Vanity is the fear of appearing original: it is thus a lack of pride, but not necessarily a lack of originality.
Vanity didn’t always carry its modern, negative connotation. Rather it conveyed mere futility, eventually transforming from “the excessive belief in one’s own abilities or attractiveness to others” to outright narcissism, an unhealthy level of self-absorption with those immediately recognizable character traits.
Narcissus, of course, was the handsome Greek lad who ignored the advances of the hottie nymph Echo because he was so entrhalled with his own reflection. Even showing a little bosom couldn’t get his attention.
In Edwin Mullins’ The Painted Witch, an analysis of how Western male artists view female sexuality, he writes:
The artist invites us to pay lip-service to condemning her, while offering us full permission to drool over her. She admires herself in the glass, while we treat the picture that purports to incriminate her as another kind of glass—a window—through which we peer and secretly desire her.
Mullins’ observation is just as applicable to our contemporary infatuation with cell phone self-portraits, only we are both the artist and the model, both the condemner and the condemned, full of desire and naked in insecurity.
I am only aware of one iOS app made in Mexico that has a significantly large and engaged community of users, and that is Avatr*, a sort of Instagram for self-portraits that was designed by the hipster PR firm, Noiselab. All of the photos that accompany this post (with the exception of Narcissus ignoring Echo) come from Avatr* users.
In the opening pages of Immortality Milan Kundera writes:
Without the slightest doubt, there are far fewer gestures in the world than there are individuals. That finding leads us to a shocking conclusion: a gesture is more individual than an individual. We could put it in the form of an aphorism: many people few gestures … a gesture cannot be regarded as the expression of an individual, as his creation (because no individual is capable of creating a fully original gesture, belonging to nobody else), nor can it even be regarded as that person’s instrument; on the contrary, it is gestures that use us as their instruments, as their bearers and incarnations.
The gesture as meme. That is, we are mere vessels, enabling gestures to spread virally from person to person. How did it occur to the above woman to put a pen in her mouth, rest her cheek on her hand, and stare into the small lens of her cell phone camera with the eyes of a puppy dog? How planned and how spontaneous was the scene? Did she catch a glimpse of herself in a reflection and decide it was a moment to be preserved, or was it constructed from a scene she had seen elsewhere?
When we take photographs of others we try to capture an essence about them that perhaps they do not see themselves. Inversely, when we are photographed by others we are forced to recognize aspects of ourselves that we would, at times, rather not. But when we photograph ourselves, we are presenting ourselves to the world as we wish to be seen. Through our expressions and gestures, we construct not only our physical appearance, but also hints of our personality.
It was Octavio Paz who said that reality was beginning to imitate television more than television imitated reality. I wonder what the influential Mexican intellectual would think of Avatr*’s success today.
Does the hipstafied self-portrait bonanza of Avatr* represent in some way the lives we live? Or do the lives we live increasingly aspire to what we are shown on Avatr*?