At a certain age, you find the slang of the day growing a bit opaque or slippery. Using it becomes a calculated risk. Not that the words or usages are necessarily incomprehensible, though some of them are. (The word “random” now has implications in the American vernacular that I have yet to figure out.) But the unwritten rules of informal correctness are sometimes tricky, and mastering them a challenge.
Simon Blackburn, for many years a professor of philosophy at Oxford, makes use of one recent idiom in his new book Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love (Princeton University Press) and nearly gets it right. Complaining about “the swarms of ‘selfies’ who infest places of interest, art galleries concerts, public spaces, and cyberspace,” he elaborates:
“For today’s selfie, the object of each moment is first to record oneself as having been there and second to broadcast the result to as much of the rest of the world as possible. The smartphone is the curse of public space as selfies click away with the lens pointed mainly at themselves and only secondarily at what is around them.”
And so on, in the same vein. ("You selfies get out of my yard!” as it were.) Reaching for the meaning of a recent piece of slang, Blackburn has turned in the right direction but not quite grasped it: “Selfie” refers to a photographic self-portrait, not to the person taking the picture. The author is editor of The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, so if there is a term for this kind of reversal -- confusing object and subjectivity -- he probably knows it.
But then he may not have fallen behind on the slang at all. “Selfie” really does sound like an apt term for the digital-age clones of Narcissus. Perhaps it will catch on? The phenomenon itself won’t be disappearing any time soon. The recent wildfires in California give us some idea of what an apocalyptic future would look like: people snapping selfies while everything around them is consumed in flames.
The appetite for self-documentation is not just a moral vice or a cultural symptom. The nuisance factor of the selfie is only the most blatant aspect of a tendency that Blackburn identifies as a fundamental problem for both serious thought and everyday life. “With a few exceptions,” he notes, "we can have just about any attitude toward ourselves that we have toward other people, or even to things in the world.”
Ordinary language is full of evidence for this point, since the range of expressions with “self-“ as a prefix is incredibly wide and practically uncountable: self-abasement, self-advancement, self-denial, self-respect, self-education, self-inspection, self-consciousness, self-murder…. For now that list should be sufficient, if not self-sufficient. "The exceptions,” Blackburn notes, "only include such trivial things as finding you in my way, which is possible, as opposed to finding myself in my way, which is arguably not, except metaphorically when perhaps it is all too possible.”
So the epistemological and moral problems raised by our relationship with other people or the world (where did they come from? what can we know about them? how should we treat them?) also apply in regard to the self, and are at least as complex, though probably more so. It seems the Oracle of Delphi cunningly hid a vast array of questions in her challenge to Socrates: Know thyself.
After 2,500 years, the mystery has only deepened. Writing in the 18th century, David Hume found the self to be elusive: “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure…. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep; so long as I am insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist.”
Now we map the neural pathways of the brain in fine detail without ever locating the spot where the self picks up its mail. Even so, whole industries exist to provide goods and services to the self -- especially by selling it, if not power, then at least Band-Aids for wounded vanity. Mirror, Mirror quotes the apt definition of arrogance by Kant -- “an unjustified demand that others think little of themselves in comparison with us, a foolishness that acts contrary to its own end” -- that conveys how repulsive and counterproductive it is. And yet costly advertising campaigns are built around models who project, as Blackburn neatly expresses it, "the vacant euphoria” of absolute self-absorption: “even [their] blankness is a kind of disdain -- a refusal of human reciprocity.”
The ads embody the fantasy of an invulnerable self, inspiring awe but immune to envy, available for the price of hair-care products or new clothes. It’s a con, but a successful one, meaning that it leaves the mark poorer but no wiser. (Hence still vulnerable.)
Mirror, Mirror is not primarily a work of social or cultural criticism. At the same time, phenomena such as selfies or billboards filled with pouty sneering beautiful people are more than just irritants that provoke Blackburn into writing casual but learned essays that leave you wanting to read (or reread) the philosophical and literary works he draws on. That, too. But the author's shuttling between current trends and venerable texts seems enlivened by the occasional hint that his interest is, in part, personal.
That could be my imagination. Blackburn never waxes memoiristic; he uses the first person sparingly. Still, the book implies a quest, Socrates-like, for self-knowledge -- by no means to be confused with what Narcissus was after.