (along with other self portraits). Is there a difference between taking and drawing pictures? I’m thinking with the selfie and/or the self-portrait, the intent is the same. Perhaps we should focus on the medium instead, get all McLuhanesque! IF that’s the case, then speed, immediacy, and consumerism all come into play.
I was looking at Ilse Bing’s photos, appropriate to our project that’s literally self-reflective. Bing’s self-portrait makes me wonder why do we take these photos at all? What’s the important distinction between taking a picture of myself by myself. Why doesn’t another photographer snap the pic? Maybe the drive to snap the pic of and by myself speaks less to the technology that we have to do it, and more towards the inner, subjective psychological state. We’re trying to get to know ourselves, but how can we do it? How do others see us? We know what we put forward (dress, attitude, etc.), but what do people literally see when they see me?
II Selfies and Societies
My high school friends and I had personae in the comics we drew and published (incorporating as a school club to get access to a Ditto Copy machine). One girl friend deemed me, with my leather jacket and Swisher Sweet cigars, a macho named "Studs McJagger". At 18, in one of the last issues, I drew all our characters maimed in one way or another. My character was legless, rolling himself on a little cart; in 2013 I had three surgeries on my legs, and yeah, I probably should selfie my scars. One surgeon was impressed with the MacBook shot I took of one open wound, day after surgery, when he came in to personally change the dressing.
Your students would relish those selfies. In conversation with colleagues, they often question my willingness to “friend” students on different social networks. It’s worth noting that I typically don’t seek them—if they friend request me, I generally accept. Nothing on my profile is hidden. You might say I’m an open book or a narcissist (a distinction I just heard from Amazon’s new show Betas). I’ve thought a lot about this “openness” and it’s driven by my desire not to separate my “teaching/research” self from my “online self”—I see them as part of the same “me”. I’m not “constructing” an identity online, per se, but rather expressing what I like, have to say, converse, whatever
Constructing identity: what defines the “selfie”? Does the person have to be fully in it? Face? Body parts (sexting)? What does selfie mean? That I took a picture of myself by myself? But then, what’s the “self” that’s being captured? I think that’s something we need to focus on first. I’ll admit, I’m not sure what “selfie” means exactly (and I’m certainly not alone in this). I’ll start asking around, especially to my students—they might have a better idea (or at least a more comprehensive understanding of what it means.)
Here’s some (completely scientific ha) feedback I got from asking friends on facebook.
How do you define selfie? (their posts follow)
• At least 75%of the face, and from the nipple up
• I just had an interesting debate about whether the selfie is little more than the old photo booth series revisited w new technology.
• I think people tend to stretch the term more than they should -- selfies are solo pics and should involve the face because that's the effort behind the positioning - making sure your face is in the pic was always the hardest thing to do before front-facing cameras. It's really too bad the term "groupies" already existed ... Haha
• Well, front-facing smart phone cams, I mean (of course)
• Enough of your face to be recognizable. Usually for silly hair shots or feeling happy with my appearance (once in a great while when that happens)
• it has to be taken by the subject of the photo...
• Oxford says: ""A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website."
• Yes. you have to take it and be in it. I'd say.
• I don't think the camera device is relevant to the resulting selfie.
• I don't think it requires being uploaded to social media. The photo may also be sent privately by text or PM.
• Also, I travel alone quite a bit in foreign countries or in the back country when there's no one to ask for a photo. It's nice to have a couple shots that have a human element.
• My teenage daughters say their generation takes the selfie to document when they look good.
As an undergraduate, often lonely and drinking alone at Dartmouth College, feeling compelled to make use of what then felt like wasted time, I would complete several drunken self-portrait drawings. I believed that something oracular, from my subconscious, would be revealed that wouldn't in the sober light of day. And in ensuing, happier decades, there would be weekends or holidays when I was drinking, feeling mellow, when I would draw a small self-portrait or series of them. Sort of fixing the moment of elated relaxation, I guess.
I often turn to Google Docs/iPhone notes in those drunken, lonely moments—in a sense, I have tons of “written self-portraits” about things that are inspiring, depressing, etc. Lots of random (digital) notes that collectively (and even individually) present a certain self-in-construction.
Maybe these snapshots of ourselves are saying something about the ways we construct our identities, our memories, etc. Less about how we want others to see us and more about how we see ourselves? Or, how we think others saw us?
I'm a fan of the hand-drawn, much like Robert Crumb, who privileges old time music over Pure Pop for Now People (title of a ‘70s album), I draw autobiographical comics. Recently I’ve been posting them to the facebook page of the club SVSU Comic Strippers, the Registered Student Organization that students in my 2009 Comics, Cartoon Art & Visual Narrative class started to keep sharing their artwork, and I think tales of my college years are getting them nervous.
What about the Lacanian mirror stage? Noticing ourselves in the mirror—there’s something there. Maybe we don’t see ourselves—are selfies mirrors? Projections? A combo that we don’t have a name for yet? Teenage self-reflection: snap chat—again, you need to see me in order to prove I exist . Age projections—manipulated photos; weight loss photos, debunked by fitness trainers; age progression—this is what dead celebrities would look like; age progression for missing children.
New York artist Nancy Burson found programmers thirty years ago to implement her idea of composite photos—mash ups of actresses, humans and animals, humans based on the proportionality of the races of the world. When she agreed to create an image of a missing child, morphing in photographs of older siblings, she created an industry. In the late 1990s I wrote an article in Bad Subjects http://bad.eserver.org/issues/1998/38/mosher.html questioning the utility of these virtual children, I got an angry letter from a father pinning hope for his daughter’s return on such a photograph.
And there’s that website that turns selfies into pictures of Nic Cage, who may have become to celebrity faces what Rick Astley is to punkin' videos.
III. Selfies and Sexuality
Marcel Duchamp exhibited a photograph of himself as a woman called Rrose Sélavy (pronounced "C'est la vie"). Exhibitors of photos in drag include the Rolling Stones dressed as military women on the single "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows". And work by black comedians like Flip Wilson, Chris Rock, Martin (Big Momma's House) Lawrence, and Tyler Perry’s recurrent character Madea.
In college in the mid-'70s I bought a silver-covered Andy Warhol book, nearly all page-size photos with little text, at a used bookstore. In it was a self-portrait photo by Lou Reed, taken at his bathroom mirror, bare-chested or possibly nude. I later recall a School of the Art Institute of Chicago catalog that had one student drawing based on several photo-booth strips of what appeared to be a gay clique.
Though in our part of Michigan, a guy paying enough attention to detail that his belt matches his shoes is certified metrosexual, I guess I have a pretty good gaydar. But I wonder, is there something kind of gay about selfies?
What about “Warhol’s Queens”? Or even a lot of Warhol’s work? I wonder if performance art could be considered a selfie. Tracy Emin immediately comes to mind. If online identities might sometimes only show part of us, one could argue Emin’s work (“Everyone I Have Ever Slept With”) is a slice of self.
But back to your question. I don’t think there’s something kind of “gay” about selfies. In fact, it seems to be extremely heteronormative. It might not be a stretch to say they’re homoerotic—lots of girls post pics for other girls. But that brings in the whole question of “sexting” which is also usually portrayed as hetero (although definitely not limited to it).
I found some nude Polaroids of an old girlfriend (the Shakespearean) a few years ago. Both happily married to other people, hundreds of miles away, I thought emailing her a copy of them would just be a gentle smile between us, both appreciating her beauty three decades ago. She was horrified. "Why did you keep these?" I should have destroyed all traces of our intimacy like that when we stopped sleeping together?
This makes me question what it means to “keep” anything. Digital images are (arguably) more stable/permanent only in the sense that they are more easily distributed, copied, multiplied, manipulated. “I exist” or “I am here” for much longer...or in more places. A promiscuous photo? Sexting is a risk for this reason, it can be easily shared (either on purpose or accidentally), therefore creating a certain amount of uncertainty in the photographer. But how great is the risk? Does the “thrill” outweigh the risk? If so, what risks are involved?
We could also turn to Cindy Sherman as another example. With her, though, it would be more a manipulation of the self-portrait: how do we show ourselves differently/show our different selves?
Cindy Sherman's entire thirty-five year artistic career could be said to have been carefully-staged non-telephonic selfies. Nikki S. Lee and Jaimie Warren are other contemporary female self-portrait photographers, and in a March, 2009 Artforum review, David Velasco [Jaimie Warren, Higher Pictures (Boston), p.247] saw Warren's ironic and camp photos part of something bigger:
"Contrived and yet wholly authentic, Warren's images seem representative of a period in which cameras have become principal facilitators of self-preservation. One can't help but imagine her works among the vast corpus of self-portraits free-floating around the Internet; a few Jaimie Warrens might make this world of Tila Tequilas and lonelygirl15s more interesting."
Kim, how is it different for women to point a camera at oneself?
I’d argue that it is. What’s more interesting about women pointing the camera at oneself is that it’s still constructed by someone—“we should pose this way”, “we should make the ‘duck lip’ face”, “we should share these with certain audiences”, “look at my outfit” (I could go on about the different tropes of female selfies). One of the most interesting types of selfies I see very often from women are the ones in front of mirrors (Ilse Bing predates these). I’m always intrigued that the women in the “mirror selfies” have to see themselves (or is it to see how others will see them?) seeing themselves in these photos. Does that say something about the ways females internalize the gaze?
When I first started my Twitter account, one of my first Tweets was something paranoid about not having a picture of myself to use as a profile image. There are two things that are useful there. First, that I can’t (easily) access all of my Tweets. Sure I can request them, but it’s not easily sortable/searchable. The second is the idea of the “profile pic”—are selfies just images we take of ourselves? Are they also images we choose to represent ourselves? If the latter, what about people who use “things” or objects as their profile pics? What about manipulations of the self image? For example, I’ve ‘made’ many self-portraits using glitchy, a program that messes with the code of the file and creates a new image altogether. Am I making a new image, one that I can claim as a selfie? (And I know this isn’t a new question, but it does have new relevancy with this project.)
Make that duck face! There was that self-documenting Mexican drug-running gangster, whose pouts made me wonder if there was a criminal in the old Dick Tracy comics called Duck Face.
There are copy machine pre-selfies in my past. I took one in college after a drunken binge burst a blood vessel in my eyeball, putting my face down on a Xerox copy machine. A few years later in 1982, after a very public dressing-down by an ex-girlfriend in an artists' copy shop in San Francisco, I put my angry face on a machine alongside cheerful poet, and neighborhood resident, Harold Norse (1916-2009), as well as a dead, dried rat. Thought of the photocopy when Nourse died, should have dug out and published it, alas.
In the College of San Mateo (CA) workplace that was my first computer graphics job, one weekend a co-worker came in and had sex with his girlfriend atop the copy machine. He left—accidentally on purpose?—a print of his netherlands upon the machine, and Monday morning the female Art Director asked all three guys on her staff who had left it there, looking at us funny.
Interesting how recounting self-portrait photography in my life brings us the frisson of intimacy—how many old girlfriends (and private nudity revealed) in above stories?—or sexuality. I think we're on to something.
I wonder if the “boudoir photography” market is becoming a lost art. Sure the styling, posing, etc. are something one can’t always do by him/herself, but the naked/partially nude/body part shot are so popular (prevalent?)
What would an eighteenth century Protestant divine, preaching against the sin of vanity to a congregation all dressed in sober black, white and gray, think of the selfie? I'll admit to a certain degree of vanity. I liked costumes as a kid, and have snapshots my mom took of the gradeschooler as a monster, soldier, cowboy, Indian, mustachioed and derby-sporting 19th c. politician for a school play. A bit of a ham actor, preparation for the show biz that is the classroom
Vanity, in a twisted way, is part of the lure of selfies, no? I’m thinking of many images I see my students posting. They often post pics of themselves waking up from a particularly hard night of partying or “scene of the crime” (my name for them) images: “look at how messy I am”, “look at how chaotic my studying is”
I’m realizing that I keep saying “look at”—are we inviting looking? Is the point of selfies to “look”? To gaze? To interpret something? How do we talk about the selfie? For me, there are certain people in my Facebook feed who post (I think) for bragging rights. For those, I’d say “look at” is appropriate. Others, and I’m not sure how to categorize it, seem just to fall into the “here’s something you might find interesting to look at” category. Going back to your earlier comment about inner-self, maybe the distinction is the viewer, not the person taking the picture.
Let’s talk about that male gaze. You posted that public service video in India about inappropriate leering men. What, in your opinion, is the proper etiquette for "tramp stamp" lower back tattoos and buxom décolleté? Guess I figure one gets a tattoo to be looked at and admired. And I think there's a difference between a quick admiring glance, and looks that make someone feel uncomfortable; the difference between "looked at" and "stared at".
I'm always curious about the art of body mods (ink, piercings, etc.) but I don't know the proper way to look at them. For "tramp stamps" and the like, I feel hesitant to say "well, they're asking to be stared at" because that seems to be too similar to saying "they're asking to get raped." But, those 'well-placed' tattoos have a certain sexual invitation to them (which the “asking to be raped” argument fails to acknowledge). But then at what point does “looked at” become the “stared at”? We can stare at something we find aesthetically fascinating, right? Is that objectifying it?
Is discretion the difference? I'm now wondering if the role of the invited gaze is what troubles our students.
I see this invitation as being similar to “tramp stamps”, but I'm not sure how the next generation sees it yet. Athletes are used to "being looked at" but not "objectified" (and I'm not saying complimenting a student is objectifying them). I'm trying to say that there's not a critical awareness of what these selfies or things or mods that bring attention to the self are doing. /p>
A selfie asks (and/or asserts) one's presence somewhere, but it also says "look at me!" The subject in the image (the selfie-ist?) invites the viewer into the intimate space of the self-portrait.
IV. Uses of Selfies
John Berger once wrote of how in eastern Europe and Turkey during World War One, if a man were going off to war, he went to a photo studio before he did. Not to have his photo taken, but to choose a photo from the wall of a man who resembled himself, to give to his beloved to remember him by in his absence. If he had a big mustache, he chose a mustachioed man. If he had glasses, he chose a man with glasses, etc.
Just as the technology of phones with cameras comes from Asia, I wonder if Japanese were the first to take and distribute selfies. I remember how seriously Japanese tourists took their pictures in front of landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco when I lived there. Their experience of the site was complete when the photograph was taken, and they often didn't pause to look at the site itself. Is their relationship to photography and selfies different from the US? But if so, why did selfies catch on so, worldwide? Am I beleaguering the obvious?
Cartoony borders are then often added to a photograph, especially of lovers. Those drum home the message the people in it want to say.
A little too cutesy for my taste, but a conscious choice to decorate the image of the self.
If a selfie imperative says "Here I am, NOW!", then does a static and unchanging Profile pic (like mine) fight against selfie-ism?
They put a greater effort into updating it now, but when I first came to our university, the Faculty & Staff Directory, with its little pictures (in effect, our school yearbook) had some that had been unchanged for decades. Our rotund, grumpy sexagenarians appeared as eager, slim twenty-somethings.
There was that arresting photo of Nicki Minaj you showed me, studded leather straps around her nipple-taped breasts, handcuffs at her hip, taking a selfie with a camera that bears her image, used to illustrate that Complex magazine item on how she could be used to teach college Theater courses. That got me thinking in two directions. The first was the selfie as theater, the promotional photo that performers leave with agents, the audition (Andy Warhol shot his friends' faces as "screen tests", and their fidgeting became the movie's action). The second, though, was how this nearly-nude photo reminded me of the prostitutes' ads in the back of Detroit entertainment tabloids, especially the now-defunct Real Detroit Weekly. I'll admit it, I sometimes put these women, or the ones in the strip club ads, in my paintings. A couple years ago one young woman included some personal info along with her provocative nude selfie, as if it were a dating site or she was looking for a friend, which seemed weirdly intimate in a paid sex ad.
So is a selfie, no matter whether clothed or nude, a jump-start to intimacy? My face (and, sometimes, t and a) IN YOUR FACE?
Did somebody say Anthony Wiener?
Nicki certainly uses the selfie as self-promotion. And there’s now a play based on the “Weiner Sexting Scandal”: The Weiner Monologues. The most interesting part, however, is the use of “smart phone technology” during the play. Apparently, during the performance, audience members will receive “found” texts of Weiner to enhance the viewing experience (sounds a little Viagra-y, no?). This appropriation of his selfies is fascinating—Weiner sent these images for personal/intimate reason, yet now they’re being repurposed. When does a selfie stop being a selfie?
Selfies’ potential uses in the arts raise questions of manufactured vulnerability, maybe too manufactured—perhaps there’s no unguardedness and spontaneity in a selfie. Maybe there’s no intimacy, only a self driven towards alienation, chirping Here I am!
Regarding “bad” selfies, at funerals and other ‘inappropriate’ places: they’re like saying “Yeah, so? I’m selfish and an asshole, and I know it—but look how honest I am”—as though saying it negates the selfishness. Has a confession replaced repentance?
Selfies’ potential uses in the arts raise questions of manufactured vulnerability, maybe too manufactured—perhaps there’s no unguardedness and spontaneity in a selfie. Maybe there’s no intimacy, only a self that's driven towards alienation, chirping Here I am!
Regarding “bad” selfies, at funerals and other ‘inappropriate’ places: they’re like saying “Yeah, so? I’m selfish and an asshole, and I know it—but look how honest I am”—as though saying it negates the selfishness. Has a confession replaced repentance?
Age projections—manipulated photos; weight loss photos, debunked by fitness trainers; age progression—this is what dead celebrities would look like; age progression for missing children.
An there’s that website that turns selfies into pictures of Nic Cage, who may have become to celebrity faces what Rick Astley is to punkin' videos.
V. Selfies and (Smiling at) Death, Afterlife
Look at the wave (or glut, to the irritated) of Selfie info around the end of November and the first week of December, 2013. There was the circa-1900 photographer taking her measure as she gazed into the mirror beside her large box camera. A selfie posted by (OK, in behalf of) the long-dead. You pointed out that NASA's popular Instagram presence is a zone of stratospheric selfies. Selfies of the realm of the dead, the now-diffused, eh?
December saw the kerfuffle about Obama and two other dignitaries taking a supposedly inappropriate selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Because Michelle Obama wasn’t in it and wasn’t smiling, pundits cackled that she didn’t like him schmoozing close with the female Prime Minister of Denmark. Cooler heads pointed out how this hooplah distracted the news from pointing out how many US Presidents and Senators had condemned Mandela as a terrorist and spported the Apartheid regime in South Africa. So sometimes one or more individuals’ selfies can obscure that which should be brought to collective focus.
In a meditation on death in artworks in the NYR December 5, 2013, Zadie Smith begins with a Signorelli drawing "Man Carrying a Corpse on His Shoulders" from about 1500, then moves on to a Titian painting of Ranuccio Farnese, 12-year-old in a distinguished family, "a boy whose destiny it was to become a corpse" (like us all, eventually): "All the signs of indelible individuality are here, yet none proved sufficient to halt the inevitable. (No amount of "selfies" will do it, either.)"
Back to the eternal questions of gender and sex, Smith's focus on the lushly painted Renaissance lad I discussed earlier reminded me of an essay by Germaine Greer in Esquire magazine forty years ago, where she appreciated the sexiness of a similar Italian male, maybe a decade older but in similar elegant fur and fine fabrics (sensuous velvet, not Ranuccio's brocade, I recall). As a college freshman, I appreciated her (heck, any) insight into the female psyche and sexuality.
I wonder if today’s college freshman is overloaded with insight about female sexuality—or at least images to gawk at. Speaking of the male form, however, perhaps a contemporary example would be Magic Mike XXL. (No, I haven’t seen it…) Recently, Bitch magazine posted an article noting how freeing this movie is for groups of women—that they feel comfortable verbalizing their own sexual impulses in front of other women (strangers, even) while watching the film. Perhaps the freedom the express desire is a result of the “selfie revolution”—that posting or sharing sexy selfies has boosted females’ confidence. I have no research to back that up, but now I’m curious about the effects (something for my class next semester…?).
In the book that accompanied his 1970 indie movie “Maidstone”, Norman Mailer wrote how the relationship of film to death demanded further exploration. 2014 saw a wave of selfies in front of moment-before-suicide attempts.
The NY Post cover shrieked about The Worst Selfie Ever, woman taking her mug with potential suicide being led off the bridge behind her (hey, dude was rescued, so it's OK, right?). Darth Vader posted his, so NPR says it's official, "Selfies Are Forces of Evil".
Yet there were also those selfies posted by Israeli soldiers and settlers with the ruins of bombed-out Gaza behind them, or of Palestinians at checkpoints, etc., being brutalized by the military.
And the woman tourist at Dachau who posted her selfie with the caption “Even here I’m drop-dead gorgeous”…!
For example, there’s a blog somewhere [I have the link] called “Selfies at Funerals.” These selfies are not meant to say “I was here!” but instead to convey emotion: “Look how sad I am.” What happens there??
So where do we go from here? Selfie is too passé. Too 2013.
Initially I asked our colleague Prof. John Baesler to coin a German word for selfies, and he came up with what Kim would have nominated 2014 Word of the year, “eitelkeitsselbstportrait.” Then, in light of Barack likely chastened by Michelle Obama, I requested a word meaning post-selfie anxiety, regret and remorse.
Ah, he’s certainly made his mark on the scholarship of selfies. At that request, he offered “eitelkeitsselbstportraitfurchtundZittern,” proud of an imbedded reference to Kiergegaard at its end!
As teased above, and following the lead of Mark Marino and Miriam Posner (they both teach well respected and open access courses on selfies), I’ll also be teaching a course on selfies in the winter 2016 semester. I mean, after Kim Kardashian’s Selfish was released, how could I resist? But really, Selfish is a focused (and actually very interesting) visual narrative of her life over the past few years. In the Winter 2016 semester, I’ll be asking my students to “write” using selfies. Self-reflection is key in the writing classroom, but visual self-presentation is often ignored. Not anymore. We’ll be investigating the use of self-presentation in the contemporary age. Sure, these aren’t new ideas, but there are new tools with which interrogate them (did someone say selfie sticks…?).
More specifically, my course will follow closely the existing structure designed and used by the Selfie Researchers Network. While their course only had six weeks, I’ll be following and expanding upon the themes discussed in that course: Identity and Interpellation; Celebrity and Branding; Dataveillance, Biometrics, and Facial Recognition; Gender, Sexuality, and Dating; The Subaltern, Criminal, and “Others”; and Place, Space, and “Appropriate” Selfies. Since my course is ultimately a writing course, the innovative aspect of it will rely on using selfies to write about these topics. I’m imagining a multi-modal approach to my assignments—integrating selfies about the topic (of oneself and others) with more traditional writing interspersed to explain the narrative connection of the images. Students will likely use digital platforms to construct all assignments—they won’t be submitting “Word docs” as essays. Instead, I’ll be interested in the intersection between the images they use/create/combine alongside the text they choose to explain the images. Most major assignments will be heavy on the imagery, so validating this as a writing course might be a tough sell. (I know when I ask my students to do a bunch of small writing assignments, they don’t think of it as writing, even though by the end of the semester they’ve done much more writing than they would’ve if they had written a few long essays.) The question of “quantity v. quality” will be something I’ll have to think through carefully as I continue to plan this course. Another approach to using selfies in my course will be something I haven’t seen in other selfie courses—documenting the writing process via selfies. How cool would it be to ask students to continuously take selfies as they’re composing?! I’m imagining lots of frustrated images (probably multiple images of people with blank screens behind them). As a writing instructor, I often ask my students to partake in meta-cognitive exercises about their writing process—questions along the lines how did you feel? what was the most challenging? the most rewarding? We all have our own method of “getting through” writing—but I’m imagining the “writing process selfies” will showcase an entirely different affective display of how individuals “do” writing. I’m interested in their settings, their facial expressions, even dress. In my opinion, I think this will be the most interesting aspect of the course. I’m very curious to see how my students document their writing with selfies.
Some of the challenges of this course will be trying to figure out how to “grade” such narratives. I’m not an art prof (ahem, Mike), so composition or quality of images won’t be high on my list. But teaching students to write with images and then grading them not on the image itself but on how well a collection of images tells a story will cause chaos, I’m sure. At least, chaos on my end. To address this issue, we’ll be looking at a bunch of examples of selfie narratives, including but definitely not limited to Kim Kardashian’s book. Students are great at creating visual narratives in spaces like Snapchat and Instagram, but getting them to think about casual images as narrative will be the challenge. Once that paradigm shift starts to happen, I think the grading issue will fall into place. Once everyone understands the importance of using images to craft a narrative, I anticipate that grading images will be very similar to grading writing.
In honor of the account Satiregram on Instagram, a user who doesn’t post pictures but descriptions of well-worn photographic tropes: “obligatory duck face selfie to end paper”
ODFStEP. Now, we'd better email John Baesler to request a German word for that.
Kim Lacey, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor, English at Saginaw Valley State University. Her research rethinks memory as a persuasive construct, and questions about the ways we use technologies to supplement our daily activities.
Mike Mosher, M.F.A. is Professor, Art/Communication Media Administration at Saginaw Valley State University. Before that, he was a San Francisco community muralist and Silicon Valley interface graphics designer.