In the cab, I hold my phone at an angle, so I see myself mirrored against the sky behind me, I widen my eyes, I part my lips. I take the photo. It is a basic selfie. A selfie to document my look. A selfie as the product of feminine labor: the mascara wand carefully hovered to my lashes, the messy twists of a curling iron. A selfie to send to someone you sext with.
Next to me Marie Calloway, the author, is fishing through her purse. We are late to her reading at St. Marks bookshop, and she forgot the Xanax, and so we have the cab turn around.
I shift in my seat to talk to Ann Hirsch, the performance artist.
“Courtney Stodden has taken ‘performance artist’ off her Twitter bio,” I say, frowning.
Ann has never seen Courtney Stodden’s ‘performance art’ YouTube videos, so I tell her about my favorite one which stars Courtland, an alter-ego with a low voice and studded dog collar.
“Courtney says her boobs are real. Courtney says her hair is real. She isn’t real, that’s not real,” says a visibly inebriated Courtney-as-Courtland, black wig falling askew.
Ann sees the appeal, she says.
We arrive to a packed St. Marks twenty minutes late. Marie and I go to the bathroom to take mirror-photos. In part, this is the selfie as a nervous tic, I am to introduce Marie who will read new work and we are anxious. Seeing ourselves as our mirror selves, making mirror face, (as we always do) is a comfort.
Photos run on nostalgia. And this is a selfie to impress a moment to memory. We want to remember this, imparting the photo with cosmic importance… something those washed out Instagram filters promise to replicate in their immediate ‘vintage’. It is a photo to add to a series of shots together; a document of our connectedness.
And it somehow feels important that we took it ourselves. Susan Sontag wrote that to photograph people is to violate them, seeing them never as they see themselves; Amanda Bynes tweeted that she would prefer if press only used her selfies.
In the selfie, Marie wears a red dress and I wear a white suit; dressed plainly, boldly like twin Marina Abramovics, an artist who, I have heard, does not identify as a feminist, but whose personal manifesto includes:
– An artist should look deep inside themselves for inspiration
– The deeper they look inside themselves, the more universal they become
– The artist is universe
– The artist is universe
– The artist is universe,
There is no static ‘self’, but only a fluid you in one moment before it flows to the next. A you in constant shift: Fingernails, skin cells, soles of your shoes wearing out; walking in the sun one moment and then into the next where the clouds shift, making the sky grow dim and your heart feel damp.
In New York City, walking is constant, and it is a forced meditation. Ideally, thoughts dissolve with each step but it is more likely you turn the same one over and over obsessively aware of a dull pang, a need to continually check your phone.
I bring a camera while I walk to stay occupied and ‘in the moment’. At first I took photos of weird things in shop windows, but began only taking them of my own reflection, half visible in the glass. A selfie of the self disappearing into the city?
I upload the photos to Instagram, where they are quickly lost in the digital stream. But what you put on the Internet is forever, they say, hinting at some idea of the state watching you… and leaving out the part that it’s mostly companies who track your history, to try to sell you things.
After Marie’s reading, we sit in a lounge with soft lighting, glasses of prosecco at our sides.
Tao Lin comes to the party, and I ask him about another writer who he says wanted to critique Marie’s book when they hung out. Marie comes over with a friend who drops white oblong pills into our palms. “It’s ecstasy,” he says.
“This is ecstasy?” I say, looking at the pharmaceutical capsule with its vertical divider imprints.
Writers from the ‘alt lit’ scene move in and out of the bar. ‘Alt lit’ to me feels like a living thing, an ecosystem of poems “in the steam,” lost to those not online, and imparting the work with an anxious quality, writing expulsed from the body and fitted into character limits.
I talk excitedly with the writer Megan Boyle, imagining a technology in which we could take notes with our minds. We imagine touch screens in the air, bubbles surrounding each of us with our own Internet worlds; bubbles we could connect and invite each other into.
Later, Marie and I are outside of the bar; the night is warm and full of bodies moving fluidly through the street.
We talk about people who write disparagingly about the selfie. How when people write about social media, it’s often with a head shaking at ‘kids today’, with the idea that social media is making us narcissists, something that makes Marie and I laugh.
“It is an aggression toward girls, the anti-selfie thing. It is only young women we see as narcissists,” I say, taking the lighter from Marie, a cigarette dangled in my mouth.
“I feel like the anxiety over women like Molly Soda or Cat Marnell, the idea that they are ‘self-exploiting’, it disregards any sense of agency or awareness that they have,” Marie says, eyebrows steady, cigarette waving.
I tell Marie I read an essay that in part argued that selfies cannot be creative because they are a capitalistic tool, they are about consumption; about performing (and purchasing) gender.
On the street, a group of men pass two women. The men swivel their heads, and start shouting at the girls in a babble I recognize as a mimicking of South Park’s Kim Jong-il character. It feels especially aggressive, and after they pass I realize the women are Asian.
Marie shares a second cigarette. We take long drags and talk about the French marxist-collective, Tiqquin’s Theory of the Young-Girl, which describes the “Young-Girl” as a gender-less, age-less concept and as capitalism’s ideal consumer.
It includes sentiments like: “The most extreme banality of the Young-Girl is to take her/himself for an original.”
“But I feel like with Molly or Cat, you know, there is a radical thing here,” I say, half-watching a group of girls across the street with long hair and coordinating skirts and heels.
“It seems culture does not like women realistically rendering their own messiness, their own fraught engagement with patriarchy or capitalism…”
One of the girls across the street has decided to pee between cars, and the others crowd around her forming a protective fence. I watch and find myself grinning.
But something is still nagging me. It is that Tiqquin book. Why are women always the image of freedom through consumption anyway?
Why are ‘technological gadgets’ seen as more serious than fashion?
I am in bed at 5 pm, with my laptop to my chin in a state of anxious flitting. From Twitter to Facebook, Tumblr to Instagram. A state of loneliness, of writer’s block. I self-sooth with social media, scratching an itch that only makes it worse.
I knock a glass off my mirrored bedside table, spattering water against my reflection like rain-drops. I take a photo of my reflection instead of cleaning it up, my face make-up less and worried. It is an ‘ugly selfie,’ a selfie with many purposes, one of which is to document vulnerability, emotional states.
I chat on Facebook with Marie, who is alone in her apartment and trying not to read the myriad of critiques about her book. At Slate, someone writes that she and her female writer friends wish that Marie didn’t exist. It will be lost to the stream, I know, but there is a feeling of permanence.
I pick up a textbook about feminist art. I read about Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, a monumental triangular table that appears ‘lit from within’, holding twenty six ‘vulvar place settings’, each representing a woman from Western history. The Dinner Party was initially dismissed in the art world as ‘kitsch’ and ‘pornographic’, critics especially hating the Emily Dickinson plate with its lacey labial pink.
I go on Facebook and ask Marie if she knows this.
I send her a series of photos by Carol Schneemann called “Infinity Kisses”, selfies that explore intimacy between a woman and her cat.
I go back to Instagram, and feel a simultaneous validation and disappointment in the number of likes on the ugly selfie. A nude selfie taken in the same vein has five times the hearts. I worry about those hearts, which seem to refract and float from smartphones to neural passageway, striking some emotional chord inside. I worry there is a loss here.
“Miss u,” I say to Marie. “Miss u,” she says.
“Miss u,” she says a few moments later.
“Miss u,” I say, still feeling alone.
On Saturday I am supposed to go to ‘shut-in brunch’ at Marie’s, to celebrate her decision to become a shut-in, like Emily Dickinson. But then, I am not sure if I can make it, and someone cancels, then Marie cancels.
It is a creeping Summer day, the air fern-y with thunder. I stay on the sofa and decide to drink mushroom tea.
The mushrooms come on drowsy, and then with a sudden sense of internal spaciousness… as though you are The Dinner Party lit from within.
My apartment is splashed with patchwork quilts, with phosphorescent hearts and skulls and I drift into a state of forgetting about my phone, about any idea of a career, feeling like there is no ‘self’ but only a tiny fracture of a vast living mantlepiece.
Later, I am gliding through the apartment. I bring a dozen white burning candles into the bathroom for a mirror photo, which all feels imbued with great meaning. I am shocked at my image in the mirror which is still so young, looking at me with more candles reflected back.
Maybe this is the selfie as a way to combat death. Or to face it?
There is no solid self but there is the static selfie; and maybe in taking lots of them one can create some assemblage of a whole.
But I can only upload them one at a time, and I then keep sitting here hitting ‘refresh’, ‘refresh’, ‘refresh’, waiting for something.