‘Selfie’-reliance: The word of the year is the story of our individualism


In a photo from Sept. 21, 2012 , Kim Kardashian, left, is surrounded by her fans who are attempting to have their photographs taken with her as she leaves a radio station in Melbourne, Australia. (Mal Fairclough/AP)
November 19, 2013

There is a time in every man’s day when his Facebook feed spits out a photo of a friend who has turned a smartphone camera on him or herself. There is the practiced tilt of the head, to avoid additional chins. There is the palm tree or infinity pool in the background, to record momentary privilege. There is the artfully arranged cleavage, or the casually flexed triceps, to establish oneself as fit, desirable, deserving of exhibition in the carousel museum of social media.

We click “like,” or we narrow our eyes in dislike, and then remember our Emerson.

“Envy is ignorance,” he wrote in his essay “Self-Reliance,” and “imitation is suicide.”

Regardless, “selfie” is the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year, chosen partly because its usage spiked 17,000 percent since this time last year. We have become selfie-reliant, and now the lexicon has wholly absorbed the modern way to label the ancient fascination with self. But are modern selfies, uploaded onto Instagram by the millions, corrosive in a way that finer self-portraits are not — the oil-on-canvas selfies of Frida Kahlo, say, or Australian gunner Thomas Baker’s 1917 Kodak portrait of his mirror image in uniform?

The practice of self-portraiture has never been cheaper or wider. The #selfie hashtag on Instagram summons a torrent of self-portraits, ranging in style from glamour shot to mugshot. Now we are a mob of self-portraitists. The total democratization of an art form either destroys it or ennobles it, and the selfie is either a pure expression of self or the surrender to conformity.

Depends on your artistic standards, and your tolerance for psychobabble.

Selfies are a form of vernacular photography, like amateur daguerreotype or Polaroid, says Alicia Eler, who writes routinely about selfies on the arts Web site Hyperallergic, and the prevalence of the artistic tool (the smartphone) doesn’t diminish the value of the work.

“I think the self-portrait and the selfie are for anyone who’s continuously documenting the act of becoming,” she says. It’s not self-obsession, though. It’s a way to connect.

Such portraiture on social media is as good for self-empowerment as it is for self-objectification, psychologist Sarah J. Gervais writes in Psychology Today.

Though it’s possible for people to take an unhealthy “outsider’s perspective of their bodies,” Gervais says, she suggests “that Instagram offers a quiet resistance to the barrage of perfect images that we face” in the traditional media.

Parse them any which way, and realize that we have come to rely on selfies. Selfies say “I was here, in this state, at this point in time.” Selfies say “I’m not alone because I can share my aloneness.”

We’re not narcissists, as the curmudgeonry claims.

We are transcendentalists with iPhones.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose marquee essay is titled “Self-Reliance,” would have been a habitual selfie-taker. The transcendentalists meticulously journaled about themselves and shared passages with each other. They prized the notion of the individual and his or her capacity for self-definition.

Emerson “says the mark of wisdom is seeing the miraculous in the commonplace, and showing ourselves to each other because we find something of worth in ourselves,” says Philip F. Gura, professor of American literature and culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In this way, each selfie is one more breath blown into “the Oversoul,” which Emerson defined as the “common heart,” as individuals knit together in the ether. He could have been writing about the Internet and social media, in which case he would have cautioned against modeling yourself on others, which “loses your time and blurs the impression of your character.”

“But do your work, and I shall know you,” Emerson wrote. “Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.”

If Emerson were writing “Self-Reliance” today, he might have added this instruction to his essay: If you do take a selfie, don’t look at the image of yourself on the screen as you snap the photo. Your eyes will be looking in the wrong direction. Instead, look into the lens itself, into the other soul who will soon be looking back at you.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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