February 20, 2014 | by Tara Isabella Burton
For the origins of the selfie, look to the dandy.
When selfie was crowned the Word of 2013 by the Oxford Dictionaries, the media reaction ranged from apocalyptic to cautiously optimistic. For the Calgary Herald’s Andrew Cohen, “selfie culture” represents the “critical mass” of selfish entitlement; for Navneet Alang in the Globe and Mail, selfies are inextricable from the need for self-expression, a “reminder of what it means to be human.” For the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, the selfie is both: at once “the ultimate emblem of the age of narcissism” and a function of the “timeless human need to connect.”
With a few exceptions, commentators tended to converge on one point: the selfie, and the unencumbered act of self-creation it represents, is unmistakably of our time, shorthand for a whole host of cultural tropes wedded to the era of the smartphone. As Jennifer O’Connell, writing for the Irish Times, puts it: “It’s hard to think of a more appropriate—or more depressing—symbol of the kind of society we have become. We are living in an age of narcissism, an age in which only our best, most attractive, most carefully constructed selves are presented to the world.”
But our obsession with the power of self-creation—and its symbiotic relationship with the technology that makes it possible—is hardly new. Even the “selfie artist” is hardly a creation of 2013. Its genesis isn’t in the iPhone, but in the painted portrait: not among the Twitterati, but among the silk-waistcoated dandies of nineteenth-century Paris. Read More »