#93: Don’t Picture This: The Trouble With Selfies

My phone’s front camera is probably very confused. It has been severely underused. The back camera is not very happy either, but it gets used occasionally when I have forgotten to take my regular camera with me and need to take a picture. Very rarely does the front camera get to make a video call, but I prefer to use a real computer for that.

I don’t even really know what a “filter” is on the phone or one of these photo apps, or why I should be using it. That’s what Photoshop is for, isn’t it? Of course, I know, and I mockingly pretend not to know. Somehow. But somehow, I also don’t know.

It’s not that I don’t take any pictures ever. I’m a pathological picture taker, and I have spent quite some time thinking about Susan Sontag’s book On Photography, which successfully and disturbingly analyzes said pathology. Ideally, this reading is combined with Plato’s discussion of the power of writing as well as his metaphor of the cave, Walter Benjamin’s article “The Work of Art in the Time of Mechanical Reproduction,” Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, and Neil Postman’s Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Combining the insights gained from this tour de force of media theory, it becomes clear that it is too simplistic to cling to the idea that technology would be basically neutral, would just be tool, and that it would depend on how to use it. Technology is far more than that. Its influence on our lives is thoroughly transformative. It lets us believe that it does our bidding while in fact we yield to its influence and needs just as much. We do have some control over how to use it, but even its availability changes the very ways we can think about it.

Do I need to know something by heart, or is it just enough to look it up? Do I focus on experiencing something in real life, or do I focus on recording it, transforming it from a continuum of active being to a frozen moment in time, a mere snapshot, something that will serve as a substitution for reality? What does this kind of technological reductivism do to the world thus captured, what does it do to what we think about this world and the living beings contained therein? What does it do to people if they are mainly understood through their media representations? What does it do to their notions of self if those representations are created by themselves even?

Whoever sat pretty for Leonardo when he created the Mona Lisa may rest safely in their grave shrugging off whatever Leonardo may have seen in them and showed of them in his famous painting. But what does this do to the person conducting a self-portrait? We know that Vincent van Gogh probably did not gain in personal happiness through his painting of self-portraits. He represented himself as himself. If you subscribe to the idea that Leonardo actually may have painted himself as a woman, as Lillian Schwartz suggests (and which sounds actually fascinating and has some level of plausibility), then Leonardo perfectly understood that any visual representation is always an interpretation. Certainly, Van Gogh knew that also.

Artists understand that even if you depict yourself or represent yourself, you are never being authentic: There is always something else happening. The self on the page, or in the picture, always has to be seen as a lyrical I. The “me, myself and I” that you see in self-reflective and self-portraying art is never the real self. It is a deliberately chosen perspective, a snapshot at a specific time, a setting in a particular scene, an inauthentic moment posing as authentic for a very clear artistic and dramatic purpose.

Reality cannot be captured, it can only be represented. Umberto Eco illustrates this in his short story ridiculing the creating a map of the empire in a 1:1 scale. The map would completely cover and crush the reality beneath it, as it would take over the entire space of the empire itself. Similarly, if we rely on nothing but representations of reality in order to understand it, we will limit ourselves to understanding the representations rather than reality itself. Granted, sadly, we need media and representations to even be able to conceive of reality. Our perception itself mediates the world around us. We are always sitting in Plato’s cave, we can never access reality as such. But we can understand that our tools of perception and the media we use to facilitate our perception in turn influence that perception also.

As Susan Sontag describes it, “Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.” This acquisition, this pictorial conquest, this obsessive need to claim some form of ownership of the world by possessing it through images eventually destroys our relation to the world. We substitute experience with representation, concreteness with abstraction, the world with pictures of the world, the self with pictures of the self.

This act of substitution, of representation, certainly affects how we see reality. The self, specifically if it is mainly communicated through pictures, will eventually conform to the pictures. As with many things, this is probably not a problem unless done to excess, but it can still fundamentally change how we see ourselves.

There is a reason – probably more psychological than religious – that some cultures have looked with suspicion at photographing people, or at depicting an image of divinity. That which can get captured, depicted, and represented so easily will lose its mystique, its transcendental qualities or – following Benjamin – its aura. Something happens once we fixate our selves through pictures. It happens both for others and for ourselves. But how do you represent yourself without losing some sense of self? Especially if this is a constant exercise in the performance of the self?

Should we see self-photography as an art form? For some, it certainly is; for others, the definition of art would probably have to be stretched a bit. But art certainly can be an escape clause here: it requires though – as illustrated above – a conscious act of deliberate self-distancing from the image of the self as performance.

Yet the context of such pictures of the self certainly matters also, whether we should see them as more artistic self-portraits or what is commonly described with the less high-brow term as selfies. As soon as a selfie is posted on social media, the battle for audience reactions begins. How many people like my picture? How many don’t? How many are seeing it? Is the picture being noticed? At what point though do these questions into something more personal? How many people like or dislike or notice me? Am I, as a person, liked, or is it the representation that is liked? Should my self – if a specific representation is liked – conform to the representation? Should I myself become the image I have put out there as an allegedly authentic image of myself (or of my self)?

Maybe this is the key: if the pretension of authenticity is taken at face value, selfies may well turn from being a possible work of art to an act of introspection through outside judgement, and become an exercise not of play but of masochism (or its psychological twin, narcissism). We know that social media itself should probably be better described as anti-social: They all too frequently are an exercise themselves, and not in sociality but in sadism. Artists all throughout time have suffered from bad reviews, and have tortured themselves through their art. Maybe we should thus see the selfie as the revenge of the self-portrait: May the same level of scorn be heaped on John or Jane Q. Public now as it was heaped on artists throughout the ages.

But that is certainly not something to be endorsed. Personally, I am staying out of the selfie game. There are plenty of ways to indulge in self-loathing; I certainly don’t need to document this in pictures on a regular basis.

#18: What’s Left: Communism, Socialism, Progressivism, Social Democracy, and the Value of Dissent

There seems to be a notion out there that there are different stages of being left-wing or progressive. This goes back, of course, to Hegelian ideas about the Spirit of History, the End of History, and stages of development, which, in some way, were given a materialist spin by Marxism.

Anybody who believes that somehow, “as a society”, “as a people”, “as humanity”, we are moving in some direction through time, following the laws of History (with a capital H), is somehow believing in a “progressive” vision of society, in the sense that we are “moving along” an imaginary arrow of time leading somewhere. If you believe that eventually we will get flying cars, that we will colonize space, that humanity will somehow “evolve” through this process, and that this process is inevitable and that we should help it along, this is what it means to be a progressive, probably. History (with a capital H) is not just the more or less understandable accumulation of events that have happened, but it is a force that can be studied, whose laws can be understood, and the lessons of such study can be applied to our lives and our political vision. This is what “Historical Materialism” means, in a nutshell.

One opposing vision – and there can be many – would be that we are rather ambling along in an un-Historical way through our somewhat chaotic, unpredictable lives, hoping to make sense of things, but living in the humility that every society that ever existed has eventually crumbled, every state fallen, every human being eventually died, and humanity always living under the condition of being an imperfect approximation of larger goals, but never truly being able to live up to it, because of what is called the human condition. The lesson here would be to live your life as much as you can in a moral fashion, to improve the lives not just of yourself but also of others around you, to realize that nobody is perfect and that nobody should be blamed for that, but also, that such realization should not crush you down, but should enable you to pursue realistic goals, to live with hope and with the confidence that no matter what roadblocks life will have for you, you are doing everything you can, and this is just what life is all about. I would call this an agnostic view, maybe even mildly conservative, and it certainly is not seductive, even though probably more realistic.

Even less comforting would be fatalism, or complete acceptance of the order of things, although that could be liberating in the sense that the realization of your eventual complete inability to live forever saves you from even the semblance of false hope.

Yet people seem to need a positive vision, they need hope, they need something to cling to in order to go on. They need comfort, they need something to distract them from those parts of life that are not uplifting. Religion might be a solution, but true religion (true in the sense of not offering false promises or too simplistic answers), or rather theology, is more complex than typically desired, and that which could be called folk-religion may provide some hope, but it oftentimes falters under pressure. The classical question of Theodicy, “how could God let that happen,” does not really have theological substance. If “God is always greater” than our understanding, such a question is pointless, and it does not fit very well with higher-order religious systems. “God wills it” – if not applied to justifying horrendous human activity – is probably the best theological equivalent of Murphy’s Law. While probably true, it is surely neither uplifting, nor attractive.

Thus we come back to how to craft a vision for society. Some Progressivist vision – i.e. the general idea that things will improve over time – can certainly prove attractive. It might thus also seem seductive to help History along and shape that vision politically. Why wait unnecessarily if we can already make things better for everyone? As Marx remarked in his Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” So far, so understandable. But how? Marx himself – contrary to popular belief – did not have a concrete vision. He never finished Capital himself, and we should be careful about drawing too concrete conclusions from his incomplete thinking on this. But there is one point that Marx has been making consistently – and most clearly in his letter to Ruge – and it bears repeating time and time and time again, and deserves to be quoted in full. It begins as follows:

“everyone will have to admit to himself that he has no exact idea what the future ought to be. On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it. …”

Tough stuff. We do not know the future, so it is better now to rather than to “dogmatically anticipate the world” (i.e. to create some dogmatic utopian state), the new one will come about through criticism of the old. Criticism, or critique, is more than just liking or not liking an idea, but a critical interrogation (truly open-ended) of the powers that be (and – because of the rejection of dogmatism – of the powers that challenge the powers that be. Then follows one of the great Marxian pen-drop put-downs, that caustic and acerbic wit for which he is so well known. But let’s continue, let the past be the past, and what do we need now?

“… Now philosophy has become mundane, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. …”

Maybe Hegel appeared in Marx’ mind and whispered something of consciousness and spirit, and we get Marx at his most Hegel-ish aloof moments where bold statements are pounding the argument. There is no proof here, only him saying that there is. But it sounds cool. What he probably means is that philosophers can no longer be content at warming their armchair only with presumably complex thoughts spouted at adoring apprentices, but have to apply themselves at matters relevant for the people, for society, to actually liberate people from Plato’s cave rather than to bedazzle them with their skill. Thus now:

“… But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” (Marx to Ruge)

Thus if we aim to create a better future, we need to be careful, and make sure that we stay skeptical. This sense of skepticism and critique is interwoven into all of Marx’ thought; it is practically his conditio sine qua non, the condition without which you cannot think about him. Ruthless skepticism means a skepticism even of skepticism. All power needs to be critiqued always. This position is more important than any other political idea Marx may have had; and it is the one impulse remaining throughout all of Marxist intellectual history. And Marx is, or should be, or is frequently declared to be, the cornerstone for the leftist movement itself. You could start with Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus, or with Jesus, or with Francis, or Acquinas, or many others, but Marx it is, typically.

Marx’s demand for criticism is a demand for intellectual freedom, and thus for democracy. Utopia ruins freedom, as it is by definition perfect, and the enemy of perfection is the enemy of, well, everyone who wants a utopian future. Marx wants to make things better, but he wants to keep thinking.

The enemy of thinking is dogma. Whenever dogma enters the equation, you enter the perversion of leftist thinking. The “left”, or in French “gauche”, or better, in Italian, “la sinistra”, gets its “sinister” reputation partially from the caustic personalities of a Karl Marx, a Richard Wagner, a George Orwell, a Lech Walesa, or a Christopher Hitchens, Umberto Eco, or Slavoy Žižek. This is as sinister as things should go.

Communism is dogma, it left-wing is utopianism of the worst and most oppressive kind. It is the utopian vision, and states who pursued it, called themselves Socialist (and aspired towards the Communist ideal). “Socialism” and “Communism” are thus the same thing, and “Democratic Socialism” is the term used by revamped Communist parties in former Soviet-style Socialist countries to delude people about what they really are. Socialism can never be democratic if it attaches itself to the idea of dogma, of utopia. You cannot modify socialism through democracy; socialism is a dogma, and dogmas are inherently anti-democratic, anti-criticism, and anti-thinking.

The only thinking alternative is Social Democracy, where democracy (which tends to align with capitalism, because free thinking and free markets go well together) is modified (or mollified) by social thought. Social Democracy is not a failed attempt at becoming socialist or communist. It’s the other way round. Dogmatism, whether it is socialist or communist (or national socialist!) is always a perversion of social democracy.

There is nothing wrong with being moderate, there is nothing wrong with being skeptical, there is nothing wrong with thinking. Any system that wants people to comply rather than to think on their own is not something a thinking person should want to pursue. As Kant said in “What is Enlightenment,” Sapere aude, dare to reason on your own. He was more polite than Marx, but Marx still asks us to think for ourselves, and to support others to do so as well. After all the sound and fury of Marxist discussions and arguments, this is what is, and should, be left.