A Point of View: The tyranny of the selfie

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The selfie stick is the lightning rod of narcissism, says Howard Jacobson. Should people be concerned about its unstoppable advance?

There's a pelican of whom I'm fond, who lives most of the time on a little rocky island on St James's Park lake but occasionally comes out of the water to mingle with passers-by. He has a snooty, imperturbable air, like all pelicans, and is less interested in humans than humans are in him. But as long as you're not looking for a long-term relationship he'll rub shoulders with you, stroll with you briefly, and even sit next to you on a park bench. He draws the line, however, at playing second-fiddle to a selfie. If you want to take his photograph, well and good, but if you want to take your own photograph with him as incidental curiosity, he's not having any. The last time I saw him, he was in a strop, clacking the plastic salad servers he employs for netting fish, threatening to take a bite out of anyone who came too near, and finally returning to the water, though he'd clearly been enjoying a break from it - and all because a tourist had stood beside him and stuck out a stick on the end of which was her smartphone. There was she, beaming into her own remote lens, the object of all she surveyed, and there was he having to stand around like - if I may use an old northern expression - piffy on a rock bun. Like a lemon, in other words - like an extra rather than the star attraction.

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He was right to take umbrage. A selfie stick, as its name implies, is an agent of self-absorption, a lightning rod of narcissism, linking the self that's being photographed and the device that's doing the photographing, to the exclusion of all else. It always feels impolite to walk between a camera and its object, even if it means hanging around for half an hour on a narrow bridge, waiting for the photographer to compose the perfect picture. But who would dare break into the field of vision policed by a selfie stick? I would as soon walk between two lovers kissing.

Absurdities meet in the very idea of a selfie stick, not the least of them being the illogicality of adding photographic equipment to a device whose virtue resides in its being lighter than a credit card and small enough to fit into a fob pocket. After the selfie stick for your mobile, how about a tripod, a set of studio lights and a reflector kit? How long before we can't go on holiday without a camera assistant to carry our smartphone paraphernalia for us? The more we advance, the more we decline.

On the grounds that you can't have selfie sticks knocking over Ming Dynasty vases or punching holes in the Post-Impressionists, selfie sticks are now being banned from galleries and museums. Good. Now let's ban them from parks on the grounds that you can't have them offending the dignity of pelicans.

But the stick is a side-issue. It's the concept of the selfie itself that should concern us. And don't tell me that Rembrandt would have leapt at the chance of taking them had the technology only been available in the 17th Century.

"Had the technology only been available" is an argument advanced by those who cannot believe that all other ages weren't impatiently awaiting ours. Had the technology only been available, Shakespeare would have written for EastEnders, Schubert would have composed on a Digital Audio Workstation, and Palaeolithic man would have decorated his caves with selfies downloaded from Instagram.

Pity the poor ancients having to get by without our advantages.

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It's always possible that there's some Rembrandt of the selfie out there, using his phone to investigate the ravages of age, the incursions of melancholy, and even the psychology of self-obsession itself, but commonly the selfie performs a less self-critical function, putting the self at the centre of everything we see, marking the landscape with our faces, as though the only possible interest of the outside world is that we're in it.

There is, of course, nothing sinister, and certainly nothing new, about posing for a holiday snap. Long after we've forgotten the name of the mountain range behind us, and the person we have our arm round, it's nice to be reminded that long ago we had fun somewhere or other.

But there's a subtle difference between having someone take your photograph and taking it yourself. A third party will see something you don't. An absurdity, perhaps. A self-delusion. On a school trip to Paris, a friend took a photograph of me outside the Moulin Rouge. Had I taken it I'd have made myself look like some weary Parisian poet or flaneur, a glutton of sensuality in a Baudelaire waistcoat, wearing the expression of a man bored with the pleasures of the flesh. What my friend saw was a preposterous English schoolboy with soft down on his upper lip and shorter legs than Toulouse Lautrec's.

It's the scrutiny of others that saves us from the self-aggrandisement that make us mad.

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There's the high angle photo, awkwardly featuring the taker's arm. There's the mirror self-portrait. There are posed selfies, and group selfies. Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Madonna are all serial uploaders of selfies. The Obama children were spotted posing into their mobile phones at their father's second inauguration. Even astronaut Steve Robinson took a photo of himself during his repair of the Space Shuttle Discovery.

But the camera is only the half of taking selfies. We are narcissists now in every corner of our lives, fascinated by the most trivial thought that trundles through our brain, recording it for our friends, communicating every twinge of feeling, every passing impulse, telling people we don't know what page we've reached in books they've never heard of. I'm 76% through X, Y tweets to the universe, bizarrely confident that someone somewhere gives a damn. If these are the messages reaching a distant planet - "I'm halfway way through W" - it can hardly be a surprise the distant planet can't be bothered to get in touch. Unless the distant planet enjoys a similar level of technological sophistication and is only a quarter of the way through W itself and doesn't want us spoiling the story.

Books, where the self should most be quiet, are where it's currently most rampant. I've been to reading groups in which participants discuss who they are and what they think, and leave, full of cottage pie and wine, convinced they've been on a journey into a writer's mind, though they have not, for a single second, left their own.

When Keats compared first reading George Chapman's translation of Homer to the excitement of Cortez's men first setting eyes on the Pacific, he imagined them looking at one another with "a wild surmise". With astonishment, in other words, not recognition. But in the times of the taking of selfies, there is neither wildness nor surmise. Confirmation is what the selfie-reader seeks. One more self-portrait. "I cannot identify with your characters" - those words, plastered all over the review pages of Amazon, strike terror into the contemporary novelist's heart. For once, the reader is unable to identify with your characters, you're sunk, Buster, no matter that identifying with your characters is the last thing you want a reader to do.

It's undoubtedly one of the pleasures of reading, when we are young, to come across characters who feel as we do. Oliver Twist hungry and having to ask for more - why, that was exactly what I wanted to do after every school lunch. Jane Eyre orphaned and demeaned, blamed for crimes she hasn't committed - who ever went through childhood without suffering in that way. But it's no less a pleasure - and as our experience of reading deepens, it should be a still greater pleasure - to meet characters who are not mirror images of us at all, whose feelings we might not immediately sympathise with or even recognise, whose views of the world confront ours and perhaps, if it's a truly challenging book we're reading, laugh everything we believe to scorn.

This is one of the first justifications of all art - that it liberates us from the tyranny of being who we always are, seeing what we usually see, into the exhilaration of "wild surmise". We might read to find ourselves when we are young, thereafter we should read to lose the self we found.

The self is an entity that easily atrophies. In the absence of disagreement and challenge we fall into patterns of like-mindedness, believing what others believe, dressing, feeling, thinking alike, fearing what isn't us, safe only in the company of people who take the same photographs of the same faces with the same cameras, until at last all life is one big indistinguishable selfie.

A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST or listen on BBC iPlayer.

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