Braun: The Assertion of the Self Amongst Uncertainty

CATEGORIES: November 2016

by Dr. Sebastian Braun

Selfies seem to follow an urge to reassure oneself that the author is relevant and alive. This is a phenomenon that relates to alienation in a post-industrial society; the need to self-assert one’s viability exists only when kinship ties no longer provide that assurance. It was possible to take selfies, of course, with non-digital cameras. Self-timed pictures were always cause for excitement, especially because the photographer lost control of the audience. In deep contrast, selfies are not primarily about taking a whole picture of a family or a group, but about proof of having been “there,” about filling a void; rather than giving up control of authorship, selfies are about asserting control over narratives, and inserting oneself into the narrative. I recently penned a chapter for an edited volume on mourning and the environment (“Mourning Ourselves and/as our Relatives: Ecology as Kinship” in: Mourning Nature: Hope at the Heart of Ecological Loss and Grief, edited by Ashlee Cunsolo Willox and Karen Landman. McGill-Queens University Press – forthcoming), where I argue that the loss of real kinship connections to the environment is indeed cause for mourning as it spells the beginning of mourning for humanity.

Selfies are interesting because they do not attempt to portray, frame, or focus on relationships to or with others. Rather than seeing them as an expression of rampant individualism and selfishness, however, I think they seem to express a deep uncertainty of belonging, of future, of relationship, and of historical, personal, and social narrative. As such, they are an expression of contemporary culture. It is not that people today are selfish and self-focused. It might simply be that it has become very difficult to find oneself in the narratives that seem to control our lives. Of course, these uncertainties are not only harnessed by smartphone makers but also by powerful political forces, and the consequences of that are far from harmless – like a selfie.