April 26, 2020

The Ambivalent Portrait – Locating Resistance And Compliance In The Moment Of Selfie Production, Part 2 (Harold Dalton)

The following is the second of a two-part series. The first can be found here.

In the reaction to the photographs of Innes and Kardashian, both of which fit only tangentially within the boundaries of selfie, the meaning of “selfie” overruled and defined the means of production by which the selfie is conventionally distinguished. On one hand we may consider that, culturally, the selfie serves as shorthand for the vapid, the uncouth, and the promiscuous. Yet after considering the re-categorization of these photographic objects as selfies precisely because they already embodied these traits, it may be more accurate to reverse this causal relationship: the negative traits became the determinant factors of the mediated categorization of these artifacts which operated at the boundary of portrait and selfie, in turn dictating their implied processes of creation.

The selfie is often cited as a site through which control is lost: it is related to young girls, and is viewed as either the triumph of narcissism or the tragic result of a lack of self-esteem. From this perspective it is easy to understand the mediated reaction to Kardashian West’s nudity or Innes’s opportunism. Yet neither narcissism nor lack of control are truly visible in either picture. Vulnerability, rather, is at the center of both photographs, and whether it’s reclaiming the vulnerability of a naked body—one which is further complicated by the public consumption of sex tapes and previous depiction as a contemporary equivalent of the grotesque sexualized savage—or circumventing the vulnerability of being placed into a hostage situation by a bomb-wielding plane hijacker, it is curious that the inclination of the photographs’ cultural critics was to tend toward accusations of using the body or the experience incorrectly.

Kardashian West confronted the criticism directly by highlighting the series of narrow, fragmented selves women are expected to occupy: “I am a mother. I am a wife, a sister, a daughter, an entrepreneur and I am allowed to be sexy,” Innes, in contrast, retroactively changed the meaning of his selfie to match the solemnity expected within dominant discourses of terrorism and masculinity, eventually claiming the purpose of the photograph was to determine whether the bomb strapped to his captor’s waist was real.

Exploring themes of the selfie’s pathologization in comparison to the portrait leads one to the conclusion that the selfie is in fact marked by, indicative of, and shorthand for, a lack of a sense of propriety rather than simply the vanity of self-depicting one’s own face. The selfie is mass culture prosumed by the working classes, and as such is uncouth and lacking in value (17).

The Scripted Prosumption of Norms

That the selfie operates as a class slippage of the portrait does not mean that performing the photographic process is necessarily an act of resistance to hegemonic power or dominant ideologies. Apryl Williams and Beatriz Marquez’s interviews with selfie users (2015) provide vital insight into the selfie’s role in the prosumption of gender and race, finding that the selfie as both object and practice reflects and refracts traditional gender roles. It is especially interesting that their interviews conclude that white masculinity is one of the most policed (and thus, by proxy, protected) roles within this sphere ( 1779-1783), speaking to the concept of whose image is permitted to be object of consumption.

That black and Latino males use selfies to operationalize hypermasculine personae is another ambivalent force of the selfie, at once empowering marginalized self-expressions while “reaffirm[ing] and reprosum[ing] ideas about masculinity” (1781). It is true, also, that the selfie is a process that constructs an image of the self largely in relation to the consumption of place, products, food, or social experience, as well as the consumption of the self-as-object. The selfie is a technology very much of its culture (and vice versa).

It should already be clear, then, that the act of production of the selfie is not external to discourse, but instead is the initial site where discourse is constructed between prosumer and technology. Indeed, despite the academy’s relative silence over the theoretical value of the moment in which a selfie is produced, the selfie’s cultural contribution is scripted within the very implements of its creation. I will close this paper by analyzing three layers of mediation through which the scriptivity of the contemporary technologies of self-depiction normalizes and encourages their use, with each layer reducing possible ambiguity about the process of production.

Robin Bernstein illustrates the concept of scriptivity with a vivid discussion that explores how a child’s ABC book published  in 1898 allowed the act of physically turning the pages of a book to interpellate a child into role of perpetrator of racial violence, normalizing the functional realities of the racial paradigm within the USA from an early age (71-76). Bernstein’s primary interest, however, is in the many layers of racial and ethnic meanings stacked within the context of a scripted object that we can, with hopefully little objection, describe as a precursor to the contemporary selfie: a sign board depicting a caricature of a black man eating a watermelon, with a space cut into it to create the opportunity for a photographic subject to become a participant in the scene.

Bernstein analyzes one archival photograph which depicted a Latina woman posing with the object ( 67), using the woman’s position within the racial paradigm and the historical context of her shifting ethnic identity as a Mexican woman in 1930 (when “Mexican” legally alternated between race and ethnicity several times over eight years) to situate race as a shifting concept embodied within objects and the way they are designed to condition us to interact with them in ways that make us active participants in the construction of ideology (86-89).

We can certainly see this same performativity scripted in the cellphone camera, the front-facing camera, and the selfie stick. The cellphone camera is a democratic and disposable renegotiation of a photographic technology that previously relied on processing through third parties. Using this technology, the photograph becomes instantly visible through the phone screen, and is immediately and perpetually refinable and reframeable in pursuit of “perfecting captured memories,” as Nichols puts it.(3). Digital photography, and the immediacy of the cellphone—a cultural phenomenon described as “snapshot culture” by Adriano D’Aloia and Francesco Parisi (2016)—transforms photography into a ubiquitous practice, lowering the standards of what is definable (or perhaps permissible) as a photographic subject.

The photographic subject is no longer remarkable in and of itself, and undergoing this transformation has left it operating on a different communicative layer. This transformation is not an unforeseen consequence of technological progress, but is instead inscribed within the technology of digital photography. By briefly displaying the photograph and returning to the camera screen, the cellphone camera doesn’t simply enable the taking of photographs, but actively encourages it. The scripted behavior of the cellphone camera is the quantitative and ubiquitous taking of photographs.

The front-facing camera expands the scripted nature of the digital camera into the realm of the aesthetic. With a front-facing camera there can be no ambiguity about the intended object of the photograph. The subject’s own face is all the subject sees when opening the camera; to photograph anything else requires uncomfortable contortions and the physical act of turning the viewfinder away from the photographer. We find that the same scriptivity described in the previous section remains present: as a transient mirror on the subject’s face, the phone’s screen encourages multiple photographs, reposed ad infinitum until a satisfying self-image is reflected.

Finally, the selfie stick is an object designed to extend the body’s physical reach, with the intention of widening the scope of the photograph to include the surroundings and companions of the subject. Attaching the cellphone to the telescopic stick allows the camera lens to be farther away than the subject’s arm can hold it, yet still physically held, its weight borne as a supplementary link between body and technology in a way that Adorno’s remote shutter fails to recreate. As a microcosm of the discourses surrounding selfies, it is telling that, despite serving the same purpose as Adorno’s more formal technical instrument of photography, the selfie stick has come to symbolize and magnify all that is wrong with the selfie:

The selfie stick merely extends what the selfie was already doing: the aggrandizement of the visitor at the expense of the art. After a brief paroxysm of rage, most everyone would be happier if all museums banned not only the selfie stick, but also cellphones and cameras. It would get us back to a place where we could at least recognize and remember the loss that Benjamin noticed almost 80 years ago, and it might define museums as a countercultural space of revolutionary potential, where undistracted thought and un- deflected emotion reemerged as common experience.

Naivety around the purpose of the museum notwithstanding, there is a curiosity in Kennicott’s concern about the selfie removing something from the  art  residing  within  galleries. This is especially incongruous when confronted with Walter Benjamin’s own concerns about exhibition and his thoughts on the photographic portrait: “For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face”. Kennicott’s dismissal of the selfie ironically serves as its own confession of the self, placing himself as an object in relation to culture. Policing the correct consumptions of cultural objects may be compatible with Benjamin’s essay, but the implication that people stand as an oppositional force to culture seems a bastardization of Benjamin’s body of work. Art, like the selfie, is about and of the self, designed as a communicative object.

Communication and social experience are also ingrained within the selfie stick, which widens the field of the photograph to create a portrait that includes the subject’s surroundings rather than a close-up of one’s face. As such it is eminently social, framing the subject of the photograph positionally in relation to places and to other people. Thus, the selfie’s relationship with culture is inscribed not through discursive negotiation surrounding the practice, but instead during the very moment in which the photograph is produced.

It is true that non-dominant readings exist that depart from these scripts. In an age where the proliferation of smartphones means not simply access to new technologies, but new technologies that are conjoined within objects bought and used for other purposes, it is not unfeasible to imagine a person not using their cellphone’s camera or even failing to learn how to use any features beyond those needed to call loved ones. Similarly, even among millennials, the front-facing camera has uses that go far beyond photographing one’s own face: as a portable mirror for applying make-up, or surreptitiously photographing something behind oneself without breaking social conventions around public behavior. From this basis, it is valid to wonder whether the selfie-stick really is a technology of self-aggrandizement. Certainly, it has other uses: to overcome barriers, corners, and obscured views in the pursuit of documentary photographs that exclude the self, for example.

Nevertheless, dominant readings exclude this potential. To be clear, scripted objects always contain the potential for decoded performativities that exceed the boundaries of the script, yet often these deviations are not disruptive of meaning but instead only temporary deviations from intended uses or social norms. One can consider Bernstein’s example in such a way. The decoded meanings of such a book must by nature deviate from a singular script: an alphabet book is likely to be read by a mother and a young child simultaneously, and thus the experience of the book is likely to differ among its readers who commit the act of page-turning while experiencing drastically different life stages. Yet her example allows us to consider the dominant reading, and the normalization of dominant cultural expression, as a positional interaction between human and technology; this interaction is the formative site and epistemic gap thus far ignored by the academy. These are not the only layers of mediation within the technologies of self-depiction.

Indeed, selfie technology is embedded within digital culture to the extent that software-based layers of mediation are an active component of the making of the selfie as a social practice. It is no coincidence that the contemporary illustrations in this paper are formatted in a 1:1 aspect ratio, rather than the traditional 3:2 aspect ratio favored by traditional film and digital cameras: Instagram, an app synonymous with social digital photograph sharing, formats its photographs in this way, and this ratio has become a hegemonic identifier even for selfies not shared on the Instagram platform. (Aspect ratio is not a new hierarchical signifier in the world of photography: the compact cameras used by tourists and holiday makers were distinguished by the 4:3 aspect ratio they used.)

Snapchat, itself an affront to the portrait in its rejection of preservation in favor of transience (photographs prosumed with the app are never saved and can only be viewed for a few seconds), is another layer through which behavior is scripted. The temporality of the content makes it disposable in a way that pushes the scriptivity of the digital photograph to its extreme, encouraging an abundance of new shared photographs as well as “secret” images that wouldn’t have been shared without the technology, including a new genre of semipublic, seminude sexual expressions and behaviors that can’t be disseminated through other media for professional or familial reasons.

The scriptivity of the software of the selfie is no more a secret than the significance of the selfie’s method and moment of production. Consider Wentworth Maynard, the victim of a high- speed car crash, who is suing Snapchat for encouraging the driving behavior that caused the crash, because the app included a filter that wrote the subject’s traveling speed on its photograph.

It should be noted that arguments of scriptivity often complement perceptions that the selfie represents a loss of control: “McGee, who was also injured in the accident, apparently also took a Snapchat while she was in the ambulance, on a gurney, with blood on her face. ‘Lucky to be alive’ was the caption” ). This example is perhaps not as interesting to cultural theorists as positioning the selfie as a formation of class resistance and compliance, yet serves as a visceral reminder that the theoretical grounding for this paper’s argument is already tacitly acknowledged outside of the academy.

It seems apparent that the culture Stuart Hall describes in “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular” now lives and breathes on different terms. We can understand that the tabloids Hall discusses, with particular focus on the Daily Mirror as a self-appointed mouthpiece for the urban working classes, continue to speak a “highly complex species of linguistic ventriloquism in which the debased brutalism of popular journalism is skillfully combined and intricate with some elements of the directness and vivid particularity of working-class language” (482), yet we must also understand that digital technologies mean class ventriloquism takes on different forms in contemporary society. Through technologically scripted uses that dictate complicity with a coordinated assemblage of discourses, the prosumer of the selfie is both the ventriloquist and the dummy.


To conclude, let us return to the tourists taking selfies with the koala bear, their backs to the bear, facing me but eyes firmly on a digital depiction of themselves. They were responsible for three distinct products: the photograph, which I have never seen, the physical act of taking the selfie, and the sociocultural conception of the selfie. All three limbs of the corpus act on one another in ways that make theorizing the selfie a fool’s errand without first acknowledging the archipelago of interlocking operational layers of discourse preventing any one aspect of the assemblage from performing in isolation. The tourists assembled a scene from which they could create not only the image of a koala bear, but also the image of themselves as objects at the moment in which they met the bear, capturing an interaction that placed them temporally in their youths and geographically in Victoria, as well as also capturing a fragmented image of the complex web of social relations that shape their lived experience.

The selfie remains a site of epistemic debate. It is likely that as conversations proliferate, some form of consensus will be achieved and the theorization of the selfie will begin to take on a coherent and consistent tone, rather than the disjointed process of blindly responding to second- guessed potential interpretations that has shaped academia’s approach to the selfie thus far. For this to happen, we must resist “splitting” the selfie, and instead view it as a coherent whole.

According to Aaron Hess, the selfie is in many ways a duality (1630). In the example of an encounter with a koala bear, the selfie as a text demonstrated proof of engagement, while its production required an act of physical disengagement to the extent that one’s back was turned to the object. The selfie is the authentic and the mediated at once; a continuation of the portrait that communicates vanity and crassness rather than wealth and connectedness; a portrait of a subject and a depiction of an image being made; a text, and also a practice.

This study has not filled the gaps between these dualities—a difficult task that only begins when we consider the selfie to encompass an entire assemblage including the physical act of producing the photograph—but has instead exposed and complicated them. The ambivalence of the selfie lies in these gaps, and in theorizing the liminal spaces between the selfie’s dualities, the academy may reach an understanding of the selfie that transcends its ambivalence. The first step is to theorize the text and the context at once, the wider corpus of the self(ie).

Harold Dalton is a British cycling industry professional living in Massachusetts with over 13 years of experience in professional journalism, television, and industry writing. He is ​a lifelong cyclist – the fourth cycling generation in the Dalton family. He is also a graduate student at Simmons College.

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