Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Groove Book Report- Selfie - Will Storr

We are supposed to be slim, prosperous, happy, extroverted and popular. This is our culture’s image of the perfect self. We see this person everywhere: in advertising, in the press, all over social media. We’re told that to be this person you just have to follow your dreams, that our potential is limitless, that we are the source of our own success.

But this model of the perfect self can be extremely dangerous. People are suffering under the torture of this impossible fantasy. Unprecedented social pressure is leading to increases in depression and suicide. Where does this ideal come from? Why is it so powerful? Is there any way to break its spell?

To answer these questions, Selfie by Will Storr takes us from the shores of Ancient Greece, through the Christian Middle Ages, to the self-esteem evangelists of 1980s California, the rise of narcissism and the selfie generation, and right up to the era of hyper-individualistic neoliberalism in which we live now.

It tells the extraordinary story of the person we all know so intimately – our self.



Infatuated with his own reflection in a pool, Narcissus pined away and died of self-love.  Our friend Freud, always vigilant about self obsession  diagnosed this as a perversion.  Or more aptly he saw it as a neurotic choice of sterile solitude.  The warning was futile. According to Author Will Storr, it was the beginning of the 'me' generation - the obsession of 'self'.  It's nothing new.  Anyone who's had small children will know all about this phase of life.  But look at it like this.  You can't know about the world until you learn about yourself.  And, extrapolating out, everything you do is retaliative to you, or more accurately, yourself because despite a 1000 self-help manuals we, as humans are hardwired to take everything in through two eyes (or ears, or touch) and those belong to us.  Ourselves.

So through history human kind had always pointed out the folly of self.  But with technology, especially cameras, hand held devices and the always-on of social media the pool has got bigger.  The iPhone has created the platform for mechanized narcissism.  Once a gadget meant to facilitate communication with others it has, instead  led the most addicted users to behave like long-lost Kardashians, grinning away  as they document their unexceptional everyday events.  Facebook, Instagram and twitter are the current platforms for their tedious and obsessive postings of cats, boring lunches and museum visits.  Ok, we all d this from time to time.  But how did we become so ensnared?  

In his book, Storr takes the 'phenomenon' apart and to task.  This is wild-side anthropology and psychology with out a safety net. Or, sometimes without an ethical backbone.  He interviews a young woman who has hundreds of thousands of selfies stored on memory cards, hard drive and in the iCloud. She frequently works overtime to edit and filter her daily quota of new images so that she can update her social media channels. Sure, the unexamined life may not be worth living, but do all lives matter once they live in the public realm?  A place like facebook?  Actually, aren't they already living, as they walk the streets?  Do they deserve to be examined in such redundant detail? If we do this online, do we do it with such vigor in the street.  After all we pass judgement (i.e. swipe right) on every person that passes us in the street: too fat, thing, tall, ugly, bad hair, not enough, nice smile, et,etc, etc.  Only now we have it all on one page, like a book - like a children's book.  Big pictures.  Bold captions.  And the occasional mysterious slur.  In this case Storr’s interviewee confessed that it's not the online 'fame' that brought her alive.  No, indeed.  She says she feels most alive when slashing her flesh with a razor blade.  Storr was trying to create some kind of picture of narcissistic addiction here.  But instead what I saw was a person with mental health issues and a real need for quality care.  I felt that while he had valid points, he was, himself, exploiting her predicament, to raise a point.  She was a number to him.  Ironic, given that she'd spent so much effort trying to express her personality and to be unique.

Self-obsession, Storr argues is a reflex of self-dissatisfaction or self-dislike, a symptom of “social perfectionism” that pushes some of its victims towards suicide.  He introduces a book with a cliche case of a woman who attempts suicide because she can't be the perfect wife or mother, like she'd planned to be.  His lack of empathy for the issues his subject is going through is astounding.  All he can see is her reaction to her own failings to live up to the model in her head.  He doesn't spend much time considering the influences that helped shape that model or her own mechanisms to embrace change.  I suspect that his subject would have behaved this way, no matter what the drivers -  whether social media or Jane Austin was behind the motivation.

His 'survey' traverses centuries, challenging our so-called 'progress' to show how we reached this psychic dead end. Selfie begins in the tribal wilderness of an urban jungle. Here, he's encountering a contemporary version of the alpha chimps that roared and brawled their way to dominance in the jungle.  In this case a bouncer and gangland enforcer, and learns about how we can be so easily shaped by peer pressure and the desire for acceptance.  No matter how that's achieved.

Next is classical Greece - “the long story of the human” begins here. Aristotle separated the individual from the rest of nature.  And as a consequence, the idealized the 'self' became a living work of art.

Christianity then endowed the Greek body with a soul and forced it to chasten the sinful flesh.  The Romans, on the other hand celebrated the flesh and possibly created pornography in the process.   And so, Storr, conscientiously works his way through the eras.  He even learns about the process by suffering a week of medieval self-mortification in a dank Scottish monastery.

And then, like a movie that's run out of plot lines, we jump to modern day California.  On that last frontier, western individualism arrives at its most extreme and absurd development: the old-fashioned idea of what novelists call 'character'.   This, in effect is the sober amalgam of virtues and defects.  In legal terms, its a wish list of acceptable or unacceptable behaviors. A man or woman is often accepted due to good character.  Society determines what that list should look like.  For instance earnest, honest, virtuous, reliable, etc.  Or unworthy, viscous, ruthless, ambitious, loathsome, untrustworthy.  Our character is a blueprint or template overlayed onto the individual.   In olden times it was a reputational calling card.   But with the advent of Hollywood and fame it's become a glitzy notion success.  It's the driver behind of personality, projected in all those self-made, self-congratulating iPhone images. Simply put, why do something to earn fame when you can be photographed or blog like the famous.  And there are many examples where complete nobodies have become famous for projecting their fame, despite a lack or evidence of talent or skill.

Whilst in California, he tries on the self-awareness cult of therapy for size.  Through various hippie mumbo-jumbo practices, the state has developed the world's largest industry of alternative self-awareness therapy practices.  Storr has a go.  He signs on for a course of “humanistic alternative education” in a yurt on a cliff beside the ocean at Big Sur.  He's ordered by a bossy therapist to shed his adult inhibitions and return to being the juvenile delinquent he once was.   The experience, as he reports it, is hilarious.  Therapy bull shit in elephant sized droppings he concludes.

Storr finishes in Silicon Valley, where the current infliction of self-awareness was hatched.  It's a natural location, given how many slick entrepreneurs have transformed the computer from a bureaucratic machine into a plaything for the self. Promoters babble about “the Synthetic Age”, predicting that we will soon evolve into a post-human species, although not everyone is ready for the future.  They stay silent on the realities that we'll all be replaced by their robot minions in the space of our lifetime.

Speaking of his time in Silicon Valley, Storr recalls a geeky genius with a scheme for biohacking our DNA.  Rehearsing to play God, he devised a means of synthesising probiotics to waft away vaginal odors.  He called his formula Sweet Peach, and sold it as a means of “personal empowerment”.  Not surprisingly, angry feminists turned on him, unready to have their private parts 'refreshed'.  More like sanitized.  They argued that by doing this the product removed yet another human quality.  It was also yet another way of creating self awareness and then turning what is a perfectly natural function into something evil.  Women the world over have already been 'shamed' by the stigma of using feminine hygiene products and breastfeeding in public.  This was the last straw, apparently.  The story does not end well for the product's inventor.  He hanged himself in his lab.

You will find this sentence as absurd as it is true.  But Selfie is surely as much autobiographical as it is a woolly cultural history.   It transpires that Storr was prompted to write this book by a pile of  personal problems - all leftovers from a troubled adolescence combined with a middle-aged body revulsion.  Mostly self inflicted by hi-cal beer and pizza.  To that I can only say - get off the couch buddy and deal with your middle age spread the way the rest of us do it.  By moaning all the way to the gym and snorting up quinoa and wheatgerm and every other diet fad by the bowlful!

True, he finds no remedy for his self-dislike, instead concluding that the 'self' is a false divinity. Worshipping  the 'self' at the peril of more profound truths, he claims.  Put another way.  There's no 'I' in 'team!.  But we already knew that.  “We’re connected,” he writes, “we’re a highly social species”.  So, why have we eveolved into these units that have become so insular?  Whay are we cocconed in our own self importance?  Why are we so disconnected in a 24 hour digital world that always on? I think Narcissus died because he forgot he was human, too.  that he belonged to the human family.

Now, if like me you've come on Storr's journey and a nay-saying and laughing and tsk-tsking at all the right points, then you'll agree.  The 'Self' in the modern sense is a destructive cannon of self loathing and must be diluted.  That can only happen with humility and sharing, right.  we teach this to our children and in society all laws are based on the common good.  Yet This all-seeing book has failed to see the cult of Trump.  As if  this exception to the laws of humanity can exist in some Asimovian parallel universe.  Trump’s electoral success, Storr mentions only in passing.  He ignores the twitter-king, brushing off his blip on history as “a sumptuously narcissistic self-publicist” with a liking for Ayn Rand’s neofascist fiction.  If only!  Be that as it may jolly orange ogre with the golden quiff still merits closer inspection because Trump personifies the psychological and moral malady that Selfie investigates.  I suspect Storr is already collecting material for his second book.  Watch out.  That one could thicker than a phone book!


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One of the experts consulted by Storr refers to a “dark power… immensely powerful and concerned solely with pursuing its own interests at the expense of everyone else in the world”. That quote is a generalised account of the ego; scarily, it also serves as a description of Trump, a puffed-up primate with a nuclear arsenal at his disposal. Storr even indirectly explains Trump’s chronic mendacity: at our most crassly selfish, we act on irrational urges or fits of pique that we – or brown-nosed apologists such as Sean Sphincter – try to justify after the event by “confabulating”, inventing pretexts for our behaviour that are convenient but patently phoney.

A therapeutic industry caters to the self-esteem or self-delusion of such egomaniacs; it cossets them, Storr suggests, because their competitive frenzy masks an inner hollowness, a noisy “denial of their own weaknesses or incompetences”. The president’s current state of flailing mayhem could not be more pithily summed up. Trump is obsessed with winning: the worst he can say about jihadis is to insult them as “losers”, even when they have catastrophically succeeded in slaughtering the innocent.

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Politics, for Trump, exemplifies what Storr rather awkwardly calls “the gamification of human life”. He viewed the presidential campaign as a game show and, after the wonky arithmetic of the electoral college awarded him the prize, assumed that he could look forward to eight years of victory laps and ego-boosting pep rallies, punctuated by recuperative spells watching alt-right rants on his panoramic TV screen. He didn’t expect to be exposed to scorn rather than acclaim. Still less did he reckon on having to do an arduous and uniquely complicated job. His former life, he now complains, was easier and more enjoyable: as a celebrity, his sole obligation was self-display.

It remains to be seen whether the superego, policing quaint old-fashioned concerns such as ethics and honesty, will manage to restrain this monster. Surely Trump’s permatan isn’t armour-plated? On the evidence of Selfie, the world is suffering from a bad case of the DTs and we urgently need detoxing.

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