Thursday, May 29, 2014


The text from my presentation at LACMA in April 2014. From a book chapter in progress on selfies as life-writing.

Here’s the TL;DR of what I want to address very briefly here: first, selfies considered through the lens of Roland Barthes’ notion of the punctum; second, the development of formulaic and conventional modes of self-representation in seflies, considered as studium; third, the social disciplining of selfies as visual rhetoric and communication practice: selfie song, selfies at funerals, skinneepix, striation of services. This is to suggest a number of avenues into the topic that I am exploring at length elsewhere.

The Ineffable: Selfies as Punctum 

In Camera Lucida, French semiotician and poststructuralist Roland Barthes turns his back on these fields he helped inaugurate, and instead considers the ineffable essence of photography, what he calls the punctum. The punctum, literally, is that which pierces. Barthes began from the problem of trying to understand why some photographs of his mother move him and some don’t. He finds one of her as a child (“The Winter Garden Photograph”). It moves him, it has the punctum, it is the essence of her. Its meaning inheres not in the photo itself but in his own personal, subjective relation to it. He write, in a long, characteristic parenthesis: “(I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound)” (Barthes 73). Probing the wound inflicted by this photo, Barthes decides to abandon his formalism: “I had understood that henceforth I must interrogate the evidence of Photography, not from the viewpoint of pleasure, but in relation to what we romantically call love and death.”

This reminds me of Dear Photograph. Those photos are about the very act of undertaking this process that Barthes describes--they’re layered self-portraits of love and death. From this site, we can see that some of what enrages us about social selfies, perhaps, is the mismatch between their deeply personal meaning, and their broader irrelevance, when broadcast.

The Dear Photograph images are uncanny and insipid at the same time in ways that are unavoidable but instructive. There is something generalizably and shareably jarring in the forced layering of past and present that is the generic unifying element of all these photos. That’s the uncanny part. There’s a studium element at play here that's really effective at drawing attention: the trick and the convention of seamless layering, the closer the fit the more jarring the effect. The punctum, though, is personal: it’s what the people in the first photo mean to the owner of the thumb in the picture. The life flashing before the eyes of the one person for whom it is meaningful. This is probably why the captions strike us as so terrible: mawkish, sentimentalized, like what you’d see in a greeting card inscription. Often the inscriptions/authors are talking to the subject of the photograph directly (“Mom, I want you to know that we turned out all right”) rather than to the actual audience of the shared and staged photo, which would be the internet at large. Dear Photograph is all about the punctum rather than the studium. And the punctum is meaningful only to the individual who sees it: the Dear Photograph selfie is a representation of hte moment of piercing; it shares what cannot be shared. It is compelling, and impossible.

 The Mannered: Selfies as Studium 

Of course, let’s admit it’s often hard to see where the opportunity for punctum might exist in what feel like an endless parade of interchangeable overlit facial downshots and bathroom mirror moues.

This is the studium of the selfie, the more deliberate and formal characteristics of the photographic image. I think we are learning new ways of arranging our bodies to be photographed, and deciphering these arrangements as critical viewers of photography, rather than personal subjects seeking out the connection to friends or family depicted in images. In interesting ways, “selfies” are becoming “professionalized” in the kinds of self-consciousness and artfulness that subjects are bringing to posing and staging, but there’s a really limited and possibly limiting kind of self-expression that results. Duckface and the bicep pop are two well-known examples of self-consciousness in front of and behind the camera. Selfies are developing a kind of quick-start grammar that arranges poses and situations in formulaic ways, in a move I find analogous to the way that Instagram’s set of filters offer a quick start way to achieve professional printing effects by non-expert. It is rough and ready, and it is functional

Historic selfies seem like questioning selfies: people are looking in mirrors, pointing their cameras, looking at their reflections. They look like they’re asking something: do you see me the way I see me? Is this who I am? We look different in selfies than in the photos others take of us, in which we are posed and staged according to someone else’s aesthetic, or according to the logic of the occasion. In a photographic portrait, the artist has the agency, not the sitter, really. Self-portraits are different. We direct the shots, to the limits of our technical capacity: it’s not a snapshot, 3 exactly, because it’s staged; but it’s not a formal portait either, because the only audience we’re seeking to please is our own self. The selfie is an autobiographical act, rather than a biographical one.

And then smartphones.

Of course, photographic skills and creative vision are not equally distributed among the population and it should be unsurprising that most people who take selfies are not well-versed in the qualities of morning or evening light, the notion of distortion and lens length, depth of field, or shot angle. And yet, they do know how to scrutinize themselves, and they consume massive amounts of celebrity and popular culture images daily. People try to reproduce the images they see, the ones they find attractive: they discern a formula, they try to follow it. The ubiquity of smartphones leads to a whole new vernacular language of self-photography: because these photos are by their very nature shareable, norms and standards develop very quickly through mass distribution and mass social filtering--”like” or not. This, arguably, squashes the conversation between self and camera that prompts the selfie: less a questing desire to capture the essence, and more adherence to convention, to demonstrate belonging.

Some of the formula has to do with the technology: rear-facing cameras lead to the bathroom mirror aesthetic. Front-facing cameras give us foreshortened arms and the down-shot and the close-crop.

Some of the formula derives from prior formulaic photographic genres. In particular, celebrity red carpet poses. Girl group shots look a lot like red carpet setups now. You will no doubt recognize the part-sideways stance, the one leg thrust forward and bend a little, the forward chest and the bent arms. Maybe we can talk later about the codes of conventional attractiveness this indicates, and the desire to always look thinner. A porn aesthetic is also manifest in a lot of selfies: too-tiny clothes or cheap lingerie, grabbing one’s own boobs or butt, looking over the shoulder. In this modes, there’s a lot of T+A. The more upmarket version of this aims to replicate more of a Vanity Fair aesthetic, half-open mouth, mussed hair, narrow depth of field. The hipster version is the ironic half-face in the photo, the tilted angle, the weirdo filter: this mode is more or less equally avilable to men or women. There is no one kind of selfie, but rather representational codes and conventionalized expressions that are legible and normative within communities of practice.

These are codes of self-presentation, stereotyped, right? There’s a formula, and learning it can compensate quickly and easily for lack of fluency or training in the photographic medium. Doing it well indicates and reinforces social belonging, rather than aiming to capture the uniqueness of a given self. Selfies, then, might be less a mode of static self-portrait, and more a dynamic communicative practice.

Social Discipline and Selfies 

Selfies, I’m suggesting, are communicative acts: they are of me, but they aim to speak to others. As such, they are social. As they are social, they are subject to norming and to discipline.

Skill at selfies is not about being a good photographer, it ‘s about being a good consumer of images of others, of learning how to discipline your subjectivity into preset representational moulds. This would be contra Barthes, who describes instead “the impossible science of the unique being”--but no one really wants to present that, or to see it. That would be too raw, and the audience is much too broad for this kind of intimacy. We need workaday photos, photos that don’t sear the soul with their unexpected justesse.

The body can be disciplined through apps if not in real life. Generally, it should be thinner. Skinneepix is a kind of Photoshop liquefy macro: “pounds lighter” is the unit of measurement for this distortion it wreaks on your depicted face.

And it only works if you take the right kind of selfie. No profile. No half-face. Just full mug shot.

Social practices are disciplined through social media and mainstream media culture. Most savvy users know now that Facebook is for selfies only very rarely and for profile pics. Instagram is more selfie-friendly, and these must be aestheticized: Instagram selfies are pretty. SnapChat is a selfies free-for-all: you can let it all hang out, and not just your boobs, but also your really goofy faces, and all the rest of it.

Too many selfies on Facebook and you’re a narcissist getting downvoted by your friends. The right kind of selfie on Instagram looks beautiful but not too forced: and don’t get caught Photoshopping yourself! And I’m really fascinated by the “#Selfie” song, by The Chainsmokers. It cashes in on, and mocks, and disciplines contemporary culture: in the song, a valley-accented club kid takes and talks about selfies, and uses them to communicate with others as well as to preen and seek ego validation. Like “Valley Girl” in the 1980s, it codifies and crystallizes a cultural moment and a set of in-group behaviours and language, to both celebrate and belittle. Susan Bright sent me just this morning a link to “Elders React to #Selfie” which is more social sanctioning: it just ramps up the judgment and the in-group status of youth, completely mystifying old people. As the song says, "Oh my god, for sure, for sure."

Selfies constitute a visual rhetoric, a kind of picture-speech that in some cases becomes rapidly conventionalized and stifling (like Instagram) and in other cases opens a whole new realm for creative self-expression (like SnapChat). But in either case, taking a selfie requires, if not photographic or artistic skill, then social skills related to peer-group norms and conventions. Selfie is contextual. It is communicative, and it is subject to norming and discipline. It is fraught, and it is consequential. So let's have no more of this, please:


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