I’ve never had much time for the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words”. This impatience might be a little self-interested, given that my trade is words, which I greedily over-value. Further, and, as they say, “full disclosure”, it could be produced by my rotten eyesight—perhaps I’m cranky with a visual culture in which I cannot fully participate. But, beyond these selfish Helen grievances, there is still our shared fact of life lived in a world that is full with pictures that claim to be very meaningful.
Perhaps you’ve become suspicious of the value of images, too.
Perhaps, in particular, you are tired of, “empowering” selfies, whose visual impact does not need to be described over a thousand words, but only three: “Look at Me!”
Of course, these three words are pretty important. We do not become social beings without them. The moment an infant sees herself reflected in the eyes of another—and, being human, she always will— is the moment she begins to identify herself as a separate human. And, no, this isn’t just me making some rot up in the hope of getting to “a thousand words”. This, more or less, is psychoanalysis 101. Which, no matter what you’ve heard, is quite a useful way of understanding the human world and is not always preoccupied with comparing things to penises.
Even if you don’t fancy the posh thoughts of bearded, penis-preoccupied Europeans, you can probably agree that it’s difficult for any of us to become us without the gaze of others. If we are invisible to others throughout our lives, we also remain invisible to ourselves. We need that look, or similar reflection, to permit us to exist. It seems likely that we cannot know that we are separate from others unless we are reflected by them.
One quick modern answer to the question “How do I know that I exist?” is, of course, the published selfie.
I know. This is heavy, and, possibly, just boring stuff. But, it’s the stuff, I think, that produces a lot of our everyday anxiety. As a species, we have been asking the question “How do I know that I exist?” for as long as we have had a thousand words available to us, and it seems to be the kind of painful and compulsive hobby that we conscious beings have.
One quick modern answer to the question “How do I know that I exist?” is, of course, the published selfie. And, if not an actual selfie, then an emotional selfie in the form of a status update. “I’m here”, is what we are saying. “I exist” and “Please confirm that I exist with the help of the ‘Like’ button.”
I am myself an indefensible show-off whose very human anxiety prompted by the ancient question “How do I know that I exist?” is answered by a range of public acts. I know I exist because up there^ is my byline for you to see. I know I exist because Google Analytics tells me so.
But, the curious thing about our time is that we feel, and I feel, that we exist more fully if there are more people to confirm this difficult truth of us.
We will always seek the attention of the other to deliver us from doubt. We will always need others to endorse the fact of us. But, we have not before in human history had such a wide appetite for so many confirmations. And, never before, such specific confirmations.
The empowered selfie, most often published by us women who have a particular and painful history of entanglement in the gaze, generally asks for a very precise response. Tell me I’m hashtag brave. Tell me I’m hashtag more beautiful without makeup. Tell me it’s not important what I look like by telling me how important it is that I look like this.
What if someone doesn’t agree that I am more beautiful without makeup?
The way out of the painful dominance of the image, it seems to me, cannot be through the self-publication of more and more images. The way out of the anxiety of non-existence is not through crowdsourcing a gaze. We are not in “control” just because we post our own picture. Like little kids, we are just anxiously seeking a reminder that we exist.
This is not to suggest that you should cease posting selfies. This is not to suggest you should feel bad about so doing. It is, however, to suggest that you see this act for the selfish and very human fun that it is. It is not empowering or revolutionary to seek approval. It’s just a thing we do in order to exist.
And, when we begin to do it on a larger scale, we find that it can fail us more spectacularly. What if someone doesn’t agree that I am more beautiful without makeup?
Despite what the internet tells us, there is not One Inspiring Image Which Will Change Our Life Forever. There is no reflection of ourselves that can tell us any kind of truth.
But, there are thousands and thousands of words available to us which might better describe and quell our very human anxiety. I could be being very self-interested here, but I recommend the use of these words in the moments before you post your next “empowering” selfie.