This is a guest post by Lisa Knisely, who has a PhD in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.
Of late, there has been much discussion about the significance of the (arguably) novel, technologically-driven genre of self-depiction know as “the selfie.” As most people are by now aware, Oxford Dictionaries picked “selfie” as their international word of 2013, defining the selfie as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” For most people under 30 or so, around many parts of the globe, this form of public and interactive self-portraiture is ubiquitous and seemingly compulsory. To paraphrase Descartes: I take selfies, therefore I am.
The social meanings and political consequences of the practice are being hotly debated. Some feminist critics have decried the selfie as another “fucked up way society teaches women that their most important quality is their physical attractiveness,” highlighting the way that selfies encourage women’s self-objectification under the patriarchal male gaze. Other feminists have objected to the vilification of the selfie, arguing that selfies are “an aesthetic with radical potential for bringing visibility to people and bodies that are othered.” They contend that selfies offer a chance for folks to subvert dominant capitalist image-making systems that render many marginalized people invisible and unintelligible.
Still other cultural critics argue that the popularity of the selfie is a sign of our ever-growing narcissism and crumbling lack of decorum, exemplified most recently by the fact that President Obama took a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial, sparking the creation of the Tumblr selfiesatfunerals. In response to these sorts of accusations, some have defended the socially redemptive potential of selfies. Actor James Franco penned an opinion piece for The New York Times lauding selfies as an opportunity for people to reveal intimate or hidden sides of themselves that are not often displayed in non-virtual publics. And, Salon.com writer Tracy Clark-Flory wrote a short piece arguing that funeral selfies document the universal human experience of grief.
With all the discussion of the meaning and significance of selfies circulating on the internet, I’ve yet to see anybody describe selfies as violent. Yet, this is precisely what I think selfies are: violent. This may strike many people as a hyperbolic or unusual claim.
So, let me clarify what I mean by violent.
What is it that makes an image violent? One conventional answer is that violent imagery depicts violence in some fashion. In this category, we could include any number of genres of image: popular video games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty, “fine” art such as Duchamp’s ´Etant Donnés, “Weegee’s” crime scene photography, early anthropological photographs from the Dutch Congo, the torture photos leaked from Abu Ghraib, and the list could go on and on. The depiction of various forms of violence unites images from very diverse cultural and historical contexts. The violent in “violent image” is a descriptive adjective meant to describe the contents of the image, that is, the violence represented in or by the image.
Yet, there is another meaning of the term “violent image” that I’d like to explore via the selfie: when is it that images become violent in the sense that they enact a kind of violence? To say an image is “violent,” in this case, would be to use the word “violent” to describe what it is the image does. This means that the image behaves violently, turning the descriptive adjective into adverb. This kind of “violent image,” I propose, does violence, either to the viewers or to the subject of image (and sometimes to both at the same time).
This other meaning of “violent image” could have any number of examples and it is a trickier meaning to pin down because it is invariably context dependent. According to this definition, potentially any image could be violent because all images have the potentiality for violence, a violence that is decidedly subjective in nature. The conceptual terrain here is all the more nebulous given that “violent images” in the first sense (representations of violence) often overlap with “violent images” in this latter sense. Just take, for example, the graphic selfie posted to Facebook by Susann Stacy after her husband beat her with a pistol.
To get at the meaning of the distinction I’m attempting to draw, I want to think about selfies as an image-making practice that is a potential site of violence for people who take and view these images. Thinking about selfies in this way, for me, is productive precisely because of the way selfies are as pervasive as they are seemingly inane. Yet, selfies, as an arguably new and unique genre of social image, capture a kind of contemporary zeitgeist as they remind us of something essential to the politics of image making: we don’t control the effects of the images we create, nor are we masters of the larger social, technological, or political contexts in which those images circulate. Even as we take and post selfies, we participate in a social practice that also acts upon us. And because of this, selfies can be violent.
To speak of the selfie as violent is to evoke an understanding of violence as normative. As I explained in an article entitled, “Oppression, Normative Violence, and Vulnerability,”
[Judith] Butler first introduced the term normative violence in the preface to the second edition of Gender Trouble...Samuel Chambers helpfully explains the meaning of normative violence in Butler’s work, writing that “normative violence points not to a type of violence that is somehow ‘normative,’ but to the violence of norms” (Chambers 2007, 99). Thus, the concept of normative violence does not mean violence that is routinely taken for granted or normatively justified, but rather the violence intrinsic to normativity. As Chambers writes, “The concept of normative violence draws our attention not to the violence done to a pre-formed subject, but to the violence done within the formation of subjectivity ” (ibid., 47 ). We are, according to Butler, dependent on normativity for own intelligibility as subjects, yet this dependence also renders us open to a certain violence of those very norms upon which we depend.
This last bit is key. Selfies, as an image-making practice, help to render us as intelligible subjects to others. They help us exist for, and with, others. At the same time, however, we are dependent on certain social norms and conventions to make ourselves “fit” into the norms of the selfie.
A prime example of this can be witnessed in the feminist debate around selfies. On the one hand, some feminists claim, selfies contribute to women’s own self-objectification. On the other hand, other feminists claim, selfies allow women otherwise excluded from dominate image-systems (such as advertising) to appear to others and be appreciated by those others. In essence, then, selfies allow more women to participate in the social norms that define and reward women based on how they look. To resist this gesture, to refuse to take selfies, is literally to dis-appear from one social site of intelligibility and sociality our culture has to offer. To refuse to take selfies is to exclude ourselves from – or be excluded from – recognition by others. Yet, to participate is inevitably to self-objectify and to participate in the social norm that says that women ought to be judged based on how they look. The cost of becoming intelligible to others through selfies is opening oneself up to the scrutiny of sexist (and racist and classist and heterosexist and sizist . . . ) beauty norms that enact a kind of violence on women.
In a sense then, both the critics and the defenders of selfies have it right: selfies allow us to reveal ourselves as subjects to others, to participate in forms of human sociality that are vital, and to connect us to others, at the same time that they limit our normative understanding of what it is to be human, social, and connected.
This double gesture of the selfie, as both opening possibility and violently foreclosing it, is evocative of Simone de Beauvoir’s concept of ambiguity that runs throughout her ethical writing. It is because we are inter-related with others, and vulnerable to them, that we can also objectify and violate them. As Beauvoir reminds us in The Ethics of Ambiguity, we are both subjects and objects, self and other at the same time, and we should be wary of analyses that preference one side of these dichotomies over the other. Selfies are one site where this simultaneous ambiguity plays itself out. To post a selfie is both to render oneself a subject and an object; it is to other the self in the act of claiming it.
Images are violent in the sense that they can open us to the vulnerability of ourselves and others or reinscribe us as the gazing subjects who look upon the disavowed vulnerability of objectified others. Images can incite in us a pleasure or desire to injure others, even as they can condition our compassion or generosity towards those others. To call selfies violent is simultaneously to mark them as spaces of human interconnection, intersubjectivity, and vulnerable authenticity. To acknowledge their social meaning and function is to grant these images their ambiguity as cultural productions, admitting the violence of their normative circulation while also recognizing those norms as what allow us to exist for and with one another.
Beauvoir, S. de. 1997 (1948). The ethics of ambiguity. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group, Citadel Press.
Butler, J. 1999 (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.
Chambers, S. A. 2007. Normative violence after 9/11: Rereading the politics of gender trouble, New Political Science 29, no. 1.
Knisely, L.C. 2012. Oppression, normative violence, and vulnerability: The ambiguous Beauvoirian Legacy of Butler’s ethics, philoSOPHIA 2, no 2.