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date: 19 January 2017

Public Pedagogy and Manufactured Identities in the Age of the Selfie Culture

Summary and Keywords

Education in society occurs across both formal and informal spheres of communication exchange. It extends from schools to diverse cultural apparatuses such as the mainstream media, alternative screen cultures, the Internet, and other spaces actively involved in the construction of knowledge, values, modes of identification, and agency itself. The modern era is shaped by a public pedagogy rooted in neoliberal capitalism that embraces consumer culture as the primary mechanism through which to express personal agency and identity. Produced and circulated through a depoliticizing machinery of fear and consumption, the cultural focus on the pursuit of individual desires rather than public responsibilities has led to a loss of public memory, democratic dissent, and political identity. As the public sphere collapses into the realm of the private, the bonds of mutual dependence have been shredded along with the public spheres that make such bonds possible. Freedom is reduced to a private matter divorced from the obligations of social life and politics only lives in the immediate. The personal has become the only sphere of politics that remains.

The rise of the selfie as a mode of public discourse and self-display demands critical scrutiny in terms of how it is symptomatic of the widespread shift toward market-driven values and a surveillance culture, increasingly facilitated by ubiquitous, commercial forms of digital technology and social media. Far from harmless, the unexamined “selfie” can be viewed as an example of how predatory technology-based capitalism socializes people in a way that encourages not only narcissism and anti-social indifference, but active participation in a larger authoritarian culture defined by a rejection of social bonds and cruelty toward others. As with other forms of cultural and self-expression, the selfie—when placed in alternative, collective frameworks—can also become a tool for engaging in struggles over meaning. Possibilities for social change that effectively challenges growing inequality, atomization, and injustice under neoliberalism can only emerge from the creation of new, broad-ranging sites of pedagogy capable of building new political communities and drawing attention to anti-democratic structures throughout the broader society.

Keywords: neoliberalism, pedagogy, public sphere, social media, individualism, identity, agency, community, surveillance, mass culture, selfie

Neoliberalism and the Crisis of Agency

The most important forms of domination are not only economic but also intellectual and pedagogical, and lie on the side of belief and persuasion.

Pierre Bourdieu and Gunter Grass (2002)

Under the reign of neoliberalism, a particularly savage form of capitalism, the blight of rampant consumerism, unregulated finance capital, and weakened communal bonds increasingly promote what may be called a crisis of identity, memory, and agency. In part, such a crisis is directly related to neoliberalism’s production of an individualism that embodies a pathological disdain for community and, in doing so, furthers the creation of atomized, isolated, and utterly privatized individuals who have lost sight of the fact that, as Hannah Arendt (2013) once expressed, “humanity is never acquired in solitude” (p. 37). Nothing appears to escape the reach of predatory capitalism as even space, time, and language have been subject to the forces of privatization and commodification. Commodified and privatized, public spaces are replaced by malls and entertainment spheres that infantilize almost everything they touch. As one’s humanity is more and more defined by the ability to consume, exchange values are given priority over public values, just as communal values are replaced by atomizing and survival-of-the fittest market values. Hence, it is not surprising that, at this historical moment, individual and collective agency is more and more overwhelmed by a tsunami of information, the ubiquity of market values, the ravages of inequality in income, power, and wealth, and the absence of space and time, which allow for contemplation, dialogue, and shared responsibilities. Within this brutal logic of neoliberalism, the social becomes regressive, emptied of democratic values, and reduced to the dustbin of history by a politics that in the famous words of the late Margaret Thatcher declares with no apologies: “There is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and families.”

The crisis of agency is further reproduced through an ongoing assault on public spaces, where identities that once could be constructed, both in shared spaces and in dialogue with others, are under siege and withering in absence of a vibrant set of democratic public spheres. As more and more public spheres and modes of public pedagogy are defined by the logic of the market, individuals can only recognize themselves within settings—whether the school or the mass media—whose ultimate fidelity is to expanding market values and profit margins. In this instance, the public collapses into the personal, and the symbolic and affective dimensions of social existence begin to erode. One consequence is that political life disintegrates into private obsessions, and the triumph of the personal over the political becomes evident in the rise of the confessional society. Even worse, the only condition of agency is the ongoing desire to survive in a period of social breakdown, uncertainty, massive unemployment, and the collapse of the social contract. Under such circumstances, the only control that many people, especially youth, have over their identities is through the production of self-representations organized through the manufactured images they post on social media.

With the destruction of public spaces and communal bonds, coupled with the ongoing ideology of privatization, the production of identity appears to be wedded almost entirely to the invention of an isolated self. One consequence is that agency is now deeply embedded in the process of self-fashioning and an endless performance of freedom, which becomes an exercise in self-development rather than social responsibility. This primarily takes place through the boundless production of images that stand in for some control over depictions of the self. Moreover, sharing such images becomes the vehicle by which to exit from any notion of privacy and to render representations of the self as the only viable way to enable a sense of agency, however limited.

Under the auspices of casino capitalism, there is an ongoing attempt by the apostles of neoliberalism to remove politics from the ideals of the common good, social contract, and democracy. Shared responsibilities are now replaced by shared fears, reinforced by a market driven culture that celebrates privatization, deregulation, consumerism, choice, the spectacle of celebrity, and a revival of the ethics of Social Darwinism. Abstracted from the ideal of public commitment, neoliberalism, or what might be called market fundamentalism, represents a political, economic, and ideological practice that loosens the connection between substantive democracy, critical agency, and progressive education. It does so, however, not simply by disconnecting power from politics. As Samir Amin (2001) suggests, it does so by “gaining control of the expansion of markets, the looting of the earth’s natural resources, [or] the super exploitation of the labor reserves” (p. 6). One of the most important new weapons of global capitalism is that it constitutes a form of public pedagogy. While a number of theorists extending from Antonion Gramsci to C. Wright Mills have talked about culture as an educational force, it was Raymond Williams (1967) who first articulated the notion of culture as a form of permanent education. That is, the educational force of dominant culture, in all of its diversity, represents one of the primary conditions for spreading values, ideologies, and social relations. Culture today increasingly defines global citizenship as a private affair, a solitary act of consumption, and a war against all competitive ethos rather than as a practice of social and political engagement performed by critical agents acting collectively to shape social, political, and economic forces.

Neoliberal Public Pedagogy

Economic structures alone cannot account for the success of neoliberalism or any other mode of oppression. Shaping public consciousness is crucial to enforcing repressive values and social relations. In large part, this is done by keeping the American public absorbed in privatized orbits of consumption, commodification, and display, verifying the conviction that there is no democracy without an informed public. In this instance, pedagogy becomes central to the very meaning of politics, because it is crucial in understanding how culture deploys power and produces those desires, values, and modes of identity that support and mimic the demands of a market-fundamentalism in which exchange value becomes the only value that matters.

In the institutions of both public and higher education and the neoliberal mainstream cultural apparatuses of screen and print culture, the American polity is continuously commercially carpet-bombed with a form of public pedagogy the promotes narcissism, obsessive self-interest, and a libidinal economy in which consuming is defined as the only obligation of citizenship. As Joseph E. Stiglitz (2013) explains, neoliberal common sense insists that it is better “to trust in the in the pursuit of self-interest than in the good intentions of those who pursue the general interest”; looking out for oneself in the age of selfie culture is transformed from a principle of embedded self-development and growth to the belief that “selfishness [is] the ultimate form of selflessness.” Looking out for oneself in the best sense morphs into looking at oneself.

Under neoliberalism, as Jonathan Crary (2013) observes, time is now defined by “the non-stop operation of global exchange and circulation” (p. 5), including the endless perpetuation of an impoverished celebrity and consumer culture that both depoliticizes people and narrows their potential for critical thought, agency, and social relations to an investment in shopping, and other market-related activities. It is also subject to an algorithm of speed designed to intensify the labor of working people to the point of sheer exhaustion. Time is a luxury only for the rich and well off. For those engaged in the ongoing battle to survive, what the Occupy Movement called the 99%, it is largely a deprivation. Yet, it is a deprivation that has not provoked the public outrage it deserves. One reason might be that ethical paralysis and disposability are the new signposts of a society in which historical memory and social agency are diminished in part because care for the other is not only under assault by conservatives but is also derided as figments of liberal past.

As Frank B. Wilderson III (2012) has argued, as public trust and values are derided the discourses necessary to draw attention to the ethical grammars of suffering, state violence, and disposability begin to disappear, leaving only a “discourse of embodied incapacity” (p. 30). Unsurprisingly, as public values, the common good, and civic life are devalued, what emerges in its place is a culture of cruelty dominated by hyper-individualism, a survival-of-the fittest ethos, brutal forms of competition, and the non-stop production of celebrity culture, the spectacle of violence, and the reduction of agency to isolated and often anxiety-ridden and traumatized notions of the self. What emerges from this culture of narcissism and obsessive self-interest is both a callous disregard for human life and a notion in which consumption largely focuses on the consuming self at the expense of caring for others.

Dispossession, infantilization, and depoliticization are central to the discourse of neoliberalism in which language is central to moulding identities, desires, values, and social relationships. Within this fog of market-induced paralysis, language is subject to the laws of the capitalism, reduced to a commodity, and subject to the “tyranny of the moment, . . . emaciated, impoverished, vulgarized, and squeezed out of the meanings it was resumed to carry” (Bauman & Donskis, 2013, p. 46). As Doreen Massey (2013) observes, within the discourse of neoliberalism, the public are urged to become highly competitive consumers and customers, while taught that the only interests that matter are individual interests, almost always measured by monetary considerations. Under such circumstances, social and communal bonds are shredded, important modes of solidarity attacked, and a war is waged against any institution that embraces the values, practices, and social relations endemic to a democracy. Neoliberal public pedagogy, in this instance, functions as what Hannah Arendt (1968) calls a form of “totalitarian education,” one whose aim “has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any” (p. 468). One outcome has been a heightening of the discourse of narcissism and the retreat from public life and any viable sense of worldliness.

The retreat into private silos has resulted in the inability of individuals to connect their personal suffering with larger public issues. Thus detached from any concept of the common good or viable vestige of the public realm, they are left to face alone a world of increasing precariousness and uncertainty, in which it becomes difficult to imagine anything other than how to survive. In addition, there is often little room for thinking critically and acting collectively in ways that are imaginative and courageous. Surely, as Bauman and Donskis (2013) argue, the celebration and widespread prevalence of ignorance in American culture does more than merely testify “to human backwardness or stupidity”; it also “indicates human weakness and the fear that it is unbearably difficult to live beset by continuous doubts” (p. 7). Yet, what is often missed in analysis of political and civic illiteracy as the new normal is the degree to which these new forms of illiteracy not only result in an unconscious flight from politics, but also produce a moral coma that supports modern systems of terror and authoritarianism. Civic illiteracy is about more than the glorification and manufacture of ignorance on an individual scale: it is producing a nation-wide crisis of agency, memory, and thinking itself.

The Crisis of Civic Literacy

Clearly, the attack on reason, evidence, science, and critical thought has reached perilous proportions in the United States, and any discussion of the rise of a narcissistic selfie culture must include this growing threat to democracy. A number of political, economic, social, and technological forces now work to distort reality and keep people passive, unthinking, and unable to act in a critically engaged manner. Politicians, right-wing pundits, and large swaths of the American public embrace positions that support Creationism, capital punishment, torture, and the denial of human-engineered climate change, any one of which not only defies human reason but also stands in stark opposition to evidence-based scientific arguments. Reason now collapses into opinion, as thinking itself appears to be both dangerous and antithetical to understanding ourselves, our relations to others, and the larger state of world affairs. Under such circumstances, literacy disappears not just as the practice of learning skills, but also as the foundation for taking informed action. Divorced from any sense of critical understanding and agency, the meaning of literacy is narrowed to completing basic reading, writing, and numeracy tasks assigned in schools. Literacy education is similarly reduced to strictly methodological considerations and standardized assessment, rooted in test taking and deadening forms of memorization, and becomes far removed from forms of literacy that would impart an ability to raise questions about historical and social contexts.

Literacy, in a critical sense, should always ask what it might mean to use knowledge and theory as a resource to address social problems and events in ways that are meaningful and expand democratic relations. Needless to say, as John Pilger (2014) has pointed out, what is at work in the death of literacy and the promotion of ignorance as a civic virtue is a “confidence trick” in which “the powerful would like us to believe that we live in an eternal present in which reflection is limited to Facebook, and historical narrative is the preserve of Hollywood.” Among the “materialized shocks” of the ever-present spectacles of violence, the expanding states of precariousness, and the production of the atomized, repressed, and disconnected individual, narcissism reigns supreme. As Frankfurt School theorist Leo Lowenthal’s important essay “The Atomization of Man” (1987) states, “personal communication tends to all meaning,” even as moral decency and the “agency of conscience” wither (p. 183).

How else to explain the endless attention-seeking in our self-absorbed age; a culture that accepts cruelty toward others as a necessary survival strategy; a growing “economics of contempt” (St. Claire, 2014), that maligns and blames the poor for their condition rather than acknowledging injustices in the social order; or the paucity of even the most rudimentary knowledge among the American public about history, politics, civil rights, the Constitution, public affairs, politics, and other cultures, countries, and political systems? Political ignorance now exists in the United States on a scale that seems inconceivable: for example, “only 40 percent of adults know that there are 100 Senators in the U.S. Congress” (Werleman, 2014), and a significant number of Americans believe that the Constitution designated English as the country’s official language and Christianity as its official religion.

Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyons (2013) have connected the philosophical implications of experiencing a reality defined by constant measurement to how most people now allow their private expressions and activities to be monitored by the authoritarian security-surveillance state. No one is left unscathed. In the current historical conjuncture, neoliberalism’s theater of cruelty joins forces with new technologies that can easily “colonize the private” even as it holds sacrosanct the notion that any “refusal to participate in the technological innovations and social networks (so indispensable for the exercise of social and political control) . . . becomes sufficient grounds to remove all those who lag behind in the globalization process (or have disavowed its sanctified idea) to the margins of society” (Bauman & Lyons, 2013, p. 7). Inured to data gathering and number crunching, the country’s slide into authoritarianism has become not only permissible, but “participatory” as John Feffer (2014) claims—bolstered by a general ignorance of how a market-driven culture induces all of us to sacrifice our secrets, private lives, and very identities to social media, corporations, and the surveillance state.

Ignorance finds an easy ally in various elements of mass and popular culture, such as the spectacle of reality TV, further encouraging the embrace of a culture in which it is no longer possible to translate private troubles into public concerns. On the contrary, reveling in private issues now becomes the grounds for celebrity status, promoting a new type of confessional in which all that matters is interviewing oneself endlessly and performing private acts as fodder for public consumption. Facebook “likes,” lists of “friends,” and other empty data reduce our lives to numbers that now define who we are. Technocratic rationality rules while thoughtful communication withers, translated into data without feeling, meaning, or vision. Lacking any sense of larger purpose, it is not surprising that individuals become addicted to outrageous entertainment and increasingly listen to and invest their hopes in politicians and hatemongers who endlessly lie, trade in deceit, and engage in zombie-like behavior, destroying everything they touch.

As I have stressed previously, American society is in the grip of a paralyzing infantilism. Everywhere we look, the refusal to think, to engage troubling knowledge, and to welcome robust dialogue and engaged forms of pedagogy are now met by the fog of rigidity, anti-intellectualism, and a collapse of the public into the private. A politics of intense privatization and its embrace of the self as the only viable unit of agency appears to have a strong grip on American society as can be seen in the endless attacks on reason, truth, critical thinking, and informed exchange, or any other relationship that embraces the social and the democratic values that support it. This might be expected in a society that has become increasingly anti-intellectual, given its commitment to commodities, violence, privatization, the death of the social, and the bare bones relations of commerce. But it is more surprising when it is elevated to a national ideal and, like a fashion craze, wrapped in a kind of self-righteous moralism marked by an inability or reluctance to imagine what others are thinking. This type of ideological self-righteousness, fueled by a celebrity culture and elevation of self-interest as the only values that matter, is especially dispiriting when it accommodates rather than challenges the rise of the surveillance state and the demise of the public good along with those modes of solidarity that embrace a collective sense of agency.

Surveillance and the Flight from Privacy

Surveillance has become a growing feature of daily life wielded by both the state and the larger corporate sphere. This merger registers both the transformation of the political state into the corporate state as well as the transformation of a market economy into a criminal economy. One growing attribute of the merging of state and corporate surveillance apparatuses is the increasing view of privacy on the part of the American public as something to escape from rather than preserve as a precious political right. The surveillance and security-corporate state is one that not only listens, watches, and gathers massive amounts of information through data mining necessary for monitoring the American public—now considered as both potential terrorists and a vast consumer market—but also acculturates the public into accepting the intrusion of surveillance technologies and privatized commodified values into all aspects of their lives. Personal information is willingly given over to social media and other corporate based websites such as Instagram, Facebook, MySpace, and other media platforms, and is harvested daily as people move from one targeted website to the next across multiple screens and digital apparatuses.

As Ariel Dorfman (2014) points out, “social media users gladly give up their liberty and privacy, invariably for the most benevolent of platitudes and reasons,” all the while endlessly shopping online and texting. While selfies may not lend themselves directly to giving up important private information online, they do speak to the necessity to make the self into an object of public concern, if not a manifestation of how an infatuation with selfie culture now replaces any notion of the social as the only form of agency available to many people. Under such circumstances, it becomes much easier to put privacy rights at risk, as they are viewed less as something to protect than to escape from in order to put the self on public display.

When the issue of surveillance takes place outside of the illegal practices performed by government intelligence agencies, critics most often point to the growing culture of inspection and monitoring that occurs in a variety of public spheres through ever present digital technologies used to amass information, most evident in the use of video cameras that inhabit every public space from the streets, commercial establishments, and workplaces, to the schools our children attend, as well as in the myriad scanners placed at the entry points of airports, stores, sporting events, and the like. Rarely do critics point to the emergence of the selfie as another index of the public’s need to escape from the domain of what was once considered to be the cherished and protected realm of the private and personal. Privacy rights in the not too distant past were viewed as a crucial safeguard in preventing personal and important information from becoming public. Privacy was also seen as a sphere of protection from the threat of totalitarianism made infamous in George Orwell’s 1984. In the present oversaturated information age, the right to privacy has gone the way of an historical relic and, for too many Americans, privacy is no longer a freedom to be cherished and by necessity to be protected. Of course, there is a notable exception here regarding people of color, especially poor dissenting blacks, for whom privacy has never been an assumed right. The right to privacy was violated in the historical reality of slavery, the state terrorism enacted under deep surveillance programs such as COINTELPRO, the current wave of mass incarcerations, and in the surveillance of the Black Lives Matter movement. What has changed, particularly since 9/11 is that the loss of privacy has been intensified with the rise of the surveillance state, which appears to monitor most of the electronic media and digital culture (Greenwald, 2015). Unfortunately, in some cases the loss of privacy is done voluntarily rather than imposed by the repressive or secret mechanisms of the state.

Rise of Selfie Culture

This is particularly true for many young people who cannot escape from the realm of the private fast enough, though this is not surprising given neoliberalism’s emphasis on branding, a “contextless and eternal now of consumption” (D. L. Clark, personal correspondence, February 10, 2015) and the undermining of any viable social sphere or notion of sociability. The rise of the selfie offers one index of this retreat from privacy rights and thus another form of legitimation for devaluing these once guarded rights altogether. One place to begin is with the increasing presence of the selfie, that is, the ubiquity of self-portraits being endlessly posted on various social media. One BBC News commentary on the selfie reports that:

A search on photo sharing app Instagram retrieves over 23 million photos uploaded with the hashtag #selfie, and a whopping 51 million with the hashtag #me. Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and Madonna are all serial uploaders of selfies. Model Kelly Brook took so many she ended up “banning” herself. The Obama children were spotted posing into their mobile phones at their father's second inauguration. Even astronaut Steve Robinson took a photo of himself during his repair of the Space Shuttle Discovery. Selfie-ism is everywhere. The word “selfie” has been bandied about so much in the past six months it's currently being monitored for inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary Online.

(BBC News, 2013)

What this new politics of digital self-representation suggests is that the most important transgression against privacy may be happening not only through the unwarranted watching, listening, and collecting of information by the state. What is also taking place through the interface of state and corporate modes of the mass collecting of personal information is the practice of normalizing surveillance by upping the pleasure quotient and enticements for young people and older consumers. These groups are now constantly urged to use the new digital technologies and social networks as a mode of entertainment and communication. Yet, there is, in mainstream culture, an ongoing attempt, not only to transform any vestige of real community into site, not only to harvest information for corporate and government agencies, but also to socialize young people into a regime of security and commodification in which their identities, values, and desires are inextricably tied to a culture of private addictions, self-help, and consuming.

A more general critique of selfies by Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn (2014) points to their affirmation as a mass-produced form of vanity and narcissism in a society in which an unchecked capitalism promotes forms of rampant self-interests that legitimize selfishness and corrode individual and moral character. In this view, a market-driven moral economy of increased individualism and selfishness has supplanted any larger notion of caring, social responsibility, and the public good. For example, one indication that Foucault’s notion of self-care has now moved into the realm of self-obsession can be seen in what Patricia Reaney (2014) has observed as the “growing number of people who are waiting in line to see plastic surgeons to enhance images they post of themselves on smartphones and other social media sites.”

The merging of neoliberalism and selfie culture is on full display in the upsurge in the number of young women between the ages of 20 and 29 who are altering their facial contours through surgical procedures such as nose jobs, eye lid lifts, plumped up lips, puffer-fish cheeks, and laser facials. As Sabrina Maddeaux (2015) points out:

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons last year reported that, in female patients aged 20 to 29, face-shaping cosmetic procedures were on the rise: Requests for hyaluronic acid fillers were up by almost 10 per cent, while Botox and chemical peels saw similar upticks. What’s more, according to dermatologists, young patients aren’t looking for subtle results; they want the “work” to be noticeable. That’s because the puffed and plumped “richface” aesthetic is the new Louis Vuitton handbag in certain circles—an instant, recognizable marker of wealth and status.

(Maddeaux, 2015)

Maddeaux argues that selfie culture “fuels this over-the-top approach to grooming” and (quoting Melissa Gibson, a senior artist for MAC Cosmetics) supports the view that “The selfie has turned an extreme aesthetic that wouldn’t normally be acceptable into something people want on a daily basis” (Maddeaux, 2015). Social media now becomes a site where selfie culture offers women an opportunity to display not only their altered looks, but also their social status and wealth. It appears that selfies are not only an indication of the public’s descent into the narrow orbits of self-obsession and individual posturing but are also good for the economy, especially plastic surgeons, who generally occupy the one percent that constitutes the upper class. The unchecked rise of selfishness is now partly driven by the search for new forms of capital, which recognize no boundaries and appear to have no ethical limitations.

The Plague of Narcissism

The plague of narcissism has a long theoretical and political history extending from Sigmund Freud in 1914 (Sandler, Person, & Fonagy, 1991) to Christopher Lasch (1991). Freud analyzed narcissism in psychoanalytic terms as a form of self-obsession that ran the gamut from being an element of normal behavior to a perversion that pointed to a psychiatric disorder. According to Lasch, narcissism was a form of self-love that functioned less as a medical disorder than as a disturbing cultural trait and political ideology deeply embedded in a capitalist society, one that disdained empathy and care for the other and promoted a cut-throat notion of competition. Lasch argued that the culture of narcissism promoted an obsession with the self under the guise of making selfishness and self-interest a cherished organizing principle of a market-based society. For Lasch, the fictional character megalomaniac and utterly narcissistic Gordon Gekko, the main character in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street, has become immortalized with his infamous “greed is good” credo. Both theorists saw these psychological and cultural traits as a threat to one’s mental and political health. What neither acknowledged was that, in the latter part of the 20th century, they would become normalized, common-sense principles that shaped the everyday behavior of a market-driven society in which they were viewed less as an aberration than as a virtue.

In the current historical moment, Gordon Gekko looks tame. The new heroes of contemporary American capitalism are now modeled after a marriage of John Galt, the character from the infamous Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged (1957), who transforms the pursuit of self-interest into a secular religion for the ethically bankrupt and Patrick Bateman, the more disturbing character in Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel and the film American Psycho (2000) who literally kills those considered disposable in a society in which only the strong survive. Today, fiction has become reality, as the characters Gordon Gekko, John Galt, and Patrick Bateman, are personified in the real life figures of the Koch brothers, Lloyd Blankfein, and Jamie Dimon, among others. The old narcissism looks mild compared to the current retreat into the narrow orbits of privatization, commodification, and self-interest. Lynn Stuart Parramore gets it right in her insightful comment:

If Lasch had lived to see the new millennium, marked by increased economic inequality and insecurity, along with trends like self-involved social networking and celebrity culture, he would not have been surprised to hear that the new normal is now pretty much taken for granted as the way things are in America. Many even defend narcissism as the correct response to living with increased competition and pressure to win. According to one study, Americans score higher on narcissism than citizens of any other country. Researchers who study personality find that young Americans today score higher on narcissism and lower on empathy than they did 30 years ago.

(Parramore, 2014)

Under the regime of neoliberalism, narcissism not only becomes the defining characteristic of spoiled celebrities, brutish and cruel CEOs, and fatuous celebrities, it also speaks to a more comprehensive notion of deformed agency, an almost hysterical sense of self-obsession, a criminogenic need for accumulating possessions, and a pathological disdain for democratic social relations. Selfie culture may not be driven entirely by a pathological notion of narcissism, but it does speak to the disintegration of those public spheres, modes of solidarity, and sense of inclusive community that sustain a democratic society. In its most pernicious forms, it speaks to a flight from convictions, social responsibility, and the rational and ethical connections between the self and the larger society. Selfie culture pushes against the constructive cultivation of fantasy, imagination, and memory allowing such capacities to deteriorate in a constant pursuit of commodified pleasure and the need to heighten the visibility and performance of the self. The culture of atomization and loneliness in neoliberal societies is intensified by offering the self as the only source of enjoyment, exchange, and wonder. How else to explain the bizarre behavior of individuals who have their faces altered in order to look good in their selfies? Reaney (2014) quotes one individual after having plastic surgery: “I definitely feel more comfortable right now with my looks, if I need to take a selfie, without a doubt, I would have no problem.”

In a society in which the personal is the only politics there is, there is more at stake in selfie culture than rampant narcissism or the swindle of fulfillment offered to teenagers and others whose self-obsession and insecurity takes an extreme, if not sometimes dangerous, turn. What is being sacrificed is not just the right to privacy, the willingness to give up the self to commercial interests, but the very notion of individual and political freedom. The atomization that, in part, promotes the popularity of selfie culture is nourished not only by neoliberal fervor for unbridled individualism, but also by the weakening of public values and the emptying out of collective and engaged politics.

The Contradictions of Selfie Culture

The political and corporate surveillance state is not just concerned about promoting the flight from privacy rights but also attempts to use that power to canvass every aspect of one’s life in order to suppress dissent, instill fear in the populace, and repress the possibilities of mass resistance against unchecked power (Evans & Giroux, 2015). Selfie culture is also fed by a spiritually empty consumer culture, which Jonathan Crary (2013) characterizes as driven by never-ending “conditions of visibility . . . in which a state of permanent illumination (and performance) is inseparable from the non-stop operation of global exchange and circulation.” Crary’s insistence that entrepreneurial excess now drives a 24/7 culture points rightly to a society driven by a constant state of producing, consuming, and discarding objects as disposable—a central feature of selfie culture. Selfie culture is increasingly shaped within a mode of temporality in which quick turnovers and short attention spans become the measure of how one occupies the ideological and affective spaces of the market with its emphasis on speed, instant gratification, fluidity, and disposability. Under such circumstances, the cheapening of subjectivity and everyday life are further intensified by social identities now fashioned out of brands, commodities, relationships, and images that are used up and discarded as quickly as possible. Under such circumstances, pleasure is held hostage to the addiction of consuming with its constant discharging of impulses, fast consumption, and quick turnovers, at the expense of purposeful thought and reflection.

Once again, too many young people succumb to the influence of neoliberalism and its relentless refiguring of the public sphere as a site for displaying the personal by running from privacy, by making every aspect of their lives public. Or they limit their presence in the public sphere to posting endless images of themselves. In this instance, community becomes reduced to the sharing of a nonstop production of images in which the self becomes the only source of agency worth validating. At the same time, the popularity of selfies points beyond a pervasive narcissism, or a desire to collapse the public spheres into endless and shameless representations of the self.

Selfies and the culture they produce cannot be entirely collapsed into the logic of domination. More specifically, I don’t want to suggest that selfie culture is only a medium for various forms of narcissistic performance. Some commentators have suggested that selfies enable people to reach out to each other, present themselves in positive ways, and use selfies to drive social change. And there are many instances in which transgender people, people with disabilities, women of color, undocumented immigrants, and other marginalized groups are using selfies in proactive ways that do not buy into mainstream corporate selfie culture. In contrast to the market driven economy that encourages selfies as an act of privatization and consumption, some groups are using selfie culture to expand public dialogue rather than turn it over to commercial interests.

At the same time, there is considerable research indicating that “the reality of being watched results in feelings of low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. Whether observed by a supervisor at work or by Facebook friends, people are inclined to conform and demonstrate less individuality and creativity” (Murphy, 2014). Moreover, the more people give away about themselves whether through selfies or the emptying out of their lives on other social media such as Facebook, “the more dissatisfaction with what they got in return for giving away so much about themselves” (Murphy, 2014). Is it any wonder that so many college students in the age of the selfie are depressed?

What is missing from this often romanticized and depoliticized view of the popularity of selfies is that the mass acceptance, proliferation, and commercial appropriation of selfies suggests that the growing practice of producing representations that once filled the public space that focused on important social problems and a sense of social responsibility are in decline among the American public, especially among the many young people whose identities and sense of agency are now shaped largely through the lens of a highly commodified celebrity culture. Ironically, there is an element of selfie culture that does not fall into this trap but is barely mentioned in mainstream media.

We now live in a market-driven age defined as heroic by the conservative Ayn Rand, who argued in her book The Virtue of Selfishness (1964) that self-interest was the highest virtue, and that altruism deserved nothing more than contempt. Of course, this is an argument that now dominates the discourse of the Republican Party, especially the extremist wing that now controls it and can be seen in the bluster and bloviating rhetoric of Donald Trump, a contender for the Republican Party nomination for the presidency of the United States. This retreat from the public good, compassion, and care for the other, and movement toward the legitimation of a culture of cruelty and moral indifference is often registered in strange signposts and popularized in the larger culture. For instance, one expression of this new celebrity-fed stupidity can be seen less in the endless prattle about the importance of selfies than in the rampant posturing inherent in selfie culture, most evident in the widely marketed fanfare over reality TV star Kim Kardashian’s appropriately named 450-page book Selfish (2015), the unique selling feature of which is that it contains 2,000 selfies. Stephen Burt’s (2015) description of the book is too revealing to ignore. He writes that the book:

collects photos of Kim by Kim, from a 1984 Polaroid of little Kim putting an earring on little Khloé to shots from Kim and Kanye’s epic wedding. Most are headshots—in limos, in hotel rooms, in low light at nightclubs; dozens are come-hither photos or revealing full-body shots. We see Kim getting dressed or undressed, lounging poolside or couchant on beds or “in my closet in Miami trying on clothes.” Kim dons a fur hat fit for a chic Russian winter, poses with a flashbulb above a toilet (“I love bathroom selfies”), models huge amber sunglasses, blows us a kiss. Often she does snap pics in bathrooms, where other photographers may not dare to tread.

(Burt, 2015)

There is more at work here than the marketing of a form of civic illiteracy and retrograde consumer consciousness in which the public is taught to mimic the economic success of alleged “brands,” there is also the pedagogical production of a kind of insufferable idiocy that remakes the meaning of agency, promoted endlessly through the celebration of celebrity culture as the new normal of mass entertainment. As Mark Fisher (2009) points out, this suggests a growing testimony to a commodified society in which “in a world of individualism everyone is trapped within their own feelings, trapped within their own imaginations, . . . and unable to escape the tortured conditions of solipsism” (p. 74). But there is more. Kim Kardashian (2015) makes a startling and important comment at one point in the book when she writes, “Since choice or chance gave me a way of life without privacy, I’ll violate my privacy myself, and I’ll have a good time doing it, too”(quoted in Burt) At a time when the surveillance state, corporations, and social media track our comings and goings, the voluntary giving up of privacy by so many people is barely registered as a threat to dissent and freedom.

Rethinking the Flight from Privacy as an Attack on Freedom

Under the surveillance state, the greatest threat one faces is not simply the violation of one’s right to privacy, but the fact that the public is subject to the dictates of authoritarian modes of governance it no longer seems interested in contesting. It is precisely this existence of unchecked power and the wider culture of political indifference that puts at risk the broader principles of liberty and freedom, which are fundamental to democracy itself. According to Quentin Skinner and Richard Marshall (2013):

The response of those who are worried about surveillance has so far been too much couched, it seems to me, in terms of the violation of the right to privacy. Of course it’s true that my privacy has been violated if someone is reading my emails without my knowledge. But my point is that my liberty is also being violated, and not merely by the fact that someone is reading my emails but also by the fact that someone has the power to do so should they choose. We have to insist that this in itself takes away liberty because it leaves us at the mercy of arbitrary power. It’s no use those who have possession of this power promising that they won’t necessarily use it, or will use it only for the common good. What is offensive to liberty is the very existence of such arbitrary power.

(Skinner & Marshall, 2013)

The rise of the mainstream appropriation of selfies under the surveillance state is only one register of the neoliberal-inspired flight from privacy. As I have argued elsewhere (Giroux, 2015), the dangers of the surveillance state far exceed the attack on privacy or warrant simply a discussion about balancing security against civil liberties. The critique of the flight from privacy fails to address how the growth of the surveillance state and its appropriation of all spheres of private life are connected to the rise of the punishing state, the militarization of American society, secret prisons, state-sanctioned torture, a growing culture of violence, the criminalization of social problems, the depoliticization of public memory, and one of the largest prison systems in the world, all of which, according to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2012) “are only the most concrete, condensed manifestations of a diffuse security regime, in which we are all interned and enlisted” (p. 23). The authoritarian nature of the corporate-state surveillance apparatus and security system, notable for what Tom Engelhardt (2013) describes as its “urge to surveil, eavesdrop on, spy on, monitor, record, and save every communication of any sort on the planet,” can only be fully understood when its ubiquitous tentacles are connected to wider cultures of control and punishment, including security-patrolled corridors of public schools, the rise in super-max prisons, the hyper-militarization of local police forces, the rise of the military-industrial-academic complex, and the increasing labeling of dissent as an act of terrorism in the United States (see Giroux, 2011, 2012, 2014). Moreover, it must be recognized that the surveillance state is at its most threatening when it convinces the public to self-monitor themselves so that self-tracking becomes a powerful tool of the apparatus of state spying and control.

Selfies may be more than an expression of narcissism gone wild, the promotion of privatization over preserving public and civic culture with their attendant practice of social responsibility. They may also represent the degree to which the ideological and affective spaces of neoliberalism have turned privacy into mimicry of celebrity culture that both abets and is indifferent to the growing surveillance state and its totalitarian revolution, one that will definitely be televised in an endlessly repeating selfie that owes homage to George Orwell. Once again, it must be stressed that there are registers of representation in selfie culture that point in a different direction.

There are elements of selfie culture that neither subscribe to the Kardashian model of self-indulgence nor limit the potential of an alternative selfie culture to comments by a handful of mainstream feminists talking about photos being self-esteem builders. There is another trajectory of selfie culture at work that refuses the retreat into a false sense of empowerment and embraces modes of self-representation as a political act intent on redefining the relationship between the personal and the social in ways that are firmly wedded to social change. There are non-mainstream groups that are concerned with far more than building self-esteem in the superficial sense. For example, there are women of color, transgender and disabled people, who are using selfies to promote communities of healing and empowerment while also challenging a culture of cruelty that marks those who are different by virtue of their age, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, and race as disposable. These activities have received increased attention from alternative media sites such as Browntourage, The Daily Dot, Fusion, and Viva La Feminista

Selfie Culture as a Site of Struggle

What is crucial to recognize here is that selfie culture itself can be a site of struggle, one that refuses to become complicit either with the politics of narcissism or the growing culture of surveillance. In this case, various individuals and groups are using selfie culture to expand the parameters of public dialogue, public issues, and the opportunity for different political identities to be seen and heard. This is a growing movement whose public presence has largely been ignored in the mainstream press because it connects the personal to the task of rewriting notions of self-presentation that stress matters of difference, justice, and shared beliefs and practices aimed at creating more inclusive communities. But this is a small movement when compared to the larger selfie culture caught in the endless display of a kind of depoliticized and unthinking flight from privacy.

Hannah Arendt (1968) has written that “Totalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it is not content with . . . isolation and destroys private life as well. It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man” (p. 475). Selfie culture cannot be viewed as synonymous with totalitarian politics; however, it reorganizes and rearranges private life, and in some instances fights such a political attitude. Yet, under the shadow of an authoritarian state, selfie culture can be used to denigrate the incarcerated, sell dangerous drugs, shame immigrants, promote bullying, and sexually oppress young girls.

The good news is that there is growing evidence that selfie culture can also be used to rewrite the relationship between the personal and the political and, in doing so, can expand the vibrancy of public discourse and work to prevent the collapse of public life. In this case, selfie culture moves away from the isolation and privatization of neoliberal culture and further enables those individuals and groups working to create a formative critical culture that better enables the translation of private troubles into public issues and promotes a further understanding of how public life affects private experiences. In contrast to the mainstream appropriation of selfie culture, this more empowering use of selfies becomes part of an emergent public, dedicated to undermining what Alex Honneth (2009) has called “an abyss of failed sociality” (p. 188). What selfie culture will become, especially under the force of neoliberal public pedagogy, presents a crucial site of struggle to address both the collapse of the public into the private and the rise of the punishing and surveillance state—a fight desperately worth waging.

At the same time, it is crucial to stress that digital promiscuity is not a virtue or an unproblematic attempt to establish connections with others. On the contrary, it is, within the current reign of the national security state, a free pass for state and corporate power to spy on its citizens by encouraging their flight from privacy. Privacy rights are crucial as one bulwark against the surveillance state. When the public is forced to police the realm of the private, the suppression of dissent becomes all the more formidable and paves the way for a range of anti-democratic practices, policies, and modes of governance. As long as selfie culture lacks a self-consciousness and political understanding about what the implications are in a surveillance state for giving up one’s privacy, in the effort to produce a new politics of representation, this culture will speak less to new modes of resistance than to the practice of becoming complicitous with a new mode of state terrorism and a neoliberal reign of oppression.

Any attempt to address the rise of selfie culture globally has to recognize the larger and more comprehensive politics and modes of public pedagogy that shape a given society. Matters of power, inequality, and politics are crucial in determining the values, practices, and impact any given technology will have on a social order. The struggle over how one fashions the self, constructs a viable identity, produces representations of oneself, and enables a particular form of agency cannot be separated from how mainstream politics and the forces of neoliberalism work to change how people see things, to produce moments of identification, and to define what counts as a viable mode of agency. Such moments point to how valuable it is to recognize how crucial education is to politics.

The issue is not how we view ourselves, but how we understand who we are in relation to others and the larger public good. Any notion of selfie culture or the project of self-fashioning that does not press for the claims of economic and social justice will fall prey to the morbid symptoms of a society in which the self is removed from the worldliness of the public realm and is destined to wither in the shadow of an authoritarian society. Lowenthal (1987) argued that “the modern system of terror amounts to the atomization of the individual” in which “human beings live in a state of stupor, in a moral coma” (pp. 181–182). The struggle over selfie culture will have to face the challenges posed by privatization and commodification and, in doing so, will struggle against rather than heighten the atomization of the individual. This suggests a struggle over not only the conditions of agency but the future of democracy itself.

Further Reading

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Bauman, Z., & Donskis, L. (2013). Moral blindness: the loss of sensitivity in liquid modernity. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press.Find this resource:

Bauman, Z., & Lyons, D. (2013). Liquid surveillance. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press.Find this resource:

Crary, J. (2013). 24/7: Late capitalism and the ends of sleep. Brooklyn, NY: Verso Press.Find this resource:

Evans, B., & Giroux, H. A. (2015). Disposable Futures: The seduction of violence in the age of the spectacle. San Francisco: City Lights.Find this resource:

Fisher, M. (2009). Capitalist realism: Is there no alternative? Winchester, U.K.: Zero Books.Find this resource:

Giroux, H. A. (2001). Public spaces, private lives: Beyond the culture of cynicism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.Find this resource:

Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press,Find this resource:

Judt, T. (2010). Ill fares the land. New York: Penguin Press.Find this resource:

Lasch, C. (1991). The culture of narcissism: American life in an age of diminishing expectations. New York: Norton.Find this resource:


Amin, S. (2001). Imperialism and globalization. Monthly Review, 53(2), 6.Find this resource:

Arendt, H. (2013). Hannah Arendt: The last interview and other conversations. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.Find this resource:

BBC News. (June 7, 2013). Self-portraits and social media: The rise of the “selfie.” BBC News Magazine.Find this resource:

Biressi, A., & Nunn, H. (Spring 2014). Selfishness in austerity times, Soundings, 56(1), 54–66.Find this resource:

Bourdieu, P., & Grass, G. (2002). The “Progressive” restoration: A Franco-German dialogue. New Left Review, 14, 62–77.Find this resource:

Burt, S. (July 27, 2015). Kim, Caitlyn, and the people we want to see.” The New Yorker.Find this resource:

Dorfman, A. (February 3, 2014). Repression by any other name. Guernica.Find this resource:

Engelhardt, T. (November 12, 2013). Tomgram: Engelhardt, a surveillance state scorecard. Tom this resource:

Feffer, J. (June 4, 2014). Participatory totalitarianism. CommonDreams.Find this resource:

Giroux, H. A. (2011). Zombie politics and culture in the age of casino capitalism. New York: Peter Lang.Find this resource:

Giroux, H. A. (2012). The twilight of the social. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Press.Find this resource:

Giroux, H. A. (2014). The violence of organized forgetting. San Francisco: City Lights.Find this resource:

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Honneth, A. (2009). Pathologies of reason. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Kardashian, K. (2015). Selfish. New York: Universe.Find this resource:

Lowenthal, L. (1987). Atomization of man. In L. Lowenthal (Ed.), False prophets: Studies in authoritarianism. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.Find this resource:

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Murphy, K. (October 4, 2014). We want privacy but can’t stop sharing. New York Times.Find this resource:

Parramore, L. S. (December 30, 2014). Can we escape narcissism in America? 5 possible antidotes. Alternet.Find this resource:

Pilger, J. (February 13, 2014). “Good” and “bad” war and the struggle of memory against forgetting. New Statesman.Find this resource:

Reaney, P. (November, 2014). Nip, tuck, click: Demand for U.S. plastic surgery rises in selfie era. Reuters.Find this resource:

Sandler J., Person, E. S., & Fonagy, P. (1991). Freud’s “On narcissism: An introduction. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Find this resource:

Skinner, Q. & Marshall, R. (July 26, 2013). Liberty, liberalism, and surveillance: A historic overview. Open Democracy.Find this resource:

St, Claire, J. (May 23–25, 2014). The economics of contempt. CounterPunch.Find this resource:

Stiglitz, J. E. (December 21, 2013). In no one we trust. New York Times.Find this resource:

Werleman, C. J. (June 18, 2014). Americans are dangerously politically ignorant—The numbers are shocking. Salon.Find this resource:

Wilderson, F. B. III. (2012). Red, white, & black. London: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Williams, R. (1967). Preface to the Second Edition. In R. Williams (Ed.), Communications (pp. 15–16). Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.Find this resource: