Modern-Day Narcissus: The Selfie Obsession

Technology is turning us into a society of self-obsessed narcissists. We should've listened to the Ancient Greeks...
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Technology is turning us into a society of self-obsessed narcissists. We should've listened to the Ancient Greeks...

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We are all familiar with various legends of the ancient Greeks, such as The Minotaur and Hercules, and yet one that keeps circulating my brain is the story of Narcissus. He had the possession of great beauty, yet disdained those who praised him and ironically had never seen his own reflection. This is until the day he visits a stream out of thirst and sees his image for the first time in the water’s ripples. Narcissus falls in love with his image and fears drinking the water as it distorts the picture he adores. There are different versions of the myth, some proclaim that Narcissus dies of thirst, others say he drowned and there are descriptions of the nymph Echo repeating the words Narcissus voices to his reflection, so that he believes it to be a real entity. In the Roman version, Narcissus turns into a flower so that he can finally be praised by all; hence we still call the plant Narcissus by this name today. Most notably though, the myth has resulted in the term ‘narcissist’ becoming part of our everyday language, an adjective that refers to a person who is so enamoured with there own sense of being that they pay little attention to the emotions of those around them. They are self-involved and focus upon their own image just as Narcissus became obsessed with his reflection in the stream.

What is tragic about this myth is that it is more than ever a story that projects the dark shadows of our reality today. We have become a civilisation that has created our own streams to fall into through the establishment of online media and communication. For example, the birth of the ‘Selfie,’ an image that a person takes of themselves, demonstrates a similar fixation with one’s own reflection to that of Narcissus. The Urban Dictionary defines the ‘Selfie’ as: ‘A picture taken of yourself that is planned to be uploaded to Facebook, MySpace or any other sort of social networking website.’ The term ‘planned’ here disturbs me greatly, as photography no longer seems to be a form of art that captures moments, but instead solely captures you, regardless of where you are or who you are with. It is as if people are no longer comfortable with simply experiencing the present, we have to constantly define ourselves through vain portraits of one’s being. Moreover, the ability to ‘tag’ yourself on sites such as Facebook, places your image as the centre of that photograph. By placing your name upon your physical form, we suggest that this is the product of your complete identity, this is who you are. Furthermore, as the business has developed, Facebook is starting to encourage its users to list their favourite books, music, television programmes, sports, thereby solidifying your identity as a product of the external world. Like how Narcissus’ world becomes focused upon his self through his obsession with his reflection, our lives are fast becoming centred upon our physical presence in the world we exist in.

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Yet it is this desperate need to see an image of one’s self that I find incredibly worrying, as those who constantly take ‘selfies’ need continuous admiration for their appearance, ironically highlighting the sad reality that they are not comfortable with the identity that lies underneath their physique. The search for the self is a common theme throughout literature, as it is not something you can locate in the physical world, it is internal, a form of spirit that is not constantly projected into our shared reality. Novels such as F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho amongst others depict a sinister representation of self-admiration and obsession, and I fear that the direction we are currently being propelled in is only worsening the situation. Devices such as forward-facing cameras on Smartphone’s, tablets and popular apps such as Instagram celebrate narcissism and enable users to continuously upload images and share these with others across the globe. Why do we feel a need to have other’s compliment us upon our appearance? Of course everyone needs a confidence boost, and it is flattering when others see you as physically attractive. Yet, to be credited for a great personality is something that surpasses a stranger’s recognition of your appearance.

Austrian psychiatrist Otto Rank was one of the first people to publish a paper on narcissism in 1911, where he contended it was a form of extreme self-admiration and vanity. New forms of social media are causing a rise in such cases and unbelievable criminal acts, such as a woman in America who stole an Arkansas businessman’s iPad and proceeded to upload pictures of herself onto it in February 2013. What does this depict about the state of our society? I do not dismiss the intelligence and success of sites such as Facebook, I am merely concerned about the level of impact such programs can have upon the individual. We used to believe that photos took part of our soul after each take, now we live in a world where we thrive on such actions. The danger the myth of Narcissus represents is becoming so self-involved in your appearance that you do not understand your true sense of being and note the presence of others around you. Through clicking ‘like’ and commenting upon another’s photo, we are becoming more and more like the nymph Echo, simply repeating words, phrases and compliments, rather than serving as a true reflection, as a friend. We echo what the ‘Selfie’ wishes to hear, the shutter of the camera.