Alexander Garcia Düttmann
What is the significance of taking a selfie? Philosopher Alexander García Düttmann explores the potential of the selfie as both a feature of the culture industry and as a creative act in the work of Walt Whitman and Agnes Martin.
The answer is probably: no, it is unlikely that there is a self in selfies. As one gives this answer, well aware that perhaps no one cares for the kind of self one is denying to the image called selfie, a faint echo makes itself heard, the echo of an aphorism Adorno coined in the 1940s. It reads: “In many people it is already an impertinence to say ‘I’.”
But does it matter? Must one appeal to some deeper, or more authentic, sense of selfhood, to an I that escapes the selfie’s eye, and ridicule an expression that refers more to an act than to an entity, to the act of stretching out one’s arms, of using a prosthesis with a small and handy camera attached to its extremity and of catching a digital glimpse of oneself, a glimpse contained in, and forming on the surface of, the artifact’s screen, an image immediately available to viewing? One gives oneself, and others, a glimpse of oneself, a glimpse of oneself glimpsing at oneself. One gives oneself wholly; one gives not a part of something bigger but the whole thing at once; one gives a momentary rather than a partial view, and technology allows one to make as many self-portraits as one wishes to make and to send them out to as many friends and parents and lovers and acquaintances and strangers as wish to share the glimpse, instagrammatically, in an e-mail, text or tweet. All that matters is that, in the glimpse signalling an availability of the body similar to the availability of the mind guaranteed by the same device, by the mobile phone that features a camera and a screen, the captured face is quickly recognisable, perhaps also the place. Hence it is unlikely that there is a self in selfies because the self of selfies, the self that constantly produces and reproduces itself as an image, is as occasional, as produced for the occasion or fleeting moment, and as flat as the images themselves tend to be. It is a self designed for the glimpse of a recognition that does not go beyond an instant affirmation, a pertinence vouched to the impertinence of a forgetting, or surrendered to the external memory of an electronic archive: “yes, look, that’s him, he appears to be in London”. In his Logical Investigations, Husserl defines occasional expressions not as expressions that occur occasionally or infrequently in language but as expressions whose “actual meaning” hinges on the occasion of their usage, on the speaker and the situation of his speech. It is in this sense that the self of the selfie, and its recognition, can be deemed occasional. It is in this sense that the recognition of the selfie’s self is absolute and absolutely forgettable. It does the trick for the occasion, and there is nothing left once the occasion has passed.
Constantly renewing the link between being and living, the selfie may also reveal a threat posed to humanity. It seeks to affirm the everyday in the guise of a friendly diminutive that serves as a euphemism because in neoliberal capitalist societies the self finds itself increasingly under the strain of excessive demands that diminish it and transform it into an infinitely flexible point bereft of singularity, stripped naked even of the clichés of singularity. The link between being and living is severed and, as a consequence, living ceases to be living while being becomes impenetrable and incomprehensible, imageless. Is an image not always already a compromise, the sign that life and being are inseparably linked in humans, and that life protects them from the indifference of being?
The difference between an artist making a selfie and someone who is not an artist holding a camera at a distance from his body, and especially from his face, corresponds to the difference between imagination and simulation. The artist’s selfie is a selfie of imagination. It does not need to simulate a link between being and living, or an everyday, for the imagined everyday does not rely on the assumption that a link between being and living already exists. Here is a poet’s selfie, a poem that begins with the words “A glimpse”: “A GLIMPSE through an interstice caught, / Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room around the stove late of a winter / night – And I unremark’d seated in a corner; / Of a youth who loves me and whom I love, silently approaching and / seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand; / A long while amid the noises of coming and going – of drinking and / oath and smutty jest, / There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little, perhaps / not a word.”The glimpse Walt Whitman gives into the everyday in this poem, in these words that in the last verse reveal their own superfluousness, is the poem itself, of course. It can be called a selfie, or perhaps, if one does not shy away from a further anachronism, a moving selfie, since the poetic I that looks at itself, the eye that sees itself absorbed, finds itself, finds its place in a scene that resembles a cliché, an exposure that summons its force from its obviousness. In retrospect, the photographically imagined view of two men displaying their affection in public might seem more daring than it was at the time the poem was composed. The poet imagines the scene of quotidian bustle in a bar at night, caught on camera through the “interstice” of a lens, as an arresting scene of sudden stillness in the middle of the tumultuous intercourse. He imagines it as a scene of lovers holding hands unimpressed by the world around them and yet appreciative of the vehement and raucous warmth that surrounds them.
An interstice allows for the glimpse of an interstice: “there we two”. Both noticed and unnoticed, carried by the waves of noise and shifting bodies and standing apart from the thick of the agitation, the lovers are seen from an angle difficult to identify, as if the interstice mentioned in the poem were a tear in the fabric of being, or as if, turning into a witnessing eye, the poem’s voice told the reader of another side, the side of imagination. This is why it is impossible for him, for the reader who is also the poet reading his poem as he writes it, to decide whether what he pictures in his mind as the scene described is something that is actually taking place, that has truly happened, or whether it is an imaginary anecdote, the emanation of a wish, a ghostly invocation, a texture of words as much as an animation of meaning. For imagination in art must undo the link between being and life, must be radically destructive, if it is to give a glimpse, provide a sight that cannot but escape the living. The ones who take the link between being and life for granted, or who, glossing over their own death anxiously, try to simulate the link’s continuing trustworthiness, for example by producing selfies. Hence the poet’s selfie is without a self to the extent that his self is split, torn by a dualism of spirit and flesh, and that his poetry brings to the fore this split, this disappearance that accompanies the emergence of an image, rather than dissimulating it. Such is the reality of earthly trust, such is earthly trust, trust in flesh and blood, when art establishes its reality. In the wake of an all’s-gone poetry seems to announce that all that was there as if from time immemorial is still to come, though never as something to be ascertained once and for all. “There we two”, a phrase missing its predicate, amounts neither to a speaker’s, or writer’s, constative act, to an act that determines and assesses a fact, nor simply to an act capable of retaining what it brings about within language alone. “There we two” is a drifting phrase. By showing that the link between being and life is not a natural link, poetry, and art in general, disrupt and rupture the interwovenness in which being expresses itself as life.
But is art then not a monstrous selfie the world makes of itself repeatedly, an affirmative or a critical selfie, a selfless selfie that pierces through the cohesion of being and life? And does such a selfie not entail yet another disappearance, a disappearance due not to the destruction of the world but to an incommensurable concentration on the wealth of its recurrent and unique detail? Take Gabriel, the only film the painter Agnes Martin ever shot, if one disregards a failed project of which no footage survives, the film she wanted Hollywood studios to distribute, and rightly so. Gabriel is an attempt at giving a “full response” to the landscape of New Mexico, to its flowers, streams, groves, plants, and rocks, to its “unattached beauty”. Martin uses this expression, which has a Kantian resonance, in a conversation dating from the summer of 1972. It should be related to her talk of an impersonal detachment, or an “untroubled mind”, in which freedom and inspiration can be found. Following a gawky young boy, a guide, a mute messenger, or just a straying youth, a non-professional actor complying with instructions not quite comprehensible to him, on his journey through the scenery, the viewer becomes so immersed that the many different forms and colours he sees, the fast-moving waters and the sculpting reflections, the light-drenched spectacle of a natural environment understood literally, as it were, in its seasonal everyday, or according to the inextricability of life and being, create a hypnotic effect on him, a shifting between concretion and abstraction. The more one watches Gabriel, or the more of Gabriel one watches, the less one knows what one is seeing, what one has just seen, and whether one is seeing, or has seen, anything at all. The cinematographic image disappears because the film, a local selfie of the world, touches on the limit at which freely surrendering and stubbornly insisting profusion, profusion not chaotic but arranged and combined in shorter and longer takes, profusion sequentially alternating with itself, verges on emptiness and nothingness.
The selfie, displayed amongst innumerable others and yet confined to solitude since it always denotes the absence of an other who could have taken the photograph, is relinquished to oblivion as one receives the next selfie from someone else, or as one acknowledges having received a selfie by sending another selfie, a selfie of oneself. It is as if the selfie conveyed the act of making an image and not the image itself, or as if the act of making an image and the act of recognising it collapsed into each other in the selfie. What is recognised, a self, an I, someone’s eye looking at itself by way of a camera’s eye and mirroring screen, appears to be so self-evident, so intelligible to the eye of the beholder, that he recognises not the visible face but the invisible act, the act of triggering the image. He sees nothing as he sees everything, in a glimpse that serves as a trigger for another such act. It belongs to the logic of the selfie that the moment one receives one, one wants to start an exchange of selfies. Photography disappears in an intelligibility so complete, in a recognition so unconditional that all that remains of it is the trigger, whether one sends back a selfie or not. The pushing of a button as an act that could and should be carried out but that ultimately is indifferent to its performance indicates that pure production and pure reproduction, producibility and reproducibility, have replaced the actual production and reproduction of an image. The selfie attests to a disappearance of photography inasmuch as the self it designates is not the self of the individual who photographs himself but photography’s own self, as it were, the self of a self-reference of photography. Photography reduces itself to the trigger that initiates the photographic process again and again, even though it may last only for an instant. Thus selfies can be defined as the endless propagation of a trigger, and the endless propagation of a trigger may be defined as the everyday, or the habit, of photography, or as photography’s exposure of insignificance. In each specific case, of course, the trigger still depends on specific circumstances, on the fact that someone may wish to make a photograph of himself when visiting a place such as London. At the same time, however, the trigger, the trigger of the selfie, keeps activating itself and itself only.
As a selfie, photography, photography in digital snapshots, photography in poems, and photography in film, disappears in the everyday – in the everyday of existence, in which living is no longer linked to being, or else in the everyday of art, in which the link between being and life proves not to be a given, or in which it seems so tight, and the image of nature so profuse, that it unlooses itself. The image’s frame is unhinged.
 Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, London and New York: Verso 1999, p. 50.  Edmund Husserl, Logische Untersuchungen, vol. II.1, Tübingen: Max Niemeyer 1980, p. 81.  Walt Whitman, "Leaves of Grass", in: The Complete Poems, ed. by F. Murphy, London: Penguin 1996, p. 163.  Agnes Martin, “What is Real”, in: Agnes Martin, Paintings, Writings, Rememberances, ed. by A. Glimcher, London and New York: Phaidon 2012, p. 83.  Agnes Martin, “The Untroubled Mind”, in: Agnes Martin, Paintings, Writings, Rememberances, a.a.O., p. 215.
Alexander Düttmann is Professor of Philosophical Aesthetics at the Universität der Künste Berlin and the Royal College of Art. In addition to his work in aesthetics and his collaborations with artists, he also writes on ethics and political philosophy. His publications include Visconti: Insights into Flesh and Blood; The Memory of Thought: An Essay on Heidegger and Adorno and, most recently, What Does Art Know? For An Aesthetics Of Resistance (2015).