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The digital self portrait

Sky’s the Limit

The digital self-portrait runs like a thread through the media world. Programs like Photo Booth and devices like smartphones and handycams have simplified the process of photography. By reducing the cost and complexity, they’ve shifted the focus from the qualitative to the quantitative. But the possibility to practice some task does not necessarily mean that task will be pursued. First, the possibility must find the necessary receptor that waits for the appropriate and long missing agonists. The possibility has to press the right button – and this button seems to have been found.

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Why do we enjoy it so much, to photograph ourselves again and again? Why do we want to capture every situation, every moment and every sensation? Because we are addicted to the sight of ourselves, to our own existence? Or because these things are a source of anxiety – because we cannot be sure of our own existence unless there is someone watching, someone responding and thus giving us life. “For Hegel the subject was not feasible as an individual self-consciousness [sic] without its dialectical counterpart (general public).”1 In other words, there can be no subject without an observer. We do not exist until our existence has been confirmed by others.

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This essay is concerned with the question of whether this self-portraiture is a symptom of egomania or rather a sign of the search for our ego.This morning I watched a raven in my courtyard facing off, minute by minute, hour by hour, against his own reflection in a window. He tried to fool this mirror image; he lay in wait, often pretending as if he had lost all interest in the game, then without warning he would fly again with full heft against the glass. He demanded an answer by force, a reaction. In vain. After all, it was he himself who refused to answer.

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The look in the mirror and the associated recognition of oneself was for Lacan the beginning of a psychological phase that is associated with the development of the ego. The so-called mirror stage (le stade du miroir) is a prerequisite for the formation of our self-awareness, i.e. the self-self-conscious-ness. The ego that arises in the mirror stage is based on an image. This image is for the first time independent of others. It is not the response of others to me, but rather a purely subjective perspective of myself. If the child has so far only experienced the world through the response of another – the Other – for instance, by the symbiotic interweaving with his mother, then the image in the mirror is the moment of self-identification. His own image looks back at him. For Lacan, this mirror image is the Imaginary.

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The Imaginary in Lacan is, unlike in common usage, not limited to the illusory (though the view in the mirror is based on some kind of deception). It turns out to be much more than the origin of narcissistic fantasies of omnipotence. The ego experiences itself for the first time independent of others, its perceived existence reliant on the perception of its counterpart. The child believes in his own existence without the Other only by looking at himself and falls instantly in love with this supposedly autonomous ego.

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Today, the self portrait staring back at me is just such a mirror image. It is the place of self-identification. It is the illustration of the self. At least that’s what we believe. At least that’s what we hope. Ultimately, the question of one’s own existence is painful and difficult. WHO AM I?

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Whether consciously or unconsciously, this question torments us. It thrusts upon us the task of philosophers. The average person does not ask loudly, but softly whimpers, trying to produce his own image, to track down the ever-elusive phantom. If today’s popular scientists land on bestseller lists with books like Richard David Precht’s Who am I – And If So, How Many?, it’s clear just how much the question still haunts us and how desperately we still want answers.

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Can the self-portrait provide us with these answers? Do we receive a confirmation of our existence through the imaginary view of our physical self? Is the self-portrait a picture of our own inner striving? A brief philosophical digression into two contrasting perspectives on the ego-mind might bring us closer to the cause of this near-manic repetition by which we attempt to establish our state of existence.

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One of the perspectives posits that the ego exists only through the view of the counterpart; the other, that the ego must be understood as a self-centered being. The former holds that reflection and recognition of the self is only possible through the Other; the latter sees the individual as capable of understanding his own existence independently. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are both representatives of the second approach. Therefore they both assume that one’s own existence can be discovered in the reflection, thus diminishing the importance of the Other in the process of self-awareness.

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For Kierkegaard, this reflection is a spiritual one, while Nietzsche sees the process as originating from the body. By this logic, it is not by looking within, but by looking at the concrete history of one’s life that the ego is revealed to an individual. However, it should be noted that “the danger of the direct questioning of the subject about the subject and of all self-reflection of the spirit (Geist) lies in this, that it could be useful and important for one’s activity to interpret oneself falsely.”2

Is the naration of one’s life through self-photography the same sort of narative observation that Neitzsche saw as constituting the true revelation of the self? Is this what Precht implies when he inquires as to the quantity of the ego? Are we the sum of our parts that can no longer be intellectually unified, but can only be represented through pictures – starting, so to speak, from the body?

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Ultimately, what can be seen in the picture is only our physical appearance, under which is our ever-changing being, our life history. A visual diary of our existence, which will help us to unify our individual presense into a larger whole, into a sequence of events. Are we this elastic bit of chewing gum, stretching to our own death? Is that our ego, a Möbius strip-like structure of strung-together snapshots, a manifestation of our desire to photograph ourselves constantly, to capture our place in the world at every milisecond of our lives? It is not easy to always look out only for themselves, without having to see it can. But the repetitive pressure on the trigger helps to validate our existence? Not only funny only by the ringing laughter of the others we joke, by the tears of our counterparts our evil tongue really bad and is whispering through the groans of her beloved our desire not only to express really?

We live in a world in which our egos are reinvorced by our images. We live in a time when a photo of a face becomes a profile.  Photoshop and digital photography make it possible not only to change one’s face, to improve it, but even to delete and reproduce it without limit.

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In his latest book, Transparenzgesellschaft (Transparent Society), Byung-Chul Han says: “In digital photography, all negativity is erased. It requires neither a darkroom nor development. No negative precedes it. It is a pure positive. Becoming, aging, dying – all this is eliminated: ‘Not only does it commonly have the fate of paper (perishable), but even if it is attached to more lasting supports, it is still mortal: like a living organism, it is born on the level of the sprouting silver grains, it flourishes a moment, then ages. Attacked by light, by humidity, it fades, weakens, vanishes [...].’ Roland Barthes connected photography with a way of life, for which negativity is constitutive of time. [...] Digital photography is accompanied by a completely different way of life that continuously rids itself of negativity. It is a transparent photography without birth or death, fate or incident. “3

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If we look at Nietzsche’s notion that the consideration of one’s own history brings one closer to understanding the ego, then analogue photography – maybe even the self-portrait – could contribute to this process. Digital photography, however, is the expression of the imaginary. It is an ego-delusion. We create a picture of ourself that we sell as a supposedly true account, or profile. We pose, retouch and erase until we are satisfied with our self-image. We make funny faces, photograph ourselves at flattering angles and calibrate the contrast in Photoshop. Our exhibitionism robs us of our own face. ”It is no longer possible to be your own face. [...] The problem is not the increase of images per se, but the icon compulsion, to become an image. “

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We appropriate learned facial expressions and gestures. Consciously or unconsciously we manipulate our observers through imposed ideals of beauty. We make ourselves billboards, aimed at the economic satisfaction of needs. The creation of images always awaits a gaze – but this gaze never comes, because a gaze must linger, must discover, must penetrate. But beneath the surface of the digital self-portrait there is no ego, no being, to discover, only a deception, a learned expression, a demand and a deep valley of meaninglessness.

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We believe that through the presentation of our image, we come nearer to the viewer, and that by creating images of our various states of existence, we come nearer to ourselves. But this nearness degenerates to a lack of distance. “Lack of distance is not nearness. Rather, the two states anhilate each other. Nearness is rich in space, while lack of distance destroys space. Farness is inscribed to nearness. Nearness is therefore far. Thus Heidegger speaks of a ‘nearness so pure it endures farness’. “4

The digital self-portrait is therefore neither a product of egomanical self-love nor the repettitive reassurance of our own existence. Because our own existence cannot be found in the deceptive, Photoshop-processed image. The digital self-portrait is a constructed identity. There is no image of the self, no assembling of one’s life story – it’s the repetitive display of learned beauty ideals. It is a diversion from our true ego. No self-love, no self-knowledge, just a self-sellout. It is mere promotion. For ourselves and for the market. As the hypocritical “Shaka” of self-examination or as fuel for the iLike motor of the social Web. The question of our identity, of who we really are, remains unanswered. The search for our ego, fruitless.
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Even the crow has given up. He sits wearily at the window and preens himself in embarrassment.

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1. Riedel, Christoph: Subjekt und Individuum, S.123.

2. Nietzsche, Friedrich: Nachlass aus den Achtzigerjahren in Werke 6, S.475.

3. Han, Byung-Chul: Tranzparenzgesellschaft, P. 20.

4. Han, Byung-Chul: Tranzparenzgesellschaft, P. 26.

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