Stuart Hall tribute: culturally reading selfies

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In amongst all the Stuart Hall obits I looked through today, something caught my eye on twitter – an image of Mona Lisa taking a selfie. So as I seem to be not sleeping at the moment and my head is full of cultural theory, I thought I’d write a bit about them rather than the man himself.

The classic model of cultural studies is to take the mundane and read it for its political meaning. Selfies are pretty common currency in terms of the the things we reflect on when we think about contemporary culture and in particular our ever growing and ever prominent relationship with the internet. The dominant reading of them is one of individualism and narcissism – selfies represent all that is egocentric about the 21st century (wo)man and her relationship with cyber-space. An alternative reading is one of moral decline – vacuous self projection in the absence of purpose and worth.

Selfies do some cultural work in locating the absent organic self in our communications – a reminder of the ever missing body and particular face in exchanges which increasingly rely on other forms of identity. Psychologically they could be viewed as a form of ego defence in an increasingly surveyed age: our ability to frame and thus take ownership of ourselves within cyberculture. Just as the voice tweeting or commenting is an authentic voice passing through a particular prism of projection, we angle and gurn or pout (or just look a bit into the distance) in an enactment of visual agency. Of course as with any ego defence there is always going to be leakage, and the selfie is in part a crystallisation of this tension: I can guarantee that what I display is what I want you to see of me but I cannot control the way in which you perceive and react to this – as Hall himself commented, the meaning is not fixed by the sender, and the audience is not a passive receiver. 

Hall of course also talked about feminism breaking into cultural studies like a thief and crapping on the table or something. I think there are things to be said about the main narratives of selfies as acts of individualistic female vanity. Firstly, in reading selfies as an emblem of individualism we are cutting the analysis short. Yes, the need to project a perfected or eroticised image implies individualism, but by locating the cause of this within the individual we miss the structural and cultural forces that individual is molded within. There is a tension in the selfie between the agency of the muse in the contemporary cyber-setting – the potential and often reality of a knowing, playful or otherwise owned display – and the panoptican reading of the ongoing performance of age old rituals of adornment and display even when the tools are given over to the subject.

Do selfies represent a moral decline? Compared to other cyber-expressions such as the cult of the blog or the twitter following which could just as easily be identified as vanity projects they attract far more comment and are framed much more clearly in the hegemonic narrative of feminine vacuity and cyber-identity. This in itself has class and gender written into it, and it reflects the relative cultural value we place on different forms of expression in cyber-space – a boundless place which early theorists saw as ripe with the potential to fuzzify the lived borderlines of class, gender, ethnicity etc, but a place increasingly colonised as we learn and teach how to read different forms of privilege into our communications there.

I should really try and go to sleep again so I’ll finish with an image of Stuart Hall himself which he may or may not have taken himself (but probably didn’t). I’ll miss him.

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