This essay draws on the work of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among others, to examine the relational politics of the selfie in digital culture. It argues that the selfie should be thought of not as the documentation of a “self” but as a practice that defines a figure as distinct from a background. In the process, this produces whatever can be thought to be a “self,” with the background receding from awareness. In using phenomenology to examine the selfie, this essay makes a larger methodological claim for the study of digital media, one that refuses the empiricist mode that characterizes contemporary media studies. It reevaluates the belief that selfies are narcissistic, suggesting that narcissism should be understood through an intertwined dialectic of aesthetic and anesthetic relations that either unveil or close off the body toward another. These relations may have different political valences, depending on context. The essay concludes with a brief discussion of the MV Sewol ferry disaster in Korea, which demonstrates how selfies should be conceptualized as a relational practice that derives an open politics from the interplay between self and background.
Phenomenology for the Selfie
Grant Bollmer is an assistant professor of media studies at North Carolina State University, where he teaches in the Department of Communication and the PhD program in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media, and is an honorary associate of the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney. He is the author of Inhuman Networks: Social Media and the Archaeology of Connection (2016) and is currently completing a book titled Theorizing Digital Cultures.
Katherine Guinness is a theorist and historian of contemporary art. She completed her PhD in art history and visual studies at the University of Manchester and currently teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University. Recent works of hers have appeared in Esse and Kapsula.