Category: Non-fiction

Wolfgang Ullrich
Selfies. Die Rückkehr des öffentlichen Lebens
[Selfies: The Return of Public Life]

Cultural Studies

Thou shalt make unto thee an image

Cultural historian Wolfgang Ullrich defends the selfie boom against its critics. Rather than a sign of decadence he sees it as a revolution in the making. For him the selfie is no less than the “return of public life.”
It is a favorite truism of cultural critics that we live in especially narcissistic times. The selfie mass phenomenon has been declared an obvious symptom of our self-involved era. Because a society that is constantly taking pictures of itself with its cell phones has to be self-centered and superficial. Tell me how many selfies you post each day on social media and I'll tell you how egomaniacal you are, or so the equation in countless studies. Or they discover that selfies, rather then being evidence of narcissism, are actually one of its causes. The digital self-portrait has acquired an even worse reputation given the fact that you neither have to be hard-working nor a genius to make them – unlike the good-old self-portraits of the masters. Warnings about the dangers of selfies have accompanied all the hype, with claims that they ruin relationships and families, sometimes cost you your job, and in extreme cases can even kill you. The “selfie accident” has since been discovered as a new and unique cause of death. The tabloid press and online portals carry ever more headlines along the lines of “Picture-perfect Blogger Tries to Take Selfie on Bridge and Plunges to Her Death!” Will not such an excess of vanity necessarily be punished sooner or later?
Wolfgang Ullrich resolutely rejects such prophesies of doom in his new book-length essay. In the eyes of this renowned cultural historian selfie bashing entirely misses the point and even encourages reactionary and elitist thinking. Those who dismiss as trivial, amateurish and narcissist the digital self-portrait, which virtually everyone around the word can produce and publish nowadays, betray their disdain for the process of democratization that goes hand in hand with the global selfie boom. Ultimately these accusations express a yearning for the good old days, in which only a talented and privileged minority was able to create images and display them to the public.
Rather than a symptom of civilization’s decline, Ullrich sees a revolution in the making. The selfie, in his view, is not only a new form of democratized and globalized visual culture, but no less than the “return of public life.” His reference point for this hypothesis is sociologist Richard Sennett, who described in 1977 the “fall of public man” in the modern era. Accordingly, the golden era of the public sphere was during the eighteenth century. In those days people were expressive and theatrical; both sexes wore makeup, wigs and opulent clothing. Instead of disparaging role playing as a vain and calculating exercise in self-staging, it was seen as a gauge for an individual’s social and creative skills. It was only subsequent generations, in Sennett’s view, who disparaged this type of expressive social behavior. With the start of industrialization people began to value things such as intimacy and authenticity, and everything that really mattered was relegated to the “private” sphere.
The selfie cult, in Ullrich’s conclusion, is evidence that the desire for public self-performance has returned, at least in a digital format. Especially in the form of images, which people take of themselves in intimate and familiar settings. It is an irrefutable fact that Facebook and Instagram offer untold glimpses of people’s private lives. We show ourselves with our children vacationing on the beach, at romantic candlelight dinners, even in the bathtub or in bed. In Ullrich’s opinion, however, this generally does not cross over into the exhibitionist. Selfies follow strict conventions and a certain performance logic that act as a protective film for our actual person. The function of powder and wigs in the eighteenth century is now the work of apps and filters, allowing us to make self-portraits with saucer eyes and bunny ears. But even without this alienation effect, selfies, in Ullrich’s understanding, are “media doubles of those who turn themselves into an image.”
Perhaps Ullrich is a little too determined to defend our selfie bliss against any kind of criticism. His unobtrusively erudite deliberations are illuminating nonetheless, illustrating as they do to what extent the human face is a place of codes and conventions, as well as how our facial expressions and gestures are conditioned by historical, cultural and not least of all technological circumstances. Among the most thought-provoking passages in the book are those in which the author predicts that selfie culture will one day have an effect on our facial expressions in real life. Given the constant competition of digitally modified faces, our analogue expressions will be pushed to their physical limits. Surgical interventions might even become an everyday occurrence, enabling us to express our irony and regret as unambiguously as with an emoji. Here, too, Ullrich displays not the least bit of cultural pessimism. Never has the “selfie generation” been exposed to such unsparing and at the same time sympathetic scrutiny.
Marianna Lieder

By Marianna Lieder, 18.09.2019

​Marianna Lieder works as a freelance journalist and literary critic for publications including the Tagesspiegel, the Stuttgarter Zeitung and Literaturen. She has been an editor at Philosophie Magazin since 2011.

Translated by David Burnett