username: narcissus

luiza brenner
Apr 24, 2017 · 7 min read
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Caravaggio — Narcissus, 1597–1599

“Why video has attracted a growing set of practitioners and collectors?” After a few pages discussing the notions of narcissism, video art, and its relations to psychology in the essay “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” Rosalind Krauss presents this question — but leave the answer open to being discussed in a future moment. Borrowing a Krauss insight and making it a starting point, the aim of this essay is to address the problem of narcissism within the wider context of our culture.

Victor Burgin’s “Possessive, Pensive and Possessed; Susanne Gaensheimer’s “Moments in Time”; Laura Mulvey’s “Stillness in the Moving Image: Ways of Visualizing Time and its Passing”; and, as said, Rosalind Krauss’s “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism” will be used as foundations to the development of the main arguments in this text.

Narcissus, in Greek mythology, was a man distinguished for his beauty. To make a long story, short: He fell in love with his reflection in the waters of a river and drowned trying to reach the object of his adoration (himself). Some believe that the story may have derived from the ancient Greek superstition that it was unlucky or even fatal to see one’s reflection.

The French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan, in The Language of the Self, uses the example of a therapy session to paint a picture of narcissism by characterizing the space of the therapeutic transaction as an extraordinary void created by the silence of the analyst. Into this void, the patient projects the monolog of his recitation, which Lacan calls “the monumental construct of his narcissism.”

“(…) In this labor which he [the patient] undertakes to reconstruct his construct for another, he finds again the fundamental alienation which made hum construct it like another one, and which has always destined it to be stripped from him by another.”

And, further:

“I would say that the analysis consists precisely in distinguishing the person lying on the analyst’s couch from the person who is speaking. With the person listening [the analyst], that makes three persons present in the analytical situation, among whom it is the rule that the question… be put: Where is the moi of the subject?”

To bring the concept of narcissism to a more contemporary context, we can draw a parallel to Krauss ideas. In “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” written in 1976, while questioning the sudden interest of practitioners and collectors in video art, Rosalind Krauss assesses the effects that mass media had in the art world, in general:

In the last fifteen years [the 1960s] the art world has been deeply and disastrously affected by its relation to mass media. That an artist’s work be published, reproduced and disseminated through the media has become, for the generation that has matured in the course of the last decade, virtually the only means of verifying its existence as art. The demand for instant replay in the media finds its obvious correlative in an aesthetic mode by which the self is created through the electronic device of feedback.

Today, we may say that in the last fifteen years (the 2000s) the art — and the whole — the world has been profoundly and disastrously affected by its relation to social media. Mass media surely had its effects in our society (as we see in Krauss — and hundreds of other readings) but today we can say that the ‘new’ phenomenon of the so-called social media is the current plague.

In “Possessive, Pensive and Possessed,” Victor Burgin writes:

“a ‘film’ may be encountered through posters, blurbs, and other advertisements, such as trailers and television clips; it may be encountered through newspaper reviews, reference work synopses and theoretical articles (with their ‘film-strip’ assemblages of still images); through production photographs, frame enlargements, memorabilia, and so on. Collecting such metonymic fragments in memory, we may come to feel familiar with a film we have not actually seen. Clearly this ‘film’ — a heterogeneous psychical object, constructed from image scraps scattered in space and time — is a very different object from that encountered in the context of ‘film studies”

This excerpt portraits a perfect example to a very contemporary theory that serves as a background to our discussion. Proposed by Henry Jenkins, the Media Convergence theory, in summation, says that “we see a movement to the world where every story, every brand, every sound, every image, every relationship plays itself off across the maximum number of media channels. The information system is converged, integrated, so we carry pieces of media with us all through the system”.

Jenkins also argues that everyone is potentially a producer of media — as well as a consumer of media. In that sense, we see a shift in the production of content. Before, the public agenda was set by the mass media (television, newspapers, radio networks, etc.). Now, with the emergence social media, everybody has the ‘authority’ (or autonomy) to create and publish their ideas. The once passive spectator, is now the artist, producer, director — all at the same time and a click-of-a-button distance.

A parallel with the notion of the pensive viewer can be drawn from Jenkins ideas. In “Stillness in the Moving Image: Ways of Visualizing Time and its Passing,” Laura Mulvey writes:

“All these inflections depend, above all, on the viewer’s new command over viewing technology and, most of all, the freedom given by the technology over the pace and order of a film. New technologies allow the spectator time to stop, look and think. (…) The still image both makes the moment of registration comparatively visible and creates a new space of time for the ‘pensive’ spectator to reflect and experience the kind of reverie that Barthes had associated only with the photograph.”

And in his text, Burgin completes it:

“The arrival of the domestic video cassette recorder, and the distribution of industrially produced films on videotape put the material substrate of the narrative into the hands of the audience. The order of narrative could now be routinely countermanded. For example, control of the film using a VCR introduced such symptomatic freedoms as the repetition of a favorite sequence, or fixation upon an obsessional image.”

Although the two excerpts refer specifically to the medium of film, it is easy to see that the advent of technology had an impact on all aspects of our contemporary culture. Getting back to the social media phenomenon: It is ironic that these new technologies that have ‘social’ in their name creates deeply isolated individuals. They give a false sense of sociability — that seizes to leave the virtual world.

As nowadays we are constantly in camera/video surveillance all the time, we perform the role of the actor 24/7. The social mask is glued so tight to our faces (the real ones and the facebook ones) that it is almost impossible to discern, in a Lacanian perspective, who is the person talking and the real person. Our ‘social’ persona has to be prettier, cuter, smarter, cooler than our true selves. We cover up in makeup, or photo-edit our image with all sorts of ‘filters’ to portray a better-looking image that often doesn’t match reality. With camera in our cell phones and the ‘share’ button, the concept of narcissism just blew up right in our faces. The whole‘hype’ concept of ‘selfie’ itself is a good example of it. If you’re blessed enough not to know what a selfie is,

A selfie is a type of self-portrait photograph, typically taken with a hand-held digital camera or camera phone. Selfies are often associated with social networking, like Instagram. They are often casual, are typically taken either with a camera held at arm’s length or in a mirror and typically include either only the photographer or the photographer and as many people as can be in focus, which is more commonly known as a ‘group selfie.’

The Wikipedia page (not surprisingly, Wikipedia is the only place — for now — that we can find a ‘serious’ definition of a selfie) is still not updated enough with the new ‘trends’ in the selfie world. Hollywood stars are posting pictures of themselves with the hashtag #nomakeupselfie to raise awareness to cancer (how the fact that those women without makeup relate in any way to cancer patients are beyond any sense, but still) and, in just 48 hours, upraised over £2m for Cancer Research UK.

While, in on hand, selfies apparently have the power to cure (or at least attempt to) cancer, they have other sorts of collateral damages. Not just ‘selfies’ itself, but the whole range of pictures and posts shared online to contribute to an overall effect of low self-esteem and envy. When typing “facebook causes” on a Google search, the first results:

[facebook causes depression / anxiety / relationship problems]

Exploring the ‘depression’ related articles, we find dozens of studies from all-over-the-world universities and, in the great majority, the results are more or less the same:

“On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection,” said U-M social psychologist Ethan Kross, lead author of the article and a faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research. “But rather than enhance well-being, we found that Facebook use predicts the opposite result — it undermines it.”

The same people that are promoting the fake-social-persona culture are left feeling miserable when looking at other people profiles. In Freudian psychiatry and psychoanalysis, the term narcissism denotes ‘an excessive degree of self-esteem or self-involvement, a condition that is usually a form of emotional immaturity.

Today, the apparently narcissistic-over-sharers on social medias are getting backfired. As they pretend to have ‘an excessive degree of self-esteem,’ their emotional immaturity makes them all the more vulnerable to the ‘side effects’ of social media. In our modern mythology, narcissuses are daily drowning in virtual mirrors that reflect nothing but their false selves.


Encyclopedia Britannica —, consulted on 4/6/14. Web.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York UP, 2006. Print.

Michigan University Research

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