Modernity, the Self, and the Modern Selfie

The condition of self-consciousness, of being reflectively aware of one’s identity and actions, has been a repeatedly documented aspect of human experience throughout history. Self-representation in the poetry of the Renaissance court, for example, or the aesthetic endeavours of eighteenth-century portraiture, certainly attest to this. However, as theorists of postmodernism argue, self-consciousness has never before been such a prominent feature of lived experience.

In his resonating chapter on ‘The Experience of Space and Time’ in The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey tracks how the pervasiveness of self-consciousness in contemporary culture derives from the ‘enormous speed-up in existential rhythm’ of modern individuals and the societies to which they belong. For Harvey, this speed-up entails an ‘over-whelming sense of compression of our spatial and temporal worlds’, which he attributes to the ever-increasing grip of capitalism upon culture today: ‘the history of capitalism has been characterised by a speed-up in the pace of life, while so overcoming spatial barriers that the world sometimes seems to collapse inwards upon us’.

Beginning with European feudalism and its discretely ‘isolated worlds’, where space outside of the individual’s known world was ‘generally conceptualised as mysterious cosmology populated by some external authority’ and ‘set in the infinity and unknowability of enduring time’, Harvey goes on to map the mass opening up and increased commodification of space in the Renaissance. With the period’s nascent imperial endeavours, which brought known spaces into contact with far-off regions of the world through ‘trade, intra-territorial competition, military action, [and] the inflow of new commodities’, the globe became perceived as ‘finite and potentially knowable’. In other words, it appeared smaller.

However, due to the piecemeal nature of Renaissance development it was not until the Enlightenment that any changes to conceptions of space and time became widespread. In addition to the restructuring of actual land and of the power structures within society, Harvey argues that the proliferation of foreign trade and investment, and with it the newfound ‘internationalism of money power’, meant that European space was now conceived as ‘becoming more and more unified’. A ‘universal public time’ was also established. And with the advent of wireless technologies such as radio and telephone communication, an increasingly homogenised commerce and the railways, Harvey sees the early twentieth century consolidate the compression of space and time into the orthodox experience of the age.

It is not until the closing decades of the twentieth century that human experience enters an unprecedented phase of intense speed-up that brings with it a heightened awareness of the individual’s sense of self in a society so inherently globalised. Listing new technologies in the production line, ‘electronic banking and plastic money’, and a shift towards the consumption of services over goods (where the lifetime of a service is significantly smaller than that of traditional goods such as domestic appliances), Harvey argues that the postmodern experience of time has become infinitely more instantaneous and consigned to the present.

As a consequence, visual indicators that supply information instantly, such as the image in capitalist branding, have become imperative to the identity formation of the brand in this new pace of life. Extending this theory beyond branding, Harvey writes that ‘the acquisition of an image […] becomes a singularly important element in the presentation of self in labour markets and, by extension, becomes integral to the quest for individual identity, self-realization, and meaning’. Thus, the instantaneousness of time today has led the individual to imitate the marketing tactics of contemporary brands, who sell their product or philosophy to wider society through imaging their identity in a certain way. Harvey sites the flourishing business of ‘personal image consultants’ in contemporary society as evidence to this self-conscious behaviour.

Similarly, Alvin Toffler’s writing in Future Shock also attributes the modern individual’s concern for the presentation of their identity and its signification in society to the rise of capitalism, specifically the open market its has produced. As Toffler posits, self-fashioning has become increasingly prescriptive to ‘models’, specific types of style and lifestyle, which are emulated through patterns in values and behaviour as well as via outward appearance.

In intense self-reflexiveness ‘we commit ourselves to a particular model’, and ‘we fight energetically to build it, and perhaps even more so to preserve it against challenge’. This condition is a ‘crucial strategy in our private war against the crowding pressures of over-choice’: in postmodern culture the individual is presented with such a vast array of goods and services from which to choose that to narrow down choices to a specific category or type befitting that of the chosen ‘model’ is necessary. This specifically postmodern dilemma pushes the individual towards what Toffler terms ‘orgies of self-examination, soul-searching and introversion’, confronting them with ‘the most popular of contemporary illnesses, the “identity crisis”’.

Self-consciousness, then, is not simply a way to describe the image-led aspect of capitalist culture, but also a way to characterise a specific survival mechanism required by individuals today. We are disposed to reflect upon our identities and behaviour and, crucially, to alter these in order to avoid alienation, an absence of identity, and a feeling of insignificance.

These authors were writing at the fin de siècle of our last century. Where do their observations leave us in 2017, truly in the throes of late-capitalist selfie culture? We have, for some years, been aware of the social media phenomenon rampant on Facebook and Instagram, and the various ways of self-branding these sites license. We construct and project an identity for ourselves with every photo upload. Youtube vloggers make a living from brand endorsements, and wellness and fitness gurus sell their lifestyles to hundreds of thousands of followers with the tap of a finger. We are a society fixated on ensuring the self, just as Toffler and Harvey acknowledge. But these reflections take new form if we consider how these behaviours may reveal individuals groping for survival in the overwhelming and truly instantaneous present we are now confronted with. At the very least, we find a sense of being from our selfie uploads; at most, we make money. Has the ubiquity of consumer culture now gone so far as commodifying the very tactics we deploy to endure it?

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