Selfies. If it wasn’t so profoundly absurd, it could be funny. Preening for preening’s sake, harmless innocuousness, carefree self-indulgence, or is there something more to this unquestioning self-as-centre mass delusion, which has consumed the connected world?
A selfie encapsulates in a little profile pic the age-old anxiety about keeping up public appearances. The need to take picture-perfect selfies may have even started people on the path to fitness. If it gets them out of bed every morning and if selfie-making makes a dent in their melancholy then as columnists and friends claim there must be something to it. The need to work on appearances, fine-tune the public image is what is getting these people out of bed every day.
But the image we have spent so much time so carefully cultivating is not real, it is just “the copy of a copy”. Two millennia ago, Plato the Greek philosophised about this. No matter how beautiful an object is to us, it isn’t real, it’s just perception. Though Plato couldn’t possibly know how the brain worked, he came remarkably close. The human gaze is merely the brain interpreting and codifying the stimuli it receives from the world around it and then placing this information within the cultural context of the human receiver. The flower that mesmerises me is altogether a different object to the bee that ‘sees’ in ultraviolet. And then we go and try to photograph or paint this ‘real’ object, which is how it becomes a “copy of a copy”.
If I stop to think of Van Gogh’s sunflowers, what comes instantly to me is warm ochre. The remembered image in my mind’s eye has altered from the image of the painting I checked up on in online galleries, which too is an interpretation contingent on the light falling on the painting in the gallery when it was photographed then scanned. Van Gogh’s archetypal sunflowers is so much a part of the body of culture that all the sunflowers I plant in my garden every year have come to represent this idea of hope and happiness. What Van Gogh himself intuited from this intense focus on a vase full of sunflowers has long since dispersed into a century’s worth of interpretation and essays on his work.
So you see how the simple selfie is a simulacrum. It’s microchip television, with screenplay, direction and production all squeezed into pixel width. It requires you to suspend your disbelief and expects you to buy the line the selfie-maker is peddling to the world. We are truly in the matrix now: an illusory online world that consumes us so completely that fiction is fact.
Try as we might and wish, we cannot make it real. Ultimately, this isn’t a problem for those who convince themselves that their matrix is real. Ancient and modern godmen have written down abstruse and copious texts to counter us with: “But what is real anyway? What is not real to you is real for me.” This is persuasive, cult-leader-with-clout persuasive. Many people have successfully transitioned and crossed over. They now live entirely in a self-exalting fictional world. Whole religions and cults survive on this nature of the simulacrum. People become skilled in the art of getting other people around them to see only what they want them to see. In order to be with them you have to enter their simulacrum and participate in their fiction. When you come across all the likes and comments under selfies, these are the participants. When you come across devout believers who spend hours in their shrine rooms and sanctum sanctorums ritualising, making up obscure rules to exclude others, smoking up the place with holy fires and the like, this is their simulacrum, so beware all who enter here. It’s not far or that far-fetched to go the distance from selfie to religion.