Selfies are a communist form of expression.
The critical reflex is to dismiss selfies as yet another indication of a pervasive culture of narcissism. I disagree. The narcissism critique approaches the selfie as if it were analyzing a single photograph. It views the person in that photograph as the photograph’s subject. Selfies, though, should be understood as a common form, a form that, insofar as it is inseparable from the practice of sharing selfies, has a collective subject. The subject is the many participating in the common practice, the many imitating each other. The figure in the photo is incidental.
A selfie is a photo one makes of oneself using a mobile phone in order to share the photo on social media. It exists digitally, in that weird digital in-between of instant and forever. It’s not meant as a commemoration. It doesn’t memorialize what we’ve done. It’s a quick registration of what we’re doing. On Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat, selfies flow past, a kind of ongoing people’s montage of right now. Multiple images of the same form, the selfie form, stream across our screens, like the people we might pass walking along a sidewalk or in a mall. When we upload selfies, we are always vaguely aware that someone, when it is least opportune, may take an image out of its context and use it to our disadvantage. But we make them anyway as part of a larger social practice that says a selfie isn’t really of me; it’s not about me as the subject of a photograph. It’s my imitation of others and our imitation of each other. To consider the selfie as a singular image removed from the larger practice of sharing selfies is like approaching a magazine through one word in one issue. A selfie is a photo of the selfie form, the repetition of a repeated practice.
To try to make the counter-intuitive idea of selfie communism convincing, I enlist Walter Benjamin.
In his well-known essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin distinguishes between the cult value of a work of art and its exhibition value. “Cult value” refers to the role of works of art in rituals. Works appear in temples and cathedrals, helping to generate mystery or a sense of the divine. “Exhibition value” involves the liberation of a work from its ritual context. Instead of being valued because of its magical role in invoking the divine, a work is valued for artistic criteria. It is produced to function as art. Benjamin notes that the shift toward exhibition value involves an increase in the number of viewers of a work and an increase in a work’s transportability. So frescos in a cathedral or a stand of sacred icons may be viewed by only a few religious adepts or, at best, by the faithful who congregate at specifically designated times. In contrast, a painting or sculpture can be moved from one site to another, in principle becoming accessible to ever more people. With film, exhibition value – the increase in accessibility and transportability – increases even more. What was distant and unapproachable comes closer.
Photography, Benjamin says, best exemplifies the change in exhibition value.
Selfies exemplify a further move, a move to circulation value. Accessibility and transportability don’t just increase, they become ends in themselves. Reproduction becomes inseparable from production: the image posted on Facebook can be on any number of screens at the same time, whether or not it even registers to anyone scrolling through. I was surprised recently when I heard a museum curator discuss a large work of public art. His criteria for the success of the work was the number of photographs of it that appeared on Instagram. For the curator, the value of the work was its degree of circulation. This example isn’t about selfies, but it illustrates my point about circulation value. Communicative capitalism subsumes communication into digital networks premised on access and immediacy. Almost any feeling, image, or thought can be shared with another, instantly added to the larger flow of feelings, images, and thoughts. In this setting of ubiquitous media, where we are enjoined to participate, contribute, and share – and where we enjoy participating, contributing, and sharing – the means of literary and artistic production, reproduction, and distribution have converged. The technologies we use to communicate and create push our ideas and images into networks and onto screens. That the camera is a phone tells us that images are for communicating.
Benjamin discusses photography as a technique of mechanical reproduction. Mechanical reproduction “substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.” Benjamin continues, it “detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.” The mechanically reproduced object (like a photograph or audio record) can be inserted into different contexts, associated with different objects, read from the perspective of varying discursive frameworks. As an object of a process of mechanical reproduction, a work escapes its original material condition of having been made to reappear in a new setting oriented to the viewer, listener, or spectator. It no longer has a unique existence in a particular time and space but a plural existence, I would even say common existence, in that the appearance of the work is shared by this place and that place, this time and that time. In its multiple appearings, it is common to them.
When images are emancipated from their exhibition value, that is, when they are made to circulate, commonality of images becomes the general milieu; the context of communication is one of a generalized visuality characterized by multiplicity, repetition, and association. As I said in a previous post, we live montage. In this montage, patterns emerge when forms repeat. Brands are a commercial version of this repetition. Hashtags, emojis, memes, and selfies are the people’s version, one way that we try to produce meanings in a setting where capitalism has turned our basic social interactions into a storable, mineable resource.
Much interesting and influential commentary on Benjamin’s discussion has focused on his concept of the “aura” and the extent to which the aura has decayed under conditions of mechanical reproduction. I am more interested in his account of these conditions in terms of the increased significance of “the masses.” The masses, Benjamin explains, desire to bring things closer; they try to get hold of the object at close range via reproductions of it. Further, they are inclined toward “overcoming the uniqueness of every reality.” Such a perception is marked by the “sense of the universal equality of things.” The presence of the masses, of the many, in contemporary life changes how objects appear. Reproduced in popular media (Benjamin’s examples are magazines and newsreels), objects become commensurable, like statistics. Any one is equal to any other.
Benjamin observes that even as photography exemplifies exhibition value, it has not been entirely cut off from cult value. Cult value became concentrated in the human face; “the portrait was the focal point of early photography.” When photography starts to feature images without people, exhibition value trumps cult value. The photograph loses its aura of mystery and becomes a kind of evidence, an accompaniment to stories and texts. Photos are less singular objects or images to be contemplated than they are temporary and replaceable elements.
With the selfie, the face returns to the photo, now emancipated from exhibition value. A selfie is not a portrait; it’s not an image of the unique and irreplaceable. It’s an instance of how one is like many, equal to any other. I would even say that the selfie demonstrates further the emancipation of the commonality of the object from the commodity form. To be common and reproducible is no longer a primary characteristic of the commodity – especially in a context where commodities are inscribed with individuality (personalized sneakers, designer this and that). To be common and reproducible is a characteristic of each of us, a realization we enact with every selfie and hashtag, even when we may not be fully aware that we are doing it.
Benjamin notes that with the flourishing of print media – the proliferation of newspapers and journals, the prevalence of “letters to the editor” – readers become writers and literary license becomes common property. In communicative capitalism, viewers become photographers and models, actors and filmmakers; spectators become spectacles, and spectacles become instants, snapshots, nuggets of circulating feeling. Selfies are faces as common property.
Of course, the platforms through which our common property is produced and reproduced are still owned by a few – but not for long.