Selfies, Ethics and the Likeable Face from which We Live

Tap, red heart, and a like.  Clear skin, smile (or a pout).  Hair down, tied to the side. Tilt head. White teeth. Whiter teeth.  Straighter teeth. Smooth the wrinkle. Tap, like, love.
Feminism and phenomenology have long engaged with questions concerning the body, as responsibility for the other, the body as the site of an exchange, in the form of birth and beauty, the ‘natural’, the aesthetic, the primordial and earthy. The body as the site of giving and ethics, of anxiety and tension. The dualism of reason reconciled within a body perceived and enjoyed— and if one, how the other? The challenge of objectifying and living from the same ‘situatedness’ (de Beauvoir). 

Reflecting this complexity and unity of being, Merleau-Ponty writes that the body is the site from which we live.  Levinas narrows it down to the face.  Our face that opens up to and closes off the external world, hidden and exposed, is the interface of our ethical exchange with others.  Our face opens and speaks.  In words, we communicate our interior to the other.  Others communicate to us— we engage in an exchange, in ethics, where I become responsive to another’s words, response-able for the other.  I cannot comprehend the other person until they tell me about themselves, and their world.  They cannot be reduced to my knowledge about them— I need them to speak on their behalf, because they are separate from me. 

But what happens when the face, like the living, blurs the private and the public, and the site of ethical exchange, where the other person can share of herself to me in communication, becomes open for public viewing and commentary without dialogue? What is philosophically significant about the selfie?

In Adorno’s critique of consumerism, he says that all relations have been reduced to economic transactions.  And as economic, public, reduced (automatic?) and exposed.  I have been thinking about this in terms of the body. The body (and the face, in particular), as the site from which we live and give, our home, hidden in privacy, that we welcome others into, open now for all day public viewing.  Lights on, face on, show on, but without speaking.  How we (guilty as charge) can reduce the living interhuman connection to the rigid plasticity of a face that has stopped dialogue. 

For Levinas, the face reveals the hidden other to us via language.  But the selfie presents us with a static image without language.  As such it is more of an economic transaction rather than an ethical exchange.  Crafted, altered, changed, then shared, the communication offered is what I want you to know about me via my image.  The response received is a click, or a comment.  Rather than opening ourselves up to give and receive of the hidden in us, paradoxically all is exposed and nothing is really said. 

Perhaps this is just a hypothetical question being posed about the communication of ethical encounter.  The image of the face in the form of the selfie, like past discussions on the body, can challenge how we see the other person.  How we share of ourselves.  Whether we can maintain the privacy of our separate self.  What the selfie actually communicates to others, and whether this reduces ethically significant communication to economic-like transactions. 

Maybe it doesn’t even matter, and it’s just fun.  Maybe it is another critique of a society that presents opinion without engaging in dialogue, and reduces exchange to knowledge about something, rather than revelation beyond what I can know without the others’ help.  But it does make me wonder: What does the selfie give to the other? What kind of exchange is happening, and is it even something we need to care about?

Anixety in the body again.  How many views? Just like my image, love it, or leave a comment and I’ll know that what I posted was important.  It will be the way I give of my living. The giving of my living as presented in my image for you. 

Anna Westin (St. Mary's University Twickenham) is a visiting lecturer and currently working on a PhD in the existential phenomenology of addiction. She has research interests in environmental sustainability, international development, political philosophy, existentialism, phenomenology, personal identity and bioethics, and has previously published articles on human rights and ethics. 


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