Monday, April 27, 2015

Your selfie and your soul

The image is the reflection of the soul

In his Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein writes: “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” (Part II, iv) In that context Wittgenstein gives the word “soul” a religious meaning, discussing the view that “[r]eligion teaches that the soul can exist when the body has disintegrated.” (ibid.) However, I think that we can give “soul” also a wider meaning, for example we can read it as “mind” or as “inner life”. Seen that way the idea expressed in the first quotation is in agreement with recent discoveries in neuroscience, especially with the discovery of mirror neurons: It has become increasingly clear that there is a direct relation between the way I feel and the expression on my face. It’s even so that if I consciously produce a certain expression on my face, say one of sadness or one of joy, I tend to feel that way, as you’ll remember from my older blogs.
One of the consequences of this relation between inner feeling and facial expression is that I can read someone’s frame of mind on his or her face, although it can happen that the other tries to mislead me. For it is possible to suppress the “mechanism” and consciously make that the expression on the face is not in line with the inner state. However, as a rule, when I look at the face of another person, I can say something about that person’s inner feelings, about his or her inner life. Actually some people are better in it than others. Most of the time this – what I could call – “mind reading” is not a conscious activity. Often it happens that we don’t realize that we read the mind of another in front of us. This can make, for instance, that my feeling (and body!) automatically adapts itself to the feeling of the other. Who doesn’t know the phenomenon that we start to yawn, if we see someone yawning, or that we become sad (or just happy) when we see someone crying (or just see laughing)? It can even extend to a whole group: One person laughs and everybody present starts to laugh, too! Man is a social being to the core and more and more it becomes clear that the relation between inner feeling and outer expression is the basis of human sociality, or at least for a major part.
Now, I think, also the sense of making selfies becomes clear, and –this is essential – why they are shown to others. For what is more obvious than making a picture of yourself and presenting it to the world in these days where looks and appearance have become more important than ever and where showing yourself has also been better possible than ever? If direct face-to-face relations are absent, nowadays there is no better reflection of your self than a selfie, for it gives both an image of your outer self and of your inner self, since the former mirrors the latter. A selfie gives a complete image of your I, or rather of your positive I, for selfies are seldom taken when you feel bad. But as long as you feel good it is a reflection of your soul.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Self in the era of selfie


Today we live in the era of images. Originally, making images was a real craft left to professional painters. With the arrival of photography (and film, but here I’ll talk only about photography), at first not so much changed. Making images was still left to professionals – photographers who mainly worked in studios – and a few exceptional hobbyists. This changed with the production of the Brownie camera by Kodak in 1900 and the introduction of the Leica 35 mm camera 25 years later. Now everybody could become a photographer, and indeed, more and more people took a camera in their hands.
Nevertheless, photography did not yet become a mass phenomenon. It was still mainly done by professionals and – it’s true – a growing number of amateur photographers. Having a camera was still not widespread. Making photos was specialists and also many amateurs developed their own films and printed their photos. Many of them were organised in clubs. No longer photography was seen as an art but as a technique, despite famous names – to mention a few of my favourites – like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans or Ed van der Elsken. If it was seen as an art, it was considered “an art moyen” (Pierre Bourdieu – so a “middle-brow art”, or an “average art” or a “middle-class art”). This remained so till from the 1960s on photography got a new boost, when cameras became more advanced and got automatic functions. Especially the first completely electronic camera produced by Canon around 1980 has to be mentioned here. With the introduction of compact cameras and pocket cameras photography became a mass phenomenon. What also happened is that the status of photography went up again: since the 1990s good photography is again considered art.
However, all this is nothing compared with what happened by the introduction of the digital camera. The basic technology existed already since 1975. Initially the quality of digital cameras was poor. But from the 1990s on the technology became so much better that nowadays every camera sold is digital and cameras for film are difficult to get or it must be second-hand. The digital camera technology has beaten the analogue technology, although this doesn’t imply that always the artistic expression of digital cameras is to be preferred.
Digital photography has not only become a mass phenomenon. It has become more than that. Making images is so important now that we can say that present society has become an image society (what had been already foreseen in 1985 by Vilém Flusser in his Into the Universe of Technical Images). Today we don’t take photos only with special cameras, but everything which is digital can become a camera. Especially mobile telephones have this function. And, the other way round, also cameras tend to get functions that are not photographic. Sending photos directly from your camera to the Internet is only a first step.
All this has led to new ways of using photos and to new ways to present yourself. More and more photos are uploaded to special websites or to your Facebook pages, to Flickr, and so on. Also what people photograph has changed. Hobby photographers who make pictures of landscapes, townscapes and themes they find interesting still exist but most people make only two types of photos: Pictures of their holidays and places where they just have been, and pictures of themselves. With the latter I don’t mean portraits more or less in the classical sense, but pictures with the meaning “I am doing this”, “I am doing that”; “I am here; look me”, “I am there with x”. Or “Just me behind my PC”. And such photos, lots of photos, are immediately sent to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram and other special photo pages. Some people show there so many hardly different photos of themselves (often taken by themselves, so “selfies”),  apparently under the motto “it’s me”), that I wonder – both as a photographer and as a philosopher – what the meaning of all this is. Actually, I know it, of course. In the era of individualism and ego-expressivism, it’s a way of ego-showing. In an era in which appearance has become so important, just because images are everywhere, your image is what you are, so you show it. Media are everywhere so everywhere you can be seen, so use it and you’ll be seen. Inside and outside your network. Appearance = to be seen = to make to be seen. Or: I can be seen, so I will be seen, for what I am as a person is my image. My selfie is who I am. This is the new development; this is the new trend. Even more, it is a step to a new era, if we can believe Vilém Flusser.

On a certain social networking website my profile photo is a picture of my books study and I have many other photos there, too, but not one of myself. On the other hand, I have a rather comprehensive verbal description of my interests and doings. In my view, it gives a good impression of who I am, and I think that it is sufficient for starting a nice conversation. Nevertheless, often I receive comments like: “Why don’t you have a photo of yourself in your profile? Now I don’t know who you are”. As if it is not so that my verbal self-description says much about me and as if it is not so that all my photos there, especially the photo of my study, say much about what kind of person I am. Today you need to present a photo of your face for showing yourself, for only such a photo shows who you are, even if the head on the picture might be empty.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The body and the self (2)

It's me

When I saw someone yesterday and today I think that I see her again over there but I am not sure of it, I try to remember in detail how the woman I saw yesterday looked like and I compare her with the woman I see now, and then I draw my conclusion: She is the same person or she isn’t. However, when I can ask her “Is it possible that it were you whom I saw yesterday at the bus stop?”, I do not expect that she tries to bring up from her mind a physical description of a person at the bus stop yesterday and compares it with her appearance and then says: “Yes, it was me” or “No, it wasn’t me”; or otherwise that she compares my physical description of the person I saw yesterday with her own appearance. That would be weird. No, we expect that she says “yes” or “no” from what she remembers about what she did yesterday. So there seems to be a difference between a person’s identity from the third person’s perspective and from the first person’s perspective. Nevertheless this doesn’t imply that physical appearance isn’t important for someone’s identity from the first person’s perspective, for why else should people wear masks on certain occasions, use make-up or wear beautiful clothes? And, from the third person’s perspective, when a person has lost memory, isn’t it clear that this amnesia, even if it’s “only” partial, can have an enormous impact on that person’s personality?
Maybe that’s why so many persons find it important to publish photos showing the face on social networking websites like Facebook, supposing that such a photos show who they are.

Monday, April 06, 2015

The body and the self

The case of getting a new body is much discussed in philosophy but then in the form of a body or brain switch between two people. For the first time this has been done by John Locke (1632-1704), who analyzed the case of a prince getting the body of a cobbler. Since then the discussion has never stopped. It is mainly about the question: what determines the self? Basically there are two views. One is that it’s the body that makes up the self; the other is that the self is mental, be it in the “hard form” of the brain, be it the mind, or be it the memory. Sergio Canavero, who actually wants to perform a body transplant and whose ideas I have discussed in my last blog, apparently thinks that the self is mental (laid up in the brain or head). My standpoint is that it is mixed: the self is made up of bodily and mental characteristics. However, most philosophers think that the self is only mental.
Now I want to discuss a case that I’ll quote by heart, since I am too lazy to look up who presented it first. Maybe it was Bernard Williams, maybe it was someone else.
Let’s say that a doctor, who is an adherent of the mental self theory but who is also a famous body transplant surgeon, tells you that your body will gradually decay and that finally you’ll feel a lot of pain. You are shocked. But then he says: “I have a solution. I can give you a new body”. You become very happy. You just started to train for the marathon, and it is your great wish to run it within three hours. If your body wouldn’t decay, it would really be possible for you have the right physical constitution. So you agree, and the next week you are successfully operated.
You have a quick and complete recovery and the new body feels like your own. So you start to train for the marathon aagain. You are an experienced runner so in your mind you feel already the suppleness of your legs when running. But when you take up your training again, you are stiff. “Okay”, you think, “that’s normal after having been inactive for so long”. Your legs and body gradually improve but after a year they still do not feel fine and the way you remembered about your first body. Therefore you go to a sports doctor. She does a medical examination and the result is: With your present body you can run a marathon within five hours and four hours will be the absolute limit. You are very disappointed, for you are no longer the long distance runner you thought to be. The body transplant has been to no purpose. An illusion has been broken.
My story looks fantastic but it’s the life story of everybody who becomes older. When time goes on, the body starts to decay. It can happen after you have become thirty years old or after you have become forty or whenever, but sooner or later your body loses its youth. Your performance will go down in an absolute sense. For example, if you are a runner or cyclists, your average speed will go down. But in your mind you still feel young. Many people say so: That they feel young in their minds but that their bodies doen’t cooperate any longer. The body has become older but the mind hasn’t (or so it feels). When you have become sixty years of age, actually you have undergone a body transplant: Your supposed thirty years old mind has (gradually) got a sixty years old body. But since the self is in the mind (or at least it is mental and not physical, even not partially), you are still basically the thirty years old person you once were (of course, plus some thirty years of memories of experiences you passed through). Or rather, this is what follows from the idea that the self is mental.
Do you belief it? Being a runner, too, I still feel in my mind the suppleness of my legs from the time I run my personal bests. Really. But the days of my personal bests have gone already long ago and I know it. The feeling is real and it is an illusion. I have changed through the years and everybody will tell me if asked. And my self has changed with it, even if it tells me otherwise. For young people I am “that old man”, for they judge me from my physical appearance. And in fact my thoughts are to a large extent guided by what I can do with my body, which is reflected then in my mind. In other words, who I am – so my self – is more than what I feel, my mind, and – what I haven’t discusses here – my remembrances. It comprises also the features of my body (and actually also features of my social life). But who would have thought otherwise except a philosopher?