Narcissism is the defining pathology of the twenty-first century, a folk-psychological diagnosis thrown around by all as a shorthand for a form of sociopathy. But the term has a strange history. Following centuries of fascination with the original tale of Narcissus, in 1899 “narcissism” was a reduced to a symptomatology pathologizing masturbation and homosexual relationships explicitly. Sigmund Freud later identified how its central traits are nonetheless common to almost all mental health issues, and he draws on a rhyming couplet from the German poet Wilhelm Busch to demonstrate his point: “Concentrated is his soul / In his molar’s narrow hole.”
Narcissism is, in this sense, universal; when we are in pain, it is difficult for us to consider much else. But Freud also saw narcissism as a process, rather than a fixed state of affairs. When the relationship between self and world becomes unbalanced, narcissistic tendencies emerge from within to address the situation. The task of the psychoanalyst is to assist someone through their pain, alleviating any damaging stasis that may result from the ego’s retreat into itself.
When we consider our contemporary “narcissism epidemic”—the self-centeredness of capitalist individualism and the selfies that proliferate across social media—it appears that such an understanding of narcissism has been utterly evacuated. We moralize against what are arguably nothing more than products of our societal discontent, borrowing the term from psychoanalysis whilst ignoring all that has been said on the subject by philosophers and clinicians alike.
But narcissism’s universality is significant. A broader reading of the term has implications for everything, from queer politics and the Black Lives Matter movement to new forms of celebrity. It is about time we stood a step back from its overuse in our everyday conversations and asked ourselves a deceptively simple question: what if it is not self-obsession that defines us today but a need for self-transformation?
Can narcissism ever be a positive affliction? Such a question may seem deeply contrarian today. There is already a “narcissism epidemic,” or so we’re told—we should arguably be doing more to stop its spread. But rather than encourage or discourage narcissism in ourselves and others, perhaps the best way to counter our moral panics is to reinterpret this woeful pathology and consider its status as ubiquitous affliction from another angle.
After all, are we not in pain? Is our contemporary self-concern not warranted? Are we not morbidly aware of and rightly worried about our own fragility—not just as postmodern hypochondriacs, but as part of a wider and endangered natural world? Our soul, no longer confined to a toothache, is instead captured by the entwined gazes of culture, nature and all of their inhabitants—ourselves included—who look back at us, beautiful and clearly in distress.
When the relationship between self and world becomes unbalanced, narcissistic tendencies emerge from within to address the situation.
However, our contemporary narcissism is supposedly unconcerned with such grand questions. It is, instead, far more trivial. Take the selfie—that ubiquitous symbol of our contemporaneous self-obsession. We frequently hear stories of people, often tourists, doing incredibly reckless things for a good selfie, so focused are they on their own presentation that they fall from high places to their deaths. The tabloid press loves to share statistics of these selfie deaths as a kind of sensational schadenfreude, or as a macabre measure of social Darwinism, gleefully telling us that more people die taking selfies than from shark attacks, in a bizarre and perpetual retelling of Ovid’s story as a social-media morality tale.
It is easy for us to be cynical about this tendency. We are surely all aware of the ways that our societal self-concern is precisely encouraged by the media and capitalism more generally. By now, most of us know all too well how tech companies the world over take advantage of the data we upload about ourselves, turning it into a lucrative commodity.
Our fears and our desires come to form a peculiar ouroboros, which the tabloid press, in particular, feeds upon for its own nefarious purposes: turning a profit by spreading the sickness, then proclaiming it can sell us the cure, in the form of a self-deprecating moral panic. But looking past the tabloid hysteria, even contemporary selfies—including those taken by some of the most shameless self-promotors — have often signaled a silent hope for self-transformation nonetheless.
Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, untitled selfie, 2006.
Let us consider a particularly infamous example. In 2017, Paris Hilton tweeted two photographs of herself with Britney Spears. “11 years ago today, Me & Britney invented the selfie!” she announced to her millions of followers—and it wasn’t long before objections to her claim started rolling in.
One Twitter user suggested, with photographic evidence, that it was not Spears and Hilton but Bill Nye the Science Guy who took the first selfie, whilst onboard an airplane in 1999. Actually, it was Kramer, argued another, in a 1995 episode of Seinfeld. No, it was Beatles guitarist George Harrison in 1966, tied with astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who incontrovertibly took the first selfie in outer space that same year. But wait, here’s a mirror selfie taken by former US Secretary of State Colin Powell in the 1950s….
The examples were numerous, as were the methods used to make the self-portraits in question. Some photographed themselves reflected in mirrors, whilst others turned their cameras around on themselves with arms awkwardly outstretched. Some came prepared with tripods and shutter release cables, whilst others betrayed themselves as wielders of disposable cameras with a garish flash and a flat focal range.
Our fears and our desires come to form a peculiar ouroboros, which the tabloid press, in particular, feeds upon for its own nefarious purposes: turning a profit by spreading the sickness, then proclaiming it can sell us the cure, in the form of a self-deprecating moral panic.
The only thing shared amongst these images was that their subjects were, in some way, famous. Some would only become famous later in life, like the young Colin Powell, whereas others were contemporary celebrities taking selfies with an admirer, as was Bill Nye; Buzz Aldrin’s selfie showed him documenting the very event or achievement that made him famous in the first place — being on the moon.
After the argumentative Twitter users had had their fun, some journalists began investigating the history of the selfie for themselves. The New York Times went so far as to contact Mark Marino, a professor at the University of Southern California who teaches a class on selfies, “to see if there was some set of criteria that could justify Ms. Hilton’s claim.”
Marino argued that the first photographic self-portrait was, in fact, taken by Robert Cornelius, an American photographer, in 1839. Not only that, Cornelius’s photograph—or, more accurately, his daguerreotype—is considered by some to be the oldest recorded photograph of a (then) living person. But despite having offered up his own suggestion to the growing list of alternatives, it was not Marino’s intention to cynically burst Paris Hilton’s bubble and deny her claim that her selfie was the first of its kind.
Instead, Marino makes an interesting point: maybe Ms Hilton recognized that she and Ms Spears produced an image quite unlike anything shared previously. “She’s not being ahistorical,” Marino suggests, “she’s saying ‘we’ did something with selfies that had not to that moment been done” before.
Marino seems to be arguing that many of those people replying with photographs of celebrity selfies probably wouldn’t find them quite so interesting had Hilton and Spears not made the selfie such an explicitly postmodern cultural phenomenon, innately tied to the otherwise private lives of two very public individuals. Perhaps, in recognizing our own fascination with these images, we came to understand how they were accessible to all of us, as if we looked at them with wonder and began to aspire to becoming such spectacles for ourselves.
This is significant for two reasons. Firstly, we might argue that the selfie phenomenon directly influenced the development of modern technology, even if only in a small way—without the Hilton-Spears selfie, would forward-facing cameras now be installed on our smart phones as standard?
Secondly, the Hilton-Spears selfie also inaugurated a new era of celebrity. Although, at first glance, we may think there is nothing innately interesting about a picture of two of the most photographed women of the 2000s, it is precisely because they were so frequently and intrusively photographed by others that their selfie inaugurated a more autonomous gaze, providing a privately constructed window into the lives of two otherwise very public figures, seemingly for the first time.
When we consider what later happened to Britney Spears in particular, Marino’s argument becomes even more interesting. This supposedly inaugural selfie was taken just a year or two prior to Britney’s very public nervous breakdown. Hounded by the paparazzi, she was driven to shaving her own head—in the false hope that this would make her less recognizable or perhaps less worthy of the paparazzi’s attention—and infamously attacked the persistent crowd of photographers who still wouldn’t leave her alone.
Consistently scapegoated as crazy and violent by the very people who had driven her over the edge, a number of documentaries have more recently attempted to tell a more sympathetic version of her story, some fifteen years later, going into great detail about the lead up to and distressing aftermath of her mental collapse.
The most horrifying outcome of Spears’ mental breakdown was that she was placed under a controversial “conservatorship,” through which her affairs and finances were strictly “managed”—some might say “exploited”—by her father and others. Despite having been driven to such violent distress by a complete lack of autonomy over her public image, the deeply unjust response was for Britney’s general autonomy to be further restricted by a court of law. The #FreeBritney movement later developed, with many fans concerned about her sudden disappearance from the public eye, taking it upon themselves to advocate for her release from this draconian US law.
The selfie, then, was arguably her way of prefiguring or imaging a new version of herself—a new conception of the self no less.
Many, at first, believed the movement to be conspiratorial; fans began cataloguing, interpreting and decrypting “hidden messages” and strange behavior broadcast on the singer’s closely monitored Instagram page. In late 2021, however, the movement was vindicated. Britney’s conservatorship was dropped, and in an emotional statement to her fans, she thanked them for seeing the signs and freeing her from an oppressive existence, which she communicated through her persistent exploration of the selfie as an easily accessible form of self-expression.
As the world has come to better understand Spears’ ordeal, this original selfie, taken by two friends, starts to look like the tragic beginning of an otherwise avoidable breakdown. Here we find Britney Spears taking a selfie not just to be seen or to appease a fan, but to take control of her own image, affirming the private self that the paparazzi were compulsively denying her. The selfie, then, was arguably her way of prefiguring or imaging a new version of herself—a new conception of the self no less.
Narcissus in Bloom: An Alternate History of the Selfie by Matt Colquhoun is available via Repeater Books.