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Sartre vs The Selfie: An Existentialist Critique of Selfie- Taking

Selfie-sticks are notoriously ubiquitous in modern society, and the art of ‘selfie-taking’ may well be something that future analysts identify as being one of the defining sociological trends of this period of history. In this post, I will discuss some passages from Sartre that help to explain my feeling of unease at this rampant ‘selfie-ism’.

Straight away, let me make it clear that I am not targeting all forms of photography, or for that matter all forms of ‘selfie-taking’. Taking photos of yourself at important events (or places) can provide a record that the subject will come to cherish; they may even provide others who were unable to join you at the event (or place) with some insight into your experience. I have no truck with wedding photos.

Furthermore, there are some wrongs that selfie-taking can involve which are not covered by the criticism I shall discuss below. Last week, two members of the police force resigned following an investigation into allegations that they had taken selfies in the immediate aftermath of the Shoreham air crash. This behaviour displayed a stunning lack of compassion for the victims of the crash, and bespoke a degree of self-centredness that is not befitting of a member of civilized society, let alone someone who holds a position of respect in that society, such as a police officer. Clearly though, not all selfie-taking involves such moral wrongs.

The criticism of selfie-taking that I have in mind is not that the activity causes harm to others. Rather, I think the problem with selfies is that they often prevent the subject’s immersion into a valuable experience; selfie-takers are often so pre-occupied with taking pictures of themselves at concerts, foreign markets, and restaurants that they are no longer immersed in the experience of the thing that they think it sufficiently important to document with a selfie.

I think that this rather general thought finds echoes in Sartre’s philosophy. Sartre’s seminal philosophical novel Nausea describes the struggle that the protagonist Antoine Roquentin experiences upon coming to realize that he is an entirely free agent, who is responsible for his choices, and for creating his own meaning and purpose. However, one of my personal favourite passages in the novel deals with a somewhat tangential, albeit broadly related matter. In the passage I have in mind, Roquentin laments the fact that he has not had any ‘adventures’. He notes that adventures are signified by their having ‘real beginnings’, that is, events that clearly signal to the subject that ‘something is happening’. In turn, these beginnings, and the adventures to which they lead, only achieve their real significance by their ending. Roquentin writes hypothetically of the experience of such adventures:

I study each second, I try to suck it dry; nothing passes which I do not cease . . . and yet the minute goes by and I do not hold it back, I am glad to see it pass.[1]

Roquentin craves the sort of immersion in existence that he recounts in this passage, and laments the fact that he has not experienced this in the way that others have. However, on the following page, Roquentin re-evaluates these claims; he realises that the events that are the’ beginnings’ that signify the start of an adventure only become so by simply being recounted as part of a narrative. He writes:

Man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it. But you have to choose: to live or to recount.[2]

What Sartre seems to be suggesting here is that our desire to have adventures, to be seen as someone who is living an interesting life that others should emulate, can actually prevent our becoming immersed in the actual experience of existing. This observation seems highly relevant to the phenomenon of selfie-taking, and the prevalence of social media. More than ever, we are now surrounded by the (highly stylised) stories of others, and it is easy to be sucked into the trap of wanting to continually create narratives for ourselves, to be seen as having ‘adventures’. Yet, this can prevent us becoming immersed in the experience of our existence. For a tangible example of this, consider selfies taken at events where the enjoyment of the event requires the immersion of the subject in the experience of it. Consider for example the act of selfie-taking at music concerts or in front of famous paintings at art galleries. In their desperation to recount, the selfie-taker robs themselves of the experience of the event, and its real significance.

Of course, it might be claimed that nothing about taking a selfie precludes immersion in the event following the taking of the photograph. As such, it might be argued that Roquentin provides us with a false dichotomy in claiming that we must choose between living and recounting. This might be true; however, it seems that for many the recounting of experience is starting to take precedence over the living of it. For these selfie-takers, this is a call to lay down your selfie sticks, and to stop recounting and start living.

[1] Sartre, Nausea, Penguin Books, (2000), p 59.

[2] Ibid, p. 60.

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8 Comment on this post

  1. This criticism has been heard in a slightly different form about photography in general. Instead of enjoying the sunset we take pictures of it. Yet this criticism seems weak: many who take photos become more aware of the beauty or visual opportunities around them. Rather than merely taking in the sunset they recognize its properties and act as critics.

    I think the general issue remains true: *some* people focus on recounting rather than experiencing. But this is the same with tourists who try to “do” all of europe, checking fampous attractions because they should rather than for their own sake. Selfies might be a bit more insidious since they are about self-perception and memory rather than the location. But I suspect many selfies might actually be pretty good ways of being aware of one’s experiences.

  2. Thanks Jonny, first, for daring to step outside the Oxford quadrangle by quoting S-rtr-, and secondly for sharing your unease regarding selfies.

    I think that this may be primarily an aesthetic issue rather than an ethical one, but here’s my three-ha’pence :
    The particular phenomenon of selfies is new, but I’m not sure that it’s a defining moment of recent history. It appears to me to be an extension of something which has existed for probably a century, that what is recorded on film is endorsed with special signficance : “A picture is worth a thousand words”, “Better in technicolour than in reality”, “As seen on television”… From being an approximative imitation of life, or a surface record of what has happened, it has assumed an independent ontological status. (It is perhaps no coincidence that we use the word “image” to define public perceptions of a person, institution or product.)
    Are we so uncertain of the value of our own experience, or so overwhelmed by its transitory nature, that we feel that recording it in still or moving pictures gives it an objective status that it would otherwise lack? As you imply, when we concentrate on recording an event (with, implicitly, a objective to recounting it later – to ourselves, or others) we can no longer immerse ourselves in the experience of the now, whatever the “multi-tasking” advocates might maintain.
    I think there’s plenty more to say on the subject, for example to address Ander’s remarks, but this is already long as a reply…

    You didn’t mention “inauthenticity” when writing about Sartre, but I think you’ve found a good example of what he meant by it !

    1. I guess one can invoke Bourdieaus hyperreality for this phenomenon, if we want to continue to stray outside the quad. But living in a world where simulation and reality are indistinguishable is not necessarily inauthentic. Sartre would no doubt think so, but hyperreal lifeworlds can just be seen as open to radical freedom and self definition as “normal” lifeworlds (perhaps even more so).

      1. Do you mean Baudrillard rather than Bourdieau? (or indeed Bourdieu?).
        The principle problem that Baudrillard (or Sartre for that matter) might have is the lack of object relation to the “phenomenon” of the selfie. It has no phenomena, it is purely virtual, it is a presence without being. Maybe?

        Or is it like Odradek in Kafka’s “Cares of a Family Man” the horror of a selfie is that it will outlive you, not only that it will, as data outlive any and all of us. The network and its contents are meaningless, but they are meaningless beyond the bounds of phenomenological human mortality, you will die and the selfie, the idiotic image of your face at the donut shop will linger for all eternity, it will be judged at the gates of heaven (See Giorgio Agamben’s short piece on photography in the collection “Profanations”). The Nothing of the selfie is bigger than your own personal Nothing.

        Perhaps ultimately what would worry any thinker, philosophically or not, is that most often the behaviour in a selfie is counter-becoming, counter thought, counter doubt, it is a mono-cultural system (and symptom and symbol?) where we all look a bit dopey and poserish and daft, and that we participate in a distraction which binds us even further to a system of self commodification (ironic or otherwise) which is so thorough that the limits of your self are almost completely lost. (See the “Schizo” at the end of Baudrillard’s Ecstasy of Communication – unable to use himself as a mirror).

        Think also of Baudrillard’s nightmare of the television playing in an empty room, but now the face on the screen is you. Watching, from nowhere and forever, the deserted domestic space that was once the (degraded) stage of (the petty spectacle of) your life…

  3. I also get there is something potentially troubling about constant selfies. It is common to think that you are what you do habitually, and this leads to the question what constant selfies lead oneself to become. Exactly what can go wrong is harder to point out though. Is it viewing oneself from an “outside” perspective that leads to a loss of self-thought identity? Or the way one relates to others through selfies, which could imply some form of attention-seeking?

  4. Thanks for the article Johnny, it made me consider the same problem from a different perspective, namely that selfies are so ubiquitous because they serve as a practical way to compensate for the poor memory and attention deficit that seem to be caused by new technologies.

    There have been some studies linking poor memory to technological dependence or overuse – what comes to mind are N. Carr, M. Meckel, and M. Spitzer books (links disabled) -, but similar issues can also be found in much older reports e.g. in Nietzsche and his adoption of the typewriter, or in Roman approaches to oratory and literature.
    If it is true that our way of thinking is affected by technology, and also that our ability to store and remember events suffers because of it, it might be reasonable to assume that taking selfies is a method some individuals find not to forget their experiences – which would otherwise happen in some measure, given their condition. If their mind cannot store these events, they might be subconsciously attempting to proxy part of it to their smartphones. Selfieism, then, could be considered a desperate attempt to not let one’s experiences (or maybe even one’s personality) vanish in the torrent of thoughts and information in which they are immersed – at the cost, as you say, of actually living those experiences.

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