A French Intellectual’s Defense Of The "Subversive" Selfie

French academic André Gunthert asserts that the selfie is not narcissistic folly at all, but rather represents a new kind of revolution that threatens elite control of society.

Not so narcissistic after all?
Not so narcissistic after all?
Aurélien Viers

PARIS â€" André Gunthert, the Visual History chair at the French School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, is the first to have turned the digital image into a bonafide object of academic study.

Now, with the emergence of social networks, digital images have multiplied and been democratized, and the leftist researcher offers a radical new inquiry into the phenomenon. "Photography became a niche practice within a wider universe, the one of electronic communication," Gunthert writes in his new book The Shared Image.

A "selfie," or self-portrait taken with a smartphone, is sometimes viewed with contempt from society's top rungs. Intended to be shared, often to get people to laugh and react, this form of expression is nevertheless significant.

In fact, Gunthert says, the selfie phenomenon represents a revolution "unlike anything we've seen for centuries." They are not just iconographic, but also sociological â€" and even political. Selfie detractors simply don't have a full understanding, he says.

Not new

"We could think that the selfie is the product of an innovative shot using new technology, the smartphone," he says. "But this practice existed long before digital images."

For instance, in the 1991 movie Thelma & Louise the two female characters take a picture of themselves before embarking on their road trip. They don't need anyone to take their picture â€" especially not a man. The selfie allows them to express their freedom, their independence.

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis's selfie in Ridley Scott's "Thelma & Louise" â€" Source: Pathé Entertainment/MGM

This form of expression lived in obscurity before the modern age of the smartphone, without being recognized as a genre in its own right. But it has gained traction now, as even the Oxford Dictionaries' editors named "selfie" the 2013 word of the year.

Hyper contextualization

When Thelma and Louise take a picture of themselves with a Polaroid, they create the memory of a precise moment. "This is not a simple self-portrait," Gunthert says. "This is a contextualization in space and time. Director Ridley Scott has made it a symbol: We can see this picture again at the tragic end of the movie."

The selfie transposes a situation into a visual form. It shows a reinterpretation of reality, he asserts.

The selfie is the answer to the disappearance of context in digital media (such as facial expressions, or the emotion in someone's voice). Snapping a selfie thus becomes a form of hyper contextualization. "We take a picture to transmit our location ("I just arrived at the airport") or to check our appearance (""Look at my new haircut")," Gunthert says.

A form of respect

Tourists who take pictures of themselves in front the Eiffel Tower value something as old as tourism: sharing the experience of a monument or a site, Gunthert says.

Photo: Gautier Poupeau

"When we see them all reproducing the same movement, it's negatively perceived," he says. "But when a literature professor asks his entire class to read Emile Zola's Germinal, no one is surprised! Germinal is a cultural monument that needs to be shared."

Seeing the Eiffel Tower is the same thing, he argues. "It's experiencing individually a cultural reference. Taking a selfie in front of a historical building is a really good way to show appreciation."

Likewise, when tourists take pictures of themselves in front of the Mona Lisa, it's a sign of interest and respect. "The image is precious for them," he says. "They will keep it, show it to their friends and tell them, "Look, I’ve seen the Mona Lisa.""

It's about conversation, not the image

Gunthert argues that the image is simply a vehicle for conversation. "Social networks are not conversations about pictures but conversations with pictures," he says. "The connected picture doesn't exist without a recipient. We don't take selfies for ourselves, but for others."

Snapchat, an application that's very popular with teenagers, clearly illustrates this concept. "On Snapchat, we don't take pictures of ourselves to appear at our best," Gunthert says. "We play with our image, we highlight it, we tarnish it and, finally, we let it vanish after a few minutes, 24 hours at the most."

On Instagram, in a rather classic way, we produce images, he says. By contrast, we start a conversation on Snapchat by obfuscating our own image. It's the first application that doesn't respect the image. "In fact, on Snapchat, we schedule the image's destruction," he says. "It's probably the height of subversion, the ultimate desacralization of the image. It's not designed to be beautiful but to make people talk. And laugh."

Selfies aren't narcissistic

Narcissism is related to psychiatry, Gunthert argues. Americans consider it to be a pathological disorder.

If we think of the selfie as something narcissistic, "We totally miss its social and sociological dimension," Gunthert says. "For me, selfies express an evolution of social norm. Make no mistake: The selfie is a class practice."

Bill Nye, Barack Obama and Neil deGrasse Tyson in Feb. 2014 â€" Photo: Pete Souza

It represents a social evolution that has nothing to do with psychiatry, he insists. Selfies are made to be shared. "We always send it to someone, never to ourselves. To do that, a mirror is enough."

Selfies have of course become omnipresent in the context of intimate texting conversations, also known as sexting. "We address these images to someone, through private messages, without the outside world noticing it," says Gunthert. "This is not a narcissistic manifestation."

Psychologist Jean M. Twenge, author of Generation Me, described a narcissistic tsunami that's submerging the world, a theory the media happily relayed. "But a study published in 2008 in Psychological Science showed that young people haven't truly changed their behavior these last 30 years," Gunthert says.

Selfies aren't ugly

When professionals take photos, it's normal for them to master them and make them perfect. By contrast, selfies exude an intentional do-it-yourself feel. The presence of flaws are characteristic to the genre.

"Young stars like Rihanna take great authentic selfies on Instagram," Gunthert says. "The pictures are often low quality, poorly lit, badly framed. But these photos tell a story to her fans. They say: Here I am when I get up, what you see is my intimacy. This doesn't stop her from making the front cover of Vogue with a perfect image. Official pictures will live on."

The evolution of image tells the evolution of society, he says. Until recently, only artists had a right to disrupt norms.

"Marcel Duchamp, who distorted everyday objects to make art, was very subversive. But that was Duchamp. In 1910, the general public could do nothing but admire the work presented," Gunthert says.

Today, everyone can distort works, publishing it all online. "What Duchamp did, now every teenager can," he says.

Shaking up the elite

Those most annoyed by this genre of expression are "well-off" people living in a "protected world," Gunthert says.

For instance, when a young woman asked Prince Harry to pose with her for a photo during a trip in Australia, he answered: "No, I hate selfies. Seriously, you need to get out of it. I know you're young, but selfies are bad." He then turned around and urged her to take a "normal" photograph of him.

"I completely understand Prince Harry," the researcher says. "He thinks, "I don't share the limelight. I am the prince, so I have the right to be on the stage. You have the right to watch me.""

The same reaction could be found during the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, when director Thierry Frémaux described selfies as “ugly, vulgar, ridiculous and grotesque” and tried to forbid the stars to take them on the red carpet â€" in vain. Actress Catherine Deneuve thought the same, saying that selfies "trivialize everything."

"In Cannes, before the selfie dispute, we saw the star surrounded by a swarm of professional photographers," Gunthert says. "A year later, everything had changed: Selfies impose a new proximity with the public."

We now see big stars in the middle of their audiences, Gunthert says. "This is this proximity that Prince Harry avoids. With the selfie, we, the nobodies, have entered the image."

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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