Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.94.5: THE NARCISSISTIC SOCIETY

© 2015, UrbisMedia, Narcissus, by Caravaggio (ca., 1594)

© 2015, UrbisMedia, Narcissus, by Caravaggio (ca., 1594)

There was a time when people went through life ever knowing what they looked like. Imagine that (well, you would have to, but probably couldn’t).  That’s why Narcissus had to see himself reflected in a pool of water.  Narcissus was a guy from Greek mythology who fell in love with his own image reflected from the surface of the water (sort of like Brian Williams), but not knowing it was himself.  He ends up drowning in one version of the story, but Ovid has him committing suicide.  Whatever, falling in love with oneself is to be in a dead-end relationship.

I was born in the age of the Kodak Brownie camera that gave us put-of-exposure “snapshots” that had to be sent back to Kodak for developing.  Film and processing was relative expensive and it took time, so you had to be a little judicious about expending the small number of exposures.  We also used to go to those photo kiosks—usually with your girlfriend or boyfriend—and for a buck or so get a string of goofy faces made at the camera, and maybe ne stealing a kiss.* Magically, in a few minutes they emerged from a slot from in  the side of the kiosk.

 The contrast with this is of a young woman I saw the other day who took six photos of a pastry in a café with her smart phone. She was not old enough to remember a time when photographs were produced by a chemical rather than an electronic process And when spending six exposures on a pastry would’ve been considered insane.

 But more relevant to my theme is when the same young lady and her friend at the outdoor table at the same café squeeze their heads together so that she could use the same digital camera in her phone produce several “selfies,”  something that would have been difficult, if not impossible, with a Brownie camera (although somewhat easier with a tripod, timer delay and autofocus camera).  But it was the digital camera, in a phone, computer, or other device, that brought into being the term “selfie.”

We live in an age when anybody and everybody can be a performer. It is the age of American Idol, America’s Got Talent, when anybody might get “recognized” and get a multi-million dollar contract or a chance to be Dancing With the Stars, until their star fades in the flash of the next new thing to be idolized in a society in which an insistent and instant novelty is demanded and feeds off the desire for fame.  The important thing is that you have to let the world know that you are there.

Didn’t make it past the gushy panel of “judges” on one of these shows?  (Oh, they told you that you don’t have enough talent to wash their car?) Well, don’t give up because fame might await you on reality television. How about trying out for Survivor, or Naked and Afraid. (That’s the secret of reality TV—and endless supply of egos you don’t have to pay in anything but exposure.)   The whole point of Survivor is to be a self-centered, morally-compromised, greedy asshole and be willing to eat bugs to succeed at it.  Going it one better, despite the fact that surviving in a jungle or on a desert island does not necessarily require total absence of clothing, to have any redeeming entertainment value, Naked and Afraid does.  The genitalia might be blurred out, but our imaginations are set to wondering at the fact that they aren’t blurred out to the couples seeking fame by reducing themselves to unwashed squabbling hominids who crap in the woods.

For the less adventurous (or desperate) there is always that special physiological characteristic or trait that can be parlayed into a form of celebrity.  All one needs is an ass to match your ego and you just might be dumb enough to be another Kim Kardashian; celebrity is possible with a complete lack of discernable talent (unless you count taking endless selfies of your own derriere as talent).  Lacking a freakish booty a young woman might try for one of the several Real Housewives of Wherever and squabble over inanities and compete for camera angles.  Full beards, missing teeth, single digit IQs—and did I mention white skin?—and you guys can get in the fame game on Duck Dynasty or any of the dozen or so Alaskan adventure or gator hunting shows to prove that we Americans haven’t the courage to be out in the dangerous wilderness, especially if there is a film crew close by

However, there is only a certain number of crappy cable channels and a limited amount of broadcast time. But fear not, there’s plenty of bandwidth, server space and the Cloud.  And Facebook and its ilk, where you can post as many selfies as you like of your boobs, your junk or your tattoos.  People of a certain celebrity—congressmen, royalty, even Vladimir Putin, do it—why not you. There’s YouTube, where post that video of you and your wretched garage band, or blathering your boring opinions about some sports star, or Kim’s you-know-what.  Heck, if you are completely bereft of inhibition and self-respect you can even have your own live porn cam and promote real eye-to-crotch contact in real time for real money. Perhaps at the lowest rung of the ladder of narcissism one might lurk for a chance, maybe alongside the red carpet at the Oscars or the Grammys to get caught in a photo beside or behind a real celebrity, to feel the warmth of photoflash, the illusion that it was meant for you, too.

And then, as it certainly must have for Narcissus, a breeze ripples the surface of life’s pond and self love’s evanescence.

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© 2015, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 4.8.2015)

*A former high school classmate of mine told me that he had a summer job at the Kodak processing facility In a department that cold developed pictures that were considered pornographic and  we’re not allowed to be returned to their subjects through the males and had to be picked up in person.

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