Public Lives

Selfies

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There was a time when, as a young man traveling to different countries for the first time, I took photos of every building, statue, or landscape that caught my eye, hoping to share these with family and friends when I got home. I realized many years later that this habit was keeping me from enjoying and remembering the places I visited.

The experience is akin to filing away memos in neat folders for later retrieval so your mind is freed for the next task. You end up unable to recall much of what you filed away unless you have the actual document at hand. Busying yourself with picture-taking while on a trip to a new place creates a gap between you and the moment. It can strip traveling of the quality that uniquely belongs to it as an experience—the slow immersion in something new, and the oscillation between awe and recognition it brings about.

I think it is even more so when one likes to take “selfies”—the new obsession that has accompanied the advent of camera-equipped mobile phones, and social networking portals like Facebook and Instagram. Declaring it as the new word of the year, the venerable Oxford English Dictionary defines it thus: “Selfie: noun, informal. A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or web cam and uploaded to a social media website. Also: selfy. Plural: selfies.”

To me, selfies are not the same as looking at oneself in the mirror, and the silent self-contemplation this connotes. On the contrary, they seem to epitomize the vast distance that separates narcissism from self-knowledge.

While almost every painter of worth in every era has done a self-portrait, taking a selfie for sharing and liking cannot possibly compare with the experience of an artist pondering the moods, desires, and emotions evoked by the lines and contours of his own face. The selfie is pure self-absorption where the self-portrait could be self-analysis. What distinguishes one from the other is the superficiality to which much digital communication technology has lent itself.

The writer Rebecca Solnit captures this difference eloquently in a recent London Review of Books essay titled “In the Day of the Postman.” She writes: “I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.”

We are not just talking here of the occasional photos we take of ourselves, usually against the background of a place we are visiting, when there’s no one around to do it for us.  Rather, we are talking of the almost compulsive manner in which many of today’s young people try to capture what they look like at any moment of the day. By taking countless pictures of themselves in different poses, and posting these in social networking websites for others to like (or deride, as the case may be), they presume that the world is interested in them—a way, as Solnit puts it, of “assuaging fears of being alone.” At the same time, their obsession with the number of likes and comments they get on these poses could be a way of evading the real challenge of deeply knowing and connecting with their own selves.

The sociologist Niklas Luhmann once defined maturity as a system’s capacity to observe itself. The term he uses for self-observation is reflexivity, the defining quality of the modern person. But, for all the cutting-edge modernity of the technology that serves as its platform, the selfie seems to me to be a throwback to the premodern era when men and women relied primarily on others to define who they were.

Rather than being a prelude to changing one’s life, the selfie has become no more than a cheap vehicle for instant self-affirmation. Like the ubiquitous mobile phone with which almost all of them are taken, doing selfies has taken the place reserved for reflection. We can no longer be alone with ourselves without yielding to the temptation of documenting the moment for social media. Solnit observes: “The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void, and filled up with sounds and distraction.” And selfies.

Perhaps, it’s a generation thing, which is why I’m conscious that I should not impose my idea of well-spent solitude on others. I like bird-watching, reading, taking solitary walks, and barreling down on an empty expressway, alone, on a motorcycle. Some will likely say these are precisely the pursuits of loners.

But, even in the company of others, I hardly take pictures, and I don’t have a Facebook or Instagram account. On a trip to Japan a few months ago, however, I decided to get myself a Nikon Coolpix P-520 with a built-in 42x optical zoom, thinking it might enhance and prolong my enjoyment of birds. I was wrong. I spent more time looking for birds through the viewfinder and focusing the lens to get a clear shot, than if I had been content to watch these winged creatures through binoculars.

I am convinced that many great moments of pleasure and happiness are not meant to be preserved, but merely lived.  It was to this end that Nietzsche once said that we need “human beings who know how to be silent, lonely, resolute, and content and constant in invisible activities…”

Happy New Year!

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