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 Self, Selfhood and a Selfie: The Anatomy of a Virtual Body and Digital Identity
Dr. R. Swaminathan
Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation
Fellow, National Internet Exchange of India
Contributing Editor, Governance Now
[email protected], [email protected]
Abstract
This paper seeks to trace the changing contours of a virtual body and digital identity through the
lens of a selfie. The selfie is an epistemology in itself. It’s a deeply personal communication, as it
is a widely dispersed social discourse. It’s one of the few cultural products fully mediated by a
cyclically networked digital logic. The camera-embedded smartphone is its means of production,
mobile Internet-enabled social media is its distribution platform and its consumption is through a
variety of networked smart devices. This gives the selfie a unique ability to be singlecast,
narrowcast and broadcast at the same time, redefining traditional distinctions between time and
space. This paper deals with three things. Firstly, the paper map how an intimate product of
personal space consumed in digitally contoured public spaces, each with its own levels of access,
reconstitutes the relationship between personal space and public space bringing together the
domain of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Secondly, the paper understands the social
relationships of power, including gendered relationships, of a digitally mediated product such as
a selfie. Further, the paper establishes that such relationships reconstitute the dynamics of
conformity, strangeness, alienness and foreignness: all key ingredients in the construction of a
digital identity. Thirdly, and finally, the paper analyses what actually constitutes a selfie, as
opposed to what is a selfie. In understanding this, the paper unravels the reconstituted notions of
self, selfhood and the landscape of virtual body politics and digital identity. In conclusion the
paper establishes that the selfie is not just a picture, but is a specific discourse of a technoscape, a
digital gaze in itself.
Keywords: Logic, Private Space, Public Space, Politics, Identity, Body, Gender, Technoscape
Self & Selfie
Kim Kardashian is releasing a 352-page book of curated selfies called Selfish1. Kardashian may
not have intended it as such, but the title of the book is richly infused with interpretative
possibilities for the fields of social and philosophical anthropology and the complex notions of
manufactured self and selfhood, of ‘stages, props and costumes’2 so articulately explained by
sociologist Ervin Goffman in way back in 1959. In explaining the context of the idea of her
book, Kardashian displays the discursive architecture of how a selfie is a carefully constructed
notion of ‘the sense of being… what determines beings as beings’3. The selfie is ontologically
located in a private space, but is specifically articulated and packaged for a public space.
…they [selfies] were to be assembled into a sexy Polaroid photo book for my hubby’s eyes only
for Valentine’s Day…it ended up turning out so cool that we come up with this idea to do a book,
a selfie book…it’s called Seflish, which is fitting. I think it really takes about 15-20 selfies that
someone takes on their phone before they post the right one. There was this selfie that I took
where I was wearing a white bathing suit, and it was after I had the baby, and it was a sexy pic
(sic). It took about 15 pictures to get the one that I posted. So you'll see all the ones that didn't
make it. And you'll see all my selfies from the past years, including my first-ever selfie when I
was four years old4.
The selfie obliterates the traditional distinctions between notions of private activity and public
consumption creating a Habermasian reconstruction of ‘human action and
understanding…having a [specific] linguistic structure’5. The selfie also architects its own
language of Foucauldian discourse and power ‘…[defining] the world or a person in a way that
allows you to do the things [to] exercise power…making it then possible for it to be appropriated
in the interests of the relatively powerful’.6 As a relational social construction the selfie is a
product of popular culture: the song #selfie by Chainsmokers7 reached the Billboard Top 10. It’s
also a material, non-material and epistemological foundation for creating ‘a sense of meaning’ of
daily life and human interactions.
Pixel & Power
Seen in complete isolation a selfie is just a point-and-click picture. Nothing more, nothing less.
But then in the same spirit of things a Ferrari is just four wheels in motion. What animates a
selfie from a mere picture to a complex lifeworld of multivocal meanings is its unique ecosystem
of production, distribution and consumption. A selfie is the first cyber form that’s exclusively
mediated by a cyclically networked digital logic. The camera-embedded smartphone is its means
1
Please refer to: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/gossip/la-et-mg-kim-kardashian-selfie-book-20140808story.html. Accessed on October 06, 2014
2
Goffman, E. (1959), The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Anchor Books, New York
3
Habermas, J. (1984), The Theory of Communicative Action: Reason and Rationalisation of Society, Vol. 1,
translated by Thomas McCarthy, Polity, Cambridge
4
Please refer to: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/gossip/la-et-mg-kim-kardashian-selfie-book-20140808story.html and http://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/kim-kardashian-shares-selfie-khloe-4403374. Accessed
on October 06, 2014.
5
Habermas, J. (1984), The Theory of Communicative Action: Reason and Rationalisation of Society, Vol. 1,
translated by Thomas McCarthy, Polity, Cambridge
6
Edwards, R. (1997), Changing Places? Flexibility, Lifelong Learning and a Learning Society, Routledge, London,
pp. 64-69.
7
Please watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdemFfbS5H0. Accessed on October 05, 2014
of production, mobile Internet-enabled social media is its distribution platform and its
consumption is through a variety of networked smart devices. This unique digital DNA of the
selfie, analogous to a human genetic code, allows it to exist in multiple forms and spaces
simultaneously: a picture one moment, a deeply personal communication at another, a social
statement often and even an epistemology on occasions.
What is new are the ways we interact with people and systemic services. Integration of personal
mobile technology, in combination with networked computational support, is radically changing
the scope of how individuals interface to these services while simultaneously remaining unaware
and unconcerned of underlying technologies. In addition, with the many aspects of material life
that are leveraged, there is an increased scope for manipulating time and space. This greatly
increases our capacity to utilise social relationships and networks8.
What fundamentally differentiates a selfie from other multimedia digital products is its relative
autonomy, often bordering on complete independence, with the cyber ecosystem. A selfie does
not necessarily need a specific image moderating or modulating software, a dedicated storage or
retrieval system or even a connection with the Internet. In that sense the selfie is like some of the
newer generation viruses9 that don’t always require a specific form of host. In the absence of a
regular host, such viruses mutate and transform into a hybrid form capable of integrating with a
different host. A selfie is a worldview in itself. Each one is a unique constitution of pixels, of bits
and bytes, with the latent possibility of a reconstitution always lurking in the corner. This
transfuses a dexterous malleability into a selfie, a sort of digi-genetic code, which transforms a
mere picture into a political intervention, a brand or a social statement. The selfie enjoys such
transformative powers, similar to viruses, not just because it’s composed of pixels, which of
course imbibes within it an ability to be manipulated, coloured, de-coloured, stretched,
compressed, coded and reconstituted. The crux of its powers lies in its ability to integrate, and
delink, at will with the various other forms in the digital multiverse and hybridised technoscapes.
Such a nebulous coupling, and uncoupling, allows it to encode its specific logic on to the other
forms in such a dominant manner that the hybridised entity starts exhibiting the relational power
dynamics of a selfie: a social capital that is as constitutive of the real world power dynamics as it
is contributive.
…social capital comes from much more fluid and informal (yet potentially quite close and
intricate) connections between people. [...], social capital could as easily accrue among a tight
group of friends yet still have an effect on the community at large10.
Space & Time
By simultaneously constructing a self-contained digital world, articulating unique social
relationships of power in hybridised technoscapes, and amplifying existing power dynamics of
the real world, the selfie becomes a complex arena of engagement and contestations that
8
Applin, S. A., Fischer, M. (2011), ‘Pervasive Computing in Time and Space: The Culture and Context of ‘Place’
Integration’, IUI Workshop on Location Awareness for Mixed and Dual Reality, Palo Alto, California.
9
One example is Ebola. Being acellular, it does not replicate through any type of cell division. Rather, it uses a
combination of host- and virally encoded enzymes, alongside host cell structures, to produce its own copies. These
then self-assemble into viral macromolecular structures in the host cell. The virus completes a set of steps when
infecting each individual cell.
10
Watters, E. (2003), ‘How Tribes Connect A City’, Urban Tribes: Are Friends the New Family?, Bloomsbury,
London, pg. 116.
constantly formulates and reformulates identities and notions of belongingness. The selfie
constructs a space of blended material landscapes and non-material mindscapes of ‘dual, mixed
reality and poly social reality’11.
A new heuristic for human experience now blends physical and virtual space in personal,
asynchronous time and physical and virtual space in group oriented, synchronous time…with the
advent of ubiquitous mobile devices, and the sensor rich environments of Dual Reality, Mixed
Reality, and the Internet of Things, new capabilities and lived experiences will lead to a
convergence of those views. 12
The selfie is a conceptual complexity of simultaneously architected visual granularity and visual
distantiation where ‘time becomes instantaneous and space becomes unnecessary’13. It renders a
constant cloak of perceptuality, a digital gaze, over our direct engagements splitting them into
indirect, disconnected and discrete interactions. In doing so it distantiates, physically and
metaphorically, daily life from intimate lifeworlds, creating sociotechnical spatial processes that
critically inform the power dynamics between individuals, institutions and the organic world. A
selfie can best be described as collection of spaces, not in any teleological or linear manner but in
an ever-changing, ever-interacting mesh of spatialities and territorialities that display the relative
social relations of power existing at that particular point in time. Some of these spaces are
material, others non-material and several epistemological ‘becoming temporary containers to
house the body whilst the mind is occupied in the alternate destinations of the pervasive world of
the network’. Various configurations of daily realities are housed, often literally so, in the
interstices and intersections of these physical and metaphorical spaces created by selfies. When
they interact and engage with each other they transcend ‘the epistemological realm and the
practical one, between mental and social, between the space of the philosophers and the space of
people who deal with material things’14 creating a series of non-places
The word non-place designates two complementary but distinct realities: spaces formed in
relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure), and the relations that individuals
have with these spaces. Although the two sets of relations overlap to a large extent, and in an case
officially (individuals travel, make purchases, relax), they are still not confused with one another;
for non-places mediate a whole mass of relations, with the self and with others, which are only
indirectly connected with their purposes. As anthropological places create the organically social,
so non-places create solitary contractuality.15
The daily interactions of the people inhabiting these spaces constitute an intimate and
distantiated lifeworld – multivocal, cacophonic and seemingly random – that impacts everything
from notions of identity, belongingness, new and emergent sociotechnical relations and means
and modes of social production.
11
Applin, S. A., Fisher, M. (2011), 'A Cultural Perspective on Mixed, Dual and Blended Reality', IUI Workshop on
Location Awareness for Mixed and Dual Reality, Palo Alto, California. Accessed @
http://www.dfki.de/LAMDa/accepted/ACulturalPerspective.pdf on October 08, 2014
12
Ibid
13
Pawley, M. (1995) (mimeo), ‘Architecture, Urbanism and New Media’
14
Lefebvre, H. (1991), The Production of Space, Blackwell Publishing, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith,
Oxford, pp 3-4
15
Augé, M. (1995), Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, translated by John Howe,
Verso, London, pg. 94.
Us & Them
A selfie is a hybridised cultural representation that’s co-located in material and digital spaces.
This co-location opens up an individual to the experiences of ‘de-realisation and de-localisation’
while allowing him or her to continue having ‘physical and localised existences’16. Seen from
this perspective, the selfie becomes a relational social construction of the self and selfhood that’s
constitutive of the processes of conformity and non-conformity, of strangeness and alienation,
and of identity and rootedness.
Selfie as Context
Yet the dominant academic discourses about the selfie position them as a standardised global
product with glocalised forms: the Sefliecity17 project is one particular example of how the selfie
is analysed in terms of ‘head tilt, smile, angle, eyes, mouth (open or closed) and cropped
pictures’ across five cities in different continents using an algorithmic software. Cultural, social
and local specificities are not taken into account. Such studies reductively conceive the selfie as
just a digital product with no relational linkage to the real world culture, context and social
relations of power. A snippet of a conversation with 32-year-old Indian journalist Preety Acharya
reveals the undercurrents of the contradictory processes created by a global logic meshing with a
local context
I work as journalist and earlier used to work out a small office in Lower Parel [a business locality in
Central Mumbai]. Recently we all shifted to the Indiabulls Centre18. The office is world-class and when you
enter the complex you feel as if you are entering a new world19. Everybody dresses so professionally and
well. Not a hair out of place. I have also changed my wardrobe and I have realised that you need to look
really international if you want to make an impact. I am fat and need to lose weight. Maybe I will undergo a
bariatric surgery. When I take selfies, I keep my office or the cafes here as the background. I always touch
up all my selfies to remove all my dark spots and improve my skin colour. I don’t want anyone to think that
I am a local person… as someone who’s uncool and not in tune with the times…20
Context as Selfie
The selfie is also representative of the larger discourse of ‘ideal urbanity, global city and
international ways of life’. Thirty-year-old blogger and civic activist Mahafreed Irani in
explaining how she created a social media campaign to clean Mumbai’s Mithi River
inadvertently reveals how narratives of ‘aspirations, ideals, dreams and perfect spaces’ are
created.
I never forget my phone (iPhone) when I go out. When I went there (Dharavi) I saw several houses just
next to Mithi and they were using its waters for everything... from cleaning utensils, morning ablutions,
16
Robbins, K (1995). ‘Cyberspace and the World we Live in’, in M. Featherstone and R. Burrows (eds.),
Cyberpunk/Cyberspace/Cyberbodies, Sage, London, p. 153.
17
Please see http://selfiecity.net/#selfiexploratory and http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/styleblog/wp/2014/02/20/the-surprising-sociology-of-selfies/. Accessed on October 08, 2014
18
The high-rise Indiabulls Centre once housed a housing complex (chawl) of textile workers from various parts of
India who used to work in the nearby textile mills. Most of the mills have now been converted to office complexes
and descendents of textile workers now work mainly as janitorial staff or as mall helpers.
19
This imagery informs the narratives of ‘enclaves of global urbanity’, which also sometimes become the ideal
urbanity.
20
Excerpt from a series of personal interviews conducted by the author from February 2014 to September 2014 for a
research project on diversities and digitally scripted spaces in Mumbai.
washing clothes. I started taking selfies using that as background and uploading them on my blog. Is this
the Mumbai we want? I want to bring out the contrast with other international cities. When I look at the
selfies from such cities I feel we can do better. I am as good as anyone in the world. I am educated,
beautiful, have a great job and have experienced all kinds of food and places...why should I be in this dirty
place? A lot of people agreed and then architects and engineers got in touch with me and together we
started mapping locations. It became big and my newspaper picked it up and we ran a campaign for a
year21.
Selfie as Worldview
The non-place of a Selfie, a space in itself, often displays ‘principles of control and order’ that’s
a characteristic of physical spaces. So the spatial form of a digitally mediated selfhood could as
well be a ‘city’ one moment and a ‘global region’ the next. This architects a unique relationship
of quantum mutation where space and spatiality seamlessly interchange, co-exist and merge.
Such entanglements are creating shared experiences that are virtual and real, as this conversation
with Sunil Dalvi indicates:
I love European football and follow it very closely on Internet and television. I don’t miss any matches of
Bundesliga, English Premier League and La Liga. My favourite teams are Bayern Munich, Barcelona and
Manchester United. We have a small football team in the neighbourhood. We don’t have a park to play, so
we play on the roads...but when we post a selfie on our Facebook we only wear jerseys of international
teams... when we take such selfies we feel as if we are playing in a big stadium and where the cities and
roads are clean22.
Answers & More Questions
The selfie is a product of a digital ecosystem. It’s digitally produced, transmitted and consumed.
It can also be sliced and diced, moderated and modulated, repressed and amplified and integrated
with other digital forms and emergences. With such overwhelming digital evidence it’s easy to
fall into the trap of conceiving the selfie as a pure play digital form. But that would be simplistic
and reductive, and unfair to the emerging nuances and complexities of a selfie.
The nuts and bolts constituting the sociotechnical landscape of a selfie, articulately brought out
by Preety for instance, finds a parallel in the concept of epidermalisation where ‘for not only
must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man... [he] has no
ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man’23 The selfie, it seems, does have a colour, but
only that it isn’t specific. It’s more in the nature of a pigmentation that simultaneously represents
and architects idealised (globalised) aspirations of life and living, of self and selfhood and of
urbanity, ‘ideal’ city and the ‘right’ world.
21
Excerpts of personal interviews conducted with Mahafreed Irani from July 2013 to April 2014. As a result of her
social media campaign Mahafreed was picked up by DNA newspaper to become its digital editor, where she
continued the campaign on print, television (Zee) and online platforms. She quit the newspaper in May 2014
22
This is part of a conversation with 25-year-old Sunil Dalvi who is a Maharashtrian and a member of the Shiv Sena
(right-wing conservative party) and has not passed basic school education. Dalvi has never been to Kolkata,
considered to be India’s football capital, yet has acquired the nuances of football and a Global logic of what should
constitute a totality of urban experience. A similar imaginary was shared by Zubin Mehrotra, who is a banker
educated in the United Kingdom, and working with a multinational finance company in Mumbai.
23
Fanon, F. (1967), Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Charles Lam Markmann, New York, Groove Press, pg
110
Similarly the context of a selfie, both global and local at the same time, so starkly brought out by
Mahafreed, is as much a part of the construction of the self and selfhood as it’s a part of the an
overarching political discourse. It shows surprising similarities to the conceptualisations of ‘real
virtuality’ where processes of the material productions of space ‘tap into digitally available
resources of the world to enrich reality in real places’24. Such co-located processes embody
‘complex global-local articulations between space of places and space of flows’ and digital
‘ordering of the urban’25.
The selfie is a self contained worldview, integrating complex notions of the real and virtual, and
constantly transmitting its own coded set of meanings, linguistic structure and the grammar of
life. Sunil’s narrative in more ways than one fits within the framework of actor-network
theories26 that emphasise how ‘bits and pieces; bodies and machines, and buildings, as well as
texts, are associated together in attempts to build order’27. For Sunil space, time and agency are
never absolute. They are constantly defined and redefined through his sociotechnical
relationships of power that link ‘local and nonlocal in intimate relational, reciprocal
connections’28.
The selfie also displays structural similarities with the discursive landscape of female body
fragmentation and fetishisation of parts. The resultant imaginaries of an ideal selfie, much like
the digitally constructed ideal female form, lead to a global macronarrative that reduces the
complex social and cultural processes of body politics, identity and mediated notions beauty to
one of epidermal standardisation of pixels, seen in how multimedia software in the virtual world
is used to ‘smoothen out imperfections’ in a photograph, or how cosmetic surgery in the real
world is used to modify external appearance as per ‘global standards’.
The selfie is much an animal of the virtual world as it is of the real world. The theoretical and
conceptual problematic of a selfie for those looking at it as a digital emergence is at what point
does it cease to remain digital. In looking at the same problematic for those who are seeing it as a
relational social construction the dominating question is at what point does it turn social. Both
lenses are reductive and constricting in their own ways. Maybe the problematic itself needs to
display the asynchronous and quantum character of a Selfie. Maybe the questions that need to be
asked are: what is real? and what is virtual?
24
Abler, R. (1995) (mimeo), ‘Everywhere or Nowhere? The Place of Place in Cyberspace’, pg. 3.
Ibid., pp. 423-28.
26
Callon, M. (1991), ‘Technoeconomic Networks And Irreversibility’, in J. Law (ed.), A Sociology of Monsters:
Essays on Power, Technology and Domination. Routledge, London; Haraway, D. (1991), ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs:
Science, Technology, and Socialist-feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in D. Haraway (ed.), Simians, Cyborgs
and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, New York, , pp.149-81.; Latour, B. (1993), Science in Action:
How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
27
Bingham, N (1996). ‘Objections: From Technological Determinism Towards Geographies of Relations’,
Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 14, pp. 635-57.
28
Graham, S. (1998), ‘Imagining the Realtime City: Telecommunications, Urban Paradigms and the Future of
Cities’, in S. Westwood and J. William (eds.), Imagining Cities: Scripts, Signs and Memories. Routledge, London,
pp. 31-49. 25
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