Surveilling the Self(ie)

The front facing camera, imbedded and built into almost every cell phone, turns the outward gaze of the photo inwards. Self-portraits, know popularly as selfies, have become the dominant genre of photos. Almost everyone has taken selfies, yet we feel uneasy about them – to the extent that we have to adopt an ironic detachment to the practice. We can silently snicker at those whose “selfie game” (the skills associated with capturing the best self image at the best time) circumscribes their entire body moving through space, were the gaze is not directed forward or sideways to companions but inwards – onto the individual. 

We are living in the most surveilled moment in history. We carry the instruments of our surveillance with us, our phones, into private spaces in which any other camera would be scandalous – our bedrooms, restrooms and homes. Because the social cost of not owning or using a modern feature phone is so high, the phone has become utterly naturalized as an extension of our bodies. We become walking potential images, for at any instance we may be asked to report the condition of our body to our friends.

Self-surveillance becomes the norm, yet the state or other disciplinary agents such as schools or our offices are not fear – our fear is our body not being image ready for the imaginary audiences of our networks. Foucault in Discipline and Punishment describes panopticonism an asymmetrical power relationship where the corporate and/or state entity is both all seeing and invisible. The corporate and/or state entity is all seeing because it can aggregate the personal, social, political, and commercial data of an individual to predict habits and monitor activity. The corporate and/or state entity is also invisible because it can access and utilize an individual’s information subtly and not immediately apparent to the individual. Importantly, this relationship depends on the voluntary submission of information to the corporate and/or state entity rather than the brute force accumulation of information. The voluntary submission of information occurs because the individual perceives some set of personal benefits to be gained through increased online interaction.

The actually physical panopticon, which Foucault derives his inspiration, was a specific type of prison where an all-seeing guard tower stood in the middle of a circle of prison cells. Inmates knew they could be watched at anytime, but the seeing power was invisible and unknowable. They know neither when nor how the gaze was turned onto them. The state agent thus achieved control over its subject not through force but through the possible threat of force at any given time. Foucualt says, “he who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”

The inward gaze of the front-facing camera and the practice of the selfie turn us into the guard of our own imprisonment. We modify our body image through the fear of others not seeing the best version of ourselves.

The genre of selfie images contain post-modern aesthetics, the outward facing camera was designed to capture a moment in time. A moment in which historical context and the political dimension was critical, think of the flag raising at Iwo Jima or the images of violence perpetrated by the state against civil rights protesters in the 1960’s. While the selfie can possibly capture the historical moment, the fixation on the body over everything else disassociates the image from when it was taken.

I take neither a positive nor negative stance towards the selfie; I’ve taken plenty of them - I simply seek to explicate the power relations imbedded in the practice. It provides a more emotive, social message than simple text. They are certainly forms of self-expression, a declaration that the person exists and matters in the depersonalized landscape of political and economic. Yet we cannot also celebrate the selfie without recognizing the inordinate power it endows certain types of representation (person as consumer, as commodity) over others.