She's Watching the Faces Watching Her

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


April 2, 2013

She's Watching the Faces Watching Her

Carrying some lipstick for the
The boyfriend blonde between the rolls of sheets
She's professionally poised
The faces are watching her
She's watching the faces watching her

— Underworld, Push Upstairs

Andrew Keen is best known for his criticism of internet culture’s celebration of amateurs and rejection of expertise in The Cult of the Amateur1, but in Digital Vertigo, his most recent book, he has expands his critique beyond our institutions, turning to the harmful effects of social media on our social life and culture. Or so I am told—I haven’t read either of his books. But from the reviews I’ve read of both books, it sounds like he is more or less on the right track.

I did listen to a radio segment on on the topic of Selfies: Narcissistic, Empowering, or Just Fun? where Keen and Sarah Nicole Prickett, a writer with New Inquiry, had an exchange of views over whether taking pictures of yourself and posting them on Facebook is empowering or narcissistic. (If we really live in a culture of narcissism, then isn’t the whole point that it’s both?)

Keen lambasted narcissism in the most conventional terms, and Prickett largely fell back on the usual boring bromides of hermeneutic phenomenology that affirm the right of the individual to narrate their lived experience. It would be a much better use of your time would be to read an essay by Meghan Murphy, founder of the blog Feminist Current, that she wrote in reaction to the interview. Referencing the claim that selfies are taken for yourself, she says:

Self-centred as we are, we like to believe that everything we do is ‘for ourselves’, even it’s clearly for others. It’s comforting, yes. But it’s also bullshit. It’s simply not possible that, if we put images of ourselves, or really, if we put anything at all online, that it’s ‘for ourselves’. If it were just ‘for ourselves’ we wouldn’t put it on the Internet.

What is it about the selfie that disturbs us? It’s not that it’s an image of a woman—those are obviously common. It is the presence of the camera in the shot, either represented directly, where the subject is taking a picture of her mirror reflection, or strongly implied by the angle of the shot or presence of the forearm which gives away the fact that the subject of the photo is also the photographer. For Murphy, this is disturbing because it implies that the woman in the photo is objectifying herself.

Just because you grow up in a culture that turns you into an object against your will, it does not mean that, somehow, if you ‘choose’ to further objectify yourself it is somehow subverting the enforced objectification.

The Reddit community, infamous for its hostility towards feminism and outbursts of misogyny, has a few long-standing objections about how women manage their appearance. A frequent theme on the site is men who claim to prefer women who don’t wear make-up. In the comic strip Lady Problems, illustrator Alexandra Dal skillfully deflates these naive opinions, showing how men mistake “natural” make-up for a woman’s natural appearance, and her true natural face appears to us as weird, like she is sick2.

Beyond the issue of “too much make-up,” another problem that the men of Reddit have with female self-presentation is the “duck face,” a facial expression created by pursing your lips together so as to emphasize your jaw line and create a more flattering portrait. Ever-vigilant on issues that affect women, many redditors denounce these phenomena as evidence of female insecurity. Yes, it’s true—a site with a reputation as a safe-harbor for the most vulgar forms of misogyny perceives itself as deeply concerned with the self-esteem issues of young women!

It’s possible that this apparent hypocrisy is simply due to the fact that Reddit isn’t a homogenous community—some redditors are sexist, others are genuinely concerned with women’s issues. Perhaps there is some truth to this, and it would be incorrect to stereotype a community which is probably at least slightly diverse than is suggested by their reputation. Nonetheless, some hypocrisy must also be at work.

Between hand-wringing over selfie (also a theme on Reddit), the duck face and women who wear too much make-up, the common theme behind all these issues is that they threaten to foreground the beauty labor that our culture demands from women. On one hand, we demand the commodification of the female body in image form, but on the other, deplore those who follow the incentives created by those forces, those who deploy their image in a way that’s too cynical and calculating.

It’s like insisting on Walmart prices but bemoaning the factory conditions and loss of authentic artisanal production that such an expectation creates. Or on Reddit, heavily trafficking in commodified images of women while lamenting how terribly insecure and needy women are these days!

Returning to the debate between Prickett and Keen: there was a moment that I thought was quite interesting, where Prickett pointed out that contemporary narcissism in young people might be due to the precarious economic situation that they find themselves in. Narcissism is a product of the demand for freelance rather than permanent work, where workers are forced to rely on personal branding in order to advance their careers. It signals that you are a “dynamic employee” (or more likely, a contractor) who is well-adapted to “today’s fast-paced dynamic global economy” and so on, as if submitting to the demand to produce new, ever more pleasing expressions and images of yourself online is a kind of personal portfolio of your willingness to produce for the boss.

Keen reacted to this first by dismissing, and then later claiming that even if personal branding is a more important part of the economy, we should still show some restraint, effectively saying that by practicing personal virtue, we should resist totally giving ourselves over to today’s forms of capitalism. Much like redditors who believe that women should avoid wearing too much make-up (but just enough!), Keen insists that we’re personally and morally responsible for resisting the havoc on social life that’s brought about by this logic.

But it’s expected, considering where Keen is coming from politically and philosophically—he is, at least, not confused about what he believes. It is far more surprising that Prickett adopts a neoliberal stance by effectively celebrating precarity as a form self-determination.

  1. Keen must be deeply relieved that The Cult of the Amateur was panned by Amazon's customer reviews, achieving an average score of only 2.6 out of 5. What would have happened if the very crowd he denounces as idiots praised him as a genius? He would have been in a very difficult position, but it apparently did not occur to the reviewers to do this, which probably demonstrates the limits of the creativity and wisdom of the crowd.
  2. Readers of Less Than Nothing may notice a homology here to Žižek's discussion of the quantum Higgs field. In order to maintain a pure vacuum in space, a certain amount of energy must be expended. But when the Higgs field is added, the total energy is lowered. Higgs particles are added into the space, but instead of raising the energy as you would expect, they reduce the energy. It's as if they are negative entities, like an object that when added to several objects resting on a scale, strangely lowers the total weight. Something like this is at work in the comic. Without make-up (the vacuum), you become noticeable as strange looking, but with the addition of "natural" make-up, you simply becomes oneself, receding into the background. We might ponder the mysteries of concealer, a substance that is added to the face for the purposes of subtracting blemishes, imperfections and so on, so that nothing is there. Žižek identifies this "something which sustains the nothing" as the Lacanian objet a, the object cause of desire.